Few writers lay out the groundwork for speaking of Christianity to a post-enlightenment epistemology than Leslie Newbigin. His book The Gospel in a Pluralist Society is rightly hailed as a classic, if for no other reason than his careful explication of the epistemological issues. Here I wish to highlight these and comment on them and their relevance to communication of the Gospel in the pluralist society of Canada.
Newbigin opens with a discussion of dogma and doubt, which is part of a wider discussion of plausibility structures. In brief, one of the key moves of the enlightenment was to place everything in doubt. Everything especially included traditions, dogma, and prejudice as things to be disregarded in the quest to know reality. Thus arose various attempts to give “the assured results” of science, or scientific historical inquiry, higher criticism, and other results of inquiry that could be verified and or tested.
Without belaboring the history of epistemology, it has been shown that the attempt to find absolute certainty fails. This is sometimes misunderstood as a collapse into relativism. As we shall see below, a door may be opened to relativism in new epistemological paradigms. However, there is at the same time an attempt once again to explore the role of tradition, dogma and prejudice in knowing truth.
Newbigin brilliantly summarizes this part of the project in three main points. “1. Every kind of systematic thought has to begin from some starting point. It has to begin by taking some things for granted. In every domain of though it is always possible to question the starting point, to ask “Why this rather than another?” or “What grounds are there for starting here?”… No coherent thought is possible without presuppositions. … 2. Every society depends for its coherence upon a set of what Peter Berger calls “plausibility structures,” patterns of belief and practice accepted within a given society, which determine which beliefs are plausible to its members and which are not…. 3. Finally, what may be considered to be an opening of the door to relativism in the establishment as a philosophical commonplace that “the truth is much greater than any one person or any one religious tradition can grasp.” Newbigin critiques this commonplace rather harshly.
I will make a few comments on each point in relation to speaking the gospel in a Canadian pluralist society.
First, Newbigin considers Christian dogma to be the starting point, the set of presuppositions, for the Christian’s thinking. Certainly Christian teaching functions as a framework for all the thinking of a Christian. However, from the standpoint of knowing, should we accept dogma as a starting point? There still has to be a place where believers and non-believers begin, where they agree that to do otherwise is to collapse into meaninglessness. Having said this I recognize that Newbigin assumes this and when he speaks of Christian dogma as the starting point he means that once we have agreed that knowledge is possible then Christian dogma shapes interpretation of the world and in so doing creates the plausibility structure. Newbigin is quite clear about reason:
"The faculty which we call reason, the power of the human mind to think coherently and to organize the data of experience in such a way that it can be grasped in meaningful patterns, is necessarily involved in all knowing of any kind." (TGIAPS, p.10)
Second, the social conditions of belief, the “patterns of belief and practice accepted within a given society, which determine which beliefs are plausible to it members and which are not” is not, Newbigin says, “reason” operating in a sort of vacuum. Rather, reason must operate within the context of “the tradition of a community which cherishes and lives by the story of God’s saving acts.”
Nevertheless, I would point out that the New Testament strongly connects to the plausibility structures and standards, not only of the Hebrew world which found dreams, visions and prophecies as things that created or enhanced plausibility, but also to those things accepted by the Greeks and the Romans as creating plausibility. For example, eyewitness accounts, reference to specific dates, referents to historical people, referents to specific geographic locations and sites (such as David’s grave), as well as local customs and laws. At the same time there is a strong counter-cultural thrust in the rejection of myth. And finally, for both the Greco/Roman world and the Hebrew world, signs and wonders did not require a plausibility structure to be understood, but instead they contributed to the plausibility structure. In other words, in both the case of Jesus and the apostles, healing the sick was accepted as an affirmation of the truth of their message.
It would seem to me that this second point of Newbigin’s is pivotal for any consideration of communication in today’s Canadian society. What is it that contributes to the plausibility structure of this society? Perhaps readers might be willing to join in this discussion.