Good Point, Lesslie Newbigin
For me, 2012 has been, ostensibly, the Year of Overdue Books. I've been reading books that I probably should have read long before this point in my life. I've had little forays into less timeless or more timely books, but on the main I've been playing catch-up all year. Right now that's meant reading something, anything, by Lesslie Newbigin. Newbigin was a four-decade Christian missionary from England to India, who came back to Britain and found the West a very different place from how it was when he left. The church had lost its lofty position in the culture; its authority had been segregated from the public realm of "facts" to the private realm of "values," and it was struggling to find its footing on this terra nova. In Foolishness to the Greeks, Newbigin suggests that this was at least in part because the church had taken its lofty position for granted.
The church, in the power of the crucified and risen Jesus, bears witness to the truth and pays the price with its blood. But what was the church to do when the imperial powe lost its will to continue and the emperor turned to the church to provide the spiritual cohesion for a disintegrating society? Much has been written about the harm done to the cause of the gospel when Constantine accepted baptism, and it is not difficult to expatiate on this theme. But could any other choice have been made? When the ancient classical world, which had seemed so brilliant and so all-conquering, ran out of spiritual fuel and turned to the church as the one society that could hold a disintegrating world together, should the church have refused the appeal and washed its hands of responsibility for the political order? It could not do so if it was to be faithful to its origins in Israel and in the ministry of Jesus.Well, when you put it that way, Lesslie Newbigin, you have a point. But a few questions remain: assuming (as we must assume) that the society that emerged under the authority of the church was fundamentally flawed, what would it look like done right? And how is the mission of the church sustained when the church is forced off the margins and into the center? And how does the missionary church guard itself against the political and material enticements of empire while serving an imperially inclined society with moral and ethical leadership? And what does expatiate mean? I'm not at the end of the book; I'm not even at the end of a chapter. But these are questions that merit reflection without end until the last tear has been shed and all earthly empires have been supplanted. So I guess we all have some serious thinking to do.