Friday, March 23, 2007

Muck Lecture: "Lessons from Mormons for Missional Religious Studies"

Last night Terry Muck of Asbury Theological Seminary presented a public lecture in connection with his intensive course on world religions titled "Lessons from Mormons for Missional Religious Studies" at Salt Lake Theological Seminary.

This lecture was the second installment in a three-part series. Muck began with a summary of the first lecture wherein he is discussing the relationship between Christian mission and religious studies and how these disciplines fit together. His intention is to make the case that the best mission takes place in connection with religious studies, and further that missional religious studies is a better form of engagement in religious studies than that which claims to have no ultimate commitments in connection with it.

Muck's presentation summarized Rodney Stark's research in the areas of conversion, religious capital, and revelation that looked at these areas in relation to three religious movements, that of early Christianity, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the Unification Church. In this process of research Stark draws upon an agnostic methodology (rather than metaphysical agnosticism) which Stark (and Muck) feels represents the best methodological posture for social science research.

In the area of conversion Muck drew attention to Stark's research that indicates that people convert due to social connections rather than commitment or a change of commitment to a belief system. Stark does not engage in sociological reductionism in that he does not attempt to dismiss all religious commitments as a result of social (or other) processes, but attempts to understand the significance of social dynamics to religious commitments that Muck then connects to missiological considerations. Muck feels that a missiological implication of Stark's research on conversion is that Christians should provide a welcoming environment that brings people into Christian community.

Muck then discussed religious capital or the degree to which one masters a religious culture through the development of skills and the appropriation of a knowledge base in this religious culture. Those religious communities that allowed individuals to bring as much of their previous religious capital into the new religious community were more successful than those that did not. For example, early Christianity allowed converts from Judaism to bring their religious capital into the new religious community, as did Buddhists with Hindus, and Mormons with Protestants converts. Muck feels that the missiological implications for this are for Christians to find ways that people can use their religious capital in the church, and that priority should be given to positive points of contact with other religious cultures rather than dissimilarities (contra the thinking of missiologists such as David Hesselgrave and Gailyn Van Rheenen).

In Stark's research into revelation, people tend to dismiss those who claim to receive revelation as either frauds or insane. Stark disagreed with this and believed that normal people can receive God's revelation and that God's voice might indeed be heard and filtered through religious cultures in differing ways. The missiological implications for this, according to Muck, are the need for Christians to understand the context of community and its importance for understanding another religion's revelation and why it is understood the way it is in this context, and secondly, that we might consider the possibility that all people hear God in some way but that it is filtered through their cultural and religious matrix.

Muck then moved to his conclusions, the first being that nobody is commitment free, that is, even those religious studies scholars who claim to be completely objective have some form of ultimate commitments whether religious or irreligious. Muck feels that the best scholars are those that acknowledge their commitments up front, and he presented George Marsden as an example. His second conclusion was that all people engage in some form of rhetoric or attempts at persuasion, and Christians have as much of a right to engage in this as scholars or others. In terms of rhetoric from a Christian perspective this must be done responsibly. Muck feels that those Christians committed to bringing religious studies and missiology together in missional religious studies do better religious studies because they bring both of these areas of ultimate commitments and rhetoric together.

In April Muck will look at examples of the application of missional religious studies in the history of Christian mission for the audience to consider in terms of application and an analysis of its strengths and weaknesses.

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