Today is the centenary of the birth of Lesslie Newbigin. I had the privilege of working with Lesslie during the last few years of his life, and here – by way of celebrating his life and achievement – is a piece I wrote about him some years ago.
Mission to Western Culture:
the Contribution of Lesslie Newbigin
the Contribution of Lesslie Newbigin
In the Great Commission, Jesus commanded the apostles and, by implication, the entire Christian Church to ‘go and make disciples of all nations’ (Matthew 28.19). Contrary to modern individualistic readings, this is a clear call to disciple the nations rather than isolated individuals within them. Thus the Church has traditionally been concerned not only with calling individuals to salvation but also entire cultures to walk in the ways of God. Of course Christians have interpreted this in many different ways. For some it has meant a rejection of a secular culture in favour of a Christian alternative: ‘What hath Athens to do with Jerusalem?’ Others have used it unthinkingly to baptize entire cultures: ‘Of course this is a Christian culture! Just look at how many of its members are Christians!’ Between these extremes, Christian missionaries and theologians have conceived a range of ways in which the gracious judgement of the gospel can bring transformation to human cultures.
Our own century has seen great changes in the relationship between the Christian faith and human cultures worldwide. In 1900 many Europeans still identified Christianity with European civilization and regarded Christian mission as another device for furthering imperialistic foreign policies. If we go by sheer numbers of believers, Christianity today is predominantly a phenomenon of the southern hemisphere (particularly Sub-Saharan Africa and South America). Although Western Christians still exert a disproportionate influence upon global Christianity because of their material wealth, the emphasis in world mission is beginning to shift. For example, Christian missionaries from the two-thirds world are now injecting new spiritual vigour into British congregations. Instead of assuming that Western culture (the public culture of Europe and North America) is loosely Christian, there is increasing recognition that we live in a post-Christian era. The question of how we should be relating the gospel to this culture, of mission to Western culture, is now firmly on the agenda of Western churches.
One man who lived through many of these changes in mission strategy and who did much to put the question of mission to Western culture back on the churches’ agenda was Bishop Lesslie Newbigin. He was born in the North of England in 1909, the son of a devout Christian businessman. Having abandoned the Christian assumptions of his parents as a teenager, he went to Cambridge University in 1928 to read geography and economics. During his first year as an undergraduate he drifted back towards Christianity under the influence of friends in the Student Christian Movement. That drift culminated in a dramatic conversion experience while working with a Quaker service programme in South Wales. He found himself unable to cope with despair of the unemployed men among whom he was working. In his own words,
As I lay awake a vision came to my mind . . . It was a vision of the cross, but it was the cross spanning the space between heaven and earth, between ideals and present realities, and with arms that embraced the whole world. I saw it as something which reached down to the most hopeless and sordid of human misery and yet promised life and victory. I was sure that night, in a way I had never been before, that this was the clue that I must follow if I were to make any kind of sense of the world. From that moment I would always know how to take bearings when I was lost. I would know where to begin again when I had come to the end of all my own resources of understanding or courage. (Unfinished Agenda, p. 11f)This did not have any immediate repercussions on his sense of vocation. He still believed that he would follow in his father’s footsteps, applying Christian principles in the world of commerce. However, God had other plans – a clear call to ordination and the mission field. Lesslie left England in 1936 with his wife Helen bound for India as a Presbyterian missionary.
India: Christian Unity in a Culture of Diversity
His missionary service in India reflects one of his major concerns. Since his student days the scandal of Christian disunity had disturbed him. This had nothing to do with a desire for a centralized church bureaucracy to make global Christianity more efficient or present a united front to a secular world. Rather it was a sense of outrage that men and women who share in the saving death and resurrection of our Lord should be unable to pray together, share the sacraments or even cooperate in mission.
That sense of outrage enabled him to become a moving force behind the creation of the Church of South India (a union of Congregationalist, Episcopalian, Methodist and Presbyterian churches) in 1947. One unexpected (and, for a Presbyterian, ironical) outcome of that union was his subsequent consecration as Bishop of Madurai.
