Sunday, April 10, 2011

ETS Far West Region Annual Meeting: Confronting Neo-Paganism in the Culture and the Church

Yesterday Friday Apr 8th was the ETS (Evangelical Theological Society) annual meeting, which was held on the premises of WSC. I volunteered to serve for the banquet and thus had a "free" registration for the meeting.

The meeting started in the afternoon and ended with the banquet. Afternoon started with the welcome by Dr. Joe Hellerman followed by a short devotion by WSC president Dr. W. Robert Godfrey, the plenary address by Dr. Peter Jones and two responses to his address. This is then followed by 3 parallel sessions which concluded with the banquet cum business meeting.

In this and a subsequent post, I would like to share a short summary of the plenary address by Dr. Peter Jones, and then brief thoughts on the 3 parallel sessions I have chosen to attend.

The plenary address by Dr. Peter Jones is entitled "Confronting Neo-Paganism in the Culture and the Church".In this address of his, Dr. Jones gave a talk on the same subject that I have heard from a previous talk he gave in Singapore, albeit at a more technical level befitting the status of ETS.

Dr. Jones starts off with the crisis in secular humanism and the growth in post-moderneity, which he takes to be modernism taken to its extreme conclusion. In this crisis in the Western world, Neo-Paganism has grown significantly. Formerly called "New Age", the movement has grown and metastasized throughout the failing cultures of the West. The movement can be seen in three points: Easternization of the West, Gnostizisation of the West, and Pagan mythology.

The Easternization of the West can be seen in the conversion of celebrities in the West to Eastern religions. The setting up of the Parliaments of the World's Religions further the process of "Easternization" in the form of interfaith or inter-spirituality. Jones cited Philip Goldberg and his book American Veda. as one of the many sources of the growing fascination with Eastern philosophies and religions in the collapsing cultures of the West, including among nominal Christians. In the "Christian" camp, Roman Catholic mystics like Thomas Keating and others have been influenced by eastern spirituality, with the result that this New Spirituality can be also seen in supposedly Christian "Centering Prayer".

The Gnosticization of the West has been fueled by the finding of the Nag Hammadi Gnostic texts. Ancient Gnosticism has much in common with Eastern spiritualism, and such Gnosticism can be seen in the person and influence of the psychologist Carl Jung, who is more spiritual than the "mechanistic" Freud. Gnosticism is a dualistic system situated on a monistic background, and very much against biblical Christianity. Jung was stated to have said that "Orthodox Christianity is systematic blindness", apparently rhetorically switching places with us Christians in an attempt to justify the superiority of his system.

The third point is the growth of pagan mythology. According to these people (of whom I did not take down the sources cited), the postmodern crisis necessitate a new alignment which only myth can do. In this new Age of Aquarius, "Mythos" is proposed over "Logos". Thus while the pagan gods are not real, pagan mythology is resurrected not because the myths are real, but because they are to function as narratives for this new alignment (thus "myths"). [I truly wonder if that was the original meaning behind pagan mythology after the Flood, but I digress]

The philosophy of perennialism (there is deep agreement between all religions) is strongly proposed, with Gnosticism being such a perennial philosophy. In Christianity, the idea of "Evolutionary Christianity" has developed, which promotes the idea of spiritual evolution. The infiltration of such can be seen in people like Rob Bell and Brian McLaren, with McLaren endorsing Spiritualist Ken Wilbur and writing in the Vision(?) Forum.

In light of the challenge of Neo-paganism, as Christians, we must have a biblical cosmology. The Indian term "Adveit" has the connotation "not two". As opposed to this, we must recover the "two-ism" of Christianity as seen primarily in the Creator/creature distinction. The distinction is not the Platonic distinction between matter and spirit, but between God and everything else. Secondly, we must have a solid basis of evangelism by knowing how to deconstruct the notion of Adveit. Most importantly, we must recover theology within the Church. Christians are to be taught the doctrine of God, the cross as the only way of reconciliation with God, and gender roles as expressions of two-ness. (It is not surprising that homosexuality has become the sacrament of Neo-paganism since it destroys the basic binary of creation). Christians also have to have a good understanding of creation care to counteract the Gaia-worshipping environmentalists. Lastly, Christians are to partake of the cultural mandate in our endeavor in music and the arts in society as we bring the two-ist view into society.

Thus ends Dr. Jones' plenary address.

The first response is by Dr. Matt Jenson from Biola. He agrees that the idea of two-ism is essential and that is makes possible talk about sin. Also, he finds it strange that diversity is equated to alienation by the Neo-pagans, since the velvet gloves (covering the iron fists) of Neo-paganism is supposed to be the celebration of diversity.

Jenson has certain objections to various points of Dr. Jones' address. Firstly, the idea of the "Easternization of the West" has the somehow suspicious connotation of a healthy West being infected by the unhealthy East. Such a division furthermore is not really accurate, noting that Christianity is growing rapidly in the East and the South. In fact, with such growth of Christianity, "Easternization" in the future may be very much desired.

The second point of contention is with regards to Jones' use of Vatican II, which was in his paper but was not mentioned in the address. While certainly one can fault Vatican II on various issues, Jenson contends that in context, the document of Vatican II can be read in a way that reflects an early Christian theological understanding: namely, that the Logos is present in the world and larger than the Church, and not a capitulation to some form of New Spirituality. Along this line, the cited article by McLaren in context seems to be on an "all-encompassing love" of God, not on God in all religions. Indeed, McLaren seems to reflect some sort of "one-ism" in that article.

Jenson then questions if perhaps we are getting shy of the "union" and "synthesis" categories in an over-reaction to Neo-paganism, for after all Union with Christ is a biblical teaching. The model for such interaction with Neo-paganism that Jenson proposes is the Church Father Irenaeus. We can acknowledge the legitimate questions asked by the Neo-pagans without accepting their answers. We must show that human alienation is not ontological but ethical. The yearning for deeper relationship is legitimate. Oneness of fellowship is the goal we should show Christianity gives which the one-ists yearn for but could not deliver, and this oneness of fellowship can be seen in Christ's death for us and our union with Him.

The second response is by Dr. Mark Strauss of Bethal Seminary San Diego.

Strauss praised Jones' address as being clear with a clear delineation of the two world-views. Nevertheless, he wonders if there is reductionism in Jones' approach. He notes that delineating between one-ism and two-ism seems to be an over-simplification of worldviews. How then can we categorize Islam, Secular Humanism and Mormonism to name a few? Next, such an approach in his opinion seems to promote an us-versus-them approach and conspiratory analysis. Strauss agrees that certainly there are many people proclaiming the arrival of the "new age", but he then states that wishes and prognostications are not prophecies. Just because they desire it and are working towards it does not mean that reality or the future fits or will fit their proclamation.

Lastly, Strauss takes aim at the example of McLaren. Strauss agreed with Jenson about the problems with that citation, and further questions the argument from McLaren's posting on the Vision(?) forum. While certainly unwise, Strauss states that the mere writing on the Vision(?) Forum by itself does not signify that McLaren is in the same boat as the Neo-pagans, noting that the forum is very diverse in nature. Strauss states that he has reservations about McLaren, but we cannot make too much of McLaren's participation in the Vision(?) Forum as that is Guilt by Association.

This ends the plenary address, and we shall continue to the parallel sessions.

[to be continued]

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