Newsletter 8 - Winter 1991
(lead article only)
Theism and Atheism in Theology
Bishop Lesslie NewbiginOne element in the much neglected doctrine of divine providence is that the books which unexpectedly fall on my desk are so marvellously timed. The distinguished Muslim scholar Shabir Akhtar has written a robust defence of natural theology in The Light in the Enlightenment: Christianity and the Secular Heritage (London, Grey Seal, pp 213, 1990) and was kind enough to send me a copy. The Roots of Modern Atheism by Michael Buckley SJ (Yale University Press, pp 450,1987) came by kindness of a friend. That the divine providence has also its irony is illustrated in the fact that the Jesuit Buckley finds the roots of atheism precisely in the plot where the Muslim Akhtar seeks foundations for theism.
Shabir Akhtar' s work is lucid, well-informed and closely argued a work in the true spirit of the Enlightenment. He seeks to defend a theism which is common to Judaism, Christianity and Islam but his main business is with Christianity. His definition of this religion (p 48) omits incarnation, trinity, fall and atonement and this has fateful consequences for the argument. He is deeply concerned to re-establish the possibility of religious belief in a secular age, and he recognizes that Islam has yet to meet the challenge of the Enlightenment. As he wryly re- marks, 'It may require a major heretical movement to create the Muslim response to modernity' (p 177). He attacks the criticisms of natural theology which come from the 'fideists' (Kierkegaard and Barth the chief villains) and the positivists. He takes vigorous swipes against the 'reductionists' (egTillich and Bultman) and the 'revisionists' (much of contemporary main-line Protestant theology).
In spite of some recognition of the cognitive function of faith he works with a sharp dichotomy between reason, which alone can provide certain knowledge, and faith which affirms things given by revelation but not certified by reason. He regrets Augustine's marriage of faith and reason in the slogan '1 believe in order to understand' , and applauds by contrast the method of Aquinas - namely to establish those things (such as the existence of God) which can be certified by reason, and then go on to those further things which faith accepts as revelation. He recognizes the need for 'a teleological interpretation of man and nature' , but acknowledges the difficulty of 'finding some uncontentiously true premises' for such a belief (p 158). As he wistfully remarks: 'The difficulty is, of course, to locate some Archimedean point which is neutral between faith and unbelief' (p 159). Quite so! As a believer, Akhtar longs to see the revival of belief in God in a secular world. As a scholar of great honesty and clarity, he has to conclude that the case for theism falls short of proof.
Michael Buckley, who is Professor of systematic theology at the University of Notre Dame, finds the root of the problem at the point where Akhtar looks for a solution. How was it possible, he asks in effect, that Aquinas, in the third part of his great work, speaks of Jesus Christ as the one who 'demonstrated in himself the way of truth for us' , while in the first part of the work he has already undertaken to demonstrate the truths of God, creation and the human soul without reference to Jesus? And how was it that the Christian theologians, who at the turn of the 16th and 17th centuries undertook to prove the existence of God in face of scepticism, did so purely as an exercise in philosophy and without reference to Jesus Christ? It is Buckley's thesis that the roots of mod- em atheism lie here. What happened was a profound self-alienation of religion. Religious faith was denied cognitive validity; it had to be validated on other grounds. There was a self-contradiction between the religious substance of belief and the philosophical form in which it was defended. Buckley uses a Hegelian frame to show how this inner contra- diction had to work out as atheism. The God whose existence was proved by Descartes (from human subjectivity) and by Newton (from cosmic design) was a matter of inference from other realities, not of personal knowledge. The arguments used to prove the existence of God could in the 19th century be neatly turned in the opposite direction. It made much more sense to argue that the supreme being demonstrated by Descartes was in fact matter in motion, and that the many disorderly elements in the cosmos could be better explained in that way than by the hypothesis of an omnipotent and omniscient Designer.
Thus modem atheism is not the result of supposed attack on religion by the new science. The pioneers of science were theists eager to prove the existence of God. It was rather that, in an age sickened by the rival fanaticisms of Christians claiming revelation, the theologians sought the help of philosophy and this help was gladly given. But it was inevitable that the troops called in to defend the city would eventually take it over. The citizens had rejected their only true defence. 'The Christian God cannot have a more fundamental witness than Jesus Christ, even antecedent to the commitments of faith. Christian theology cannot abstract from Christology in order to shift the challenge for this foundational warrant onto philosophy… If one abrogates this (Christological) evidence one abrogates this God' (p361).
