Monday, February 1, 2010

In Praise of Lesslie Newbigin

In the Jan. 8 posting on this blog, I made reference to the prevalent worldview of India. I do not know a lot about India, and, unfortunately, nothing from first-hand knowledge; I have long had the desire to go to India, but have not yet (and may never have) the opportunity to do so. But I have read rather extensively about India and the religions of India, and through the years I have been an appreciative reader of one who spent nearly four decades in India.
Lesslie Newbigin was born in northern England on December 8, 1909, so this past December there was some recognition in the media about the centennial observance of his birth. After completing his education at Cambridge University, he was ordained by the Church of Scotland in 1936 and sent as a missionary to Madras, now Chennai, the fifth largest city in India. In 1947 he became one of the first bishops in the newly formed Church of South India.
After serving a few years as the Executive Secretary of the International Missionary Council, Newbigin went back to India and continued to serve there until his retirement in 1974. But after returning to Great Britain, he continued an active life of teaching and writing. An article about him in the January 2010 issue of Christianity Today is titled, “The Missionary Who Wouldn’t Retire.” He had years of meaningful ministry back in England before his death in 1998.
I am particularly fond of Newbigin because of his book Honest Religion for Secular Man (1966), which I read during my first year in Japan, in late 1966 or early 1967. Since then I have profited from other books written by Newbigin, particularly The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (1989), which I have just finished for the second time.
In my Jan. 22 posting, I wrote about contextual theology. That is the subject of the twelfth chapter of Newbigin’s 1989 book, in which he writes, “True contextualization accords to the gospel its rightful primacy, its power to penetrate every culture and to speak within each culture, in its own speech and symbol, the word which is both No and Yes, both judgment and grace” (p. 152).
And then last fall, there was some discussion on this blog about religious pluralism. In that regard, I am in full agreement with Newbigin who contends that “we must reject the ideology of pluralism. We must reject the invitation to live in a society where everything is subjective and relative, a society which has abandoned the belief that truth can be known and has settled for a purely subjective view of truth” (p. 244 of the same book).
I have a list of the ten philosophers/theologians I have been most influenced by and most appreciative of. Newbigin is on that list, so I am happy to share this posting with you, in praise of Lesslie Newbigin.

Here is a 1996 picture of Newbigin: 


  1. As I've mentioned on other occasions, the most violent, virulent campaigns undertaken by groups of people against others have been justified/rationalized by an absolute truth held by the oppressor and imposed upon the oppressed. Absolutism necessitates violence/oppression/injustice, and the two, absolutism and violence, are intertwined (inextricably linked). Mr. Newbigin should've known all too well the damage done by imperialism, from which imperialism he benefitted. It is not surprising that Christians historically have asserted the "truth" of their faith, while asserting their power over others, as, again, this is the justification that supported imperialism and conquest during the last several centuries.

    With respect to "contextual theology," the Bible itself is written in a certain social, historical, cultural context, so making universal claims based on stories first spoken then written from a particular context contravenes the contextualism referenced above. Outsiders imposing a Gospel taken from a particular context upon a people or group unfamiliar with the context (as it is not there own) is not contextual theology. Newbigin, being not of or from India, could never fully appreciate true contextual theology. Contextual theology is grass-roots and indigenous.

    I'd suggest, as noted in a book entitled "Post-Colonial Reconfigurations: An Alternative Way of Reading the Bible and Doing Theology," by R.S. Sugirtharajah, that we undertake "contrapuntal reading" and read the experiences of the exploited and the exploiter together, as we Westerners too often read from a very white and male perspective, even when reading materials related to other cultures. For instance, with respect to missions in India, as noted by Sugirtharajah, "it is no coincidence that the founding of...missionary societies took place contemporaneously with the activities of trading companies like the East India Company and the Dutch East India Company (pg. 24). As noted in the book, "once the impediment to missionary work was removed, the missionaries themselves became willing supporters of commercial expansion."(id.) One missionary said, "let European literature be transfused into all her (Indian) languages, then the ocean from the ports of Britain to India will be covered with our merchant vessels..." (id.), and another wrote "trade shall be a vehicle for mission." (id.)

    Referencing William Carey's mission specifically, the book notes "Carey had miserably failed from raising his voice against European political and economic oppression in India...Carey's unwillingness to speak against the political and economic evils of the colonial government had missional and monetary aims."(Pg. 27). According to the author, the "missionary import of the Matthaean and Lukan texts" was made to serve the political and commercial interests of the West." (id)

    When addressing the issue of what is good theology for other peoples, I'll leave it to the other peoples to make that determination.

  2. Chris, thanks for writing, as always.

    There is much I would like to respond to, but at this point let me just say that I think you ought to read Newbigin before you criticize him. Also, it is not fair to criticize him because of the mistakes of missionaries who went to India more than a century before he did.

