The Gospel in a Pluralistic Age: An Application to Our Current Theological Condition
When I had initially read through The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society in the late 1990s, I was not then in a position to give Newbigin’s argument the sustained attention that it merits. I view it now for the pivotal role it can potentially play, along with Barth’s “strange new world within the Bible” toward a revitalization of mainline Protestantism in discerningly placing the Word at the apex of the relationship with the World. What has moved me in this direction is the fuller realization that regardless as to what stance one takes on any number of positions, the faith dimension that gives shape to what becomes viewed as relevant knowledge (metanarrative construal) is inescapable, and is based on values. That is a partial explanation.
The other facet is a deeper experience with contemporary secular thought and value orientation and finding them wanting in substantial ways. This is not to deny the possibility of some dissimulation on my part in taking a leap based on an earlier conversion experience to Christianity that I may have at some level tendentiously sought to appropriate as a way of smoothing over tension points that may well have required closer examination. I cannot categorically deny that. Neither would I want to overly stress its possibility in that the various and countervailing streams of motivation are often more complex than we can readily fathom. Despite the lack of certainty amidst the seemingly never ending stream of questions that if pursued to their “logical” conclusions seldom come to exhausting resolution, one does have to choose on where one places one’s ultimate concern. Such decisions, however unconsciously processed are based on reasons which involve an intuitive element, a leap of faith, an inescapable reality in any event. I would like to think too, that the small still voice of God’s Holy Spirit was in the midst of this probing, however invariably mixed with the peculiarities of my own idiosyncratic searching.
To state it more affirmatively, a persisting faith in the durability and ultimate truth of the biblical revelation, its transcendent depth, and the prospect of personal intimacy with God through Christ, however partially experienced, seemed in the most fundamental sense a resource upon which I could rely unconditionally. That is, if I gave this incarnational vision something of the fullness of attention that any reorganization of one’s life on these grounds would, by definition warrant. That is so, on faith, given a belief in “a God who is there” upon which one can, in concert with a mighty cloud of witnesses claim as an ultimate reality, however infinite the gap remains between ontological assertion and any epistemological warrant this side of the eschaton. With this clearer mindset in place, a re-echoing of an earlier evangelical worldview, I have become better able to appropriate Newbigin’s challenging reconstruction of reality and more appreciative of the important role that, if I may put it this way, his Barthian turn could play in revitalizing mainline Protestantism on its own foundational faith claims.
Lesslie Newbigin (1909-1998) was no fundamentalist. As a 20th century British missionary, Newbigin was keenly appreciative of the intellectual diversity of European culture and the importance of interfaith dialogue. He was well attuned to the dominant “plausibility structures” of the pluralistic society he inhabited at home and abroad and the prevailing incongruity of any claims to a faith based on the “radical particularity” of Christ revealed as the incarnate Son of the Lord, God, as professed in orthodox Christian doctrine. Sorely tempted by what he referred to as “reasonable Christianity,” “one that could be defended on the terms of my whole intellectual foundation as an Englishman,” Newbigin ultimately became convinced that in his accommodation to the prevailing precepts of the culture he was “guilty” of nothing less than “domesticating the gospel.” This realization was no mere fob, but the result of a profound probing into the logic of contemporary thought and culture, and drawing the conclusion that metanarrative, or storied construction of reality (including the postmodern one) was inescapable regardless of position held. For Newbigin, radical adherence to the Christian faith necessitated rejection of the dominant plausibility structures of our secular age in which the triple values of relativism, rationalism, and pluralism were held with absolute-like tenacity in which any religion claimed as truth could not stand.
Turning the postmodern argument on its head, Newbigin argued that there is no Archimedean point or foundational knowledge to ground absolute claims. In this respect there is a substantial difference between his view and Schaeffer’s even as both share a broad resonance in evangelical orthodoxy. Consequently, all knowledge claims, even those grounded on science, reason, common, or critical sense, have an irreducibly faith-based component, which requires acceptance in order to enter into the pathway of what they reveal about human experience. This fallibilistic stance is an irreducible component of all knowledge. What moves claims beyond the “merely” subjective is the commitment to and the evidence provided that any truth assertion makes as possessing universal validity even if the faith chosen (e.g. science) overshoots, as it must, any actual proof. In this respect, the dictum of pragmatic philosopher, Charles Peirce that in the long run, honest and rigorous inquiry among committed investigators will lead to a closer approximation of the truth, is the best for which we can hope. This, for Christianity in the most radical sense is the apocalyptic consummation in the eschatological coming of Christ and the ushering in of the New Jerusalem.
