For class last week, we read through the first few chapters of Lesslie Newbigin’s The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. It was pretty hard stuff. I managed to pull enough out of the text to respond to the questions. Your thoughts are welcomed on anything below (or on other tangents as well, hahaha)…
Newbigin on Doubt & Dogma
The Enlightenment use of “dogma” carries a strong negative connotation (postscript 2-25-08: it’s baaaack!), a tie to faith-based ignorance and/or arrogance. In an appeal to New Testament etymology, Newbigin traces “dogma” to dokein, which means “to seem.” In Acts 16, the Jerusalem Council decreed what “seemed good to a competent authority and was promulgated as such.” (Newbigin p.5) Chances are that even a brief history lesson describing our faith reveals dogma’s entanglement “with coercion, with political power, and so with the denial of freedom – freedom of thought and of conscience.” (Newbigin p.10) But our defense of pure and essential dogma can fairly claim that its past abuses do not necessarily make it inherently flawed or evil. Nevertheless, these days, this term carries so much ‘baggage’ – needs so much ‘unpacking’ – that I try to avoid it in describing the essentials of our faith, and instead find it much more productive to attempt to revive the narrative of God’s love for and involvement among us.
Newbigin on Tradition & Authority
A key Enlightenment paradigm was the rejection of authority as implicitly tied to tradition. Everything was to be tested (postscript 2-25-08: it’s baaaack!). Newbigin says that any defense of the Christian faith must address the Enlightenment era’s rejection of giving such weight to tradition. I struggled with this section of the reading. I’m unclear on precisely what Newbigin advocates, but I take a cue for my own response to attacks on authority and tradition from an anatomy illustration he uses. On pages 40 and 41, Newbigin points to John Oman’s reflections on the frailty of the optic nerves in his book Vision and Authority. He comments so powerfully on the writings of his first theology teacher: “It would seem, in other words, that the Creator had intended fallibility to be part of our human nature, and that the appeal to an authority beyond our own fallible vision is an offense against our Creator.” (Newbigin p. 41) So, in response to Enlightenment criticisms of the tacit authority carried by my faith’s tradition, I say, “That’s a good point… maybe those guys didn’t have it all figured out. Let’s explore it some more…” In other words, perhaps the best defense against Enlightenment claims about tradition is a healthy dose of realizing humanity’s fallibility. This selection from Newbigin merits an entire week’s worth of reading. So in the absence of fully grasping his theses on tradition and authority, I’ll just go on trying to be a good Berean.
Newbigin on Reason & Revelation
A solid response to Enlightenment claims about Christianity’s ties to reason and revelation simply rests on the issue of context. Newbigin says it well: “the development of a tradition of rationality is never unrelated to the social, political, economic, military, and cultural changes which the society in question is going through.” (Newbigin p. 54) In my mind, if today’s challengers to faith want to embrace pluralism, they must concede that their own framework (i.e. tradition of rationality) arose from a particular context and is not sufficiently universal to make unreasonable my decision to pursue a life of faith.