Q & R: Newbigin

This question came in recently …

I have read your books and I am now writing [thesis] on how your thought relates to the work of Lesslie Newbigin. I would really appreciate your help in answering a few specific questions. Most of these questions regard your use of ‘plausibility structures’ in Finding Faith and your later pluralistic assumptions in Everything Must Change and Finding Our Way Again.

More after the jump.

The question continues …

Firstly, have you rejected or ignored Newbigin’s emphasis either upon the church as elect group chosen (and called by Jesus) to have the truth revealed to them?

I haven’t read everything Newbigin ever wrote, but I believe I’ve read about a dozen of his works – I imagine you’ve read more than I have, so I could simply be less-than-fully informed. But based on what I know of Newbigin’s work and my own, I can’t imagine why you’d ask this question. I see my work very much in line with Newbigin’s. (My The Story We Find Ourselves In, for example, mirrors his telling of the Biblical story quite strongly.) But I wonder if you’re reading Newbigin in a more exclusive/Calvinist/fundamentalist way than I read him. I can’t think of any of my work that would signal a rejection of Newbigin’s thought.
My sense is that, as a balanced thinker, Newbigin is aware of dangers both on the left and right (sorry to use those tired categories). His most popular book among conservatives (it seems to me) is “The Gospel in a Pluralist Society,” which (along with “Foolishness to the Greeks”) warns people about real dangers on the left. He has a special passion here, because he felt that his own nation and tribe had drifted into a kind of unprincipled relativism during his time in India. But Newbigin was also concerned about dangers on the right, and that’s where (it seems to me) books like “The Open Secret,” or “A Proper Confidence,” or his commentary on John, “The Light Has Come,” strike an important balance. To use terms I use in A New Kind of Christian, Newbigin never seems (to me at least) simply to take one side against another; he seeks to call both theological conservatives and liberals to higher ground.

Secondly, have you rejected or ignored Newbigins emphasis upon the church as a trustworthy plausability structure under the authority of Jesus, exercised through the trustworthy narrative of scripture?

The key issue here is what you mean by “trustworthy.” When large sections of the church sanction torture, cover up sexual abuse scandals, resist our environmental responsibilities, support pre-emptive war, practice xenophobia, and so on, trust is certainly eroded. But I believe the Spirit of God is faithful to the church – and humanity – even when we’re unfaithful. It seems to me that the primary plausibility structure for the Gospel is, and I think Newbigin would agree, the Holy Spirit at work in communities that live by the gospel.

I do not mean to be critical but you seem to suggest that the plausability structures are uncertainty principles but Newbigin seemed to believe that there existed a trustworthy plausability structure – namely the church.
Thirdly, Newbigin also seems to be critical of early twentieth century liberal thought which cloaked the dominant ideology of the day in kingdom language (We are familiar with the way liberal Protestant Christianity used the biblical language of kingdom to give a pious colouring to the dominant ideology. Seeking the kingdom meant working for social progress – Newbigin in Foolishness to the Greeks). In some of your work you seem to be cloaking postmodern pluralistic assumptions in kingdom language – do you think that Newbigin’s criticism might apply to you? Especially when you suggest as you do in The Church in Emerging Culture: Five Perspectives that ‘the gospel message must change as well as its methods’.

First, the issue of ‘cloaking assumptions’ goes both ways. I’m not interested in cloaking either modern or postmodern assumptions in kingdom language. When I try to talk about the kingdom, I’m trying – imperfectly, no doubt, but that’s true of all of us, isn’t it? – to be faithful to the gospel, not postmodern or modern assumptions. Newbigin also was critical of the ways the conservative church withdrew from social issues – I remember him somewhere talking about how Marxism was in a sense a Christian heresy, because the Marxists were filling in the gaps where the conservative/institutional church had capitulated to a privatized version of the gospel. For what it’s worth, your questions feel to me like a sincere and intelligent attempt by a conservative Christian to appropriate Newbigin as a conservative, when in my reading, Newbigin was neither a traditional liberal nor a traditional conservative. Again, he was critical of both in many ways, and supportive of both in other ways. Friends of mine who knew Newbigin well have told me this is the case. I hope I am in the same general category – neither in the liberal nor conservative pocket.
I should also add that outside of some academic circles, I think the “dominant theology” today is not the liberal one you describe, with which Newbigin struggled in a special way. The dominant theology today, here in America at least, seems to be a neo-conservative one that trusts the power of nationalism, empire, markets, pre-emptive war, culture war rhetoric, legislation, domination, exclusion, and the like (to put it indelicately). Many of us hope that is changing … but it’s important to remember that the world has continued to change in the decade since we lost Newbigin, and it will change in the decade ahead, so we must learn not only from what this great thinker said, but also from the way he said it – and from the nuanced, non-binary posture he took in understanding his times.
One other thing. You seem to set up plausibility structures and “uncertainty principles” as opposites. I think Newbigin would object to a conflation of “plausibility structures” as “certainty principles.” As I recall, Newbigin somewhere said that certainty comes through an intellectual system – but we work with a story, not a system, so it yields something other than certainty. Instead, he said, the gospel offers us confidence – a proper confidence, not over-confident and not under-confident either. That’s what I’m seeking … imperfectly, no doubt … to live, model, and teach.

Finally, your emphasis upon the church being the catalyst and not the goal of the mission of the kingdom seems very much like the claims made by Johannes Hoekendijk in 1952 where he argues for the church to speak more of God’s work in the secular world. Newbigin was critical of Hoekendijk then and has been since arguing that the church is both ‘a means and an end because it is a foretaste’ (The Household of God). Would you accept the suggestion that your thought is closer to Hoekendijk’s than Newbigin’s on this point?

Since I haven’t read Hoekendijk, I can’t comment. Based on your quote, I can’t imagine why you would think I’d pit “means” against “foretaste.” Why put those in either/or categories? Couldn’t one dimension of the church being a catalyst be that it provides a foretaste? And, as Newbigin said, why pit means against ends? Aren’t they interwoven in God’s ecosystems? Again I hope you’ll remember that Newbigin worked largely in what I think you would call a “liberal” context (the WCC, etc.). He needed to stand against the primary imbalances of his community, just as Barth did. This might make him seem conservative. But if Newbigin had been rooted in a more theologically/socially/politically conservative community, I think you would have seen him equally resistant of imbalances on that side. I come from a conservative context, although like Newbigin I am trying to find a higher ground that affirms and critiques both streams of Christianity in the modern era as we move into terra nova.

I am sorry if I come across as critical of your books. I know they have helped many people to grow in Christian faith. But you will appreciate the confusion between your work and Newbigin’s that I am trying to clear up.

No offense taken. But please remember that you’re not simply working with McLaren and Newbigin. You’re working with your readings of both … Apart from the fact that Newbigin was dealing with issues of his lifetime and generation, and I’m trying to deal with similar issues as they have morphed and evolved since his passing, I see myself very much in line with Newbigin. (The same would go for David Bosch, by the way.) But perhaps I read him as a less binary thinker than you do … and I may be misinterpreting both him and you, so please accept my apologies if that’s the case.