Posted by: Mark Nielsen | April 5, 2013

Newbigin & Rohr on Gut Instinct and Gospel Truth

God has fascinating timing.

Cover of "The Gospel in a Pluralist Socie...

Cover of The Gospel in a Pluralist Society

In my current reading, Old School Apologist (Lesslie Newbigin) meets New Progressive Pluralist (Fr. Richard Rohr), and as usual I am left to build a bridge between the two… simply by respecting and learning from both rather different approaches to the gospel and contemporary life.

I/we just started a class at church on post-modern philosophy, sociology and the gospel –a book study of the insightful 1989 book The Gospel in a Pluralist Society by Lesslie Newbigin. It’s difficult but rewarding stuff, what Pastor Fred calls a “300-level” course, using a book that current seminarian and workshop co-presenter Peter  says he is studying in one of his North Park classes.

If the book group does nothing more than re-train or improve the class members’ ability to think in a more structured or critical way, then it will still be a good experience for all. But I expect God to move in more powerful ways than just that… at least for some of us.

For me, God is already moving in this class… in how I am forced to engage my own critical mind and heart. I mostly agree with Newbigin’s thinking and conclusions (e.g. liberal, politically-correct humanism has Christians “on our heels” when it comes to standing firm on what we believe, and explaining why it is not an arrogant stance but just a committed one).

But I also regret that Newbigin is still (so far, anyway) only using well-worn intellectual arguments, methods and apologetics. He makes a good case for renewing a commitment to the radical aspects of the gospel, and letting it affect human experience and behavior — yet he is either bypassing or unaware of the unexplored, oft-neglected but essential back alleys of both postmodern critical theory and of mysticism, and what they actually CAN teach gospel traditionalists.

For example, Newbigin, in my opinion, is neglecting some of what one might call the apophatic, expressive or intuitive aspects of the gospel, or of human nature. (He’s British, though, so I won’t fault him for keeping human “feelings” at a distance… ha!) In other words, he’s a head-first guy, and for one’s heart to follow and be transformed by his dry philosophic prose would be difficult. In practice, I can see some of the book’s material is already going over the heads of some of my classmates, especially the older ones. Or at least it doesn’t “move” them.

To his credit, Newbigin does recommend that Belief must precede rational “agreement” when it comes to accepting and being changed by the miraculous, non-rational activities portrayed in Scripture. I agree that a believer need not follow the “rules” that the Enlightenment and science tried to establish as law, and it’s good that he points this out. It’s just that Newbigin doesn’t seem all that interested in –or trained in– engaging the whole human Self in a faithful yet creative following of the Way of Jesus.

Then again, not many in the church do embrace multiple modes or methods. Or if they do, their basic theology gets a bit dicey (i.e. liberal) in my experience, at which point Jesus starts looking like he’s been twisted toward their own creative, personal, or political intentions. “Old  school” may be boring, but dogma’s main purpose is still to keep us from straying from God’s main purposes– not necessarily to keep us singing new songs on a consistent basis. That’s why words like dogma or orthodoxy still matter, in a climate where many are trying to throw them in the back of the desk drawer, just because they are personally inconvenient or not so universally accepted anymore.

After class, Pastor Fred said, “Newbigin’s not an apophatic theologian, so why expect that from him?”, and then further admitted that he (Fred) also questions some of those subjective aspects of a life of faith. I knew that already about him, I just like pushing his buttons. So I said, “So do I (question subjective experience), but that doesn’t keep me from participating in mystical awareness, or using it. I question it, I hold it loosely, but I don’t drop it for being tricky and potentially dangerous. It’s too powerful to not at least try putting to better use.” (I’m paraphrasing the conversation here, so don’t quote me on accurately capturing Fred’s challenges to me… besides, that’s his job as a pastor, and I love him for it.)

I’m just not built in that “old school” evangelical way, personally. (Unless by Old School, one means King David dancing naked before the Ark of the Covenant, or St. Francis embracing a leper.) I respect it… I just can’t DO it. I naturally lean more toward the poet/prophet/pentecostal end of the spectrum than most of the good people I worship with in my home congregation.

English: Richard Rohr in a webcast talk at CAC...

