Recalling Lesslie Newbigin in the face of the present controversy

I am reading (albeit through an influenza haze) Dr Geoffrey Wainwright’s biography of the late Bishop Lesslie Newbigin, entitled Lesslie Newbigin: A Theological Life. My longtime readers, acquaintances and friends will know that Newbigin’s writings have exercised a great influence on my own amateur theological and philosophical thinking (and teaching as a lay catechist), bringing together a lot of seemingly disparate threads from my reading and thinking of the past thirty years.

Given his career as a pastor, missionary, bishop, ecumenist and religious interlocutor who gladly entered into honest conversation with adherents and teachers of other religions (particularly, in his work in South India, with Hindus) about those teachings and the Gospel (never compromising his belief in the uniqueness and universal Lordship of Jesus, succinctly stated, in his own words, as the subtitle of this weblog), it is not surprising that Newbigin became interested in the rise of Islam in Western countries. This is particularly so when one considers that, after his retirement from active episcopal ministry in the Church of South India, his ministry in a local parish church of the United Reformed Church in inner-city Birmingham involved him closely in the lives of his Muslim, as well as Sikh and Hindu, south Asian immigrant neighbors.

I think that Newbigin’s thoughts on this might be edifying and challenging in the midst of our present difficulties, symbolized in part by the eruption of feeling and commentary on recent remarks by Dr Rowan Williams on aspects of sharia law in Britain. His thoughts also bring to mind other controversies in recent years, viz., the Danish cartoons of Mohammed that caused an eruption of Muslim outcry and, in some places, led to violent responses against what was perceived to be a blasphemy.

Bear with me – the quotations are extended ones. I hope that Professor Wainwright and his publisher will forgive me their extensiveness.

Over his final years Newbigin manifested a new preoccupation with Islam, occasioned both by the growing presence of Muslims in Britain (“More Muslims than Methodists,” it is said, and perhaps more than practicing Anglicans) and by the increasing impact of Islamic nations in the political world…On the one hand, Newbigin respected Muslims greatly on account of their confessional stance, the frank recognition of their faith-commitment as the basis for action in public affairs and for their entire dealing with reality. On the other hand, he also believed Islam to be profoundly wrong in its divergence from the Christian story: “At many points,” he said in his Henry Martyn Lectures of 1986, “Christianity contradicts the strongest affirmations of Hinduism, or answers questions which Hinduism does not ask. And this is even more obviously the case if we consider Islam.” It is this twofold fact – the shared principle of fiduciary knowledge and the discrepant content of actual belief – which makes Christianity and Islam, in Newbigin’s eyes, such serious rivals.

The rivalry may be played out in various ways. In the ailing nonscientific part of Western culture (for “the scientific part of our culture continues to flourish because it does not accept pluralism, it does not assume ‘the parity of all scientific views'”), the relativism that seeks to evade the question of truth and error is a sign of impending death. Such relativistic pluralism, wrote Newbigin in 1990, “will simply crumble in the presence of a confident and vigorous claim to know the truth – such a claim as Islam is at present making with increasing vigor in the contemporary world.”

Meanwhile, to end this chapter on Newbigin as religious interlocutor, his late concentration on Islam may be illustrated by an incident, a speech, and a book.

The incident was the publication in 1989 of the novel The Satanic Verses by the Indo-British writer Salman Rushdie, the explosion of wrath in the Muslim community at its blasphemy, and the incomprehension of the Western intelligentsia, which could hear the outcry only as an attack on freedom to publish. Although Newbigin deplored the “order to kill” (fatwa) issues by Iranian ayatollahs, he could look on the absolutists for liberty of publication only with a mixture of astonishment and pity at their failure to understand “the explosives they are playing games with.” The freedom classically championed by Milton and his like demanded as its corollaries commitment to truth and the exercise of responsibility. “If Rushdie’s work is stating a truth which is more precious to him than life,” wrote Newbigin, “then he is right to stand by it and pay the price. But freedom without responsibility to the truth becomes mere nihilism.” To view the offense of blasphemy as no more than injury to the feelings of a few people who choose to adhere to the Christian or some other religion is part of the modern illusion that a society can exist without any publicly shared belief about the truth. “The explosion of Muslim wrath,” said Newbigin, “ought to be seen by Christians as a sharp word from the Lord about our failure to challenge the public life of our society with the Gospel” – and that, of course, “not because a nation with no shared belief about the truth will simply crumple [sic] under the assault of real conviction, but for His sake who died on the cross that all might have life.” And there Newbigin adverts to “the fundamental difference” between Christianity and Islam: “Muslims have shocked us because they regard blasphemy as a terrible crime. I believe they are right in their judgment but wrong in their response. For Muslims it is impossible that God himself should have accepted death on a charge of blasphemy; for Christians it is the centre of God’s saving work. That dictates a totally different kind of response, but it does not allow us to regard blasphemy as a matter of indifference.”

