Monday, January 29, 2007

The Gospel In Pluralistic Society

Lesslie Newbigin is one of the most influential 20th-century Christian thinkers in the field of missions. He was a missionary to India, but made the greatest impact in the West as a theologian. As a Christian statesman, active in the World Council of Churches, he gained the hearing of liberals, Catholics and a legion of evangelicals deeply impressed with his works.

Newbigin was born in 1909 into a wealthy Presbyterian family. During schooling years he struggled with doubt and lost his faith. Gifted with a clear, critical mind, he majored in economics and geography at Cambridge.

One night, as he lay in bed, he had a visionary experience of the cross which embraced heaven and earth. This conversion experience left such deep impression on his thought and life direction that he decided to study theology. He became involved in the Student Christian Movement (SCM) where he met his future wife, Helen Henderson, the daughter of a mission worker in India. It was his acquaintance with William Temple which led him to a lifelong passion for the ecumenical movement.
When the time came for him to decide on a career, he set forth for south India in 1936 as a missionary. He immediately sought to learn the Tamil language and understand the culture and religion of India by reading the Svetasvara Upanishad in the original language.

When Lesslie Newbigin returned to the West after 35 years, he took up pastorate at a struggling congregation in Birmingham. To his astonishment, he found native England a hostile mission field. It was during this period that his influential books on the gospel and modernity were written.

As a lifetime cross-cultural missionary, he knew the twin dangers of succumbing to either irrelevance or syncretism. In India, Hindus may worship Jesus on Christmas Day but He is perceived as one among a pantheon of deities. Similarly, in the West, the gospel has been co-opted by the modern dichotomy of ‘public facts’ ascertained by science over against ‘personal values’ speculated by religion. Surrendering the public square, the church has retreated into a private, spiritual ghetto. As part of his legacy, Newbigin challenged the Western church to break away from its cultural captivity to a secular, post-Enlightenment worldview.


The cure, however, is neither a remarriage of church and state vis-à-vis Constantine’s model nor a centralized Sharia regulating all of life. He calls for a ‘committed pluralism’ like the scientific community where each member is free to pursue her research within the tradition of what has been established. When disagreements arise, further experiment and argument are conducted, implying truth can be known. In this model, the church could publicly engage the world without being coercive. Even as violent religious fundamentalism is mounting, genuine unity of humankind can never be achieved through a pluralism that abandons the possibility of knowing the truth, by which alone humankind can be one.

Newbigin would insist that “truth is not a doctrine or a worldview or even a religious experience… it is the man Jesus Christ in whom God was reconciling the world. The truth is personal, concrete, historical”.

Leaning on Michael Polanyi’s philosophy, he asserted that there is no knowing without believing or personal commitment. All knowledge, including scientific ones, is based on a measure of faith and tradition. As such, the Enlightenment ideal of pure objectivity and neutrality is an unattainable myth. Ironically, the quest for indubitable certainty rooted in man’s rationality resulted in nihilism and agnosticism which eventually put science itself in jeopardy.

Therefore, we should be bold as the gospel is as much a public truth as the discovery of the scientist. Without embarrassment, the Christian should testify 'with universal intent'. This calls for a ‘declericalizing of theology’, where laypeople in every facet of life – media, politics, business, education and others – are enabled to challenge the prevailing assumptions of society in light of the gospel . Theology should not be reserved for pastors and scholars only!

However, Newbigin does not favor any form of apologetics which seeks to satisfy the standards of rationality within a hostile and alien plausibility structure. For example, one may have watched documentaries defending biblical miracles by insisting how they could be explained nicely by scientific laws. Science has become the ultimate authority.

Favoring an approach that looks similar to Reformed epistemology, he wrote, “The proper form of apologetics is the preaching of the gospel itself and the demonstration—which is not merely or primarily a matter of words—that it does provide the best foundation for a way of grasping and dealing with the mystery of our existence in this universe."

