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Un-thinking mission

October 14, 2011 3 comments

Next week I’m presenting a student seminar at my college, the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies. It’s titled ‘Un-thinking mission, and the challenge of Karl Barth and missio Dei.’

It comes in part out of my research project, which is an attempt to move toward a theology of child and mission, but also in response to the hard-to-comprehend but oft-forged dichotomy between ‘missiology’ and ‘theology’. In short, the division between those who see theology as  at best a luxury or at least lower priority than the urgent task of mission; at worst a downright hindrance to it; and those who accuse many mission practitioners of acting without thinking in their enthusiasm for ‘getting on’ with the ‘real business’ of mission. (Indeed, my experience suggests that ‘business’ can sometimes be all too accurate a description for some contemporary mission!) My paper’s thesis is that much of what we observe today in ‘mission’ by churches and agencies is not only un-thinking mission (ie theologically and perhaps culturally or otherwise naive), but fosters the un-thinking of mission – a deliberate movement away from doing due theological diligence because of a disdain for such, or fear it may raise uncomfortable questions about the means, methods and manner of the work being done. However, such mission risks not only being un-thinking, but potentially also un-ethical, and even therefore un-God-ly. Ironically, this would render it un-mission. For mission, understood in terms of the missio Dei (‘the mission of God’, or even more literally, the ‘sending of /from God’) is first and foremost exactly that: God’s mission. It cannot but reflect his being, character, intentions and movement toward, in and for the world, for it is He Himself in action. It is only subsequently and at best contingently that humans can participate – by his free grace – in God’s own redemptive work in the world. Though variously defined, missio Dei at very least retains this location of mission in God’s being and doing before and even beyond any human action.

This raises the prospect that a lot of what we do in the name of mission, and missions – short-term, long-term, holistic, transformational or otherwise – is not. The briefest historical survey of Christian mission suggests that much of what has been undertaken in the name of mission has been antithetical to the being, character, intentions and redemptive movement of God. In fact it has, at times, actively worked against the purposes of God. (It also, of course, raises the prospect that much more comes into the scope of mission that is typically regarded as such. But that’s another discussion.)

This should cause all of us involved in mission practice, pause for thought. How can we know whether what we’re doing is consistent with God’s own working toward, for and in the world if we don’t reflect carefully and closely on who God is, and what he can be seen and said to be doing? Even then, this is not easy, for as Karl Barth constantly reminded us, God is free! The Spirit blows where it pleases. It is not easy at all to discern where he is at work, what he is doing, and how he would have us participate therein. But Jesus ‘only did what he saw the Father doing’ (John 5:19). That also, is the great challenge for those of us who seek to be his followers.

Nor because we think that what we are doing is consistent with what we think God is about does it guarantee that God is automatically pleased by, present in or participating with us in what we do (I should of course express this in the inverse – it is we who by his grace are, perhaps occasionally, able to participate in his mission.) There’s a lot to be said for how we engage toward, with and in the world. Ends do not justify means. Theological reflection causes us to realize the provisionality of our actions aligning with God’s. Too often when the religious leaders of his day thought they were acting with and for God, Jesus points out they are far from it. It would only be with great arrogance that we could assume ourselves to be consistently more consistent with the ways of God. Are we acting justly, kindly, lovingly – towards our staff, fellow church members, those with whom we are engaged – in the process of going about what we believe to be God’s good work? Do movements like the 4-14 movement and others exploit – subtly, but nevertheless truly – the very group it purports to serve, by making children (or others) the objects and instruments of its adult/ White / Western / wealthy/ personal agendas and psychological (e.g. messiah) complexes?

To all of this, I suggest in my paper that the concept of missio Dei, and the theology of Karl Barth – neither being without their shortcomings, though I am far from qualified to judge the latter – offer a resounding critique. Mission is God’s. It cannot be readily apprehended, domesticated, or assumed by an individual, a church, a culture or an agency. We need to be ever attentive to the leading and the judgment of the Spirit and Word of God, and be open to the reality that we often miss it, buy into human agendas, frameworks and methodologies, allow pride, power, budgets, even our own insecurities to drive our actions more than prayer, humility, submission, sober self-awareness and an earnest desire to see hear and join the Spirit at work in our world.  And yet the wonder of mission is that God does, it would seem, invite us into his redemptive movement with, in and for the world.

