The Meaning of History

I was very challenged by something I read in Newbigin’s Gospel in a Pluralist Society tonight. Newbigin served for years as a missionary in India and describes how Jesus was often incorporated into the Hindu worldview without changing the prevailing worldview in any way whatsoever. He writes, “the foreign missionary knows that this is not the conversion of India but the co-option of Jesus, the domestication of the gospel into the Hindu worldview.” That wasn’t all that profound – I’ve heard stories of radical syncretism before. However, Newbigin’s next step is wonderful and should shake us. He goes on, “He [the missionary] only slowly begins to realized that the same thing has happened in the West. Jesus is understood in the light of the assumptions which control our culture…Jesus is being co-opted into the reigning plausibility structure. But the business of the missionary, and the business of the Christian Church in any situation, is to challenge the plausibility structure in the light of God’s revelation of the real meaning of history” (pg. 96). How do we do so?

For Newbigin the key is ‘indwelling the story’ rendered to us in the Bible. Here was the key quote for me. Newbigin, summarizing a Latin American liberation theologian, writes, “the important thing is the use of the Bible is not to understand the text but to understand the world through the text” (pg. 98). Seeing the world through the lens of Scripture, indwelling the story, means that the Bible becomes our ‘plausibility structure’ – the definer of what is possible. More than that, the Bible interprets history for us. Not every detail (we are still left puzzled over many of the details), but we know the goal of history. The importance of this can not be overstated.

If one does not know the purpose, the meaning, the telos of something, it is not possible to make judgments about it’s uses. If I didn’t know a hammer was for pounding nails, I wouldn’t know that using it for a paperweight was a poor/improper use for it. If we don’t know what the meaning/goal of history we can’t possible know what our meaning/purpose is and consequently we can not make any judgments about what is the proper ‘use’ of a human life. The purpose/design of history and humanity (as it’s key players) are given to us in the pages of Bible – the designer has revealed them to us (which is the only way to know the purpose of something – it must be revealed).

Newbigin explain some of the implications of this understanding of history or the lack there of: “In the closing decades of this century it is difficult to find Europeans who have an belief in a significant future which is worth working for and investing in. A society which believes in a worthwhile future saves in the present so as to invest in the future. Contemporary Western society spends in the present and piles up debts for the future, ravages the environment, and leaves grandchildren to cope with the results as best they can…If the story is meaningless, any action of mine is meaningless. The loss of a vision for the future necessarily produces that typical phenomenon of our society which the sociologists call anomie, a state in which publicly accepted norms and values have disappeared” (pg. 90-91).

The Christian view of the future is different. On the horizon is the advent of our Lord Jesus Christ. “He is coming to meet us,” writes Newbigin, “and whatever we do – whether it is our most private prayers or our most public political action – is simply offered to him for whatever place it may have in his blessed kingdom. Here is the clue for meaningful action in a meaningful history: it is the translation into action of the prayer, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, as in heaven so on earth” (102).


One thought on “The Meaning of History

  1. This is great!

    So you might think this is lame (but Nicole at least will read my comment and enjoy it) — but it’s helpful for me to think of the US in terms of the Enneagram 3 “The Need to Succeed”. I think the authors of the Enneagram, Christian Perspective book are virtually pointing to the same ills that Newbigin is —-

    “We Americans have an extremely hard time seeing through the lies of our system. America, that “kingdom of the good,” is exalted above every impure motive. This kind of deception is part of our system and lifestyle. It is vital for us as Americans to understand the energy of the THREEs if we wish to analyze the mentality of our country…

    In silence it’s also important that THREEs encounter self-critically their own dishonesty and the compulsion to succeed. THREEs must above all chew and digest their shadow sides, their failure and their defeats, instead of running away from them. The confession, ‘I’ve failed; I was wrong; I lied,’ costs THREEs an enormous effort.

    It makes things still more difficult that in Western civilization THREEs are practically never challenged. Our criteria for ‘health’ are the capacity to work, love, and enjoy. Women’s magazines, men’s magazines, and the popular press in general reinforce this feeling, but immature THREEs are as much in need of redemption as everyone else. It’s simply harder to recognize a disease as such when everyone else calls it ‘health.'”

    Anyway, the call of the 3 is the prayer: “Thy Kingdom Come” which I think is where Newbigin ended up with this problem.

    Very cool! I pretty much love any tie back to the Enneagram, though!

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