Monday, February 8, 2010

More about Newbigin

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.


  1. The same friend that commented a couple of times on the previous Newbigin post wrote again (by e-mail). He said,

    "Newbigin's tipping of the hat to Harvey Cox's 'The Secular City' and to secularization may have fit the secular sixties, but Cox himself would consider it passe today. Secularization probably did some good in certain cultures, but it also left some massive problems. Thomas Merton gave a more balanced assessment in many of his writings at the same time, particularly 'Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander' (also 1966)."

    In my response to him, I wrote the following:

    I am well aware that from the 1980s on Cox wrote a lot more about religion than he did about secularization. I don't know that he changed his mind about what he wrote about the process of secularization, though. He just had to acknowledge that religion remained a lot stronger than he had thought it would when he wrote in the 1960s.

    As for the problems, I am not sure the extent that those are caused by secularization, or whether they are due to secularism, which is quite different. The benefits of secularization in India that Newbigin listed were extensive, it seems to me. But the loss of religious faith can certainly cause a lot of problems in any society, and certainly neither Newbigin or I would deny the great importance of faith.

    I have read Merton some, but I have not read the book you referred to, so I can't make any comments on what he wrote there. But I think, in general, I still have to agree that to the extent that secularization means freedom from religious control, which is how Cox and Newbigin wrote about it, that has to be looked on as something positive. As I wrote in yesterday's blog posting, it seems to me that the Hindu religion hindered work for social justice in India, and through the centuries the state church, be it Roman Catholic, Anglican, or Lutheran, or any other, has often been a hindrance to human freedom and justice in European countries.

    As a staunch advocate of the free church tradition, I want the state to be secular in the sense of guaranteeing freedom of religion for all, and I want faith communities to be free to express their faith without government control or even interference. That is what is possible in countries that are secularized and not, as a rule, possible in countries that are controlled by a religion.

  2. I happened to just read an article touching on both Gandhi and secularization. "The Grinch Who Stole Valentine's Day" is in the February/March issue of Free Inquiry, which, I should point out, is published by the Council for Secular Humanism.

    This article laid much of the blame for the violent rupture of India and Pakistan on Gandhi. The Muslim leader in India, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, initially supported a unified secular India, but broke with Gandhi after being shouted down by a Hindu mob in 1920, when Jinnah referred to Gandhi as "Mr. Gandhi" rather than as "Great Soul." As the Hindu portion of the independence movement became a heavily religious movement, the Muslims feared to follow it.

    The author, Luis Granados, drove home the point by highlighting Gandhi's odd sexual views (even by historic Hindu standards), which lead him to have his highest respect for Islam exactly in its extreme puritanism. Ironically, Gandhi's Muslim counterpart was far more secular than he.

    Contemplating the vast loss of life in the rupture of newly freed India, and the decades of hostile confrontation since, India stands as a clear warning of the price to be paid for not finding a way for different faith communities to live together in mutual respect and security. Of course, it does not stand alone. The history of religious warfare is almost synonymous with the history of warfare.

    Perhaps we should learn from Jesus, who focused on his fellow Jews, but freely reached out to, and even healed, Romans, Greeks and even a Canaanite. Jesus found neighbors in Samaritans. Jesus wove references to other religions into his teachings. (Who were those Boanergies, The Sons of Thunder? Jesus nicknamed two of his disciples after Ergies, the Titan, who kept the thunderbolts for Zeus.) Come to think of it, if Jesus came back today, the people he would probably have the most trouble with would be the ones called "Christians!"

  3. Just two comments on LKS's recent post about Newbigin, none of whose works I've read. So my comments are more tangential than central. First, regarding the use of "isms:" if we've learned anything from linguists it is that meanings of words are not inherent to the words themselves. Thus one very important biblical theologian, recently deceased, James Barr, made his name arguing against the likes of Thorlief Bowman (and the biblical theology movement generally) that it is usage and context that governs meanings of words, biblical words especially. (Humpty Dumpty said as much to Alice in her wandering through the looking glass.) Calvinism is not necessarily an ideology; rather, it is a doctrine and only becomes ideological when it is accompanied by political power in some form. Alcoholism is certainly not an ideology, but a disease. I do not think that LKS is embracing an ideology if he uses the word absolutism when he wants to advocate absolutes. Nor, for that matter, do I think that a person is asserting an ideology when she uses the term agapism to advocate the doctrine of Christian love. The meanings of words do not derive from the words or their etymologies themselves. Usage and intent are at least partial keys to be considered, and I would venture that meaning is far more complex than even those. Thus, I think the supposed distinctions between pluralism and plurality are just that: distinctions without any necessary difference.

    Now, as to the claim that the Old Testament clearly offers a worldview based upon history instead of nature, I would be very cautious. First, biblical scholarship in the 1960s (that's as far as I can go back) showed that, whatever historicism is in the Bible, it is not unique to the ancient Hebrews. Other Ancient Near Eastern peoples have notions of history that appear in their literatures, too. Second, it is also clear that the cultus of the ancient Hebrews knew and practiced the cyclicalism that inhered in nature's processes. The agricultural seasons, both by lunar and solar reckonings, did shape the rituals of the cultus. For instance, Psalm scholars continue to suspect that a new year royal enthronement ceremony of the sort known in ancient Babylon, the Akitu festival, stands behind the enthronement psalms. More importantly, by what criterion would contemporary readers of the Bible decide that nature's processes were less important than some sense of teliology or eschatology, so-called historicizing tendencies of the Hebrew scriptures? That's never very clear from the supporters of "historical," or "linear" ways of thinking about biblical reality.

  4. I appreciate MPH's comments, as always, although we sharing differing views or understandings about many things.

    I am certainly not an Old Testament or Hebrew Bible scholar as he is, but I did, years ago, spend a fair amount of time studying what then was called "Old Testament Theology." And I remember quite well studying about the tension between the prophets and the priests who were central to the cultus.

    It seems to me that that tension was due, at least in part, to the clash between a worldview that tended to be based on nature on the part of the priests and a worldview that was definitely based on historical consciousness on the part of the prophets.

    Even though Jesus is sometimes referred to as prophet, priest, and king, it seems to me that his prophetic role was certainly stronger than his priestly role, especially when the priestly role is particularly linked to the cultus.

  5. The same Thinking Friend who made the first comments posted above wrote another e-mail with a quite long explanation of Thomas Merton's criticism of secularization. He begins,

    "When I first read The Secular City, I had serious questions about some of its features that Harvey Cox celebrated, for example, anonymity. Being nobody and suffering from loneliness are not healthy for humans.

    "Thomas Merton didn't comment on Harvey Cox, but he did respond to John A. T. Robinson's Honest to God, which projected similar praise for secularization. He cited Robinson's observation that to be Christian means 'to live for others' and 'to live for others means to accept life on their terms, to serve within the structures in which they live.' Merton responded: 'But the great question is: Precisely what is meant by "accepting life on their terms?" What are "their terms?"' It surely does not mean accepting the Communist world view 'on its own terms' or, as in Bonhoeffer's case, accepting Nazism 'on its own terms.'

    And then he ends his comments with these words:

    "Secularization is not limited to separation of church and state."

    Briefly, I will just say that of course secularization includes a lot more than separation of church and state, but it does include that and that inclusion is quite important.

    There are both good and bad components in almost everything, including religion. Certainly there are many negative aspects in secularization, but it seem to me that the beneficial parts of secularization need to be recognized as well as the negative parts. And especially in societies where religion is oppressive, as Christianity has often been in Western societies, the benefits of secularization are substantial.