Newsletter 1 - Spring 1989

(lead article only)

Beyond the Familiar Myths

Bishop Lesslie Newbigin

For the small team working on "The Gospel and Our Culture" programme, 1988 has been a year of both encouragement and perplexity. Encouragement because we continue to receive a stream of letters from all parts of the world and from people in many walks of life who express their excitement and ask to be kept in touch. Perplexity, not only because it is difficult to persuade charitable trusts that we are worth supporting, but also because it is not easy to define in a few words what we are. We are certainly not an institution, hardly yet a clear-cut programme; rather a ferment, a rumbling of slowly articulated concerns. A colleague has referred to us as "Enlightenment-bashers". The reviewer of "Foolishness to the Greeks" in Theology says that the attempt to criticise our culture in the light of "The Bible" (his quotation marks) is like pretending to move a bus while you are sitting in it, and concludes that it is better to remain "under the critical judgement of the Enlightenment". Certainly Enlightenment-bashing is quite fashionable. In the recent US presidential elections it became clear that the Democratic candidate could be successfully rubbished simply by fixing the label "Liberal" on him, and that the test for immunity from this disease was public support for the gun lobby, the death penalty and "star wars". On the other hand, the marks of an "enlightened" position appear to be opposition to school prayers and support for abortion on demand and gay rights. In this lunatic battle, everyone is supposed to be on one side or the other.

In Britain the polarisation is perhaps not so extreme, but one is still expected to be on the left or the right of a line which is certainly the wrong line. For example, I find myself saying "Amen" to much of what the Bishop of London says about fidelity to the central Christian tradition, but "No" to his rejection of the role of women in ministry. The issues are constantly posed in terms of "progressive" and "reactionary", without asking whether the road on which we are to go forward or back is the right road. This applies both in political and in ecclesiastical issues. We cannot go back to 19th Century capitalism, but neither can we go back to the welfare state of 1950s without asking (in both cases) the question "What went wrong ?" We cannot go back behind the Enlightenment of some sort of restored "Christendom" or to a supposed natural law. We have to ask: "Why did the Enlightenment not deliver what is promised."

In the course of a recent correspondence a friend mockingly asked: "Which century would Newbigin like to live in, since he obviously does not like the 20th?" My answer is that I am happy to live in the century into which God has put me, but as a Christian and a missionary, I want to find ways of articulating the Gospel for this particular century. And I find that this requires me to question many of the things which are assumed to be "self-evident truths." Contemporary theologians who are called "radical" because they prefer the assumptions of the Enlightenment to the affirmations of the Bible have used the word "myth" to describe the central Christian beliefs. One of the definitions of "myth" in my dictionary is: "An unproved collective belief that is accepted uncritically and is used to justify a social institution". That suggests that a prime candidate for the title is the myth of the "secular society." The mythical character of the "secular society" becomes clear at the moment when anyone proposes that Christian belief should be recognised as part of public truth, should be part of the curriculum in public schools, should be a seriously acknowledged participant in the debate about public issues. Such a proposal is regarded as the intrusion of "sectarian" opinion into public issues where is does not belong. The whole gamut of unexamined assumptions which control public debate - assumptions about the origin, nature and destiny of human life - are regarded as simply "How things actually are", "the facts," as distinct from private opinion. The myth of the secular society serves to justify the situation, and has been widely accepted in the Churches because it seems to provide a comfortable role for them, a peaceful co-existence without the cost of an open conflict. It fulfils precisely its function as a myth.

The reviewer in Theology, like many contemporary English theologians, took it for granted that "The Bible" cannot challenge this myth. He is wrong. The Bible offers an alternative vision of the human story, of the origin, nature and destiny of human life, which is radically different from the reigning myth. It is certainly not a body of timeless truths to which we are called back in reaction against modernity. It is exactly the opposite. It is a vision of the human story which opens up the future for fearless exploration in which we shall certainly be called to do things that have not been done before and to think thoughts that have not been thought before. How the angels must laugh (or weep) when they hear those who live in the world of the Bible called "conservatives"; and those who swallow uncritically all the contemporary myths called "progressive." The Gospel is not, and never can be, a call to return to the past. It is always, and is now, a call for bold exploration of the future, an exploration which is not aimless and clueless but confident in the clue which has been given by Him who is the true and living way. "The Gospel and Our Culture" is a modest attempt to explore the next steps.

