Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Book Review: Truth and Authority in Modernity

Newbigin, Lesslie. Truth and Authority in Modernity. Christian Mission and Modern Culture Series. Valley Forge, Penn.: Trinity Press, 1996.

The late missionary statesman, Lesslie Newbigin, contributes mightily to a valid articulation of Christian faith in the midst of cultural transition. This pithy treatment of the notions of truth and authority glides deftly through the topic without distraction or tedious philosophical prevarications. For those of you familiar with Newbigin’s writings, this book works with many themes common to much of his writing. This book is unique among his works in the singular focus on the notions of truth and authority.

With irascable clarity, Newbigin tackles the epistemological assumptions of the Enlightenment. Rationalism founded on skepticism (Descartes) changed the criteria of what was considered authoritative truth. Building a worldview from this foundation “was bound to lead to the triumph of skepticism and eventually of nihilism, as Nietzsche foresaw.” (8) This kind of search for certainty inevitably comes up empty, always subject to the arbiters of truth and their presuppositions.

Newbigin holds that faith should be primary, not doubt. He is not advocating a total lack of skepticism, it must remain in check. Neither is he promoting the “leap of faith” initiation to belief. It was a mistake, posits Newbigin, to allow Christian faith to become captive to skeptical rationalism without first recognizing that skeptical rationalism was subject to its own type of faith. Newbigin resets the conversation with a focus on relationship. Modern thinking has rendered itself devoid of seeking or understanding purpose (teleology). If one believes in a personal Creator, then one’s epistemological foundation cannot be built on doubt and purposelessness. The implications of this line of thinking are enormous for theology and philosophy. Modernist hyper-rationalism run aground fostering some to turn to hedonistic nihilism and others floundering in search of purpose.

Truth and Authority in Modernity is a great, quick read that gives all of us something to think about. I recommend this book along with all of Newbigin’s books. For a more complete treatment of these themes and others, his Gospel in a Pluralist Society is a great choice.

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