The posting on Feb. 1 was “In Praise of Lesslie Newbigin,” but there is much more I would like to share about this British missionary who spent nearly forty years in India. At this time I will just share two or three quotes about Newbigin’s ideas on secularization and social change in India.
In Honest Religion for Secular Man (1966), Newbigin writes about how Indian society has changed, largely for the better, through the process of secularization. He gives these examples: “the abolition of untouchability, of the dowry system, of temple prostitution, the spread of education and medical service, and so on” (p. 17). And he contends that secularization, which must be clearly distinguished from secularism, has roots in the Judeo-Christian faith.
Along with Harvey Cox (The Secular City, 1965), Newbigin sees secularization as being rooted in what both he and Cox refers to as the desacralizing or desacralization of nature. “The freedom to make revolutionary changes . . . came along with liberation from bondage to the sacral powers presiding over the natural world” (p. 33). The Old Testament clearly presents a worldview based on history rather than on nature, and that worldview is partly responsible for the rise of secularization.
In two previous postings I wrote about the difference between cyclical and linear worldviews. Similarly, in Honest Religion Newbigin says that in India the traditional religious view is a “cyclical, non-historic, way of thinking” that seeks an escape from history. Such views are challenged by “the idea of God’s acts in fulfillment of his purpose—in other words, by a linear way of thinking about the world of change” (p. 50).
In direct connection with that assertion, Newbigin wrote in The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (1989), “For centuries Orthodox Hindus believed that the miserable condition of the outcastes or untouchable communities was the result of the sins of their previous birth [karma] and that it was therefore part of the cosmic order not to be interfered with. By common consent the preaching of missionaries among these communities was one of the major factors, if not the decisive factor, in bringing about the change of view which has led to legislation . . . to give them justice” (pp. 158-9).
It is widely known, of course, that many of the social changes in twentieth century India were because of the work of Gandhi, a man for whom I have long held great admiration. It also has to be recognized that Gandhi was, and remained, a Hindu. But there is ample reason to believe that most of what he accomplished in terms of social justice for the people of India was in spite of his Hindu faith rather than because of it.