Rather than endorsing culture, the church must demonstrate to the world what it’s like when a community of people lives under God’s reign. The church’s proclamation, kerygma, must be carried out in the context of authentic community (koinonia) and service to the world (diakonia). The life of Christians should be integrated interpreters of the gospel as word, deed and sign. Only then can an alternative plausibility structure can be created by congregations who believe, proclaim, embody and enact the story of God’s mighty acts of creation and redemption. He described justice to the poor and care for creation as urgent areas to be addressed in the new millennium.

Since much has been said about an emerging postmodern culture, it may be worthwhile to explore Newbigin’s view on this issue. Undeniably, truth does not hang in thin air apart from history, language and particular human culture. However, he would insist that this does not entail the false assertion that no culturally-embodied truth claim “makes contact with a reality beyond the human mind”. While he agrees with the postmodern replacement of ahistorical, disembodied truth with a Story, he denies the postmodern skepticism that there is no overarching truth among the many ‘mere’ stories. Again, he wrote, “The church’s affirmation is that the story it tells, embodies and enacts is the true story and that others are to be evaluated by reference to it.”

Reading Newbigin’s works is dangerous business. It puts fire in the intellect, courage in the heart and motivation for action for the universal mission of Christ to a despairing world. A modern-day prophet has walked amongst us. We would do well to rally to his call to leave our privatized ghettos and ride forth to engage our pluralistic culture.

Bibliography

A Walk Through the Bible, SPCK/Westminster Knox, 1999

A Word in Season: Perspectives on Christian World Mission, St Andrew Press/Eerdmans, 1994

Discovering Truth in a Changing World, Alpha International, 2003

Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture, SPCK, 1986

Living Hope in a Changing World, Alpha International, 2003

Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt and Certainty in Christian Discipleship, SPCK, 1995

The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, SPCK/Eerdmans, 1989

The Household of God, 1953, reprinted by Paternoster, 1999

The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission, SPCK/Eerdmans, 1978

The Other Side of 1984: Questions for the Churches, WCC Publications, 1983

Trinitarian Doctrine for Today's Mission, 1963, reprinted by Paternoster, 1999

Truth and Authority in Modernity, Trinity Press International, 1996

Unfinished Agenda: an Updated Autobiography, St Andrew Press, 1993

6 comments:

alwyn said...

hey thanks for the write-up; i'm actually keen on reading some of Newbigin's stuff, but i don't know which are his "masterpieces" or "flagships". can u name me the top 3 of his books? or the top 3 which u believed have had the most influence?

Daud said...

:) in my personal estimation, these three are very good reads!

Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture, SPCK, 1986

Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt and Certainty in Christian Discipleship, SPCK, 1995

The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, SPCK/Eerdmans, 1989

alwyn said...

thanks, mate...in fact i think i saw the first book somewhere...maybe Evangel..hmmm

Anonymous said...

abang, susahnya nak paham artikel ni...

sesetengah ayat putar belit sampai nak give up baca, maklumlah kurangnya makan otak-otak....haha...

baca sekali tak paham
baca kali kedua macam paham-paham
baca kali ketiga tak paham lagi
lepas tu give up...

Contohnya -
"Even as violent religious fundamentalism is mounting, genuine unity of humankind can never be achieved through a pluralism that abandons the possibility of knowing the truth,..."

sampai sini msh blh paham, tapi last part -

"...by which alone humankind can be one."

terus kantoi...

lepas tu second last para,

"However, he would insist that this does not entail the false assertion that no culturally-embodied truth claim “makes contact with a reality beyond the human mind”. While he agrees with the postmodern replacement of ahistorical, disembodied truth with a Story, he denies the postmodern skepticism that there is no overarching truth among the many ‘mere’ stories."

aku nak paham para ni, tapi langsung tak paham ape yg aku tak tau...(ataupun tak tau ape yg aku tak paham)

jangan marah ye,...seperti kata MP kita - 'Minta Penjelasan!!'

