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.