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The Western Dichotomy of Subjectivism and Objectivism


Although we tend to associate evangelism with personal evangelism, it was Lesslie Newbigin who first introduced the concept of ‘social evangelism.’ He saw the modern western society secularized by the influence of modernism as the parish of the Christian mission. He declared that the western world which was once the country exporting the gospel to the world is now a mission field that needs to be reevangelized. When he identified that the roots of the secularization of the western culture as the epistemology of modernism, it was a great discovery in the circle of missiology equal to Newton’s discovery of the law of gravity in natural science.

     One day Newton was sleeping under an apple tree and was awaken when an apple fall on his forehead. Of course, Newton was not the first person who had ever seen an apple falling from the tree. And there were thousands of people who would mention, "The apple had grown big enough so that it was time to fall down" or "It was a matter of natural law that things above fall dawn below." But the greatness of Newton lies in that he refused to be satisfied with that kind of explanation and continued to ask the question why the apple fall down until he discovered the law of gravity. No less great is the insight of Newbigin the missiologist. People usually attributed the stagnation of the English Church in the twentieth century to secularization, and if asked why the English society was going through secularization, they would vaguely attributed it to the trends of modern times. But Newbigin did not stop there, and it was he who carefully observed that western secularization is largely due to the plausibility structure in western modern culture since the Enlightenment.

     On August 5 of the year 2000 a grand ceremony was held in England to celebrate the 100th birthday of Queen Mother. It was the first occasion in the British royal family that one’s age reached the one hundred. Here was a woman who welcomed the dawn of the first New Year of the twentieth century, who was born on August 5 of the year, a teenager girl during the Fist World War I, who ascended high on the Buckingham palace to celebrate the victory of the British Army from the World War II in 1945, who ascended the palace again on August 5 of the first year in the twentieth-first century to celebrate her one hundredth birthday.

     The Queen Mother, Rev. Lesslie Newbigin, and late Korean Rev. Han Kyung-jik were all born at the beginning of the twentieth century, and the two reverends also lived almost a century. If the Korean pastor Han Kyung-jik is the history of Korean Church, the Queen Mother is the history of the British monarchy in the twentieth century, and Newbigin the history of English Church mission movement in the same century. Newbigin’s leadership in the Church of England was comparable to Rev. Han Kyung-jik’s leadership in the Church of Korea.

     Returning from his forty years of missionary service oversees (with most of his service in the East) Newbigin saw that Britain was no longer the same Britain he saw before his departure to his mission field in India. The Great Britain in the past was the center of modern civilization to where people from every side of the world came to learn advanced civilization including government and medicine. But about the time he was returning home, he saw English young men in India wandering the city in unwashed clothes to learn the oriental wisdom. Issac Newton’s vision of modernism was to export the light of enlightenment and civilization to the whole world. But here were the British young people who were disappointed by the civilization that modernism had brought. The hope for the promise of modernism had faded away!

     His pastoral experience as a retired missionary was another illustration of the cultural context of modernity Newbigin observed. When a small church in the district of the Asian immigrants was about to be closed by the presbytery, Newbigin appealed for the preservation of the congregation and was allowed to assume the pastoral position of the church on the condition of no pay for his pastoral ministry. When he was visiting the neighborhood to win a chance for evangelism, the English family often met him with cold refusal on the door. It was rather the pagan Asian families who invited him to the living room for tea. And when rarely an English neighbor opened the door, it was no longer the Bible but the television which occupied the center of the English family living.

     In this context Newbigin experienced that far more difficult than to evangelize a Hindu was to evangelize a British. To bear witness to Christ to a Hindu is a hard work enough. But even though they opposed to Christian faith, the Hinds were, at least, not uninterested in a spiritual topic. And far more difficult was to evangelize who were not interested in spiritual affair than who oppose to Christian faith. It was the kind of society where faith was considered as a matter of personal choice, and therefore evangelism was taken as intruding one’s privacy. And that in the homeland of the Puritan movement, in the land with the heritage of the Wesleyan spiritual revival, and the hometown of the great preachers such as Spurgeon!

     This illustrates that the same Britain can be a spiritually productive land in one age, and barren in other age. Here culture is an important factor. Culture affects Christian mission because it shapes one’s worldview. What are, then, the roots of the secular worldview of the modern western culture? Two dominant factors of western secularization are the absence of teleology and the dichotomy of facts and value. In this column we discuss the dichotomy of facts and value in terms of the dichotomy of subjectivism and objectivism.

     The tragic legacy of Descartes' program has been that the other half of modern culture other than science, the half into which theology usually falls, has lapsed into subjectivism. Newbigin put it, "The shadow cast upon the other half of our culture by which the massive creation of a supposedly 'objective' natural science has robbed of the liberal arts of the confidence that they also are avenues along which truth may really be grasped." So everything becomes subjective.

