Newbigin, Lesslie. Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1986.
Author – Lesslie Newbigin
(this reflection was originally written in January, 2012 for the course Vocation of the Theologian) God reignited my call to ministry in 1994. ((meaning the full-time pastor/teacher role as opposed to the universal vocation that Luther suggests)) I was convinced that if I were to be an effective leader in the church that I would need to pursue higher education and seek a Masters of Divinity, and perhaps a PhD someday. I lived in the desert—both metaphorically and literally. Las Vegas was not ripe with higher theological education, so I was at a loss as to which school I should allow to shape me into the man of learning and wisdom I thought I should be.
This calling came at a time when the internet was still called the “Information Superhighway” and the newest cyber technology was the ability to access a community interface called Prodigy through my dial-up modem. I posted my schooling dilemma on my new cyber community of Prodigy and asked for input from my “friends” out there. One passionate and anonymous “friend” responded in a way that stuck with me and has haunted me ever since. His response resurfaced in my mind as I read the first three chapters of Lesslie Newbigin’s book Foolishness to the Greeks. ((I say “as I read the first three chapters” because in this first session of week three in our course we have come to a moment of conversation different from the past two weeks. Today we will spend two sessions discussing one continuous idea from one man. That means my counterpart in session two—Mr. Mang—and I were faced with the question of how to divide this discussion. It seemed best to simply divide the book symmetrically between the first three chapters and the last three. The first three chapters frame the question that Newbigin asks about the Gospel and the Modern Western Culture and the last three chapters ask the question. I have limited the scope of my discussion to the framing of the question and I will leave my colleague to respond to the questions themselves.))
This anonymous friend asked a pointed and simple question. “Why would you want to go to seminary? What fellowship does Jerusalem have with Athens? The academy has nothing to contribute to the ministry of the gospel.” He proceeded to expound his point with a long diatribe against the current state of theological education as having been perverted by modernity. His question echoed the sentiments of the pastor under whose teaching I was first influenced. He often said from the pulpit, “Seminary is cemetery where good pastors go to die.”
Lesslie Newbigin deals with this seeming tension between the gospel and the academy. He returned to England after spending most of his adult life serving as a missionary in India. What he found upon his return seems to echo the negative critique of both my cyber friend and my former pastor. Indeed, it seems that the gospel has come under the domination of the plausibility structure of modern western culture. He asks the question, “How can we move from the place where we explain the gospel in terms of our modern scientific world-view to the place where we explain our modern scientific world-view from the point of view of the gospel?” ((Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1986), 22.))
Two things especially intrigued me in this reading. The first was Newbigin’s statement that “the model of the hermeneutical circle is not adequate to account for what is involved in the relationship between the gospel and this or any other culture.” ((Ibid., 53.)) The second is his proposal that part of the answer to how we can explain the gospel to the modern culture is “to listen to the witness of Christians from other cultures.” ((Ibid., 22.))
Regarding the first item, Newbigin claims that it is impossible for the gospel to speak to the modern western culture from within the modern western culture because the gospel operates as a separate and competitive plausibility structure to it. Newbigin explains the difference by painting a picture in which these two plausibility structures are separated by a wide chasm that cannot be traversed by human reason.
On one side of the chasm lies the temple of modernity. It is comprised of an unequal dichotomy between the public and the private sectors. The public sector dominates the temple. The god of this temple is nature. There is no telos here, only the cause and effect relationship of meaningless elements. Fact reigns supreme. Only that which is observable through empirical science can be granted the label “authoritative.” The priest and purveyor of this empirical data, the one who stands as guardian for all human knowing, is the scientist. Any notion of values and/or religion is cloistered off at the side of the temple in a small enclave labeled “private.” Each individual human is held to the heretical imperative in a world of religious pluralism and freedom of choice.
In the plausibility structure of modern western culture all human activity is reduced to the endless labor cycle of production and consumption while the bureaucratic nation-state stands as the source of human happiness. Newbigin says, “the ideal that [the modern man] seeks would eliminate all ideals. With dedicated zeal he purposes to explain the world as something that is without purpose.” ((Ibid., 35.))
The gospel stands on the other side of this chasm. It is a separate plausibility structure altogether. It functions within the presupposition that there is a telos. There is a purpose to creation toward which history is moving. Within this structure the hermeneutical circle functions properly. The gospel is not a rigid text or set of rules. Rather, it is the hermeneutical dance between the scripture and the living community of faith. The scripture shapes the community while the community, as it moves and develops through history, shapes the interpretation of scripture. It is only through praxis that the gospel can be known as the community grows deeper into the imperfect and ever-developing knowledge of the living and active God.
The gospel is inexplicable to and incompatible with the modern western mind. Any attempt to grasp the gospel from within modernity fails and, at best, relegates it to the private sector. Whether it be Barth’s deductive transcendence, Bultmann’s reductive demythologizing, or Schleiermacher’s inductive attempt to find the “signals of transcendence,” all attempts to explain the gospel become little more than another human anthropology and another option on the religious smorgasbord for the autonomous modern individual’s consumption.
The primary reason that the gospel stands in contrast to modernity is the audacious claim that Jesus of Nazareth bodily rose from the dead. Jesus is an historical figure whose death and resurrection were historical events that slam in the face of reason. The gospel and modernity are not two equal partners in Gadamer’s fusion of horizons. ((Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method (London: Sheed & Ward, 1975); Jean Grondin, Introduction to Philosophical Hermeneutics, Yale Studies in Hermeneutics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994).)) The chasm between the two can only be traversed by God’s call to those who have witnessed the resurrection and proclaim it to the world. Nothing short of conversion is necessary to cross the gap. ((Newbigin, 53.))
I agree with Newbigin that the gospel stands in contrast to the pervasive plausibility structure of modernity. I agree that the gospel cannot be relegated to the private sector but must, by its very nature, confront the principalities and powers of modernity in the public world. I also love the way he presents community praxis as a way to deal with scripture that keeps us from the rigidity of fundamentalism and the dissipation of relativism. However, it still leaves me with a fundamental question. How do I deal with the gospel in the modern western culture, as a Christian scholar in the academy, when it is impossible to discuss the gospel within the plausibility structure of modernity? This is the question we have been wrestling with in this class all along. Can a Christian scholar truly function within the dominant power structure when her core assumptions run diametrically opposed to that structure?
I think part of the answer lies in the second item that I found interesting in the reading. Newbigin says that one of the ways the western church can begin to build an understanding of the gospel that stands outside of modernity in order to speak to modernity is to engage in better and more dialogues with the church outside of modernity. It was Newbigin’s immersion into Indian culture that allowed him to return to the West with fresh eyes. It will only be through humble and open interaction between the western church and the non-western church that the gospel in the west will be set free from this domination.
This is one of the biggest lessons that I am learning in my first year in the Congregational Mission and Leadership program at Luther. In my Hermeneutics of Leading in Mission class I, as a western pastor, was the minority among my colleagues of Ethiopian pastors. I learned as much from their perspective as I did from the textbooks. Now, I am engaged in conversation with ten countries in this course, most of which would comfortably fall outside the label “western.” The fact that this dialogue is happening at Luther is encouraging to me. The question that remains for the leader of the church in the 21st century is how do we practically involve the global church in a multi-cultural dialogue that does not either fall into rigid fundamentalism, dissipate into a religion of ethics, or splinter into warring factions, but is grounded in the biblical praxis of the risen Jesus?