In a previous post on Lesslie Newbigin, I reflected on his now out of print book, Foolishness to the Greeks. In this blog I’d like to put together the powerful influences that converge in his updating of Foolishness in his newer book, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society.
I see three major influences that converge in this book that give rise to the challenge Newbigin offers to the Church and to local churches. Overall I will say this about Newbigin’s book: it has lots to say but it is not the finest or the easiest prose to read. But, he is surely worthy of reading.
First, Newbigin has been influenced by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s famous The Social Construction of Reality. From Berger-Luckmann, Newbigin contends that human knowledge is socially-constructed, culturally-embedded, and historically-shaped — and this all means that even the Christian faith is articulated with the same limitations. (Newbigin is unafraid to speak of truth; he is unafraid to make powerful claims for the gospel.) Newbigin also uses Berger for the problem of privatizing faith, which Newbigin sees as an outgrowth of the scientific knowledge system as neutral, objective, and therefore capable of sustaining discourse in a pluralistic society. Newbigin will have nothing of a privatized faith.
Second, Newbigin has been influenced by Alisdair Macintyre’s Whose Justice? Whose Rationality? and his After Virtue. From Macintyre, who permits Newbigin to deepen the Berger-Luckmann issue of the social construction of knowledge by deconstructing moral claims in our secular society as power plays, Newbigin turns his attention toward the secularization of society.
He does more than this with both, but these are very important to Newbigin.
Third, Newbigin has been influenced by Michael Polanyi’s famous book, Personal Knowledge. From Polanyi, Newbigin deconstructs scientific knowledge by claiming that is derives as much from a faith commitment to the scientific community as theological knowledge derives from its own faith commitment. Long ago, Royce Gordon Gruenler, in his New Approaches to Jesus and the Gospels, made a similar usage of Polanyi.
On the basis of this three-fold absorption of theoretical and social-scientific knowledge, and on the basis of some nicely executed exegeses of biblical passages, Newbigin contends that the best solution to the problem of a pluralistic culture is the local congregation proclaiming (rather than simply rationally explaining or defending) in word and deed the story of Jesus Christ as a story that places humans, through a faith commitment, in an alternative society that witnesses to an alternative order.
The task of the local congregation is to perform and proclaim the gospel. Newbigin meshes quite nicely with the concerns of the Emerging movement; in fact, he spawned some its ideas and practices.
There is plenty to quote here, and I can’t in this space, but I hope this gets some to take a good look at Newbigin’s book. I’m now on to his Proper Confidence.