Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Liam Neeson, C. S. Lewis, Aslan, and Pluralism

So it seems that Liam Neeson has upset some C.S. Lewis fans with his comments that Aslan, the Christ metaphor in the Chronicles of Narnia just also be Buddha or Mohammed. Some think that such an interpretation by Neeson is not only erroneous, but disrespectful to Lewis and that it ignores Lewis’ original intent to create a story, the center of which was Christ.

A few things could be said about this comical incident. By calling it comical, I do not intend to downplay the significance of Neeson’s actions. The interpretive approach and the pluralism that underlay Neeson’s statement have far reaching consequences, especially in the field of biblical hermeneutics. However, I find it shocking that so many people are surprised by such behavior coming from a person who is clearly a subscriber of the liberal Hollywood philosophy that so permeates our society these days. Much could be said this story. For instance, should Christians and C.S. Lewis fans be appalled by his pluralistic remarks? There is plenty to say about how some are responding to Neeson’s comments. On the other hand, what about Liam Neeson’s Catholicism? Isn’t Mr. Neeson a practicing Catholic and doesn’t such a comment contradict Catholic dogma? One could decide to deal with the religious pluralism that is so obviously the worldview that serves as Neeson’s foundation for making such a comment. Finally, one could focus purely on the interpretive method that Neeson is employing to arrive at his position that whatever C.S. Lewis had in mind when he penned the Chronicles of Narnia that is irrelevant. Lewis is gone now and we can reshape the text, making it mean whatever we want it to mean to us. When Polycarp, the great church father, was being martyred for the faith, he prayed,

“May I be received among them today as a rich and acceptable sacrifice, according to your divine fulfillment. For this reason I praise you for everything, I bless you and glorify you through the eternal high priest, Jesus Christ, your beloved Son, through whom be glory to you and the Holy Spirit, both now and in the ages to come. Amen.”

This prayer was submitted to God by the great Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, as his life was about to be poured out for the gospel via burning at the stake. Polycarp was not willing to accept beliefs that challenged the exclusivity of the gospel and its radical narrow nature. Just like the Jewish prophets of old, and the apostles who had gone before him, Polycarp accepted the belief that God had personally drawn a line in the sand and that men had no alternative but to accept that line or suffer the consequences of divine wrath. Polycarp’s exclusive preaching cost him his life. But as far as he was concerned, it was a privilege to die for the truth claims of Christ. Here was a man who would not tolerate opposing views to the narrow, exclusive claims of the gospel. To stand for Christ and publically defend the truths of Scripture was far more important to Polycarp than his next breath. We are not left guessing what Polycarp would have said to Liam Neeson or anyone else who would have dared to assert that Jesus Christ, Mohammed, and Buddha are somehow interchangeable and mutually inclusive of one another. Today, in 2010, how many Christians have the mindset of Polycarp? Have we dulled our senses and our critical thinking skills to the point that we detest even the idea of standing up and fighting for truth? Have the attacks from society and the accusations of bigotry been so often and so intense that we have lost our will to stand up in the face of the tyranny of religious pluralism?

Religious Pluralism and It’s Hermeneutic Cousin

Leslie Newbigin wrote one of the best works on religious pluralism in modern times, and he says,

“It is not easy to resist the contemporary tide of thinking and feeling which seems to sweep us irresistibly in the direction of an acceptance of religious pluralism, and away from any confident affirmation of the absolute sovereignty of Jesus Christ. It is not easy to challenge the reigning plausibility structure. It is much easier to conform. The overwhelming dominance of relativism in contemporary culture makes any firm confession of belief suspect.”
Genuine Christianity, that is, biblical Christianity, or in other words, real Christianity insists on the exclusivity of it’s truth claims. This has always been the case. Beginning with Christ down to this very day, men and women have been dying the most torturous of deaths because they refused to open up the flood gates of relativism and allow the waters of pluralism to comingle with the pure water of life that flows freely from God via the river of truth as expressed in the person of Christ and communicated to us through the revelation of sacred Scripture. The attacks against Christianity are aimed primarily at its claims of exclusivity. Without its exclusive nature, Christianity ceases to exist. The whole point of Christian community requires exclusivity in order to retain any significance as an entity whatsoever. What is a Christian community if it is not exclusive? How would you go about identifying “Christian community” as opposed to a different community? Christianity loses it’s identity the moment it loses it’s exclusivity. It doesn’t take long for one to consider this fact before one realizes that religious pluralism is a trick of the enemy that really isn’t nearly as complicated as one would imagine. In other words, exclusivity, when all is said and done, really is unavoidable if society hopes to maintain any ability whatsoever to relate and communicate with one another.

