Newbigin's challenge to secularism (Does it exist?)

(Jay Johnson) #42

I think you underestimate the size and scope of the Culture War, as well as the influence of its leaders. But, that’s a whole 'nother conversation. Going back to my comment that it all comes back to which standard we choose, you choose individual rights and the U.S. Constitution. I don’t disagree that those are important, but you’re limiting culture to the political sphere. Culture casts a much wider net than that. It also includes the arts, the sciences, religion(s), economic structure, etc. You could say that it represents the totality of the shared values and traditions of the group in view.

Well, I don’t know about you, but I can see progress in human culture over the last two thousand years, just as I can look at evolution and see progress that culminated in a creature capable of “imaging” God. I don’t need an “objective” or infinite, godlike perspective to say that, either. I think almost everyone without a philosophical ax to grind would agree with me. In great measure, what you’re taking issue with is the “myth of progress” that prevailed in the 19th century, which looked to science to solve all of mankind’s problems. As you noted, WWI and WWII pretty much put that myth to bed.

Here’s what I see, and what bothers me: In the history of our own nation’s culture, Christians were at the forefront of what I would call “progress.” Christians led the Abolitionist movement. Christian women dragged their male brethren along in granting them the right to vote. (Then they got a little carried away and gave us Prohibition, too, but that’s another story …) Christians led the charge on civil rights in the 50s and 60s… All of this “progress” required those in power to loosen their grip on the disenfranchised and the marginalized of society. LBJ was only able to get the Voting Rights Act passed by appealing to the Christian convictions of key Southern politicians whose votes he needed. Would that happen today, or are our leaders too morally bankrupt? Is it happening now, or are we heading in the opposite direction?

This “terrifying portrait” is a portrait of human history. It describes social evolution from our primate roots until today. Primates that live in groups actually do have such a “rating” system. There are alpha males and females, and every member of the group has a rank, which they must constantly monitor vis-a-vis other members of the group. As groups grew larger, the complexity of keeping track of everyone else’s reputation and rank grew exponentially, creating selective pressure on the evolution of the brain to “keep up” with the growing demands. Here are the roots of human notions of morality. What the majority determines is “acceptable” behavior is rewarded, and unacceptable behavior is punished. The reason for “cultural relativism” is that every culture determines for itself what is acceptable or unacceptable behavior, and these are passed on by enculturation (socialization). God does not implant a conscience in us at birth.

Returning to my earlier observation … The “progress” that I observed in culture was the opposite of Nietzsche’s will to power; rather, it involved those in power voluntarily sharing power with the disenfranchised and marginalized. Such progress does not require an “advance” away from Christian belief. In fact, once upon a time, Christian belief actually motivated cultural progress.

The great mistake of the Culture War was to misdiagnose the problem, and thus prescribe the wrong medicine. The Bible does offer a critique of culture, but it isn’t at all what the Culture Warriors think. Take a look at Richard Middleton’s book, The Liberating Image. RJS has a good summary of chapter 5, which deals with Genesis 1-11 as ideological critique of Mesopotamian culture. The image of God, as Middleton unpacks it, is an egalitarian vision of humanity. If we want a truly biblical vision of culture and our role within it, we have to start there, not with a critique of modern philosophy (a la Schaeffer) and a bunch of hand-wringing about who’s having sex with whom.

Off soapbox!


I would argue that this is a basic human desire that can be found in multiple cultures throughout known human history. Even in Central and South America there were multiple cultures that spent a lot of effort to track the motion of the Sun, Moon, and stars. In fact, some cultures were even able to predict solar eclipses. We see indigenous populations across the globe that we might consider to be primitive, but they still have highly ingenuous and complex technologies that the pass down from generation to generation. I doubt that you and I, from such modern times, could go out and build quality bows and quality arrowheads from knapped flint. In Europe we have the classic civilizations that were renowned for their technology even in their own time. Moving forward, we have relatively ancient scholars labeling a period in history as the “Dark Ages” because of the lack of technological advances during that time.

