I have always felt that Christians must stay tuned quite intensely to what’s going on in the world. This is part of what we call our signature commitments at Seattle Pacific. But sometimes when we look out across the landscape of our society, we sense something is out of whack, or at least out of alignment with what we believe to be a Christian path to human flourishing. So, how do we respond?
Last Sunday The New York Times published a cover article in The Sunday Magazine arguing the notion that infidelity is probably healthy for marriages. And then we have been subjected to endless coverage about the kinky twitter practices of a New York Congressman or the recently discovered decade-long marital deception of a California governor. In Atlanta, I read that hundreds of teachers and principals are caught cheating for their students on standardized testing. In recent trial proceedings, we know a child was found dead in a swamp, but we don’t know who is telling the truth about anything.
How can we make sense of all of this? I have been reading for a second time Lesslie Newbigin’s truly great book A Truth to Tell: The Gospel as Public Truth. There are not many books I read a second time, but this one is worth its weight in gold for anyone who wants to address a world out of whack with the good news of the gospel of Jesus.
The key for Newbigin, as for all of us, is the question of truth. What is truth? And how do we know? And why is it so hard for us to talk about truth in our day? One of the deepest patterns of our culture, says Newbigin, is “a prevailing skepticism about the possibility of knowing truth.” “Nietzsche has come into his own,” Newbigin points out. “There is nothing left except the will, since the language of truth is no longer useable.”
In other words, when it comes to deciding what is right and wrong, what is decent and good, what it means to be truthful, everything is up to each of us as individuals. We are the arbiters of truth.
And so here is our predicament: “We have learned to acknowledge,” says Newbigin, “the cultural conditioning of all claims to know the truth.” This is certainly a good thing, a healthy challenge for Christians. “But if that leads us to abandon as hopeless the search for truth, then our culture is dying. . . . To abandon hope of speaking truthfully about reality is to abandon the adventure of life.”
The stakes are pretty high, I would say. Can we really stand by and watch our culture die?
So what can we do? “We have to offer a new starting point for thought,” Newbigin says, a new and radical basis for thinking through what is true and good and beautiful. And what might that new starting point be? Well, “that starting point is God’s revelation of his being and purpose in those events which form the substance of the Scriptures and which have their center and determining focus in the events concerning Jesus.” I would suggest this point is nothing short of breathtaking for our culture: The source of what is true and good is something far bigger than any individual will. It is something that lies outside our control or our making.
But there are two things yet to be said. First, yes, we see “we have a story to tell,” Newbigin goes on to say, “a name to communicate. There are no substitutes for this story and this name. We have to name the name and tell the story.” But the task of telling our story requires of us some real work. We are called “to bring our faith into the public arena, to publish it, to put it at risk in the encounter with other faiths and ideologies in open debate and argument, and in the risky business of discovering what Christian obedience means in radically new circumstances and in radically different human cultures.”
I’m often asked what engaging the culture really means. This is about as good a statement as we might find anywhere.
And second, the task of telling our story requires of us a posture of humility: Let us remember that “we do not yet know all that it means to say that Jesus is Lord. We will have to learn as we go along. . . . We are missionaries, but we are also learners, only beginners. We do not have all the truth, but we know the way along which truth is to be sought and found.”
What do you think? When we are overcome by that feeling that the world is out of whack, we do have a source for what is true and good and beautiful. We have a story that is bigger than we are. We are not the final arbiters of what is true. But then we are called to a task — with humility and winsomeness, through the hard work of study and reflection and argument — to tell our story to the world as best we can.