Volume 43 - Issue 1

A Wiser Idiot

By Daniel Strange

Wisdom cries aloud in the street,
In the markets she raises her voice;
At the head of the noisy streets she cries out;
At the entrance of the city gates she speaks.
(Prov 1:20)

The British comedian Frank Skinner has a regular feature on his podcast called ‘Idiot Eureka Moments’ (IEMs), those times when you discover you have been innocently oblivious to what seems blindingly obvious to everyone else. So, for example, the correspondent who hadn’t realised that the contemporary music artist ‘will. i. am’ was a play on the name ‘William’ (please don’t tell me you didn’t realise that!), or the person who suddenly realised the nomenclature of ‘Banoffee Pie’ was related to its constituent ingredients.

Earlier this year, I was invited to take part in a symposium organised by the doctrinal commission of a large Irish Presbyterian denomination. The topic concerned whether or not the denomination should participate in ‘multi-faith civic events’. The experience triggered a number of IEMs that might be worth sharing just in case there are some other like-minded idiots out there. If you are not an idiot and what follows is obvious to you, then my apologies – you can give a little smug chuckle, and get on with being edified by the rest of Themelios.

I said above ‘the experience’ because what I want to focus on is not so much on what I actually said to these leaders on the topic: those who have read stuff I have done before will not be surprised to know that the framework of ‘subversive fulfilment’ had a starring role.1 Rather, my ‘revelations’ came in the peripheral and often unseen ‘areas’ of preparation, methodology, pedagogy and reflection, intensified by a series what I shall call ‘providential coincidences’.

IEM 1. We’re all in the same boat, and that’s both encouraging and discouraging. Over the last decade I have done a fair amount of reading on both the theology of religions and public theology, and I like to think I’m fairly on top of my subject. However, I very quickly realised that the presenting issue was more complex than I had first imagined (of which more anon). My slightly panicked response was to contact a number of the great and good in our constituency and ask for their comments and advice, scholars from whom I have learnt a lot, and some of my best former students now in ministry around the UK and beyond. Surely they would come to my rescue? While there were a number of astute observations and insights, there emerged a constant refrain running through most of the responses, ‘Really great question Dan. It’s a toughie. I haven’t personally come across this but it’s definitely something that we need to think about more and more. I’ll be interested to know what you come up with…’ Now while such responses renewed my confidence that I wasn’t alone in recognising the complexity, and that there wasn’t a seminal text on the subject that I’d neglected, I’m not that solipsistic in realising a broader implication which was troubling. My sneaking suspicion is that this is an (other) area where, as conservative evangelicals, we are behind the curve. At best this shows a lack of joined up thinking and at worst a burying our head in the sand. It’s 2018. The particular instantiation of multi-faith civic events might be new(ish), but (a) the existence of other religions as an empirical reality; (b) that adherents of these religions might have an interest in our corporate social life; and (c) that late-modern liberal democracy might want to have a piece of the civic action, is not. While I genuinely applaud this Presbyterian denomination for wanting to tackle this issue, my gut feeling is that as a constituency we are too often reactive and playing catch up, rather than being proactive and prophetic. When will we get ahead of the game and set the agenda? What do we need to put in place organisationally, institutionally and financially to be able to be able to create time and space for such joined-up visionary thinking, the fruit of which can be generously shared around? Maybe in your own context, constituency and church this is happening. It’s pretty sporadic around here.

IEM 2. When we bother to take the time and pay attention to context, we realise that reality is messy and complex, and it calls for attentive listening, prayerful wisdom, judicious discernment … and jolly hard work. For a Reformed evangelical, the topic of engaging with ‘multi-faith civic events’ might appear on the surface to be a textbook open-and-shut case. Guilty as charged. Our theology of religions cannot be syncretistic, neither will we want to be perceived as being syncretistic to a watching world. Against all other so-called ‘gods’ which are lifeless and futile idols, we proclaim the transcendent uniqueness and crown rights of Jesus Christ our Lord: ‘Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved’ (Acts 4:12).

