Particularity, Pluralism and Commitment

by Lamin Sanneh

Lamin Sanneh teaches missions and world Christianity and history at Yale Divinity School. He is an editor-at-large of The Christian Century.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, January 31, 1990, pps. 103-108. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at Article prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Lamin Sanneh reviews a new work by Leslie Newbigin in which Newbigin claims the focus on the dichotomy between “knowledge” of so-called objective facts and “belief” in so-called subjective values is a dichotomy that is rationally indefensible. Christianity in particular is a cogent “plausibility structure” in its own right.

While by no means the last word on the subject, Lesslie Newbigin has made a bold and major step forward in the debate on Christianity, pluralism and Western self-understanding. This work should be welcomed as a precise formulation of problems that continue to perplex and trouble the West.

The book is divided into two parts. In the first, Newbigin examines the intellectual roots of Western society, paying special attention to epistemology and phenomenology. Here the focus is on the dichotomy between "knowledge" of so-called objective facts and "belief’ in so-called subjective values—a dichotomy, Newbigin maintains, that is rationally indefensible. Having been founded on the distinction between knowledge and belief, fact and value, object and subject; public and private, Western culture is unable to take Christianity seriously.

The second part deals with the constructive project of defending religious belief, Christianity in particular, as a cogent "plausibility structure" in its own right. Religious claims, in this regard, are a series of propositions which are coherent in their own terms and which generate a historical tradition in which believers struggle to reconcile their understanding of truth-claims with the pressures of life and experience.

This constructive side of the book commands Newbigin’s major interest and is, consequently, not split off from the first stage in any formal way but pervades the entire book.

Newbigin borrows the idea of "plausibility structures" from sociologist Peter Berger, and links it to the idea of knowledge as personal commitment A la Michael Polanyi. Berger and Polanyi thus are the two sides of the sandwich between which Newbigin attempts to insert the stuff of Christianity. This approach has both merit and drawbacks, although, for his purposes, Newbigin can insist that any project in communication has to begin with a particular standpoint rather than in some abstraction. In fact, it may turn out to be one of the great merits of the book that it calls us to a rigorous understanding of the nature of epistemological particularity, especially where it carries with it "universal intent"—that is, the intention to commend faith and knowledge to the reasonable consideration and acceptance of others.

Newbigin is concerned to establish the particularity of modern Western epistemology, a procedure that would confirm that the notion of objective factualness in scientific inquiry is itself rooted in a particular plausibility structure. The danger that particularity might lead to unmitigated subjectivism is met by Newbigin’s view that scientific knowledge as a particular worldview is legitimized by "universal intent," namely, the enterprise of making public a claim and demonstrating its right to command credence. Thus when we have stripped scientific knowledge to its essentials we are left with both its particularity and its universal intent, a step that would require us to modify any rigid distinction between the objective and subjective poles, or between knowledge and belief.

This step is critical to Newbigin’s argument; the rest of the book follows from it. Newbigin’s contention, with which I wholeheartedly agree, is that "a standpoint outside the real human situation of knowing subjects" is not available to us, and consequently Christianity is always received and transmitted within existing particular structures of life and thought, as is also the case with the tradition of scientific rationality. Yet, in both religion and science, we find that claims initially refracted through a particular culture also have universal intent. On the basis of this similarity, Newbigin treats science and religion as identical in form, so much so that we may, he argues, speak of the purpose in machines and the purpose in eschatological faith as ultimately the same.

Such a bold idea, however, needs qualifying, which Newbigin does by reminding us of a God who acts in history to reveal and effect the higher purpose, although such acting conforms to the structure of rational norms. The qualification thus qualified identifies the source of my unease with Newbigin’s approach. I wonder whether the rational analogy has not assumed too large a role in Newbigin’s apologetics, so large as to become the rule by which faith acquits itself. If Christianity proceeds by the path laid for it by reason, turning into a look-alike or surrogate rationality, then it is more or less a coincidence that it had its origins in the higher elevations of Sinai and Calvary—a point with which Newbigin would not seriously disagree.

