|WHAT TYPE OF CHRISTIAN MISSION
IN WHAT KIND OF WESTERN SOCIETY?
By Simon Barrow
|During my Sabbatical (April-May 2002) I am working on a book provisionally entitled ‘Post-Christian Mission: Living hopefully in a fractured world.’ These outline notes are from a lecture given at the Waterloo Mission Seminar, 05.02.02, in Partnership House, London. It maps out how I see the key issues arising. But what I end up saying may be rather different, of course.
Introduction: Christian mission, Western society: Both are, in truth, 'never the same way once.' (Ben Webster). But some generalisations are more defensible and usable than others!
A. THE CHALLENGE
1. Secularisation: Note the various different theses. One is about the eventual disappearance of religion from public life [wrong], but another is about the irreversible move from agrarian religious societies to technological associational ones [right].
2. Desecularisation? D. Hay/K. Hunt, etc., say religious experience is, unbeknown to its cultured despisers, very common -- and cannot be reduced without remain to purely sociological, biological, linguistic or other categories. Correct. But this does not either endorse traditional Christianity per se or gainsay the irreversible secularity of public (economic, political, social, cultural arenas) life in plural societies. Believing it does either or both is pious self-delusion.
3. Decline in religious observance and active allegiance has been continuous and dramatic in Britain specifically and most of Western society generally over the past 80 years. It is now beginning to happen in the US. There are variations (ups and downs) and there is some evidence of bottoming out. But talk of ‘revival’ misses the central point: Christendom is dead; majority faith is over. This is true for evangelicalism and Pentecostalism too, in spite of claims to the contrary. In these terms they exemplify both the merits and demerits of post/modernity – freedom to be different, but also the tendency not to be able to engage effectively with others.
4. Christianity globally re-mapped. On a world scale there has been a huge growth of Christianity in the South, but, correspondingly, explicit Christianity has mainly given way to vicarious acculturation in the West. One hundred years ago 75% of Christians were in the North and 25% in the South. Now the situation is reversed. Not 'evangelisation of the world in this generation' (J. Mott), but significant -- often missionary-assisted -- growth 'over there'. In the late C20th the new reality became world Christianity, instead of 'the West to the rest'. But the West (USA, Canterbury, Rome, Geneva) still dominates institutional Christianity; and will influence its global futures significantly. New Christianity is the fruit of its failures, however. What we now have are world Christianities.
5. Mission stasis? However, note that despite huge numerical growth the percentage of Christians in the world has not changed very much. Other religions have grown too and are just as persistent. There are also many new religious movements and emphases. The 'other religions' and the secularists are not going to go away. Plus the idea that Africa, China etc. can bypass trends towards plural public life and religio-cultural disenchantment (M. Weber) is also false. So what happens in the West remains important on a world scale. Further, the missionary romanticisation of third world Christianity (and its ideological cooption to reinforce our preferred orthodoxies, as in difficult debates on sexuality) will not do. This approach is part of the problem not part of the solution.
6. The key theological issue in all this concerns what God is up to. Nothing much? (the 'liberal' view) Abandoning us to the consequences of our faithlessness? (the 'conservative' view) Or renewing our thinking and action? (the 'radical' view). I say the third.
B. THE OPPORTUNITY
7. How did we get here? What we now call 'Christianity' came after early post-resurrection hopes of the eschaton as a divine irruption faded. After the Jesus-movements Christianity as a religious system grew because of appeal beyond narrow religion (c.f. A. Le Grys). Constantine offered a big solution to the problem of 'what next?' But at a massive price. Christianity became a dominant metanarrative, but also a corruptible one (crusades etc.) Crisis. Division between Christian empires, East and West. Reformation in West, after which Christianization accompanied modernisation and shared its crisis (B. Hoedemaker). Now historic 'Christianity' is is dying.... but not faith.
8. Options for Christians today: (i) Re-assertion of conservative versions of Christianity using modern techniques [AD2000, etc.] No: pre-modern theology cannot speak transformingly to a post/modern world. (ii) Re-assertion of 'radical orthodoxy' using post/modern thought [J Milbank, N.T. Wright.] Some good ideas but, overall, no: this is totalising, smuggles in pre-critical categories, re-asserts Christendom. (iii) Attenuation and acculturation of Christianity [R. Holloway, etc.] Asks important questions, puts up with a despairing answer: Christian faith left with nothing distinctive/useful to offer. (iv) ‘Vicarious’ religion – civic, comforting, cultural, accommodating (Grace Davie, Graeme Smith). Empathic, but is it enough when the going is tough? Do we need self-help – or rescue? Maybe both, but not merely the former. (v) Non-realist Christianity [D. Cupitt, etc.] Misses the point -- totalises subjectivity, fails to see any vitality in tradition, substitutes metropolitan playfulness for political hope ... But there are other ways forward...
9. Re-visioning 'Christianity' [Epistemological modesty of B. Hoedemaker, P. Hodgson, R. Page, etc., but also the radical Jesus-religion of J. H. Yoder, Wink, Brueggemann et al -- a new synthesis]. Yes to re-understanding Christianity in relation to the continued struggle for a global, but not exclusive or totalising, human hope. This is post-Christian in the sense of 'after the old Christian settlement', not 'now that Christianity is finished'. The incarnational focus means Christians are apart and yet also a part. Necessary tension: We need deep immersion in culture, but also communities of hope and resistance ---> incarnating 'eschatological performance'. Both/and not either/or. Friendly conversation with other religions and views – but also the belief that there is something decisive offered through Christ: forgiveness, redemption through a love that endures suffering rather than inflicting it, peace as a way not a goal, etc. Able therefore to refigure fruitless liberal-conservative splits and offer fresh alternatives: ones that redeem the toxicity of much Christianity, while believing in the gift of salvation. But concerned for all, not an exclusive few.
10. Contextuality and hope. So... "what is to be done?" Originally Lenin's question in a different context. His phrase had no question mark (though one was put in accidentally by the printers!) The question mark as an essential part of any proper sentence is the key difference in post/modern Western culture. We must live with it -- faithfully, but honestly. Right now, too much energy is going into failing ecclesiastical structures rather than vital theological and practical questions. The crux is how to think and live alternatives. How to witness openly. How to be church authentically with others, not against them.
11. Inter-mission. Bonhoeffer's example: holy life together and radical questioning, prayer and action for justice, worldly discipleship and eschatological hope. Mission in plural and changing contexts equals contributing and receiving in search of God's shifting horizon - inter-mission. Church means holding boundaries (security) and breaking barriers (risk) for transforming love. Jesus Christ embodies/prefigures God’s perpetually wider (but continually demanding) way, life and truth. This offers space for all in a communion of difference, not in a 'Christian colony'.
(c) Simon Barrow, 2002.
Back to SB Index