Wise Words from Lesslie Newbigin on Pluralism and Secularism

I’m listening to Lesslie Newbigin’s Foolishness to the Greeks (Eerdmans, 1988). My local library had it among their digital audio loans, and I thought it was high time I went through a Newbigin book. The book comes from lectures he delivered in Princeton’s Warfield lectures of 1984—and yet it sounds like things that didn’t hit the evangelical mainstream for a decade or more after that. Remarkable.

(Newbigin makes dismissive comments about fundamentalism,  particularly its supposedly blinkered view of science, but I’ve come to realize that the whole point of mentions of fundamentalism is dismissiveness. Outside of some scholarly works in which careful definition is attempted, “fundamentalism” only ever means, “The dummies to my right.” These dummies never get to speak, because presumably all they could say is “Bar, bar, bar.” Ah, well. The book is still packed with wisdom.)

This quote jumped out at me this morning:

Of course, as contemporary history proves, Christians can live and bear witness under any regime, whatever its ideology. But Christians can never seek refuge in a ghetto where their faith is not proclaimed as public truth for all. They can never agree that there is one law for themselves and another for the world. They can never admit that there are areas of human life where the writ of Christ does not run. They can never accept that there are orders of creation or powers or dominions that exist otherwise than to serve Christ. Whatever the institutional relationship between the church and the state—and there are many possible relationships, no one of which is necessarily the right one for all times and places—the church can never cease to remind governments that they are under the rule of Christ and that he alone is the judge of all they do. The church can never accept the thesis that the central shrine of public life is empty, in other words, that there has been no public revelation before the eyes of all the world of the purpose for which all things and all peoples have been created and which all governments must serve. It can never accept an ultimate pluralism as a creed even if it must—as of course it must—acknowledge plurality as a fact. In fact, it cannot accept the idea … of a secular society in which, on principle, there are no commonly acknowledged norms. We know now, I think, that the only possible product of that ideal is a pagan society. Human nature abhors a vacuum. The shrine does not remain empty. If the one true image, Jesus Christ, is not there, an idol will take its place.

These words made me think of none other than Stanley Fish, who said in an epochal First Things piece,

A person of religious conviction should not want to enter the marketplace of ideas but to shut it down, at least insofar as it presumes to determine matters that he believes have been determined by God and faith. The religious person should not seek an accommodation with liberalism; he should seek to rout it from the field, to extirpate it, root and branch….

A religion deprived of the opportunity to transform the culture in its every detail is hardly a religion at all.

So, on the one hand, I’m not aiming for a theocracy. I can’t go around immanentizing eschatons all day. That’s not my job. I’m Awaiting the King; he will do that. I acknowledge the fact of pluralism. But I can’t accept that pluralism is a good, only a lesser evil—a lesser evil than coercing people’s consciences to confess belief in something they don’t believe in. I like the ad-hoc nature of the church-state relation suggested by Newbigin, because it seems to me that that’s what most Christians will get. They have to be able to live and think Christianly under any regime. But as Jamie Smith points out, sometimes prophets who stand athwart society get elected to high office; they’ve got to be able to get to the work of construction, of bringing change. They can’t cease to be Christians at that time and suddenly become convinced pluralists. I think that every day, and in every way, we push for whatever good we can get away with without doing any evil (like coercing consciences).

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

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