Newsletter 12 (Spring '92)

(lead article only)

A Christian Vedanta?

Bishop Lesslie Newbigin

When the Regius Professor of Divinity in the University of Oxford tells us that he can no longer hold the faith which he formerly held in the Incarnation, this is an event of public interest. In a closely argued and per- suasive book Professor Keith Ward (A Vision to Pursue. SCM Press 1991, £9.95) sets out his reasons. If Jesus was God, he must have been omniscient and his teachings inerrant. But they were not. He taught the imminent end of the world, and it has not happened. 'The whole Christian Gospel is founded on a mistake' (p18). In fact we know almost nothing of the real Jesus. What we have is evidence of the spiritual experience of some of his followers arising from their encounter with him. The Gospel narratives are 'historical retrojections of present spiritual relationships to God' (p112) . This is not a matter for surprise since 'all past history is in principle irrecoverable' (p32). What we have in the Gospels is not historical fact as the basis for religious belief, but present religious experience rendered as narrative. The function of narrative is that it expresses and evokes religious feeling. Thus the stories told about Jesus and the stories told about Krishna and the cowgirls are both to be valued as expressing and evoking a feeling of God's love. The question 'Did it really happen?' is of no importance (pp4-5). We can never know 'what really happened' and the obsession of the Enlightenment with this question has to be set aside.

Religion is not about objectively ascertainable facts but about inward spiritual experience. The world religions are not monolithic blocks but developing traditions of spiritual experience. They have wide areas of mutual overlap and their internal disagreements are often sharper than their inter-religious ones. Christianity is no exception. Jesus was a man exceptionally but not uniquely sensitive to the Supreme. But this does not mean that Ward opts for a pluralism of the style of Hick, in which all religions are equally valid ways of salvation. Religion can be good or bad, and there are good and bad elements in all religions. We must choose the best from every religion. Ward therefore proposes a model of 'convergent pluralism'. The religious traditions must and will grow together.

If it is asked 'What are the criteria for such convergence?' the answer is that there are 'values' which are absolute and autonomous (i.e. not dependent on 'any religious or factual beliefs about the world' (pI87). These values are: happiness, rationality, wisdom, knowledge, freedom and justice (pp185 ff). This is not an arbitrary list; these and no others are the absoute values. They constitute 'absolute criterion for discrimination in religion' (pI87). The goal towards which all religions must look is the 'realization' of these values (pI91) . Contemporary evolutionary thinking encourages hope for this. All religions must be 'internalized' and 'universalized' (pI60). But all must also 'pass through the fires of the Enlightenment' as Christianity has had to do (p200). The ultimate goal is a 'Christian Vedanta' bringing together the Semitic concept of a personal purposeful God, and the Indian concept of the Inclusive Self (atma-brahma).

I spoke of this as a 'persuasive' book. In the days when I used to spend evenings studying the Upanishads with the monks of the Ramakrishna Mission in Kancheepuram I remember saying to their leader that if it were not for the fact of Jesus I would become a Vedantin, since it is the most complete intellectual system ever conceived. It leaves no loose ends. His good-humoured response was that, if I wanted to tie my eternal salvation to a set of disputable historical events, I must be mad. But that is the whole point. Is true human fulfilment to be found by 'internalizing' all religion, withdrawing it from contact with a world of happenings? In a long and subtle argument Ward seeks to show that there is no essential difference between saying 'On Calvary God suffered for my sake' and saying 'God sympathizes with all human suffering'. I fear the argument does not stand up. And, on the other hand, if it is really true that 'the Son of God loved me and gave himself up for me' (Gal 2:20) then that stupendous fact has to be the starting point for my understanding of the world.

Everything depends on the starting point. Ward's starting point is a set of metaphysical beliefs about 'The Supreme' and about 'values' . If these are accepted then of course it is absurd to claim that Jesus was God in human form,_Qne can have fun elaborating the absurdities, as Ward does in his argument with Brian Hebblethwaite. On the other hand, one can take the Gospel narrative as starting point - not as a set of 'infallible' propositions which I must accept whether or not I understand them, but as the light that constantly illuminates the path I have to find as I make my way through life, and challenges the smallness of my understanding with new perspectives. Ward repeatedly attacks fundamentalist claims for indubitable certainty concerning the biblical testimony, and of course his attack is effective. But he shares the Enlightenment belief that there is indubitable certainty available to us; he has no doubts about the metaphysical categories which he uses.

But, against both Ward and the fundamentalists whom he attacks, we have to affirm that all human knowledge is a venture of faith in which we can be mistaken. All our knowing is shaped by our culture. We are seekers, but do not have to be without clues. We all have to begin by taking certain things for granted, and Ward, in spite of his brilliant description of the wasteland into which the Enlightenment has led us (p201), still takes it for granted that it is the 'fires of the Enlightenment' which must determine what in religion can endure and what is dross. His basic assumptions are those of the Enlightenment, and his 'values' are absolute, not tentative or provisional. With these assumptions it is of course impossible to treat the Gospel narratives as true; Ward's reconstruction of what 'must have happened' is speculation required by the initial dogma, and has no independent claim to truth.

