Generous Orthodoxy  

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Hark, a thrilling voice is sounding...

Once in a long while one suddenly discovers a theological thinker that rises above most others, offering a truly fresh viewpoint to enliven one's atrophied faith. It’s like opening a window and seeing a vista heretofore unsuspected. An excitement comes with this that makes encounters with other writers in the church, however worthy, seem less necessary.

I have spent the day reading from a theologian that I can’t believe I haven’t read before. For about ten years, a few (surprisingly few, actually) friends whom I trust have urged me to read this man’s work, but for one reason or another I hadn’t gotten around to it. I have had an anthology of his writings on a shelf for about four years; I picked it up on a whim in a bookstore (how impoverished we are that these opportunities will become fewer and fewer as bookstores disappear) and it has been sitting unread ever since while I have been reading other things. Thanks be to God, it was here in my office just when I needed it (as my old friend Jeanne Burbank, now in a nursing home, said just yesterday, it’s “God's punctuality”).

The man of whom I am speaking is Lesslie Newbigen.

Newbigen carves out the territory where I, for one, want to stand. It’s not a very well-populated territory because, as he observes, the churches are divided between liberal theology and Protestant fundamentalism (he describes this state of affairs in more than ordinary depth), making it difficult for a differing voice to be heard—yet that voice, in Newbigen's case, is more truly biblical than either alternative. Newbigen is a true post-modern believer, who sees clearly the fallacy in the conservative-evangelical tendency to speak in terms of rational absolutes, who recognizes that “all truth claims are culturally embodied,” and who yet affirms the power of the biblical narrative of Jesus Christ as the only basis upon which to build Christian faith.

Newbigen is known as the missionary theologian par excellence, and for good reason; however, it is not for his tales of mission and ministry in India that one reads him. It is his profoundly theological and devotional (how rarely the two coexist in one person!) concern for the life and health of the church everywhere, especially in today's secular West, that makes his work intensely and personally compelling. Because of his worldwide experience and knowledge, he is able to speak with particular authority of the public nature of theology and faith. Moreover, he has a first-rate mind and the ability to take the measure of the philosophers as well as the theologians. No one has written better about how Christians should approach interfaith dialogue. He is able to assess Islam and Hinduism with a critical yet sympathetic understanding (he died in 1998 and was writing in full strength up until the end).

In a brief introduction to Newbigen’s life, the young Newbigen is quoted, saying that he had found Karl Barth’s Romans “incomprehensible.” I was taken aback by this, but the more I kept reading Newbigen's work, the more I thought “this sound like Barth.” Then I discovered that much later he had read all twelve volumes of the Church Dogmatics and, still later, had written this:

It was an immensely rewarding experience. Barth condensed and Barth quoted I had found totally unimpressive. But the real Barth, and especially the famous small-print notes, was enthralling. It was a needed preparation for the much more difficult missionary experience which (as I did not then realize) lay ahead.

By that "more difficult experience" he meant the return from India to Great Britain and the confrontation with a post-Christian Europe. He writes superbly about this context, and about what the Christian is to do and be in this “society which has lost its memory.”

P.S. The volume that I am reading is Lesslie Newbigen, Missionary Theologian: A Reader, edited by Paul Weston. It provides a remarkable collection of Newbigen’s own writings. If any clergy are reading this, I recommend going straight to the Eerdmans website for a discount and instant mailing.