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Book Review

I Have My Doubts-
How to Become a Christian Without Being a Fundamentalist

 

Author: H.M. Kuitert
Publisher: SCM Press Ltd, London, 1993
ISBN: 034400746

When we consider that the Christian faith has survived two thousand years of change, despite being subjected to numerous cultural, historical, philosophical and theological challenges we can not help but be somewhat impressed. It is not surprising that Christians who are aware of these challenges should raise questions concerning the development of their belief system. H. M. Kuitert, a well-known writer, broadcaster, and Dutch Reform Christian, attempts to answer his own as well as the questions of others in his book, I Have My Doubts- How to Become a Christian Without Being a Fundamentalist. As Kuitert himself explains, there is need for a response when 'the Christian faith [is] in the supermarket and, moreover, on special offer' (xii). When Christians are confused by a multiplicity of faith concepts, reconstructions and updatings, leading to the collapse of any unified notion of what Christianity is, it is no wonder that so many feel uncertain about their own faith. A possible solution to their anxiety is to embrace fundamentalism. But for many, this alternative is even more fearful and unacceptable than their own confusion. Though it is especially for those Christians who are unwilling to either lose their faith or accept fundamentalist traps that Kuitert believes that his methodology would be equally valuable for the members of any other tradition-ISKCON included-facing a similar plight.

As he explains, his offering is neither a highly emotional individual expression, nor an apology, nor complete dogmatics. Rather, he lays out in an easy style (a) what he believes, (b) why, (c) and what is to be done with it. Since this is not a systematic theology that requires abstract and precise language, his tone is conversational- as he says, 'just talking'. This in no way makes his work any less well reasoned or tightly structured. His method is to raise questions-and he raises all the questions that could possibly be asked-and selectively investigate possible responses. He avoids none of the central Christian tenets: the transcendence of God, the importance of Christ, the Church, prayer, commandments and authority of the Bible. In fact, he structures his book on the Apostles' Creed, affirming its commitments, not as a fundamentalist, but in the liberal tradition.

He makes clear his liberal persuasions in the book's first section. He objects to any doctrinal system that claims a total view of God-an attitude that makes pluralism impossible. For different religious traditions to accept each other as equals, they must agree that they are creations of man, not God. Genuine dialogue will be thwarted if any party appeals to revelation-an appeal that automatically excludes non-believers. The source of religious truth is not the supernatural; human experience makes it capable of improvement. A tradition of faith is appropriated from past generations and bequeathed to those of the future. One must distinguish faith from belief; the latter being fallible, and thus relative to time, place and circumstance. For a tradition to remain vital, it must constantly reinterpret-find appropriate metaphors-for the beliefs that it has inherited.

Having laid the foundation for the liberal rationale, Kuitert applies his views to the primary subject of God. He traces the Christian knowledge of faith and God through its Jewish and Greek roots, to its ultimate origin in the human inborn need to explain existence and be devoted to something higher. Humans attribute to God absolute qualities, which they possess relatively. The Christian God was sketched as someone who could be called upon personally, someone who wants us back. Here, the transparent metaphor of patriarchy betrays a male-centred culture, as other metaphors presuppose a pre-industrial world. Another metaphor that seems time-bound is to address God as king or master before whom we are subjects or slaves. Kuitert emphasises that we must find metaphors appropriate to our own times and needs which still preserve God's special place in our lives.

Kuitert attempts to sort out the relationship between God the Creator, humanity and the world. His intention is to help us resolve the tensions that arise when modernity confronts tradition. Tradition tells us that God was originally pleased with creation, yet there is more evil in the world today than ever before. Is man habitually sinful or is God the source of evil? The historical sequence of creation, fall and redemption, as provided by tradition is no longer a meaningful solution. Instead, the historical sequence of evolution not only provides an alternative to creation; it demonstrates that sin is not hereditary. Then should God be blamed? Kuitert rejects various 'rescue' attempts such as Marcian and Deism, among others. Nor is he entirely satisfied with Luther's solution: God does evil but does not really mean it. Kuitert's answer is to have God share the blame with humans. Something bad can also come from God. But human freedom requires that we assume responsibility for the consequences of our selfishness because it is anxiety that leads us to sin, all of which is due to our forgetfulness of God.

