Photo © Kieran Dodds
This year the global Church celebrates the birth centenary of one its greatest twentieth-century leaders, John Stott (1921-2011).
Although I heard him as a speaker and read some of his books during my undergraduate years in London, it was only in the final year of my postgraduate study that I got to know him personally when he invited me to join the reading group that met quarterly in his flat. One of my vivid memories of that group was going to watch a film (the title eludes me) by the renowned Swedish existentialist Ingmar Bergman. Stott was so deeply moved by the film that he insisted on taking us all to a nearby church where he knelt before the Lord’s Table and poured out his soul in contrition over all his flawed relationships.
It is such integrity and vulnerability that leave an indelible impression on young people’s minds. And it is the memory of Stott’s character, far more than his books or preaching, that I recall whenever I grow discouraged by the hypocrisies or arrogance of so many in leadership positions today.
Much of Stott’s “British public-school theology” was challenged by his visits to the non-Western world and his friendships with non-Western Christian leaders. He actually listened to us, unlike so many others who only came to propagate their views and to “train” us. Commitment to the poor, and a growing engagement with social and political ethics, came to the fore in his later writings, much to the consternation of his conservative friends. His eclecticism and willingness to engage in dialogue with Roman Catholics alienated him from many in his own country who believed that there was nothing they could learn from others in the global body of Christ.
When Stott invited me to give the 1998 lecture at the London Lectures in Contemporary Christianity (which eventually became a book Faiths in Conflict? Christian Integrity in a Multicultural World), he took me out to dinner to explain the aim of the lectures and urged me to “Please help us evangelical Christians to see our blind-spots.” Here was a 77-year old man desiring to be taught by an obscure non-Westerner roughly half his age and with, hitherto, only two books to his credit! I was amazed. I have not met any other leader, before or since, who has expressed to me such a desire.
Stott shunned all adulation and the near-idolization that many heaped on him, not least in the USA. While continuing to hold him in great respect, there were, of course, aspects of his theology with which I disagree. Some of these are common to the Western evangelical culture he inhabited, such as being too rationalistic in his reading of the Bible and a tendency to treat the apostle Paul almost as a “second incarnation”. His exposure to the Eastern church fathers and the best of the monastical tradition in the West was severely limited.
In one of his most important books, The Contemporary Christian, Stott called for a “double refusal” on the part of the Church. Both Escapism and Conformity should be replaced by a posture of “double listening”: listening both to the Word and to the World. This was central to the development of a Christian Mind. He wrote:
We listen to the Word with humble reverence, anxious to understand it, and resolved to believe and obey what we come to understand. We listen to the world with critical alertness, anxious to understand it too, and resolved not necessarily to believe and obey it, but to sympathise with it and to seek grace to discover how the gospel relates to it.
(John Stott, The Contemporary Christian: An Urgent Plea for Double Listening, pp. 27-29)
This is well said; but it does not go far enough. For, surely, the aim of our listening to the world is not only to find relevant ways of communicating the gospel to that world but also to learn from the world (or, more accurately, from God’s actions in the world) a fuller and deeper understanding of that gospel itself. The apostle Peter’s listening to Cornelius relating his personal journey (Acts 10 & 11) would be a paradigm example from the early Church. What is happening here is a “double conversion”: Cornelius to Christ and Peter to a deeper understanding of Christ.
As the Church historian Andrew Walls famously put it:
“It is as though Christ himself actually grows through the work of mission . . . As he enters new areas of thought and life, he fills the picture. It is surely right to see the process as being repeated in subsequent transmission of the faith across cultural lines.”
(Andrew F. Walls, The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of Faith, p.xvii)
Listening to the world also involves more than reading influential secular texts. It includes deep personal encounters with men and women outside the Church and also being plunged into the pain, confusion, and creativity of all humanity. This is where the hermeneutics of “double listening” must lead. And the development of a “Christian mind” cannot occur by leap-frogging the rich Christian intellectual traditions that have emerged in the world Church through prolonged conversation with all other human intellectual enquiries and a faithful immersion in wider human communities. So, it is not simply a matter of “the Word and the World” but “the Word in its long engagement with the World”.
So, in this centenary year, even as we give thanks to God for such a remarkable servant of the Church, we should neither pay mere lip-service to John Stott’s legacy nor idolize him. Perhaps the best way to honour him would be to imitate his integrity and teachability.
This article was originally posted at https://vinothramachandra.wordpress.com, reposted with permission.
Vinoth lives in Colombo, Sri Lanka. He has served internationally for many years with International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES), the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, Micah Global, and A Rocha International. He has a PhD in nuclear engineering from the University of London, UK, and is the author of several books and essays on topics relating Christian theology to issues in the global public square. His most recent publication was Sarah’s Laughter: Doubt, Tears, and Christian Hope.