doctrine & behavior in a pluralistic culture

Dogma_buddy_christ In 1989, Leslie Newbigin wrote a profound book called The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Eerdmans).  He had served for many years as a pastor and missionary in South India and also as an associate general secretary to the World Council of Churches.  His books are thought provoking and articulate… and urge Christians to blend truthful doctrine with appropriate cultural intelligence in order to illuminate Christ in a pluralistic culture.

With the current intrareligious squabbles in the United States, I wonder if some of Newbigin's considerations would be helpful.  He suggested that truth must be wrapped in humility if we want to be effective bearers of Jesus in a world quite confused by religion.  "If we are to meet criticism," he wrote, "if we are to be faithful bearers of the message entrusted to us, I think we have to pay attention to four points…":

a. "Part of the reason for the rejection of dogma is that it has for so long been entangled with coercion, with political power, and so with the denial of freedom – freedom of thought and of conscience.  When coercion of any kind is used in the interests of the Christian message, the message itself is corrupted…" (10)

b. "Second, it is plain that we do not defend the Christian message by domesticating it within the reigning plausability structure…" (10)

c. "But, and this is my third point, it is essential to the integrity of our witness to this new reality that we recognize that to be its witnesses does not mean to be the possessors of all truth.  It means to be placed on the path by following which we are led toward the truth.  There is indeed a proper place for agnosticism in the Christian life.  There is a true sense in which we are – with others – seekers after the truth… Christians are – or should be – learners to the end of their days.  But it is equally important to insist that this learning is, like all genuine learning, an exercise which is guided and disciplined by a tradition – the tradition which stems from God's decisive acts in Jesus Christ…" (12)

d. "And this leads to the final point.  The dogma, the thing given for our acceptance of faith, is not a set of timeless propositions: it is a story.  Moreover, it is a story which is not yet finished, a story in which we are still awaiting the end when all becomes clear… Every understanding of the human story, even more obviously than every understanding of the natural world, must rest heavily on a faith commitment – for we do not yet see the end of the story… The Christian faith is- as often said – a historical faith not just in the sense that it depends on a historical record, but also in the sense that it is essentially an interpretation of universal history.  It's defense, therefore, will be as much concerned with how we act as with what we can say." (13)


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