These two books, read together, stir far-ranging thoughts, both about Muslim-Christian relations and about 'The Gospel and Our Culture'. I am moved by Shabir Akhtar's deep concern for the recovery of belief in God in the context of 'modernity'. I respond to his protest against what he rightly calls the frivolity of much contemporary debate about God. But I am convinced by reading Buckley's magisterial survey (which it is absurd to treat in a few sentences) that theology runs into the sand when it seeks some grounds supposedly more reliable than God's revelation of himself in Jesus Christ.
Is it one of the main reasons for the rejection of God by our culture that we have come to expect a kind of knowledge which only God can have? The proof of God can only be at the end. We know in part; we look for the day when we shall know as we have been known. Our knowledge is a response to a calling. It is a venture of trust. All human beings are called to know and to confess truth, and we can only do so with the faith that there is truth to be known. Christians are those who have accepted the call to follow Jesus on the way that he took and that he is, in the faith that it will lead to truth in its fullness. If we seek some other re-assurance, we have missed the point and missed the way. Assurance is not to be found by arguments from other grounds (in nature or human nature) but as we press forward in the way and find that more and more of our experience of nature and human nature finds coherence because it has its coherence in Christ. Jesus said: 'If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth' (John 8.31). Truth is a future assurance which beckons, not a possession of our own.
Christians on the defensive are apt to look around for alliances. Buckley's book is a powerful warning against such. They are fatal in the end, because they confuse the real issue, which is between faith and no faith in Jesus as the one in who God's purpose of good for the whole cosmos is revealed and put into effect.
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Newsletter 9 (Spring '91)
(lead article only)
The Gospel as Public Truth
Bishop Lesslie Newbigin
This is the title chosen for the National Consultation in July 1992 for which the programme on 'The Gospel and Our Culture' has been and is preparatory. Having now seen chapters of the book which Bishop Hugh Montefiore is editing as the basic material for the Consultation I am excited about what is in store. These papers, the work of acknowledged leaders in various fields of public life, begin to flesh out in an exciting way the implications of the Gospel for various sectors of public life.
But the title also raises questions. 'Public truth' it is said, 'does not exist. There is no official dogma'! But even without a National Curriculum it would surely be hard to deny that all our children are expected to know certain things by the time they leave school, and (unless we are very cynical) expected to believe that they are true. The question is whether the Gospel forms part of this public truth, even if only as a contestant among others, or whether it is outside.
The other term in the title, 'The Gospel', provokes a different set of questions. 'What do you mean by 'The Gospel?" I am asked by puzzled theologians. "Is it different from 'Christianity'? The latter is a very heterogeneous affair; which of the various brands are you promoting as a challenger for 'our culture'?" My answer is "Yes, Christianity is constantly changing, but there is a Gospel which does not change and which provides the bench-mark against which varying brands of Christianity have to be assessed." Can this be maintained? I believe so. The Gospel is the story of things which have happened. What has happened has happened and cannot be changed. But of course the way these happenings are understood changes. The historian E H Carr described his craft as a continuing conversation between the present and the past. History is being constantly re-written, not only because fresh evidence turns up, but also because past events are understood differently in the light of new experience. Christian theology is, in one aspect, a continual conversation between the present Church and the past events for which the Bible is the evidence.
Within the New Testament itself the story is told in different ways, and yet it is recognizable as the story of things which really happened. The fact that Jesus did not write a definitive version of the Gospel; that we have not one but four versions (to the scandal of Muslims) is not an unfortunate weakness. It is evidence that the conversation began immediately and that our Lord intends it to go on. It is surely absurd to say, as some theologians do say, that what we have in the New Testament is not reliable evidence for 'what really happened', but evidence of the faith and religious experience of the early Christians cast into narrative form. Of course the New Testament is evidence of the faith of the disciples - faith about what had really happened. And of course this faith is shaped by their culture. But it would be a strange cultural chauvinism which led us to suppose that our culture gives us a better means of knowing 'what really happened' than the culture of first century Palestine.
