The Theology of Lesslie Newbigin in the Light of Global and Contextual Theology

Talk at Newbigin Symposium, Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California, USA, March 20, 2018

Dr Jukka Keskitalo, Director General, National Church Council, Evangelical Lutheran Church in Finland


Lesslie Newbigin

Dear colleagues in missiology and intercultural theology, it is a great honour for me to have shared with you this theological symposium, where we focus in particular on the theology of Bishop Lesslie Newbigin in the light of global and contextual theology. I appreciate this chance all the more as I know that many of you have interrupted your vacations to be here today.

Newbigin as a travel partner for more than 30 years

Allow me to begin my thoughts on the importance of Lesslie Newbigin’s theology with a personal reflection. In the summer of 1987, I was a 25-year-old Masters student in the Faculty of Theology at the University of Helsinki. I was finishing my Masters thesis on the trinitarian aspects of the missiology of Lesslie Newbigin. In order to deepen my research, I travelled to Birmingham, England, to meet Newbigin.

I was impressed by how this world-famous bishop, missionary and ecumenist received a young guy from a distant land of snow and ice. For three hours we talked in his home. More than once this theological superstar asked me what I thought about this and that. He listened carefully and nodded approvingly. If he hadn’t been before, after that visit Newbigin was my ‘hero’. I could see that clearly also when I took a look at my thesis before this trip: there was some uncritical admiration in there.

After my ordination, I worked for a few years in a parish and as a university chaplain. That gave me the opportunity to apply Newbigin’s thoughts to the practical work of ministry. After that I went back to his theology, aiming to get my PhD in theology. I began to study Newbigin’s thoughts on modern-day Western culture and the mission of the church in that context.

I had learned analytical and critical methodology at my Alma Mater, the University of Helsinki. I can tell you that I thought one of the finest examples of being meticulous about sources, and of theological-philosophical analysis, was a fellow graduate, Professor Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen. He had recently published a general and systematic presentation of Christian Theology in five parts called A Constructive Christian Theology for the Pluralistic World – a work I didn’t at all want to compare with my own efforts.

I put my own knowledge and skills in methodology to work on Newbigin’s writings. As a result, I began to see factual errors regarding the history of ideas and the history of philosophy, as well as simplifications in Newbigin’s analysis of modern culture and enlightenment. In fact, I went through what often happens in a marriage. After the first infatuation, the falling in love, there came a period of distancing. Newbigin and I grew in different directions.

However, this distancing did not prove to be the final word. Work and family matters made me take a break of two or three years in working on my Masters. After that break I began to re-read Newbigin and this time I took a new approach. I realised that I had looked too closely at his writings, even zooming in on individual sentences. It was as if I had been looking at a great fresco from a distance of three or four feet. When I stepped back, I could see what a fine theological fresco – even if painted in broad strokes – Newbigin’s theology presented.

I could see that, despite some academic failings, there was genuine insight in what Newbigin wrote. I could see that he had something rousing to say to the churches of the West. I think my thesis, which was published in 1999, shows that I had moved on in my relationship with Newbigin. I had come beyond the stages of infatuation and the distancing, to the third stage of marriage: a mature partnership.

Bishop Newbigin has now been a partner on my journey for more than 30 years. All these years, in my various roles within my own church and in inter-church responsibilities, including in my current post as Director General, I have been able to apply Newbigin’s basic idea of the mission of the Church in a pluralist society.

Newbigin’s glasses

In this room there is so much knowledge of what Newbigin has said and written that there is little need for me to talk about his work in detail. Instead, I want to ask a more general question: What has Newbigin and his theology done for the global family of churches?

I am certain he has done a lot for us, but today my answer is that he has given us glasses! Yes, that’s right: glasses. Newbigin’s well-known metaphor of glasses has made us realise in an entirely new way how difficult it is to see the influence of your own cultural context on how you interpret the Gospel.

Let’s see what happened to Newbigin in 1974, and let’s keep those glasses in mind. In 1974, Newbigin retired from being Bishop of the Diocese of Madras of the Church of South India. With his wife Helen he travelled from India to Europe by train and bus, passing through Pakistan and Afghanistan: He travelled in areas we now associate with the Taliban. Today, it is difficult for us to imagine that such a journey was even possible – and particularly that it was possible for a 65-year-old internationally known bishop.