Newbigin does not proceed by way of an inflexible rationalism, however. He begins, for example, by trying to extract from reason a concession to religious faith and commitment. He argues that scientific knowledge is not objective or factual enough to dispense with personal commitment. In the very act of testing a hypothesis or gathering evidence, it is not possible to doubt or distrust the enterprise itself. This leads to the view that there is no knowing without believing, and that believing is the way of knowing. The converse of this is equally true: one can doubt only because there are things one takes as true without doubting. It is, he maintains, impossible to doubt all one’s beliefs. "It is impossible at the same time to doubt both the statement, and the beliefs on the basis of which the statement is doubted."

If this is true—and on one level I am sure it is—then Newbigin has nevertheless left us with an acute dilemma about the way he sets out his case for Christianity. Citing the story of the empty tomb, for example, Newbigin says that the reigning plausibility structures of the West turn around the account by explaining it as visions created in the minds of the disciples because of their predisposition to believe, whereas the Christian tradition would prefer to see it as "a boundary event" that brought the disciples to a new way of seeing and thinking. Yet Newbigin’s own premise would force the conclusion that the disciples could not have known the empty tomb existed without a disposition to belief, since there is, according to him, no knowing without believing, and believing itself is a way of knowing. There is a hint here that the sandwich may substitute for the meat, with presumably troubling implications for Newbigin’s apologetic task.

Newbigin is absolutely right that Christianity, or at any rate Christian mission and apologetics, is always involved in a pluralist tension—the tension between confidence in God and uncertainty about living out that truth in the world, between faith as God’s gift and understanding as a form of growing discovery, between knowing who God is and seeking to bring that knowledge into situations of despair or resistance, not to say anything about the diversity and conflict of views among self-avowed Christians. Beyond this formulation is the highly significant though still flickering frontier of world Christianity now emerging like a new universe bathed in dawn. There we find plausibility structures so inconceivable from our Western stand-point that we would be inclined to regard them as extraterrestrial creations were it not for the fact that Jesus Christ is also their theme and burden.

Can Western Christianity, in its Protestant, Orthodox and Catholic forms, as it emerges from its deep assimilation of the heritage of the Enlightenment, join hands with a world Christianity framed by radically different plausibility structures? Newbigin’s own searching critique of Descartes and Kant suggests severe limitations in exporting that legacy to the rest of the world. Consequently, other peoples and cultures are likely to come to their knowledge and understanding of Christianity outside the mediating scheme of the Western Enlightenment, though it would be rash to exclude the possibility of contact altogether.

The way forward lies through a radical shaking down of the reigning plausibility structures in the West, combined with growing awareness of new regions of Christianity. That shaking down has to affect certain basic cultural attitudes about science, philosophy and society, and about faith in national identity as a substitute for religion. The second of these is perhaps the most obdurate force we have to contend with, though the first is also a pervasive issue.

It could, in fact, be argued that one of the most significant paradigm shifts of the past several centuries has been the move from a religious metaphysic to a political metaphysic and the messianic state it fosters. All of us in the past two centuries or so have been conditioned to believe that historical and social events will bring about the ultimacy of the national state which can then afford to allow religion to wither on the vine. Certainly in the West the transition has been accompanied by an emphatic ethical transformation: to die for one’s religion is considered a fanatical act, whereas to die for one’s country is considered an act of heroism. Thus the pledge before the flag becomes more potent than any religious mantra, though the henotheist faith it relies on competes in the same arena as religious faith. We continue to uphold the sanctity of life, but it is a notion now derived from the idea of the sacredness of citizenship rather than of religion.

