Newbigin: Gospel as Public Truth

From the moment I came to this forum people started telling me of the ideas of Lesslie Newbigin. As usual I immediately ordered what I could from the library. Thus here we have my response to his short book entitled, “Truth to Tell: The Gospel as Public Truth.” Though only as far as the first chapter so far.

Already from the title, I have a problem with what Newbigin is pushing. The things of religion are not and cannot be a public truth

Chapter 1: He talks about a disintegration of classical thought into nihilism and skepticism at the time of Augustine due to an inability to overcome dichotomies between being and becoming, between reason and will, and between the intelligible (or spiritual) world and the material world. Well frankly, I am skeptical of the validity of any such claim. Instead I think this is just a frequent tactic of rhetoric, to invent a crisis of thought like this in order to railroad people into some narrow way of thinking. As for the dichotomy of being and becoming, I think this is another philosophical problem derived from an artifact of language: the noun versus the verb, which I believe science has already given an answer. As for the problem of dualistic thinking, this comes from an ad-hoc mixture of Plato/Gnosticism with Judeo-Christian ideas, and the truth is that the mind/intellectual-world has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the spirit/spiritual-world. That is one part theologians flattering themselves shamefully and another part trying to redirect classical Greek thought to the support of Christianity. Blaming the conquest of Europe on moral decay is another of those universal tactics of religious rhetoric which people buy into because they are desperate for reasons in the face of tragedy. But even though I am Christian and believe in God’s interaction with us, I have to be skeptical that every disaster is a judgment by God for our sins. It seems a disservice to the innocent victims of a tragedy.

I see frequent Christological conflicts of church history as evidence that forcing Christianity into the language of Classical Greek philosophy was a mistake. It brought all their baggage and wrong thinking over into Christianity. However, maybe it is too much to expect of the barbarians of medieval Europe, that they could come up with a better philosophical language on their own. Perhaps it is a natural developmental stage that they would not just learn from the writings of the ancient Greeks but give them a little too much credence. But it is far more important to me that we have no such excuse today. Newbigin claims that in both classical thought and in post-enlightenment thought the doctrine of the Trinity was nonsense. As for me, I would compare to the reaction of many scientists to the discoveries of quantum physics. Both were revealing the limitations of archaic ways of thinking and forcing people to stretch their minds to encompass a broader scope of possibilities. Newbigin’s suggestion that the incarnation of Christ was an answer to the mind-body duality problem is just absurd. But perhaps a big part of my problem with Newbigin is that I am not a big fan of Augustine except perhaps on the topic of science versus religion.

In skepticism, Newbigin sees only mockery, while I see a tool of critical thought. To be sure it has its limits and I have thus argued that it must ultimately lead you to a skepticism of skepticism itself. To put it another way, skepticism is a tool not an answer. It should be used to question and challenge but only as a means of digging deeper and seeking out better ideas and clearer ways of expressing them. Newbigin complains about the attitude that nothing is sacred. And to that I say, that that life is sacred but to make ideas sacred is to place obstructions in the way of rational thinking. He claims that asking “who am I?” leads to violence and drugs. And to this I say no, it is bigotry and narrow thinking which leads to violence and the kind frustration which seeks escape in drugs. With Polanyi he tries to give the credit for modern advance to Christian oppression and their idolization of Greek thought. What a load of nonsense! The truth is that we simply grew up enough to go beyond idolizing the Greeks to following their example and thinking for ourselves. It came from liberating human potential from enslavement to criminal barbarian overlords, where more and more people, particularly those of oppressed classes and sexes could get more access to education and the opportunity to contribute their own creativity.

While I may not agree with the elimination of metaphysics by Bacon or the Empiricism of Locke, perhaps this served a very important cleansing purpose – deposing the obsolete philosophical language of Classical thought in order to make way for the formulation of a better language more suited to the solid ground of modern scientific discovery. Newbigin claims that modern science is blind to purpose. But I am not buying it. Science discovers the visible manifestation of purpose in the function of natural entities. For some this allowed the clearing away the baggage of old prejudices to find fresh purpose for things in a new light. For others ready to take the next step, it made way to see that purpose and design was really only suitable for tools made as a means to an end. And thus to see that living things which grow, learn, and make their own choices are instead an end in themselves – where purpose comes from within. Though, for those depending on the use of God as a prop for authoritarian dictatorship this did not compute.

In Newbigin’s criticism of Fideism I see the manufacture of a rational for demolishing religious liberty and forcing religious dogma on other people. At this point Newbigin has finally got around to the promise in the title of his book to make way for the reinstatement of medieval theocracy returning theology to the role of queen over the sciences. To this I can only give my deepest contempt and abhorrence as well as my promise to fight this with every drop of blood as the bitterest of enemies.

Newbigin thus correctly predicts anger in response to his program. But his claim that this is reactionary and fundamentalist is absurd for it is his program which is reactionary and fundamentalist, and from the darkest, most filthy, and ignorant period of human history at that. His melding of classic Greek thought with Christianity belongs to the middle ages and the result is to bring out the worst of both. From the Greeks what we should be learning is their example of investigation and inquiry and from Christianity what we should be uplifting is not archaic medieval dogma but the love and saving power of Jesus.

