"My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together." “When I hear people say politics and religion don't mix, I wonder what Bible they are reading.” (Archbishop Desmond Tutu)

"And what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, and to love kindness and mercy, and to humble yourself and walk humbly with your God?" Micah 6.8

"Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things." Philippians 4.19

"Work out your salvation with fear and trembling." Philippians 2.12

Monday, May 5, 2014

Approaches to Mission 4: Enlightenment Modern Mission and Mission within Postmodernity

As before, I am looking at Stephen Spencer’s studyguide Christian Mission.

Enlightenment Modern Mission

This approach to mission is concerned as much about the physical and mental conditions in which people live as their spiritual lives. It is rooted in what Küng calls the Enlightenment Modern paradigm, itself formed by key ideas of the eighteenth century Enlightenment in European culture.  It was a hugely influential approach to mission in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, leading to a construction of schools, hospitals and other educational and medical work all around the world and also propelling Christian laity and clergy into the forefront of social reform in the West. With Christian contributions to the founding of the welfare state in Britain, this mission type arguably reached the height of its influence.

In some ways the Protestant Reformation provided a seedbed of the Enlightenment Modern paradigm. This was through its theology of the two kingdoms and the way this brought about an increasing separation of civil and spiritual realms. The Church was to be concerned with the latter, while the state and civil society were concerned with the former. On political, social, economic and even moral questions the Church was gradually sidelined: its concern was to be the things of Heaven rather than of Earth. This resulted in the Church losing control of scientific endeavour and the post-Reformation period in Europe saw the blossoming of scientific exploration across the continent. In this paradigm, the Kingdom lies in the future but is being realized through human progress. Jesus is present among us as the pioneer of of a new humanity which is gradually coming about. 

Bosch, writing in Transforming Mission, provides a helpful summary of key features within this new way of thinking:

·       It was pre-eminently the Age of Reason, where reason was seen to belong not only to believers but to all people.

·       It operated within the subject-object scheme, in which nature ceased to be “creation” and was no longer peoples’ teacher but the object of their analysis.

·       It eliminated purpose from science, introducing direct causality as the clue to understanding reality.

·       It believed in the notion of progress with exploration of the world as well as science opening up new possibilities for human living, convincing many that humanity had the ability and the will to remake the world in its own image.

·       Scientific knowledge was regarded as factual, value-free and neutral, and as really the only kind of knowledge that counts.

·       All problems were in principle solvable, though it would take time to solve them.

·       Human beings are now emancipated, autonomous individuals.

Taken together, these ideas represent a revolution in European thought: the Age of Reason saw an increasing turn away from supernatural revelation as the source of truth and an increasing suspicion of medieval thought as stifling.

The Enlightenment also saw the rise of historical consciousness developing out of a critical study of history, including the Bible.

There were political consequences too. The rise of individualism implied the rise of democratic ideals and the overthrow of the medieval monarchies. The two most significant examples were the American War of Independence and the French Revolution.

Scientific understanding led to the development of newer technologies and commercial expansion overseas followed in the nineteenth century, which carried European culture, philosophy and education to many points around the globe. The Age of Reason became the Age of Empire, which harnessed technology and industrialisation for the scramble for global domination by the European powers.

The Enlightenment belief in progress, and especially in European culture’s progress within science, technology, philosophy and politics, had a major influence on a new type of mission within churches. Progress suggested the imminent this-worldly global triumph of Christianity. Some believed that the entire world would soon be converted to Christianity or that Christianity was an irresistible power in the process of reforming the world, eradicating poverty, and restoring justice for all. The spread of Christian knowledge would suffice in achieving these aims. The philosopher Leibnitz described the Church’s task in the world as the propagation of Christianity through science or knowledge. The advance of the honour of God was equated with the good of mankind.

The increasing provision of education became one of the most significant  by the churches in nineteenth century Britain and God’s Kingdom would become increasingly aligned with the culture and civilization of the West.

The second half of the twentieth century has also seen this type of mission promoted in various parts of the worldwide Church, though in different ways. For instance, in The World Council of Churches report The Church for Others (1967), the particular role in the mission of God was seen as pointing to God at work in history, to discover what he is doing, to catch up with it and to get involved ourselves: for God’s primary relationship is to the World and it is the world that must be allowed to provide the agenda for the churches.

The Roman Catholic world also embraced this kind of socially and historically rooted outlook. The initial impetus came from the Second Vatican Council’s document Gaudium et Spes, which, in rousing language called on the Church to turn outwards to the world in which it lived. This led to the Bishops of Latin America responding to that call with solidarity and applying it to their own context. As the Bishops opened their vision and hearts to the peoples’ struggle for justice they initiated the Liberation Theology movement.

A different and influential example is the 1985 C of E report Faith in the City,  a response to inner-city riots which made it clear that both church and nation needed to take anew look at the most deprived areas in the larger cities and the recent growth of poverty. This was fiercely attacked by the Conservative government of Mrs. Thatcher.

Mission within Postmodernity

The roots of this new theological paradigm partly lie in the collapse of Enlightenment aspirations. The Age of Reason became the colonial age of empire in which European powers harnessed technology and industrialisation for the scramble for global domination. The next step along this road was war between the competing European powers which many see as the outcome of the Enlightenment era. These desperate events included the Holocaust and the dropping of atomic bombs on Japanese cities and for many these events undermined the belief in the existence of human progress based on reason and technology. While the work of church schools, hospitals and political involvement undoubtedly improved the physical wellbeing of many people, such work had not resolved or begun to resolve the ultimate issues and questions of the reign of God.