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Newsletter 2 - Summer 1989

(lead article only)

Freedom, Blasphemy and Responsibility

Bishop Lesslie Newbigin

The Affair of the 'Satanic Verses', which is still rumbling on, raises issues of a theological kind which are at the centre of the concern to relate the Gospel to contemporary Western culture. Granted that the whole uproar has a great deal to do with the internal tensions in the Muslim communities of Iran, Pakistan and Britain; and granted that much of what has been said seriously misrepresents the book; it remains true that this was not a storm in a tea cup but something which exposes some of the unresolved problems of our society. In a very proper sense of outrage against the death-threats to the author, we ought not to evade the underlying issues.

On the one hand there has been the issue of blasphemy (whether or not the book is in fact blasphemous from a Muslim point of view). The leader-writer in the Independent was no doubt expressing normal British assumptions when he implied that the only thing wrong with blasphemy is that it offends the feelings of some people. Since "God" is no longer one of the realities to be reckoned with in public life, and since the State has replaced God as the source from which all blessings flow, the ultimate guardian of our freedom, it is natural that treason against the interests of the State is the ultimate crime, whereas blasphemy against God is merely a possible offence to the feelings of a few people.

On the other hand there is the demand for freedom as an absolute right to publish whatever one wishes, subject only to the constraints of the laws of libel and of the Official Secrets Act. The defence of freedom, so defined, is held to be fundamental to the integrity of our kind of society. The scientist Michael Polanyi was passionately concerned about the freedom of the academic, and particularly the scientific community. The defence of intellectual freedom against totalitarianism was the spur to his entry into philosophy. He distinguished two kinds of freedom which he called 'utilitarian' and 'Lutheran'. The former is the freedom from all external constraint subject only to the limits which are set by other people's right to freedom. The latter kind of freedom is found when the individual gains freedom from personal ends by submission to an impersonal obligation.

Polanyi thought that the two kinds of freedom complemented each other in what he called the republic of science. But a critic (R J Brownhill) has argued that Polanyi was mistaken here, since in the republic of science it is the Lutheran kind of freedom which operates (1). If a scientist thinks he can publish anything he likes, he soon ceases to be a member of the republic. He gains freedom my submission to the authority of the scientific tradition and to the authority of the facts as he discovers them. With that freedom he can criticise and amend the tradition. The former kind of freedom would very quickly destroy the republic of science.

What the liberal establishment seems to be defending in the Rushdie case is the utilitarian kind of freedom. But there is certainly a very long Christian tradition which affirms that this kind of freedom leads only to bondage, and that freedom is only found in obedience to Him who is the way, the truth and the life. Certainly those whose names are often invoked in the cause of freedom, such as John Milton, defended a freedom which was rooted in obedience to a truth which is more than the individual person. It seems unlikely that a merely utilitarian freedom can in the long run be defended against movements which are committed to firm beliefs about what is the truth. The issues raised by the Rushdie affair are ultimately theological. They compel us to recognise again that the Christian faith about what it is to be human cannot be kept as the private opinion of a group but has to be proclaimed as vital for the very being of society. As I watched and listened to the procession of literary figures on the box defending the rights of authors to write exactly what they pleased, I had two feelings. One was a feeling of pity for those who were unable to understand


A freedom which is merely freedom to say whatever you like can lead only to despair of ever knowing the truth.


the realities with which they were dealing, like schoolboys who did not know that they were playing with high explosives. The other was the feeling that when the chips were down they would be powerless before a clear and confident faith such as Islam.

