The Western World as a Mission Field

As Western culture moves from the era of modernism to post-modernism, the effects upon the church and the ministry of the church become increasingly apparent.  The church must deal with the remnants of modernism which continually influences Western culture and it must also begin to engage a new post-modern mentality, which appears at first glance even to be even more estranged from Christian thought.

The main questions revolve around two axes:  What is happening in our culture? How should we deal with it from a Christian perspective?

Lesslie Newbigin, formerly a British missionary to India, has become a primary spokesman for viewing Western culture as a mission field.  In 1933, at the Edinburgh Quadrennial of the Student Volunteer Movement, J. H. Oldham “spoke of the radical departure of Europe from the Christian faith when it followed Descartes and the pioneers of the Enlightenment.”  (Unfinished Agenda, p. 26)  Newbigin interpreted this to mean that ‘the mission field’ also included the so-called “Western Christian world.”  Newbigin then remarks that “from the perspective of nearly a half century later I would dare to say that missionary thinking in Europe and North America has yet met the challenge which Edinburgh gave to develop a genuinely missionary encounter with post-Enlightenment European civilization.”  (Unfinished, pp. 26-27)  

Newbigin believes that we need to take a missionary approach to Western culture.  What he means is that we must take a “critical stance” toward our culture, seeing it from the perspective of someone from outside the culture, and evaluating it as a missionary would evaluate another culture.  (Foolishness, p. 21)  Newbigin approaches mission to Western culture by first analyzing and critiquing its most fundamental assumptions.  Since this could be quite comprehensive, I will attempt to summarize the main points of Newbigin’s thinking.

Modern Western culture assumes that the reality can be scientifically explained by laws of cause and effect that can be further explained in mathematical terms. (Foolishness, p. 65)  Science, then, is the key to understanding the nature of all reality. (Foolishness, pp. 23-24)  Francis Bacon taught that things should be understood by their causes and that truth is to be thought of as value-free facts, not allowing any speculation (religion or metaphysical thinking) to enter into the formula.  To discover the cause of something is to have explained it. (Foolishness, p. 24)  This is quite different from Aristotle’s idea that things are to be understood in terms of their purpose. (Ibid., p. 76)  For modern science, all causes are adequate to the effects they produce. (Ibid., p. 79)  Purpose does not enter into their thinking nor is it a part of scientific work.  The central citadel of belief of our culture is that there are efficient causes but not final causes.  Questions of ultimate purpose are not decided in science. (Truth to Tell, p. 22)  The abandonment of teleology (that something has an end or purpose) is the decisive feature of our culture. (Foolishness, pp. 34-35)

Newbigin frequently speaks of the plausibility structure of culture, a term that he borrows from Peter Berger (sociologist).  The plausibility structure of a culture is the rational construct of culture and determines what is believed to be plausible in a given cultural worldview.  A plausibility structure is something that everyone accepts without argument.(Foolishness, p. 10)  Berger suggests that Western culture has no plausibility structure because there is nothing that we can all agree to without questioning it.  Newbigin says that we do in fact have a ruling plausibility structure and we make our choices within its parameters. (Ibid., p. 14)  It is post-Enlightenment (modern) scientific thinking which has created a rational structure which few in our culture would deny.

The root of our plausibility structure (which accepts the dichotomy of public truth and private opinion) is the philosophy of Descartes.  Descartes sought to discover the certainty of knowledge.  He began with certainty about his own existence (rather than with the certainty of God’s existence) and then sought to move from that idea to the idea of God and to the reality outside his mind.  His method failed and he created a dichotomy between the idea of God and the certainty of his own personal existence. (Truth to Tell. pp. 15)  The ultimate result of this dualistic thinking is that Descartes could not progress from his own mind to prove the existence of the world outside his mind and it also resulted in the idea that God could influence the mind but could not act upon the material world itself. (Ibid., p. 26)  Newbigin asserts that “Descartes’ dualism has shaped the whole of our subsequent thinking, creating a dichotomy that runs right through our culture.” (Ibid.)

This led to a dichotomy of public truth (based on observable, objective, substantiated facts) and private opinion (religious beliefs that cannot be substantiated by science). The problem is that in the public realm no broad, universal system has been constructed with the truth discovered by science.  There is, in the public realm, no compelling or comprehensive system of truth that reflects the whole of reality.  With no comprehensive truth system, and apparently possibility in the near future for such a system, there is skepticism regarding finding truth.  This is especially true for those who seek ultimate truth in the sense of purpose and meaning. (Truth to Tell, p. p3)   