His involvement in that very successful union of churches opened the way for him to work towards Christian unity on a larger scale. From 1959 to 1961 he was General Secretary of the International Missionary Council during which time he oversaw its integration into the World Council of Churches. He then served with the WCC for three years before returning to India to become Bishop of Madras.
‘Retirement’ and Mission to Western Culture
In a sense the story of Lesslie’s contribution to the question of mission to Western culture really began with his retirement in 1974. His return to England brought him face to face with a culture in despair. He often contrasted the pervasive optimism of people in the slums of Madras with the nihilism he experienced on his return.
To make matters worse, he found a Church still geared largely to the pastoral care of a predominantly Christian society. It seemed quite unable to cope with the missionary demands of the new situation. Many Christians seemed unable even to put into words what the gospel might be for our own culture. He often spoke of being horrified by the timidity of the Church in the West – its doubts about the meaning and truth of the gospel, the way it had lost sight of the centrality of mission (or even rejected it as theological racism) and, above all, its passive acceptance of many assumptions of secular society.
Having been a missionary for four decades, he brought a missionary’s eye to the situation. Clearly he had returned to a pagan culture. The pressing question was how could he be a missionary for Christ in this culture? More important, how could the Church become again a missionary force in this culture? The Selly Oak Colleges in Birmingham gave him the chance to begin working out his response by appointing him to teach the theology of mission.
An opportunity to share some of his ideas with a wider audience came when he was elected Moderator of the United Reformed Church for 1978–79. A recurring theme of his year as Moderator was ‘I am not ashamed of the Gospel’ (Romans 1.16). Then in 1982 a committee of the British Council of Churches invited him to join them in planning a conference on the relationship between the gospel and modern culture.
Had the conference organizers known in advance what effect he would have on their plans they might not have invited him to take part! He was so unhappy about the proposed agenda that he suggested the postponement of the conference to allow for a more careful consideration of the underlying issues. The committee countered by inviting him to write a short book to initiate the study process. This was subsequently published as The Other Side of 1984: Questions for the churches and the conference was postponed for eight years. That deceptively simple little book evoked an international response. It challenged Christians in many countries to take a critical look at modernity from the perspective of the Christian gospel. Today there are thriving networks in Europe, North America and Australasia tackling the issues he raised.
A Culture Divided
Lesslie’s analysis of Western culture was broadly historical. He traced many of its distinguishing features back to the European Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This was, largely, a reaction against the religious wars that ravaged Europe in the wake of the Reformation. For the generations immediately following, those wars were a clear sign of the failure of public religion. If religion could not provide an adequate foundation for public life, what could? The intellectual leaders of the Enlightenment thought they had found a more satisfactory basis in human reason and the scientific method. This, they believed, could sweep away the old superstitions that kept humankind imprisoned within authoritarian religious and political structures. The unfettered application of reason would lead inevitably to an ideal human society – a purely secular version of the kingdom of heaven.
Perhaps the most striking effect of this elevation of reason (and one that Lesslie stressed in his analyses) is the split it creates between a public sphere and a private one. We simply take for granted the division between a public world (the world of work, of politics and economics, of science, of truth and reason) and a private world (the world of leisure, of family life and personal relationships, of morality and religion, of opinion and superstition). Yet it is a distinction with few parallels in other cultures.
This basic division has had all kinds of implications. The association of science and reason with the public sphere is an important basis for the tremendous material progress that has taken place in Western culture over the past two centuries. However, this progress has had its price – the privatization of all that humanizes us and a corresponding atrophying of the human spirit. Small wonder that the majority view among late twentieth-century intellectuals is some form of nihilism.
The Gospel and the Church
Lesslie’s challenge to Christians to look at their culture from the perspective of the gospel often met with the retort, ‘But what is the gospel?’
His answer to this question was deceptively simple. The Christian gospel, the good news, is quite simply the story of Jesus Christ – an itinerant Jewish teacher and miracle worker whose death and resurrection reveal him to be the Son of God and set us free from our bondage to sin. Accordingly, for Lesslie, the basis of Christian mission was ‘Friendship – sharing the Good News with neighbours.’