When Newbigin returned to Great Britain in 1974, he found himself surprised and quite shocked. He felt that British and European culture had changed and lost hope during the 38 years he had spent abroad, mostly in India.

He drew a depressing portrait of Western culture and society. This gave Werner Ustorf, who was Professor of Missiology at University of Birmingham at the time, a chance to comment ironically that Newbigin was suffering from culture shock and was missing ‘the good old days’. Of course there may have been an element of truth to that, but I think Ustorf misses the point. Despite the strong language Newbigin used, what he presented was a deeper analysis.

Newbigin was not at all pleased with the situation in which he found churches in England. The churches had become too cautious and inward-looking. Newbigin’s experience was that it had become rare to hear a confident and courageous proclamation of the liberating word of the Gospel. As we know, Newbigin began to wonder what exactly had happened to the churches.

Newbigin stated that over time the churches had come to accept the idea that the Christian faith ought only be concerned with the private aspects of human life. In Western countries, faith had become an internal ‘matter of the heart’, something that was not discussed openly in the workplace, for example. The Christian faith had become more of a mode of therapy. It had lost its ability to challenge public truths of the modern Enlightenment culture. The churches didn’t speak about facts, but about values. As a consequence, they had become easier to disregard as being only of concern to the private lives of certain people.

Western churches had also, in Newbigin’s opinion, gradually lost the ability to see that there might be something wrong with this state of things. The Church and Christians settled in so well on the margins of life that it began to feel like their natural state. Enlightenment and reasoning became the lens through which Western churches, theology and Christians saw reality. And, as we know, while we view the world through a glass lens, we don’t see the lens itself. Lenses do, however, colour our image of reality. Which, in Newbigin’s opinion, is precisely what had happened to Western churches.

And speaking of glasses, Newbigin stated that he had acquired a different set of lenses during his 38 years in India, lenses which showed a natural view of the Christian faith as a holistic interpretation of the world and reality. In the Indian church, the Gospel was seen as something that involved all aspects of the whole person, not just their hidden private life. Faith belongs in the workplace and the schools, not just in private prayer rooms. With the help of his Indian lenses, Newbigin was able to see that the West needed a theology that challenges the conventional understanding of the Church’s role and mission.

What cure did Newbigin prescribe for the reform of the Church? His central thesis focused on the idea that the Church should break through the margins. That it should begin to pronounce the Gospel once again as a public truth. A truth that concerned the whole of reality and the whole of each individual. This would mean a solid confidence in the power of the Gospel, and that we would not try to limit God’s ability to have an impact on all aspects of our life.

Newbigin suggested reform and emphasised that the truth of the Gospel calls us to make a radical conversion, not just in the traditional sense of religious conversion, but also in its ability to change the structures of our thinking. It was an invitation to the churches. They should start to courageously offer people a kind of life understanding that is shamelessly based on God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ. It is a truly missionary approach to modern and postmodern Western culture.

Newbigin surprised the entire theological world. And I think that his analysis of modern Western culture and the redefining of the church’s mission would not have been possible in this way if he had not been able to view it through the lens of another cultural context.

It is obvious that the inculturation of the Gospel in any given culture is important. Unless this contextualisation happens, there is no contact between the proclamation of the Gospel and the lives people actually live. However, there can also be, in the words of Newbigin, the wrong kind of contextualisation. In the wrong kind of contextualisation, the church loses the ability to challenge and criticise a culture. When that happens, the church dissolves into that culture, becomes a part of it. That means that the church itself becomes marginalised.

The case of Newbigin’s glasses when he returned to England proves the importance of global theology. As the global family of churches, and particularly as a global theological community, we can all do each other the favour of providing one another with different glasses. By looking through the lens of other cultures we become aware of things in our own culture. We see the state of our own church that we would otherwise be unable to see.

Panikkar’s glasses

However, I would like to have another look at Newbigin’s idea of the glasses in a way that takes us back to India and underlines what I have said earlier: that in global Christianity we need the glasses we have so we can exchange them with one another so that we can judge whether contextualisation has gone so far that it has put our church in danger of being dissolved into the culture around it.

The well-known Indian-Spanish Roman Catholic theologian Raimon Panikkar (1918–2010) employs as a metaphor the word windows, which somewhat resembles Newbigin’s glasses. Panikkar says we all look at reality through our own window. However, we do not notice the window pane when we look at reality. We think reality is what it looks like from our own window. We don’t notice our own windowpanes, but according to Panikkar we are good at noticing our neighbour’s window.

