Misc notes from Lesslie Newbigin’s The Open Secret

I probably won’t have the time to develop these into any longer posts, so I’ll just stick them here with a few comments. Overall, I thought The Open Secret was a much more thoughtful and theological book that K.P. Yohannan’s Revolution in World Missions. At least, I was pleased to find a much more nuanced discussion about whether schools and hospitals can/should coincide with proper evangelism and church planting.

As usual, I am always interested in how introductions are handled – favoring humility in disclaimers. This one draws attention to the original context, which is always a good move and one that is not done nearly enough with works of theology.

I am conscious of the fact that these lectures leave much to be desired form the point of view of the scholar who is aware of the range of contemporary studies – biblica, theological, and missionlogical. I must ask the reader to remember the purpose for which and the context in which they were prepared.

On the unplannability of successful missions and and how we should allow room for the Holy Spirit to lead someone in a direction that may not seem to make sense or hold up to analysis:

My own experience as a missionary has been that the significant advances of the church have not been the result of our own decisions about the mobilizing and allocating of “resources.” This kind of language, appropriate for a military campaign or a commercial enterprise, is not approprate here. The significant advances in my experience have come through happenings of which the story of Peter and Cornelius is a paradigm, in ways of which we have no advance knowledge. God opens the heart of a man or woman to the gospel. The messenger (the “angel” of Acts 10:3) may be a stranger, a preacher, a piece of Scripture, a dream, an answered prayer, or a deep experience of joy or sorrow, of danger or deliverance. It was not part of any missionary “strategy” devised by the church. It was the free and sovereign deed of God, who goes before his church. And, like Peter, the church can usually find good reasons for being unwilling to follow. But follow it must if it is to be faithful. For the mission is not ours but God’s.

I really like how Newbigin uses this paragraph to give a definition for “obedience” and the oft-abused “discerning the signs of the times”.

Since the Christian faith is a faith regarding the meaning and end of the human story as a whole, this faith cannot be confessed except in the context of the actual secular history of the present hour. To be specific, this must mean a provisional interprestation of the meaning of contemporary secular events (discerning the signs of the times) and concrete action in the various sectors of secular life directed toward the true end for which God has created humanity and the world (Christian obedience in the common life). In other words, the question of the relation of the biblical story to the whole story of humankind is a question that has to be answered in action. The Christian confession about the meaning and end of history can make good its claim to truth over against other interpretations of human history only through actions in which this confession is embodied in deed – and suffering. If the Christian confession is true, the Acts of God do not cease with the Acts of Apostles.

An excellent and provocative passage here, sounding a bit like Zizek on a good day.

The collapse of Marxism as a world power at the end of the 1980s has to some extent discredited this [socialist/liberation theology] way of thinking, but it has not solved any problems. Indeed, it has created a situations that is in some ways more intractable. The ideology of the free market now has nothing to limit its claims. There is no visible countervailing power. There seems no sign of a check to its relentless advance. And its destructive potential, both for the coherence of human society and for the safeguarding of the environment, are formidable. The ideology of the free market has proved itself more powerful than Marxism. It is, of course, not just a way of arranging economic affairs. It has deep roots in the human soul. It can be met and mastered only at the level of religious faith, for it is a form of idolatry. The churches have hardly begun to recognize that this is probably their most urgent missionary task during the coming century.

I mentioned this passage in an earlier post and sermon about how the Holy Spirit may be, at times, leading people toward repentance of different things than the sins that may bother YOU the most.

In his account of the beginnings of Christianity in Uganda, John V. Taylor has shown very vividly how the first converts (most of whom were young men at the court of the Kabaka) felt the demand of the gospel upon their consciences in ways that had little connection with the ethical teaching of the missionaries. The later laid great stress on the necessity for an immediate abandonment of polygamy as the condition for baptism. But in the hearts and consciences of the converts other questions were being raised by the gospel and especially by the teaching and example of Jesus himself. They saw in him a new pattern of behavior, calling for humility and for willingness to share the world and the hardship of the poor. They saw that slavery was incompatible with allegiance to Christ, and they found themselves engaged in a deep struggle between the “old man” and the “new man of Christ,” of which the missionary was only dimly aware.
p.137 (from The Growth of the Church in Buganda)

One of these days, I’m going to write a much large piece titled “Whose Afraid of Syncretism?” or something like that. I’ve already hit on the topic in several previous posts. This passage will definitely be quoted.

