Foolishness to the Greeks

Newbigin, Lesslie. Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1986.

Much like Hellenistic civilization at the zenith of its influence, modern Western civilization is the most pervasive and persuasive contemporary culture in the world today. While there has been much discussion on “contextualization” in missiological writings, argues Lesslie Newbigin, the problems of contextualization in this predominate, Western culture has been largely ignored–mainly due to the fact that most of the missiological perspectives are themselves saturated with Western culture. To this situation, Newbigin, the Church of Scotland missionary who was one of the first bishops in the Church of South India, brings fresh cross-cultural lens through which he casts a vision of a genuine missionary encounter between the Gospel of Christ and modern Western culture.

Newbigin identifies the plausibility structure, or the worldview, within which modern Western culture operates as Enlightenment rationalism: “Reason, so understood, is sovereign in this enterprise. It cannot bow before any authority than what it calls the facts. No alleged divine revelation, no tradition however ancient, and no dogma however hallowed has the right to veto its exercise” (25). Rationalism, and its offspring scientific naturalism, separate the public world of facts and the private world of values, and effectively exclude the possibility of divine revelation in human history and thus eliminate teleology altogether.

The brilliance of Newbigin’s critique of modern Western culture lies in his ability to subvert its plausibility structure from within. He concedes that it is impossible to prove the claim of Jesus’ resurrection from the plausibility structure of modernity, but he submits that the plausibility structure of Christianity offers a wider rationality that has a greater capacity to endow the whole of human experience with meaning (63). Newbigin engages two arenas of modern Western culture, namely science and politics, with the Christian Gospel in view. First, Newbigin embarks on a fascinating foray into intellectual history to show that the achievements of modern Western culture are perfectly sensible in a plausibility structure informed by the Bible. He argues that the modern scientific enterprise developed in the West, rather than in other highly-sophisticated cultures of Ancient China, India, Egypt, or Greece, because Western culture was beholden to the biblical idea of a rational and contingent universe. “For to put it briefly, if the world is not rational, science is not possible; if the world is not contingent, science is not necessary” (71). If the world is irrational and inherently unpredictable, scientific observation is futile, but if, as in the Indian worldview, the world is a part of an immanent, absolute reality within which humans directly participate, empirical experiments are superfluous.

On the other hand, Enlightenment rationalism and scientific naturalism offer no compelling outlook on human destiny and purpose. Reducing human life to a series of efficient, rather than final, causes leads to absurdity. For example, an exhaustive compositional analysis of a machine may adequately explain how it works, but unless one understands why the machine was created, the purpose of its design, the detailed analysis is wholly inadequate as an “explanation” of the machine. Similarly, examining all the physiological, psychological, and biographical traits of a person may lead to a vast knowledge about a person, but this “knowledge” can in no way approximate knowing a person relationally. This, contends Newbigin, is the break between natural theology and revealed theology. A purely rationalistic, and thus reductionist, view of the universe is ultimately unreasonable, and the testimony of the believing community that has encountered the living God constitutes the only viable alternative to this a-teleological, a-theistic worldview.

Likewise, Newbigin claims that prevailing political views fail to account for human teleology. Capitalism, founded on the freedom to pursue one’s desires, harbors gross inequalities, and socialism, founded on the principle of equality, sacrifices freedom and dignity, since the uniquely human need for love and respect rely on a differentiation of individual identities. The dated contrast between capitalism and socialism need not distract from this prescient volume. It remains true that other political varieties fall somewhere between the two paradigms and that they are all organized around the Enlightenment concept that human beings are autonomous individuals possessing equal rights to pursue their own happiness. The problem persists in that “happiness” cannot be properly defined without reference to a normative understanding of human purpose. Unlike the value-free science of economics, which has no answer to this conundrum, the Christian worldview suggests that this human purpose consists in partaking in the community of love and obedience inaugurated by the Triune, incarnate, God.

Newbigin’s proposal that the Church should apply the Gospel to every sphere of public life is ambitious. It calls for a nuanced eschatology that emphasizes the lasting, redeemable value of secular work, and a robust workplace theology that equips Christians to embody the Gospel in all of their waking hours. It calls for an intellectually rigorous apologetic that expounds the plausibility of the Biblical worldview, as well as an unapologetic witness to divine revelation through the vibrant life of the Church community. While it is not, nor does it pretend to be, a systematic interpretation of modern Western culture, Foolishness to the Greeks is an invaluable commentary on the dialectic between Christ and culture. Newbigin’s dual status as enlightened outsider and steeped insider to modern Western culture renders this volume much more insightful than other disquisitions on this subject.

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