However, the good news cannot be merely personal truth; it cannot be merely true for me. Lesslie insisted that it is public truth, i.e. either the events in this story happened or they did not happen. If they did not happen – if Jesus did not rise from the dead – then Christianity is a delusion. If they did happen, then God is real and has manifested himself at a particular time and in a particular culture. Thus, the story of Jesus is the key to human history as well as personal existence. God’s judgement and grace as revealed in the cross and resurrection are not to be limited to our private lives but apply to the whole of human existence.
Yet ‘how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent?’ (Romans 10.14f). To be effective as judgement and grace, we must faithfully retell the gospel in meaningful ways.
The church is an immediate implication of this need for communication. It is what we have made of the gospel in the process of retelling it. This is not to suggest that it is merely an optional human response to the gospel. On the contrary, the church is rooted in the fact that Jesus called into being a body of disciples to bear witness to the gospel – to proclaim the good news in terms that their hearers could understand, and to interpret that proclamation through their own lives. The biblical model for evangelism and mission is a human community, not a loose network of isolated evangelistic entrepreneurs.
Lesslie’s insistence on the importance of the local church for the communication of the gospel was not merely a theoretical stance. Rather than allow his denomination to close an ailing church in a run-down part of Birmingham, he volunteered to become its pastor at an age when most of us would be looking forward to a well-earned retirement. This experience of inner-city ministry is what grounded much of his thinking about mission to Western culture. His comments about the experience are striking:
It is much harder than anything I met in India. There is a cold contempt for the Gospel which is harder to face than opposition. . . . I have been forced to recognize that the most difficult missionary frontier in the contemporary world is the one of which the Churches have been – on the whole – so little conscious, the frontier that divides the world of biblical faith from the world whose values and beliefs are ceaselessly fed into every home on the television screen. (Unfinished Agenda, p. 235)Lesslie’s stress on the Church as an implication of the gospel was one reason for his lifelong insistence on the importance of Christian unity. If we reject the popular view that religion is essentially a matter of private opinion, the divisions between Christians become a very serious matter. Because we have divided the body of Christ, we have confused the gospel of Christ. We deny Christ when we refuse to have fellowship with men and women whose lives have been altered by the gospel.
Of course, this does not mean that we should be uncritical of each other. On the contrary, the lordship of Christ is the basis for a vigorous criticism of teaching or behaviour that departs from the standards of the gospel. However, we criticize them as brothers and sisters. Similarly, we must listen seriously to their criticisms of us. Lesslie sometimes pointed to the example of Paul’s relationship with the Corinthian church as a model of this approach. There is room for the sharpest possible theological and ethical criticism within the wider context of unity in Christ. Whatever one’s views of the World Council of Churches – and Lesslie frequently voiced his disappointment at its abandonment of its original missionary emphasis – one is not absolved from the obligation to pray and work for the unity of the people of Christ.
Crossing the Divide
Recognizing that the gospel is public truth implies a recognition that Christian mission is more than personal evangelism. Sharing our faith with our family, friends and colleagues is an essential part of mission. However, beyond this we are called to interpret the gospel by living responsibly as Christians within the wider culture. At one level, this means allowing our Christian beliefs to govern our political actions and business decisions.
At another level, it requires us to debate the basic practices and assumptions of our culture from the perspective of the gospel. Every human culture contains elements that are contrary to the good news of Jesus Christ and which we must therefore challenge. For the early Church, the pervasive idolatry of the Roman Empire was such an element and their response varied from a refusal to eat meat to a refusal to serve in the army. Lesslie used to cite the caste system and the practice of widow burning as examples from India. Contemporary Western examples might be our materialism and conspicuous consumption.
However, if the gospel requires us to challenge aspects of the culture in which we live, we also have a duty to affirm those aspects of the culture that are consistent with the gospel. Lesslie highlighted various aspects of our own public culture that we can and should affirm in this way.
A fundamental feature of the Enlightenment that left a lasting mark on Western culture was its belief in the rationality of the universe. Similarly the Christian doctrine of creation affirms that the universe is rational and orderly. Thus the gospel offers a basis for a continued commitment to science and technology that is lacking in the wider culture – as witness the emergence of a new irrationalism with the New Age.