Human nature, a 'nature' that no longer accords with ancient Israel or Aquinas' twelfth-century morality, must be understood in the context of our own times. Man may be made in the image of God, but that image does not mean identical appearance. Nor is Jesus and his life a normative model. Our equality with God may be best understood in terms of a common task: we are stewards on behalf of a providential God whose purpose we cannot always know, but whose true face can be seen in the words and acts of Jesus Christ. We encounter God by engagement in this world-an engagement that is often painful, yet is part of the providential order of a God who will ultimately welcome and embrace us. Though there may be terrible evil in the world, salvation will not be found by attempting to find shelter inside the Church, for God is encountered in the ordinary life outside.

Kuitert focuses next on the central role of Jesus Christ, a topic that raises various questions. Though these questions have plagued Christianity from the very beginning, freeing themselves from literalism allows liberals like Kuitert to find solutions consistent with modernity. The identity of Jesus has been especially enigmatic, lending itself to many explanations. How can a human being be God at the same time? The Gnostic doctrine of the Prince in disguise reduced Jesus to the mere clothing of God. The orthodox doctrine of two natures-one person in whom divine and human natures are united-was meant to counter the Gnostics. And the doctrine of the Trinity was meant to show that God personally suffered for us. But neither doctrine was acceptable to the Jews or Muslims who insisted on an absolute monotheism. Both doctrines rest on the christological presupposition that Jesus is no ordinary messiah-he is the other face of God the Creator. Or, as Kuitert explains, Jesus is 'occupied' by God.

Such a Christology depends upon the Resurrection. But this raises yet another question: did the Resurrection factually take place? Kuitert tackles the question culturally. For the narrators of Jesus' time who believed in miracles, it was possible. But because it defies the laws of nature, as we now understand them, it no longer fits our sense of reality. In any case, it could not mean bodily resurrection. Nor is the Ascension to be understood literally as Jesus sitting at the right hand of God. God does not have a right hand, Kuitert explains, nor does Jesus sit anywhere in the universe. Ascension is a metaphor for position of power, while resurrection, far from being a corporeal resuscitation, is a recreation. Jesus is the first sample-a model to show us how, when dying, we will be taken out of time if we are reconciled with God. Redemption both from our sins and the guilt that alienated us from God is achieved by the 'substitution' of Jesus, the sacrificial lamb, for the sinner. Reconciliation means a new life-a new person is born. There is no hell where sinners are tormented eternally. And what of election? 'Utter nonsense', Kuitert says. Determinism and fatalism are not true Christian concepts. Predestination was Calvin's misunderstanding. We are held accountable for our life, especially for how we treat humanity, and the final judgment is entrusted to Jesus Christ.

The Church has been the traditional mediator between the believer and God and has also regulated relationships between believers. Its has often proved disappointing, as Kuitert indicates: 'Jesus meant the kingdom of God, and what came? The Church' (179). Kuitert is concerned with understanding the Church's role and how it may exercise regulation without exerting force. That the Church is the dwelling place of God, hence infallible, is an article of faith. How a person sees their role or how they identify themselves often reflects their view of the Church: 1) I am different / the Church is the kingdom of God on earth; 2) I am saved / the Church is Noah's ark; 3) a mystical union with Christ / the Church is the body of Christ; 4) I am one of God's elect; 5) a soldier of Christ; 6) a pilgrim passing through the world; 7) a pioneer turning the earth into the kingdom of God.