Whether on the side of science or religion, absolute certainty is beyond the purview of the human grasp, although one can, and actually must make absolute truth claims from an inescapable epistemological finitude and test them within the crucible of reality. Signs and “evidence of things unseen” is what is available for science and religion alike. For orthodox Christianity, the lack of absolute certainty on the grounds of knowledge is the result of our residence between the “not yet” symbolized in the Second Coming in which faith will be turned into sight and “the already” of the First Coming, as a foretaste of greater things to come. The tension between these dispensations of revelation are enduring even as the Holy Spirit mediates God’s grace in the here and now, however finitely realized any such appropriation may be. Drawing on Schaeffer, the Holy Spirit is a manifestation of the God who is there in the immediacy of our world, however evident or not his presence may seem to others as well as to self, as a small still voice.
On Newbigin’s reading, this initial entrée into human history for the purpose of “mak[ing] propitation for the sins of the people” (Heb 2:17b) provides a sufficient basis for believing in Christ as the centerpiece of human history. Reasoning is included even as questions and gaps persist, only after the step of faith as the basis for the search of surer knowledge of God is taken. In this respect, commitment to the Christian revelation is no different than adherence to the scientific method or the belief in the equal validity of all religions. What drives the specific commitment and the logic therein in the quest of knowledge is the starting place of any narrative construal.
The challenge that Newbigin sought to address was how one could come to “preach the gospel as truth, truth which is not to be domesticated within the assumptions of modern thought but which challenges these assumptions and calls for their revision.” Above all, this requires an internal source of authentication rather than any appendage to the reigning plausibility structures of our secular age that could be reduced to a mere belief or that could be explained through the “bar of reason and conscience” as determined by the premises of the prevailing cultural or scientific thinking. Such explanations in the mode of inquiry as laid out by Popper and Peirce could serve an apologetic function in conveying something of the premises of faith in idioms those outside of its boundaries might understand. Internal justification, however, can only stem from grounds intrinsic to its own innate meaning, including, “modifications which must be submitted to the judgment, in our case, of the Christian community as a whole [the community of knowledgeable inquirers in a manner analogous to the scientific community], and which may be subject to debate and dispute for many years.”
However valid a claim may be within a given tradition, regardless as to the permeability of its boundaries, the “logic” therein would not necessarily prove convincing or relevant to those outside its given framework. Such “evidence” offered, therefore, within a given “paradigm,” may not necessarily “demand a verdict” among those who remain outside its operative assumptions, however valid it may or may not be (e.g. proof offered for the physical resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth) for a given community of inquiring believers. Thus, beyond the apologetic function, there is an irreducible dogmatic core to the Christian faith, as there is, for example, with science, conveyed through its own inherent presuppositions that remain reasonably durable over time. Concepts evolve within a tradition that may push the boundaries of the given framework, which need to be (re)incorporated within, which for our case, I am describing as a generous orthodoxy. This is necessary to provide a definitional sharp edge against, for example, some form of gnosticism in the early centuries, or in our era, naturalistic philosophy, which cannot be accepted as normative for Christian belief even as it may be valuable in stimulating apologetic examination and theological reflection.
Thus, for Protestant Christianity, in particular, the primary claims of the New Testament canonically interpreted through the prism of the entire Bible remain the magisterial source of belief. Theology (whether academic, ecclesiastic, or lay) emerges as a secondary and necessary source of illumination, which fleshes out aspects and conclusions of the primary text within the context of historical and cultural unfolding over time. Disputes about many specifics aspects of contemporary or ancient Christian theology may or may not fall within the purview of what might be considered a generous Christian orthodoxy. That is a matter of public discernment within the household of faith in which disagreements over matters of much signification are likely to persist. However, to posit any other metanarative than the revelation of the incarnate Son of the living God as revealed first and foremost through the New Testament is to put faith in nothing less than another gospel.
In the current era, such a faith stance might be absorbed in what could be viewed as the ideology of pluralism, premised on the assumption that the various world religions provide equally valid pathways to right relationship with the living God. On this interpretation, Christianity is viewed as one pathway to the holy. This is a position I had once argued for with considerable tenacity as a self-acknowledged de-centered Christian whose primary plausibility structure resided within the realm of the secular. The stance maintained throughout this book is the Archimedean point upon which orthodox Christianity may well stand or fall; namely, the radical particularity of Christ revealed as the very Son of the living God, the “High Priest,” in whom “all the fullness [of God, the father] should dwell” (Col 1:19). This very “image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15) embodied conceptually in the Incarnation as the second person of the Trinity has historically held as an essential theological reflection of the core New Testament doctrine (Jn 14:9-13). Arising out of necessity to protect the early church from various distortions of a predominantly gnostic nature, this primary belief in Jesus the Christ as the Son and the very embodiment of God in human flesh has been the prevailing source of doctrinal stabilization for almost 1900 years.
