Saturday, December 8, 2012

Proper Confidence, by Lesslie Newbigin

Long-time missionary to South India and General Secretary of the World Council of Churches, Lesslie Newbigin, explores the Enlightenment project's dubious quest for certainty, resulting division between "facts" and "values" embodied in the enterprise of Newtonian physics and the modern assumption in the world of academia as well as "common thought" that there are certain phenomena that are "objective and reliable" (i.e., science and mathematics) and others (i.e., religion and the social sciences) that are "subjective" and merely open to a variety of interpretations and meanings. In what sense has much of modern thought remained enslaved and mindlessly bought into such a view of the world? And in what sense have even the churches that have considered themselves to be most faithful to God and the Bible, lacked such cultural and historical awareness, so as to have remained "whippin' boys" for Master Enlightenment? What if instead we understood the quest for certainty as one that begins with the assumption of faith and belonging (against the "secular mind") and one that is grounded in "grace received through faith" (against the arrogance of much of modern Christianity)? Instead of doubt being the starting point on the quest for knowledge, what if faith in a larger story was the starting point from where we evaluate, critique, question and even take up the freedom to doubt along the way? Here are some excerpts from Newbigin's Proper Confidence:

"Scientists, and indeed all serious scholars, speak often of the love of truth. But can love be finally satisfied with an impersonal 'something'? Have we, perhaps, failed to draw out the full meaning of the words spoken by the apostle Paul to the scholars and debaters of Athens when he said that 'the God who made the world and everything in it . . . . did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us" (Acts 17:24,27)?'" (p. 63).

"The fundamentalist critique of liberal theology must be taken seriously. But fundamentalists do a disservice to the gospel when, as sometimes happens, they adopt a style of certainty more in the tradition of Descartes than in the truly evangelical spirit. This can show itself in several familiar ways. Sometimes it is an anxiety about the threat that new discoveries in science may pose to Christian faith – an anxiety that betrays a lack of total confidence in the central truth of the gospel that Jesus is the Word made flesh. Sometimes it leads to a refusal to reconsider long-held beliefs in the light of fresh reflection on the witness of Scripture. One may contrast this with the truly liberal spirit shown by the Jews of Berea, for when confronted by the revolutionary message of the apostle, they did not simply reject it but 'examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true' (Acts 17:11). And it can manifest itself in a claim for the objective truth of the Christian message that seems to depend on the acceptance of the false dualism of Enlightenment thought. Insofar as the word 'objective' is used as a synonym for 'really true,' one must of course accept it unreservedly. But, it seems to me, its use in the context of modern thinking can lead to the false impression that the Christian faith is a matter of demonstrable fact rather than a matter of grace received in faith. Perhaps liberals would be more ready to listen to the very serious question put to them by fundamentalists if the latter were more manifestly speaking as those who must think, as they must live, as debtors of grace" (pp. 70-1).

"The business of the church is to tell and to embody a story, the story of God's mighty acts in creation and redemption and of God's promises concerning what will be in the end. The church affirms the truth of this story by celebrating it, interpreting it, and enacting it in the life of the contemporary world. It has no other way of affirming its truth. If it supposes that its truth can be authenticated by reference to some allegedly more reliable truth claim, such as those offered by the philosophy of religion, then it has implicitly denied the truth by which it lives" (p. 76).

"Even in the darkest hours, signs of the divine presence shine with a brightness that cannot be hidden. And the story that the church tells continues to exercise its power both to correct and reform the church and to convince and convert the world. And however grievous the apostasy of the church may be, it remains that God has entrusted to it this story and that there is no other body that will tell it. From age to age, the church lives under the authority of the story that the Bible tells, interpreted ever anew to new generations and new cultures by the continued leading of the Holy Spirit who alone makes possible the confession that Jesus is Savior and Lord. God's sovereignty is that of God's grace. It is as savior that God is Lord. It is as the one who overcomes our alienation from the truth that God reveals the truth. We are not, as we like to think, naturally lovers of the truth. It has become possible for us to know God and to speak confidently of God only because the beloved Son who knows the Father has taken our place in our estrangement form God and has made it possible to come to a true knowledge of God through him. So the revelation of God given to us in him is not a matter of coercive demonstration but of grace, of a love that forgives and invites. That reality of grace governs both the confidence we have in speaking of God and the manner in which we must commend the gospel to others" (p. 78).

1 comment:

Sheldon said...

Just started reading that myself!

Sheldon Nordhues