Friday, January 13, 2006

Newbigin on 'Christ: Unique and Universal'

I recently listened to the only audio lecture I have ever found by Lesslie Newbigin on the net. It is entitled 'Christ: Unique and Universal' and is as thought-provoking as Newbigin always is. I highly recommend it as an introduction to Newbigin's main emphases in his books. I made some notes the second time I listened to it to help me absorb what he was saying and I have typed them out below. I do not think I agree with everything he says, but I can never easily dismiss anything he says. I would appreciate any thoughts you may have.


He makes five Points relating to the statement which is his title:

  1. This is a statement of Truth
    • Saying something true about the world. Not as John Hick says all religions are about 'how to be saved'
    • There are three problems with that understanding:
      1. Ridiculous because how can you be saved without relying on something outside yourself.
      2. Very human-centred.
      3. If the gospel is true the central question here is not 'how to be saved' but 'how God can be glorified'.
    • This is public truth - true for all.
  2. How could we know this statement is true?
    • It is common today to say 'that may be true for you, but it is not true for me'.
    • This is a claim to know the limits of knowledge, which is an arrogant claim.
    • If the root desire is to the question 'how can I be saved/fulfilled?' we forget that there is a world outside ourselves.
    • This understanding is not found in science departments. There is a division in our culture between science/arts departments and facts/values.
  3. What kind of truth statement are we making? How are these words used?
    • We are not describing one in a class of religions.
    • It is true there are many parallels between the ideas/doctrines of Christianity and other 'religions'.
      • There is a branch of Hinduism so similar to Christianity it has the same heresies by different names (e.g. Pelagianism).
      • In a conversation with one of the teachers from this branch when asked the question 'what do you mean by salvation?' the Christian answer was found to be exactly the same, bar the name of Jesus himself.
      • However when pressing the teacher about his assurance for his belief, found that the teacher considered that if did not provide any assurance the teacher would simply worship a different God!
      • LN realised then that if the centre is yourself there will be nothing to choose between many religions.
      • From then on LN did not preach sin->forgiveness as he introduced the gospel but first explained the story of God as found in the bible.
    • Hindu friend questioned LN why the bible was presented as a book of religion (which Hindus have plenty of) by Christians, when it was unique as a interpretation of the history of the cosmos, which presents the humans as having a part in this cosmic history.
    • Must remember that 'How can I be saved?' is the question of "a pagan jailer in a fright" (Acts 16) not of Moses/Paul etc.
  4. What is involved in this belief?
    • There are a number of different interpretations of history. Some (e.g. Indian) see history as cyclical and purposeless. Some see history as having a purpose but with the purpose elsewhere, for example:
      • Christian interpretation (Christ as pinnacle).
      • Nationalistic interpretation (the nation as pinnacle).
      • The story of civilization (civilization now as the pinnacle).
      • Islam, like Christianity, looking for God's rule. But unlike Christianity equates power with truth - Muhammad rode into Mecca at the head of an army, Jesus on a donkey to die.
    • The cross and resurrection will only make sense if taken as the starting point.
    • The truth is still veiled as it was in Jesus incarnate, and in the imperfect church. The church is entrusted with the witness to this 'secret'.
    • This does not mean there is no goodness outside the church.
      • It is bad that the existence of goodness outside the church has been seen as a disincentive to mission. That was not the case with Cornelius who was 'good' and so evangelised by Peter, who with the church was challenged to rethink what the gospel meant in this light.
  5. What should be the response to a request for proof that this statement is true?
    • The problem with this question is that it assumes there is something, 'x', which you can both agree on and can provide the ground for the statement.
      • This is an illusion though, as you can only prove x by a y, and that by z, etc...
      • A Jesuit has argued that the roots of modern atheism lie in Thomas Aquinas (!) who set out to prove the existence of God from something else. Crazily Aquinas spent the whole of book 1 of his Summa proving God's existence without mention of Jesus, and then went on in book 4 to say that it is only through Jesus that we can know God!
      • This attempt to find a proof has led to a false conception of God.
      • It has also led to a false hope of certainty not based on Jesus.
      • In science a statement is considered true because it leads out to wider truth - it makes sense of the life.
      • Our starting point for discussions with other faiths, should not then be a clash of different starting points but an joint exploration of how well the different faiths play out in explaining everyday life.
      • However, if pushed we should point to the final day when we will fully know.
      • This does not mean that our faith is a 'leap in the dark' rather it is a response to a call.

PS the lecture was delivered in 1991 at The Christian Institute, which has a lot more interesting audio online, including an eight part overview of the bible by David Jackman.


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