It is not difficult to bring a little 'hermeneutic of suspicion' to bear on this kind of scholarship. One of the obvious features of 'modern' (as distinct from 'post-modern') culture is the belief that there is available to us a body of 'objective facts' , a knowledge which is disinfected of all subjectivity, a kind of knowledge from which the knowing subject has been eliminated. It is not difficult to detect the cultural conditioning of the famous phrase 'what really happened'. It implies that it is possible to have an understanding of past events which is not affected by the cultural formation of the historian. It suggests that E H Carr's conversation can now come to a full stop, for there cannot be any further amendment to the knowledge of 'what really happened'. But of course this whole way of thinking is a very natural one, for it is part of our human nature that we imagine ourselves to be in the unique position of understanding how things really are. In truth the conversation has to go on until the end of the world. Christian theology has to be continually seeking afresh to understand those events which form the substance of the Gospel, the events which we recite in the ecumenical creeds and of which we have the primary evidence in the Bible. The continuing conversation which is the task of the Church must exclude two possibilities. It cannot merely repeat the words of creed or scripture; that would be to negate the intention of Jesus who did not write a Qr'an but formed a community of fallible men and women. It cannot float away from the testimony of those first disciples to follow wherever the wind is blowing. It has to bring all the powers which contemporary culture may have equipped it to bear on the understanding of 'what really happened'. And it has the promise of Jesus that the Spirit will lead us into the fullness of the truth.
The evidence for the events which we tell in preaching the Gospel is far stronger than the evidence for events of the same period about which historians write with a confidence sharply contrasted with the scepticism of many biblical scholars. And the reason for this is not hard to see. Any information about past events which is brought to our attention can only be grasped by means of the conceptual framework which has been given to us by our cultural formation. It must be told in a language we understand. It must 'make sense' , must be capable of comprehension within our understanding of 'how things are'. Some reports of events cause us little disturbance. They do not disrupt normal patterns. Others may cause surprise, astonishment, unbelief. If the evidence is strong enough, we may in the end be forced to 'change our mind' about how things are. The report of events which is the Gospel is of such a kind that it calls for the most radical possible 'change of mind'. That is signalled in the first announcement of the good news according to Mark. What is announced is only credible as good news if there is a radical metanoia, a U-turn of the mind. One of the weaknesses of much Christian apologetic is that it fails to take this seriously. The fact that the Good News Bible can translate this crucial word as 'turn away from your sins' makes Jesus into a mere revivalist. There is a danger that the Decade of Evangelism may be interpreted in this way and fail to embody a clear call to a radical conversion of the mind. And since no one can live a totally privatized religion the call has to be addressed to the public life of society. The Gospel is public truth. In the continuing conversation which is the life of the Church, we have to use our own ways of thinking as we seek to grasp the meaning of the Gospel for our time. But we have first to believe the Gospel - and that means a radical 'change of mind', I hope that the National Consultation in 1992 will help to make more clear what that change of mind will involve, and even help to make it happen.
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Newsletter 10 (Summer '91)
(lead article and response)
Word of God?
Rev John Coventry, SJ
I think Roman Catholics can make a special contribution to the Newsletter's field of interest. Firstly, because they do not share the assumption of other Churches about the bible. (Capital 'C' for Church, small 'b' for bible!) Secondly because, though I am convinced that Lesslie Newbigin has raised the right questions, and that he is dead right in discerning the core of Christian unease about the Enlightenment in its epistemology, I think, as I indicated in Newsletter 8, that RCs would go for different answers. And thirdly, because the RC tradition, in its academic and teaching world, never bought the Enlightenment's epistemology (it fed on the far more satisfactory Aquinas till well into this century), though it must be admitted it took a longish time to recognize the value of autonomy in the natural sciences and all human disciplines.
Now, that is a fullish programme and no one would attempt it in one article. So I will simply take the bible and expand my telegraphic remarks in Newsletter 8. And we may need to recall that we are on about the Gospel and not the bible and our culture.
