Lesslie Newbigin was a missionary to South India and active in the early ecumenical movement that developed out of the Edinburgh Conference of 1910. In his work among people of other religious traditions in South India, Newbigin developed a theology of interfaith relations that can be helpful to us in our present context. Newbigin became concerned about the increasing pluralism of our society, especially as expressed as a secular ideology, and so developed a theology of interreligious dialogue. He developed this theology in dialogue with other interfaith theologians such as John Hick and Karl Rahner. Newbigin developed an approach that was both practical, humble and Christocentric.
As opposed to John Hick, who believed that a shift must occur from Christianity as the center to God as the center, with all religions, including Christianity, revolving around God (which would be categorized as agnostic pluralism), Newbigin believed in a committed pluralism. He believed in the Christian story of redemption revealed in the scriptures and preserved by the church as the center of our witness to our non-Christian neighbors. Karl Rahner believed that members of other religions must be considered anonymous Christians as they were already known to God and had general revelation to guide them. Newbigin believed that to believe this was to disregard the corrupting influence of the fall, but also to assume too much knowledge about the ultimate faith of the other. To declare God’s ultimate judgment upon other people was beyond human ability. Newbigin’s approach was to bear witness to the life giving Good News of Jesus Christ, but not to judge.
To quote Newbigin from his book, The Open Secret, p. 174,
“I do not claim to know in advance his or her ultimate destiny. I meet the person simply as a witness, as one who has been laid hold of by Another and placed in a position where I can only point to Jesus as the one who makes sense of the whole human situation that my partner and I share as fellow human beings.”
Where Newbigin is especially helpful in our present interactions with people of other faith traditions is that he urges us to interact with our neighbors and friends with integrity. One of the critiques of interfaith dialogue is that it can’t be done if both sides have an agenda of converting the other. Newbigin’s response would be to journey together as we learn about Jesus and be converted together.
Newbigin believed that every part of the created world and every human being are already related to Jesus. This reminds me of Abraham Kuyper’s belief that Jesus is Lord over every square inch. Newbigin believed in this same cosmic influence, that Christianity is not limited to individuals but rather systems are redeemed through Christ’s work. One can’t think only of the human soul, but of the soul and the cosmos together. This is why Newbigin seems to defy the typology of exclusivist, inclusivist and pluralist categories regarding individual salvation. Newbigin was not only concerned about individual salvation, but about Christ’s lordship over the whole cosmos. In Newbigin’s view, to bear witness to the Gospel in interreligious dialogue was to empty ourselves, to go through a process of Kenosis, to humbly point to Jesus and to welcome others into the text of the Gospels. To approach the other with an exclusivistic approach is limiting, isolating and distancing. It places us above the other, in a superior place. Newbigin eschewed a triumphant Gospel that wielded the truth of Jesus like a sledge hammer, and instead sought to meet the religious other on his or her own terms, as people of faith struggling to know truth. Newbigin’s response was “to meet the author of all being, who has acted to break the power of sin and death and opened a path that leads to the glorious consummation of all human and cosmic being.” (The Christian Faith and the World Religions 1989)
This also counters the tendency to look at interfaith dialogue as a neutral sharing of each others understanding of truth, (to use Miroslav Volf’s explanation of this – contending particular universalisms). While being humbly respectful of other people’s religious truth, Newbigin pointed clearly to Christ as the answer to the human dilemma in each time and place.
Newbigin also wrote that interfaith dialogue does involve risk. In his view, if one was to truly enter into an honest and open dialogue with people of other faiths and ideologies, one must accept some level of risk. That is because the Christian must believe that dialogue can be used by the Spirit for the radical conversion of the partner. But he also adds that it is possible for the Christian to be converted too.
Does that risk mean that we avoid interfaith dialogue all together? Some would argue for this. But Newbigin writes that “to put my Christianity at risk is precisely the way by which I can confess Jesus Christ as Lord – Lord over all worlds and Lord over my faith.” (The Open Secret, p. 188).
As we to learn to navigate an increasingly pluralistic society in Canada and the United States, Lesslie Newbigin is a voice that we need to listen to, even as we continue to dialogue together and shape our interreligious approach to our friends and neighbors.