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 true posture of any authentic Christian movement, Newbigin suggests, is that of a missionary--someone who purposefully enters into redemptive conversation with a host culture. Like Daniel and the Babylonians in the Old Testament, or like Paul and the Athenians in the New, the missionary gets to know the host culture and then asks penetrating questions of it, which ultimately lay the groundwork for the good news that the God of the Universe loves the host culture so much that he lays down his life for it. (Do keep in mind at this point that I'm halfway through the shortest Lesslie Newbigin book I could find on a friend's bookshelf, so my characterization of his philosophy of the church is not especially nuanced.) The work of the church is fundamentally set against the way of the world--not in a combative way but as a means of juxtaposition, showcasing the finitude and correspondingly limited wisdom of the host culture, and the ultimate wisdom and commitment of the ultimate Other, God. The missionary is never quite at home, her mission only accomplished insofar as the host culture, and the individual persons in it, turn progressively toward the God who loves them.

This story demands a happy ending. Missionary meets host culture; missionary loves host culture; missionary introduces host culture to God; God loves host culture; host culture loves God; they live happily every after. Ultimately that's the plan, I suppose, if you read the last couple of chapters of the book of Revelation. But in a universe as yet ordered by time and space, there are no grand finales, only chapter endings and plot twists. The host culture that embraces the missionary God exchanges one set of problems (alienation from the God of the universe) for another (a sloppy love relationship, made complicated by the finitude and correspondingly limited wisdom of God's new loved ones). It turns out that Jesus was right: even in a receptive host culture, for the time being at least, the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.

So, the work of the church is a tricky business. I've been, of late, swayed considerably by the Anabaptist impulse, of which I've read precious little (again, please excuse my lack of nuance) but which suggests among other things that the church was greatly compromised in its mission by the conversion of Roman emperor Constantine to Christianity and his subsequent legislative and military support of the authority of the church. A church in the center, arguably, has lost sight of the path of Christian discipleship and mission, and becomes more self-protective (in the way of empire) than self-emptying (in the way of Christ). An imperial church doesn't ask questions of host cultures; it makes demands of them. It imposes meaning on them and allows no dissent. It fails the missionary task, and so the work of God must happen elsewhere.

Sounds pretty accurate to me. But then Lesslie Newbigin drops this whammy on me:
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.


Andy Rowell said…
Well done. I was a teaching assistant for Geoffrey Wainwright's course on Newbigin at Duke Divinity School. You are reading well. Good joy. You are asking good questions of ecclesiology, missiology, political theology, etc. Good job. You have "gotten" Newbigin. All of his books are along these same lines but you are ably catching the nuances and questions. Good job!
David Zimmerman said…
Thanks, Andy! Glad to hear I'm not far off. For what it's worth, I was a fan of Newbigin's long before I was a reader of his.
Constantine can become something of an overly-convenient kicking boy. That said, I don't think the options were as binary as he suggests.

Still, I love Newbigin.

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