I could be wrong, but it seems that seeking technology and knowledge is a basic human characteristic. Ought we to do these things? That question is a bit more interesting. There are a lot of other basic human desires that we tend to disapprove of, so that is debatable. However, the major goals of human society seem to be shared protection, shelter, food, and healing. Technology and scientific knowledge serve all of those goals. And not to focus on just those two things, religious beliefs have traditionally been important in tying human societies together.

In the US, all of our constitutional rights are potentially up for a vote. Every amendment can be stricken from the constitution by a vote, and new ones can be added which could change any of the powers or rights listed in the constitution. What I find interesting is that there is never a big push to take away those protections, even when those rights are protecting a minority and grumbled about by the majority.

For example, freedom of religion is the very first amendment in the US Constitution, and could be repealed through democratic means. There have long been grumblings from Christian communities about the restrictions this amendment puts on Christian evangelism in the context of public schools and public spaces. However, no real attempt has been made to repeal it. I think that we all know, deep down, that we all want basic rights that protect the minority from the majority, and so we continue to support it.


I would say that I am more focused on what we are allowed to do, not so much on what people agree on. Too often, people confuse the right of free speech from the non-existent right of agreement. I have heard people claim that their right to free speech was violated because someone disagreed with them. I have heard others claim that their religious freedoms were violated because some people disapprove of God being mentioned in a television program. It can get a bit ridiculous at times. Those are the types of things I am trying to differentiate between.

(Mervin Bitikofer) #45

I think rather that God, in the person of Jesus Christ breaks through to us and finds us in and among all our different cultures and creeds.

Yes – to think one thing is true is probably to think other things exclusive to it are not. That is unavoidable. I don’t know that we need look for middle ground here as I’m already totally with you on that. As long as we realize we are talking about specific conjectures or convictions and not entire religious / cultural systems.

“ordinary academic subjects” is the loaded phrase here. Not too many centuries ago, discussing and even taking for granted the “purpose of God” would have probably been quite ordinary in any classroom (and the thing on which everything else gets based.) Now we’ve been conditioned to think a materialistic basis should be the more fundamental foundation – and that worldviews should be rooted in that (including any creeds, if any creeds are even admitted into the “facts-of-life” club at all.)

The fact that even raising any objection to the materialist default sounds so strange to us here shows how locally embedded we are in our parochial little corner of history.

(John Dalton) #46

I still don’t understand this difference though. Are you saying our hypothetical teacher is going to present information about an “entire religious / cultural system”, without making any truth claims about it? That’s fine, but it sounds more like “some people think” than “teaching from the point of view of a full-throated Christianity”.

“ordinary academic subjects” is the loaded phrase here.

I get your point, but I’m not sure “loaded” is the right word. More below

Not too many centuries ago, discussing and even taking for granted the “purpose of God” would have probably been quite ordinary in any classroom (and the thing on which everything else gets based.)

I guess it was not even that long ago.

Now we’ve been conditioned to think a materialistic basis should be the more fundamental foundation – and that worldviews should be rooted in that (including any creeds, if any creeds are even admitted into the “facts-of-life” club at all.)

“Been conditioned”? I don’t know. Then, were people before conditioned that God-belief was the more fundamental foundation, etc.? Was there ever a time when people possessed a totally neutral mindset? I think our hypothetical conversation here shows that reaching a neutral point between “let’s leave religion out of this” secularism and religion may not be all that easy. I think it’s worth noting that there have been times where rejecting the prevailing or approved God-belief might have proven dangerous to you–now being one in many places.

The fact that even raising any objection to the materialist default sounds so strange to us here shows how locally embedded we are in our parochial little corner of history.

