Profiling Western Culture

Kandinsky’s “Composition IV”, 1911

Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks, Chapter 2

What are the essential features of the West as a culture?  Newbigin points first to The Enlightenment, an exciting time in which “the iron grip of dogma” gave way to “the joy and excitement of those who have seen the day dawn over a dark world” (p. 23).  Central to the Enlightenment was faith in human reason to gain mastery of nature through science and mathematics.

Newton’s natural laws supplanted Aquinas’s focus on divine purpose.  Man’s purpose was no longer understood as being to glorify God forever but rather to pursue happiness in the here and now.  Nature and nation-states supplanted God as the primary powers over Man.  Faith in reason led to new social trends: the division of labor, the rise of market economies, the dichotomy between one’s private and public world, and the growth of cities (p. 32).

I would have liked to see Newbigin address in this chapter not only what he means by the “Enlightenment” but also what he means by the reference he made to “Post-Enlightenment” culture in chapter 1.  I suspect his answer would be that “post” refers to the fact that the West’s confidence in reason has been cracked by the travesties of two World Wars as well as the emergence of totalitarian regimes such as Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia.  We are therefore left with the structures of reason crumbling under a foundation of reason that has been found wanting.  To speak of Enlightenment / Post-Enlightenment might therefore be roughly synonymous to speaking of modernity and post-modernity.

Newbigin closes this chapter with an important thought.  The task of someone attempting to represent the gospel is not to explain the gospel in terms of the prevailing culture but rather to explain the prevailing culture in terms of the gospel.

What do you see as the central features of contemporary Western culture?  What are the primary felt needs of people living within this culture?

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