Friday, April 13, 2007

Belief & Community

I've been exploring the concept of plausibility structures and how this insight can help us to think more clearly about the church's relationship with culture.

One important component of a plausibility structure is community:

A plausibility structure is not just a body of ideas but is necessarily embodied in an actual community. It cannot exist otherwise.

Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, p. 99.

Every plausibility structure grows out of a community. There is no such thing as a disembodied plausibility structure.

  • Scientists have their own community with its plausibility structure.
  • Public universities and colleges have a distinct community and accompanying plausibility structure.
  • The inner city minority community has its own plausibility structure which includes the idea that the police and the courts cannot be trusted.

This has several implications for the Gospel.

  • The alternative plausibility structure of the Gospel cannot survive outside the community of the Church. If a person attempts to be a "Lone Ranger" Christian, the reigning plausibility structure of society will eventually swallow up the competing beliefs of the Gospel.

  • There is no neutral, benign environment for the claims of the Gospel. These audacious claims need the community of the saints to survive.

  • One cannot ossify a particular community and its plausibility structure as a timeless reference for "biblical Christianity" (e.g. 16th-century Geneva).

  • Furthermore, there is no "pure" Christian culture. Every genuine expression of Christianity is always in the context of a particular culture at a particular time.

  • Any community that does not embody the plausibility structure of the Gospel is not truly a church.

This concept of plausibility structures does not mean that there is no absolute truth. It is an observation about how people understand, process and practice truth. The idea that truth can be apprehended and adopted in an objective and detached manner is as much a fiction as the idea that people buy cars for entirely non-emotional reasons.

We are really not in a secular society, but in a pagan society—not in a society which has no gods, but a society which has false gods.

Lesslie Newbigin, Interview

Here's the assessment of Dave Chang:

Reading Newbigin's works is dangerous business. It puts fire in the intellect, courage in the heart and motivation for action for the universal mission of Christ to a despairing world. A modern-day prophet has walked amongst us. We would do well to rally to his call to leave our privatized ghettos and ride forth to engage our pluralistic culture.

So what do you think? What are the implications for individual congregations? What are the implications for denominations? What are the implications for how we do theology?

Pastor Rod

"Helping you become the person God created you to be"


M. Pease said...

As a point of interest, I found your blog as the result of doing a search on "plausibility structure", which I have been hearing in Christian media lately. I was wondering if it's usage was similar to how "paradigm" was used a number of years ago and to the more recent "world view". In any case, I have a few observations that may prove interesting . . . or not.

Everyone has a plausibility structure; not everyone lives in community continually (I am one such).

Not every group of people who co-operate for the purpose of survival can be considered a community.

I am not convinced that plausibility structures necessarily grow out of community, it may often work the other way 'round. When people with similar beliefs come together for the purpose of survival (or even to just improve the quality of life), a community is formed.

There are those who examine the common structure, find it wanting and leave or find themselves ejected from the community.

It isn't our job as Christians to argue people into accepting our plausibility structure(s), and it may be a mistake to try and do so.

Lastly I believe that it's time we, the Church, examined our beliefs in view of information, both from within and without, that has been uncovered over the last half century and settle on a plausibility structure that is not so often self-contradictory.

daniel the smith said...

m. pease: "It isn't our job as Christians to argue people into accepting our plausibility structure(s), and it may be a mistake to try and do so."

I don't think we should argue people into it, either (in fact by its very nature it may be something that cannot be argued for or against at all). But the Christian story lives in a different "plausibility structure" than other people. So how do we introduce others to someone whose existence is prohibited by their "plausibility structure"?

PS I think "narrative" will win the contest to be the word for this concept because it involves the least typing... ;)

Pastor Rod said...


Yes, I believe it is a similar concept to Kuhn's paradigm shift.

I think Newbigin's definition of "community" is broader than the one you are using.

I agree that it is not our job to argue people into accepting our plausibility structure. But it is our job to live in the plausibility structure of the Gospel and to be prepared to "give an answer for the hope" that we have.

I'm not exactly sure what you have in mind in your last paragraph. If you are saying that we need to constantly be refining our understanding of the Gospel plausibility structure, then I agree.

If you are saying (which I don't think you are) that the Gospel PS must "make sense" within the reigning PS, I would have to disagree.

Make yourself at home here. I welcome your continued input.


Pastor Rod said...


I wasn't able to develop that point this morning. In my opinion, our strategy to "make disciples" involves exposing people to a different reality so that they want to find out more about it.


M. Pease said...

Daniel, I made that comment because I so often see, particularly in blogs/discussion boards, that a believer will intrude on a discussion and make a pronouncement, often in unflattering language. Many Christians seem to believe that pointing out someone's faults and then "pointing to Jesus" is job one, job done. I am not saying that I found that here.

I like the way that St. Francis of Assisi put it (approximately). - At all times preach the Gospel, when necessary use words.

I believe that if we are living our lives, truly trusting God as our provider and defender, that others will begin to want to know about the source of that. But we have to be living the kingdom life now.

Pastor Rod, Re: community, you are probably right about my definition of community. I believe that we have a mostly pseudo-community. It functions well enough when things are going well, but can't stand much testing. There is frequently not enough mutual trust and love for us to practice the confession of sins to each other without risking judgment or rejection. Those of us who are lucky, might have one person with whom we can be deeply honest, but that is not, I think, the rule.

Re: Testing. I might push the boundaries a bit more than most, but I believe that a truly Biblical plausibility structure will be internally consistent. Most of what I have come in contact with is not, if how people speak and live is any indication. In part we have incorporated many of the world's beliefs into our structure. Also there are either many overlapping "Christian" plausibility structures or the core structure is hidden by a plethora of incidental doctrines.

In any case, I have been learning that some of our interpretations and doctrines come out of preconceptions rather than out of Scripture. I realize that it is not possible to become neutral, but if we check our teachings for consistency, that should help. :^)

Pastor Rod said...


You raise a lot of good points.

As far as the church goes, I agree that community must be much more than it typically is. I have written a little more here.

I agree that the best apologetic for the Gospel is believers trusting God and living the life of the Kingdom.

I would say that there are several "pseudo-Christian" plausibility structures. Yet even the "authentic" Christian plausibility structures have differences.

However, if we were seriously seeking to live within the Gospel PS instead of propagating our own cultural trappings, many of these difference would fade away. The others would become less important.

Thanks for your contribution,


daniel the smith said...

"...a believer will intrude on a discussion and make a pronouncement..."

I've experienced that too. I do my best to avoid reading those exchanges now, as I've realized it's quite unhealthy for me-- the cynic in me is only barely repressed as it is and doesn't need the fuel.

"But we have to be living the kingdom life now."

I totally agree.

Hmm, I was going to say something else but now I can't remember what.

Anonymous said...

I don't agree that everything is learned in one's plausibility structure. I have learned many good and bad things outside my structure. To say that you can not survive as a Christian ouside of your structure is not something I believe. If you have faith in God, you can achieve anything.