Ward is of course right in saying that Christianity is a changing and developing movement, and that religions are not marked off from each other by sharp edges. But an entity can be as well identified by its centre as by its edges. Christianity is identified by the place it gives to Jesus and this is an adequate account of its distinctiveness in all its variety. But for Ward the word 'Jesus' does not stand for an objective reality. We have only early Christian religious experience. Ward even suggests that we might be on surer ground if a camera crew had followed Jesus through his ministry (p41) and there are other examples of a very odd sense of 'objectivity', as though we had some kind of access to reality which by-passed human judgement. His extreme scepticism about the Gospel narratives is surely an example of the kind of positivism which he so brilliantly demolishes in his chapter on science - the view that scientists are not in touch with reality because they have only sense-data and instrument readings.

I have to ask: What is the ontological status of Ward's 'values'? In what sense are they real? They have yet to be 'realized' in some distant future. They are not dependent on any beliefs about the world, but nevertheless there is value 'inherent in the world process itself' (pI46). The 'anthropic principle' regarded by some (by no means all) cosmologists as suggesting purpose in the cosmos is invoked at this point, but to speak of 'purpose' unless there is a personal being whose purpose it is, must be as absurd as the 19th century idea of the cosmos as a machine designed by nobody for no purpose. Yet, in typically Vedantin fashion, any references to God as personal are under the heavy shadow of an impersonal 'Supreme'. One is not encountered by a living God who has a name and a character .

I have also to ask for the grounds for Ward's optimism that the religions will converge towards the realization of value. Since the past is as unknowable as the future, there can be no grounds for believing in progress. It is hard to see that there is any basis for Ward's optimism except the general ideology of evolution. If we are thinking in cosmological terms, the time-arrow points the other way, towards total entropy. And even if one accepts Ward's optimistic scenario, the Omega point at which the religions converge in the full realization of value is something in which I will have no place. It is a vision of progress for the human race, but not for the individual soul. Here is where the eschatological teaching of the New Testament is so important. Jesus' predictions of an imminent end to the present age provide Ward with his main reason for rejecting belief in the incarnation. But he ignores entirely the many other words of Jesus concerning the need for long patience, and his saying that even the Son does not know the time of the end. If one takes Jesus' eschatological teaching as a whole, it is clear that it offers a vision of the future which transcends the dichotomy between hope for the individual soul and hope for the world, a vision which inspires both alertness and patience. But Ward's prior views of what incarnation must mean preclude him from understanding that the incarnate Son could say that he did not know.

Much of Ward's polemic is directed against religious claims to infallibility, and some of it is justified. But Ward claims the same kind of infallibility for his position. The values are absolute and no rational human being can contradict them. This may be so, but a rational person could also enquire about the absence of love from among the values. This is not accidental. The only point at which interpersonal relations enter into the catalogue of values is filled by the word 'justice' .But this vital concept is not identical with love although it is a necessary manifestation of love. But for Ward interpersonal relations have no central place. The ultimate realities are abstract nouns. We are not encountered by other people or by events in the real world. A nice illustration is provided when Ward argues that 'a God of universal love must act to redeem (people) whether they have heard of Jesus or not' (p93). Thus redemption is detached from any events of history. One could equally argue that a God of love should feed the hungry whether anyone gives them bread or not.

For the Vedantin the absolute claims which Christians make for Jesus are offensive. But the Christian who enters into deep converse with Vedantins soon learns that the claims of the Vedanta are equally absolute. Jesus can never be more than one illustration of a truth which is known only in inward experience. Two absolutes meet. But how can it be otherwise? We are human beings, not God. Both Christian fundamentalists and Vedantins have seemed to claim a kind of infallible certainty which surely belongs only to God. We are all under obligation, as part of our calling as human beings, to seek the truth and to bear witness to the truth as we understand it. We have to begin somewhere. We have to start with assumptions, and normally start with the common assumptions of our society as Ward does. The Gospel is news of events which provide another starting point. Christian discipleship is an exploration - spiritual, intellectual, practical - of the real world from this starting point. The 'certainty' of a Christian is not (or ought not to be) a claim to possess full and unrevisable truth. It is a personal trust in one who has proved trustworthy. The Vedantin bases his confidence on inward experience which is not regarded as dependent on historical happenings. Within the Vedanta Christ can only be one among many. 'Christian' may be adjectival; the substantive reality is not changed. From the point of view of the Vedanta reality is one coherent whole. It has a rationality which leaves nothing unexplained. But it, no less than Christianity, rests on a faith commitment. Other commitments have their own inherent rationality. When Christians claim a sort of infallibility that absolves the believer from the venture of faith, they expose themselves to the kind of logic that Ward deploys. Christianity does not make the kind of claim that Ward makes for a belief that no rational person can contradict. To affirm the Gospel as public truth does not (or should not) mean claiming control over the public square. It does mean coming into the public square to bear witness to what God has done as the starting point for all human fulfilment, knowing perfectly well that this witness can be and will be contradicted. After all, that is what Jesus told us to expect.

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Newsletter 13 (Summer '92)

(lead article only)

The End of History

Bishop Lesslie Newbigin

A former official in the US State Department, Francis Fukuyama, has written a book entitled 'The End of History and the Last Man' . Its thesis is that, with the collapse of Marxism as a world-power, history as we have known it has come to an end. Of course the human race will go on, but the age-long battle between civilizations and ideologies is over. There is now only one civilization: liberal democratic capitalism. The only future is the onward march of this form of human life. Of course there will be pockets of resistance to be dealt with in due course - Islam, and old style dictatorships for example. But from now on the whole human race has only one goal: the progressive enlargement and perfection of this form of society, equipped with ever more sophistictaed technologies to ensure its smooth working.