Kuitert acknowledges the Church's importance in providing doctrine, continuity, place, community-even grace. What he insists is that its position be free of power and pretension, and that its leaders maintain their members' loyalty by freedom, not force. Most of all, he insists that 'the Church is there for the world, not "before", but for' (190). This complements his belief that God is encountered in the ordinary affairs of daily life. He would wish that the walls that separate the Church from the world be broken and that the notion of salvation only for those inside be abandoned. His advice to missionaries reflects openness and humility: mission should be done with respect for the missioned while relating it to oneself. Pluralism without requires pluralism within so the Church must encourage diversity (which will avoid splintering) by demanding loyalty rather than obedience.

Rituals, especially those which are elevated to sacraments, are one way a faith tradition ensures continuity. Kuitert appreciates the value of rituals so long as they still have meaning. Unfortunately, many no longer fulfill their original purpose-no longer speak to the people, bind them together or create a sense of obligation. Kuitert emphasises a recurring theme that these rituals were born out of a different time when the religious community was alienated and not a part of this world. Symbols like the cross are all that are left of the sacraments and they too have lost their value. The telling request of a girl asking for a chain with a cross on it-' "No, I mean one with a little man"'-proves his point (133). Sacraments, Kuitert reminds us, are not 'natural' objects of experience, but artificially constructed encounters. It is best to find God in life rather than in sacraments which exclude all but insiders.

Clearly for Kuitert the Church is not synonymous with the kingdom of God. To the question, 'Where is heaven?' Kuitert responds, 'No where'. It is beyond whatever we can call a place. Therefore we must start to build our eternal home here by 'this-world asceticism'. Not by making the world 'churchly', but by taking the earth seriously. Then is the kingdom of God a utopia ('u' = 'not'; 'topia' = 'place'; hence, 'no place')? Is it something that does not exist now but will in the future? Kuitert tells us to put such worries aside. Before a New World can come there must be new persons, persons cleansed of sins. The gracious gift of remission of our sins and guilt will be demonstrated by our care for others. When our present life ends we can exchange our body for a life in God. And here Kuitert shows his deep faith in tradition: we must believe that God is faithful to eternity, who offers us eternal friendship in a New World as a new person, beyond the horizon of time.

That God is someone like us, someone who notices us. Otherwise why do we pray? But is prayer really effective? Many feel it is a form of magic, a wasted effort, boring, selfish and a burden to God, or requires our certainty and enough time-both of which we lack. Kuitert believes prayer is a way of saying, 'Help!' It is an act of humility, arising when there is need. It is we who are helped, not God. Nor is it meant to influence God-it is like 'knocking on the door of someone who already knows' (246). When we pray silently, God talks. Disciplined prayer produces a disciplined life.

Morality is also necessary for a Christian life, but it is not necessary for salvation. But the problem with moral codes, like all else we have inherited from our grandparents, is that they no longer suit us. Kuitert considers whether there are any fixed moral points on which we can pin our actions. Calvin distinguished ceremonial, civil and moral commandments. The last as summed up briefly in the Ten Commandments, are good for all times. While Kuitert appreciates that the Ten Commandments were formulated in a timeless way, he believes they are historically and culturally determined. Though based on the knowledge of good and evil that is self-evident, they are man-made, often changing, even crumbling. In their appeal to scripture they demand obedience for fear of reprisals rather than fostering insight. Kuitert appreciates Christianity's offer of love as a balance for moral commandments. Morality is a means of finding God's will, but is never equal to God's will, for that would be slavery.

Though he does not view the Bible as infallible, Kuitert pays it profound respect. As the oldest form of the Christian 'puzzle-picture' of God, he believes the Bible to be the most mistreated and misused book in our culture. Rather than adhering to a doctrine of inspiration, he prefers a view that does not bind the Bible but leaves it free to be interpreted by every reader or listener. It 'contains what Israel thought of God and what the evangelists and apostles-by way of addition-thought about Jesus. No more and no less' (284). As such, it is not meant to prescribe what we must think, but to provide food for thought.

