Today would have been 110th birthday of Lesslie Newbigin. His life and ministry in the name of Jesus Christ informed all of his writings on theology, mission, church, and contemporary culture. As you’ll read below, much of what Newbigin penned continues in salience, and presages so much of what the church lives into at this very moment. Here’s some timely selections from Newbigin, found in A Word in Season: Perspectives on Christian World Mission:
No move towards understanding reality is possible except by the use of reason; the question is “Within what fiduciary framework is reason operating?” And when we offer a different fiduciary framework, an alternative to the one that is dominant in our culture, we are calling for conversion, for a radical shift in perspective. We need the boldness of the foreign missionary who dares to challenge the accepted framework, even though the words he uses must inevitably sound absurd to those who dwell in that framework. (112)
The congregation should live by the true story and center their life in the continual remembering and relating of the true story, in meditating on it and expounding it in its relation to contemporary events so that contemporary events are truly understood, and in sharing in the sacrament by which we are incorporated in the dying and rising of Jesus so that we are at the very heart of the true story…
Here is the place where the real interface between the Church and the world, between the new creation and the old, takes place…Here is where there ought to be a discernible difference in behavior between those who live by the old story and those who live by the story the Bible tells…here is where the true evangelistic dialogue begins. At present it is very rare to find this kind of situation because the churches have so largely accepted relegation to the private sector, leaving the public sector to be controlled by the other story. (156)
Well, as usual Newbigin has much to say, and we often find ourselves responding with, “Tell me more!” Newbigin says much about the unfamiliar demands for a critical reflexivity about how we think, reason, and having done so, how our preaching and ministry and, indeed, our public presence has been co-opted by “the old story”, rather than “the story the Bible tells.” To my dismay, while much of his writing is admittedly dense, and sometimes difficult to follow, the payoff, if you will, turns out to offer much more sense of his “practical” stuff, of which so many people run to and quote. And, they do so, giving evidence of not exercising a critical reflexivity.
In part, Newbigin makes this plea because so much of the Bible is both familiar—we read it for the stories to inform our faith—and that we have so little experience in interpreting the world by reading the Bible as lens to view the world (or as loudspeakers with which to listen correctly to the old story of the world.) As he mentions above, we’re already embedded in a fiduciary framework: just making that audible/visible to family, friends, and other audiences can elicit some reactions like anger, amusement, fear, and courage. I’ve typically observed and received anger and fear. Some Christians, the “Bible-believing” kind, want a deep relationship with Jesus. Or, they simply enjoy the company and camaraderie of people with a similar moral universe. Upon hearing that we have a framework that can be considered, the reactions can generate anxiety and perceptions of threats. I’ve wondered about those reactions, i.e., how do I and others who manifest such reactions square this with the Gospel we espouse, we claim, and we proclaim to others? In other words, when I observe those reactions in myself upon making new discoveries about the social structures I dwell in, I later find myself embarrassed by the gap between myself and the story of the Gospel.
Newbigin commends spiritual disciplines in his other exposition: these are needed to form a people into those who, then, turn into their public presence as opportunities to participate in the formation of a world that God wants others to participate in, as well. Sacraments are not merely for an encounter with God in Christ by the Spirit: full stop. Those are that, to be sure. However, Newbigin nails it with regard to the missio Dei. It cannot be the case that God merely calls upon our worship and that we’re done for another Sunday: “See you next week.” Instead, the sacraments, liturgy, our personal prayers and reading of Scripture, and more: all contribute to our formation into the kind of people who are suitable for collaborating with God in the transformation of Heaven and Earth. Such participation is so much greater than “my personal relationship with Jesus,” which merely announces a commitment to a fiduciary framework of the monad/individual. Newbigin recognizes how much of the old story informs our discipleship with regard to spiritual disciplines: we can be as much individualistic as our neighbor who doesn’t have a dog in the hunt with Jesus.
Towards that end of participation with God in the missio Dei, Newbigin anticipates the possibility that, by participation in the new story, Christians will receive the opportunity for “evangelistic dialogue”, in which they can both respond to the questions about their lives, and initiate questions in return. Here again, Newbigin anticipates a day that Christians might become fallibly confident in the story of the Gospel, and, as such, engage in a dialogue that both involves the Gospel and their neighbor/colleague. As of his writing, he admits to how rare it is to find such a dialogue. A few concluding thoughts:
Elsewhere, Newbigin makes a point of informing his audience that our experience in the Gospel—including our spiritual disciplines—cannot be self-affirming, i.e., we need others to engage with in order to better understand this Gospel story we assert to both belong to and commend to others. Without the feedback, we’d be unaware of our shortcomings and peccadillos, and, frankly, we’d miss how our participation in the missio Dei is understood by our neighbor. Somehow, and it would take a much longer post to elaborate on “somehow”, we’ve got to get that feedback. I realize that some people do not want to get that feedback from their neighbor, especially on the assumption that the neighbor may not share the same faith commitment. It’s a fair criticism. But, the objection offers nothing constructive on how one will otherwise receive feedback.
But: What if my neighbor shares the same faith? Great question. I’m mindful of a few major gatherings in the near and not-so-near future, in which Christians will be collected, and, with no exaggeration, these gatherings will host women and men from all over the world. I’m thinking ahead into a 2019 event, in particular, with a substantial number of Americanos. These faithful people have some specific mission agendas, which, on the surface, suggest a version of partnership with those who are not Americans. What I am learning from those who are not Americans is that they already know of these intentions, and many have decided to extend a courtesy to listen carefully: before they decline the request. They are all exercising a profound form of spiritual discernment and resistance. A few would like a dialogue, one commended by Newbigin, with the Americans. Some have tried this already with those from the US, and have met with some incredible resistance.
And, here we come full circle: if these women and men from other nations are to be believed, it is that the Americans have no idea that they have a fiduciary framework that has yet to be interrogated by the story of the Gospel. These kind neighbors have no interest in a partnership with Americans that merely imports another old story under the guise of partnership in the Gospel. They know too well how the old story in their own cultural context coupled with the unrelenting penetration of the Enlightenment (and postmodernity, whatever that means…) have created a potent adversary in the generation of an alternative narrative that confronts the Gospel. Indeed, their experience in the Spirit only presses home the point of Newbigin: we have the need for spiritual disciplines that form us for participation in the missio Dei, and for candid feedback from our neighbor about how we live inside our fiduciary framework. No matter what label one might want to attach to the proposed partnership, these men and women from outside the US have understood these pending requests as a diversion from perceiving the world through the Bible and from their indwelling of the story of the Gospel.