Newbigin’s missionary approach to Western culture has many facets.  The most fundamental approach is that the church must protest against the ideology that rules the public life of Western nations. (Foolishness, p. 124)  Newbigin believes, however, that we must move from mere protest to acceptance of a new vision for society.  This vision comes by accepting Jesus as Savior and becoming a disciple.  Discipleship means a commitment to a vision of society radically different than what is seen and believed in public life today.  The vision that controls public life must be condemned as false. (Foolishness, p. 132)

It is not just a matter of protest or condemnation: we must seek to shape the public life of nations in light of the Christian faith.  The first priority, however, would be the theological understanding of the context and situation of our culture, assessing its theological needs (like acknowledging God and accepting his view of reality), and then the reordering of society’s structure based on that theological understanding.  He is not advocating a return to Christendom where the state (nation or country) is controlled by the Church.  What he envisions is a society whose worldview is not limited by the narrowness of the modernistic worldview that sets the parameters of its plausibility structure far within the boundaries of reality, whose narrow rationality does not allow for the full comprehension of reality.  Rather, society needs to accept a biblical view of reality which matches true reality.

The church in the missionary context of Western culture must hold and proclaim beliefs that cannot be proven to be true in terms of the rational system and axioms of our society.  The narrow rationality of our culture does not have the categories for a vision of reality beyond the positivistic approach to truth.  Only Christianity has the wide rationality that can fully comprehend reality.

Newbigin’s theology of mission to Western culture is more than a radical critique of the “reigning assumptions of public life” (Truth to Tell, p. 2), which is, in essence, a “radical critique of the reigning epistemology” of Western culture.  A missionary encounter with culture must also call for a “radical conversion,” a conversion not only of the will but also of the mind.  It must be a paradigm shift that leads to a new vision of reality and which opens the way to the construction of “a new plausibility structure in which the most real of realities is the living God….” (Truth to Tell, p. 64)

The gospel is the foundation of this radical conversion and is “an announcement of a name and a fact that offer the starting point” for the new vision of reality. (Foolishness, p. 148)  It will create the need for a “considerable, perhaps even radical, rearrangement of our mental furniture.”  (Truth to Tell, p. 10)

Newbigin points to Augustine and Athanasius as examples of persons who provided a new starting point, a new model, and a new framework for culture when the ancient classical culture was moving from the scene. The new fundamental pattern for society was based on the Trinitarian faith.  It was a model that truly overcame ancient dichotomies and replaced them with a new plausibility structure for Western culture. (Truth to Tell, pp. 20, 16)

It is the gospel, which is a term that for Newbigin incorporates the whole thrust of God’s revelation to mankind, that reinstates purpose and meaning in culture and provides a wider rationality to explain the whole expanse of reality, the seen and the unseen. Newbigin observes that God has revealed purpose for creation, but this can only be known by the mind of the Person who has purpose.  God has revealed his being and purpose in history, events that have formed the substance of the Scriptures, the center of which is focused on the events concerning Jesus.   (Truth to Tell, p.28)

Since Newbigin (along with philosopher of science Michael Polanyi) has established that all knowing involves a personal commitment (a faith commitment to certain presuppositions), then it can be reasoned that there is not an absolute separation of faith and knowledge.  We can say that we believe in order to understand.  Consequently, what Newbigin is asking is that our culture take the radical step of faith and accept the presupposition of the gospel in order to understand reality.  It means embracing a wider rationality that includes the human element, as well as the seen and unseen aspects of one reality.  It must be a step of faith because we cannot demonstrate the truth of Christianity in reference to something else. (Truth to Tell, pp. 33, 32, 35, 34)  “The Trinitarian model,” he writes, “cannot be founded upon more ultimate principles.  God’s revelation in Jesus Christ is the starting point.”  (Truth to Tell, p. 37)

The content of the new starting point is a radical proposal.  Our new vision of reality must not be based on an abstract idea or first principle but on a person, Jesus Christ.  The Incarnation of Christ, where God came in the flesh and became a part of observable human history (therefore accessible to human knowledge), we are able to see things from a different perspective.  The old dichotomies are overcome and we have a new perspective from which to observe reality.  (Truth to Tell, p.37)

This radical conversion of perspective cannot take place without the gift of grace from God.  Understanding comes from within the parameters of faith, a faith that is supported by God’s enlightenment.  (Truth to Tell, pp. 36-37)   It comes down to this:

Without that change of mind, the story [of Christ’s resurrection] is too implausible to be regarded as part of real history.  Indeed that simple truth is that the resurrection cannot be accommodated in any way of understanding the world except one of which it is the starting point.  (Truth to Tell, p. 11)

Newbigin sees the relationship of the new starting point to the old one as “radical discontinuity.”  There is a radical discontinuity between the epistemology and belief systems of Christianity and Western culture that makes the message of Scripture incomprehensible to the world if it assesses the Bible according to its own belief system.  (Foolishness, p. 51)

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