His mission. On his terms.

It doesn’t take a professional theologian to think. To reflect. To pray. Nor should it be left to such people, as valuable as they are. (There is a lot to be said, I believe, for ‘reflective practice.’) But mission which is un-thinking, along with the un-thinking of mission, may just turn out to produce un-mission.

And to those of us who claim to seek to serve God and his kingdom, that should be un-thinkable.

(Much of the thinking expressed here owes a great debt, which the paper seeks to acknowledges, to my supervisor Haddon Willmer, along with my friend Beth Barnett and other members of the Child Theology Movement, which is currently involved in a lively debate on the topic on its internal blogsite. Thanks to all who have contributed to that debate, from which much of what is expressed here is derivative. I would love to hear thoughts and comments on what I have presented here as a prelude to that paper. Thanks!)

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Of Inklings, books, and friendship

October 12, 2011 1 comment

Late yesterday afternoon, after a full day with books, my good friend Sheridan Voysey and I met over a pint (in this case, of Pepsi) in a back room of The Lamb and Flag pub, Oxford. We entered therein a long tradition, to which we are newcomers and interlopers, of meeting to talk about… books. Specifically, in our case, the ones I am reading, and the one Sheridan is writing.

The Lamb and Flag nestles into a strip of buildings adjacent to St John’s College, across the expansive junction street of St Giles from its more well known counterpart, The Eagle and Child. Like The Eagle and Child, The Lamb and Flag was host for a number of years to the weekly Tuesday gatherings of CS Lewis, Tolkein, Owen Barfield, Lewis’ brother Warnie, Nevill Coghill and the other group of writers which came to be known as the Inklings. The group moved from their preferred venue at The Bird and Baby (as it’s colloquially known) to The Lamb and Flag when their growing renown made it more common for their discussions to be repeatedly interrupted by fans and literary pilgrims who would wait at the Eagle and Child to catch a glimpse of, and perhaps strike up a conversation with, the great Oxbridge authors.

So The Lamb and Flag became venue to their conversations,  in their latter years. In the well worn booths, and age-darkened chairs, they would read, discuss and critique each other’s work in a spirit of deep and enduring friendship. Undoubtedly their writing was the better for these regular fellowships. I suspect their lives were, too.

As Sheridan and I chatted about faith, life, good and evil – some of the challenging but important topics he is tackling in his new book (the follow-up to his ‘Unseen Footprints’, which won Australian Christian Book of the Year, 2006) – I had a sense that we were on sacred ground. Not because the Inklings had met within those same walls, as aware as we were of that hallowed tradition. But the sacred ground of friendship. As our conversation wound its way into the deep things of life, as we shared thoughts, ideas, theological reflections we became pilgrims together. I’m not sure his book will be any better because of my ideas. But I know my life is richer for that hour and a half, in a pub, over a Pepsi, with a good friend.

The wisdom of elders

October 11, 2011 Leave a comment

Today, I am very grateful for the wisdom of those who have gone before me.

I met yesterday with my research supervisor, Prof (Emer.) Haddon Willmer. His experience and deep theological understanding forged from a life of thinking and living theologically has helped significantly in shaping not only the direction of my research toward a (hopefully) worthwhile project, but also my own way of thinking, and my nascent but developing skills as a theologian. The meeting has also made me reflect on the numerable other mentors, theological, academic and otherwise who have steered my life and thought over the years.

In our society today we are, as often observed, more infatuated with the ideals of youth and beauty than appreciative of age and wisdom. In fact, contrary to other eras and cultures, our still very modernist (and dare I say arrogant) thinking causes us to fall victim to what CS Lewis referred to as ‘chronological snobbery,’ assuming that we know better than our elders and previous generations.

But I wonder which actually provides the greater – or at least, better and more valuable – influence in our lives? Celebrified youth and beauty? Or the wisdom of our elders?

Perhaps it takes wisdom even to heed wisdom?

If so, Lord grant me such.

Blessed is the one who finds wisdom, and the one who obtains understanding. For her benefit is more profitable than silver, and her gain is better than gold. (Prov 3:13-14)