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Lesslie Newbigin on man’s contradictions

Lesslie Newbigin lived and worked in South India from 1936 to 1974, and originally wrote this in Tamil.

Wherever and whenever we look at man, we find that he is full of self-contradiction.

He is divided against himself, and he is divided against his environment. He is not at peace in himself, and he is not at peace with the world.

If we try to examine this state of self-contradiction further, we shall find that there are four distinct ways in which man is in a state of contradiction.

(a) Man is in a state of contradiction against the natural world
Man is a part of the natural world. His body is made up of flesh, blood, bones and other constituents which are the same as those in many animals. Like them, he depends for his existence upon the correct kind of food, water, air, temperature etc., and if these are absent he dies.

But man is not at peace with the natural world. Of course, like other animals he is engaged in a struggle for existence which leads him to kill other animals for food, and to protect himself from other animals by force and cunning. This kind of conflict is found throughout the natural world, and man is also involved in it. But there is more than this. Man has a different relation to the natural world from that which other animals have.

In the first place, man has tried to subdue the natural world to his will in a way that no animal has done. He has tamed animals and turned them to his use, cultivated plants, exploited the resources of the earth and the sea, discovered how to make and control fire, electric power, and atomic energy. But in spite of this, there is not peace between man and nature.

For, in the second place, man’s desires are such that nature cannot satisfy them. If an animal is given sufficient food, water, shelter, and opportunities for reproduction, it will be satisfied. But man is not satisfied with these things. He is tormented by desires which are unlimited, and therefore—not understanding the nature of his desires—he tries to get more of the same natural goods, and as a result becomes a glutton, a drunkard, or a sexual pervert.

Because man is so made that only God can satisfy him, his desires are unlimited. When he tries to satisfy unlimited desires by means of natural goods, he ruins himself.

(b) Man is in a state of contradiction against his fellow-man
About this it is not necessary to write very much. From the time of Cain and Abel men have fought with one another, hated one another, murdered one another. Wherever we look we see strife: nation against nation, class against class, race against race, and—even in the same household—brother against brother and children against parents.

Although all men know that this strife can bring only ruin and misery, although they know that without co-operation we must perish, although they know that love is the highest good and that without it life is not worth living, yet men fight one with another. Each one seeking his own good rather than the good of others, is brought up against others who are seeking their own good. Each one sees the other as a threat to himself.

So man is divided against man, and the human race, instead of being one united family, is constantly torn by fratricidal strife.

(c) Man is himself in a state of inner self-contradiction
Each man in himself is not a unity. His mind is a republic in which many forces are battling against one another. There are powerful instinctive forces which try to revolt against the sovereignty of his mind. His body is by no means always the obedient instrument of his will. And within his mind itself there are conflicting desires. Fears, ambitions, envies, hatreds arise in his mind which conflict with one another and with his own purposes, and threaten to ruin him.

Above all, there is in every man a great division between what he knows he ought to do, and what he actually does. As St Paul says: “The good which I would, I do not; but the evil which I would not, that I practise”. In some degree or other this self-contradiction between what he is and what he knows he ought to be, runs through every man’s soul.

Man is himself a self-contradiction.

(d) Man is in a state of contradiction against God

This is the basic contradiction on which all else rests…

Lesslie Newbigin – Sin and Salvation (or in Newbigin’s terms, “Contradiction and Wholeness”)

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