This is, of course, not the first announcement of the end of history . Hegel, who is in the background of this new form of realized eschatology, saw the end of history in the rise of the Prussian state. What is interesting is not this nonsense in itself, but the question why it is taken so seriously. A conference of 1000 intellectuals in London has gathered to hear the guru in person. Why should anyone take this seriously? One can understand how an official of the US State Department, living for years in the midst of the battle against 'The Evil Empire' might feel that the drama has ended. We have won, and there is no more to fight about. But why should the rest of the world take this seriously?

Is it that we cannot live without a story, without some myth that tells us where we have come from and where we are going? The post-modernists tell us that the days of the great 'meta-narrative' are over. They reject the story which sees the world-wide expansion of the civilization developed in Europe as the master-thread of history. As in this year we celebrate the 5OOth anniversary of the voyage of Christopher Columbus to 'discover' a world which was already the homeland of peoples with their own stories, there are the angry voices which see only the genocidal crimes of our 'civilization' and wish to make 1992 a year of mourning. People cannot live forever without a 'meta-narrative', without a story that defines the track we have to travel.

The Gospel is narrative. The ecumenical creeds are narrative in form. The Bible is narrative. This narrative also speaks of the end of history. But it is unique among the stories which human beings have told over the ages to explain the mystery of these short years between birth and death in that it places the end of history beyond history .The most powerful and pervasive of all the narratives has been the cyclical one. Human life, like the rest of the natural world, moves in an endlessly repeated cycle of birth, growth, maturity, decay and death. Religion is then a matter of release from this wheel continuously kept in motion by our karma - the deeds (good or bad) which must have their fruit in the next rotation of the wheel. The 'meta-narrative' of modernity has been linear, the onward march of human mastery over nature. With this master-story it is easy to understand how those who see themselves as the vanguard of the human march can claim to embody the goal of history. The rival narratives have been eliminated.

The Christian narrative has a shape which is neither cyclical nor linear. It is U-shaped. The creed is U- shaped, from the source of all being, down into the depths of hell, and back to the glory of the new creation. Every human life must follow this pattern from the sheer gift of being, a gift from the hand of God, down through manifold trial and struggle to death itself, and, even in death, the assurance and the foretaste of the new being. Christ, and Christ alone, is the end of history, because in Him, the crucified and risen Lord, the new creation is already present. Christians, of all people, have been warned to recognize bogus messiahs.

It is, of course, true that the collapse (temporary or permanent) of Marxism as a world power creates a new situation. It is a situation which, as Charles West of Princeton has pointed out, makes the responsibility resting on Christians heavier than before. Only two serious powers now stand in the way of the relentless expansion of the capitalist ideology, Islam and Christianity. The former is a far more formidable power than Fukuyama seems to recognize. As far as I know, he does not discuss Christianity as a factor in the situation. The power to which history now belongs is described by Fukuyama as liberal democratic capitalism. It is useful to look at each of the three words.

We have to distinguish between the free market as a mechanism and capitalism as an ideology. The former, which has existed from the dawn of history, has been proved to " be the most flexible way of continuously adjusting supply and demand. Capitalism as an ideology is the belief that if everyone pursues self-interest, the outcome will be common good. But Adam Smith, often regarded as the founding father of this doctrine, was clear that it would only be so if society was permeated by certain moral sentiments. He was a moral philosopher before he was an economist. In 18th century Scotland he could still take for granted the 'moral sentiments' which the Church had instilled into every member of society from the first words they learned to speak. It has become obvious now that, uncontrolled by these 'moral sentiments' , capitalism has the consequences which any student of the Bible would recognize as the consequences of unrestrained greed - the development of vast discrepancies in wealth and the disintegration of society since a growing number find themselves alienated from a society which acknowledges no responsibility for the common good. No one can question the astounding achievements of capitalism during the past forty years in raising the material wealth of the affluent sectors of 'developed' nations to levels unimaginable two generations earlier. But it is precisely these affluent communities which require a huge and ever increasing quantity of drugs to cope with the meaninglessness of life and which witness an ever-rising level of violent crime and the disintegration of the most basic element in any healthy society, namely the family. To see no future for the human race except the endless global expansion of this kind of human existence would surely be enough to explain the increasing rate of suicide in the affluent world.

The second word in the formula 'democratic' still has a very honourable ring. But, as with capitalism, we have to look beneath the surface. Democracy as it has developed over many centuries in Europe has deep roots in a Christian culture. One of the main roots of British democracy was in the spiritual struggles of the men of Cromwell's army. The question was how to come to a common mind about what the will of God is. Democracy can only work in the long run if those who are elected to power know themselves to be responsible before God to the whole community and not just to those who voted them into power. If democracy is only the right of a majority to enforce its will on a minority, it is bound to break down, as it has done in so many parts of the world. Like the free market, democracy cannot serve human well-being unless there are 'moral sentiments' which pervade the community .It depends absolutely upon much deeper elements in the culture. In truth the Church must have the boldness to affirm that democracy must necessarily break down unless those who exercise power know that they are responsible to God.

