The Gospel in a Pluralist Society | Book Review

According to Lesslie Newbigin, the countries of the “Western world” constitute a “pluralist society,” not merely in the sense of “variety of cultures, religions, and life-styles,” but in the sense that “this plurality is celebrated as things to be approved and cherished” (1). He goes on to note that plurality has its limits, in that, for example, a plurality of religious opinions is accepted but a plurality of scientific explanations of biological evolution is not. This limit implies a distinction between “facts,” which constitute public knowledge, and “values,” which constitute a “private choice” (7).

Given that Christianity understands the gospel as public knowledge, not merely a personal opinion, the task of The Gospel in a Pluralist Society is “to examine the roots of this culture which we share and to suggest how as Christians we can more confidently affirm our faith in this kind of intellectual climate” (7).

To understand the roots of this pluralistic society, Newbigin employs Peter Berger’s concept of “plausibility structures,” defined as “patterns of belief and practice accepted within a given society, which determine which beliefs are plausible to its members and which are not” (8). These change over time. For example, while modernity accepts the distinction between public fact and personal value, the medieval world did not. The deliverances of the study of both nature and supernature constituted public knowledge.

Modernity’s plausibility structures stem from the Enlightenment—a value-laden term, one might point out—starting with the philosophy of Rene Descartes, whose distinction between res cogitans and res extensa created a gap between our thoughts and the material world about which we hold those thoughts. “A scepticism [sic] about whether our senses give us access to reality is the background of the major philosophical thinking ever since” (18). In the hands of Immanuel Kant, this gap became practically unbridgeable: We cannot know noumena (thinks as they are), only phenomena (things as they appear). Because the supernatural belongs to the noumenal realm, knowledge of it became doubtful, while the natural belongs to the phenomenal realm, which we can investigate.

(Newbigin—and I, following him—skims a bit too quickly across the movement from Cartesian rationalism to British empiricism to German idealism, but you get the picture. The epistemological turn in Western philosophy over time contributed to assigning religion to the category of value but science to the category of fact.)

If the gospel is to be affirmed as true in a pluralist society, this fact-value distinction and its underlying epistemological method of systematic doubt must be subjected to fundamental critique. Newbigin does this by drawing especially on the work of Michael Polanyi and Alasdair MacIntyre.

From Polanyi, Newbigin borrows the concept of “personal knowledge,” the personal commitment or investment of the knower to what is known. This applies to all knowers and all forms of knowledge. Thus, to distinguish between “knowledge” on one side and “faith” on the other commits a fundamental error. “There is no knowing without believing, and believing is the way to knowing,” Newbigin writes (33). To know anything is to make a personal commitment to a body of assumptions that in the nature of the case one cannot prove.

From MacIntyre, Newbigin borrows the concept of community-derived tradition. He writes, “Reason is a faculty with which we seek to grasp the different elements in our experience in an ordered way so that, as we say, they make sense. It is not a separate source of information about what is the case. It can only function within a continuing linguistic and cultural tradition.” More concisely, “all use of reasoning depends on and is embodied in a tradition” (53).

If this is the case, then it makes little sense to privilege science over religion as public knowledge as opposed to personal opinion since both require faith and operate within a tradition. Given this critique of modernity, Newbigin goes on to articulate a missiology that upholds the revelation of God in Christ as public knowledge, on the one hand, while continuing to value aspects of the variety of cultures on the other.

Newbigin was an Anglican missionary to India and an ecumenist, and his thinking reflects the influences of mainline Protestantism at points, though not uncritically. By the same token, his missiology can inform evangelical missiology, even though he criticizes evangelicalism at points—for its individualism, its otherworldliness, and the like.

In addition to personal knowledge and community-derived tradition, the one other concept that I want to emphasize from The Gospel in a Pluralist Society is what Newbigin calls “the hermeneutic of the gospel.” He writes, in a passage worth quoting at length:

How is it possible that the gospel should be credible, that people should come to believe that the power which has the last word in human affairs is represented by a man hanging on a cross? I am suggesting that the only answer, the only hermeneutic of the gospel, is a congregation of men and women who believe it and live by it. I am, of course, not denying the importance of the many activities by which we seek to challenge public life with the gospel—evangelistic campaigns, distribution of Bibles and Christian literature, conferences, and even books such as this one. But I am saying that these are all secondary, and that they have power to accomplish their purpose only as they are rooted in and lead back to a believing community (227).

Believing community: One that is characterized by the trust and personal commitment of personal knowledge and formed by a tradition.

The Gospel in a Pluralist Society is well worth reading, especially as, nearly 30 years after its publication, Western society has become even more committed to the ideology of pluralism that Newbigin examined here. The need for a fundamental critique of modernism (and postmodernism) is greater than ever, just as the need for faithful congregations of Christ-followers is more pronounced than ever. After all, didn’t Jesus himself say, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35)?

Book Reviewed
Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989).

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