Sunday, 3 January 2010

The Magi and the Continuity of Faiths

Recently I've been reading 'Seeking the Asian Face of Jesus' by Chris Sugden. It is a fantastic book and must be read by everyone, especially those who are looking at doing mission abroad. The only critiques that I can charge it with are that it is too short (at c.450 pages!) but then it was written as a PhD thesis so what could he do? And also there are so many typos, spelling mistakes and even occasionally missing words that I almost put it down.('Hypocrisy' they cry!) I'm glad I continued but I plead that it be edited by someone.

For part of the book Chris looks at the work of Wayan Mastra, a Minister in Bali, and particularly in relation to his critique of Hendrik Kraemer. Mastra was a native (although part of western education) and was brought up in the church initiated by Kraemer. Kraemer was a Dutch Theologian hired by the Bible society of Netherlands as the supervisor for Bible translation work in Java who concluded that since Bali was a intrinsically religious culture that it was incompatible with Christianity therefore when people converted they were kept out of their society. Mastra argued that this demeaned the Balinese Christians and the Gospel and therefore sought to integrate the two. He did so quite well in my opinion but I'll let you look closer as to his means yourself.

So what has this to do with the Magi? In Matt 2:1-2 we read that 'After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, "Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him."' Has that ever struck you as odd that gentiles were practising Astrology and were lead to Jesus? Hadn't God forbidden the practice of Astrology? Why would he then use it to bring the Magi to Jesus? This was brought up at church today where we were lead to Matt 7:7-8; '"Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 8For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.' Those who sincerely look will find.

It reminded me of what Mastra argues. He argues that the idea that God's grace isn't present in non-Christian religions (as Kraemer proposes) is to misunderstand grace. Mastra draws on the work of Karl Rahner and says, "Karl Rahner insists that is it quite wrong to consider the non-Christian as a man who has not been touched by the grace and truth of God.'[p. 91]. Mastra uses Acts 17 as an example of the continuity between Non-Christian religions and Christianity. Mastra notes that rather than criticising the Athenians beliefs he uses them to explain the Gospel through the means of the 'Unknown God' Statue, proof of their devotedness to religion and regard for God. It may also be noted that Paul quotes their philosophers who declare that 'We are his offspring'(V28).

This is not to say that other religions are to be celebrated, or that they are salvific but rather that they are a stepping stone to the true faith. In Acts 17 we see that Paul was 'greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols.'(v16) Mastra notes that as well as a continuity between faiths there is also discontinuity, a process of growth where continuity leads to ultimate differences. Mastra uses the image of a bridge:

"We start off on one side of the bridge which is connected to the river-bank on which we are standing...We set off on the bridge because is stretched right to the other side of the river...When we reach the other side we find ourselves on a new riverbank in a different country we left. But as we look back over the bridge, we see that the same bridge brought us to this new country as took us from the old one." (p.93)

Perhaps then this is what we see in the Magi. Not that they were being encouraged in their Astrology, nor that they were being justified by God, but rather that He was using their earnest searching to lead them step-by-step to the other side of the river, to the new country, to a true faith in Christ.

I must say that this is a subject close to my heart as I am in love with Japan and feel called there. Japan is also a religious culture of sorts and therefore I seek to find a way to witness to them which is firstly faithful to God and his scriptures, and secondly which is effective to those I witness to. I pray that I will, by God's grace, be able to do this.

Picture by He Qi

Till Next Time.

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