And, once again, the adjective 'liberal' has an honourable ring. It has been the watch-word for many heroic battles against tyranny. But there are good reasons why 'liberalism' as a secular philosophy has become deeply discredited. The rhetoric of liberty is the common currency of all political parties, but true human liberation cannot be the fruit of any political order. The Enlightenment model of the autonomous human agent, disconnected from any acknowledgement of the reality of God, can only lead into the jungle of competing self-interest and the disintegration of society.

Marxism and capitalism, twin children of the Enlightenment, have fought a long battle, and one has been defeated. But that is not the end of history. It creates a new situation in which there is a more urgent need than ever before for the Church to unmask the illusions and deflate the hubris of modernity and to affirm the true end of history which is offered to us now in the person of the one who is both Alpha and Omega and is Lord of all.

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Newsletter 14 (Autumn '92)

The Gospel as Public Truth

Swanwick, July 11-17, 1992

Rev Dr Dan Beeby

When the Editor of the Church of England Newspaper saw the list of the four hundred who were registered for the Consultation he was so impressed (intrigued? surprised?) that he asked for eight articles relating to the Programme. These in four successive issues were a good run-up to the event itself. The nature of the Editor's request also pointed to a significant truth: the participants made the Consultation, they were the Consultation and whatever emerges from the Consultation is largely in their hands - like most of this Newsletter.

There was a prima donna-ish quality about most of them and those who came expecting a trained chorus were disappointed. The keynote speakers sounded a clear note but they were not conductors and the week began with an amazing number of solos in the Sections - some belonging to different operas. There was no shortage of creativity, or, at times, of confusion, even chaos. Monday and Tuesday saw the noisiest dining halls Swanwick had ever experienced and some feared that the centre would not hold - if there was a centre. But the chaos was creative and on Wednesday morning one heard murmurs of miracles happening, that the strife was o'er and that the six-year preparation and not a little fear and trembling were moving, if not in good order, to a kind of triumph.

A correspondent who read the eight articles wrote that they were "enthralling, exciting and encouraging" and that he was "hungry for more". An American participant said that the Consultation "met and even surpassed expectations". Jenny Taylor, one of the Management Group and also the Press Officer, after lamenting over the press coverage wrote: "I have the feeling a kind of invisible bomb went off at Swanwick - and before long the culture will feel the fall-out". Bishop Montefiore writing for The Church Times said "I don't think British Christianity will ever be the same again - a huge claim but I suspect future historians may endorse.

The rest of this Newsletter consists of a series of articles from representative participants who were asked to reflect on their time in Swanwick.



Bishop Hugh Montefiore

Last Friday the four hundred members of The Gospel and Our Culture Consultation dispersed after nearly a week at Swanwick, and I don't think British Christianity will be quite the same again. A big claim; but I suspect future historians may endorse it. This was not a meeting of top Christian leaders, nor of 'the great and the good', but a missionary consultation among people with specialist knowledge in many secular fields of contemporary society. We invited critics too so as to test out our thesis properly. It was a truly ecumenical gathering, with Roman Catholics, members of Black Churches, Evangelicals and central churchmen (and women) happily collaborating, helped by people from twenty countries overseas with their quite different perspectives. Particularly striking were Lamin Sanneh, Gambian Professor from Yale, and Carver Yu from Hong Kong, who both addressed us.

We were trying to face a simple question. If Christ really is who we say he is, not only my Lord and the Lord of the Church, but also Lord of all creation, what difference should that make to the way in which public life is lived? How can Christians both gain a hearing and gain respect in today's public debates about the central issues of our common life? The way of Christ is the way of humility and not of triumphalism, and we now live in a plural society: how then should the Lordship of Christ affect the Christian's engagement with society? Being closely identified with The Gospel and our Culture Movement as its President, I find it very strange that our programme should meet with such misunderstanding and even hostility, (including a centre page article in The Church Times), almost as if some of our fellow Christians did not want to make a Christian contribution to the resolution of the awful dilemmas of Western culture. It was good to hear the Archbishop of Canterbury's warning that a call to 'repent and believe' is unlikely to reach those who have already tacitly acceded to the pervasive assumption that there are no absolute values and that everything is relative. "Thus a Decade of Evangelism which ignores the issues which you are debating in this Consultation is doomed to failure".

And what were these issues? The conference split into eight sections, each looking at a major issue in today's culture. There were four fundamental subjects; epistemology (how do we know anything?), history (the assumption that the Christian view of history is merely a personal option, and the claim of Christ's resurrection is ridiculous), science (the view that the natural sciences have made religion obsolete) and the arts (the common presumption that beauty is simply what you happen to like). Equally important were four 'secondary' subjects; economics (with its pernicious assumption that material growth alone matters), education (taught today mostly on pragmatic assumptions), health and healing (with today's focus on the nuts and bolts of the NHS rather than the needs of a person as a whole), and the mass media - we know all about that!

The Gospel and Our Culture has reached the end of its beginning. We were concerned with future strategy as well as present analysis. The next stage will bring a younger leadership, disseminating the insights we gained to the wider Church and beyond, and bringing renewed Christian confidence in confronting and influencing our contemporary culture. My guess is that this is a movement with a big future.