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I’m sensing you’re no fan of Newbigin; please correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m pretty perceptive that way and despite your usual gifts for subtlety I think I’m on to you! :slight_smile:

It is commendable that you at least have the intent to read all this work of his. As a Newbigin fan (and I remain one) I’ve only read two of his more recent books, so you are on a trajectory to be more of a Newbigin ‘expert’ than I am thus far. Though I’m also prepared to be even more impressed if you finish any of his books since it only took one chapter of Newbigin to send you tilting at windmills here. And that is what I have to think you must be doing when you write that his agenda was …

I never got any hint of that in his two books “The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society” or in “Proper Confidence”. Or at least not unless you interpret his commitment to the notion of universal religious truth as somehow being a manifesto to bring back theocracies. Maybe he does; you are reading material of his that I haven’t seen after all! (and if so, I would join you in repudiating that). But I should also like to see references.

You wrote:

So is all religion (including Christianity) then nothing more than a private affair for each individual? Why all this public discourse about it in that case? Are the atheist bumper stickers that mock you, telling you to “curb your God” entirely correct then? They would be if the only ‘truth’ any religion can ever have is only in the mind of the beholder. I think I stay solidly with Newbigin on this one. And no, that does not make me a militant proponent of classical theocracies.

Does Newbigin do any of this? I gather you may not have been talking about Newbigin any more by that point, but about “theologians flattering themselves shamefully …” But I also gather you probably see Newbigin as one of those.

I am curious about what you wrote below (and even more curious what Newbigin may have been saying about it.) Is this from the 1st chapter of the 1st book you mention?

You also wrote:

And what is the “sacredness of life” if not an idea?

Now, despite all my defensive push-back above, I am genuinely curious to hear more of what you encounter from Newbigin (if indeed you can stomach any more), and even if it must come filtered through a lens of contempt. I pride myself on spotting grain, and I maintain you’ve got keen thoughts, despite the occasional muddling that comes from too much sipping of the Sagan koolaid.


May I suggest you go through one of his newer books, if you have a copy, and tell everyone why you think he is right on some points. If you do I promise to restrict my comments to the quotes of his writing alone. Who knows? You might even pick things I agree with.

There is nothing I object to in these title anyway. Perhaps he has modified his approach a little to handle objections like mine.

Private does not always mean individual. Ever heard of private clubs? But let me reassure you that I do not support effort of some atheists that want to ban all elements of religion from public notice. I would require just as much tolerance from an atheist for the religious as I would require tolerance from the religious for the atheist. Neither should be requiring the world around them to conform to their own preference on the surface or make it easier to pretend that the others do not exist. But yes when it comes to public decisions which affect everyone then yes religious beliefs have no place in them.

Those are covered by freedom of speech the same as religious bumper stickers. However, it would be right for some public venues to prohibit the more aggressive and intolerant displays by either side. Hey that might include public roads as long as the prohibitions are equitable: " no law respecting an establishment of religion" means laws cannot distinguish one system of belief from another.

Well here is what he said that got this response…
“And this inward spiritual decay was matched by all too visible disasters until in Augustine’s own time the eternal city, the very citadel of classical civilization, was captured and sacked by barbarians.”

I suppose this could be understood a little differently than how I took it, that Newbigin only meant that the external collapse of civilization echoed the ideological collapse. Thus this could be more about his exaggerated attachment of importance to this so called philosophical failure, which I am not really buying into. I tend to see the dark ages as a consequence of the barbarian conquest alone with nothing to do with Christianity, Classical thought or any kind of moral decay. I hardly think the strength of the Roman empire had anything to do with either moral fortitude or religious fidelity.

Yes but I did not declare this idea to be sacred. I said “life is sacred” and I do not mean the idea of life either, but actual life of living things, human life in particular.

I am rather critical of Sagan. His “dragon in the garage” is a useful image for various purposes but his argument was totally bogus, especially in the phrase “veridically worthless” by which he equated all truth value to scientific truth. I do not support this. I do think a distinction must be made between the objective (i.e. science) and the subjective (which includes religion) and give the former precedence (even epistemological superiority) but absolutely oppose the claim that the latter has no truth value. This is not even self-consistent for the statement itself is not a scientific claim and thus must also judge itself to be veridically worthless. To put it another way, beliefs shown by science to be contrary to the object evidence are unreasonable. But since the things which science can establish are rather limited, this is not a very big restriction. For example, can science say that Santa Claus, fairies, unicorns, psychics, ghosts and UFOs do not exist? No it cannot. The most it can say is that there is no objective evidence that they do exist. Though it can and does put limits on claims about these things which are reasonable.

I should indeed read more of him since I aspire toward ‘expertise’ or at least claim to be a fan. But I have a ways to go before I should use such words. Thanks for the softer words in your reply - softer than mine were. I don’t mind hearing where you and he part ways, because that may give me good ideas about what of his to read next - to help temper my own views. I probably should have stayed out and let others here interact with you since we’ve already hashed out some of this stuff in a prior thread.