     The false dichotomy is setup between "I know" and "I believe." Everything in theology becomes subjective. What we call Christianity is one of the many varieties of religious experience, and its truth-claims are set aside on the ground that they arise out of particular cultural contexts. Now, this bears witness to the shadow of modernism initiated by Descartes. This is the shadow cast by the idea that there is available, or should be available, a kind of knowledge which is not the knowledge of a fallible human subject living in a specific cultural context, but the "objective" knowledge. Newbigin stresses that this idea is simply illusion. Yet this idea has become so powerful in modern world that it can rob the Christian of the freedom to say simply: "I know whom I have believed” (II Tim. 1:12).

     But, if one extends this "subjectivity-objectivity" debate to God, the great objectivity is God but he is also the supreme subject. who wills to make himself known to us not by a power that would cancel out our subjectivity, but by a grace that calls forth and empowers our subjective faculties, our power to grow in knowledge through believing. Quoting from St. Augustine, Newbigin declares, "We believe in order to understand, and our struggle to understand is a response to grace." It is grace that makes real understanding possible. As Newbigin put it, "Real understanding becomes possible not by seeking a certitude apart from grace, but by accepting the calling to seek understanding."

     Citing the famous slogan of Augustine, "credo ut intelligam" ( I believe in order that I know), Newbigin comments: “Here faith is understood not as an alternative to knowledge but as the pathway to knowledge. We do not come to know anything except by believing something” (1996:3). Newbigin discusses the nature of this knowing process. “We have to begin by believing the evidence of our senses, the veracity of our teachers, and the validity of the tradition into which we are seeking apprenticeship…We do not begin to acquire any kind of knowledge by laying down in advance the condition upon which we will accept any evidence. We have to begin with an openness to a reality greater than ourselves in relation to which we are not judges but pupils” (1996: 4-5).

     The famous story of Dr. Heo-Jun in the Korean MBC drama is a good illustration of this. The healing career of this renown medical doctor from the Yi-dynasty began by his apprenticeship under Yoo, Yi-tae, the master of oriental medicine and his mentor. The disciple did not begin to acquire his medical knowledge by laying down in advance the condition to his teacher. The starting point of his learning was his trust in the teaching of his teacher. He began with an openness to his teacher, a great minds of medicine, to whom he was not a judge but a pupil. What is true with learning the oriental medicine is also true with learning the western science. Even in the fields of science there are schools of science, and each school of science has its own tradition. On has to belong to one of the school in order to learn science. Without this process of subjective experience one cannot learn a tradition of science, and therefore cannot inherit a theory system of science. It is impossible to detach subjectivity from objectivity, and this is the fundamental flaw in Descartes ’ program.

     As a result, Descartes’ dichotomy only formed the plausibility structure of the society where faith is reduced to a subjective experience while certitude of knowledge, namely, the objective knowledge is glorified. The majority of the Western people before the Cartesian era was Christian although not all of them might have the assurance of salvation. In the western traditional society the Christina gospel had unquestioned authority. But the dichotomous way of thinking in modernism took religious truth as a subjective claim, and therefore a truth-claim that lacks scientific certitude, and this has become one of the main roots contributing to western secularization.

     The impact of modernism seems to be much greater on Korean Christianity than it has been on Western Christianity. Korea recently celebrated the fiftieth anniversary (August 15, 2000) of the Liberation Day since the Korean War. Things happened during this half-century. Tent churches of fifty years ago have grown to be among the largest churches in the world. But recently there are many signs that indicates that the turn of the new century is also a turning point of the Korean church experience. The influence of modernism that the western Christianity has experienced during the last three centuries the Church of Korea is experiencing in much shorter period. What comes with the influence of western modern education and culture is Cartesian worldview, that is, the dichotomy of subjectivism and objectivism. While the new young Korean generation are free from any religious persecution, this generation is often characterized for its nominality, spiritual unproductivity, and unresponsiveness to Christian evangelism.

     In a society where this worldview that dichotomizes the subjectivity and objectivity is a reigning plausibility structure, faith is driven to a marginal place. As the intellectual circle of modernism has grown up to be the majority, this change in Korean ministry context has become conspicuous. In a time when the church buildings occupy the center of the town community, the Christian faith is pushed to the marginal place of the society. The modernism culture exults human’s objectivity, scientific knowledge, while taking faith as subjective experience. The Christian mission is challenged when this become a reigning plausibility structure. When industrialization, westernalization, and modernization has been progressing fast during the last three decades, it was not just an economic environment that has been changed; the Korean society has become susceptible to the influence of the secularization of modernism. Inside this cultural context faith and intelligence appears to be contradictory each other, and to be faithful is often taken as the sign of being less intelligent. But as we have already seen, this false worldview has to be rejected. We must follow the example of the Psalmist who, when seeking the truth, prays, “Open thou mine eyes, that I may behold Wondrous things out of thy law” (Ps. 119.18). As St. Augustine sets forth it, we believe in order to know. Faith is not an alternative to knowledge. The Christian truth is the true truth, the truth of truths, and the eternal truth because it is the kind of truth one can enter by faith. “For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last”(Rom. 1:17).



  © This article was first posted under the title of "The Root of the Secularization of Western Culture (2): The Dichotomy of Subjectivism and Objectivism."