Since C F Snow's introduction of the phrase we have been accustomed to the division of our society into the two cultures. The one, scientific, is vigorous and confident. It is that part of our culture where the utilitarian concept of freedom does not operate. The other, the area of arts and humanities, gives the impression of having lost all sense of direction. The Chinese writer, Carver Yu, looking at Western culture, sums up what he sees as 'technological optimism and literary despair' (2). In the former half of our culture there is confidence in the authority of a secure tradition to which the individual must submit if he or she is to find the freedom for fresh exploration, and with this a confidence that truth can be increasingly grasped and understood. The freedom of the scientist is freedom to seek and (in part) know the truth. A freedom which is merely freedom to say whatever you like can lead only to despair of ever knowing the truth. It is tempting to think that the position of the Church might be different if the theological departments of our universities had been lodged in the science faculty instead of in the arts.

The Rushdie affair could be occasion for fanning afresh the flames of xenophobia which are always smouldering in our society. God forbid that it should be so. It could also be the occasion for a fresh recognition by Christians that the Gospel is public truth for the whole of our cultural life, or it is no truth at all.

  1. R J Brownhill. Freedom and Authority
  2. The Political Philosophy of Michael Polanyi.

    Journal of the British Society of Phenomenology,

    Vol 8, No 3, October 1977.

  3. Carver T Yu. Being and Relation:

A Theological Critique of Western Dualism And Individualism. 1987.

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Newsletter 3 - Autumn 1989

(lead article only)

Culture, Rationality and the Unity of the Human Race

Bishop Lesslie Newbigin

A recent letter from a correspondent in the USA suggested that our project should be regarded as a Christian post-script to Alan Bloom's best seller "The Closing of the American Mind". In re-reading Alain Finkielkraut's "The Undoing of thought" I have had a similar reflection, for both books protest against contemporary cultural disintegration in the name of a classical vision of reason. And a response to this suggestion leads straight into three questions which our friendly critics often pose: "Why do you keep on bashing the Enlightenment?", "What do you mean by "Our Culture?", and "Why do we not hear more Third World voices in your programme?"

Finkielkraut begins with that splendid vision of the unity of the human race which inspired the thinkers of the French Enlightenment. The human person whose freedom and autonomy were celebrated in the affirmation of the rights of man was not French or German or Chinese. Human reason is one under whatever sky, and it provides the basis for human unity. When clinging superstition is cleaned away, all human beings will see things as they are. Against this claim and its embodiment in the military expansion of France came the German reaction in such writers as Herder, who affirmed the primacy of the Volksgeist, the spirit which is embodied and expressed in the whole culture of a people. What the Enlightenment dismissed as old-fashioned traditions and superstitions are the very substance of which a nation's life is constituted. Nations are not humanly contrived associations based on the rational realities by which the individual is sustained. Loyalty to nation transcends every other claim. The history of nationalism in Europe bears terrible testimony to the power of this idea. At the end of the most devastating of these international wars, and as part of the peace settlement, UNESCO was founded with the hope (an authentic Enlightenment hope) that the universal spread of education would make possible a global human society free from war.

And now comes, says, Finkielkraut, the supreme irony. It was in the power of the ideology of the Enlightenment that European powers invaded the whole world with the ideas and practices that stemmed from the Enlightenment - technology, 'modern' education and medicine, capitalist economics and (in its more benevolent forms) the idea of democracy - 'one man one vote'. But the power which the peoples of the Third World gradually mobilised against this invasion was the power of the Volksgeist. The spiritual power of the traditional cultures of the suppressed peoples was the weapon used against the power of the 'Western' ideology. And Europe, shattered by its devastation wards, had lost its faith in the universal validity of its civilisation. _____________________________________________________________________

Is Europe merely the name for a market place, or does Europe have a greater significance in the history of the human race?



Decolonisation began. UNESCO had to perform an ideological somersault. It became the defender of threatened cultures. Multiculturalism replaced the idea of the universal sway of rationality. I.e.'Culture' became something exempt from universal canons of reason or of moral judgement. The way had been prepared for the somersault by the rise of the sciences of anthropology and sociology, which used the tools fashioned by the Enlightenment to give scientific respectability of what the 18th Century philosophes had dismissed as superstition.