A similar imaginative leap is necessary to rethink notions of cause and effect to which the West has committed itself. When we are presented with evidence that challenges that plausibility structure we respond that "accidents" or "unknown causes" do occur, and leave the matter at that. It would be difficult to practice our kind of science and medicine without the stable boundaries given us by cause and effect. The larger question, as to whether our kind of science and medicine deals adequately enough with the intricate fabric of phenomena and persons, can be raised only when we confront a society and culture radically different from ours. From the standpoint of another culture, Descartes’s confident assertion that "I think, therefore I am" (Cogito ergo sum) might sound like utter folly. From such a standpoint a more secure foundation for knowledge might instead be, "I am related, therefore I am" (Cognatus ergo sum). After all, why should Descartes make his declaration unless there are others of whom he is conscious and whom he wishes to persuade? From the relational perspective, then, even the most abstract theory presumes a social reality, and great science is grounded in relational truth.

"Plausibility structures" as a concept may not, however, address the deeper aspects of religious claims, including this relational dimension. Something may sound entirely plausible without its demanding a searching openness, and I could go on conceding a structure or many structures as having a plausibility while never quite trusting them in certain critical situations where instinct, practice or simple trust takes over. We all can recall occasions when an "accidental" wrong turn in the road, a delayed or early arrival at the airport, or a gut-level reaction in an emergency saved the day. And then, in retrospect, the pieces fall into place and we "see" a purpose, and a bigger picture, in it all.

The cumulative effect of instances of such "seeing" might add up to faith and trust in a power wiser, greater and nobler than any we know, or, at any rate, it might commence that son of awakening, causing us to ask for a transcendent selfdisclosure that is unlike anything remotely resembling self-aggrandizement. Its outcome would be the recognition of a new relationship. Mere might be a plausibility factor in that self-disclosure and the relationship it creates, but if so it would be like a trickle beside the mighty Zambezi.

At this stage it would be appropriate to invoke the idea of "universal intent" Newbigin talks about, for religious encounters of the kind I have just described will require commitment to truth and to the task of witness. As the river exists for nothing if it does not flow toward the sea, faith points beyond itself.

Thus reasoning of the analytic kind has a subordinate role in religion. On the one hand, reason is not alien to the nature of the universe, which responds in more or less precise and predictable ways to reason’s probes. On the other hand, reason is not a product of nature but is rather a superior principle that orders and understands nature. The snow-capped Kilimanjaro is an awesome if anomalous sight in the tropical setting of East Africa, but it does not produce a logical scale of its own elevation. It is left to humans to subdue the mountain’s pride and offer it as an homage to Ngai, the god of the mountain.

The task of unmasking the assumptions and presuppositions in such projects of heart and mind is beyond most of us, for it is difficult to disengage from the idiom of our own operative procedures. Yet it is clear that if we are going to question the idioms of the omnicompetent state and the chain of causation we have to take serious stock of movements and ideas breaking out beyond our own borders.

Christian mission has long engaged in such rethinking, although given the stern perspective of the critics, we have failed to understand the movement in its non-Western setting. It has not been easy to appreciate how missionaries had their reigning plausibility structures dismantled at the hinges as they appropriated indigenous idioms for their work. But that it happened, and on an astonishing scale, is indubitable.

Hence the irony today that mainstream churches have taken the sideline on mission, and instead turned to development projects as an expiatory offering for past sins. In that sense, mission as the spread of the gospel has given way to mission as an instrument of national policy, with diplomatic missions overseeing the implementation of foreign policy. Both official and voluntary organizations are prominent in promoting national and cultural values, with people encouraged to indicate their approval of affirmations rooted in the national purpose. There is probably more pietistic fervor in civil ceremonies than at a typical Protestant Sunday morning service, and people are more likely to feel solidarity with fellow nationals of a different religion than with co-religionists of a different nationality. The willingness of the churches, then, to offer development projects as a substitute for witness reinforces the shift from religion to national identity and obligation as forms of ultimate loyalty. Since development projects also rightly respond to searing need abroad, they may unwittingly conceal from us cultural and national values that unavoidably accompany them. Thus the churches become the religious equivalent of good citizenship.

The West is perplexed and troubled most about the cross-cultural ramifications of religious witness. How do we know others are not satisfied with their own religions? From a mixture of powerful motives, including genuine conviction or remorse, guilt, uncertainty, agnosticism, cultural exclusiveness, fear of criticism and disenchantment, mission has acquired a bad reputation in church and society. The paradox, of course, is that through mission the West came upon some of the most searching and sustained critiques of its reigning plausibility structures. Says Newbigin: "It is only when we are exposed to a totally different culture and a different language, shaped by a widely different history, that we can turn back and see that what we always took for granted is only one way of seeing things."