Richard Rohr in a webcast talk at CAC, Albuquerque, NM (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Lately I’ve even started conflating contemplative spirituality (meditation, centering, labyrinth-walking, etc.) with the more intense pentecostal style, with interesting results. It is changing how I write, how I pray, even how I see the world. In this recombinant tendency, I feel I’m only being true to my own story, the one that God is writing for me and me alone.

In using both the intellect and the gut– or else good apologetics and yet also whirling-dervish style emotional engagement, or “detachment” from the controlling mind — I seem to be a cult of one. I’m probably not, but it sure feels like it much of the time.

Which is why I am still waiting to either be corrected in some errant tendencies (always a possibility I’m open to), or waiting to discover some expert who captures the essence of both approaches. These two guys (Newbigin and Rohr), along with Francis Schaeffer, C.S. Lewis, Teilhard DeChardin and Jacques Ellul, do capture much of what matters or makes sense to me. But I can’t claim to be a disciple of any one author or thinker. At times, I must admit, it’s hard enough to make sense of the riddles and contradictions within Jesus himself, at least enough to call myself an effective disciple. But I’m required to follow first, and then later, maybe, to understand where we’re going and why. It’s mostly an adventure, but at times, it’s a drudgery of sheer obedience, dragging my whiny, self-centered flesh along where the spirit is leading.

My life journey as an adult, in following where the Holy Spirit leads (or perhaps following my gut instincts… though I do know there is a difference), has led me into some wonderful relationships. It also yields a breadth and depth in relating to God, a slightly romantic give-and-take sort of mode that I couldn’t imagine turning back from now (or at least not for purely rational reasons… I would need to get knocked off my horse like St. Paul). But that’s ok. We don’t all need to be or do as our neighbor does, and I don’t mind being the odd man out generally. This independence may even be a “witness” to some, though I have little doubt it is a puzzle or an annoyance to others.

Whether by choice or by nature, it seems I’m always driven to present an alternative viewpoint, usually to balance out what I see as good but in need of improvement. So imagine my surprise (NOT!) when my devotional reading of a different book this morning provided the counterpoint to Newbigin’s highly rational approach. That second book is Richard Rohr’s On the Threshold of Transformation, a three-year-old collection of short devotions specifically for men (though I find that 80% of the material is universal, and/or just plain wise).

I suppose I was trying to get at some of the points below with Pastor Fred after class, but I may have mucked it up a bit. So I’ll let Father Richard, a Franciscan monk and international activist, do it for me:

*  *  *

You are a letter of Christ… (written) not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.” (2 Corinth 3:3)

Generally, [people, especially] men are not taught to trust their gut instincts or even to listen for them. Our religious culture doesn’t validate the instinctual self; it relies heavily on the cerebral self or the external law (see Romans 2:15 for further insight here). Those of us brought up to be good church boys [and girls] learned not only to suppress our instinctual natures but actually to distrust them.

As a result, we have been deprived of a more balanced, nuanced and interior sense of good and evil –a real conscience. We don’t know what’s good and evil because we’ve relied almost exclusively on theories or mere external laws. It’s time for [men] people to go deeper than the law written on stone, as Paul says above. We need to reacquire “human hearts” for what is real and unreal, for what is good and what’s bad.

— — —
Was there a time when I trusted my gut? If so, what difference did that make?

*  *  *

[Bracketed material above is mine…]

While I think the common wisdom about “woman’s intuition” is only mildly accurate, there is some truth in what Rohr is saying here. Yet much of it is not so much a male/female thing, as it is an East/West thing… or an ancient/modern thing. We have too much forgotten the mystical or mythical approach, what might be called the “side door” into areas of deep and transforming truth about God, creation, and human nature. We have within ourselves a few tools that we have allowed to become dull.

So I’m still looking for some other fellow spiritual artisans, other people with whom to sharpen my tools, through dialogue. I may not be entirely “reasonable”, but nevertheless, I won’t hurt you… it’s just an “iron sharpens iron” kind of thing. So whadya say? You in?



  1. Hey, Mark,

    I received your comment yesterday. I’m not ignoring you; I’m just swamped at the moment. I’ll try to post a reply in a day or so. But I’m not sure I have your current email. Could you send it to me? Mine is the same as ever.


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