Culture The remarks in question were to the effect that our faith does not rest on scripture but vice versa. It was R G Collingwood who pointed out some sixty years ago that we all have assumptions of which we are unaware, and so we can never question them. And it has been argued that GOC is attempting the impossible in questioning the assumptions of our own culture, trying to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. Well, the RC tradition does not share the assumptions about the Enlightenment which afflict Anglo-Saxon academia. Nor does it share the Reformed assumption that Christian faith rests on scripture - which gets one into real trouble in the wake of modern biblical scholarship: there ensues a frenetic and necessarily hopeless search for an original pure authentic Gospel; or the actual words and deeds of Jesus -which if preserved on audio would not be the Gospel since he had not yet died and risen; or 'the authentic' portrait of Jesus, which of course could not exist. In any case, it is surely obvious that there must first be a faith (Jewish, Christian, Islamic etc) before it can express itself verbally and in other ways; a People progressively experiencing God in its history (i.e. life), before there can be an OT; a Prophet and believers, before there can be a Koran - though in this case subsequent Islamic faith does uniquely, though not exclusively, rest on scripture (and tradition). Scripture rests on existing faith throughout their history for Judaism and Christianity. Christian faith (and that needs another article, or book, e.g. my Theology of Faith, Mercier Press, 1968) rests on Christ encountered as God's self-communication in other people, particularly believing Christians such as our mothers. Here begins the whole difference between Catholic and Protestant traditions: the former regards people as absolute and prior, and words as relative and secondary (Capital 'C' for Church, small 'b' for bible ...!).
An exact definition of the NT would be: it is that verbal witness to the faith of the apostolic Church, as it developed varying doctrinal expression, which gained eventual recognition as classic (see my Christian Truth, Darton Longman & Todd, 1975, p 45). And every phrase of that definition requires explanation.
What needs to be stressed here is that, whereas from the outset the witnesses to the Risen Jesus interpreted the Christ-event in terms of the Jewish scriptures, they did so variously, unsystematically, and not in the light of all the OT but of only some of its themes, aspirations, images, stories. Succinctly, one can make various comments on these facts:
1 All human expressions of God's self-communication, disclosure, revelation, are inadequate to the reality grasped and are culturally limited and conditioned (including those of Jesus). There are no words of God. There are words of men, guided by God's Spirit but never adequately responding to him and sometimes distorting, as they attempt to express the message (logos) of God - which is always himself as he gives himself to us (the message is the Messenger). To translate the dabar of God as 'word' when it means creative breath coming from God's mouth and effecting his will, and to translate logos as God's word when it means message, content, able to be put into a great variety of words, God's self-gift as grasped by us - can be misleading and push towards literalism. In his recent Reason and Reality (SPCK) John Polkinghorne interestingly observes that students of the natural sciences are used to looking up expert knowledge in text books, and so are prone to be fundamentalists and to use the bible that way.
2 But the OT is not Christian literature. To what extent it may be regarded as Christian is a complex and keenly debated question (as indeed is the question whether 'Holy Scripture' is a Christian idea at all, since it was unheard of in the OT , surfaced in inter-testamental literature and appears in the latest of NT documents). Paul thought bits of the OT were spoken as 'types' (by way of allegory) for our instruction. John believed the OT Scriptures to be the oracles of God, and that the same God who had spoken in partial and shadowy ways through the prophets had now spoken fully in his Son. The OT was indispensable to the understanding of the character and purpose of God, but it must be read in the light of the fuller illumination of Christ' (G B Caird, The Revelation of St John the Divine, A & C Black 1984). Origen developed the idea of allegorical interpretation of the OT in masterly fashion, and profoundly saw it as solely having value for a Christian in so far as it revealed Christ, a method which has been vastly misunderstood and underestimated by many rather toffee-nosed modern scholars, who are nevertheless right in pointing out that the method lacked criteria of truth and wandered at will. They have yet to prod uce a better one.
3 So we mislead the faithful if we treat every part (sentence? verse? chapter? story?) of the bible as of equal value to Christians as any other part. Not even every 'part' of the NT is. And if we simply stay with and draw morals from an OT reading, we are not necessarily doing anything better, and could be doing a great deal worse than ruminating on Plato or Herodotus ('the father of lies') or Shakespeare -who was after all a Christian -or Nietzsche or even Don Cupitt.
