The Gospel in a pluralist society – Lesslie Newbigin

Maybe some of us hear the word Postmodernism and we immediately think “liberal heretics!” 

The Gospel in a pluralistic society by Lesslie Newbigin is articulated around three main concepts:

  • From pluralism to the choice of one possible truth
  • The gospel as plausible structure
  • The impact of the gospel in the society

Lesslie Newbigin starts defining the roots of pluralism and how the western societies came to accept pluralism or “the truth for me.” He explains that we separate “facts” (public knowledge to be recognized as true by all) from “values” (personal beliefs which cannot be imposed to all – true for me only). What we usually consider a fact is determined by science, whereas a value does not have “rational” ground.

However, the author describes science to be as irrational as any system of beliefs (ex: religion) since all scientific demonstrations start with faith in what seems evident and logical. A scientist emits a hypothesis rising from what seems true to him. Newbigin’s intention is not to prove science to be illogical, but to prove that religion is not as irrational as some claim it. In other words, the boundary between facts and values is not as well defined as we commonly believe. We simply do not realize it because we are framed in a “plausibility structure” defined by the community we belong to. This proposition seems to open the door to relativism (i.e. any belief is true), but the author refutes it and claims the existence of an absolute truth. In fact, if there was no absolute truth, then nothing would actually exist.

So why choosing Christianity as absolute truth? Well, I like Newbigin’s answer, and I cannot find any better: We did not choose, but God chose us as the bearer of his truth, which was revealed and stands as universal history. According to Newbigin, the Bible gives meaning to history: where we are from, who we are and where we are going to. Unfortunately, modern history hardly considers those questions relevant, and if answers there are, they offer nothing else than meaninglessness and purposelessness, leading to a hopeless society. Indeed, what are those answers apart from: we are the result of a random process called ‘evolution,’ therefore we are not much more than cells, and our purpose is to survive through passing genes and escape the extinction of our species?

That is where the Gospel can impact our society. Before Christ, mankind was waiting for the coming of the kingdom of God, and now is the time when the kingdom is near but not completely revealed. We are waiting for the full revelation of it (hope for our future) while accomplishing the purpose of God which is to spread the good news to all.

“The gospel calls us back again and again to the real clue, the crucified and risen Jesus, so that we learn that the meaning of history is not immanent in history itself, that history cannot find its meaning at the end of a process of development, but that history is given its meaning by what God has done in Jesus Christ and by what he has promised to do; and that the true horizon is not the successful end of our projects but in his coming to reign” (p.126).

Now the foundation is set to explain how the Gospel can impact the society. The church has three means of outreach: deeds (ex: social justice), words (explanation of the Gospel) and common life (transformed behavior). It is important to understand that Christians are witnesses pointing to Christ: presenting, defending, questioning for the Gospel, but not convincing. The Holy Spirit alone can convince and turn a heart upside down.

The author goes on talking about the problem of contextualization of the Gospel or the confrontation of the Gospel to diverse cultures. He states:

“The question of contextualization is the question about how the gospel comes alive in particular contexts” (ch 12 – contextualization: true and false, p 152).

By “coming alive”, he means “A new Lord is in control” (p153). In the past, evangelization fell into two extremes. First, the Gospel was embodied in the western culture resulting into western imperialism (for example, the imposition of the western view of the church). Second, individual salvation was preached and the Gospel was separated from the culture which was the result of a raising individualistic system of thoughts. It led to shallow Christianity without impact on the community where it takes root.

In conclusion of his book, Newbigin points out that the best way to accomplish the mission of the church is simply to live out God’s word for the congregation and its leaders, and to be confident in the power of the Gospel.

Overall, I enjoyed the book even if some parts were controversial. It helped me to process and understand some topics more clearly such as the Bible as reasonable authority, or the Gospel and the cultures. In the past, I heard some Hmong who had the same kind of arguments when it came to Christianity: They did not want to lose their cultures. I knew that Christianity does not require the lost of culture to embrace a “Christian” culture, but what to do and think was not that clear. It might be a good book for the future. Who knows what we are called to do…

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