Communicating truth in a “dictatorship of relativism"


Cardinal Raymond Burke preached this week in Oxford against the “dictatorship of relativism” which brands Christians “fundamentalists and extremists”. The Tablet recounts:

Quoting the Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Burke warned of the dangers of “various ideological currents” and of “human deception and trickery which strives to lead us into error”. He continued with a condemnation of what Benedict termed a “dictatorship of relativism which does not recognise anything as definitive and does not recognise any goal except the ego and its desires”. Such a culture wrongly views Christians as fundamentalists and extremists, he said.

According to Bishop Lesslie Newbigin, there is not and cannot be a gospel which is not culturally embodied, and language is pre-eminently culturally defining insofar as it is the medium for communicating ‘meaning’ and ‘truth’. One of the greatest challenges therefore is how to translate Christian theological terms into the language of the receptor culture. Such fundamental words as ‘God’, ‘sin’, and ‘salvation’, and their intrinsic theological meanings, do not have exact equivalents in some cultures, or precise definition in others, which makes translation, even by way of dynamic equivalence, extremely difficult. Nor can recourse be had to simple transliteration, which would make the words sound unacceptably foreign.

A culture and its language can only be understood from within it, which entails ‘indwelling’ the tradition and making a personal commitment to it. It is clearly not simply a question of extracting some immutable, timeless propositions from Scripture and applying them uncritically in whatever context we find ourselves, simply because there is no objective or universal way of reading Scripture, and language usage is manifestly fluid. Words which caused the angels to rejoice 2,000 years ago are not necessarily those over which they may rejoice today.

As a missionary in India, Newbigin had to contextualise the gospel toward a predominantly Hindu worldview. He identified that the primary mission question was not ‘How can we fit the gospel into this?’, but ‘At what points does the gospel illuminate this; at what points does it question it, at what points does it contradict it?’ The mission task is therefore to engage in critique and dialogue; to contextualise the gospel by debating such topics as economics, social science and morality in the language of their practitioners.

For example, while Western dualism inclines toward categorical compartmentalisation and insists on divorcing science from religion (and so the gospel from reason), placing it firmly in the realm of human feeling and experience, the Hindu worldview does not distinguish between religion and culture: they are contiguous and symbiotic. Puja is not separated from cooking dinner; Krishna is not confined to temple worship. Such fundamental ‘social facts’ demand awareness of and sensitivity to the creative tension inherent in contextualisation.

Newbigin maintains that the missionary task is to challenge the “reigning plausibility structure” by examining it in light of the revealed purposes of God contained in the biblical narrative. He advocates a scepticism which enables one to take part in the life of society without being deluded by its own beliefs about itself. Of course, those who resist the delusion risk being labelled ‘bigots’ or ‘extremists’, but participation in the life of the receptor culture is an imperative for effective mission: we may not be of the world, but we are still manifestly in it.

Oppressive regimes find an abundance of scriptural support for their apartheid political systems in accounts such as the divine privilege of the Israelites over the Canaanites and the Old Testament theology of conquest. Only when questions are posed of the ideological and cultural conditions of the production of the scriptural text can the political issues affecting nations, women, races, sexualities, age groups and classes receive proper treatment in the interpretation of the Bible.

It has been observed many times that an oppressed Bible oppresses and a liberated Bible liberates. The problem remains that the process of liberating the Bible from the linguistic limitations of its own context may logically be pursued to the extreme, with reasoned demands for a total re-writing to meet contemporary needs. It may then indeed speak ‘more relevantly’ in a new context, but it may also cease to speak at all.