Bishop Lesslie Newbigin
The piece which I wrote in the last newsletter on 'The Gospel as Public Truth' has drawn fire from several directions. In addition to the preceding article from Father John Coventry, I have been charged from both sides of the Protestant divide, from the conservative side on the ground that I have failed to honour the infallibility of Scripture, and from the liberal side that my distinction between an unchanging gospel and a changing Christianity cannot stand. It is also significant that the only one of the seminar groups in preparation for the 1992 Consultation which was a failure was the group on authority. There is, plainly, need for serious debate about the grounds upon which we who are part of 'modem' culture 'can presume to address our culture in the name of 'The Gospel'. One of the good things (it seems to me) that have come out of this programme has been that it has provided a forum where these very important differences can be frankly discussed in the context of a common longing that our 'modem' world may come to recognize Jesus as truly Lord.
Father John Coventry, to whom we are deeply indebted for his vigorous support, is afraid that we might be biblicists 'who treat every word of the Bible as equally of value to Christians', and who think that Christian faith rests on the Bible rather than vice versa. He thinks that the Enlightenment has been a snare for Protestants rather than for Roman Catholics, and there is much truth in this (although I do see intriguing glimpses of the Enlightenment peeping through his writing when he speaks of Israel 'progressively experiencing God' rather than of God speaking at sundry times to Israel, and when he speaks of the 'autonomy' of all human disciplines).
A short article is no place for a thorough discussion of the issues, but I would like to respond to those who have commented by making a few staccato points.
1 I cannot do better than begin by quoting the opening sentence of the Vatican II statement on Divine Revelation: "Hearing the word of God with reverence and proclaiming it confidently, this most sacred Synod takes its direction from these words of St John: 'We announce to you the eternal life which was with the Father and has appeared to us. What we have seen and have heard we announce to you in order that you also may have fellowship with us'". The whole life of the Church depends upon this testimony of the first witnesses. This testimony is, of course, an expression of their faith. But it is not their faith which is the foundation; it is that reality which their faith confesses, namely God's action in the incarnation of the Word in the man Jesus Christ. They do not direct our attention to their own faith, but to that upon which their faith rests. Our faith, like theirs, rests upon that, but we are dependent always upon their testimony, and we come to know its truth as we continue in their fellowship.
2 It is of the greatest importance that we have this testimony not in a single infallible transcript of the words and acts of Jesus, but in the testimony of the apostles in the form of four 'gospels', and in a series of apostolic documents which interpret the incarnation of God's word in Jesus in different ways according to the different circumstances of the writers and those they were addressing. Jesus did not write a book, as he might have done. The only writing of his of which we have record was in the dust at his feet. If we regret that we do not have an infallible transcript, then we have misunderstood the intention of Jesus. So I cheerfully I go along with Father John in his castigation of the 'frenetic and necessarily hopeless search' for the authentic original which has sometimes occurred in Protestant theology. Every attempt by human beings to grasp in human words what God has done in Jesus Christ must necessarily be expressed in the terms of the culture of which those human beings are a part. Here we touch on one of the disastrous illusions which the Enlightenment has bequeathed to us, namely the illusion that there can be a kind of 'infallible' and 'indubitable' knowledge which is entirely free of subjective elements. There is no human knowing which is not the knowing of a human subject, and every human subject is part of a specific human culture, using a specific language as the means by which we try to understand the realities which confront us. But the fact that all human knowing is thus subjective does not mean that it is not a knowing (always an imperfect knowing) of an objective reality. It is part of the faith which we have in Christ that, while we now know only in part, we shall in the end know fully, and that meanwhile we seek 'with all the saints' to grasp more fully the mystery of God's incarnation in Jesus Christ.