By undertaking to learn the languages of others and to communicate in their idioms, missionaries became their own first converts, providing an example of what might be involved when prospective believers saw their idioms had also become the idioms of outsiders. It is a remarkable fact that mission as the historical searching out of God’s universal purpose became distinguished by its scrupulous development of vernacular particularity. That is to say, in their vernacular work, missions appropriated numerous plausibility structures with which to express the gospel. This action pluralized while simultaneously relativizing the notion of plausibility structures vis-à-vis the single theme of God’s redemptive purpose in history.

Newbigin speaks of "the scandal of particularity," as when out of all the nations of the world the Jews are chosen to represent God’s purposes in history, whenceforth God came among us in Jesus Christ. Traditional Western theology treats particularity as a problem in divine providence, or even as an issue in divine election: why should God’s knowledge and mission be restricted to particular segments of human history? There is, needless to say, much in that approach to instruct and restrain, but I wonder whether another approach might help shed further light on the subject. We could say that when missionaries adopted the specificity of vernacular languages and cultures as vehicles for the gospel, they were extending the principle of Jewish particularity, the paradigm by which God has chosen to instruct the world in righteousness.

It goes without saying that missions have produced many changes, both intended and unintended, though I remain unsure of the usefulness of judging missions by whether or not they extended the influence of the West in the societies affected. That way of looking at the history of missions adopts a Eurocentric view of Christianity, accounting for everything in terms of how it squares with the Western worldview. Perhaps it is this Eurocentric view that leads Newbigin to claim that Christian missions have created a revolution of expectations in the relevant societies, giving the people for the first time a sense of history. In view of that, "mission is a historymaking force."

It is true that missions were a historical force of great importance, but we have to reckon within that fact that the changes included a radical critique of Western political and cultural imperialism. Indeed, the force of those historical changes derived from the strength of the nationalist sentiment which the vernacular translations of missions did far more to excite and guide than any other single factor. It is to that source rather than in acquiescence to Western norms that we have to trace the roots of historical consciousness, for history does not rise from acquiescence. By not pursuing that historical theme to the field setting of missions, Newbigin unwittingly plays into the hands of his critics who see in missions proof of Western cultural insensitivity.

Contemporary theology is marked by a lively debate about the call to abandon any claim to Christian uniqueness, a claim viewed as offensive and outmoded in a religiously pluralist world. Newbigin notes that the debate is inclined to be vitiated by what he calls cultural collapse in the West, a collapse eloquently described by Robert Bellah et al. The arguments in this debate tend to be rather repetitive, but they come down to one issue: the contention that the claims of Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and others require a dissolution of the historic claims of Christianity. It is a one-sidedness in which the particularity of others is mobilized to block that of Christianity. This situation comes pretty close to Tolstoy’s description of historians of his generation: they were like deaf men answering questions which no one had put to them. It by no means follows that unilaterally abandoning historic Christian claims would lead others to do like-wise, and even if they did, it would be no less damaging to the prospects of pluralism.

It may turn out to be the Achilles’ heel of Western liberalism that its proposal to strip Christianity of its particular claims would alienate it from religions that reject the advice of the West. Among the internal logical difficulties of relativism is the fact that if religions, and our thoughts about them, are culturally conditioned phenomena, then our formulations of relativism are themselves culturally conditioned. In any case, the problem with historic Christian claims turns out to be itself culturally induced, and therefore as valid or invalid as anything else. Extreme relativism leads to complete nonsense.

In the final analysis, both pluralism and the integrity of religious faith are damaged by the adoption of a soap-and-water Christianity that liberal defensiveness seems to prescribe for us. Newbigin’s answer, in trying to clarify the grounds for a reasonable Christianity, should help recover the initiative, thus advancing through Christian particularity the frontiers of authentic pluralism.