Lesslie Newbigin (1909 – 1998) was a missionary and theologian in India and England. He has written some brilliant books including The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (SPCK/Eerdmans/WCC, 1989) and the one I am now reading, Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt, and Certainty in Christian Discipleship (Eerdmans, 1995). It is a short book, not difficult to read, and Newbigin has a gift for summarizing great stretches of history and philosophical thinking in a few sentences.

In chapter two he refers to René Descartes who is best known for his statement, “Cogito ergo sum.” Which translated to English means, “I think, therefore I am; or “I do think, therefore I do exist.” Newbigin shows the tremendous influence of Descartes and how his pursuit for certainty has led to the great crisis of the postmodern world.

It was Friederich Niettzche (1844-1900) who, at the end of the nineteenth century, drew with inescapable clarity the necessary conclusion of the method of Descartes. . . . Rational criticism rests on beliefs which are, for the moment, held acritically. But these beliefs are themselves liable to critical questioning. If the critical principle is exalted to the supreme place in the enterprise of knowing, then the possibility of knowing anything is destroyed. “True” and “false,” “right” and “wrong” – these are now words which have no objective reference. They are simply expressions of the will. The will to power is the real driving force of history. The “eternal truths of reason” so beloved during the Age of Reason are in fact nothing of the kind; they are the products of particular historic developments and of particular exercises of the will to power. The twentieth century has learned this lesson. Claims to speak meaningfully about right and wrong are discounted. Instead, one speaks of “values.” These “values” are a matter of personal choice. They express what the person who holds them wishes to see enacted. They are precisely expressions of the will (albeit in a less brutal form than that suggested by Nietzche).

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The modern age began with the daring program of Descartes, a program encouraged by a cardinal of the church and designed to banish skepticism once and for all by establishing the method by which indubitable certainty could be obtained. Neither faith nor probability would suffice. Certainty was possible, and we ought to be content with nothing less. It is deeply ironic that this method has led us directly into the profound skepticism of the postmodern world. The greatest product of the modern age is the work of science, a work which has transformed the human situation and continues to do so. Yet, there is now a profound skepticism about science itself. It is recognized as a unique avenue to power (and the greater part of scientific work is now directed towards the achievement of power – military, industrial, and commercial), but it is not perceived as a pathway to wisdom. Modern science has placed in human hands the power to do things that were previously unimaginable. Technology, the development of ever more sophisticated means for achieving any end we choose, dominates modern and modernized societies. But there is a growing perception that science and technology are no substitute for wisdom – for the power to discern what ends are in accordance with the truth and the power to judge rightly between alternative ends.

Watch this blog for more insights from Proper Confidence.

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