MISSION AND THE MATRIX OF MODERNITY
(This is a modified and expanded section of the last chapter in Christian Mission in Western Society, edited by Simon Barrow and Graeme Smith.  Relevant endnotes will be found in the book.)


How are we going to handle some of the most basic questions which those of other faith or no faith pose to Christians in Western society today: questions about the nature of belief in God in the face of techno-science, about the authority-claims of traditions and scriptures in a ‘virtual’ world, about the identity of Christ in a plural society, and about the possibility of Christian community (or any kind of community) in the face of an atomising global market?  Here even the most thoughtful Christians are still trying to get to grips with the issues. This ought not to be regarded as a surprise, an intellectual failing or a deficit of faith, since our time is marked by a strong sense that the old has passed away but that the shape of the new is not yet clear. Indeed it may never become clear in the way that some would like, because the scale and diversity of what is coming into being in the late-modern, hyper-modern or post-modern urbanised world (take your pick from many analyses and descriptions) is beyond the capacity of modern instrumentalism and rationalism to capture – which is the one major point of agreement within the plethora of  ‘after modernity’ theses.

If the whole idea of mission as it is discussed today emerged in the matrix of modernity, and if Christianity, by virtue of being an eschatological faith, is marked by a constant deferral of absolute judgement (as Bert Hoedemaker has suggested), a certain kind of bold humility may turn out to be both a practical and theological necessity. For whereas Western thought in the modern age has been characterised by an imperial tendency to universalise itself as the truth for all times and all places, it may be now that we are entering an era where we are able to discover that many of our leading ideas (not least our ideas about God) are only just coming out of the kindergarten.

The real danger (and it is one endemic in our rationalistic, money-driven, technological and yet deeply emotive cultures) is that we fail to recognise this, opting instead for nostalgia, hubris or despair. In a Western Christian context, then, theologians have a particular duty to cry out when missiologists show evidence of — for example — seeking refuge in an imagined golden age, resorting to mere assertion, or abandoning ship altogether.

What, then, is the task of missiology today? One appropriate answer, I suggest, is ‘to generate creative, practically-tempered experiments in thinking out what the churches are called to be, do and say, contextually, in fast-moving societies’. It is this challenge that makes theology a missionary matter and mission a theological matter. But you cannot travel far without a set of maps. So missiology is that branch of the total theological enterprise which is specifically concerned with the ‘somewhere’ of the Christian community in relation to the ‘somewhere’ of its inheritance, all mediated through the multiple ‘somewheres’ of its (narrative) historical, political, social, economic, scientific, ecological, cultural and psychological contexts.

The missionary question is therefore both about the dynamic of churches in relation to the world (where they should be going, what they should be doing) and about the intellectual and spiritual contours of their stance (why they should be doing or standing for these things rather than others). As can be seen from the essays in this book, that means a conversational approach within and without. It is observable that fruitful discussion proceeds from the kind of relationship to truth which Wittgenstein spelled out in his river analogy — continuous and discontinuous flow within identifiable but changing processes  — as distinct from the fashionable Neo-Orthodox picture, which too easily assumes a hermetic tradition-bounded ‘Gospel truth’ encountering ‘the world’ with which it shares nothing of salvific value.

By contrast incarnational religion, though it is about God’s love breaking through transformatively in the particular, cannot abolish the ambiguity and mess of the world without losing its focus on the very God who is committed to that world process in ways which we label ‘creation’, ‘redemption’ and ‘consummation’. Moreover, as Hoedemaker suggests, there is an internal, eschatological self-criticism within the New Testament, which is made visible in Jesus’ self-relativising devotion to the kingdom of God. As the Gospels make clear, it is (paradoxically) this willingness to abandon ideas of separation or superiority which constitutes a massive critique of earthly strategies of lordship, revealing ‘God’s domination free order’ (Walter Wink) in the One who suffers-with out of love, and who enables us to name the destiny of the world – rather than to conquer it – ‘in the name of the coming one.’ (Hoedemaker)

If this is so, and if I am reflecting hints that run throughout the book Christian Mission in Western Society, as well as adding my own interpretation, then I am also articulating a different position on the significance of the church, Christians and Christianity for missionary theology than that held by my co-editor, Graeme Smith. In his introductory chapter he states:

“The identity of Christianity and Christian people are not of themselves important questions.  We do not need to define who is Christian and who is not, nor what Christianity can or cannot be.  Indeed we appear to have reached the end of the usefulness of the terms ‘Christianity’, ‘churches’ and ‘Gospel’ in defining association with the life of God.”

I can certainly concur with what that rules out — a Christianity of and for itself, extra ecclesia nullam salus, the restricting of God (even the God of Jesus Christ) to ‘our’ group or tribe.  However I still believe — along with René Girard and others of his ilk — that the usefulness of gospel and church for our age are only just beginning to become properly visible as they are stripped of past pretensions.

Certainly the Western churches in their received Christendom form (cf. Duncan Forrester and Hong Jung Lee) are in the process of outliving their usefulness. But as potential models of a new kind of deliberately anti-exclusionary community founded on a rejection of violence, a costly embracing of the outsider, a local embracing of the global, and a Christ-like willingness to stake their lives with those crucified ‘outside the gate’ of our brave neo-liberal world, churches as praying, worshipping and witnessing communities may still be struggling with a way of coming into being again for this particular moment. 

This is because, as those who struggle to link the small narratives of the Gospel to the small narratives of daily existence in face of the market meta-narrative realise, the Christ-event is hugely subversive. It creates what can only be called ‘a divine reversal’ of worldly power and expectations. This being so, it needs embodying (collectively), nourishing and sowing. In short the idea of ‘the Body of Christ’, though not to be straightforwardly substituted for the church or Christianity in any particular form, requires some specificity in order to make its universalising contribution. And it does this both by allying with those who share elements of its vision of ‘a new heaven and a new earth’, and by seeking to become in itself an expression of the Giver who sustains all and the counter-sign (cross and resurrection) that produced it.

(c) Simon Barrow
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