However, there are some complications. Intra-theologically, while our theology of religions might ask soteriological and alethic questions, the answers to which push us in one direction, our public theology asks different questions which pull us in a different direction. Speaking from within this discipline, we will be aware of the dangers of cultural extractionism, of our mandated Christian (and ecclesial?) civic and public responsibilities, and of that same ‘watching world’ perceiving by our action or inaction, all kinds of things which affect the plausibility structures into which we witness and proclaim the exclusivity of Christ. I’ll return to this particular ‘tension’ shortly.

For now, though, there are contextual ‘complexities’ which defy simplistic answers. A more nuanced and liminal space emerged when I interrogated my host about the particularities of the Irish Presbyterians’ situation. There are at least two levels of granularity. The first surrounds what we mean by ‘multi-faith civic events’. So ‘multi-faith’ can be distinguished from ‘inter-faith’; an ‘event’ needs to be distinguished from a ‘service’ (which itself needs careful definition) and the word ‘worship’ isn’t used at all, even though we may conclude that that is what’s happening (again definitions needed please!).2 Moreover, what is being proposed is not a syncretistic mush but in an attempt to avoid syncretism, consciously ‘sequenced’ or ‘seriatim’ contributions from faith communities.

Now under these conditions and if we could engineer the opportunity, could we start to conceive, however fantastical, of a contribution that might not only avoid syncretism, but could be positively apologetic and evangelistic – a more polite, 21st century version of YHWH vs. Baal in 1 Kings 18.

Now feeling quite out of my depth, I started searching for close-by models and precedents that might help me. The Church of England has done quite a lot of work in this area that could be refracted through an evangelical lens. In particular, a little study Multi-faith Worship? asks helpful questions and delineates different contexts which would call for different levels of Anglican engagement and how all this relates to Canon Law.3

Enter my first ‘providential coincidence’. As it happened, I was delving into this documentation in the week of a National Memorial Service at St Paul’s Cathedral in London for the victims of the Grenfall Tower fire where seventy-one people had died including a large number of Muslims. As part of this service, Muslim schoolgirls sang a song called ‘Insha Allah’. While I believe the inclusion of this element to be wrong, in the context of the Church of England guidance plus some digging around behind the scenes, I could at least begin to see how such a decision might be defended. Yes, they were Muslims; they sang a song to ‘Allah’ – but the song’s words were carefully vetted so it could be argued that they were not intrinsically and necessarily Islamic. St Paul’s Cathedral was emphatic that this National Memorial Service was not interfaith. None of the prayers at the service were led by any but Christian representatives. Reports said, misleadingly but not strictly inaccurately, that prayers were said by ‘faith community leaders – in fact, they were only Christian pastors. That media outlets reported it as such just shows their lazy journalism. Overall the rationale for the inclusion of this element in the service seemed to be that as an established church ministering to the whole community over an extraordinary and very public tragedy, this was believed to be making a reasonable adjustment without compromising the truth of the faith. Let me re-iterate, even if this was the rationale, I still think it did compromise the truth of the faith, but it’s not as clear cut as I had first thought, and I realised that my initial opprobrium might need to be tempered a little.

This though leads me to the second level of contextual granularity. I was not being asked to speak about ‘multi-faith civic events’ in London to Anglicans but in Belfast to Presbyterians (and I’m a Reformed Baptist!). There are very obvious historical and cultural differences that would need to be factored in. There is not an established church in Ireland which affects how the church sees its civic responsibilities. However, the denomination to which I was speaking would consider itself a national church. Moreover, Irish Presbyterians are not English Anglicans are not English Baptists which means a whole new set of ecclesiological questions as to the ‘who’ of participation: the Christian as individual Christian, or the Christian as ‘Church’ (i.e., denominational representative)? Finally, discussion of ‘multi-faith civic events’ in Ireland could not be conducted without recognition to the current state of Protestant-Catholic relationships and civic discourse.