3 I cannot help thinking that another important element in the legacy of the Enlightenment is at work here. John Milbank in his massive work on 'Theology and Social Theory' has pointed out that the immense influence of the Newtonian model of the universe created a climate of thought in which it seemed that reliable claims to truth must be expressed in the form of timeless statements having the law-like character of Newtonian cosmology. From this perspective one can understand the oft quoted statement of Lessing that contingent facts of history cannot prove eternal truths of reason. In the post-modernist revolt against the Enlightenment Lessing's logic is reversed: the so-called eternal truths of reason are in fact products of contingent facts of history. If one can probe their 'archaeology' (Foucault) their claims to eternal truth are debunked. I cannot help thinking that at this point Christians are on the side of the post-modernists (though coming to very different conclusions because we have a different history to tell). As I understand it, the Christian claim to be on the way to truth does not rest on supposedly infallible 'eternal truths' which are indubitable and therefore leave no place for the risky exercise of faith, but on the essential reliability of a story, a story involving fallible human beings in their response to the call of God, a story of which the point has been disclosed in the action of God in the incarnation of the Word in Jesus. It is this which gives us the clue for the interpretation of the whole story. I suggest (and it would need along essay to justify this) that this way of understanding the truth is alone capable of withstanding the attack of the post-modernists and deconstructionists on the possibility of any such thing as truth.
4 I was startled by Father John's statement that 'The Old Testament is not Christian literature'. No doubt in a more extended piece he would have explained this statement. It is certainly in sharp contrast to the statement of Vatican II in its chapter on 'Sacred Scripture' (always with a capital 'S'!): 'Holy Mother Church, relying on the belief of the apostles, holds that the books of the Old and New Testaments, in their entirety with all their parts, are sacred and canonical because, having been written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (Scripture references) they have God as their author and have been handed on as such to the Church herself'. Surely it is indeed true, as Father John says, that the Old Testament is to be read in the light of Christ, but it is equally true and important that the Incarnation cannot be understood except in the light of the Old Testament. I must confess that I could not put my signature to the above-quoted conciliar statement as it stands, but I do believe that we cannot speak effectively of the Gospel as a word addressed to our culture unless we recover a sense of the Scriptures as a canonical whole, as the story which provides the true context for our understanding of the meaning of our lives - both personal and public.
5 I think it is entirely good that we should argue with each other as we try to clarify our understanding of the role of Scripture in the mission of the Church. I think that some things (such as the post-modernist revolt against modernism to which I have referred) make this a good time for the discussion. Since the invention of printing made the Bible available to everyone - believer or unbeliever - the Church has not been able to come to an agreed and coherent doctrine of Scripture. It is therefore important that we listen to each other and argue with each other. But I believe that we do it in the framework of a common conviction that the Bible is not just a selection of the many varieties of 'religious experience' but the indispensable testimony to that upon which our faith rests, namely the fact that God has acted savingly and decisively to reveal and effect his purpose for all human beings and all creation. It is through the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the universal Church of all ages and places that we both begin to understand the revelation and begin to share in the salvation.
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Newsletter 11 (Autumn '91)
(lead article only)
Consultation 1992 - Tricking Down
Lesslie Newbigin's writings have emerged from his missionary sensitivity to the inability of a people to 'hear' the Gospel. Where some evangelical leaders might ascribe this to a generalized wickedness, and pray for revival or march for Jesus, some liberal leaders fiddle with language and doctrines, attempting to render them more palatable.
Both are right in that they perceive that things are awry. Both are only half right in their prescriptions. Lesslie, whose critique has attracted enthusiasts on both sides of this phoney divide stands in the cross-fire, accused of being, by turns, fundamentalist or unscriptural - and the charges don't stop there.
Evangelical Rob Warner, a former Senior Editor of Hodders' Christian books and pastor of Herne Hill Baptist Church says: 'We're not sure where The Gospel and Our Culture is going after the Consultation. Will they be able to hand on the torch, or could the movement risk being too dependent on men who may not have too many years of active service left?' 'The second question is, to what extent are the cultural forms that shaped the second world war generation removed actually from contemporary culture today at the mass level? It may be that these men are able only to engage in discussion at an academic level. There may need to be a complementary discussion in terms of post-second world war mass culture.'
Put crudely, he's suggesting the masterminds of the programme are too old, too academic and too out of touch. That sector of the Church where today's energy is - the evangelical, traditionally mission-minded Spring Harvest-type troopers who are engaging mass culture here in its own idiom, albeit superficially, cannot yet 'hear' Lesslie Newbigin. Warner's certainly articulating an unease at the unfashionable but unashamed 'trickle down' principle on which the 1992 Consultation has been engineered - while admitting 'there's always been a tendency among evangelicals to be anti-intellectual and suspicious of innovative analysis.'
