Proper Confidence. Lesslie Newbigin.

This was a fantastic read, though I have to say the 1st half was much better than the 2nd.  The 2nd half, in the conclusions, was a bit of a let down for me personally.  Perhaps after such a well-reasoned and well said introduction, where everything just clicks and makes sense, the second half didn’t lead to any new and startling revelations (for me).   However, I would say it is still worth it for any Christian that wants a better understanding of the world views that existed pre-Christianity in the Western World (namely Greek and Jewish thought), how Christianity challenged and changed them, and how the Enlightenment really changed the game and led us to where we are today.

Newbigin starts with the differences between Jewish and Greek thought, especially with respect to knowledge (epistemology), what changed with Christianity, and then goes through the early centuries following Christ, tracing the changes with respect to knowledge over time.  For example, for Plato, “the ultimate realities were ideas, which are more or less fully realized in the various entities which are the objects of our experience.”  By grasping these ideas and participating in them, the soul attains its true being and salvation.  (The idea of “Good” is the apex of this hierarchy of  ideas.)  Yet, Augustine said “credo ut intelligam,” or “I believe in order to know.”  There is an element of (biblical) faith in knowledge that is lacking in Plato and is a radical departure from Greek thought.

Along came Descarte (many centuries later, of course, but we don’t need to dig too deeply into the Dark Ages, do we?), who had a goal to build indubitable knowledge on the foundation of skepticism.  He says “I think, therefore I am,” and now all knowledge starts with the individual.  (I’m skipping huge chunks of the book and moving fast, but you should be able to see that such a believe leads to post modernism, the lack of objective truth, and relativism.)

Newbigin then follows Western thought through Kant, and Kant’s arguments for God and ultimate reality based on moral and aesthetic experience.  And through the Enlightenment (The Age of Reason), where our view (humanity’s) became that Reason is the only path to reliable knowledge.  (In Deep Church, Belcher talks about Foundationalism, and that was the 1st time when I started to be able to put into words what I had felt for some time — that we sometimes need something beyond Reason — to describe things such as certainly in Faith. (But then again, there is a problem with “Faith without Doubt…”)

He goes on to argue that we are in the midst of a great collapse of confidence due to the ramifications and limitations of the models of the Enlightenment, including the collapse in European culture as well as the collapse of the confidence in the validity of the church’s worldwide missionary enterprise.  (At least he goes after his own…)

Ok, this could get really deep and long if I’m not careful.  That’s not the purpose here.   Maybe the above, along with a few more tidbits below, will be enough to entice you if you like to read this kind of book.

Random thoughts and quotes:

I liked both of these — let’s look for the good on both sides!

From the point of view of the fundamentalist, doubt is sin; from the point of view of the liberal, the capacity for doubt is a measure of intellectual integrity and honesty.

In addition to ascribing these accusations, labels, and genuine differences over doubt to both sides in this quarrel, it is also right to ascribe moral virtues to them: Liberalism at its best is marked by an open mind which is humble and ready to learn. Fundamentalism at its best is marked by a moral courage which holds fast to the truth even when it is assailed by counterclaims from without.

I don’t know why, but the subject object duality that first entered my life in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance keeps popping up in strange and unexpected places:

The second dualism, closely related to the first, is that dualism expressed by the words “objective” and “subjective.”

I feel like I am strong on gratitude, but after reading the following quote I wonder if I fall short on Trust:

But it the biblical story is true, the kind of certainty proper to a human being will be one which rests on the fidelity of God, not upon the competence of the human knower. It will be a kind of certainty which is inseparable from gratitude and trust.

I still haven’t figure out why this is the case (:-/):

Kurt Godel’s demonstration that the fundamental axioms of mathematics are not self-justifying does not seem to have weakened the influence of the idea of mathematical certainty.

And a few more:

But we are left in a world which the Chinese writer Carver Yu has summarized in the phrase “technological optimism and literary despair.” Looking at contemporary Western society from his standpoint as a Chinese philosopher and theologian, he sees not only the unstoppable dynamism of our science-based technology but also the bleak nihilism and hopelessness that is reflected in the literature, art, and drama of our society.

With hindsight, it is now easy to see how many of the self-evident truths of the Enlightenment were self-evident only to those who were the heirs of a thousand years of Christian teaching. They were not self-evident to the peoples of India or Africa.

The modern antithesis of observation and reason on the one hand versus revelation and faith on the other is only tenable on the basis of a prior decision that the whole cosmic and human story has no purpose and therefore no meaning. It is possible to make this assumption, but it is not necessary.  The question whether the cosmos and human life within it have any purpose other than the individual purposes we seek to impose on things is one that cannot be decided by observation.





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