One might think all this is overkill and somewhat paralysing, but I deemed that such contextual questions had to be asked if I was to serve the denomination and help them scratch their itch, and yes, it is their itch. This was a cross-cultural experience in which I needed to listen first before speaking (not my natural modus operandi) and help them to think through their issues. Abstract and contextless pontificating from an English Baptist guy would have been counter-productive and the equivalent of using a machete when a scalpel was needed. As the saying goes, ‘two ears, one mouth’.

Enter my second ‘providential coincidence’. At this time, I was already part way through reading some recent works that have been stressing the need for our theology to be ethnographically sensitive and ‘lived’4 so that we are ‘better students of the real’.5 This is what Smith calls ‘the ad hoc, contextualised work of discerning what faithful political presence looks like in this time, in our place, given these current challenges and these policy proposals and this political environment’.6 This reading only confirmed and intensified the IEM.

For those of us who serve the church as theologians and teachers, if we want to be of real use, let’s not be afraid to get our hands dirty in the granularity of context. Moreover, let’s train those under our care to be competent surgeons of cultural exegesis and ethnography.

IEM 3. Our theological presuppositions and frameworks really do affect how we respond to the presenting issues we face. This IEM balances my previous point (as well as happily continuing to justify my existence!). Our ‘lived theology’ needs to be Reformed lived theology, our ethnography needs to be Reformed theological ethnography. Methodologically this entails at least two commitments. First, that theology as the queen of the sciences does not become subsumed under and servile to the social sciences. Institutionally this seems to be the trend in UK universities over the last decades. More alarmingly, there seems something of this shift in some theological colleges and seminaries. Second, as those belonging to a Reformational heritage, that we maintain an unswerving confessional commitment to the ultimate authority of Scripture, meaning we do not reverse the hermeneutical flow of interpreting the world through the Word.

A case like ‘multi-faith civic events’ is a good case of the messy liminality which is the stuff of real every-day late-modern life. If we are truly committed to engage at the level I have suggested above, the temptation might now be to question or even tinker with our methodology because there often appears a dissonance between theoretical framework and lived reality. Are our theological method, grammar and confessions ‘too heavenly to be any earthly good’? Are they really up to it? Under no circumstances must we capitulate here. Supple, contextual, flexible, creative, imaginative – Amen and Amen! But to use a sporting analogy, the defence must be told to keep its (sola) shape with norma normans constantly being shouted to each other across the line.

Now I recognise that confessionally this sola shape allows some legitimate variation. In this instance I was able to talk in the ‘thick’ language of Reformed theology to a Reformed audience where I would hope there would be a familiarity of theological anthropology and of terms such as ‘antithesis’, ‘idolatry’ and ‘common grace’. I was also presuming a consensus in soteriology concerning the exclusivity of Jesus Christ. However, in the public theology space I was aware that there is more diversity in terms of theological frameworks. Different construals of continuity and discontinuity between covenants; different eschatological emphases put on the ‘now’ or the ‘not yet’; the penultimate and ultimate; and different understandings of the ‘mission of the church’ might issue in different approaches to ‘multi-faith civic events’.

Naturally, I have my own particular framework within which I wanted to approach the issue, but part of my role would have to be showing how a number of frameworks might tackle the issue: ‘So, from a two-kingdoms paradigm, it might look like this…’; ‘from a principled pluralism paradigm it might look like this…’; ‘from a transformationalist paradigm it might look like this…’ The point here is that there exist well-worn biblical-theological frameworks within the Reformed family which can and must be explicitly brought to bear on these contemporary issues. Theology matters and theological method matters in the madness.

IEM 4. Working on a real-life scenario enabled me to make connections I’d not seen before. This is personal but I hope illustrative. As alluded to above, I’ve long pondered how to connect my own Reformed theology of religions with my own Reformed public theology. While not hermetically sealed, they are subject areas asking different questions and sometimes appear to be giving answers which push against each other causing some dissonance. It was only as I wrestled with this very particular example of ‘multi-faith civic events’ that I suddenly was able to see how connections might be made. This was an IEM within an IEM: ‘Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved’ is both a soteriological claim and a public theology claim against the imperial cult of Caesar. Yes, I admit I have been drinking from the Augustinian well alongside Leeman, Smith and O’Donovan.7 I do believe the church is political and the state is religious. But it took the case of ‘multi-faith civic events’ for me to really ‘see’ it and ground it, bringing together context and theological framework. The process of looking at this specific problem had been instrumental in me making an intra-theological breakthrough.