The speech that shows Newbigin at grips with the challenge of Islam was his address on “The Gospel in Today’s Global City” given at the relaunching of the old mission department of the Selly Oak Colleges as the School of Mission and World Christianity. [N.B. The address was delivered in May 1996.] In it he interpreted the rise of “religious fundamentalisms,” whether Islamic, Hindu, or Christian, as “a cry for life” among people finding that the secular worldview – an ambiguous and ambivalent product of Western Christendom that has degenerated into hegemonic secularism – is not finally sustainable. That, he said, was the context for “the beginnings of Muslim fundamentalism in this country”:

The majority of British Muslims are living in the most deprived areas of our large cities and experience at first hand the worst results of the secular ideology. For there does not seem to be any logical stopping place on the slope which leads a purely secular society into a pagan society. As Nietzsche so clearly saw, if there is no God anything goes. All attempts to base effective moral norms on an atheistic philosophy are bound to collapse. The result is the society with which we are becoming familiar, in which there are no landmarks, no fixed points of reference, no public belief about the purpose of human beings, only the need to gratify every immediate want. When some young Muslims uncompromisingly reject allegiance to this kind of society and insist that the rule of God over all human life be acknowledged, I am amazed at the complacency with which many Christians seem to accept a secular society as onein whcih they can be content to live. Where there is no God, life becomes finally meaningless and senseless. We may work ourselves up into a froth of indignation over the sticky mess of violence, drugs and gang warfare. But should we not realize how far down the slope we have gone when a British Prime Minister takes prime time on television to announce the latest jewel in the crown of our statecraft – a lottery? … We may disagree with our Muslim fellow citizens about the manner in which we understand God’s exercise of his rule over human life. However, we cannot, I believe, ignore the very sharp questions which Islam puts to our cosy co-habitation with the secular society: Do you believe that God is Lord over the public life of society, its economics, its politics, its culture? Or do you believe that his rule is limited to the Church and the home?

Although Newbigin always said that “dialogue is not enough,” it would be a pity if either Christians or Muslims forswore between them the kind of interreligious dialogue that Newbigin had earlier advocated on matters of common public concern.

That kind of relationship between Christians and Muslims is, in fact, envisaged by Newbigin in the book that much finally be mentioned. [N.B. Wainwright here refers to the book published after Newbigin’s death as Faith and Power: Christianity and Islam in “Secular” Britain, co-authored with Lamin Sanneh and Jenny Taylor.] … Here only three points need be noted that Newbigin makes in connection with Christianity and Islam.

The first is this: “To the question ‘What kind of society?’ our Muslim fellow citizens have their answer. Through the network of mosques (now more than 2,000 in the UK) and through the teaching that is there provided for their young people, they seek to maintain the integrity of their society in a world which they (with much justice) perceive as pagan. The firmness of their stance contrasts with the relative timidity with which Christian leaders occasionally challenge the norms of British society…

Second (and one needs to know that “naturalistic” became Newbigin’s preferred word for “secularistic” or “scientistic”): “In our present situation in Britain, where Christians and Muslims share a common position as minority faiths in a society dominated by the naturalistic ideology, we share a common duty to challenge this ideology, to affirm that it can only lead our society into disintegration and disaster, and to bear witness to the reality of God from whom alone come those ‘norms’ that can govern human life, that ‘dharma’ which can give order to the chaos of human passions. Here Christians should be both encouraged and challenged by the much more vigorous testimony of Islam.

Third, Newbigin asserts, and will argue, that the Christian faith in Christ’s Cross both excludes coercioin and provides the basis for true freedom: “During their long histories, both Christendom and Islam have sought to establish the absolute hegemony of their faiths over whole societies. Christians have, for the most part, been so chastened and humiliated that they have learned the bitter lesson and should never again be tempted to go down this road. It is not clear that Islam has been through the same experience. What is becoming clear is that in the last analysis it is only the Gospel that can provide the basis for a society which is free, but in which freedom does not lead iinto disintegration and destruction. The reason for this lies in the unique character of the Gospel itself. It is in the fact that God’s decisive revelation of his wisdom and power was made in the crucifixion of the beloved Son, that in his resurrection from the dead we have the assurance that, in spite of all appearances, God does reign, that in the commission to the Church we have responsibility to bear witness throughout history to its end that God does reign, and that until the end God has provided a space and a time in which the reconciliation of our sinful race is possible, not by coercion by by freely given faith, love and obedience.”

From Lesslie Newbigin: A Theological Life, Geoffrey Wainwright (Oxford University Press, 2000), pp. 213-236.

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One thought on “Recalling Lesslie Newbigin in the face of the present controversy

  1. Thanks for this.

    One of the things one first notices in a Muslim society is that God is everywhere. He is on people’s tongues many times during the day, he is present in the whole community five times daily in the call to prayer and the people’s response. This is something Christians have lost, or at least many of us have. We cannot counter the positive, if mistaken, faith of the Muslim with a vacuum.

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