Well, things are as they are now. All kinds of things might seem ordinary if you had lived in a particular time. In the context of modern secular education, religion isn’t an ordinary subject. I don’t think the word “ordinary” tells us anything more than that here. Yes, it’s a secular paradigm with its own assumptions, but that’s what we’re talking about. Let’s just say “non-religion subjects” then :thinking:

(Mervin Bitikofer) #47

It isn’t so much about what any specific teacher attempts to hold out in front of the class for all of them to analyze and study together. I.e. -it isn’t so much the object of study that you are metaphorically “facing”, but it is instead about what you are “standing on” as you face it. You can be teaching about religion without ever mentioning the words “religion” or “God” or “Jesus” or “Bible”. In fact you are probably giving a more profound religious lesson as you teach about so-called “ordinary things” in all the other classes with no mention of religion. Because while students are consciously attending to the explicitly studied subject to which the teacher draws their attention, they unconsciously join the teacher in standing on the same ground that he or she stands on as they study it together.

Never has existed in a human mind … and never will. The closest any of us could ever get to even conceptualizing that the ultimate seat of objectivity exists is … God. And our conceptualization of God is not objective.

Very true. And still true today too if some places I’m sure.

You’re right, I think. We don’t normally “talk about” religion. We (all of us – you included) are too busy doing it.

(John Dalton) #48

I don’t know, but I probably do talk about it more than most!

(Mervin Bitikofer) #49

I just finished watching this 2017 youtube video: Tim Keller answering Lesslie Newbigin (Princeton Lecture) which was very good and might provide a good summary (next best alternative, so to speak) for some who don’t want to take the time to read Newbigin.

(Mervin Bitikofer) #50

As a general response to some of what we’ve been discussing above, it occurs to me, @John_Dalton, that we’ve (I’ve) made a facile slip into a discussion of what sort of culture or government ought to be most desirable for everybody. But what I’m forgetting as I jump into that is that Newbigin was addressing the church. I.e. he isn’t promoting some better government or some better culture or this or that much-needed improvement needed in a government or a culture as if those would be any source of salvation anyway. That would be idolatry. He was concerned to see the church (the whole of that lay community around the world) live out its transformation to help share God’s salvation with the world (all its cultures and governments) to challenge it where it needs challenge. Culture, the academy, government, entertainment … all of that will be what it is sometimes for better and sometimes for worse.

But my context for addressing it as a Christian is (or should be) different than yours. For us (believers) it cannot be the highest or most important thing. It is a thing we may be called to help address or improve because of some higher (highest) prior thing that may call us to do that, but it can in no way replace that highest thing as the locus of our efforts much less our salvation.

(John Dalton) #51

Interesting, and understood. My alternate take, that is to say, my context for addressing it as a human being: it also may not be the most highest and important thing, but is something we should work to address or improve simply because of its significant impact (for good as well as bad) on everyone.

The talk looks interesting; I hope to get to it tonight!

(Phil) #52

Thanks for posting. Watched it last night, thought provoking and humbling. Enjoyed the imagery of evangelism being vertical, mainstream being horizontal, and balance we need to have as both are important.

(Mervin Bitikofer) #53

Newbigin makes this observation about the history of science in his “Proper Confidence” book:

He [Bacon] rejected the concept of purpose as a category of explanation but retained the concept of cause. This has had momentous consequences for the subsequent history of science. Even though in later philosophy the concept of cause has been rejected [!?] (David Hume), it has played a central role in the development of science. […] it is, in popularize science, to explain them. […] But to understand the purpose for which things exist has not been part of the work of science. [ … ]

The elimination of purpose from our efforts to understand the world has momentous consequences. With one stroke it creates a split between fact and value, a split which is such an important part of our culture. The reason why it causes this split is obvious. If one has no idea of the purpose for which a thing exists, one cannot say whether it is good or bad.

I inserted the [?!] by something of Newbigin’s which I don’t yet understand. But most of this quote seems pretty clear to me how values and facts have been split asunder in our culture.

