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‘Dancing with the foxes’

Wickeri: Religious practices can create as much disunity as religious ideas

April 24, 2012

SAN ANSELMO, Calif.

Hey Christian, are you a fox or a hedgehog? 

In the second of his two T.V. Moore lectures at San Francisco Theological Seminary here, Philip Wickeri explained the difference between the two in a metaphor created by Isaiah Berlin in 1953: The fox knows many things but the hedgehog knows one big thing. Foxes are fascinated by many things and sees reality in the plural; hedgehogs frame everything through a single defining reality.

Turning from religious thought to religious practices, Wickeri ― who is advisor to the Anglican archbishop of Hong Kong, a teacher at Ming Hua Theological College there, a former China mission worker and former professor of evangelism and mission at SFTS ― used the metaphor to explore to what extent Christian diversity can lead to Christian unity.

“When we speak of Christian diversity, we can mean all sorts of things,” Wickeri said in his April 20 lecture. The annual T.V. Moore lectures are sponsored by San Francisco Theological Seminary.

Diversity can be based on nation, race, ethnicity, language, theological perspective, culture and any number of other factors, Wickeri said. “Diversity can either unit or divide, impoverish or empower, enrich or conflict us. It depends on how it is grappled with and worked out.”

In his lectures, Wickeri argued that some religious differences are and should be irreconcilable. Attempts to achieve “unity in diversity” at any cost, he said, are “cheap.”

While acknowledging that any metaphor can become absurd if pushed too far, Wickeri said “the fox and the hedgehog is a useful peg on which to hang an argument.

“Christianity by its very nature is a religion of hedgehogs, as are most religions,” Wickeri continued, “but most Chinese religions, including Christianity, are foxes,” and the interplay between religious practices in China are instructive, he insisted.

Christian practices are as diverse as Christian thought, Wickeri said, and turned to Cambridge scholar Adam Yuet Chau’s five “modalities” of Christian practice in China, which he said can be expanded to describe world Christianity: 

  • Discursive Scriptural ― relying on composition, analysis and interpretation of texts
  • Personal Cultivational ― practices which focus on the long-term transformation of one’s self
  • Liturgical ― utilizing rituals officiated by professional specialists
  • Immediate Practical ― using “magical” tools or techniques for quick spiritual results
  • Relational ― focused on the relationship between humans and deities and among humans

The Discursive Scriptural modality “is favored by most middle-class educated Christians,” Wickeri said, “because it requires a high degree of literacy.” Unfortunately, he added, “U.S. Presbyterians have a hard time moving beyond this modality, but for most Christians in the world, it is not limited but is employed in combination with other modalities.”

The Personal Cultivational modality includes such practices as prayer and personal devotions, pietism, and the practice of spiritual disciplines. “The emphasis is on the long-term effect of such practices rather than immediate reward,” Wickeri said, and most don’t require a religious professional.”

The Liturgical modality shifts the emphasis from the individual to the communal and involves religious professionals in leadership. “Rites of passage are prominent ― baptism, weddings, funerals,” Wickeri said, and the extremely well-developed liturgies provide a strong basis for identification with the community, though again the relative importance varies greatly from tradition to tradition.”

The Immediate Practical modality, which is prevalent in Chinese folk religion, is less clear in Christianity, Wickeri said, but can be seen “in such U.S. practices as athletes crossing themselves during games to assure success, cars with Jesus figurines on the dashboard and the ubiquitous wearing of crosses as jewelry.” Such religious practices “have not been studied as much as needed,” he said. 

The Relational modality places at least part of its emphasis on the social, Wickeri said. “Much of Western Christian worship is relational rather than liturgical,” he added.

“I want to add a sixth modality,” Wickeri continued, “Religious practices related to mission,” which are becoming “a practical and central element of Christian practice in many parts of the world, involving everything from mission trips to missionaries to soup kitchens.”

Returning to the fox and hedgehog metaphor, Wickeri said “all Christian religious practices are in the realm of the foxes. The practices are always varied but they do not make a church.”

The church, Wickeri said, “functions as a hedgehog to hold all the practices together — an organizing center that provides integrity and coherence. In world Christianity, it is not usually the individual who decides about practice, contrary to most of North America.”

The key for Christian churches “is to understand how the practices interact. The church is an umbrella, not regulatory agency,” Wickeri said. “Each practice informs the other and they all work together in different combinations in different traditions.”

For Christians, of course, the unifying hedgehog vision is Jesus Christ, Wickeri said, “who brings the many into one, even if we choose to dance with the foxes.

“If only the hedgehogs could be more foxlike,” Wickeri opined, “then all interpretations would be brought together. But there are unreconciled differences, even among the practices.”

Only by “better understanding how varied religious thought and practices interact,” Wickeri said, can unreconciled diversity become genuine unity.

  1. While I agree that seeking unity in diversity mindlessly is problematic, my fear is that many Christians seem to have lost entirely their zeal for ecumenical relations. Jesus’ fervent prayer that we “may all be one” must be at the heart of our relationships with other Christians. The Lund principle, set forth by the Faith and Order Conference of the World Council of Churches in 1952, urges us “to do together everything except what irreconcilable differences or sincere conviction compels us to do separately.” As we worship, study and work with those of other denominations we not only grapple with issues of dogma and practice, we build loving relationships between our brothers and sisters in Christ.

    by Grayson Van Camp

    April 27, 2012

  2. Isn't the proposed sixth modality (missional) already captured in the fifth (relational)? At least, it seems it could be, even if that is not how "relational" was originally conceived.

    by Silva Theiss

    April 25, 2012

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