I’m often asked for recommendations of good theologians to read. Usually the askers are not looking for academic theology; they are usually wanting to read something serious but relatively light. And more often than not they are looking for theology that will unconfuse them.
Over the years I have come especially to appreciate the theology of British missionary (to India) and theologian Lesslie Newbigin and I strongly recommend his books as guides for the theologically perplexed.
Newbigin is difficult to categorize, which is a good thing. He can’t simply be dismissed as “postmodern,” “liberal,” “conservative,” “evangelical” or anything else. I would label his basic approach to knowledge as critical realist, but that’s so broad as to be almost useless. He stood firmly within the broad, historic Christian tradition (“generous orthodoxy”), but its impossible to tell his denomination from his books.
Newbigin’s writing is exceptionally lucid; he explains what he means whenever he uses technical terms and his prose is crisp. He uses philosophy without giving it authority to determine theology’s content. He was culturally sensitive without being an accommodationist.
The place to begin is Proper Confidence–a brief expose of Enlightenment-based secularism as well as Enlightenment-based religion (both liberal and conservative). For him, the rage for absolute certainty through reason and the myth of the “view from nowhere” (pure objectivity) are major diseases infecting modern culture and religion. Sometimes he verges close to something like Wittgensteinian fideism, but he always pulls back and admits that there are criteria for validity in religious beliefs (and other beliefs). But the criteria are not neutral; all of them except possibly one are value laden and tied to particular perspectives. (I would call Newbigin a perspectivalist.) The one he seems to fall back on is something like “adequacy to experience.”
Newbigin is at his best when criticizing two modern phenomena–rationalism and triumphalism (and the two often go together). And he spreads his criticism around evenly to secular and religious people who engage in these dead end approaches to answering life’s ultimate questions and dealing with those who disagree.
His solution to Christian life in a pluralistic society is a call back to the pre-Constantinian Christian posture–faithful presence among the others.
Newbigin touches on many topics of Christian theology, evangelism, worship, church life and ethics. He doesn’t delve too deeply into dogmatics (i.e., systematic theology and doctrines). He was mainly interested in questions that revolve around being Christian in a radically pluralistic cultural context still infected by the excesses of Enlightenment rationalism and postmodern relativism. He charts a path that emphasizes obedience to the gospel and Christian involvement in the problems of the city without compromise of the gospel message.
For those with a philosophical background or bent–Newbigin is strongly influenced by Michael Polanyi and Alasdair MacIntyre. If you want to see how a Christian thinker uses these giants of post-Enlightenment thought in the service of Christian thought and presence in a pluralistic culture, read Newbigin.