It is exemplified in this brief article on the new religion of “dudeism” (excerpted below) that I found at

Spend enough time on the internet and you may well end up becoming an ordained minister of Dudeism. The vague religion dedicated to the mellow Zen of Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski (fictional hero of the Coen Brothers’ cult smash film “The Big Lebowski”) fills no church halls, but does offer a complete worldview that combines the chillest bits of Taoism, Buddhism and turn-the-other-cheek Christianity.

It’s a cobbled-together belief system that sociologists might label religious “tinkering” — essentially, the act of honing spiritual beliefs the way a blacksmith might hone a piece of bespoke armor to fit one client perfectly. And if you fancy yourself a tinkerer (Dudeist or otherwise), chances are you picked up the habit online. A new study published in the January 2018 edition of The Journal for the Scientific Study of Religionsuggests that the more time a person spends on the internet, the less likely he or she is to affiliate with a religious tradition, or to believe that a single religion is truer than all others. [8 Ways Religion Impacts Your Life]

“Tinkering means that people feel they’re no longer beholden to institutions or religious dogma,” study author Paul McClure, a doctoral student in sociology at Baylor University, said in a statement. “Today, perhaps in part because many of us spend so much time online, we’re more likely to understand our religious participation as free agents who can tinker with a plurality of religious ideas — even different, conflicting religions — before we decide how we want to live.”

I would only note above that the partakers of this religion only truly reveal their hand in the very last sentence shown above: “… before we decide how we want to live.” All the bits and pieces from other religions are (to them) now part of their real religion which is still opaque and hidden behind that phrase “how we decide”. If they have any basis for the values they will use in deciding, they do not tip their hand here. For all we know it is Nietzsche’s “will to power” in full operation here.

(John Dalton) #54

I’d really just heard of Bacon but took a little time to read up on him briefly; he seems to have been a very interesting and influential character. Did Newbigin mention any particular context about this quote, a book or something? It’s interesting that Newbigin spent so much time in India; I feel like this had a great influence on him. How does he see our fact/value split? Is it more of a sickness in need of a cure, or a given? Does he suggest any specific means of addressing the issue? From the talk and what you’ve said, it seems that Western society is in need of a missionary approach, so I surmise that in general Christianity is one suggested palliative.

“Today, perhaps in part because many of us spend so much time online, we’re more likely to understand our religious participation as free agents who can tinker with a plurality of religious ideas — even different, conflicting religions — before we decide how we want to live.”

It’s often occurred to me that the internet is bound to be having an effect in this area. For one thing, religious belief is closely tied with the community ethic, and the internet is having an instant and large effect on that ethic.

It almost sounds like a joke; is it for real? I spend too much time on the internet but I haven’t encountered it, though I have seen many Lebowski memes and the like. Great movie

(Mervin Bitikofer) #55

I hadn’t ever heard of it before seeing that article. So I doubt it is any more a big thing than any of the other semi-spiritist fads that regularly go around. I was only bringing it up as a convenient example of trying to be eclectic by adopting various practices from a diversity of traditions as if the individual himself was not already planted solidly in his own tradition that guides him to know which are the worthwhile parts and which should be discarded. Instead of being truly “eclectic”, their one religion is revealed by examining their guiding light that governs their approval / disapproval of various practices.

His mention of Bacon was only in this brief (but important!) context. He didn’t mention any works directly by Bacon, but sited this source, by Alasdair MacIntyre (“After Virtue”) which I’ve not read. The wikipedia article I cite above compares the premise of that work to “Canticle for Leibowitz” which is a sci-fi book that I have read and highly recommend.

But back on Bacon, he is credited with promoting (originating?) the “Two-book metaphor” regarding Scriptures and nature. His contemporary, Galileo, did too. Read this excellent Biologos article on Bacon by Ted Davis. But regardless of the actual origin of that metaphor this was all long before any ancient time-lines (much less evolutionary science) was troubling anybody. So this metaphor obviously is not any kind of reaction against contrary-looking science. Bacon himself was a devout Christian. And as such it is interesting that he is regarded as the father of empiricism which is the tune that so many dance to today.