The Hedonese said...

hello bro! Ertinya gini... Newbigin kata walaupun ada ancaman pengganas berpunca dari agama (ekstremis), keamanan manusia tidak dapat dikecapi dari pluralisme (tiada kebenaran mutlak, semua agama sama sah). Habis tu? Apa solusi nya? Yesus Kristus, hanya beliau harapan manusia mengecapi keamanan.
Newbigin berpendapat bahawa kebenaran ini bukanlah abstrak semata-mata. Ia bertumbuh di atas dunia nyata (melibatkan sesuatu sejarah, bahasa, budaya manusia). Ini tidak bermakna bahawa kebenaran itu sesuatu yang relatif atau hanya wujud dalam konstruk minda manusia semata-mata. Jadi dia setuju dan tidak setuju dengan falsafah pasca moden ini

Samuel Maynes said...

If you are interested in some new ideas on religious pluralism and the Trinity, please check out my website at www.religiouspluralism.ca. It previews my book, which has not been published yet and is still a “work-in-progress.” Your constructive criticism would be very much appreciated.

My thesis is that an abstract version of the Trinity could be Christianity’s answer to the world need for a framework of pluralistic theology.

In a constructive worldview: east, west, and far-east religions present a threefold understanding of One God manifest primarily in Muslim and Hebrew intuition of the Deity Absolute, Christian and Krishnan Hindu conception of the Universe Absolute Supreme Being; and Shaivite Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist apprehension of the Destroyer (meaning also Consummator), Unconditioned Absolute, or Spirit of All That Is and is not. Together with their variations and combinations in other major religions, these religious ideas reflect and express our collective understanding of God, in an expanded concept of the Holy Trinity.

The Trinity Absolute is portrayed in the logic of world religions, as follows:

1. Muslims and Jews may be said to worship only the first person of the Trinity, i.e. the existential Deity Absolute Creator, known as Allah or Yhwh, Abba or Father (as Jesus called him), Brahma, and other names; represented by Gabriel (Executive Archangel), Muhammad and Moses (mighty messenger prophets), and others.

2. Christians and Krishnan Hindus may be said to worship the first person through a second person, i.e. the experiential Universe or "Universal” Absolute Supreme Being (Allsoul or Supersoul), called Son/Christ or Vishnu/Krishna; represented by Michael (Supreme Archangel), Jesus (teacher and savior of souls), and others. The Allsoul is that gestalt of personal human consciousness, which we expect will be the "body of Christ" (Mahdi, Messiah, Kalki or Maitreya) in the second coming – personified in history by Muhammad, Jesus Christ, Buddha (9th incarnation of Vishnu), and others.

3. Shaivite Hindus, Buddhists, and Confucian-Taoists seem to venerate the synthesis of the first and second persons in a third person or appearance, ie. the Destiny Consummator of ultimate reality – unqualified Nirvana consciousness – associative Tao of All That Is – the absonite* Unconditioned Absolute Spirit “Synthesis of Source and Synthesis,”** who/which is logically expected to be Allah/Abba/Brahma glorified in and by union with the Supreme Being – represented in religions by Gabriel, Michael, and other Archangels, Mahadevas, Spiritpersons, etc., who may be included within the mysterious Holy Ghost.

Other strains of religion seem to be psychological variations on the third person, or possibly combinations and permutations of the members of the Trinity – all just different personality perspectives on the Same God. Taken together, the world’s major religions give us at least two insights into the first person of this thrice-personal One God, two perceptions of the second person, and at least three glimpses of the third.

* The ever-mysterious Holy Ghost or Unconditioned Spirit is neither absolutely infinite, nor absolutely finite, but absonite; meaning neither existential nor experiential, but their ultimate consummation; neither fully ideal nor totally real, but a middle path and grand synthesis of the superconscious and the conscious, in consciousness of the unconscious.

** This conception is so strong because somewhat as the Absonite Spirit is a synthesis of the spirit of the Absolute and the spirit of the Supreme, so it would seem that the evolving Supreme Being may himself also be a synthesis or “gestalt” of humanity with itself, in an Almighty Universe Allperson or Supersoul. Thus ultimately, the Absonite is their Unconditioned Absolute Coordinate Identity – the Spirit Synthesis of Source and Synthesis – the metaphysical Destiny Consummator of All That Is.

For more details, please see: www.religiouspluralism.ca

Samuel Stuart Maynes