Newbigin on Fundamentalism and Liberalism

I don’t like the labels “fundamentalist” or “liberal”. The words have lost their original meaning over the past 80 years. I don’t fit under either one, and most of you will not even try them on for size. Fair enough. We spend a lot of time trying to remove them. But to hold the two polar opposites in tandem for a moment, sometimes gives insight into much of the criticism going on. Lesslie Newbigin’s thoughts, written a decade ago, seem just as relevant for today. I post them here so that i can reference them later. I have his book “Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt and Certainty in Christian Discipleship” on my shelf. The questions at the end are really profound. Here is a quote from the introduction:

0802808565.01.Tzzzzzzz-1“The words “liberal” and “fundamentalist” are used today not so much to identify oneself as to label the enemy. From one side comes the accusation that the mind of the fundamentalist is closed, shuttered against the possibility of doubt and therefore against the recognition of hitherto unrecognized truth. From the other side comes the charge that the liberals are so open to new ideas that they have no firm commitments at all. that every affirmation of faith must be held only tentatively, and that every dogma must as a matter of principle, be challenged. There are terms of moral opprobrium that each side employs to attack the other: the fundamentalist is arrogant, blinkered, and culturally illiterate; the liberal is flabby, timid, and carried along by every new fashion of thought. From the point of view of the liberal, the capacity for doubt is a measure if 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 counter claims from without. In the prevailing atmosphere of relativism, where one does not speak of “what is true” but rather what is meaningful for me”, where one does not speak of right and wrong but of values; it is right and proper that there should be protest, and it is natural that this should lead to demands for absolute standards and certain truth. When everything in religion seems to be reduced to subjective experience, it is natural that there should be a demand for the affirmation of objective truth? How can we develop, in respect of religious belief, minds which are not only open to fresh insights but also equipped with the critical faculty that can distinguish sense from nonsense and reality from illusion? What kind of confidence is proper for those who witness to the truth of the gospel?”



Lesslie Newbigin, Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt and Certainty in Christian Discipleship

Newbigin goes on to look at the two streams of intellectual history flowing into Europe – the philosophical (Greek and Roman) and the historical/Biblical. But the questions

Andrew

Andrew Jones has been blogging since 1997. He is based in San Francisco with his two daughters but also travels the globe to find compelling stories of early stage entrepreneurs changing their world. Sometimes he talks in the third person. Sometimes he even talks to himself and has been heard uttering the name “Precious” :-)

2 Comments

  • Fundamental or Liberal?

    Isn’t it odd that the term fundamentalist (at it’s most basic interpretation) implies someone who adheres to the fundamental (and therefore ‘core’) truths of their faith

  • The critiques that Newbigin cites are fascinating:
    “There are terms of moral opprobrium that each side employs to attack the other: the fundamentalist is arrogant, blinkered, and culturally illiterate; the liberal is flabby, timid, and carried along by every new fashion of thought. From the point of view of the liberal, the capacity for doubt is a measure if intellectual integrity and honesty.”
    These critiques could almost be taken out of the mouths of liberals and fundamentalists and placed in the mouths of evangelicals and Christians in the emerging church.
    The scary thing in reading this selection from Newbigin is that I find myself more sympathetic to some of the countours of liberalism, even if I want to hold on to the truths of Christian history, doctrine, the role of scripture as norming norm, etc (more conservative values).
    Another Newbigin jem that’s hard to track down is Truth and Authority in Modernity. It’s on my current reading list and can be read in about 3-4 hours.

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