Lesslie Newbigin

The Gospel in a Culture of False Gods

Andrew Walker interviewed Bishop Lesslie Newbigin in 1988. The following is an extract from the full interview, which was published in the book, Different Gospels.

WALKER: Bishop Newbigin, in recent years you have turned your attention particularly to problems of Western culture. Would it be correct to say that you think that advanced Western industrial societies took a wrong turn with the Enlightenment?

NEWBIGIN: I became involved in these questions basically because I was a foreign missionary in India and have been through the experience of seeking, as an Englishman, to communicate the gospel across the cultural divide that separates our countries. And therefore I have had to reflect about the way that one communicates the gospel in a culture whose presuppositions simply make it incredible.

Having spent most of my working life in India and then come back, I have discovered – in a way, to my own astonishment – that one faces the same problem here, and that one is again in a culture where, when you attempt to communicate the gospel, you are going completely against the stream.

What has troubled me greatly is that the response of the churches on the whole has been so timid – that there is a tendency to feel that when somebody says, 'But I can't believe that!', then you hoist the white flag and say, 'Well, of course we can't expect you to!' As a foreign missionary, on the other hand, one is accustomed to the situation where you know that what you're saying runs counter to the dominant culture, but nevertheless you have to say it.

WALKER: Let me be clear about this: are you saying, in effect, that when you came back to 'the mother country' that sent you out to mission 'the heathen,' that you came back to a land of heathens?

NEWBIGIN: Well, yes, in a sense. By which I mean that I had been accustomed, like all of us in the 1960s, to talking about the secular society and its great values and so on. I was to a considerable extent conned by the dominant theology of the 1960s and thought that secularity was one of God's great gifts – and there is a real truth in that. But it didn't take long to discover that we are really not in a secular society, but in a pagan society – not in a society which has no gods, but a society which has false gods. I came to feel that more and more.

WALKER: If you think, then, that we're in a society that has false gods as opposed to no gods, what are these false gods?

NEWBIGIN: Well, very obviously, at a superficial level they are money, sex, prestige, power – all those things. But at a more fundamental level, I think there hides a concept of reality which is supposed to be beyond question. As you know, the sociologists like Peter Berger talk about 'plausibility structures'. In any society there is a plausibility structure – things within that are immediately believed; things that contradict it are simply not believed.

Now we have a plausibility structure which, broadly speaking, is the result of the whole immense shift of thought that took place at the Enlightenment, with all its positive elements. But what people fail to see, of course – and one does fail to see it if one has never moved outside of it – is that every plausibility structure rests upon faith commitments.

What I find so difficult is that we're in a society here where if you make statements which are within that plausibility structure, you're OK – no questions are asked, you can say what you like. But if you make, for example, a Christian statement, then that's not acceptable in public life – it's not acceptable in politics, it's not acceptable in the university essay – because that represents a particular faith commitment and therefore it is ruled out… omitting to note that our accepted plausibility structure also rests on faith commitments.

What I feel, and have felt, is the need to encourage my fellow churchmen to be less timid in challenging the plausibility structure that dominates our society, to be ready to say, 'Yes, what I'm saying rests upon other faith commitments, but that doesn't make it untrue.'

WALKER: Well, let's take this up, then. What are these faith commitments?

NEWBIGIN: I think it is the belief that the scientific method – which has been so enormously fruitful for human life – is the only reliable way of understanding the total human situation. That's what I think one has to challenge.

The difficulty I feel is that when Christians are unwilling to challenge that, then the gospel becomes either (a) just something that is helpful – you know, 'It helps me in my personal life'; or (b) something which degenerates into mere moralism – 'This is what you ought to do' – so that preaching becomes either telling people what they ought to do, or lambasting people because of what they do do; or (c) something which just offers people some kind of personal 'spiritual' consolation, but does not challenge people's understanding of what is the real world they have to deal with.

WALKER: I know that Jim Packer has sometimes used the phrase 'scaled-down Christianities', by which he seems to mean that we cut our gospel down to fit the secular climate in which we find ourselves. Is that what you think is the most negative aspect of modern Christianity?

