Newsletter 4 - Winter 1990

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Socialism, Free Markets and Christian Faith

Bishop Lesslie Newbigin

Eastern Europe is changing with breathtaking speed. The attempt to create a rationally planned society in which governments would have the responsibility of ensuring that the basic needs of all citizens would be met, even if this meant limiting personal freedom, has collapsed. There are shouts of joy on the political right, and anthems of praise for the free market. The air is full of the rhetoric of freedom. Meanwhile, less prominent in the news, events unfold in places like El Salvador, where the free market rules and society dissolves into chaos. 'Freedom' in large parts of the world spells only monstrous injustice for the poor. And even in our own rich society the 'cardboard city' appears and the homeless stand begging in the streets or lie in the gutters.

The centrally planned economies of Eastern Europe have failed partly because of ordinary human sin, partly because human rationality, even aided by computers, is inadequate to the task of foreseeing all the consequences of the decisions of millions of human beings, but more fundamentally because no government has the right to decide for me what my real needs are. Scientists may be able to reach a fair measure of agreement about what is needed to keep a human being alive. But human needs are not simply biological, and they can only be defined in terms of some concept of the goal of human existence. Human needs must be what are needed for the achievement of the ends for which human beings exist. A centrally planned economy has to have (whether acknowledged or not) a doctrine of 'the chief end of man'. The Marxist doctrine is false.

The 'free market' economy claims superior legitimacy on the ground that I have the right to use what I lawfully possess in accordance with my own wishes. Everyone has the right to the pursuit of happiness and the right to define for him or herself what happiness is. It is accepted that this produces inequalities, but these are not the result of any unjust acts. They are the result of chance and of the natural inequalities between people. Moral indignation about these inequalities is therefore misplaced. The free market produces far more goods and services for society as a whole, even if these are unevenly distributed. Everyone benefits, even the poorest. Interference

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When established order is perceived as unjust, the fabric of society begins to tear.

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with the free market in the name of 'justice' only weakens its capacity to produce goods and services, and these are what (in the vocabulary of the New Right) are defined as 'wealth'. The free market is an impersonal entity governed by its own laws. Its workings are not determined by human planning but by the ancient goddesses of Nature and fortune. Claims of injustice levelled against it are simply inappropriate. Here, then, is a very ancient (and pagan) doctrine of human nature and destiny. The result, in places like El Salvador, is to produce such perceived injustice that governments lose their claim to legitimacy, and we enter the spiral of repression, violence and terror.

The argument between these two views of human nature and destiny has been carried on also in the gentler style of British politics since the war. For a whole generation we have had a broad consensus about an economy which mixed some central planning into the working of a free market. At the end of that period we did not seem to have succeeded brilliantly in the 'pursuit of happiness'. We had the 'winter of discontent' and there was talk about Britain being ungovernable. We have now had ten years of very determined action to deliver the market from state interference. We enjoy more goods and services than ever before, but we perceive vastly increased inequality and the development of an 'underclass' permanently excluded from the affluence which the rest enjoys. Here also there are the first signs of the descending spiral. When established order is perceived as unjust, the fabric of society begins to tear. One side uses the language of freedom, the other side that of justice. There is more shouting than dialogue. What is common to both sides is the language of 'rights'. Is there any rational way of conducting this debate, or must it continue to the point where it degenerates into violence? I think for affirmations are in order.

  1. Freedom is the power to choose between real possibilities. An astronaut who has been cast out of the space-capsule and floats weightless in space is not coerced or limited by any exterior force, but he has no freedom, Freedom only exists where there are limits and it is the limits which create the possibility of freedom. 'Freedom is the character of one who participates in the created order by knowledge and action' (O'Donovan). Pursuing unrealities only creates the illusion of freedom. Freedom cannot be successfully pursued apart from some belief about what the created order actually is.
  2. Rights can only be claimed within a juridical framework which defines the party responsible for meeting the claim. To claim rights apart from such a framework is as useful as writing a cheque on a non-existent bank account. Specifically when it is implied that the one responsible for meeting the claim is the government, we are (in a democratic society) simply making claims against ourselves.
  3. When wants and needs become the basis for rival claims of right, we have to ask about the framework within which these rival claims are made. A rational person would want only what is needed for the achievement of the ends for which human beings exist. Needs, truly understood, are based in objective reality, in 'created order'. Otherwise they are not real needs. Wants which are unrelated to needs are out of touch with reality, and the freedom to seek satisfaction of these wants leads only to bondage to illusion. But our society does not permit the inclusion in public doctrine of a doctrine about the ends for which human life exists. Beliefs about human origins are part of public doctrine, but not beliefs about human destiny. Public doctrine endorses the 'pursuit of happiness' as a proper aim for the individual, but declines to relate 'happiness' to any doctrine about the created order. It therefore provides no framework within which the rival claims of needs and wants could be adjudicated.
  4. There was a time when public doctrine (as evidenced in the school curriculum) included the statement that 'the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him for ever'. This is now permitted as private opinion but excluded from public doctrine. In the ideological battle between left and right the duty of the Church is to make plain that the argument is strictly insoluble and interminable apart from some belief, as part of public doctrine, about the end for which the created order, and human life within it, exists. The State cannot impose such a doctrine, as the experience of Eastern Europe illustrates. But the Church can cease from treating its faith as private opinion and summon the courage to inject into the public debate the affirmation which it is commissioned to make, that the purpose for which all things exist has been made known, namely by the revelation of him whose purpose it is. The Church must state plainly that its creed is not just 'what some of us Christians believe' but is the truth by which all things will ultimately be tested. Of course this affirmation will be contested and ridiculed, but when was the Church promised that it would be otherwise? And, to put the point negatively, surely the idea that this mighty cosmos has come into existence by a series of accidents, exists for no purpose, and provides the means of satisfaction for all the million conflicting dreams of 'happiness' of its human inhabitants, is so absurd that a 'primitive' tribe in some remote island might be astounded at the credulity of those who could believe it. Yet something like this is our contemporary public doctrine. Within this framework there can be no resolution of the conflict between needs and wants. The churches may seek to be influential, successful, respected. They may seek to justify themselves in the eyes of society by good works. But the first duty of the Church in the public realm is to speak the truth.

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Newsletter 5 - Spring 1990

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The Free Society

Bishop Lesslie Newbigin

A few days before his death on 27th February Alan Booth sent me a paper on the role of Christianity in shaping Europe. It was, like everything he wrote, brilliantly clear and perceptive. His sudden death is a great blow for all who are concerned with a Christian impact upon public life. Booth spoke of the significance for the whole of European thought of the collapse of the Marxist regimes and went on to speak of three elements which would have to be the pillars of a common European society: political democracy, the role of law and free markets. Whatever qualifications one might wish to make, especially about the third of these, it seems to me that without these there will not be a 'common European home'. But the point that surely needs to be made is with regard to the foundation on which these three pillars rest. None of them stands unless there is a very strong foundation, normally - like most foundations - invisible, in the shared beliefs of people about what human life is. And these beliefs - like other foundations - can be eroded and washed away if they are not protected.

Political democracy can become the tyranny of majorities over minorities unless there are beliefs about the respect which is due to every human being. Hitler was, after all, elected to power by democratic vote. The independence of the judiciary and the rule of law do not exist unless those who hold power recognize that even overwhelming power must bow before truth and right. And free markets become the arena of ruthless oppression if those who operate them know no higher law than the law of the market.

Widely shared beliefs among whole populations about the supremacy of truth and right over power and profit do not come about automatically or accidentally. Normally, over the span of human history that is known to us, they have been nurtured through religious traditions which teach people to believe that - in spite of appearances to the contrary - there is a source of truth and right in the very being of the cosmos, something which gives meaning to life as a whole. The proper attitude to this source has been reverence, and therefore religious worship has been the way in which the central direction of meaningful life was affirmed - in spite of acknowledged failure to live in accordance with what worship affirmed. This has been true of the great enduring civilizations of India, China and the house of Islam, as well as those societies whose religious traditions (often much closer to the Bible than those just mentioned), we are pleased to call 'primitive'. It is these long enduring religious traditions which create and preserve the foundation on which freedom under the law can be built.

The barbarian tribes who found their home in the western part of the Eurasian land mass were very slowly shaped into a coherent society with certain shared beliefs about human life, and the religious power which shaped them (always imperfectly) was Christianity, a Christianity which had taken into its lifestream much of the humanist culture of Greece and Rome. For a thousand years the building which stood at the centre of each town or village was the one marked by a cross - the central Christian symbol of the mystery of truth and right in a world which contradicts it.

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The only community which at this moment stands ready to offer a new foundation is Islam.

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The last 200 years of Europe's history has seen an experiment unique in human history, the attempt to found public life on other beliefs, beliefs which affirmed the liberation of human reason and conscience from any transcendent or supernatural reality. The last hundred years has seen the working out of this belief in the turning of reason against reason itself (for the critical principle must necessarily attack the critical faculty of which it relies) until the point is reached where there is no arbiter beyond the will to power. The state, claiming absolute power, becomes the only arbiter of truth and right and the guarantor of well-being. The collapse of that claim in Eastern Europe leaves a gaping hole where the foundations ought to be. The only community which at this moment stands ready to offer a new foundation is Islam. We must now reckon with Islam as a major actor on the stage of world politics in the 21st century.

Most Europeans shun the prospect of an Islamic theocratic state. What is affirmed is the ideal of a free society, with freedom to think and say what we please. But here we are in danger of pursuing illusions. On subjects of which I know nothing I am free to say what I like. The more I learn about the reality, the more my freedom is limited. There is a reciprocal relation between freedom and reality. It is only in freedom that I can begin to apprehend reality; and in so far as I apprehend reality my freedom to speak about it is limited by that apprehension. Freedom which is simply freedom to say what one likes can only be destructive of any grasp of reality as meaningful. A free society cannot be an open society - open to any sort of nonsense. It can only be a society dedicated to the enterprise (which must be free) of seeking to apprehend reality as meaningful. And without some widely shared beliefs about reality as meaningful, society must disintegrate or fall victim to tyranny. The 'open' society of the Weimar Republic was the perfect seed-bed for National Socialism. That terrible scenario could be repeated.

The 'apprehension of reality as meaningful' which made possible the civilization of Europe was provided by Christianity. There is no real alternative if there is to be a 'common European home'. Unlike Islam, and in spite of the Constantinian version of Christianity, Christians cannot advocate a theocratic state. The reason is in that central fact which Islam must deny, namely that when the Son of God took flesh as part of history, he was crucified by those powers which represent the supremacy of truth and right. The union of power with truth and right lies beyond death and resurrection. No civic or ecclesiastical order can be equated with the kingdom of god. But Christians can affirm that the only foundation on which a free society can rise out of the present Europe is the Christian tradition which formed Europe as a distinct society. The foundation of which I speak is not political power. It calls for an evangelization of Europe which is not revivalism but that radical conversion of the mind which will enable people to see that the public doctrine that has shaped Europe for 200 years is false and that the forming and nourishing of Christian minds, as well as hearts and wills, is the only way to provide a foundation on which the pillars of a free society for Europe can rest. And if laying foundations is labelled 'fundamentalism', we shall have to learn not to be frightened by that label.

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Newsletter 6 - Summer 1990

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Muslims, Christians and Public Doctrine

Bishop Lesslie Newbigin

Public debate has been sparked by the issue of a Muslim Manifesto by the London based Muslim Institute, advocating Muslim resistance to assimilation into British culture and insisting that Muslims must retain their distinct cultural and social identity. Muslims, in other words, must remain a separate community in Britain. This view is not, of course, shared by all Muslims in Britain, but its plausibility for Muslims is strengthened by the British reaction (or lack of reaction) to The Satanic Verses. The response of Clifford Longley in the The Times is probably representative of most British opinion. He advises Muslims to follow the example of previous immigrant communities. Let them remain faithful to their religion but in all other respects let them be like other British citizens. Assimilation in all except religion is the only way for them.

This typically British response asks Muslims to follow our example in separating private belief from public doctrine. In my discussions with fellow-Christians I find that the phrase 'public doctrine' raises hackles. Surely, it will be said, we do not have a public doctrine. Everyone is free to think as he or she wishes. We all agree, do we not, that the important thing is to develop the critical faculties so that every one learns to think for herself and to have the courage to question all dogma. But it does not require much exercise of the critical faculty to see that this programme is self-defeating. The dogma that all dogma must be open to question must itself be open to question. The attempt to follow this route must lead either to the reign of unacknowledged dogma or else to vacuity and nihilism. But it is this dogma which Muslims are being invited to accept as the means of assimilation into British society.

I have recently read a paper (so far unpublished) by the mathematician John Puddefoot in which he explores the bearing of the Second Law of Thermodynamics on the doctrine of divine creation and providence. The Second Law states that all closed systems move towards increasing randomness. If this universe is a closed system, then its future can only be descent into chaos. And this is the scenario which science offers. Puddefoot quotes the biochemist P W Atkins as follows: 'We are the children of chaos, and the deep structure of change is decay. At root there is only corruption, and the un-stemmable tide of chaos. Gone is purpose: all that is left is direction. This is the bleakness we have to accept as we peer deeply and dispassionately into the heart of the Universe" (1). We are part of nature, and if nature is the closed system then the relentless direction of change must always be towards chaos.

In contrast to this scenario, Puddefoot quotes Athanasius: " for if, out of the former normal state of non-existence, (men) were called into being by the presence and loving kindness of the Word, it followed naturally that when men were bereft of the knowledge of God, and were turned back to what was not, they should, since they derive their being from God who is, be everlastingly bereft even of being and abide in death and corruption, for man is by nature mortal, inasmuch as he is made out what is not" (2). Using the insights of information theory, Puddefoot goes on to show

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Christians must welcome the challenge which Muslims bring to our belief-system and begin to recognise how much dogma is built into our accepted public doctrine.

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how we can understand that the universe, and ourselves as part of it, are not locked in a closed system headed for chaos, but - being open to the Word which is the source of creation - can live as part of a cosmos which is directed towards the divine purpose.

Here we have two mutually irreconcilable understandings of the human situation. One sees the proper human condition as being one of looking up, open to the creative Word from whom all things have their being; the other sees the human stance as looking down, investigating the created world but oblivious of the source of its being. One is on the way to life, the other to death. And, if I interpret rightly what I have heard Muslim parents saying, it is that their children are being taught in our schools to look down and not to look up, to investigate the causes of things but to ignore the one from whom they come and for whom they are made. Their children are taught the origins of human life in the theory of evolution, and the origins of each individual human being in the programme encoded on the DNA molecule. But they are not taught the purpose of human life, not taught to look up to God as the goal of all human being. I can understand why Muslims do not want to be 'assimilated' into this. I wonder why Christians are content to be.

The issue of public doctrine cannot be evaded. It is an evasion to say that we are taught to criticise all dogma for that is merely to state a dogma which has to be criticised. Muslims and Christians share a common belief that life is not to be understood or managed without reference to God. Christians must welcome the challenge which Muslims bring to our belief-system and begin to recognize how much dogma is built into our accepted public doctrine. The situation in which we in Britain now have to answer the questions of the Muslims cannot be answered by the simple word 'assimilate'. We must face a fundamental question put to our accepted public doctrine. I think this question will become more and more pressing. For the greater part of the 20th Century the main global alternative to Christianity has been Marxism, for Marxism seemed to hold out the promise of creating the kind of world for which Christians pray - a world of justice and freedom. That vision has faded. I think that during the 21st Century the main global alternative to Christianity will be Islam - the Islam to which western civilisation is already so much indebted for its introduction to much of Greek philosophy and to mathematics. Islam will make a powerful bid for the intellectual high ground. One of our great universities is already considering appointing a lecturer in Muslim economics. (A proposal for a chair in Christian economics would have been laughed out of court).

Christianity and Islam have differing beliefs about how God rules in human affairs. The heart of the difference is in the fact of the cross. The Prophet rode into Mecca to conquer; Jesus rode into Jerusalem to die. The crux lies there. And that means that Christians cannot use coercion in the struggle between two different ultimate faiths. But struggle there must be. The field is the whole of our public doctrine. Those who must take the lead are those whose competence is in the areas of science, literature and the arts, economics, politics and all the learned professions. They must find the courage to face the issues which are raised in these sectors of public life by God's revelation in Jesus Christ. This will be a long struggle, and one century will not be enough to show decisive results. But it is a struggle which cannot be evaded. The choice is between the 'bleak', dispassionate' vision of the future to which Atkins invites us, and the hope of new heavens and a new earth to which we are invited in the Gospel.

  1. P W Atkins, The Second Law, Scientific American Library, 1984
  2. Athanasius, de Incarnatione, IV tr A Robertson.

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Newsletter 7 - Autumn 1990

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On Having Been a Missionary

Rev Dr H D Beeby

The following has many promptings, one of which is the regular succession of comments that the Newsletter is very academic and perhaps a little heavy.

I write from the viewpoint of retirement, that wonderful state in life when you can pursue your enthusiasms without interference and do and say what you want. Some of my retirement time is spent looking back on missionary work and trying to link the past to the exciting future of retirement. Let me share with you this retrospect and prospect in the hope that if it doesn't help it might entertain.

1 What a privilege to have been a missionary! What an incredible privilege! I know I hardly did anything I planned to do or thought I was called and fitted to do. I know I was usually dragged screaming, sometimes mildly, some. times wildly, into various new jobs that I didn't want to do. I know there were germs, and great rows, and difficult colleagues - and mosquitoes. But, there was the sunshine, and strange tastes, and the struggle to put all your thinking in to the categories of another language. There was learning to hear the unsaid in another culture; new glimpses of new unsuspected beauties; the discovery that the unthinkable was regularly thought by some people, and that laughter outside Europe had unsuspected overtones and depths. There was the new view- point that first shattered and then began to refashion you, and there was the patience and tolerance and love of colleagues that went with you in the refashioning. There was the slow realization that God was an Asian man who went to Africa but never Europe, that the Word of God was almost all Asian and that early theology was mostly African, and that most of 'my' Europe was the gift of people from Jerusalem and Alexandria and Nicea and Carthage.

2 What a responsibility, having been a foreign missionary, to be a missionary in this foreign field of England! Overseas I knew I was in a non-Christian culture. Paganism was prevalent, the idols were everywhere and openly worshipped and adored. The need to speak about the counterculture of the Gospel that judges and redeems was patently obvious. Consequently, my eyes and brain were always discerning and analyzing the world about me and wondering how it might be lifted and restored in Christ.

Now I am in Europe where the camouflage of 'Christendom' still deceives some of the people all of the time, and most of us some of the time. How do I retain my missionary attitudes of 'idol discernment' here? How do I recognize the tares in the crop, and the controlling might of the principalities and powers? And how do I understand them, not in the light of my current ideology or some fashionable trend, but as I see them measured by God's plumb line and then , judged by the cross and renewed and I recreated by the hope of the resurrection? In other words, how do I see my foreign I experience as preparation for the harder I task of witnessing convertingly in my I own country?

3.  I now see clearly that we are all witnessing all the time, and all converting all the time. It is not a question of a chosen few of us being witnesses and being dedicated to the task of conversion. We are all witnessing to something I and, consciously or unconsciously, we I are all converting others to that some- , thing we witness to. The only question , is, what is it we witness and convert to? , Is it our own culture, our own lifestyle, our own sense of superiority or sense of failure? Or is it Jesus Christ? As a missionary, did I spend more time witnessing unconsciously to the "atheistic" culture of Europe inculcated in me by school, university and even theological college, than I did consciously preaching and teaching about Christ? What does my record in God's accounts look like? Is there enough in my conscious credit column to balance my unconscious announcing of the European idols that are part of me, but of which I am little aware? When I taught history in the university, did I teach it as I had been taught- with no real place for the God of history that I preached and lectured about in the theological college? Did I assume the "atheistic" view of nature that governs so much of our science? Did I unconsciously convey a culture which had gradually limited God to the smaller and smaller area of what one does with one's solitude? Did I proclaim a midget Christ who really only laid claim to lordship over that fragment of human life that our western socialization process generously leaves to religion, and who mildly acquiesces when we mouth "He is true for me"?

4.  My first three points now feed my future work. We do not 'retire from'. We 'retire in order to'. Retirement is what the seventy odd years have been preparation for, and in the case of a missionary there is a seamless continuity between the 'from' and the 'in order to'. The missionary has been greatly privileged. He has been showered with joys and opportunities that have not only delighted him in the past but have prepared him for the future calling. And, of course, privilege carries responsibility. Noblesse oblige. He missionary, after years and decades of preparation, has a mind-set, an attitude and techniques which with a certain sea change qualify him as no other is qualified clearly to see his own culture as it really is, to put it critically himself included) alongside the holy gospel and see how little they coincide. The missionary also is frighteningly aware how much his past witness has been to the pseudo-sacreds, the substitute lords, which are part not of his visible hand luggage, but are built into the concealed heavy baggage of the culture that formed him and the education that nurtured him.

With these gifts, the responsibility, and the knowledge of past failure he is now ready. The years of preparation are now over. It's about time he did something to translate the hope and victory he has known overseas into triumph in the new and harder task of mission in his own land.

So, how about some missionary collecting boxes for the new missions: the missions to medicine, sociology, history - and theology; missions to nationalism, advertising, the media - and the Church; missions to language, Murphy's law, 'professionalism' - and the Missions? Donations are invited to establish an Institute of Idol-Identification, and a department of Hidden-Dogma discernment. And, with a thought for all the countless created things that become substitute 'creators' and asked to bear impossible burdens - the nation state, the poor, the National Health Service, the adored lovers, etc. - maybe a Royal Society for the Protection of idols. Happy missioning!

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