Remembering a Prophet
Posted December 4, 2009on:
The birth centenary of Lesslie Newbigin falls on tuesday, 8 Dec. Although I never met Newbigin “in the flesh” I feel that I have known him well, in the same remarkable way that figures from the past can be closer to us through their writings than some of one’s own family. The shadow of Newbigin has been a steady companion on my own theological pilgrimage. Consequently I requested him to write a preface to my first book, The Recovery of Mission (1996), not least because I devoted a whole chapter to his work. But he declined as his eyesight was failing rapidly. He died a few years later.
Newbigin and his wife went as missionaries to India in 1936, working in both cities and villages in what today is the state of Tamilnadu. He later served as a Bishop in the Church of South India. Returning to the UK in 1974, he was struck by the extent to which the church in the West had become assimilated to a culture that was profoundly pagan. While modernity had brought enormous benefits, the underlying worldview of post-Enlightenment culture were seen by Newbigin to be subversive of the Gospel. It was a culture that, for all its technological and economic advancement, conveyed cynicism and despair.
Ten years later he wrote: “I have often been asked: ‘What is the greatest difficulty you face in moving from India to England?’ I have always answered: ‘The disappearance of hope’… Even in the most squalid slums of Madras there was always the belief that things could be improved…In England, by contrast, it is hard to find any such hope… there is little sign among the citizens of this country of the sort of confidence in the future which was certainly present in the earlier years of this century.”
It is no exaggeration to say that Newbigin was a twentieth-century prophet for the universal Church. Like all true prophets his writings were addressed to specific local contexts, yet are profoundly relevant beyond those contexts. Straddling Western Europe and South Asia, and the misleadingly labeled “ecumenical” and “evangelical” wings of the Church, he built bridges of mutual listening and challenge. One can quibble with his readings of modernity and Enlightenment (as I did in my chapter on him) and still recognize that he was a spiritual and intellectual giant.
Newbigin confronted the abject surrender of the Gospel by the Church to a secularist mind-set which shows itself in a variety of ways: for instance, seeking a social justice uninformed by the message of the Cross, reducing mission to cross-cultural church planting techniques, separating proclamation and dialogue, or endorsing a pluralistic perspective on religious traditions that denies the servant-reign of the risen Christ over all cultures. Newbigin did more than challenge shoddy thinking and unchristian practice. He showed us an exciting alternative: mission “in Christ’s way”. This is mission that is Trinitarian in both foundation and conception, incarnational in practice- unmasking and confronting the false gods of the age with a bold humility, in sheer vulnerability and dependence on the Holy Spirit.
Newbigin’s stress on the public character of Christian witness remains a refreshing antidote to the contemporary focus on multiplying church programmes, privatizing the Gospel in “seeker-friendly” homogenous churches, and therapeutic forms of preaching. He demonstrated that evangelical passion and intellectual rigour need not be divorced, indeed that the former demands the latter. Mission is not primarily command or duty, but “the overflowing of joy”, he wrote somewhere. Joy, love, justice and truth form an interconnected moral web, and living within that web and embodying it in the world is the calling of the Church. Such an integral vision is Newbigin’s legacy.
Jesus rebuked the church leaders of his day for honouring prophets by building monuments to them but not paying attention to what they actually said. The best way to honour Newbigin is, surely, to pick up and read some of his essays and books.