Kuitert has intentionally saved a specific discussion of the Bible for last for good reason. Though his book is full of the Bible, he has not appealed to its authority to prove any of his points. For a person so well versed in the history of doctrine and dispute, to present his case entirely through the voice of commonsense speaks more than volumes of proof texting. This, after all, helps to establish one of his fundamental themes: faith is what we experience personally, not second hand. Personal experience, broadened to include society and tradition, is thus the final court of appeal.

Kuitert's faith is impressive, for it withstands the test of his endless questioning. His questions are not only his own but are asked on behalf of more traditionally orthodox Christians as well as those now alienated. No stone is left unturned. He asks questions inherent in the tradition itself, questions which have arisen due to changes of culture and context, and questions stemming from the confusion caused by practices which no longer make sense. His abiding faith allows him to interrogate the tradition with the belief that by doing so it will permit us to go forward, though all doubts may not finally be removed.

Kuitert seems to have succeeded in forging a middle path between conservatism and liberalism. It is not surprising, therefore, that his book after coming out in 1992 was on the Dutch bestseller list for thirty-six weeks, and number one for no fewer than fifteen! He takes the contents of the tradition quite seriously-maintaining the reality and transcendence of God and the centrality and normativeness of Christ-the great affirmations of the gospels. But he is against any institutions that tell us what to believe as they enslave Christianity in a legalism of beliefs. Each of us has to make choices, not based on what authorities tell us, but on the various interpretations that ring true in our daily lives. To hold on to beliefs that don't work is sheer stubbornness, superstition, ignorance. Though we may not have absolute faith or morality or righteousness, God's graciousness can carry us forward.

Kuitert's unassuming tone conceals an intricate pattern of well-reasoned arguments as much as it reveals his genuine concern for Christ's mission. He succeeds not only in reaching a wide Christian audience, but even members of other traditions like myself, find his tone appealing. His doubts, after all, are those of a believer. Though they may be expressed in Christian terms, his questions and answers have certain universality, which provide insight into how it is possible to be loyal to one's tradition while subjecting it to intense scrutiny.

Who can deny, for example, that scripture requires further explanation? Why else are there so many commentaries? Whether the truth descends by special revelation or is arrived at by the ascending process of general revelation may, of course, be debated. Undoubtedly, any tradition claiming privileged access to the truth will have difficulty seeing itself as an equal partner in dialogue with others. This is why Kuitert sees the need to level the field by applying ground rules all can follow. Traditions that are more authority dependent are more resistant to change than those that are experientially based. They are likely to seclude themselves from the world of change, believing that God is encountered within the church more easily than outside. This view does not take the world nearly as seriously as Kuitert would wish. For such persons, the world and this life are seen as but a means to serve an other-worldly end. Such a view gives little importance to historical progress and it may see societal changes in terms of moral regress. The social models described in scripture are taken as normative and any differences are evaluated negatively. This causes a tradition to become still more insular as a means of ensuring the fidelity of its members.

A literal reading of scripture would insist that models of God are not man-made creations made relative by a particular culture or time. Such a reading would also assign objective reality to heaven and hell- places beyond our ordinary perception. These views find little resonance with Kuitert, though he would not deny that they are still meaningful to many. In fact, it is these very views which have made him doubt so much. Without freely questioning, there is little likelihood he could have preserved his faith. What makes his solutions attractive to those even more conservative than himself is his affirmation of the bedrock of Christian faith. All but the most hard-core fundamentalists should acknowledge this and recognise his efforts as part of the broader Christian mission. He has lessened his own doubts and the doubts of numerous others; for many, Kuitert's evangelical liberalism rings true.

Tamal Krishna Goswami
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Book Reviews
(Back-of-book abstracts)
 

The Alchemical Body

Author: David Gordon White
Publisher: The University of Chicago Press Ltd., London, 1996
ISBN: 0-226-89497-5 (cloth)

The Alchemical Body excavates and centres within its Indian context the lost tradition of the medieval Siddhas. Working from a body of previously unexplored alchemical sources, David Gordon White demonstrates for the first time that the medieval disciplines of Hindu alchemy and hatha-yoga were practised by the same people, and that they can only be understood when viewed together.  White opens the way to a new and more comprehensive understanding of medieval Indian mysticism, within the broader context of South Asian Hinduism, Jainism and Islam.