Dr Jim McDonnel1, Catholic Communications Centre

People make conferences successful. The Gospel as Public Truth Consultation was a highly successful conference. The range and diversity of people, the breadth of their interests and the catholicity of their tastes and experiences was a constant delight - and a challenge. Discussions and personal encounters brought new insights, many jokes, and a good deal that was unsettling to long-held prejudices and intellectual inclinations. For me, The Gospel as Public Truth was proclaimed in the lived experience of so many Christians struggling to make sense of their lives in the reality of their cultural condition and in humble obedience to the working of God in their lives.

People, relationships and stories were mentioned by many of the discussion groups into which the Consultation was divided. Every person had their own stories to tell and retell and every session was an exploration of relationships as people worked together to make connections between each other's point-of-view so that a common understanding might be achieved.

There were many attempts to say what the Gospel was and many, and equally tentative, efforts to define the senses of the term 'culture'. The difficulties with the word 'truth' were, as expected, a constant reminder of the inadequacies of language and the ambiguities of communication. In my view, the word "public" perhaps received too little attention. Certainly I have a sense that we did not grapple sufficiently with the demands of politics. The challenge posed by Michael Taylor and re-echoed by Archbishop Worlock, to look at our culture with the eyes of the poor and those least at home in our dominant culture, was acknowledged but could have been taken up with more vigour.

The political dimension to knowledge and the social constitution of values needed to be explored more fully. At times the reflections seemed to be unanchored, disconnected from the everyday realities of most people and their workaday lives.

Yet there did emerge a sense of God working in and through and with our culture (and cultures) which was heartening and stimulating. The encounter with culture began to seem a real encounter and a true dialogue; finding a way of hearing what the culture was telling us as well as discovering how to speak to it.

In the final act of worship many of these streams of thought were brought together. In laughter we discovered together the gratuitous grace of God who in his incarnation redeemed and resurrected our common humanity. We were reminded, forcefully but lovingly, that this world was God's world, that our encounter with culture (sinful and graced) was an encounter with God and his Word. As we went our separate ways I felt that we were being challenged to dedicate ourselves again to the task of being in the world but not of it, as opposed to being of the world but not in it.

My remembrance of Swanwick will be of warmth and light, hope and encouragement, and renewed enthusiasm for the ever- fascinating encounter between The Gospel and our Culture.



Rev. Dr Martin Robinson Director- Mission and Theological - The British and Foreign Bible Society

"I am almost embarassed by the number of people who have thanked me for the part we have played in this Conference", commented Neil Crosbie, Executive Director of the British and Foreign Bible Society. He was speaking while still at Swanwick having attended the whole of The Gospel and Our Culture Consultation. Clearly, the servant role that Bible Society has played in facilitating both the pre-Consultation Regional Conferences and the Consultation itself has proved to be a fruitful partnership. But how did Bible Society come to be involved in the first place?

The initial contact came during an informal conversation in the office of Dan Beeby between a Bible Society staff person and Dan. At that time, Bible Society was thinking through ways in which it could develop an adequate missiological framework for its training programme. The conversation centred on that issue but produced an invitation to attend an informal "think-tank" session which was to be held at the Selly Oak Colleges. Two of Bible Society's senior staff attended this event and this represented an important step in what has been an increasingly warm relationship of co-operation, culminating so far in the Consultation itself.

For most, it has been obvious why Bible Society should wish to be involved. Clearly, The Gospel as Public Truth should interest any Society which is dedicated to the distribution of the scriptures that declare that gospel. But at a deeper level, it is vital for Bible Society to consider how it should act in a culture which because of its secular presuppositions has all too often discounted the message of the Bible before it has even been heard. In one sense this is nothing new for Bible Society. There has been a concern for the context in which Bible distribution takes place from the very beginning of the Society's life. Indeed the impetus which caused the Bible Society movement to be born was that of the context of the poverty of many in our land. The ordinary working people of our land could not afford to have access to the Bible. The context is now different but the issue of context, or in this case culture, is still critical.

But what of the future? Bible Society has co-operated with The Gospel and Our Culture Programme on a number of projects; is that now the end of the relationship? Until the Consultation had taken place, it was not certain that The Gospel and Our Culture Programme would continue at all, and even if it did there has been no definite plan as to its continued shape. Equally, there has been no ready-made plan for Bible Society to continue a relationship with whatever does emerge beyond the Consultation.

It is clear that there remain some considerable mutual interests. In many ways, the Consultation served to highlight this fact. Reference was made during the various debates to the issue of authority and particularly to the question of the way in which the Bible is used by the Christian community today. Inevitably the question of how the various sectors in the Consultation was using the Bible tended to arise. Attention was drawn to the fact that there had originally been a sector working on authority but that this was the one sector which had been completely unable to make progress and so had been disbanded. Clearly this was a lack which the Consultation felt acutely.

There would therefore seem to be room for future co-operation between a continuing Gospel and Our Culture Programme and Bible Society on the central issue of the way in which the Church uses the scripture and so of the way in which the scripture is presented to our culture. It is our hope that as much fruit will flow from such future co-operation as has already come from all that has occurred to date.



Rev Ian Robinson, Uniting Church Board of Mission, Sydney, Australia

My impressions upon leaving the Consultation were that we had worked very hard to listen to each other. There were widely different, even divergent, mission contents and theologies in mind. There were competing hopes and fears about 'Christendom'. There were contrasting statements of purpose for the Consultation, from 'testing a thesis' to 'forming a strategy', to 'boosting our confidence'. Some came after years of study on the subject and others came after two days' notice. With many frustrations like this, we were actually listening hard and progressing only slowly.