Panikkar says we become aware of our own windows by listening to others, by entering into dialogue. Both parties to a dialogue get the chance to understand that what each of them sees through their window is only part of the reality. The fullness of reality is revealed and built through dialogue with others. Panikkar uses this imagery to emphasise the importance of inter-religious dialogue.

There are obvious points of contact in the theologies of Newbigin and Panikkar. One of these seems to be that both of them admit that there is no independent epistemological starting point for human beings. There is no bird’s-eye view. We have no so-called objective intelligence to turn to: Rational thought is always built on premises we either choose or receive through faith. Rational thought is a collection of rules of logical reasoning which can be applied according to some premises we accept through faith. This also means that rational thought can result in different outcomes. When it comes to rationality, Newbigin is definitely a so-called perspectivist or relativist, and so apparently is Panikkar.

There, however, the similarities end. Because if I’ve understood him correctly, Panikkar – unlike Newbigin – is inclined towards relativism also when it comes to the truth. According to Panikkar it seems there is no such thing as truth, strictly ontologically speaking. There are merely partial truths, which together add up to a composite image of the truth. Or rather images of truth. This is how I’ve understood it, but there are also Panikkar interpretations that state he is a radical pluralist in his view on truth, rather than a relativist. I will let you be the judge of the difference between these two.

Panikkar, who died in 2010, was one of the most significant theologians of religions of the late twentieth century. A big trend in the theology of religions in the late twentieth century and the beginning of this one has been the slide towards the so-called pluralist view. The pluralist view dismisses the claims of absolute truth in religions as impossible. This has thrown a new light on the thought of the uniqueness of Christ as the only way of salvation – the pluralist theology of religions doesn’t hold that view any more.

Even though Newbigin was a relativist in the question of rationality, he was – unlike Panikkar – a realist when it came to the truth. For Newbigin, truth exists in the ontological sense. For him the idea of Christ’s uniqueness as the way of salvation was also a given. Even though our knowledge of reality is always personal knowledge, a Christian must proclaim the truth with universal intent. It is a truth that concerns everybody. If something is true only for oneself or only for Christians, then according to Newbigin you have no business calling it truth.

At first, this may seem an arrogant attitude towards truth. But Newbigin does not agree. Like Panikkar, Newbigin emphasises the search for truth and the need to be a disciple of truth. Even though the church must proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ as a public truth, neither the church nor one Christian can possess the truth. Each Christian is a student, searching for the fullness of truth until the end of their life. Proclaiming the Gospel as a public truth must be done in a dialogical spirit of learning.

So, what is the key difference between Panikkar and Newbigin? It is the question of truth and the uniqueness of Christ. Looking through Panikkar’s glasses it doesn’t seem to be a problem that there is no ontological truth. For Newbigin, however, this was a very serious danger which in the end makes Christianity hollow.

I am not sure if Newbigin and Panikkar ever met, but Newbigin has certainly not significantly commented on this rather well-known theologian who was nine years his junior. However, let us experiment with the thought of what Newbigin would have said to Panikkar if the two had met.

I believe Newbigin would have offered Panikkar, an Indian, a pair of glasses cut in his own theological processes. They would have shown Panikkar that his way of thinking leads – perhaps without his conscious intent – to a dissolution of the uniqueness of Christ and finally to syncretism. This way – in this fictitious example – an Indian theologian would have received a pair of glasses from someone who had originally received that same pair in India, after which the lenses had been shaped further in England.

Global theology as a shaper of glasses

Dear friends, with this example I have not tried to canonise Newbigin and point a finger at Panikkar. The point is not to say who is right and who is wrong. Instead, this is meant to be a clue to the fact that in global Christianity we can genuinely learn from one another and share our metaphorical glasses. African contextual theology, for instance, has opened the eyes of Western theologians to see how much baggage, from Plato, Aristotle or the Enlightenment philosophers, has been carried by supposedly ‘neutral’ theology.

All Christians in all contexts are blind to something. I am certain that I myself have become blind to some things in the context of my own Scandinavian national church. In fact, this is the most basic reason for me to be here on the west coast to acquaint myself with American church life.

I hope to improve the vision provided by my glasses during this visit. And for the very same reason I am grateful for this meeting, which represents global Christianity and different theological orientations. I hope that you will generously offer me your glasses in debate and conversation.