NEWBIGIN: Yes. And you see this is the kind of issue that one faced in trying to communicate the gospel in India. You obviously had to take seriously the whole Hindu worldview, with its great elements of rationality and strength, which I found enormously impressive. In that kind of situation you have to ask yourself, not 'How can we fit the gospel into this?', but, 'At what points does the gospel illuminate this, at what points does it question it, at what points does it contradict it?'

But one has to express those things in a way which the listening Hindu will recognise as his own language. That's the crucial thing. And that I think was the difficulty, because if you're going to use another language, you're at least provisionally accepting the way of understanding the world which that language embodies, and you therefore have to commit yourself to the other worldview, at least up to that point – but in order to challenge it.

WALKER: How do you answer people when they say to you, 'Why, Bishop Newbigin, do you believe in the incarnation and the resurrection of Christ?' I mean, how would you suggest to a modern world that such a belief is credible?

NEWBIGIN: Well, ultimately, of course (and here we see my Reformed background), I come to the doctrine of election. I mean that by his mysterious grace God took hold of me, an unbelieving, pondering person, and put me in a position where the reality of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, became for me the one clue that I could follow in making sense of a very perplexing world.

The test, of course, can only come at the end. I would want to claim that that clue ultimately gives one a kind of rationality that is more inclusive of the whole of human experience than the real, though limited, rationality of the reductionist and rationalist scientific point of view. But at the end of the day, we have to wait for the day of judgment. There is an element of risk, there is an element of commitment involved, where you don't pretend to have something – that is, if there were some way by which I could prove the authority of Jesus Christ from outside, then that would be my authority and not Jesus Christ. I can only point to him.

WALKER: Given that you can point to him, do you think it reasonable or unreasonable to suggest that to be a Christian does involve some minimal amount of beliefs?

NEWBIGIN: Oh yes, surely it does.

WALKER: I mean, if somebody was to come here, put you into a corner and say, 'Now look here Bishop, what have you got to believe to be a believing Christian?', what would you say were the basics?

NEWBIGIN: I would simply say, 'Jesus Christ, the final and determinative centre around which everything else is understood.' If that is there, I am not enthusiastic about drawing exact boundaries. I think you can define an entity by its boundaries or by its centre. I think that Christianity is an entity defined by its centre. So provided a person is, as it were, 'looking to Jesus', and seeing him as the central, decisive, determinative reality in relation to which all else is to be understood, then even if his ideas are weird or off-beat, I would regard him as a brother in Christ.

But once you start trying to define Christianity by its boundaries, you'll always come up against some kind of legalism. You know: 'Has he been baptised? Has he been confirmed? Was the bishop who confirmed him in the right apostolic succession?' and so forth. Or: 'Has he had the right kind of religious experience? Was his conversion datable? Did he have those kinds of feelings at that time?' and so on. You always finish up with some kind of legalism, whereas I think Christianity is to be defined by its centre.

WALKER: If we're going to define Christianity by its centre, in what ways can you say that Jesus Christ is still 'good news for modern man'?

NEWBIGIN: Because death is conquerable; because the crucified is risen; because not just anyone rose from the dead, but this one who went down to the very depths of the human situation; because he is raised. I see Christianity as a kind of fall-out from an original explosion of joy. But of course you don't just communicate it simply by arguments. It's an existential reality present in a believing, worshipping community, and the only ultimate hermeneutic for the gospel is a believing community.

WALKER: What are your hopes for the future as far as the Church is concerned? What do you look for generally and hope for as the way forward?

NEWBIGIN: You may think that I'm evading your question, but I do believe fundamentally that the horizon for the Christian is not some prospect, some bit of futurology – either for his own personal life or for the life of his society. The horizon for the Christian is 'He shall come again' and 'We look for the coming of the Lord.' It can be tomorrow or any time, but that's the horizon. That horizon is for me fundamental, and that's what makes it possible to be hopeful and therefore to find life meaningful.

As regards what we can in our fallible human guesswork anticipate, I don't know. The one thing that strikes me about all the futurological essays one reads is that after ten years we realise that they were wrong. Our capacity to forecast the future is very limited. All I can say is that one sees signs of hope, one sees signs of growth. I often liken the Church to a bush that's been very hard pruned: I think there are buds, and though they are very small I think they are signs of hope.

Extracted from Andrew Walker's book, Different Gospels: Christian Orthodody and Modern Theologies (Hodder & Stoughton, 1988).

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