His time in India does look to have been formative (on the strength of the two books of his I’ve read); mainly because of his reverse-culture shock upon returning to Britain after having been away so long.

I think he sees the fact/value split as now being deeply part of our culture that is in need of challenge. Earlier in our western history it would have been trivially taken as fact in our schools that “Man’s chief end is to glorify God.” Now, of course, that gets “demoted” to a mere speculative value. I think he wants Christians to be able to reclaim such fundamental facts not just for themselves but with “universal intent” that needs to be brought into the public square. Not because it is empirically verifiable – but just because we [Christians] take such a thing as a starting point. Newbigin (on my reading) wants empiricism itself, despite its pious sources, challenged in its position as the sole gatekeeper guarding “facthood” in our culture. Not that Christians (especially those of us here) object to empiricism being a gatekeeper, and a very important one, to be sure (I think Newbigin would agree). We just don’t think it should have complete or unqualified veto power to keep out notions of purpose or some presuppositional starting points that are adorned in religious garb. Other people’s presuppositional starting points if they wear secular garb are smuggled in right under the nose of the empiricist gate keeper. So it is demonstrably not adequate as a lone gatekeeper in any case. That is what I think Newbigin would like to see recognized (and rightly so, I think).

And of course as a Christian, he (we) don’t just see Christianity as “one palliative” on the shelf alongside all the competitors. We see it as the underlying need for everybody / everything. (How’s that for committing the unpardonable sin against pluralism!) And yet in seeing Christ (and “our own religion”) in that way we aren’t doing anything that anybody else isn’t already also doing: seeing their own thought-out and accepted views with universal intent. Whether it be empiricism, theism, humanism, algebra, or dudeism … everybody seems to think they have a pretty good idea of something that ought to be worth sharing with everybody else. And that is the messy marketplace of ideas we live in – not all of them entirely exclusive of each other by any means, contra any atheist assertions otherwise.

[Edits have happened … and may continue.]

(Jay Johnson) #56

Newbigin’s analysis goes tumbling off a cliff at this point. The “elimination of purpose” – presumably by Bacon in the scientific method – was not responsible for creating a split between “fact” and “value.” Those two things belonged to different categories long before the Enlightenment ruined Western civilization (according to Francis Schaeffer’s superficial analysis). The “fact” is, science routinely considers purpose in its investigations. Consider, for example, Tinbergen’s “four questions” of ethology (the study of animal behavior) based on Aristotle’s “four causes,” one of which is specifically directed to “ultimate cause,” or purpose.

As well, who or what has “eliminated purpose” from our culture? Is it science? In that case, Newbigin has made science the sole arbiter and creator of culture, which it is not. Science and technology are aspects of culture, but they do not drive the process or determine the outcome. Newbigin makes the same mistake as Schaeffer, who also tried to analyze culture with a single, poorly chosen yardstick (in his case, 20th-century philosophy).

Is it really a “fact” that “man’s chief end is to glorify God”? What if I said man’s chief end was to serve as God’s image? Or that man’s chief end was to seek his own happiness? And why do you say it is a demotion to go from “fact” to “value”? For the most part, “facts” concern things of trivial importance, while “values” concern things of momentous importance. It seems to me that you’ve fallen into the same trap that claimed Newbigin – giving science a far more privileged and prominent role in our culture than it deserves.

(Andrew M. Wolfe) #57

Really excellent video, by the way. Worth a listen! Even for those who have already read some Newbigin and want a refresher.

(I love audio for its ability to combine so well with household chores… I focus on the chores better and enjoy the intellectual stimulation! Truly a win-win. :slight_smile: )

(John Dalton) #58

This was apparent in the information I looked at. Thanks for the tips!