I suspect that you’d find your same objections still in place reading the two books of his that I read, because his message that Christianity should not be marginalized away into subjectivity in the considerations of universal truth - that message seemed largely intact still (indeed the main point I took away from it) in “Proper Confidence” (1995) which would be one of his later works. He died in 1998.

If you do say more about the books of his you’re reading - whatever stark criticisms you may have, I’ll continue to read them with interest - perhaps agreement too in some cases. Others here who have deeper history with Newbigin than I do might respond.

While I’m drawn like a magnet to these topics, I’ll try to step back for a bit. We in the U.S. should be attending to Florida, and the Carolinas with our concerns right now. And yet even while disasters rage, earnest discourse over topics of truth usually remains a good investment of effort. Thanks for your passionate contributions.

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Chapter2: Newbigin is claiming to seek a balance between extremes. On the one hand there are those who see the Bible as objective truth and on the other hand those who think everything is subjective. He then launches into a explanation that everything consists of human experiences, but that these must be experiences of an objective reality. Not only this, but our experiences make the things of objective reality a part of us. All of this is apparently justification for ignoring the basic fact that people have no reason whatsoever to agree on the things of religion and pretending that everything is equally subjective and objective. All this demonstrates is that Newbigin hasn’t a clue about the objective nature of what science discovers. Until that is understood any effort to find a proper balance is meaningless.

The objectivity of science is found in the fact that it provides written procedures which anyone can follow no matter what they believe to get the same results. That is a sufficient reason to expect that reasonable people will agree that these results are factual. The fact that there is nothing similar in religion is irrefutably demonstrated by the vast and constantly increasing of diversity of opinion on the issues of religion. The only thing comparable in its diversity is that of all the different species of living organisms and I don’t think this is a coincidence. Both are an example of looking for ways to live that work – both in the case of species finding ways to survive and in the case of religious people finding ways to think, it is simply a matter of choice and experience. So there is no more point in telling the Hindu to think like a Christian than there is to tell a dog to live like a bird. Science is different because the results are always the same and your choices about how to live are completely irrelevant.

Thus the correct balance is not to say like Newbigin does that there is no difference – no objectivity or subjectivity. That amounts to nothing more than burying ones head in the sand and willfully refusing to see the facts. The first part of the correct balance is to acknowledge the difference and with the correct identification of the line between them to know when people are trampling it – not just when the religious are doing so but also when the non-religious are doing it. The second part of the correct balance is to uphold the unavoidable value of both the objective and the subjective as long as the meaning of the difference between them is understood. With the objective evidence of science we have a reasonable expectation that other people should agree, but with the subjective evidence of our personal experience it is only reasonable that we believe it ourselves and not to expect that others accept it also.

Next Newbigin suggests that there is a difference between agnostic pluralism and committed pluralism. I certainly agree, for in this he is certainly correct. This is the difference made when you uphold the unavoidable value of the subjective evidence of personal experience. The truth in the subjective arena is not unknowable. That something is not provable or demonstrable, is not the same thing as being unknowable. In fact, it can be demonstrated that this is the case – and it is not even that difficult to do so. It is rather easy to arrange a situation where one person can see for themselves what the truth is about something without providing them one shred of objective evidence by which they can prove this to the other people in the experiment. Proof and knowledge are demonstrably not the same thing at all.

But then Newbigin goes too far with the claim that agnostic pluralism has no defense against nonsense. This is incorrect. One can have a very good defense against against nonsense simply by upholding the requirement that meaningful beliefs be logically coherent. Furthermore, you can go one step further by upholding the requirement that reasonable beliefs do not contradict the objective evidence. And if you want to live in a free society then you are likely to also uphold the additional requirement that moral beliefs do not trespass against the ideals of tolerance and religious liberty. Notice that none of these standards require a belief that subjective truths are knowable.

Next Newbigin talks about the new age movement. First he blames this on an alienation from nature in science. But the sad plain truth is that people see just as much and even more alienation from nature in Christianity. One of the reasons I give for belief is some sympathy for the eastern mystics in their idea that mundane reasoning seems like a stultifying trap and that we need something transcendent in order to give our ability for abstraction more life and substance. Thus I would feel a need to invent God even if I didn’t have other reasons to believe. So I quite sympathize with Newbigin’s idea that people feel an alienation and bereavement in a world that is too purely and coldly rational. But in Newbigin’s condemnation of the new age movement as an old blind alley I see only subjective judgement and prejudice. Pulling the Nazi card here is an obivous two edge sword because that same example also clearly demonstrates that Christianity can also be separated from the commitment to ethical behavior.

Newbigin declares that it is his(our) faith that the cosmos is not a closed system. At this I have to laugh, for that is an issue where I think I can do one better and claim that it is a discovery of science in quantum physics that our cosmos is not a causally closed system. To be sure, it requires faith to believe there there is anything which connects to these loose causal thread or what it is exactly that they connect to. But the existence of those loose threads are an established fact, though the atheists are certainly free to believe they consist of nothing but purely random events.

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