Pluralism and Exclusivity in Newbigin’s Theology


Lesslie Newbigin accepted the reality of pluralism — without accepting, as Lamin Sanneh expresses it, the “modern historical consciousness” that contextualizes and relativises all religious claims, subsuming them under the all-encompassing category of power. Under the pretense of tolerance, religion loses — as does genuine pluralism.

Lamin Sanneh (Yale Divinity School) provides one of the most incisive accounts that I have read of Newbigin’s work and lifelong project to rethink Christian exclusivity within pluralist societies:

…It is not true that all roads lead to the peak of the same mountain. Some roads are false short cuts, and even if they do not lead over the precipice, they leave people self-centredly entangled. For Christians, the ultimate clue, the rock of ages, is Jesus, the one God chose to honour and to glorify the divine name, and who has gone before them in honour and faithfulness.

Newbigin makes the point with some force that religious pluralism, in the sense of competing truth claims as well as of simple numerical multiplicity, does not exclude claims of absolute uniqueness. Without some sense of objective truth people will become totally imprisoned in subjective relativism. Religion can become relativist only by turning into an ideology, in which case tolerance will become a relative value as mere expedience. There would be no independent basis for it. That is why truth claims are not convertible currency that give people personal advantage; they are not a question of will power, à la Nietzsche: you want in this case a liberating creed, so you produce the sacrosanct truth of the infallibility of revolutionary relativism and smash your way to victory by gutting truth claims, any or all of them. Will power can only produce a wilful world based on power. Its truth claim leaves no room for difference or variety, or for openness and tolerance.

The point about pluralism reducing theology into ideology is really the key to the whole thing. And now my favorite part:

To assume [pluralism] is to settle for a beguiling notion that to concede truth to the other side somehow represents an advance on mutual tolerance when in fact it only triggers an unintended domino effect: the fall of Christian uniqueness would be followed in turn by the fall of all the other claims of uniqueness. Fewer generalisations would be possible until all religions are excluded — a most unsatisfactory state of affairs in which the generalisation of exclusion, not pluralism, would be left ascendant.

[Mission in the 21st Century, eds. Andrew Walls and Cathy Ross; Orbis Books, 2008, pp. 140-141]


Image: Lesslie Newbigin (source)



  1. Interesting enough, the ‘Underground’ and ‘Radical Reformation’ used the Parable of the Wheats and Tares. They were more concerned for the authority literally killing those who disagree with the regent’s religion. But the post-modern mood has created an encrusted order of professional skeptics, making theology into an ideology.

    The liberal-consensus today is, for all claims to tolerance, rather quite intolerant. Cavanaugh has a good work on the theology of the ’empty shrine’ that is the hallmark of the West now.

    It is the distinct Christian witness that is able to articulate pluralism without destroying exclusivity. Perhaps because Christ is love revealed to be God’s grain of the universe, and not cold, naked, power.

    • Perhaps because Christ is love revealed to be God’s grain of the universe, and not cold, naked, power.

      Yes, and by way of a tangent that comes to mind: that’s precisely what is lamentable about much of theological discourse today, especially from the feminist-liberationist side. They’ve accepted the po-mo cosmology of naked power — basically, Marx’s “class struggle” taken to a seemingly infinite variety of reformulations and applications — and then they will search for bits of corroborating support in the Christian tradition, through which they can articulate their secular anthropology and concerns. That’s the dominant form of liberal theology today, not the olden days of fretting over the Virgin Birth and the like — though it’s not hard to still find that as well.

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