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Effectively Engaging Pluralism and Postmodernism in a So-Called Post-Christian Culture


Newbigin begins by effectively exposing foundational epistemological presuppositions hidden behind and beneath modernity’s flawed dichotomization of reality into insular and polar realms of “facts and values” which ultimately makes Christianity rationally or scientifically indefensible and untenable. He acidly indicts this “program of systematic skepticism,” rooted in European Enlightenment history, for its arrogance and inconsistence, and forcefully advances that faith is a fact of life. He then argues that not only religious knowledge but also scientific knowledge is impossible without the exercise of imagination and intuition as well as a certain concession to the authority of tradition. Debunking the illusion of absolute objectivity, he defends a carefully qualified subjectivity as an essential element of the quest for truth. He therefore underlines the equal importance of “personal commitment” and “universal intent.” Newbigin analyzes in depth the foundations of Christian belief upon reason, revelation, and experience.

Reason is not a separate source of knowledge over against revelation but the faculty by which we attempt to order and understand all of our experience, whether religious or scientific. Reason, however, usually operates according to society’s underlying but often unconscious “plausibility structure,” that is, our cultural assumptions and practices about what is, or is not, rational—often, especially in the West, heavily influenced by “modernization.” And all experience is interpreted experience. Revelation as the personal disclosure of the divine to knowing subjects requires no less rational effort than to interpret experience of the historical events or story of God’s self-communication. But relativism is rightly avoided as believers fully and mutually indwell their society and their Christianity as internalized living traditions always interacting with one another. Although Newbigin is addressing complex concepts in this section, the upshot of it all is simple: facts, faith, and values are not mutually exclusive categories.

Lesslie Newbigin (1909-1998).

History is an important category for Newbigin. Christianity stakes its existence on what he calls the “happenedness” of the New Testament story and on the purposefulness of God’s providential acts within human history. There is legitimacy to the so-called “scandal of particularity” because “the history of the Church is to be interpreted not merely as one among the varieties of religious experience but as the fruit of the promised work of the Spirit of God.” The election of a particular people, Israel and the Church, to testify to all of a universally available redemption and salvation flies in the face of modernity’s almost obnoxious individualism but may be better viewed as an expression of human relationality and solidarity. In fact, the Bible really only makes sound sense as the “secret” of the narrative’s divine author’s eschatological agenda is considered and subsequently centered in a universal hope with a definite terminus in God’s ordained goal. Here is the cure for debilitating contemporary despair. The story of the life, death, resurrection, ascension, and coming again of Christ reveals itself to be an alternative plausibility structure for interpreting reality and inspiring hopeful existence and action. Christ is the clue for all of human history!

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Category: Fall 2007, Ministry

About the Author: Tony Richie, D.Min, Ph.D., is missionary teacher at SEMISUD (Quito, Ecuador) and adjunct professor at the Pentecostal Theological Seminary (Cleveland, TN). Dr. Richie is an Ordained Bishop in the Church of God, and Senior Pastor at New Harvest in Knoxville, TN. He has served the Society for Pentecostal Studies as Ecumenical Studies Interest Group Leader and is currently Liaison to the Interfaith Relations Commission of the National Council of Churches (USA), and represents Pentecostals with Interreligious Dialogue and Cooperation of the World Council of Churches and the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs. He is the author of Speaking by the Spirit: A Pentecostal Model for Interreligious Dialogue (Emeth Press, 2011) and Toward a Pentecostal Theology of Religions: Encountering Cornelius Today (CPT Press, 2013) as well as several journal articles and books chapters on Pentecostal theology and experience.

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