The Sections were, as I understand it, to test the thesis in their particular area of interest or expertise. My Section had so many 'theologians' and so few practitioners in the field that we were doomed to generalities. If we were 'testing a thesis' the wrong people were invited. If we were 'forming a strategy' the wrong structure was adopted.

Many of these frustrations could have been avoided with a different educational process. But those who are given to sermons and lecturing are also given to believing that conceptual lectures and unstructured discussion groups actually help people to think. Only half correct, alas! The thinking that helped most, as it seemed, took place in sharing stories, music, worship and art. In this regard we were bearing testimony to our thesis, that Enlightenment-style rational thought does not produce sufficiently truthful conclusions.

There was a discreet nod in the direction of popular culture in the Section reports, but the creative worship was classical and anglo-catholic {small 'a', small 'c'). I do understand that many found in very enriching, but I do not understand why so many assumed that everybody did. It underlies for me the elitist assumptions behind the process as a whole, summarized best in the phrase "trickling down".

In Australia, then, we will have to proceed differently. We have been positively encouraged by the Consultation. I suspect we will need a clear developmental strategy from the beginning, or else the tyranny of distance will combine with the momentum of apathy of the middle class, and cause the Movement to dry up like a cloud in the desert.


Dr Edy Korthals Altes Former Ambassador of the Netherlands

When Dr Beeby in his gentle and persuasive manner asked me on the sunny lawn of Swanwick to write a few lines about the ongoing Consultation the answer could not be otherwise than 'yes'. Once more the 'English tea' - such a pleasant aspect of English culture - proved is effectiveness. At some distance however one shrinks from such a formidable undertaking. Where to begin after one week full of impressions and hard work?

Looking at the "facts", the Swanwick Consultation was a great achievement. It is quite risky to ask four hundred people with vastly differing perceptions, backgrounds, training and experience to wrestle with such very complex issues during six long days. But the cohesion was maintained. And the central thesis of Lesslie Newbigin that The Gospel is Public Truth not only survived its critical testing but it stood at the end of the road more challenging than ever. As to the "value", who can evaluate the inspiration and encouragement received from the numerous personal encounters?

The secret behind the dynamics of this Consultation was in my opinion the regular worship at crucial moments of the day. The invisible but real bond in Jesus Christ drew all of us together however strong the frustrations during the section discussions may have been. Minds and hearts concentrated upon the First and Last Reality. Aelred's spiritual reflections full of wisdom, humour and joy helped us to refind our place as children of the loving God. Wonderful hymns, vigorous singing as well as music and meditation, created time and space for the Spirit!

The Sections. My impressions are limited to the Economics Section, the reports in the plenary and talks with other participants. The Gospel and Contemporary Culture edited by Hugh Montefiore and the papers provided an excellent basis to start from. There was active participation in the lively discussions. It is not surprising that in view of the vast and complex issues the Sections could only come up with reports of a provisional nature. An important beginning however has been made with the systematic reflection of the relevance of the Gospel in the various fields. This needs a well-prepared follow-up. In the field of economics for example a series of small seminars could be organized around one well-defined subject. Why not growth? Bring a small group of economists of Christian background together with a few theologians and pastors from deprived areas and one or two persons who know what political responsibility means. Invite also one outstanding critical economist! Here as well as in other areas it is of vital importance not to come up with ideal blueprints that may increase human suffering.

Lastly: for many of us the 'interconnectedness'; the realization that in all sectors a serious effort was undertaken to look for concrete ways to apply the central thesis was a very positive experience. All of us taking part in this process of Conversion.

Considerable attention was given to the public square. But do we realize that in today's global world the international dimension is as important as the local and national dimensions together? Should Christians not be in the forefront of the struggle for Justice and Peace? What does that mean in the actual North-South relationship and in our relations with Central - and Eastern Europe? Even if we can only alleviate part of the immense suffering now going on we certainly could make a much greater effort to change those economic and agricultural policies which increase the misery of innumerable brethren and sisters outside of the EC. The first step here should be to follow much more closely what is happening in Brussels and strengthen the scattered and modest representations of churches as EECCS and EECOD.

In Swanwick we have embarked upon a very important voyage for Church and Society. The programme which has to be set up is not marginal for the churches. It is directed at the heart!

My I conclude with a personal confession. For quite a number of years I have been convinced that our civilization is heading for disaster and needs a radical reorientation. Nothing less than Conversion!

Looking upon the suffering Christ on the Cross we cannot escape His pertinent question addressed to each of us: "And you, what have you been doing in this crucial moment, with what you know, with what you have received and with your possibilities?"



Dr Dieterich Pfisterer Diakonisches Werk der EKD, Stuttgart

Reverence, confidence and courage became for me the key words to understand what the Consultation on The Gospel as Public Truth was about. In lectures as well as in different worship services throughout the day, in private conversations as much as in our deliberations in the Section on Healing, these virtues were very much in evidence - as so many experiences that brought participants together, as a needed encouragement to personal devotion, as an intellectual challenge in our multicultural Western societies. This Consultation was distinctive, if not unique, for its devotion to reverence as much as criticism, for its laughter as much as for its seriousness. There was argument as much as prayer and confidence was of the kind that arose out of the confession and the forgiveness of sin. Courage in turn 1ived from the conquest, not from the suppression or evasion of anxiety, fear and injustice.