It is this “scandalous” vision in its radical particularity of God incarnate that modern liberal Protestantism has considerably muted that provoked Newbigin’s counter-response. From his point of view, as well as the one agued in this book, to accept the predominant premises of modern liberal Protestantism is to effectively uproot the very basis of the Christian revelation that God in his fullness in human flesh is embodied in no other name than the person of Jesus the Christ. Christianity, in the pluralist vision which has so attracted modern liberal Protestantism would survive as one of the great world religions. However, it would be shorn of its radical specificity, even as the Christ narrative as mythos “beyond incarnation” would be given credibility as, perhaps, a beautiful story possessing a certain appeal and revealing a certain metaphorical truth to a given community of believers.
Spong’s vision rejects any call of a Great Commission of “mak[ing] disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Mt. 28:19). The conversion impulse, from his perspective, is viewed as an undesirable residue of an earlier era. Moreover, in Bishop Spong’s rendition, such core theological concepts as theism, the Incarnation, and original sin would be eliminated or radically re-fashioned in the “new Christianity.”
This depiction of Spong may be seen as a caricature of liberal Protestantism, the complexity of which is far from cut from the same prefabricated cloth. My objective at this point is not to enter into the subtleties of liberal theology, with roots extending back at least to Schleiermacher. I focus on Spong because in his “new Christianity for a new world” he logically carries out some of the most radical impulses of modern Protestant liberalism. In doing so, he places into sharp relief the core orthodox claim that Christ is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6) without equivocation and remainder, however much subtlety, explication, and humility is needed to effectively argue such, and however limited and incomplete the understanding of particular expositors may be. The fundamental question that both Spong and Newbigin pose in their different ways to the liberal Protestant sector is the primary one that Christ poses to Peter; namely, “who do you say I am?” (Mt 16:13-17). Upon the cornerstone of Peter’s response, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God” (v 16), much rides, namely, the legitimacy of Christianity as a distinct religion with its own peculiar claims, the definition of salvation, and the nature and character of God.
The question, in more contemporary terms is where one places one’s “ultimate concern” (Tillich) or primary “center of value” (H.R. Niebuhr), and the role of the reigning plausibility structures of the modern secular era in giving shape to them. Newbigin takes contemporary thought with penultimate signification. Nonetheless, he posits the “more difficult [and as argued throughout this book an ultimately more satisfying] enterprise of trying to understand modern thought in light of the biblical story.” This requires much subtle theological probing and apologetic explication in which any semblance of caricature is rejected as un-Christian on its face. Any such efforts in this direction are likely to be, if not piecemeal, highly partial, although I am pushing throughout this book on the importance of grappling diligently with the issue of truth claims even those beyond epistemological certainty. What is important, at the least, is the trajectory, namely a reversal of a century’s tendency by placing the biblical revelation front and center of the mainline church’s concerns in a manner which thoroughly comes to terms with modern critical scholarship. The critical discussion between postliberal and evangelical theology is one pivotal center where such key probing is currently operative, one that serves as a touchstone for this book.
For all intents and purposes there are two alternatives. There is the direction posited by Spong in which the core tenets of orthodoxy are gutted in order to preserve something of the essence of the Christian mythos. Or there is the direction of canonically grounded, scholarly informed generous orthodoxy in which the fundamental precepts of the Bible grounded in the New Testament revelation becomes the basis for interpreting and interrogating the world. With Newbigin and Barth I posit the latter, clearly through a position of faith in search of greater knowledge and with the acknowledgment that the questions stemming from the culture have much penultimate signification. The core assumption requiring much articulation is that in Christ the pathway to universal history shaped by God’s consuming vision of New Israel is revealed even as we live “between the times” of the First and Second Coming and see in a “mirror, dimly” (1Cor 13:12). This presupposition cannot be proven by human reason, evidence, or logic, even as reason, logic and “evidence of things unseen” can and will be given. “The substance of [these] things hoped for” (Heb 11:1) is the focal point of this book.