October 17th and 18th, 35 of us gathered for a symposium centered on the work of Lesslie Newbigin. (If you are interested in mission and haven’t heard that name, you’ve got some reading to do!) Newbigin was a theologian and missionary bishop in South India during the 20th century who laid groundbreaking work for the missional church movement. He was also active in ecumenical dialogue and the Gospel and Our Culture movement.
The symposium focused primarily on Newbigin’s popular book The Gospel in a Pluralist Society in which he discusses the unique role of the gospel in a culturally and religiously pluralistic world. Newbigin brings a fresh perspective to evangelism and dialogue, drawing on the thought of figures like Michael Polanyi, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Hendrikus Berkhof. He discusses how the ideas of these thinkers can help Christians reconsider their approach to taking Christ to the ends of the earth. Newbigin explores epistemology and missiology by probing the meaning and role of concepts such as authority, autonomy, tradition, reason, revelation, and election. The Gospel in a Pluralist Society has been of incalculable significance to the modern world of mission. If you haven’t done so already, read this book!
To top off the richness of the symposium’s material, we brought in Newbigin scholar Dr. George Hunsberger and missonary bishop Todd Hunter to lead our plenary sessions. One could not have asked for more engaging and knowledgeable speakers. Dr. Hunsberger presented the heart of Newbigin’s thought, and Bp. Hunter expounded on how he has seen Newbigin’s ideas influence and shape mission in the world of church planting and evangelism. Both presenters brought a balance of head and heart to the table.
Probably one of the most engaging aspects of the symposium took place in our “table-groups.” Between plenary sessions, participants (of all ages and backgrounds) broke off into small groups and brainstormed about how the information discussed could take on arms and legs in the world. This approach gave a practical element to the symposium and left us all feeling energized, eager to take what we learned into our respective ministry contexts. I’ve attended a number of great symposiums, but the best are the ones that send participants out into the world with fresh perspectives and a longing to share the gospel in new ways. As Nashotah House reaches a new chapter in her story, these symposiums will continue to play a vital role in her mission to educate lay and ordained leaders for taking the gospel of Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth. Keep your eyes peeled for our soon-to-be-announced winter symposium!
*Enjoy this reflection from one of our participants, a retired Anglican bishop:
Newbigin, Pluralism & Digital World
Early morning drive I-95 Savannah Jetport, catch a flight to Atlanta, mad rush through Hartsville International connection to Milwaukee, an hour in line for rental car, threading the way I-894 afternoon traffic; Out to Oconomowoc, County Road B to Mission Road and the rustic Nashotah campus; Black cassocked figures quietly among the golden trees and falling leaves of autumn, to St. Mary’s Chapel; The aroma of holiness and the canticles of faith ancient and true – “This is my Body, This is my Blood, given for you”.
This symposium in celebration of 25 years, Bishop Leslie Newbigin’s monumental theological engagement with the modern secular world in which we are all called to proclaim the timeless gospel of the risen Lord Jesus Christ.
Organized by The Rev. Dr. Jack Gabig (I ordained him 18 years ago in Pittsburgh) we were 35 students (grads and undergrads), parish clergy and academics, and retired – all of us with passion to understand this post-Christian, post-doctrinal, post-rational culture that has shaped us, every one; And to fashion a missionary strategy rooted in the Anglican catholic faith – to be Church – with its message of hope – ever since the first Easter report so long ago, “He is not here. He is risen”. The message that has the power to renew and reform the cultures and societies of mankind on earth.
We gathered to be fed by Newbigin scholar Dr. George Hunsberger of Western Theological Seminary and Bishop Todd Hunter, pastor for Church Planting and Renewal for Anglican Mission in America. We worked in small groups of directed reflection on the various aspects of Newbigin’s thought and by full plenary discussion. Most profitably also by informal conversation around refectory tables; And by celebration of the Eucharist with the seminary community we were fed by the Holy Spirit.
Years ago I was led to read a small essay by Newbigin, written for the World Council of Churches “The Other side of 1984, “. In it he wrote, We, “are a uniquely brilliant culture coming to the end of its life, having lost the power to renew itself”. I became Newbigin’s student. Later he was to write, “We in the West are faced with stark choices. Society without God cannot long last”. ” It is only when the gospel is actually operating on the frontiers of belief is it seen in its true colors as a fully liberation message. Only when it comes home to a man or woman in new freshness do we fully understand what the good news of Jesus Christ truly is.” Aye, here is the confidence for our ministry in this Post Modern Age.
I salute Nashotah House for the courage to engage the acids of contemporary thought and the perplexing issues of the digital world – yet within the sound of that rustic old chapel bell marking the hours of a deep and trustworthy devotional faith. My time at the ‘House’ thinking and chatting Newbigin together with dear friends, new and old – it put a renewed spring in my step as I queued up for the cattle chute, the TSA X-ray, Milwaukee Airport.
God bless you. You are a tribute to the spirit of your founder James Lloyd Breck, Apostle of the Wilderness. Even now apostles to this new wilderness, the culture of the Age of Anxiety.
+Alden M. Hathaway Pittsburgh VI, Retired