The imaginative sweep of reverence, confidence and courage - the Trinitarian relation of these virtues as well as their existential wholesome relevance - gave the Consultation focus, provided orientation and opened perspectives which touched the heart and restored to the mind the enthusiasm and conviction necessary to return to the biblically warranted task of arguing for the Christian witness in public - and to do so with discrimination but without discriminating against anyone, open to everyone but not open to everything. The courage to be Christian embraces both attitudes. Christian thought and life will retain their promise or run into peculiar predicaments depending on whether or not this tension is worked out and spelled out ever anew in changing situations.

This tension or paradox - foolish to some and a scandal to others - is expressed by our faith that Christ died for us on the Cross and that he rose for us from the dead. Crucifixion as much as resurrection, both of them taken together, are the only reason why we have a cause to advocate and a case to argue in public. For Christians there is no other dialectic besides this one and no other content to paradox besides this one. Theologians as different as William Penn and George Carey have met the challenge and come up with concise and graphic expressions that help to communicate and popularize this basic tension. William Penn caught the imagination of many when he said "No cross, no crown". George Carey in turn writes of "The gate to glory". Or to put it in the words of a prayer offered at one of the noonday worship services throughout the Consultation:

"Lord as we explore the call that you give to us. We find that you are asking us to live our lives in tension. You call us to live both Good Friday and Easter Sunday. You call us to bear the burden of the whole world as you did.

And yet to laugh with joy when we see a child being funny ...

Help us to live in the paradox you have set before us ...

We ask for courage… " (concluding prayer of the noon worship service, July 16th, 1992)

What we therefore need is also a new Christian apologetics. George Carey made a substantial plea for it, Lesslie Newbigin's recent work is an exemplar of a venerable and viable British tradition of apologetics to which I was first introduced in the Divinity Classes of Professor John Mclntyre at New College, Edinburgh, a tradition from which theologians and ministers in my Church can profit much. We need such an apologetics for as Christians these days we have developed a rather curious sense of advocacy: we will stand up and be counted on any issue except on our own business. How well developed is our sense that we have a faith well worth defending in public on its own terms?

The kind of verbal games we Christians play are amazing. As soon as Lesslie Newbigin spoke up for confidence he was promptly, even if very politely, criticized for championing "absolute confidence". For some of us the positive mention of confidence is enough to suspect a hidden agenda that willy-nilly wants to restore to influence a bygone imperial notion of Christendom! Confidence in the, biblical tradition is the confidence relative and necessary to salvation. Therefore the twin cousin to confidence is affliction. The disciples of Jesus recognized him as the risen Lord because of the still visible marks of the crucifixion. Confidence is no stranger to affliction and without it this confidence runs the risk of arrogance. To look at the world with the eyes of the Bible story could have saved us from the discussion we actually had, one on the merits of absolute and relative confidence. Rather than guessing what a word smacks of we should unpack its meaning.

By any count the quest for health is an ongojng concern for everyone at every level of our societies. Many of the European nations have therefore created distinctive systems of public health. There is a growing awareness, though, that human needs know no bounds, while the resources to meet them reach their limits even in the case of the several national health service systems. Among the several alternative routes being explored is the affinity between health and particular lifestyles, an area of public debate to which Christians can make a contribution if they dare. During the Consultation I have also listened to a personal and well argued testimony that in our society at large there is unbelievable pain and grief of the sort which will be recognized only as such when an individual person can overcome the alienation that exists between him/her and which can very well be the main reason for that pain that will not go away and which cannot be located otherwise. A non-sensational Christian contribution to healthy lifestyles and to meaningful life-orientation is necessary if we are to be a creative voice in a very cost-conscious public debate on how to maintain standards of health care for all.

The Enlightenment tradition comes in different shades and colours. There are its achievements on which all of us build. There is, however, also its adversity to the Gospel and for quite a few of us this comes as a shock. There are, however, also those whose own attitude to that tradition has become ambivalent and who for the sake of human enlightenment and personal encouragement do not cultivate prejudices with regard to religion. Thus an American businessman way back in the thirties underwent a successful treatment of his alcohol problem with C G Jung in Zurich. The man went back to drink. The famous psychiatrist refused to take him on a second time and told him that he had a religious problem. The man did as he was told. He solved his religious problem and became the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous.



Rev Donald Elliott Commission Secretary, Churches' Commission on Mission, Council of Churches for Britain and Ireland

If anyone hoped that the Newbigin initiative was at heart looking to a return to some golden age where cultures were "Gospel-friendly" then the tenor of the week-long Consultation on The Gospel as Public Truth will have been a disappointment. The overwhelming sense was one of "no turning back" to any kind of pre-Enlightenment dogmatic innocence. As Carver Vu of Hong Kong Baptist Seminary put it, "The quest for certainty is bound to fail".

Likewise, Nigel Swinford, leader of the New English Orchestra which is dedicated to praising God in music, said that current serious musical form did not provide adequate scope for such praise. But he added, there is no going back to earlier forms which were now exhausted. Accordingly, believers will - with enormous perseverance -have to develop something new in the Spirit.