(Warning: if you are more 2-K inclined you might want to look away now). In short, and in my model of ‘subversive fulfilment’ whether and how we engage with ‘multi-faith civic events’ has to navigate between two tramlines. One the one hand, a stance of subversive confrontation which proclaims the Lordship of Christ horizontally in the context of other ‘religions’ and vertically against the pretensions of ultimacy that come from late-modern liberalism which so often views religion as ‘window-dressing’ but is itself deeply ‘religious’. On the other hand, a stance of fulfiling connection which recognises the time and our space and place: the story of ‘how modernity is the Child of Christianity, and at the same time how it has left its father’s house and followed the way of the prodigal.’8 Using stolen capital such cultural conditions have birthed a strange looking child called the ‘multi-faith civic event’ which we need to relate to. Perhaps to the disappointment of some on the day, I didn’t and couldn’t give a straight ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the denominations involvement in these events, but I could give them a set of questions for them to ask, boundaries of which they would need to be aware, and a possible framework within which they could engage faithfully.

IEM 5. And this might have implications for our pedagogy. Enter my last ‘providential coincidence’. My invitation to speak on ‘multi-faith civic events’ comes at a time when as a seminary we are starting to look at the revalidation of our programme with a view to making us more and more fit for purpose as we educate, train and form men and women to be life-long pastor-theologians. A non-siloed, truly integrated head-heart-and-hands curriculum and seminary experience is something for which we’ve been striving for a while, recognising we are some way off it being achieved.

Here’s the IEM: while I have been vaguely aware of Problem Based Learning (PBL) as a pedagogical method in other disciplines, it has not figured heavily in an explicit way in our institution or in my teaching. However, I believe that my recent experience does qualify as an example of PBL and now I’m interested. As a viable pedagogical method, while obviously not a panacea, it has done itself no harm in putting itself on the agenda as we think about how we theologically educate our next generation.9

With thanks to God for the Irish Presbyterians making me a wiser idiot.

[1] Daniel Strange, Their Rock is not like Our Rock: A Theology of Religions (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016)

[2] One denomination which does give this definition in the context of this issue is The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod. See their “Guidelines for Participation in Civic Events,” April 2004, Overall this was one of more helpful documents I read although it should be noted that when it comes to the issue of ‘seriatim’ prayers, the report notes that there was not unanimity within the Commission.

[3] Multi-faith Worship? Questions and Suggestions from the Inter-Faith Consultative Group (Church House, 1992). See also “Presence & Engagement Guidelines: Civic Services or Events,”

[4] Pete Ward, Introducing Practical Theology: Mission, Ministry, and the Life of the Church (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2017), 64.

[5] Christian Scharen, “’Judicious Narratives,’ or Ethnography as Ecclesiology,” SJT 58 (2005): 125–42, 131.

[6] James K. A. Smith, Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2017), 97, emphasis original.

[7] Jonathan Leeman, Political Church: The Local Assembly as Embassy of Christ’s Rule (Nottingham: Apollos, 2016); Smith, Awaiting the King; Oliver O’Donovan The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology (Cambridge: CUP, 1996).

[8] O’Donovan, Desire of the Nations, 275. Quoted in Smith, Awaiting the King, 112.

[9] See Hans Madueme and Linda Cannell, “Problem Based Learning and the Master of Divinity Program,” Theological Education 43.1 (2007): 47–60.

Daniel Strange

Daniel Strange is director of Crosslands Forum, a centre for cultural engagement and missional innovation, and contributing editor of Themelios. He is a fellow of The Keller Center for Cultural Apologetics.

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