    I think you would find much you would agree with (as well as some things you would not) in Newbigin's books. For example, in the book I quoted above, he points out how "missionary impact was flawed by a kind of individualism which failed to do justice to elements of value in the tradition, namely the sense of mutual responsibility in the extended family" (p. 187).

  3. One thing I have learned from Leslie Newbegin is his wise attitude towards various kind of -ism (exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism): OPEN PARTICULARIST, which is:

    Pluralist on cultures;
    Inclusivist on church;
    Exclusivist on faith.

    Based on this and in the light of Jesus' attitude towards the Samaritan woman in the Gospel of John chapter 4, I'd also like to propose the fourth best -ism and attitude among the above other three: an evangelical dialogue, which stresses upon local religious language and emphatical care for other group people of faith. (Taken partly from my recent book entitled: Well-water Theology (Indonesian: Teologi Air Sumur).

  4. Yesterday, one of my Thinking Friends tried, unsuccessfully, to post his comments, which were basically "acknowledgement of those who have done well with a contextualized gospel (like Canadian missionary Don Richardson), and those who have stumbled by holding to their version too closely (like the Jesuits in China and Burma)."

    He concluded his e-mail to me with this statement: "The good news was and is for the nations."

  5. Dr. Ichwei Indra, who made comments above, was one of my Asia Baptist Graduate Theological Seminary students, and he is now a seminary professor in Indonesia, the country with the most Muslims in the world.

    He is Indonesian, so I would encourage you Americans/Canadians to note what he says about contextual theology and about Newbigin.

  6. I was very happy to receive an e-mail from my good friend Dr. Glen Davis, who was for many years a Presbyterian missionary working with Koreans in Japan and who is now a professor at the Vancouver School of Theology. In part, he wrote,

    "It was a treat to read your tribute to Lesslie Newbigin. He has influenced my thinking on mission for several decades, and just this week I assigned some readings from his work to a student who is doing a reading course with me. Newbigin has a firm grasp of the gospel in all of its implications for culture and society and his work is still relevant as we struggle to be faithful to God’s mission in a post-Christendom world."

  7. Another Thinking Friend wrote, "Does pluralism have an 'ideology'? It seems to me to be more the way things are in our world, including the United States."

    I have previously made a distinction between "plurality" and "pluralism," and I think that distinction is important. In "The Gospel in a Pluralist Society," Newbigin makes that same distinction (on pp. 1 and 14; maybe that is where my idea came from).

    He distinguished the "fact of plurality" from "an ideology of pluralism." I agree, pluralism may not be an ideology the way some people use the term, but it definitely is, I think, the way it is often used.

    The distinction between plurality and pluralism is also made by Peter Berger and Anton Zijderveld in their excellent book "In Praise of Doubt" (see especially pp. 7-12).

  8. An area pastor sent an e-mail with this message:

    "Just to clarify--Newbigin's rejection of pluralism would put him at odds with people who are involved in what is generally known as interfaith work?"

    It depends on what is meant by "interfaith work," but Newbigin engaged in extensive interfaith dialog. In "The Gospel in a Pluralist Society" he wrote, "When I was a young missionary I used to spend one evening each week in the monastery of the Ramakrisna Mission in the town where I lived, sitting on the floor with the monks and studying with them the Upanishads and the Gospels" (p. 3).

    I agree with Newbigin's rejection of pluralism, and for years I was part of an interfaith discussion group in Japan; I was also the leader of that group for a few years. Most of the members were Buddhist and Shinto priests and scholars, and we had many fruitful discussions.

  9. “Truth can be known.” Since Newbigin was a missionary, I assume he was talking about religious truth. While I am sure he did many great things as a missionary and had a lot to say as an author, how could he “know” the truth? I have always thought you could think what you believe is true, but how do you build up enough confidence to know the truth?

    While this may not apply to Newbigin, I think what Chris and I are reacting to is people who “know” the truth tend to act on it. I have always wondered what they will do if/when they get to heaven, and they find people there that they had told could not get there. Would they just be embarrassed or so upset they refuse to enter?

    I admit I have doubts. My faith may not be strong enough, which impacts my thinking. On the other hand, I am completely confident that my life’s work, at least to this point, does not compare well with the best work from other Christians, Muslims, Hindus, atheists, etc.

  10. Truth means different things in different contexts. For instance, in a work of fiction, we still talk about truth or falsity, but not in the context of whether it is historically literally true, for we started with an admitted fiction. The truth of the fiction is in how well it illuminates the human condition, and its consequences.

    The great myths of various religions are subject to a similar analysis. Does a particular story help our human understanding? Or does it merely reflect some half-forgotten political agenda? The 1963 Baptist Faith and Message listed Jesus Christ as the criterion by which to evaluate the messages of the Bible. On this basis, for instance, the ancient holiness codes were seen as cultural artifacts of no great significance. On the other hand, the current Message dropped that standard, in effect rendering all verses of Bible equal.