Verbal orthodoxy then becomes the supreme virtue, and syncretism becomes the most feared enemy. When this is the mood, real dialogue becomes impossible. And so does real mission. The mystery of the gospel is not entrusted to the church to be buried in the ground. It is entrusted to the church to be risked in the change and interchange of the spiritual commerce of humanity.

Dressing up our thoughts with science-y language to increase their power


I’m certain someone has thought of this before, but I don’t recall having heard it put exactly this way before, so I’ll give it a shot.

Science is held in extremely high regard in the modern world. It would be more accurate to say that the “idea” of science is held in high regard. Proper science of the strict and ruthlessly inquisitive sort is on the wane in the academy and can rarely be assumed to be behind many claims and ideas that smell science-y today. Regardless, science is respectable in the extreme in public.

All people have problems in their day-to-day lives – in their jobs or in their relationships – problems they try to solve and situations they try to understand. When trying to understand a problem, what tools do you reach for? You might reach for empathy, an extremely useful psychological tool. You might reach for patience or trust, something that we might put under the category of “spiritual discipline”. You might reach for your own physical strength and constitution to push through the situation. But one thing that often comes to mind in our present age, an age where science is king, is to leverage science to help solve our problems. And what is the easiest way to seemingly understand something in a science-y way? With statistics and probability.

Instead of asking, “What does this person care about?” We ask questions like, “What is the likelihood this person will get angry at me if I do such and such?” 40%? 70%? In a sample of the couples at this party, 3 out of 18 of them have prettier girlfriends than I do, so I guess I should feel pretty good about my situation – it’s well above average. For my presentation, it’s critical that I tell a joke before the 2.5 minute mark to keep people engaged. According to my food journal, I sleep better on the Tuesdays when I don’t eat gluten.

These are all just observations about the world of the sort that we all make all the time. The difference is that we now tend to express them in scientific jargon to enhance their power. If we can borrow some of the aura that put a man on the moon or that makes the 128 gigabytes of memory in our iPhone work, maybe it will help us be a better parent too or enable us to make wiser life decisions.

Earlier in history, these lines of thinking or intuitions were more likely to be described with qualitative words. Now we are more apt to use numbers. The way we describe the world and even think about the world has appropriated this new vocabulary. The problem is, that vocabulary was meant to stay in a roped-off arena and not brought into the mushy and bewildering land of human beings and ad hoc impressions. As we’ve now done this for several generations, some of the mushiness has oozed BACK the other direction. We think we are science-y about everything, but in fact we are often less so than ever before.

On the attractiveness of the veneration of Mary

It dawned on me recently why the veneration of Mary is so persistently attractive. Lay aside all the later Marian dogmas about her being the queen of heaven or the mediatrix or whatever over-the-top ideas people have come up with over the centuries. Just forget those for a moment. The simple fact is that it’s easier for a great many people to imagine Mary as loving them. God the Father is too distant and abstract. Jesus is the incarnation who died for us and loves us and all that, but he is, unfortunately also kind of distant and abstract. The Holy Spirit is mysterious and his voice can sound suspiciously like that of our conscience. It can be difficult to discern between the two. When the devil whispers despair in our ears it can also sound a bit like our conscience as well. We are confused and downtrodden.

But it’s difficult to imagine Mary being angry at us. She puts a “face” on Jesus that is gentler and kinder and not at all stern. Now I know that if Jesus himself were here, he would be all those things perfectly and infinitely and that Mary, for all her virtues, was just another limited person like the rest of us. But the idea – the idea of a calm mother figure – THAT is something that can be more viscerally comforting than all of the things we’ve been taught are wrapped up in Christ.

I was feeling very discouraged one night a couple weeks ago and took a walk where I found myself talking/praying/ranting to God. I passed the statue of Mary by the nearby Roman Catholic church and it popped into my head that here was someone, seemingly the only someone on earth, who WASN’T disappointed with me. I’m incredibly disappointed with myself. I imagine God to be, even though I know that technically that is not true. But I don’t think she is. Now she’s dead of course, but I wish I could more easily see Christ as having those same qualities and same care and emotion toward me. I don’t know if it’s too much abstract theology or tainted earthly father figures or what, but the difficulty is nevertheless very real to me. It’s not accurate, and it’s probably not healthy, but sometimes, when you feel like crap, Mary seems like maybe she could be a little bit nicer than God. At least, I’m not aghast that more than a few people have thought that over the ages and to this day. The idea will likely persist to fill in the gaps of our imagination as long as our image of Christ is imperfect.