Volume 23 - Issue 1

Religious Studies

By I. Howard Marshall

The word ‘context’ has been in vogue for a number of years, with reference to theological work. The demand for context, however, can be made in different ways. Sometimes context and content are tied together, so that what we are to say is regulated, though not determined, by the context in which we are operating. Sometimes we are directed to the milieu in which we work in a rather different way, so that the very points of reference for our thinking are challenged. It is in this latter sense that an increasing number of people urge us to bear in mind the global religious context in which we live and work. Theology, we are told, cannot be usefully pursued by seeking to relate the Christian tradition simply and directly to contemporary situations. The Christian tradition and the doctrines of the Christian faith must be understood and grasped from the very outset not as phenomena isolated from the wider religious scene, but as phenomena that belong to it and are intelligible only within it. Constructive theological work today must proceed by attending to what is said on cognate and relevant matters within non-Christian religious traditions. So we are (sometimes) told.

Obviously, there is a whole package of things involved here. A number of responses are possible to the different elements within it. What are we presupposing about ‘religions’ here? Even if we grant some of the presuppositions, why make other religious traditions, more than modern biology or cosmology, the determining context for theological work? Or even if we grant the demand in principle, can one in practice acquaint oneself well with one’s own tradition if a number of others have to be comparatively studied? We mention these questions only to avoid appearance of a simple capitulation to all the terms of the proposal. Nevertheless, the proposal has plenty in it which deserves to be taken seriously. It is a pressing one because of the general relation of Theology to Religious Studies as academic fields. In this editorial I make the simple plea that some of us who are students of Christian theology or are interested in its academic study be prepared to consider seriously acquainting ourselves well with the field (if ‘field’ is the right word) of Religious Studies.

At least three reasons may debar some people from doing so. Firstly, we could end by spreading our knowledge so thin that our grasp of what in the first instance we have wanted to grasp, Christianity, is weakened. That is undeniably a risk. But we must bear two things in mind. Firstly, the cost of the fact that all Christian students studying theology are concentrating on Christian theology is that there will be a general limit to effective interaction with those whose very approach to the study of religion may be different. Secondly, if one takes care to be constantly enriched by the Word of God, intellectual study undertaken in obedience to the Lord of that Word will itself enrich, when it is properly done. Some would put this point far more strongly: our understanding of Christian faith can be enhanced by studying it against the background of what is not Christian faith as much as by sticking, in one’s reading, to the texts of one’s own tradition.

Secondly, we are in danger of succumbing to relativism. Those who know most about non-Christian religious traditions and study Christianity in that context seldom, we may suspect, maintain a robust view of the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as traditionally understood, except in the cases of those whose missionary background has enabled them to specialize in one particular non-Christian religion. Yes, again: there is undeniably a risk. But is it a risk of a different order to that undertaken when studying the Bible in the context of modern scholarship? For decades and, by now, centuries, people have found that faith has been shaken by biblical criticism. Indeed, why pick on biblical studies? A sensitive study of many of the principal areas of intellectual endeavour, from geology to sociology to literary criticism, will challenge faith. Is there any reason in principle why the study of religions should propel us to a relativism that undermines faith more seriously than it gets undermined by the whole business of critical thought?

Thirdly, it is practically difficult to maintain anything like a traditional view of Christian truth in the Religious Studies context. That is, whatever the effect of such studies on me, traditional convictions are just implausible to the vast majority of others operating in that discipline. Well, that may be true enough, but is scarcely a reason for steering clear of it. Then let us make our position plausible. I draw attention at this point to a recent publication under the Apollos imprint by Dr Dewi Arwel Hughes, Has God Many Names? An Introduction to Religious Studies (Leicester, 1996). Hughes, admitting that ‘someone of my convictions is rare in Religious Studies’, and referring to it as ‘a subject which I love’, states that ‘I have seen no reason to compromise my evangelical faith throughout my study of the world’s great religious traditions and of the methodology of Religious Studies’. But he adds (which is why I cite his words under this third point): ‘There has been much discussion and disagreement about methodology in Religious Studies, and in many ways the discipline is still searching for an adequate method.’1 There is a potential for evangelical contribution here, as in yet one more intellectual sphere we seek to give reason for the hope that is in us in a context which regards that hope as implausible.

I am aware that what I have said bristles with theological assumptions which, in other contexts, could not possibly be flatly stated. Also, what is said will not be relevant to every reader in various parts of the world. But many of us need to go beyond asking something like: ‘What is the Christian view of other religions?’ to some grasp of religion, religions, religious traditions and religious studies. Not that an intellectual grasp of things guarantees that we become more religious, or that study of religion is just a springboard for the achievement of some sort of superior intellectual apologetic. So let us give (almost!) the last word to the eighteenth-century thinker, Lessing, and his dramatic character, Nathan the Wise.

In the play of the same name, we read the parable of the rings. A man makes for one of his sons a ring with the property of making its owner beloved by God and other people. Two other sons receive two replicas which do not, however, possess this property. As the generations go on, it becomes impossible to establish by argument who has inherited the original ring; descendants of all three claim its possession, but neither documentary nor any other evidence is available to settle the issue. No evidence? Of course, there should be evidence. The proof of the true ring lies in its existential impact.

Three rings, three great monotheisms: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. A little reflection will tell us what Lessing was getting at, though he was a subtle author who did not wear his religious convictions on his literary sleeve. If there is demonstration of religious truth, it lies in the realm of love (the property Lessing thought would attract God and our co-humanity). We do not mean to conclude by swallowing Lessing any more than we began by swallowing the proposal about the context of Christian theological reflection. But reference to Nathan’s parable helps to make clear that our plea for engagement in Religious Studies is not just a plea for more effective Christian engagement in the intellectual arena. It is in the service of our common aim that our Christian living should be more authentically and effectively religious altogether.

1 D.A. Hughes, Has God Many Names? An Introduction to Religious Studies (Leicester, 1996), p.8.

I. Howard Marshall

I. Howard Marshall
University of Aberdeen
Aberdeen, Scotland, UK