Well, here at last is the long awaited discussion of Lesslie Newbigin's book, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, which will be in two parts; the first, about the insights Newbigin offers into the pluralistic world the gospel faces today, and the second, about his vision for how the Church ought to be ministering in that sort of world. In comparison with my other posts, this one may prove a bit abstract (part 1 in particular). Nevertheless, join me for the ride and we'll see what insights surface.
For some time now, particularly in evangelical Christian circles, the term 'pluralism' has been thrown around a great deal, and has been recognized as one of the greatest philosophical challenges to the gospel in the modern world. Newbigin offers us critical insights into the origins of the reigning 'pluralistic' outlook, and provides much-needed clarity on the matter of how the Gospel may appropriately adapt itself to the needs of its immediate context without compromising its deepest foundations.
Newbigin begins by pointing out a crucial nuance in pluralism itself, one that is often missed by its detractors and critics. He diagnoses what I would call a 'dualistic postmodernity', which he describes thus: "The principle of pluralism is not universally accepted in our culture. It is one of the key features of our culture, and one that we shall have to examine in some depth, that we make a sharp distinction between a world of what we call 'values' and a world of what we call 'facts.' In the former world we are pluralists; values are a matter of personal choice. In the latter we are not; facts are facts, whether you like them or not. It follows that, in this culture, the Church and its preaching belong to the world of values."
This is significant - to me it seems that the mistake is commonly made of saying 'the modern era is over, everything has changed... now we are living in the postmodern world. There's no such thing as truth anymore in people's minds.' I've heard a number of Christian apologists try to do this as they ponder how to address the gospel to our society in a way that makes sense. But if we open our eyes and look at the academy, at the world of science and technology, of medicine, or even politics, we see that this is simply not the case. People in our society (at least, this is my impression) rate very highly the claims of science, viewing it as a neutral, 'value-free' source of cold, hard facts (then they make value judgments that they suppose to be neutral as well, based on those claims). It is in the realm of religious, philisophical, or spiritual matters that we become pluralists, postmoderns. Science is seen to be valueless, and wherever values are brought in, fact goes out. Newbigin brilliantly demolishes this dichotomization of facts and values, and encourages Christians to challenge it wherever it is made.
He applies an example from the history of education in England: for centuries, it was taught in many schools to be a simple matter of public fact that "Man's chief end is to glorify God and fully to enjoy him forever." This was taught right alongside other facts such as the laws of gravity and geometry. Now, of course, this is no longer done.
Why? Is it because the former topic is value-based, not 'objective' like the laws of gravity or geometry? Not scientifically provable (and therefore uncertain, for what science proves must therefore be certain)? Many at this point would simply nod their heads and say 'of course', but emphatically the answer we must give is no. What's going on here is not that a value-based system has been supplanted by a fact-based system that is truthful and objective. What has really happened is that one value-based system (Christianity) has simply been pushed out by another value-based system (scientific rationalism). Society in general has determined that things demonstrable only by the scientific method may be considered 'fact', and that everything else must be suspect and relegated to the world of 'values'. Why has society determined this? Because society believes this to be the way the world works... because societal values have established that the scientific method is the only reliable guide to reality. Pluralism is simply the inevitable outworking of this way of thinking. We can't be sure about what is true unless we have science to prove the matter for us, and so where we can't be sure, we democratize truth and make it 'true' at the individual level.
This is deeply problematic when one realizes that science itself rests on a system of values that are not scientifically demonstrable. Newbigin writes, "The whole work of modern science rests on faith-commitments which cannot themselves be demonstrated by the methods of science. This has been frequently pointed out and it is only necessary to refer briefly to it. The development of science as we know it would have been impossible without two beliefs: that the universe is rational and that it is contingent" (neither of these things, of course, is scientifically demonstrable). Further assumptions get added to these among many scientists; one of the most destructive is this: the scientific method is the only viable means of gaining knowledge about reality (to which I simply will say, 'prove it...scientifically'). This analysis rests upon basic principles of epistemology that have been understood for quite a long time, but are typically ignored in mainstream society - that is, that all knowing proceeds from some basis in believing. This is every bit as true of science as it is of philosophy or religion. Presuppositions that cannot be proven undergird every single thing a human being will say, do, or think.
All of this is not to denigrate science or argue that it is useless to us - quite the contrary! The scientific method has proven its usefulness, but we shouldn't act as though science is not also based on an intuitive leap from what we believe about the world to how we go about understanding the world. Newbigin's purpose is not to reject science, but is simply to point out that this dichotomy we've engineered between what is factual and what is value-based is itself based on a set of beliefs and values that cannot be proven - our confidence in the scientific method can never be proven, for in order to prove it we would be using the very (scientific) principles that we are seeking to prove. We simply take it for granted that the only 'knowable' things are those which science can demonstrate. The Christian response here is not to say, 'Well of course we can only know what science can prove, but that's okay, because what we believe is scientifically demonstrable!' Rather, our response is, 'No... we can know more about the universe than just what science reveals to us. We can also know what God reveals to us.' It can't be proven, of course... but as we see with the scientific method, that shouldn't be a problem.
Newbigin provides further insights as he traces out the nuances of postmodern pluralism. If everything we say or think is based on dogma - certain basic assumptions about the world around us - it follows that the pluralist is being every bit as absolute as the Christian or the scientist. Whenever a pluralist tries to say, 'All truth is relative; what's true for you is true for you, as anyone's truth is true for himself; but that doensn't mean it's true for me,' what he is in effect doing is making a truth claim, one that is every bit as dogmatic as the claims of those (particularly Christians) whom he wishes to contradict.
Our task as Christian apologists living in a pluralistic age, then, is to expose the hypocrisy inherent in pluralism, to unmask its dogmatism by putting our finger on pluralism's fundamental likeness to all that it seeks to criticize. To those who say 'Everyone's truth is true for himself,' we must reply, 'Do you really think that's true?' To those who say 'There are no absolutes,' we must reply, 'Absolutely none?' To those who say 'We can't really know anything,' we must reply, 'How do you know that?' By asking them their own questions we not only show the claim of pluralism (that it transcends all truth claims) to be simply laughable, but also expose the fact that the only difference between Christianity and pluralism is that pluralism denies the fact that it is dogmatic about the way the world works (for to do so would overthrow everything it is trying to accomplish).
The simple reality is that we cannot escape truth, meaning, and values, no matter how far we withdraw or retreat; nor can we continue indefinitely to hold them apart from 'fact'. The dichotomy we have created in our society between what is factual and what is 'true' is nothing more or less than a pestilential cultural laziness, too squeamish to believe that anyone in the world might be wrong, and therefore driven to the silly conclusion that everyone must therefore be right, no matter how absurd this may seem. Perhaps that is the truth, and I'm just wrong. But if that is the truth, let's not be so foolish as to try and deny that, like I said, it is the truth.
This concludes the first part of our look at Newbigin's ideas, which will be followed (hopefully soon) with a discussion of how these insights ought to translate into the practice and mission of the church in our culture. Until then, I would leave you with one of my favorite quotes from Lesslie's book:
"The curiosity which is always seeking to discover more seems to be one of the necessary conditions of life. But seeking is only serious if the seeker is following some clue, has some intuition of what it is that he seeks, and is willing to commit himself or herself to following that clue, that intuition. Merely wandering around in a clueless twilight is not seeking. The relativism which is not willing to speak about truth but only about 'what is true for me' is an evasion of the serious business of living. It is a mark of a tragic loss of nerve in our contemporary culture. It is a preliminary symptom of death."