The Enlightenment also put great emphasis on respect for human life. This was usually expressed in terms of the inalienable human rights of every individual. Erosion of that respect has in recent decades led to the increasing acceptance of abortion and euthanasia. Again the gospel, with its emphasis on the value of human life, gives us a basis for affirming this aspect of Enlightenment culture.
A third area highlighted by Lesslie is the Enlightenment’s rejection of the territorial principle. This principle, which Christendom had inherited from Imperial Rome, asserted the divine right of monarchs, i.e. it gave religious legitimization to political absolutism. The Enlightenment proposed a new basis for political authority – the will of the people rather than the will of God. The US Constitution was the first fruit of this new basis and with the birth of the United States came the emergence of modern liberal democracy. By ending the fusion of Christianity and the state, it enabled us to recognize that being a Christian is a matter of personal commitment to Jesus Christ rather than citizenship of a Christian country. However, he also warned that it is ultimately only within a Christian context that a stable relationship between human rights and the will of the people can be maintained. Unless those rights are based upon our being made in the divine image and unless the lordship of Christ ultimately takes priority over the will of the people, democracy lapses into the tyranny of the majority. Without Christ, the American political experiment is more likely to end in anarchy or dictatorship than democracy.
Christians are called not merely to affirm the status quo nor to take the easy option of rejecting wider society in favour of a Christian ghetto. Rather we are called, as individuals and church communities, to be salt and light at every level in a complex pluralistic society. Salt enhances flavours as well as acting as a preservative. Light shows off the good as well as showing up the bad.
Some critics have accused Lesslie of calling for a return to medieval Christendom or advocating a social gospel. However, this dual stance of challenge and affirmation is not about creating the kingdom of God by our own unaided efforts. On the contrary, it is about bearing witness to God’s sovereignty. Recalling a former clarion call of the ecumenical movement – ‘let the Church be the Church!’ – Lesslie summarized his own position by adding ‘Yes, and therefore let it be the faithful and confident witness to God’s rightful rule over the world!’
Lesslie Newbigin: A Personal Sketch
The thing that struck me most forcefully about Lesslie when I first began to work with him was his tremendous energy. In the years following his ‘retirement’, he was successively a lecturer in missiology, pastor of an inner-city church, moderator of his denomination and the inspiration for an international movement whose aim is nothing less than a radical revitalization of mission to Western culture. On top of all that, he maintained a busy schedule of national and international speaking engagements and wrote prolifically on missiology.
Many people (including many Christians) who achieve positions of prominence or influence are only too conscious of their own importance – not so, Lesslie. For me he epitomized intellectual humility. He was always very open about the dependence of his ideas on others, always willing to listen seriously to criticism, always ready to encourage younger men and women who were struggling with aspects of the relationship between the gospel and our culture.
A less obvious personal characteristic – but one that became clear as one got to know him – was his gentle sense of humour. At times this could be slightly self-deprecating, e.g. when he commented that old ecumenists are only really at home in airport departure lounges. Or he could be gently ironical. However, his favourite form of humour was the limerick; he admitted that he used to relieve the boredom of ecclesiastical committee meetings by writing limericks about his colleagues.
The energy, humility and sense of humour together serve to obscure another important characteristic, namely, his courage. His autobiography gives scant mention to an accident during his first term in India. That accident led to ten operations on his leg, the very real prospect of amputation and more than a year spent on crutches. When I knew him, half a century later, he was still suffering the after-effects. However, he could say ‘God did indeed turn that accident into a source of manifold blessing for which I cannot cease to give thanks’ (Unfinished Agenda, p. 44). Towards the end of his life he also had to cope with failing eyesight. I think many of those who read his final works would be surprised to discover that by the time he wrote them he was no longer able to read. His humour and his courage come together in a typical remark: ‘You don’t have to be able to see to use a typewriter!’
Newbigin, Lesslie (1983) The Other Side of 1984: Questions for the churches (Geneva: WCC).
Newbigin, Lesslie (1985) Unfinished Agenda: An autobiography (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans).