Friday, May 17, 2024

Foolishness to The Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture II: Profile of a Culture (Part I)

 "As a people who are a part of modern Western culture, with its confidence in the validity of its scientific methods, how can we move from the place where we explain the gospel in terms of our modern scientific world-view to the place where we explain our modern scientific world-view from the point of view of the Gospel?"

This is the question Lesslie Newbigin starts with in the second chapter of his book Foolishness to the Greeks.  In fact, he embeds in the very name of this chapter:  "Profile of a Culture".  To see where are, he states, we need to look back to how we got here.  And that road, he points out, leads straight through The Enlightenment.

The Enlightenment was based on a number of preceding factors:  the re-discovery of Europe of lost texts of Greece and Rome, the developments in science of the period (Tyche, Galileo, Newton), and even the new philsophy of Rene Descartes.  Primary in this, Newbigin asserts, were the developments of Newton: suddenly, the universe was seen not to be governed by divine purpose, but by laws of cause and effect.  Suddenly teleology - the study of purpose - no longer had a place in the world of thought:  things no longer served God's purpose in their actions and movements, they were moved by scientific laws.  There was no need to go farther:  "To have discovered the cause of something is to have explained it".  

We had entered The Age of Reason.

Medieval society, states Newbigin, was "held together by a complex reciprocal network of rights and duties..." - and the most treasured of human rights - The idea of human rights "..apart from this actual web of reciprocal duties and rights, would have been unintelligible".  In other words, man took the idea of cause and effect and extended it to the individual, who suddenly has the "right" to determine their own rights, apart from any obligation to others.  Primarily defined as those rights are ones that we Americans are very familiar with:  Life, Liberty, and The Pursuit of Happiness.  Add to this the fact that modern science provides no means for belief in life after death, and the rights of the individual become paramount  -after all, this is all there is.

Rights, says Newbigin, only exist where there is "a legal and social structure that defines them.  Anyone can, of course, assert a need or express a wish apart from such legal or social structure.  But a claim to a right must rest upon some judicial basis."  In the Medieval world, this was found in the reciprocal obligations between tenant and lord (no matter how lousy that relationship could have been).

  In the modern world?:

"Who, then, has the infinite duty to honor the infinite claims of every person to the pursuit of happiness?  The answer of the eighteenth century, and of, of those have followed, is the nation-state.  The nation-state replaced the holy church and the holy empire as the centerpiece in the post-Enlightenment ordering of society.  Upon it devolves the duty of providing the means for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  And since the pursuit of happiness is endless, the demands upon the state are without limit.  If - for modern Western peoples - nature had taken the place of God as the ultimate reality with which we have to deal, the nation state has taken place of God as the source to which we look for happiness, health, and welfare."

Add to this the view of eschatology.  Suddenly the state becomes the end of existence - and the power of treason and progress the means for it.   The Enlightenment replaced the Gospel with the doctrine of Progress.  Hope for a future world has been replaced by the reality of a future which ultimately those now living will never see.  The nation-state, the guarantor of rights which - as noted above, are now infinite - now has the justification for expanding its power and reach; after all, it is the promise of tomorrow.  From this thinking, Newbigin says, the basis of the totalitarian state was laid.  Worse, makes the young the focus of the state as they are the future; the old "can be neither objects nor subjects of hope but only an increasingly burdensome embarrassment."

Newbigin ends this section (and I have to close it partway through; there is still too much to discuss) with this statement:  "The transmission of traditional wisdom in families from the old to the young is replaced by systems of education organized by the state and designed to shape young minds toward the future that is being planned."


  1. I was flummoxed with the idea that cause and effect ended teleology.
    God created order. And our search for order and purpose supplanted order and purpose. Strange.

    I remember when I learned that modern schools were structured to make assembly line workers. Bell rings, queue for next class, bell rings to eat... I didn't do well with that type structure. I think a lecture then a lab to to reinforce it would have worked well. When I figured out machine shop is really math lab, I was ecstatic. Trig became much more accessible.

    1. STxAR - One point which Newbigin made and I probably failed to fully communicate is that although this did not change how that generation that discovered these principles saw teleology, it laid the groundwork for future generations to come to these conclusions. This is the same point that Francis Schaeffer makes as well. I do think you would enjoy this book.

      Yes, modern school is pretty much now designed to make drones, not original thinkers that challenge the system.


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