And the ironies multiply. The leadership in the revolt of colonised nations was taken, could only be taken, by those who had absorbed through a western education the ideas of the Enlightenment. But the process of decolonisation required that these be suppressed in the interests of national unity. The one-party state became the norm and dissent was treason to the nation. At the same time in Europe multiculturalism became the accept norm among 'enlightened' people. In 1985 the College de France laid down as the first of a series of educational principles for the nation: 'The Unity of Science and the Plurality of Cultures'. Human understanding is thus bifurcated into a world where norms of reason have universal authority, and another world - 'culture' - which is exempt from these norms. 'Culture' is something which is exempt from any universally valid judgments of truth or right. There is not one human race but a multitude of separate human cultures. The 'man' whose 'rights' the Enlightenment celebrated no longer exists: there are only Europeans, Indians, Chinese, Polynesian, Bantu, or whatever. And since in the modern world cultures are not geographically separated but mixed, we have the multicultural society and - inevitably - the multicultural individual, for whom there are no norms of truth or right. We have arrived at the world of Alan Bloom. If it is 'my culture' it is OK.

This summary gives very little impression of the brilliance of Finkielkraut's analysis with its sharp thrusts against both left and right in the current political scene. It prompts, for me at least, three reflections.

The first is admiration, for the Enlightenment was, in one of its aspects, a magnificent vision of the potential unity of the human race. We have to ask why that vision failed, why it provoked a violent reaction against human unity. Yet this reaction is ambiguous. The newly independent nations, delivered from colonial rule, eagerly seek to acquire the science and technology which the Enlightenment produced and are - inevitably - being profoundly changed in their corporate spiritual life in the process. In spite of the College de France human understanding of the world cannot be finally bifurcated into 'science' and 'culture'. One could even say that after decolonisation the 'Third World' is becoming more rapidly and fully integrated into the 'modern' world than it was before. The issues which the 'Gospel and Our Culture' seeks to tackle are also the problems of the churches in the 'Third World', as our post-bag testifies.

The second reflection concerns the role of Europe. As the year 1992 approaches the question becomes more and more serious: 'Is Europe merely the name for a market place, or does Europe have a greater significance in the history of the human race?' Thoughtful Christians in Europe are rightly conscience-stricken about the wrongs Europe has done to the rest of the world. But godly repentance must include the taking of full responsibility for what is part. For better or for worse, the ideas developed in Europe are still shaping the agenda for most of the world. Europeans cannot evade the responsibilities that involves. And among those responsibilities is a profound self-questioning of our own history. In the Enlightenment and what followed, Europe made a bid for the unity of the human race, and it failed. We have to ask 'What went wrong?' Only if we ask that question is our repentance serious. That is why this programme concentrates primarily on issues in the history of European thought.

The third reflection is this. If human reason, liberated from 'superstition', does not provide the basis for human unity, what does? My daily readings for the past three weeks have taken me through Job's agonised efforts to make sense of the dark irrationality of human affairs. In the 28th chapter there is an eloquent description of the wonders of technology as it was then practised. But technology cannot answer the question 'Where shall wisdom be found?' and it is only when the living god speaks his own word that Job finds that in which his restless mind can rest. Our technology has made this planet 'one world' in a sense never before contemplated. But this produces not more unity but more conflict. There was a time when Christians joined with others in thinking that our 'civilisation' was the key to making one world. (Traces of that belief still linger on in the movement for 'world-development', which means assisting the rest of the world to follow the way Europe and its off-shoots have gone). Multi-culturalism is a reaction against this, but it seems that nothing can stop the spread of western science and technology and these can never be totally amputated from the tree on which they have grown. What is the reality which could make possible the unity of the human race? Only the deed of the one who is creator and lord. And that deed, the word made flesh in the ministry, death and resurrection of him in whom all things hold together, has been done. It is in the field of public truth, of education and politics and economics, that the Church has to make this known, and make it credible through the witness of a community in which people of many cultures acknowledge one truth and one supreme good.

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