Friday, November 17, 2006

Newbigin, "The Gospel in a Pluralist Society"

Book Review

Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989)

This book is a penetrating analysis of contemporary religious pluralism. It touches many aspects on issues of the gospel, faith, tradition, culture, contextualization, and postmodernism. The one underlying theme may said to be the proclamation of the gospel in a pluralist society which is not domesticated within the assumptions of the modern thoughts, but rather challenges these assumptions and subject them under a new and critical light.

Newbigin develops his thoughts by showing why and how a Christian message can be conveyed and understood in a pluralist society. In religion, a pluralist tends to believe a transcendent is greater than a single philosophy can grasp hold of. He challenges this view by showing the claimants that they are asserting a source of knowledge on their own, establishing for themselves a point of reference which they deny to others. Newbigin also shows the common fallacies which are involved in a true pluralist view that is infiltrated with many assumptions from the Enlightenment and contemporary postmodern thought. There are accepted areas in which truth can be established, such as mathematics. He goes on to show that religion can be of this area of truth, and truth for all.

Newbigin also takes on issues of faith, reason and science. Newbigin’s engagement with Michael Polanyi and Alasdair MacIntyre treats this issue by showing how science does not have a privileged position in the discussion of what counts as public truth. From Polanyi, Newbigin deconstructs scientific knowledge by claiming that it derives as much from a faith commitment to the scientific community as theological knowledge from its own faith commitment. He argues that no one, including scientists or historians can completely stand outside the influences of their particular culture and tradition. All understanding whether religious or moral values, or scientific information involves a certain extent of faith and tradition. Science, for example, is counting on a socially embodied tradition that relies heavily on established doctrine which ultimately requires faith to function. Thus, there is no contention between faith and reason, but rather between different socially embodied traditions, and each attempt to narrate their interpretation of the world from their own rational framework. In doing this, Newbigin puts the whole issue of science and Christianity in a different light. Therefore, Christianity has no obligation to justify itself on the basis of secular reason, but rather must be seen as an alternative form of reasoning based on different presuppositions.

On the basis of this theoretical and social-scientific knowledge, as well as the exegeses of biblical passages, Newbigin contends that the best solution to the problem of a pluralistic culture is the local congregation proclaiming (rather than just defending or explaining) in word and deed the story of Jesus Christ as a story that places human, through a faith commitment in a society that witnesses to an alternative order. Since Christians believe the truth is revealed in Christ, we must form a responsible opinion about truth, committed to it passionately and publish it for all to share. Only in this way can the local congregation both display integrity, and submit one’s truth to the scrutiny of others- to be affirmed and modified. It is not hard to see how this relates to missiology. In terms of this view, gospel requires commitment and proclamation. This leads to a confirmation of its truth in various ways, or it may even lead to a revision of the Christian beliefs and practices.


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