Newbigin, Lesslie (1989) The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (London: SPCK)
In The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, Lesslie Newbigin addresses the question of how Christianity can survive in a culture that is radically pluralistic, (contemporary Britain is particularly in view) a society in which religion is relegated to the sphere of opinion or value (as opposed to ‘facts’), claims to ultimate truth or that one religion is true where others are false are treated with suspicion and hostility and doubt is lauded as far superior to belief.
The first move is to undermine several ‘myths’ of contemporary secular society which are deeply ingrained but decidedly shaky. For example, the fact-value dichotomy is false, since ‘facts’ are always interpreted. What is treated as fact is only known because of its embeddedness in a way of seeing – a plausibility structure. The modern mindset asserts the superiority of its scientific methods because it appeals to reason over and against revelation or tradition. But this, too, is a wrong move. The Christian and the modern pluralist both use reason in interpreting the data of experience, but the former’s framework of thought includes certain things (such as that God has made himself known in Christ) that the latter denies. Moreover, reason always operates out of a tradition – the modern scientific method being no exception – such that we should talk about competing traditions of rationality rather than reason vs tradition.
Newbigin argues that Christianity provides an alternative plausibility structure to pluralism (or indeed to any other dominant worldview), it does not sit comfortably with the way modern society thinks, but that is not something to be ashamed or nervous about since the modern way of thinking has cracks in its roots. The Christian worldview is rooted in the conviction that God has acted decisively in human history (“it is the story of actions by which the human situation is irreversibly changed”) and chosen a community to bear witness to those decisive events. History has a meaning, and the clue is found in the gospel of Jesus Christ. The Christian congregation is the means by which the gospel impacts society; the living out of the Christian faith – as a ‘hermeneutic of the gospel’ – will demonstrate the truth of the Christian message.
Evaluation and Questions
The Gospel in a Pluralist Society is a powerful apologetic for the Christian gospel. Its dissection of the pluralist worldview is brilliant, and its presentation of the Christian alternative of gospel-lived-out communities attractive. I like the emphasis on the events of the gospel giving us the meaning of history and therefore that our own lives in our day fit into an overarching story. There is a strong emphasis on community and on Christians living out the gospel in their secular places of work. Particularly helpful is the confidence that Newbigin gives the Church to be what we are meant to be and to not be intimidated by a hostile pluralistic culture.
However, there are also questions that arise. For example, it is not clear to me precisely how Newbigin is defining either ‘Church’ or ‘gospel’. There are many versions of Christianity: can they all be described as true manifestations of the Church, or are there limits? Given that a true church must embody and teach the gospel, the question then becomes whether there are ‘false gospels’ which in essence disqualify a group from being a true Church. Newbigin’s definition of ‘Church’ would seem to be pretty broad and ecumenical, which perhaps raises the question of how the gospel is being defined. It is something to do with the incarnation, cross, resurrection and return of Christ, but these can be understood in different ways.
A second question is whether Newbigin’s argument actually succeeds in answering the problem of choosing between alternative worldviews (plausibility structures). If the Christian and the modern pluralist worldviews provide competing visions, how is one to adjudicate between them? There is no neutral point of view from which they can be compared. Commitment to one plausibility structure, which, in turn, provides the framework for interpreting the world (and, therefore, evaluating other plausibility structures), is inevitable. How can one know which plausibility structure is true? Newbigin’s answer takes a number of angles. Firstly, we will only know the answer at the end of history. Secondly, it is possible (and, indeed vital for the Christian) to live in two worldviews. That is, it is possible to some extent to enter into the thought patterns of another worldview and hence to be able to critique it from within. Thirdly, Newbigin appeals several times to an argument from Polanyi, namely that subjectivism is avoided when we hold our beliefs (as personally committed subjects) with “universal intent” and “we express that intent by publishing them and inviting all people to consider and accept them” (126) Fourthly, the radical gospel life of the Christian congregation authenticates the message proclaimed. There are knotty epistemological and apologetical issues here, and I don’t know the answers! I wonder whether this view would be sufficient, say, to argue against the Mormon view of the world on this basis.
Thirdly, Newbigin’s views on certain issues are very different to views I have long-thought to be biblical. In particular, I have in mind election (the emphasis on the purpose of election being for mission is superb, but the polemic against the view that God chooses some and not others, I’m not sure that (a) he deals with the biblical evidence sufficiently or (b) that this point is strictly necessary for his main argument anyway) and the status of people of other faiths (basically, the Christian gospel is unique but we cannot say who will be saved in the end). It is beyond the scope of this review to explore these areas any further.
The importance of analysing and deconstructing our society’s plausibility structures. The Gospel in a Pluralist Society provides a useful starting point. As does Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands in its getting its hands dirty in the dredging up the idolatries and evil desires of the human heart. Perhaps the former helps on the corporate, social level, and the latter on the individual, heart level. The two books therefore complement each other brilliantly.
The importance of understanding the overarching story of the Bible, and one’s place in it. In other words, having a Christian interpretation of history and the world. This understanding is rooted in the gospel. This story (in the words of Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands) gives us our identity, purpose and sense of direction.
The importance of living out the gospel in the world. The following quotes are brilliant, in relation to the Christian in his day-to-day and the role of the Christian minister: “the major impact of such congregations on the life of society as a whole is through the daily work of the members in their secular vocations…” (234-5) “The priestly people [in secular vocations] needs a ministering priesthood to sustain and nourish it… we set apart a man or woman to a ministerial priesthood not in order to take away the priesthood of the whole body but to enable it.” (235)
The need for courage in the Christian minister. There is a particularly powerful picture painted at the end of chapter 19 (in relation to Christian teaching) of Jesus “going ahead of his disciples, like a commander leading troops into battle. The words he speaks are thrown back over his shoulder at fearful and faltering followers. He is not like a general who sits at headquarters and sends his troops into battle. He goes at their head and takes the brunt of the enemy attack. He enables and encourages them by leading them, not just by telling them. In this picture, the words of Jesus have a quite different force. They all find their meaning in their central keyword, ‘Follow me’.” (240)