A second key development during this period has been mass immigration into western societies from the Indian sub-continent, Africa, the West Indies and central Asia which resulted in the rise of pluralist societies in Europe with different religions, cultures, languages and customs rubbing shoulders with each other in the larger European cities. This has included not just the arrival of other faith groups but also Pentecostalist forms of Christianity.

In the latter part of the twentieth century these two developments gave rise to a new way of relativistic thinking in Western culture - at least in the urban centres. This is often referred to as “postmodernism” and has led some commentators to describe the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty first century as the start of a new postmodern era, contributed to by writers such as Adam Smith, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Freud and many others, who claimed to provide systems of political, religious or cultural ideas.

In tandem with these traumatic social and cultural events there has been an unfolding theological revolution. Karl Barth led a revolt against the way of thinking which had seen religion as concerned with the cultivation of people’s spiritual faculties and which believed that humanity might achieve union with the divine by gradually leading itself to God.

Christ’s revelation is primary for Barth: everything else must be seen in the light of that. The discipline of theology must have Christ’s life, death and resurrection - or “The Christ Event” - as he called it as the beginning, the middle and the end. Theology consists in tracing the significance of this event for every aspect of life. Christ, the Word of God, reveals the truth of all things. Barth’s theology does not begin with general and abstract philosophical arguments about the “ground of being” or “the feeling of absolute dependence” as nineteenth century theologians tended to do. He begins with God as revealed by Christ in his birth, death and resurrection: he addresses the doctrine of God and brings the doctrine of the Trinity to the centre stage because he sees the nature of God as defined by the interrelations of the Son, the Holy Spirit and the Father. Even when Barth explores the doctrine of Creation he relates it to Christ. He describes God’s work in creating the world as being about setting in place the right conditions for the revelation of his Son.

Barth was first misunderstood and rejected, especially in Britain and North America: his theology was labelled a “neo-orthodoxy” and dismissed as reactionary but now he is recognised as a pioneer of an approach to theology which is no longer dependent on philosophy or the study of history and has found its authority in transcendent revelation: the Word of God as found in the Christ Event. The Kingdom of God comes as His gracious gift, as a transcendent reality breaking into the corruption and failures of human life.

Barth was the key figure behind the coining of the phrase missio Dei as a summary of mission’s dependence on the initiative and substance of God himself. Mission was not to be seen as one of humanities building projects, carried forward by its own strength and reason, but as a divine movement in which the church was privileged to participate.

One of Barth’s students, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran pastor and theologian, who resisted the Nazis and was put to death by them, has been described as the architect of a new way of understanding the mission of the church. He believed that the Christian community was the concrete presence of Christ in the world and needed to be valued and nurtured as such. He also saw that the Christian life, if taken seriously, is no easy matter. He opposed what he called the offering of cheap grace by the established churches to their members. In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, he described the costly nature of following Christ, a way of service rather than domination. His writings, and particularly his Letters and Papers from Prison, help to articulate a theology of mission implicit in the witness of his life.

Man is challenged to participate in the sufferings of God at the hands of a godless world. He must therefore plunge himself into the life of a godless world, without attempting to gloss over its ungodliness with a veneer of religion and trying to transfigure it….It is not some religious act which makes a Christian what he is, but participation in the suffering of God in the life of the world…. The church is only her true self when she exists for humanity. (Letters and Papers from Prison)

Christian mission, then, is about the church laying aside its own power and becoming open and vulnerable to the world, giving itself to serving the needs of others, locating itself where they live and, only then, finally, seeking to communicate the meaning of the gospel: Christian mission is all about witness out of a prior vulnerability.

This open-ended approach to mission has been expressed in an increasing number of places in the latter part of the twentieth century, especially as migration has resulted in people of different faiths increasingly living side by side and churches have had to enter into dialogue with Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists and others. This has taken place at every level, though not usually under the label of “mission”.  Dialogue is the norm and necessary manner of every form of Christian mission, as well as every aspect of it, whether one speaks of simple presence and witness or direct proclamation. Any sense of mission not permeated by such a dialogical spirit would go against the demands of true humanity and against the teaching of the gospel. (Bevans and Schroeder: Constants in Context: A Theology of Mission for Today.)

As Bosch affirms, We do not have all the answers and are prepared to live within the framework of penultimate knowledge, that we regard our involvement in dialogue and mission as an adventure, are prepared to take risks and are anticipating surprises as the Spirit guides us into fuller understanding. (Transforming Mission)

Gibbs and Bolger, writing in Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Community in Postmodern Culture, conducted extensive research into the Emerging Churches movement in Britain and the U.S. They identified patterns most prevalent in churches that take postmodern culture seriously. The three core practices are;

·       Identifying with the life of Jesus, including welcoming the outcast, hosting the stranger and challenging the political authorities by creating an alternative community.

·       Transforming secular space in the same way that postmodernity calls into question the separation of sacred and secular.

·       Living as a community within all realms of the life of their members, not just within a Sunday morning meeting.

This strong sense of the missio Dei has led some leaders to renounce traditional evangelism altogether. We do not do evangelism or have mission. The Holy Spirit is the evangelist, and the mission belongs to God. What we do is simply live our lives publicly as a community in the way of Jesus Christ, and when people enquire as to why we live this way, we share with them an account of the hope within us…. Taking care of the sick and needy creates all the evangelism we need. (Gibbs and Bolger)

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