Themes and Issues in Hinduism

(A volume in the World Religions: Themes and Issues series)
edited by Paul Bowen
Publisher: Cassel (London and Washington)
First published 1998
ISBN 0-304-33850-8 hardback
ISBN 0-304-33851-6 paperback

This book offers useful insights into the complex and internally diverse realm of Hinduism. It is intended to acquaint the reader with themes and issues that, while of relevance to all religious traditions and systems, contribute to an understanding of the abstract nature of Hinduism as a whole. Beginning with Hindu religious understandings of the human condition, the chapters are arranged so as to form a thematic survey and overview of Hindu religious beliefs and practices. The themes of morality and ethics, the role of women in Hinduism, the Hindu religious construction of nature, and issues such as mythology, the status of texts, forms of worship, and sacred time and place can be systematically considered; or, alternatively, focus can fall upon those topics that are of particular personal interest. Readers should find this book a wide-ranging and balanced introduction to Hinduism's inner diversity.

Written for students of comparative religion and the general reader, and drawing on the chapters originally edited by Jean Holm and John Bowker in the Themes in Religious Studies series, the volumes in World Religions: Themes and Issues explore core themes from the perspective of the particular religious tradition under study.

Tantric Visions of the Divine Feminine: The Ten Mahavidyas

Author: David Kinsley
Publisher: University of California Press Ltd., London, 1997
ISBN: 0-52020498-0 (cloth)
ISBN: 0-520-20499-9 (pbk)

What is one to make of a group of goddesses that includes a goddess who cuts her own head off, a goddess who sits on a corpse while pulling the tongue of a demon, or a goddess who prefers sex with corpses? Tantric Visions of the Divine Feminine deals with a group of ten Hindu Mahavidyas, who embody habits, attributes or identities usually considered repulsive or socially subversive.  It is within the context of tantric worship that devotees seek to identify themselves with these forbidding goddesses.  The Mahavidyas seem to function as 'awakeners' - symbols that help to project one's consciousness beyond the socially acceptable or predictable.

Kinsley not only describes the eccentric qualities of each of these goddesses but seeks to interpret the Mahavidyas as a group and to explain their importance for understanding Tantra and the Hindu tradition.

Hinduism for Our Times

Author: Arvind Sharma
Publisher: Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1996
ISBN: 0-195-63749-6

No religion ever remains static: it affects and is in turn affected by material reality.  It is the creative tension embodied in this dynamic which makes the world of religion, rich with possibilities.

This book examines the contours of this creative tension in the context of Hinduism in our own times. For Hinduism, a religion of unknown antiquity is also, in several ways, surprisingly modern. Hinduism for Our Times is an attempt to raise this dimension of Hinduism to an unprecedented level of self-awareness.  Thus the choices that Hindus must make in the context of modernisation and globalisation become conscious as opposed to random choices, choices which will place Hinduism at the cutting edge of the contemporary world instead of consigning it to the periphery.  This book will appeal to all those interested in giving religion a modern agenda.

A Hare Krishna at Southern Methodist University

Author: Tamala Krsna Goswami
Publisher: Pundits Press, Dallas
ISBN 0-9643485-2-7

A Hare Krishna at Southern Methodist University is a collection of award-winning essays mapping the convergence of East and West by Hare Krsna leader Tamala Krsna Goswami. Readers are invited to enter the world of a unique spiritual pioneer, who in reality is the seeker in all of us.

Essays include:
  • Destiny of the Soul
  • From Faith to Reason
  • The Perils of Succession
  • Rights of Passage Revisited
  • A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Nirvana
  • What It's Like to Live Now
  • Six Myths of our Time
  • Our Ecological Crisis
  • I Have My Doubts
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  © 2002-2004 International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) All Rights Reserved