Society, in its own autonomous fashion, desires to set the standards by which people should live and it seeks to do so without interference or judgment from any outside source. Therefore, society has a major problem with the idea that there is a transcendent being who has already establish the standard (his nature), revealed that standard to humankind, and will ultimately hold individuals accountable for complying with that standard. Religious pluralism is really autonomy in disguise. It is the same old attempt of human beings to become god in their own right.

In order to hold to the sacred cow of pluralism, society must do something with the written text. Of course the methods by which the biblical text has been dispensed with are more than can be documented for purposes of this article. However, the most effective method, by far, is located in the area of interpretation. It is the meaning of the text that is the true message of God. In order to really hear God’s voice, we must hear the actual meaning of the biblical text. Therefore, unless one interprets Scripture correctly, they do not actually get to the real message of God. Enemies of the faith know this all too well. Hence, in order to recreate God’s revelation on their own terms, and into their own message, they engage all sorts of hermeneutical gyrations. This should come as no surprise because Satan employed this very tactic from the beginning. Humans desire autonomy at every turn. This is just as true for the believer as it is for the pastor, the counselor, the elder, and the theologian. Kevin Vanhoover writes,

“For postmoderns, interpretation is not about gaining knowledge – doing one’s epistemic duty towards the texts – as much as it is about fulfilling desire.”
The Text of Scripture is there to change us. The human desire for freedom senses a great deal of threat in this regard. The great reformers were well aware of this. Anthony Thiselton remarks,

“Luther and Calvin argued that the word of God encounters readers most sharply when it addresses us as adversary, to correct and to change our prior wishes and expectations. This corresponds at a formal level to the correction of a tradition. Grace and judgment, holiness and love, may recall us to new and better paths.”
The text is there to DO something. Specifically, it is there to transform lives. That in and of itself represents a threat to some of our most dearly held beliefs and practices.. Religious pluralism cannot survive without autonomy. Since autonomy and the text are mutually exclusive, something must give. As Anthony Thiselton writes,

“The phrase “transforming texts” can be interpreted in two ways. Texts actively shape and transform the perceptions, understanding, and actions of readers and of reading communities. Legal texts, medical texts, and biblical texts provide examples. But texts can also suffer transformation at the hands of readers and reading communities.”
Religious pluralism answers to the problem of a transcendent text by retaining it’s desire for autonomy and transforming the text into what it desires. This is in fact the practice that Liam Neeson is engaging in when he redefines the character of Aslan in Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia.

The Hypocrisy of Religious Pluralism Exposed

Religious pluralism seeks to have its cake and eat it too. Out of one side of it’s mouth it desires to be all inclusive. However, even religious pluralism draws a line in the sand. There are views, after all, that even religious pluralism rejects. Exclusivism is excluded by religious pluralism, hence causing it’s all-inclusive utopia to tumble headlong into irrationalism. Religious pluralism detests the practice of pronouncing judgments on human behavior. But the behavior of judging is unavoidable. If I judge all lying to be wrong and religious pluralism judges some lying to be acceptable, that is still a judgment. Perhaps I judge sexual promiscuity to be evil. Religious pluralism may contend that one’s sexual behavior is private and should not be subjected to my judgment and how people behave sexually is their own business. This too is a judgment. The issue then becomes how we judge and not that we judge.

How to Respond to Religious Pluralism

First, look for the inconsistency in the propositions. For instance, as mentioned above, demonstrate to the individual that there are views that even they would exclude as being tolerable. A worldview that causes a leader to exterminate a people group would be one example. Morality would be another excellent area to focus on. A practice that burns the widows of men who have just passed away would be universally condemned, and this includes by those who hold to religious pluralism. The only system that is internally consistent and that corresponds with that which is revealed to us in reality is the Christian worldview. Every other system runs aground in one way or another. Do not fear their intellectual intimidation. No one accepts a total relativism about religions. We hear people say all the time that there is good and bad in all religions. If religious pluralism is true, then on what basis do we acknowledge that all religions have bad in them. Moreover, who sets the standards for what is good in all religions. Religious pluralism is simply one more attempt at human autonomy. Christians must be prepared to answer the assertions of religious pluralism more than ever. Our culture is a cafeteria of religions, even within Christianity. We must be aware of our own sinful desire for complete autonomy. This desire disguises itself as the search for truth. The believer must beware of this evil within and pray that God’s grace would ever grant us the strength to resist the urge to reach for autonomy.

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