Lesslie Newbigin on the Gospel in a Pluralist Society

Newbigin Gospel Pluralist SocietyI read the first chapter of Lesslie Newbigin’s classic book, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (London: SPCK, 1989), during my journey to work this morning. Newbigin’s influence became particularly significant relatively late in his life. Krish Kandiah wrote a useful account of his work in 2009 to mark the centenary of Newbigin’s birth. The opening chapter of this book is a bold call to Christians to be confident in the gospel in the context of a society that rejects ‘dogma’. It is full of striking statements. Here are a few memorable comments that caught my attention in the course of only a few pages of the book.

On presuppositions (p. 8):

No coherent thought is possible without presuppositions. What is required for honest thinking is that one should be  as explicit as possible about what these presuppositions are. The presupposition of all valid and coherent Christian thinking is that God has acted to reveal and effect his purpose for the world in the manner made known in the Bible.

On ‘plausibility structures’ (pp. 8-9)

Every society depends for its coherence upon a set of what Peter Berger calls “plausibility structures,” patterns of belief and practice accepted within a given society, which determine which beliefs are plausible to its members and which are not. These plausibility structures are of course different at different times and places. Thus when, in any society, a belief is held to be “reasonable,” this is a judgment made on the basis of the reigning plausibility structure. … [T]he gospel gives rise to a new plausibility structure, a radically different vision of things from those that shape all human cultures apart from the gospel. The Church, therefore, as the bearer of the gospel, inhabits a plausibility structure which is at variance with, and which calls in question, those that govern all human cultures without exception.

On the claim to have access to full reality (pp. 9-10)

In the famous story of the blind men and the elephant, so often quoted in the interests of religious agnosticism, the real point of the story is constantly overlooked. The story is told from the point of view of the king and his courtiers, who are not blind but can see that the blind men are unable to grasp the full reality of the elephant and are only able to get hold of part of the truth. The story is constantly told in order to neutralize the affirmation of the great religions, to suggest that they learn humility and recognize that none of them have more than one aspect of the truth. But, of course, the real point of the story is exactly the opposite. If the king were also blind there would be no story. The story is told by the king, and it is the immensely arrogant claim of one who sees the full truth which all the world’s religions are only groping after. It embodies the claim to know the full reality which relativizes all the claims of the religions and philosophies.

(See further discussion of this tale, including a reference to the quotation from Newbigin here.)

Newbigin is a careful thinker, but writes with the clarity and urgency of a preacher and missionary. His books are worthy of serious attention. Bruce Ashford provides further reading suggestions from Newbigin’s works in this recent post.