The so-called liberal wing of the Church, on the other hand, takes issue with the progenitors of the movement over their 'theological method'. John Gathercole, Archdeacon of Dudley, described the conference he helped sponsor in Malvern in July -Malvern II - as a 'pilgrimage'. He takes issue with The Gospel and Culture group over what he describes as its 'return to first principles' - meaning biblical principles of mission. In a critical paper Beeby, fully aware of the glass house in which he sits - no one can predict the 1992 Consultation's own success, accused the Malvern organizers of failing to see that the Church's contribution to Europe could only be missionary. Pilgrimage was far too laid back an approach to Europe's ills.
'I heard little that suggested that Europe was in large part a Christian creation and that in the fairly recent rejection of what brought it into being and helped maintain it for so long, it was endangering its very existence.'
The Consultation 'The Gospel as Public Truth' next year at Swanwick is an unprecedented opportunity for those across the spectrum who at least recognize there's a problem, and discern the glimmer of an answer, albeit academic at this stage, to test the future together on the basis of a clear thesis - which according to Dr Beeby Malvern lacked.
That thesis is that the Christian Gospel has at least as many credentials as any critique, overt or unacknowledged, to be the basis of meaning, unity and hope in the public life of our society - and, by inference, those it touches - and can be taken seriously at the root intellectual -and then, any other, level.
The Consultation will take place over six days from 11 July at Swanwick. It has taken ten years to prepare. A major element of the work has been identifying those eminent Christians - or sympathetic non-Christians -thinking intelligently about their work 'in the culture' in the light of the Gospel worldview and getting their focussed thoughts in writing through a series of seminars held in 1989/90. Those reckoned best able to stimulate further thought were invited to contribute one of eight essays in the Consultation book 'The Gospel and Contemporary Culture' to be published in January by Mowbrays.
Lawrence Osborn, freelance writer, academic and evangelical Anglican, compiled the lists of invitations. He sought to identify those seeking not a return to medieval Church power, but credibility for a Christian voice on what they were doing. 'An artist should not be ashamed, from a Christian perspective, to say this is good art, that is bad art: says Lawrence.
The result is a book whose contributors number eight academics, three of whom are women, and three of whom are also respectively a psychiatrist, a teacher, and a professional musician. Churchmanship is similarly broad - one's a Baptist, two are Roman Catholic, one's 'sympathetic' -and none are over 70.
As well as art the book represents history, science, philosophy, economics, education, healing and mass communication. For the economics section for example, Osborn trawled the CBl, the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, bankers, and the British North American Research Association as well as academia. The Consultation itself aims to comprise a wider core of about 200 carefully targeted thinkers and artists, identified by similar criteria, and organized into the eight sections corresponding to the book. The health section promises to be especially lively in light of cultural 'norms'. Says Osborn (37): 1 have tried to tap into the current wave of interest in Christian healing. It's simply not enough for a Christian perspective on health to be a critique of the way the NHS is, or the way it's being dismantled. The Gospel has things to say itself about healing.' He has steered between the rocks of an issues-based critique and what he describes as 'the charismatic raisers of the dead.'
'The ones I know are not likely to give a very good account of themselves in serious discussions' , says Osborn. 'They are likely to foreclose discussions by saying things like 'the Bible says' -which is OK, but we are in the business of unpacking things a bit. This picks up on Warner's view of an 'anti-intellectual tendency' among some evangelicals.
It's been left to Lesslie Newbigin to produce a separate leading paper on biblical authority, under-girding all.
The book, to be reviewed in a later issue, is included in the conference fee. In its breadth, depth and readability it demonstrates the authentic ferment the Gospel is, beneath all the 'hyping up' or 'hyping down' the 'visible' Church seems to think necessary to be taken seriously today. Here are influential people whose lives are a battle ground for the truth versus the tragic rag-tag battalion of values and ideologies that have passed for public doctrine for too long.
While certainly not 'mass culture' the book none-the-less gripped this 35-year old female evangelical, who once was a newspaper reporter in Swindon and does not possess a PhD in Theology or Literature. She very much regrets not having been able to 'hear' the Gospel until she was 28 because no-one had tried hard enough to address her cultural and intellectual blocks and prejudices. Only Lesslie Newbigin reached those parts. It's trickling down.
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