25 April 2006

newbigin on old and new

newbigin on old and new

I've been recently reading through Lesslie Newbigin's brief meditations on pastoral ministry contained in his book The Good Shepherd (Eerdmans 1977). I appreciate his direct and practical way of speaking on a number of topics and biblical texts. Commenting on Mark 2:18-22, concerning new cloth and old garments and new wine and old wine-skins, Newbigin writes,
It is not surprising that the message about Jesus - his words and his deeds - has acted throughout history as a source of radical criticism of the old order. There is a revolutionary element in the Gospel story which cannot be escaped if you face it honestly.

But we also know that religion is generally a conservative force in society. Almost by definition, religion is what binds society to the past, to the given traditions and to the established ways. This has been true of Christianity in history too. At many times and places the Church has seemed to stand simply for that which is about fifty years out of date. Some of our Madras city churches appear to stand for exactly that. They represent simply a timid clinging to the past. Any proposal for change arouses a violent fear and anger which are plainly pathological in character.

It is obvious that this kind of clinging to the past is something totally different from the religion of Jesus. Anyone who behaved in the way Jesus is reported to have behaved in this text would be quickly excommunicated from most of our churches. We surely ought to be much more seriously concerned than we usually are by the colossal difference between the pattern that Jesus set, and the way our church life is normally conducted. (19)
Newbigin goes on to point to two reasons why this dynamic has a special intensity in our time: first, the growth of knowledge and technology and, second, the growth of population and thus the youthfulness of our culture. The challenge is whether or not the church can learn to be a "church living in the world as it is, and flexible enough to be the authentic representative of Jesus who said that you cannot put new wine in old wine-skins" (20).

But Newbigin recognizes that none of this is simply a matter of cultural changes in knowledge and technology nor the growth of youth culture. Nor is the church's response simply to be one of balancing young and old or respecting the contribution of their distinctive gifts. Rather, Newbigin notes,
The conservative instinct in religious people has a foundation in truth. It does matter that we should be faithful to what has been given to us. It does matter that we should be able to take our bearings and hold fast in our course, not driven about like drift-wood with every current and wind. A church which is merely trying to keep up-to-date is much more pathetic and ridiculous than a church which is merely clinging to the past. Not every new fashion whether in theology or in ethics or in worship is the work of the Holy Spirit. God is at work in the world, but the devil is at work there also. (20)
But here Newbigin moves to the point of what he has to say, that the revelation we've been given and in terms of which we live is "Jesus, incarnate, crucified and risen. And to follow Jesus means to accept death and resurrection as the only law of life." (21). He follows out the implication of this,
It means to accept the fact that every good thing is given to us by God in order to be surrendered for the sake of something better, until finally life itself is surrendered for the sake of eternal life. It means therefore that we can never, never cling to the past - however precious it may be. It means that we are always ready to face the loss of old securities, the obliteration of old landmarks, the shaking of old certainties - knowing that, if we hold fast to Jesus, we shall be led on to better securities, deeper certainties, richer experiences of God's grace. (21)
Newbigin continues this reflection with what Paul says concerning his Jewish past, his old religious traditions that must be relinquished and transformed in order to gain Christ and what he is at work doing in the world. In this way Paul shared in the death and resurrection of Christ who is, himself, in this very pattern of existence, the unchanging rock in which we ultimately find our security.

Newbigin concludes his meditation with the following:
There is a right kind of conservatism in the Church, but it consists in this: to keep absolutely firm allegiance to Jesus who is himself the great revolutionary; to keep absolutely central in our thinkg the Cross which is the final "No" to every human order that claims to be perfect and self-sufficient; and by so keeping close to the Cross, to receive constantly afresh the power of his risen life which is always power for radical renewal.

The old wine-skins have to be thrown away - old forms, old methods, old words - even though they were precious and adequate in their day. God has new wine to pour into our lives in each new generation. Finally these old wine-skins which we call our mortal bodies have to be thrown away so that God may make us vessels fit to receive the new wine of heaven. (21-22)
These are helpful reminders to someone like myself who, in my love for history and philosophy and scholasticism, can easily get lost in the past and cling to old words and formulations that fail to speak today or that mean something different from what they once did. Newbigin's words are good to keep in mind as I attempt to live the Gospel before my students and colleagues in ways that they can understand, that takes up their own stories, and that they might find an attractive sign of the reign of God.