Thursday, March 24, 2011

The secret of mission: Humility

From Eastern Mennonite University, 1200 Park Rd, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
Lesslie Newbigin's The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission  says so many things well it's hard to know where to start. While this is a book about theology of mission, it is just a flat-out excellent book of theology in general. But not just theology, because Newbigin is simultaneously doing some startlingly lucid reading of Western societies and cultures. It perhaps shows my tacit Western belief in progress, but I was consistently amazed throughout the book that it was first published in the late 70s. All of his descriptions are still relevant, and in fact a few are downright prescient and/or prophetic. This book is a masterful blend of orthodox Christian theology and rigorously postmodern thought, adding a splash of critical engagement with Marxist theories and liberation theology. For that engagement, Newbigin affirms and applies what's helpful to his project while also clearly drawing the lines where those frameworks become unusable to his theology of mission. He is articulate and nuanced in ways that many of us can simply hope for, and elucidates an unapologetically Christian theology for mission that short-circuits what many people - including many Christians - associate with Christian mission (namely its legacy with the imperialistic colonial impulses of Europe).

In terms of the broad arc of the book, Newbigin front-loads a general theological exploration of standard Christian doctrines, but does so in such a way as to make mission inevitable “by the logic of (the church's) own gospel” (121), before then going on to discuss more practical yet still theologically-rich implications for mission work. At the outset, Newbigin locates the beginning of Christian mission as the "vast explosion of love, joy, and hope released into the world by the resurrection from the tomb of the crucified and rejected Jesus" (3). He then charges through this history of mission to its most recent expressions in the West this side of the Enlightenment, quickly naming some of the challenges associated with that positioning. One of these challenges is the dichotomous nature of mission work as it's presently understood and practiced. Some see mission as primarily a soul-saving endeavor while others see it as taking “action for God's justice” (11), manifest in liberation theologies but also in what Anabaptists might call peacebuilding. The nature of this split means that mission as development or peacebuilding gets carried out in large organizations mostly divorced from congregational life. Newbigin laments this split (and I with him), as both need each other to sustain a robust and faithful Christian mission.

One word that kept coming up in my head repeatedly while reading this book, even when Newbigin himself wasn't using it, was “humility.” Humility seems to underwrite so much of what he's trying to help us see and do as Christians, both in his theologizing and his suggestions for mission work. While exploring the doctrine of election, he hedges against past abuses of this doctrine by heavily emphasizing our being entrusted as stewards to the open secret of the gospel. Stewardship demands humility and care, lest the eternal temptation to claim ownership should overtake us. All throughout the biblical narrative, especially the Old Testament, “(a)gain and again it had to be said that election is for responsibility, not privilege" (32). And lest we should be braggarts about the gift entrusted to us in the church, Newbigin reminds us that “(t)o be elect is a fearful responsibility” (72), again signaling the biblical narrative of Israel's repeated warnings and rebukes by God. On the topic of salvation he again counsels humility in warning us not to engage in “speculation about the fate of other people” but rather to see salvation as “an infinitely serious practical question addressed to me,” leading us again back to Scripture to see the element of surprise when "(t)hose who were sure of their acceptance will find themselves rejected. The last will be first and the first, last. The righteous will be shocked by the generosity of the Lord to other people...and by his severity to themselves" (79). Perhaps Stanley Hauerwas can help us see this another way when he states that “saying, 'Outside the church there's no salvation,'... (is) also a way of saying, 'Only within the church is there damnation'” (525 from The Hauerwas Reader).

Humility again surfaces when Newbigin counsels missionaries on their stances toward the communities in which they're doing mission, and yet again in the dynamite final chapter of the book on the topic of inter-religious dialogue. It was this final chapter which elicited the most excitement out of me, which I measure by the amount of underlining and margin notes I make. It's an incredibly gracious, humble, respectful, and vulnerable stance that Newbigin advocates for genuine inter-religious dialogue and it offers an exciting vision that can get beyond the doubly bad choices of radical pluralism and radical condemnation. Particularities are not sacrificed in this approach but they're not used as bludgeons to the religious other. I've been able to share a few tidbits from this chapter with two friends who are Mulsim and the response seems to be one of surprise that such humility could come from Christian missionaries. Probably the most striking lessons in that chapter center around vulnerability and risk-taking. As Newbigin states, “(a) real meeting with a partner of another faith must mean being so open to him or her that the other's way of looking at the world becomes a real possibility for us. One has not really heard the message of one of the real religions that have moved millions of people for centuries if one has not been really moved by it, if one has not felt in one's soul the power of it" (184). These are not things most Christians are used to thinking as being virtuous or desirable, but the reference to Peter and the Roman Centurion, Cornelius, in Acts is an excellent biblical reference point for such a stance.

Perhaps a more concrete application of this book could be a framework developed out of the material for local mission as community peacebuilding that's firmly lodged in the worshiping life of a congregation. What would it look like to try and assemble a worshiping community that defied the clearly-drawn socioeconomic and/or ethnic lines of the broader communities in which we're embedded as Christians? What would it look like to have a natural outflow of our corporate worship be contextual efforts to do mission locally? How could we assemble Newbigin's “three-cornered relationship” (147) of 1) the surrounding culture(s), 2) the missional congregation, and 3) engagement with the Bible? For many of the hurdles to something like this taking shape, it seems like this book provides a solid theological and biblical basis for doing mission not just in international settings, but right here “at home,” as it were.

With these practical/visioning questions in view, I'll close where Newbigin points out the end of mission for the missionary, because this also was inspiring stuff for me. Newbigin really pushes for local responsibility when the missionary has helped set up the structures and empowered the people to lead themselves in the presence of the Holy Spirit and application of Scripture. Again, Newbigin points back to the Bible to show us a model in the Apostle Paul, who traveled all around the Mediterranean setting up numerous churches and entrusting them all with the pearl of great price which had been entrusted to him by Jesus on the Damascus road. He does not, as Newbigin humorously states, “build a bungalow” (129)! This degree of trust in the Holy Spirit to go before us and alongside us and after us is freeing in a sense when we remember that we only plant seeds and/or water, but it's God that gives growth (1 Cor. 3:6). This book has helped me catch a glimpse of what's possible by living “in the life-giving tension between a godly fear and a godly confidence” (81) from a number of different theological angles and inspired ideas for possible applications to any number of mission and ministry situations, local or global.

May we faithfully live into the call to discipleship which God has issued across the centuries, pulling all of creation – us with it – toward its consummation in the brilliant glory of the Lord, God Almighty.

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