The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, Lesslie Newbigin

The Gospel in a Pluralist SocietyPhilosophy is an interesting thing.  Not quite the same as a “worldview” or a “culture”, yet it’s undeniable that philosophy is heavily shaped by both of those.  For most people, philosophy isn’t a consideration at all, yet all that they do and think (their worldview or their culture) has been shaped by the outworkings of someone’s intentional philosophy.  And that person’s philosophy was shaped and constrained, no doubt, by his or her own cultural heritage and particular worldview.  What goes around comes around and it can seem like an unending, inescapable cycle.

Maybe that’s why some people love travel literature, or just travel itself.  It gives them a chance to take a tangent and shoot off somewhere in a different direction, new experiences and new ideas that would’ve been impossible in their country of origin.  But travel (or a travel book) is just a visit, maybe enough to add one new idea to a person’s philosophy or worldview, but not enough to rethink it as a whole.

That’s why The Gospel in a Pluralist Society by Lesslie Newbigin is so invaluable.  Newbigin hasn’t just visited another country, but he’s lived it, for decades as a missionary to India.  Newbigin, without a doubt, has his own cultural heritage and worldview that influences his philosophy, and he freely admits it.  But his long experience living in India as a missionary has also allowed him to acquire a new worldview and reexamine his own, avoiding contemporary flaws in the philosophies of both the East and the West, and instead reestablishing a foundation on something with more history and more permanence.  In The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, Newbigin steps out of the constraining heritage of his country of origin and he gives us the chance to bluntly examine our own popular Western worldviews along with the philosophies that guide them.  He allows us to look honestly at their foundations, where they’re deep and where they’re shallow, their strengths and their flaws.

When I started reading The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, my family and I had just moved from Tulsa, Oklahoma, to Antsirabe, Madagascar.  For those who don’t know, that’s a small city in the middle of the world’s fourth-largest island, about 350 miles off the southeast coast of Africa.  I myself was beginning to learn about a wholly different culture, an odd and unique mix of both Indonesian and African descent, at the same time as I was reading Newbigin’s fresh light shed on our own.  Not only did this make it easier for me to understand Newbigin’s description and critique of the Western world’s two most recent philosophies (both Modernism and Postmodernism), it also helped me to recognize where those philosophies direct my own worldview and how to set them aside for the sake of the work we’re doing.

The truth is, as Newbigin excellently argues in The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, all worldviews and philosophies are grounded in basic, unquestioned and undefendable assumptions, usually culturally dictated.  And all worldviews have some internal cohesion and some ability to make sense of the world around them, some ability to make living life in reality a little bit easier.  These are known as our “plausibility structures.”  That’s as much true for science as it is for religion.  Correspondingly, any philosophy or culture is generally agreed upon by a group of people, or community, who then exercise that mode of thinking and action in the real world, accepting challenges to it and refining it where necessary, strengthening its foundations or reforming them, as a group.  Because most people don’t even recognize their own worldview, and certainly not the philosophies or history which has shaped it, most people live all their lives and do all their work, whether at home or abroad, with the unquestioned assumptions and values that are at the core of their cultural heritage.

Normally, that sort of life works just great, as most people don’t travel or work too far from home and thus there’s never a conflict of basic values or assumptions.  But in our line of work, both as cross-cultural development workers and church-planting missionaries, letting our own assumptions go unchallenged can be damaging both to the success of our work and to the cultural integrity of the people we’re here to work for.  Worse than that, unquestioned cultural and philosophical assumptions can be the very thing that destroys and chokes the life out of the seed of Christian faith before it has had a chance to grow and bear fruit.  And this, as Newbigin states very well, is true for all Christians everywhere, both at home and in foreign countries.

As Newbigin describes in The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, the problem we’re currently encountering as a Church is that we Westerners, as a Church, have assumed one philosophy after another without questioning their assumptions.  Initially, as a Modernist Church, we rejected all other philosophies and worldviews other than our own, challenging them by the standards of our own culture and forcing them to submit.  More recently, as a Postmodernist or Pluralist Church, we’ve uncritically accepted all expressions of culture other than our own, even in some instances all religions other than our own.  Not only does Newbigin do an excellent job pointing out the sometimes shaky foundation of both these current philosophies (certainly no more resolute than any competing claims), but he also reminds us of an entirely different plausibility structure, one that exists within history at the same time as it challenges all historical assumptions: Christianity, the story of Jesus.

In Jesus, we’re called to recognize and refute any worldviews or plausibility structures that stand opposed to the one Jesus brought.  And the truth is, what Jesus introduced was more of an “upside-down” way of life, one where life comes through death, power comes through submission, and greatness comes through servanthood.  In short, Christianity will always have a challenge for any reigning worldview in any culture, as it’s constantly opposed to all of mankind’s self-seeking.  Neither Christian nationalism, nor secular acceptance, nor forceful theocracy will suffice.  As Christians, we shouldn’t be lax in our exercise of our worldview.  Instead we need to continually return to the Christian communities which hold the same assumptions (the story of Jesus), we need to meet the challenges the world offers us, and rather than passively accepting them or bluntly ignoring them, we need to reform and live anew in the current realities at hand, always furthering the message of Jesus and its “upside-down” way of making the world new.  This is what it means to live “the Kingdom of God”.

Reading The Gospel in a Pluralist Society while first learning and experiencing a new culture helped me recognize the validity of Newbigin’s critique of my own cultural worldview, as well as helped keep my eyes on the one plausibility structure that motivated our move in the first place.  If, as a missionary or development worker, I only bring my own culture to replace that which already exists here in rural Madagascar, I’ll be fragmenting the bit of culture they already have and replacing it with something both less than whole and unsuited to the local environment and society, thus something dysfunctional and destructive.  If, on the other hand, I uncritically accept all that already exists here in Malagasy culture, development itself will be impossible and no resources will be used for their long-term benefit, but only short-term consumption.  Not only that, but Jesus will become to them just one more spiritual force vying for power and authority amidst a pantheon of pre-existing spiritual pressures in their lives.

But if I continually refer both to the message which has sent me here, as well as to the community which lives and constantly evaluates and exercises our core values in these new situations, then I may have the chance to bring the plausibility structure, the Person, who challenges our assumptions, who turns our world upside down, and who alone can bring new life where it’s desperately needed.  This challenge is for me and my family and our work, it’s for all Christians, even those who haven’t yet and never will step outside their country of origin, and it’s for every reigning philosophy and worldview on earth.  This Philosophy, this Person, Jesus, is an unproven and unprovable first assumption, but to accept him means to invite his challenge into the deepest core of our being, leaving no bit of our culture and worldview untouched by his presence and his reign.

Pages: 244  FOA Pages: 2,453

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