just an apprentice

the Word became flesh and dwelt among us...

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Newbigin, the Gospel in Pluralist Western Culture, and Culture Class

The other day I spoke with a reporter for Lancaster Newspapers who is working on a possible story on clergy who blog. She asked me what was behind the title of my blog—Just an Apprentice. I thought I would reflect on this question a bit with this post.

Dallas Willard, in his book Divine Conspiracy, writes about the Christian life as a way of living in this world not just a set of doctrines, or a gospel of “sin management”. Christianity is much more than dogmatics, it is about a way of living. The earliest Christians were known as followers of the way. The title of my blog, indicates that I too identify myself as an apprentice of Jesus, one who is following the ancient Christian path of transformation. I have not arrived, I am on the way.

Secondly, it points to a stance that I believe the church must take if it is to recover and be freed from its Christendom distortions. I heard Jim Schrag talk about the need for the Church to go back to school to learn what it means to be a missional church. I think of someone like Bishop Leslie Newbigin, who in many ways was a catalyst for the missional conversation among Western churches.

Ryan Bolger writes that Newbigin created a space for Western churches to analyze their relationship to Western culture. Returning to 1980s Britain after forty years in India, Newbigin viewed the Western church with a different set of lenses, and he spoke a message that the Western church needed to hear.

Newbigin returned to a church held captive by the culture and its own church traditions. He asked how the church had become so marginal to public life. He traced the church’s current form back to the Enlightenment, with its focus on reason, the individual, and the removal of values from the public (or factual) sphere. In addition, Newbigin identified another source of the lifeless nature of the Western church – Christendom. Because of the church’s historic relation to the state, Western churches served passively as chaplains to the culture, baptizing the culture’s agenda. With the church’s domination by the powers (the ‘isms’) and its historical relationship with Christendom, the church found itself beaten-down with little ability or energy to respond.

All was not lost. Newbigin argued for a response, another way out of the church’s predicament. Because of the historical nature of the church’s position (it was not a ‘given’), other trajectories were possible. He advocated that the gospel must be the starting point for Christians -- specifically the as expressed in the Incarnation and the Trinity. The gospel must frame all other structures and practices, not science or any other ‘tradition’. The gospel can handle pluralism, provided the gospel is located at the center. The church, not the culture, sets the agenda, speaking from within the biblical narratives to the wider world.

For Newbigin, the church must embody this public truth in all realms, foregoing the facts/values split of the Enlightenment, e.g. in neighborhoods, in arts, science, politics and economics. Rather than accept life on the margins, the church must serve as pointer to the coming reign of God. In retrospect, Newbigin gave the church a gift by exposing the powers and encouraging a gospel-like response in all spheres of culture.

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to participate in a Culture Class with 16 students from Spain who have been in the United States as a part of American Home Life International. This was really a great time of interacting with the Spaniards around the question: “Do you have any spiritual beliefs?” This question became a great springboard for conversation about God, the scientific worldview (secular), values, Jesus, the Bible, what is shaping their beliefs… For these Spanish young people, talking about faith and spirituality in a personal way was something foreign. Many would have some Catholic roots, but are essentially agnostic, or secular humanist in practice. What is the Gospel, the good news, for these Spanish young people? How does Jesus cut through the distortions and baggage created by their experience, by their cultural context, the history of Spain for the over the last century? We had some good open conversation and I trust some seeds were planted that will continue to grow in their lives.


  • At 6:09 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...


    Was the reporter from the New Era, Intel., or Sunday News? Let us know when it appears. -CL

  • At 8:23 AM , Blogger Brian Miller said...

    Not sure, the piece she was working on was still in the early stages. She was not coming up with many clergy who blog locally. Joan Kern was her name.

  • At 2:16 PM , Anonymous dml said...

    In ref to your conversation with those from Spain: "This question became a great springboard for conversation about God, the scientific worldview (secular), values, Jesus, the Bible, what is shaping their beliefs…"

    Sounds like it was a very interesting and pertinent conversation. Just curious, may I clarify your use of "THE scientific worldview (secular)" in the quote above? Are you noting a view that scientific study is considered a secular view vs. a Christian view, or are you differentiating between secular vs. non-secular scientific worldviews?

  • At 2:39 PM , Blogger Brian Miller said...

    Most of the kids who answered the question about what spiritual beliefs they have answered: "I believe in science" As we talked it became evident that they believe in that which is knowable through scientific inquiry...the material world.

    Of course the scientific revolution that gave rise to the Enlightenment and modernity grew out of a Christian worldview. But as this revolution continued to unfold, the realm of faith eventually became set aside for a rationalist, empirical epistemology based on Cartesian doubt. That is not to say that one cannot look to science for answers, but the scientific paradigm, as I understand it, is not predisposed to accept the categories of faith that include revelation, the study of God (theology), mystery, etc.

    The scientific enterprise, while initial born out of a theo-centric worldview has certainly moved beyond this. Is that right?

    While there are scientists who would embrace the methodology of science, but be apologists for the Christian worldview, the overwhelming current of science is secular humanism.

    Correct me if I am wrong, you have done more study in the area of science.

  • At 8:41 PM , Anonymous dml said...

    I acknowledge that there are many starting points for motivation in scientific study/views as there are various end goals -- epistomologically speaking. But I often cringe when people categorically put theological revelation at one end of the continuum and empirical rationalism at the other end as if they work and stand against one another.

    Science is one way humans exercise their curiosity, trying to discover the mysteries God has created. I also believe science can be a form of revelation.

    I guess it is hard . . . how do you answer someone who cannot accept mystery and only trust in what is known/proven? Point to that which is known and extrapolate to the fact that there is much more which exists beyond that which is known. Therein is the realm of mystery . . . even scientists believe that. It is at that point either doubt or faith steps in. Doubt and faith oppose each other. Ultimately, I believe science and faith work as partners; they are not opponents. For faith in something we do not yet understand and see is what spurs on scientific work. Someone who doubts the need for faith or a God should start by looking at the mysteries that still exist in our world and what motivates scientific research.

    Did you read Dan Brown's "Angels and Demons?" I appreciated the critique of the scientific community, and how these various views played out in the story.

  • At 9:00 PM , Blogger Brian Miller said...

    I am in total agreement with you. I just wonder if the perspective you and I hold is the dominant one in science (Darwin, Freud, Marx, Hawkins, the academy...). But as I said, I am speaking not from a point of expertise.

    Back to how this conversation started. We got onto a more philosophical discussion. However, the Spanish students answered the question--"What spiritual beliefs do you have?--with I believe in science. I suppose it is possible that they meant that in the way you are suggesting might open to belief in mystery or something transcendent. I did not sense that it was too close to using particular faith language (Bible) to name that mystery which science might point to. I would presume that you, while believing in science, would also use other language when talking about what your spiritual beliefs are. I would too. This is not to say that they are wrong for believing in science. Just that I wonder whether it is not rather a post-Christian, secular humanism, with a touch of Catholic sensibility, sprinkled in with a number of other forms of spirituality.

    I was incredibly impressed on a number of levels. First, they were able to engage in this conversation in their second language--English. Secondly, coming from a cultural context that does not really talk about the personal dimensions of faith (generalization) and is predominantly agnostic...they were very open to putting their ideas on the table and also listening.

  • At 7:54 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

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