To Speak of God in the Twilight: Towards a Theology of Mission in the Postmodern World, by Tiziano Tosolini (Gracewing USA, ISBN 0 85244 467 2) £7.99.
In this short, thought-provoking set of meditations on Christian presence and witness in a fragmented world, the ‘twilight’ of Tosolini’s title is the shadowy horizon we often call postmodernity – echoing back to Heidegger’s ‘land of the sunset’.
The author, an Xaverian missionary who teaches philosophy at the Mill Hill Institute in London, is careful to distinguish between the massive changes of perception that have occurred in Western society and the new ideologies sometimes built on them.
He describes a world in which people have become disillusioned with ‘progress’, confused by the breakdown in received traditions, abandoned by history in a mesmerising present, caught in a maze of multiple ethics, and re-enchanted by consumer consciousness, body aesthetics and new [age] ecologies of the mind.
This ‘return to the surface’, away from the presumed profundities of past ‘big stories’, involves both loss and gain. Tosolini is aware of the threat of chaos and nihilism, but unlike many Christian writers does not seem afraid or defensive. For him dis-illusion can be just that: the loss of illusion, and therefore the possibility of a new enlightenment.
God can be spoken of in this age of fragments, he says. But only out of experience, encounter, imagination, memory and hope. These are what Tosolini describes as the missionary paths along the periphery of Christian doctrine. They require a community that embodies such virtues, which can point to them in the past (as signs of faithfulness) and generate them for the future (as signs of possibility). In this way he seeks, with St Matthew’s Jesus, to claim both old and new from the storehouse.
The Christian understanding of God that emerges is of a transcendentally vulnerable divinity, making space for a world of becoming out of freedom. God is the Other who is discovered incarnationally, who endures suffering and who redeems transitoriness with love. Tosolini’s veil of meditation is therefore not so much ‘a theology’ of mission, but a series of living insights to be gathered and sown in an unpredictable world.
At one point the author quotes Italo Mancini on Bonhoeffer: “Religion is a private matter and propped up my metaphysical speculation. Christianity, on the other hand, far from being a mutilation of human power, manifests the fecundity of the earth and the dis-empowerment of God.” For this reason, religion cannot make much difference in an adult world, but Christianity rediscovered can generate new possibilities of mature and liberated humanity.
While affirming the truth in this, Tosolini acknowledges a much more complex relationship between ‘religion’ and ‘Christianity’. The announcement of the Gospel is indeed a religious act he says, but not one which exactly coincides with the proclamation of a religion. Rather it is about a new way of seeing and relating to the world.
Mission is therefore about rediscovering Christianity, he concludes. “Following Paul, one could claim that, in a postmodern and western context which exalts fracture and non-belonging, what mission is called to pass on is undoubtedly faith in a crucified and risen God, a faith which understands itself in understanding God’s freedom and love.. [which appeals to] mature humanity.. and [helps to] re-define religion as ‘the bond that is established between the same and the other without constituting a [totalisation]’.”
This book is a brave encounter between a creatively traditional Christian (in this case Roman Catholic) imagination and the fleeting appearances and shifts of postmodernity. But I was left wondering what more is needed. Tosolini may be enough to convince some Christians that the Gospel is not indissolubly wedded to either premodern or conventionally modern worldviews. There is life (as well as challenge, pain and disturbance) beyond modernity. But would it be enough to persuade the denizens of the postmodern mall that the Christian experience and message is worth seriously arguing with?