    On an interfaith level, we can find and celebrate similarities among various faith traditions. However, just as divine discontent stirs prophetically within individual traditions, so some room must be allowed for interaction between traditions. On the same line, interaction with modern empirical science must find a place as well, if science is not to be forced into the role of an alien power. A very great alien power.

    Some of the challenges all faith traditions grapple with in various ways at this time are the roles of women, homosexuals, the environment, capitalism, and systemic scientific concepts such as gravity and evolution. What exactly constitutes true truth is not always obvious in these cases, yet it hardly seems the case that there would be total relativity in such matters. There would, however, seem to be certain diplomatic protocols, not to mention good graces, that keep us all humbly listening and learning most of the time. And helping the poor most of the rest.

  11. A fascinating series of posts are here on Newbigin. I can only muse that if having read a thinker were really a strict prerequisite for commenting (many times thoughtfully) on that thinker's works, college professors would be out of work. In fact, most people make judgments about the Bible all the time without having read it, or read it fully. That said, I have not read any of Newbigin, but have heard many of my teachers and friends speak in praise of his work in India.

    Now was there ever a more pluralist religion than Hinduism? If there was, I don't know it. And, I'm just enough of a doubter to suspect that Newbigin's own opposition to pluralism was motivated as much by 40 years of work in that context trying to share a perspective that had for millenia been interpreted as anti-pluralistic (or absolutist). Of course, many lines of contemporary understanding of biblical origins indicate the pluralistic context out of which the biblical literature emerged, and that with the intent of promoting and preserving a kind of rigid, absolutist political agenda (e.g., Ezra, Nehemiah). But, to be simplistic, if the preservation of four Gospels in the NT as a response to the single-minded rigidity of Marcionism might be evidence of an earlier generation's openness to pluralism, why is pluralism so difficult for contemporary Christians--including Newbigin in his day--so objectionable to us? Might it be that by rejecting pluralism we are staking our lives on such a small patch of intellectual turf as to miss the real banquet of ideas intended for us from the beginning.

  12. The same Thinking Friend to whom I responded above at 7:31 on Feb. 2 wrote back (by e-mail), and here is what he said and my response to him:

    "I don't want to press the issue, Leroy, but 'plurality' is used more in the United States in a political sense and not in the way Newbigin wanted to use it. Have you read A New Religious America by Diana Eck? She makes a good case for learning to live with the fact that we have become 'the world's most religiously diverse nation.' Facing reality here seems very important. Taking an absolutist stance doesn't seem to me the way to do so."

    My response:

    While it is true that plurality may be used more in a political sense than in a religious one, I think it can and should be used with reference to religions as well as for other aspects of society. And certainly Peter Berger (with his co-author) uses plurality with reference to religion in "In Praise of Doubt" (2009).

    I know well of Diana Eck and her work, but, unfortunately, I have not yet read her book. I don't doubt for a minute that her claim that the U.S. has become "the world's most religiously diverse nation" is true. But that is a statement about plurality, which is certainly a reality in American society. And that, I think, is quite different from pluralism, which, as Berger writes, can be, and I would say often is now, "expanded into a full-blown philosophy" (p. 7).

    I also reiterate that I reject absolutism along with pluralism and relativism.

  13. The area pastor (and Thinking Friend) to whom I responded at 7:44 on Feb. 2 also wrote back (by e-mail). Here is what he wrote and my response:

    "OK--what I am hearing here is that LN and you would favor interfaith dialogue but reject the idea of a blending of faith traditions/ teaching--correct?

    "Would LN have said that Christian Faith/ Christ is the sole path to truth/salvation as opposed to Hinduism etc?"

    My response:

    Yes, it is correct to say that LN was very positive toward interfaith dialogue, but he was not in favor of syncretism, blending faith traditions. That does not mean, though, that there is no room for learning from each other. This is my position also.

    I don't think that LN would have said that Christian faith / Christ is the sole path to truth/salvation, and I do not espouse that position. But it must also be recognized that the Hindu understanding of what constitutes salvation differs greatly from the Christian view of salvation.

  14. Here are some other thoughtful comments I received by e-mail:

    "Newbigin would have been a good man to have in serious discussions with Walter Cardinal Kasper and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. It is still my firm hope and prayer that the Church (universal) can settle on a framework around the early creeds to reunite – a platform for humility, repentance and forgiveness progressing into evangelism and just service.

    "The Story of Truth and redemption does seem to be God’s plan for the nations from the beginning. Many Christians miss the early covenants, and how they can be used in contextual building of the national Church. The early Church was contextual in its various settings (and approved of by the ecumenical Councils – obviously, they included all those bishops) - as I cloudedly see Jewish, Arab, north African, west African, east African, Indian, Turk, Greek, Roman, Iberian, Gaul (east & west), and northern European. About all the Apostles missed were east Asia, southern Africa, the Americas, and the remote islands."