Reading (and being mostly pretty excited about) Newbigin’s book “Gospel in a Pluralistic Society” has led to some pretty interesting discussions in my own household where my older son, being a fan of appropriately secular governments (that allow for peaceable religions to “flourish” after all) provides a lot of push back to Newbigin’s challenges. [I, (and not the secular enthusiast) add the scare quotes on “flourish” above.]
But the first caveat to get out of the way right up front is that Newbigin did not push for any kind of return to some theocracy or Constantinian-era political power. That is the first reactionary canard that will be trotted out by frightened secularists (of both religious and non-religious persuasions), so let’s just nip that one in the bud: That’s NOT his push. But have no fear; you will not be starved to find objectionable material in his agenda, which he pushes without apology.
I’ll just start with one extended quote from the book listed above (from chapter 1) where he is discussing the modern intellectual posturing (both by modern believers and nonbelievers) that is juxtaposed against all that is deemed to be dogmatic (i.e. religious).
There is an admirable air of humility about the statement that the truth is much greater than any one person or any one religious tradition can grasp. The statement is no doubt true, but it can be used to neutralize any affirmation of the truth. How does the speaker know that the truth is so much greater than this particular affirmation of it – for example, that “Jesus Christ is the truth”? What privileged access to reality does he have? In the famous story of the blind men and the elephant, so often quoted in the interests of religious agnosticism, the real point of the story is constantly overlooked. The story is told from the point of view of the king and his courtiers, who are not blind but can see that the blind men are unable to grasp the full reality of the elephant and are only able to get hold of part of the truth. The story is constantly told in order to neutralize the affirmation of the great religions, to suggest that they learn humility and recognize that none of them can have more than one aspect of the truth. But, of course, the real point of the story is exactly the opposite. If the king were also blind there would be no story. The story is told by the king and it is the immensely arrogant claim of one who sees the full truth which all the world’s religions are only groping after. …
As Polanyi has trenchantly put it: “The emphatic admission of our fallibility only serves to re-affirm our claim to a fictitious standard of intellectual integrity … in contrast to the hidebound attitude of those who openly profess their beliefs as their final personal commitment” (Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge, p. 271).
He goes on in much of the book to knock holes in the prospect that any truly secular program could even exist at all, since there is no such thing as a platform that has not itself appealed to something and pushed it as a necessarily universal truth (unsupported starting point, no less!). That it would refrain from calling itself a religion does not shelter it from the charge that it arrogantly promotes its own Truth as the highest context within which all other citizens may scrabble about with each other regarding their lesser, privatized values.
While this all sounds anti-pluralistic, I should hasten to add that Newbigin also points out that we should be prepared to celebrate excellence found in every religion and culture – seeing all good things as already belonging to Christ. He had noted that Jesus had become domesticated (and thus safely contained) within higher governing strictures of the eastern culture he was visiting. But our humility, Newbigin writes, is to realize that our western culture has done exactly the same thing. There is no platform of “highest culture” from which other cultures can be evaluated. All cultures are both necessary and yet faulty vehicles that need to be challenged at many points by the incarnation.
His apologetic (IMO) is aimed at believers (or nominal believers), and not the skeptics. As such, perhaps this is the wrong platform for me to be writing these things. But if there is interest and discussion we can carry on more here. If not, so be it.