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Leslie Newbigin on The Heretical Imperative

In The Heretical Imperative [Peter Berger] has argued that the distinctive feature of this [‘modern’, Western] culture is that there is no generally acknowledged “plausibility structure,” acceptance of which is normally taken for granted without argument, and dissent from which is regarded as heresy, that is, according to the original meaning of hairesis—choosing for oneself, making one’s own personal decision instead of accepting the given tradition.

In premodern cultures the heretic was in a minority. In medieval Europe or in contemporary Saudi Arabia, for example, only the rare individual questions the accepted framework of belief. It is just “how things are and have always been.” In modern Western culture, so Berger argues, we are all required to be heretics, for there is no accepted plausibility structure. With respect to ultimate beliefs, pluralism rules, and thus each individual has to make a personal decision about ultimate questions. In that sense, we are all now subject to the “heretical imperative.”

I believe that Berger is correct when, in an earlier part of his book, he takes as fundamental to our modern Western culture the fact that it has enormously enlarged the area in which the individual is free to make his own choices. A vast amount of what earlier ages and other cultures simply accepted as given facts of life are now subject to human decision.

With the aid of modern technology, modern man chooses where he will live, to whom he will talk, how he will behave, what style of life he will adopt. He can, if he has successfully mastered the techniques of modern living, change at will his job, his home, his company, and his spouse.

The old patterns of belief and behavior that ruled because they were not questioned have largely dissolved. Each person makes his or her own decisions about what to believe and how to behave. It is therefore entirely natural that religion too is drawn into this way of understanding the human situation.

It is natural, in a culture controlled by this kind of experience, for religion also to be a matter of personal choice, unconditioned by any superhuman or supernatural authority. We are all in this sense subject to the “heretical imperative.”

My point here is simply this: while Berger correctly shows how the traditional plausibility structures are dissolved by contact with this modern world-view, and while he correctly reminds us that the prevalence and power of this world-view gives no ground for believing it to be true, he does not seem to allow for the fact that it is itself a plausibility structure and functions as such.

It is not that there is no socially accepted plausibility structure and thus we make our own choices. This is the ruling plausibility structure, and we make our choices within its parameters. It is, if I may anticipate what has to be developed later, the public world of what our culture calls facts, in distinction from the private world of beliefs, opinions, and values. This is the operative plausibility structure of our modern world.

Leslie Newbigin – Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture

This is Newbigin writing in 1986. The point he makes remains true, even if the operative plausibility structure of today’s (post)modern West is somewhat different.

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