Truth to Tell: The Gospel as Public Truth

There are books that make a difference in a person’s life. For me, Truth to Tell: The Gospel as Public Truth was one of those books. [1] I was a first-year seminary student, trying to put together my Christian faith and the teachings of a moderately liberal seminary, when I came upon Truth to Tell, bought copies for several of my classmates, and began a love affair with the writings of Lesslie Newbigin.

Lesslie Newbigin is best known among scholars and religious professionals as the founder and a leading writer of what is sometimes called the “Gospel and Culture” and/or “Missional Church” movements. Newbigin was a missionary in India for some years, a Bishop in the Anglican church of South India, before working with the World Council of Churches, of which he was the Associate General Secretary before retiring. His experience in India gave him a unique understanding of the cultural climate in the West and the way in which culture impacts Christian faith. After returning to England, he penned some of the most influential theological works of the late 20th Century. [2]

An Analysis of Where We Are

In Truth to Tell, Newbigin outlines in a readable way his analysis of Western Culture. It is Newbigin’s view that the West since Newton and Descartes has lived under a false ideal of objectivity, in which it is possible for the observer to be separated from that which is observed. In Newton the ideal of a mathematically describable, and therefore technologically controllable, universe was given a scientific foundation that resulted in the Modern World. The ideal was a kind of objective truth that would be true for everyone and recognized as such by everyone. It was an impossible dream.[3]

With the work of philosopher Rene Descartes, the West began a movement into a kind of moral and religious subjectivism from which we have not yet escaped. Descartes attempted to find a ground for human faith, reason, and morals in the subjectivity of the human person. (“I think, therefore I am.”) Religiously (and unintentionally) the attempt by Descartes to found human knowledge on logical certainties, ultimately resulted in morals and religion being exiled to the subjective choice of individuals.  Religion and morals were a private truth, not public upon which people could agree. By the end of the 19th Century, the West was left with the critique of Nietzsche and the primacy of the will to power. The result has been the moral and religious collapse of the West, and the emergence of a series of left and right-wing dictatorships of increasing mendacity.

We see the reality and the impact of the loss of meaning every day in our moral arguments and in politics: the search for dominance by interest groups unbridled by faith, morals, or any other constraint. We experience the endless debate about moral questions, with each side talking past the other—and paying little or no attention to the other. What is needed is a new starting point for thought and action.

It is at this point that Newbigin’s analysis meets the need for a different kind of public philosophy to inspire and guide our leaders. The Post-modern West appears to be in the same condition that prevailed in the Greco-Roman World at the time of Augustine. By the beginning of the Fifth Century, Roman society was immersed in decadence morally, philosophical skepticism, moral nihilism, and corrupt decline in the realm of government. The philosophical brilliance of Greece, and the legal, engineering, military. and practical brilliance of Rome, had reached a dead end.

We forget that, before Augustine, Rome and Greco Roman culture was in a period of religious, moral, and political decay not much different than what we see around us today. Augustine wrote his masterpiece, City of God as a response to the Roman pagan charge that the decline of Rome was the fault of the new religion of Christianity. The solution Augustine crafted, a division of the earthly city based on power and the City of God based on love, with the earthly city spiritually and morally subject to the heavenly city, provided a basis for Western Civilization until the modern times.

Until recently, even after the emergence of modern science and technology the moral and spiritual foundations of our culture were Christian. The two great wars of the 20th Century, begun by the “Christian” powers of Europe, the development of the modern secular state, and the secularization of education, and the emergence of a post-Christian society combined to bring this long era to an end. The end, however, was not what anyone considered possible even a century ago: the abrupt decline Western civilization. By the 21st Century, the West had come to reject even the notion of truth, goodness, truth and beauty as human ideals. As Newbigin notes in Truth to Tell, there is nothing more characteristic of our society than the view that all truth claims are relative. He specifically quotes a Chinese Christian theologian for a trenchant description of Western Society: “Technological optimism and literary despair.” [4]

A Proposal For Where We Might Go

In Truth to Tell, Lesslie Newbigin distinguishes between “Agnostic Pluralism” and “Committed Pluralism”. [5] Agnostic Pluralism is the kind of pluralism characteristic of our society, in which truth is unknowable and there are no real criteria for judging between different views. Committed Pluralism, on the other hand, sees human beings as capable of real knowledge of God, subject to human limitations and revision based upon new information. In the emerging postmodern reality Christians face today, what is needed are people committed to reaching out to others in the spirit of acceptance and dialogue, who boldly proclaim what it is they believe and why in humble, truth-seeking conversation with others.

This is the place at which Newbigin adopts the post-critical philosophy of Michael Polanyi, which will be the subject of the next of these blogs. [6] Polanyi recognized the false ideal of objectivity, so common in popular culture as a misunderstanding of human reason, including scientific reasoning. For Polanyi, all reasoning is personal, the action of a responsible human actor, and there is always at work a history and tradition of thought. For example, a scientist does not work in a vacuum, but as part of the group of scientists who are trained in the tradition of the particular branch of science involved. These scientists are motivated by the conviction that they are in contact with a reality beyond themselves—and to which their thinking is subject.

The same is true for any inquiry. Those who seek God or the Good are part of a tradition of persons from different faiths and traditions which have sought the True and the Good in their areas of inquiry. They have taken personal responsibility for their beliefs and been guided by them. Over centuries of inquiry and thought, progress has been made. Finally, those who have sought God, the True, the Good, and the Beautiful  have come into contact with a kind of  reality, spiritual and moral realities which reveal themselves to those who seek to know.

One name for the position that Newbigin outlines is “critical realism.” When a person says that something is “real,” he or she is confessing that it exists independently of their own subjective perceptions. To say that something such as “God,” “Truth,” “Justice,’” “Goodness,” or “Beauty” exists independently of my perception of it and will impact my life whether or not I perceive it properly, is to say that these noetic, immaterial things are “real”. As something that exists outside of my subjective preference, it will impact my life whether I subjectively recognize it or not. [7]

The intellectual move that Newbigin and Polanyi make is an important one, for it is a big step in repairing the breach between the material and noetic worlds, between the seen and the unseen, between faith, morals, and scientific knowledge, between will and reason, and between subjective though and action that has increasingly destructive impact on our political life the in West.

Conclusion: Christians as Bearers of a Public Truth

Newbigin closes his book with a chapter concerning the obligation of Christians to proclaim their truth in a kind of humble submission to the critique of others and for society to listen for the truth being proclaimed without the prejudice that is so common in the secular West. To do this, the Church itself will have to model the kind of reasonableness that it urges upon society as a whole.

Copyright 2020, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved.

[1] Lesslie Newbigin, Truth to Tell: The Gospel as Public Truth (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1991), hereinafter, “Truth to Tell.”

[2] Some of his works are The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1978); Foolishness to the Greeks: Gospel and Western Culture, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1986); The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Grand Rapids: MI: Eerdmans, 1989); Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt and Certainty in Christian Discipleship (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1995).

[3] Truth to Tell, 3.

[4] Truth to Tell, 18.

[5] Id, at 56. This literary despair is really a despair in every area of thought and life not scientific and technological.

[6] Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy. (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1962); The Tacit Dimension (Glouchester, MA: Peter Smith, 1983); and Science Faith and Society: A Searching Examination of the Meaning and Nature of Scientific Inquiry (Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press, 1946)

[7] See for example, Michael Polanyi and Harry Prosch Meaning (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1975), 126. In Polanyi’s thought, real things exist independently of any particular observer. We believe such things will manifest themselves in the future in the same and similar situations.


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