Gathering four hundred people, many of them leaders in their professions, for a whole week to do groundwork on Christian mission strategies in contemporary cultures in the Western world must be a significant missiological event, even though black people were scarce and women seriously under-represented. We were by no means Newbigin clones. Indeed there was strong, even fierce debate. True, the thesis that the Gospel is public truth was not seriously contradicted (was it entirely understood?), but then there were no non-Christians present.

The "trickle-down-from-academia" theory of the spread of popular presuppositions was queried, as was the idea that Christians have access to knowledge by routes not available to others (thus Michael Taylor). There remained to my mind some confusion about the nature of the Gospel as "a narrative of things that have happened". That narrative surely includes facts which are broadly accessible to secular historians, and facts which are facts only to believers (Incarnation and Ascension), with the Resurrection somewhere (disputedly) in between. The problem here is that some Christians feel they must, for the sake of honest apologia, leave matters a bit fuzzy, while others assert that such fuzziness lacks integrity and blunts the missionary edge. Not much clarity achieved here.

What was achieved, I think, was abroad consensus among a remarkable spectrum of Christian commitment and engagement that (a) a Gospel critique of contemporary Western cultures is vital (since, among other things, some are destructive of the poor), (b) the idea of value-free impersonal objectivity is a dangerous illusion, (c) mission today must be into alien structures (cf the WCC Canberra Assembly), and (d) the mission style must be a humble one of dialogue, though intellectually rigorous, but at times - if people are hurting - risk being confrontational.

There is then a summons here to the churches to encourage and support those in the various sectors of our cultures who seek to engage christianly in them and to network with others so engaged in Britain and Ireland and internationally, and a suggestion to the Churches' Commission on Mission to provide whatever logistical or other support may be desired or possible or a focussing of this endeavour.



Bishop Lesslie Newbigin

The Programme which has come to be known as The Gospel and Our Culture was originally simply a committee set up by the old British Council of Churches to organize a conference. None of us at that time foresaw what has come to be. Until recently I believed that the Conference would and should be the end of the Programme. If anything of truth came out of it, then it would spread by the witness of those participating.

It is now clear that I was wrong. The four hundred people (of a marvellously varied background) were overwhelmingly in support of a continuing programme. The existing Management Group will meet in September to make way for a younger group of men and women drawn_mainly from the Swanwick participants. Steps are being taken to find funds and a full-time director to carry the Movement forward.

But what kind of a movement is it? Not a new version of the Gospel; rather an attempt to disengage the Gospel from the too close alliance with a culture in which it has become domesticated. This inevitably involves conflict. I have been reminded by reading John Kenneth Galbraith's recent book The Culture of Contentment of how strong in our 'modern' society are the forces that do not wish to be disturbed. Perhaps our greatest need is for the courage to take risks. For mediaeval Christians ultimate truth was safeguarded by Mother Church; the individual believer did not have to take risks in believing. In our society the equivalent of Mother Church is the body of 'facts' which are said to be 'scientifically' established. As long as one does not challenge this body of assured truth ('the real world') one can believe what one likes. And when the Christian leaves the Church, with its creed, its liturgy, its story, he is expected to leave these things behind and to accept the intellectual and practical requirements of the 'real' world. (It is useful, in discovering where a clergyman stands, to notice how he uses the phrase 'the real world'.)

With Hugh Montefiore's The Gospel and Contemporary Culture and with the intense discussion in the eight sections at Swanwick, and with the undeniable sense of the blessing of God which I felt during the Conference, I cannot doubt that something useful has been started. Its further development will probably be as surprising as its birth has been. The fiery cloudy pillar will go on before us, after a brief stay in camp at Swanwick.



Rev Dr Dan Beeby

On August 14th a letter went out to all the participants. It included the following:

"We now look beyond 'Swanwick' and think of the next steps.

The present Management Group will meet in mid-September to set up a new Management Group of younger people further to develop the Programme. It will do so with the confidence that the Consultation largely endorsed the proposals in the "Statement of Intention". Much of the future rests in the hands of the 400 who were at Swanwick. This letter is designed to suggest some ways in which each participant might help.

Spreading the News

Would you be willing to write articles in journals or magazines with which you are connected, reporting on the work of your Section and on the questions and proposals raised by the Consultation in general? Some publications might be encouraged to invite contributions or even devote a whole issue to The Gospel as Public Truth.

Are you connected with any networks which might be interested and would welcome introduction to the subject? Would you be prepared to start such a network or encourage local meetings or seminars?


We face a deficit of £10,000 on the current year: present plans call for £150,000 over the next three years. We were most grateful for the collection made at the Consultation. Two other forms of help are:-

1 Ad hoc contributions from individuals or organizations to remove the deficit and to build up the proposed funds.

2 Information on Trusts or Charities known to you, and to whom appeals might be made.


The work done by the Sections will be brought together in a book to be written by Lawrence Osborn, and published in Spring 1993.

The attention of readers who were not at the Consultation is also drawn to the three items enclosed with this Newsletter: an order form for a bound copy of the papers available from The Gospel as Public Truth Consultation, another order form for all the cassette recordings from the Consultation and notice of a video-based course on The Gospel and Our Culture for churches, groups and individuals.

This Newsletter has been delayed for a variety of reasons. The next one will be largely devoted to decisions made on September 14th and 15th by the Management Group about the future form of the Programme.

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