Mondays are reserved for letters from students.

Dear Professor Theophilus,

During the break I'm taking a cultural anthropology class at the local community college so that I can transfer the credit to my own school later.  The problem is that although the professor is kind toward other religions, he is harsh and vulgar towards Christianity, and I'm not sure how to respond.  He says things like “There are no true religions”, “Did God create us or did we create God?”, and “Missionaries force their religious beliefs down the throats of others at all costs.”

To defend his hostility to missionaries, he offers the relativistic proposition that “Every culture has value and should be judged by its own standards.”  Of course I don't think that missionaries should go into other lands to undermine their cultures!  If my cross-cultural classes in my missions studies have taught me anything, it's that the gospel must be contextualized so that each cultural group can clearly understand Christ's sacrifice.

As you can see, I’m frustrated and confused about how to answer.


Your professor is all too typical, and I'm glad you've written.  I think you should “play back the tape” to him.  In other words, turn his own claims back on him, but in the form of questions.

For example, when he says “There are no true religions,” you might speak something like this (I’m not suggesting a script, but trying to give you the idea):  “I'm interested in your statement that no one possesses religious truth -- I guess you mean that no one can justify any theological claim.  But isn’t that a theological claim?  The statement that no beliefs about religion are true is itself a belief about religion – so by your argument, it must not be true.”

The same strategy will be helpful when he says that “Every culture has value and should be judged by its own standards.”  You might ask something like this:  “Professor, I'm having a little trouble with the idea that every culture has value and should be judged by its own standards.  Do you think that the Nazi culture had value and should be judged by its own standards -- so that the better it was at genocide, the more we should approve it?”

You might even ask, “Professor, whose culture says that we ought to judge every culture by its own standards?  Isn't it just your culture -- the culture of university anthropology teachers?  The reason I'm asking is that if that's true, then it seems inconsistent for you to teach that we students should accept your standard.  Doing that seems like judging the surrounding culture, not by its own standards, but by the standards of your culture.”

You mention that your professor also asks, “Did God create us or did we create God?”  Considering the variety of completely incompatible religions in the world, I think it's a pretty good question.  The only problem is that he left out one of the possible answers!

You might offer a reply something like this:  “Professor, my faith tradition recognizes the fact of religious diversity just like your anti-faith tradition does.  But St. Paul gives a different explanation for it.  His is that God created us and we “created” gods -- false gods -- because we don't want to acknowledge the true one.  In fact, the Christian idea is that the manufacture of false gods is still going on today. The only difference is that instead of having names like Zeus and Athena, today they have names like Sex, Getting Rich, My Inner Self, and Having My Way.”

The way this answer works is that it affirms the element of truth in what your professor says, but uses that as a springboard for another truth he hasn't yet recognized.  St. Paul, by the way, was a master of that particular move.

You see what I’m suggesting, don’t you?  Think of your missionary training again. You’re “contextualizing” the Christian message with courtesy and persistance so that this pagan can understand it -- a pagan who happens to be your teacher.