It’s all a bit confusing. You said earlier that Newbigin was addressing the church specifically, and not a better government or culture. But culture does seem to be of some importance. I was wondering what specific measures, approaches or goals were in mind, but if he’s simply suggesting promoting Christianity as the underlying need, what’s the difference from anyone else promoting Christianity. There’s a strong element of anti-scientism, but that’s not anything unheard of. If it is about the public square and for Christians to have more of a voice there, then we are really talking about something for everyone and not just the church. If we’re talking about the government, I think I can make a strong case for the value of a secular approach, which has been promoted and borne out through our history. If we’re not talking about government or public institutions, I don’t see what the conflict is. I’m not advocating such a conflict or propagating it as far as I can see.

everybody seems to think they have a pretty good idea of something that ought to be worth sharing with everybody else.

Anyone who cares enough to say something about it I guess! As you say they’re not all entirely exclusive, and not sure if you are suggesting that I said so (I don’t think so but open to being corrected.) I don’t think all philosophies have equal characters though. If we’re talking about science, its empirical nature does restrict other philosophies from being considered. I don’t hold that empirical science is the only possible source of knowledge or should be the gatekeeper. But empirical facts have the characteristic of having been demonstrated to be so through an impartial and reliable process. We can say that we know such facts with a high degree of reliability. Can any other philosophies or ideas make the same claim? Scientific knowledge isn’t all knowledge, but it does have a very strong claim simply to being knowledge. I can open a book of scientific knowledge and I know what I’m getting–not to say it’s perfect, or never mistaken, or always totally impartial. Other ways of finding knowledge have much more of a hill to climb though. I’ll have to listen and assess with a much more discerning ear. If they’re strongly dependent on specific beliefs about reality, things only become more problematic–and less inclusive. I just hope everyone values human life and well-being for whatever reason really. I’ll be thinking on all of that a bit! Thanks for answering my questions and your patience.

(Mervin Bitikofer) #59

Even though I used your good responses above to respond to myself and as springboards towards my next thoughts, my sentences like the one above aren’t necessarily directed at you personally [though maybe in part they are!], but more at cultural attitudes at large. Don’t take it personally. I really do appreciate your insights and challenges.

(Mervin Bitikofer) #60

Have you read Newbigin and arrived at this conclusion from that? The reason I ask is that I just want to make sure your response isn’t based only on such small snippets of Newbigin as I’ve seen fit to provide here; in which case it might just be me (and my choices of what to share from him) rather than Newbigin himself who has “gone off the rails”. I’d be interested in hearing more. You went on to give examples from ethology (a word I had to look up before I had a clue what you were talking about). Newbigin does acknowledge that apparent purposes slip into science all the time, including but not limited to when nature is casually personified as having done things.

You went on to write:

Good points. I agree that science certainly does not make up the entirety of our culture. Would it be wrong to think it a prominent subculture? Or rather maybe a prominent and influential component of our culture at large? I’m not persuaded yet that Newbigin has missed the boat here as none of this would be surprising to him. I think we could allow that while science does not our entire culture make, it is nevertheless a significant enough influence that it is at least one of the primary drivers of intellectual culture that purports or aspires to be in leadership influence within culture at large.

That did come from Newbigin, and I’m not prepared to defend it specifically though I’d bet others here could. I just used it as the example at hand. We have many other purposes too that wouldn’t be at cross purposes with that.

Also (and this is me talking now), I don’t defend such a thing as a fact so much as a starting point … and more importantly a legitimately chosen one at that. Or, if not legitimate, then only because it can be challenged on other theological or scriptural grounds – and not because it is obliged to bow at the bar of empiricism.

Excellent question! Why indeed? This is me entering into our educational world where our most valued currency seems to be facts. But your challenge provokes me maybe to rethink Newbigin’s objection. I wonder if his objection about the split would have been mitigated or even rendered unnecessary if the culture at large didn’t seem to privilege one so much over the other. Or do you deny any such alleged privilege? Is it yet another conflict thesis that needs to be put down? I’ll have to give this some more thought.

(John Dalton) #61

Cheers, and me as well! I don’t want to be a stick in the mud or anything, but I like being here largely for that reason.

This ties in to I was saying just above. It’s a lot easier to tie down a fact than a value if you stick to the facts.