Lesslie Newbigin


This week I read “Foolishness to the Greeks” by Lesslie Newbigin for the upcoming class. It gave me lots to think. Here are a few remarkable quotes:

Islam denies the Christian doctrine of original sin and therefore believes that it is possible to achieve a total identification of the laws of a state with the law of God. Church and state in Islamic thought are one, without distinction of function. That way we cannot go. The sacralizing of politics, the total identification of a political goal with the will of God, always unleashes demonic powers.

I am aware of this teaching in Islam and found it a very interesting analysis. He goes on to say:

We are witnessing the same thing, but under Christian auspices, in the emergence of what is called “the Religious Right” in the United States. The leaders of this movement, while accepting the biblical doctrine regarding the radical corruption of human nature by sin, in effect exempt themselves as “born-again Christians” from its operation. They identify their own cause unconditionally with the cause of God, ….

Wow! This seemed so unbelievable. Newbigin wrote this in 1986 !!! – more than 20 years ago. This left me nearly speechless. It reminded me so much of what I had heard and seen over the last few years and what had seemed to me a recent development. I was not aware that this “Religious Right” had started much earlier. I know very little of what it looked like twenty years ago. The remainder of the paragraph is much more dated, but I can still see certain parallels:

… regard their critics as agents of Satan, and are apparently prepared to see the human race obliterated in an apocalyptic catastrophe in which the nuclear arsenal of the United States is the instrument of Jesus Christ for the fulfillment of his purpose against the Soviet Union as the citadel of evil. This confusion of a particular and fallible set of political and moral judgments with the cause of Jesus Christ is more dangerous than the open rejection of the claim of Christ in Islam, just as the shrine of Jereboam at Bethel was more dangerous to the faith of Israel than was the open paganism of her neighbors, for the worship of Ba’al was being carried on under the name of Yahweh. The “Religious Right” uses the name of Jesus to cover the absolute claims of one national tradition. (See 1 Kings 13; and see Karl Barth’s extended commentary thereon in Church Dogmatics II / 2, 393ff.)

But the rhetoric of the “Moral Majority” is only a further development of the ideologizing of politics that stems from the Enlightenment. … The Enlightenment gave birth to a new conception of politics, namely, that happiness can be provided by a political system and that the goal of politics is happiness. The project of bringing heaven down to earth always results in bringing hell up from below. (pp 116-7)

Even though the reference to the Soviet Union is outdated and the present situation with Iraq is different, there are enough parallels to make us think. This and other parts of the book are a powerful reminder that church and state have different tasks and this distinction needs to be maintained even if every citizen were a member of the church. On the one hand, it is wrong to accept the relegation of the church (faith, values, purpose) to the private sphere as a result of the Enlightenment. On the other hand, it is equally wrong to identify any single country or political party with God’s will on earth. We are all fallible.

We ARE called to engage the culture and world-view of our societies, shape public life, challenge politic rulers with God’s standards, give people a taste of God’s reign through Kingdom activities, but we cannot establish God’s kingdom through political achievements.  We need to have the courage to testify to a reality that cannot be proven true according to the rules of our society (where only scientific facts count), and we need to give others the opportunity to observe us in community, worshiping our loving King, and experience through it the “radiance of supernatural reality” which can draw people into His kingdom.