Postmodern Mission

Missiologists Andrew Walls and Lamin Sanneh have argued that Christianity has always grown as a result of its encounter with the "other" in the history of church mission. Specifically, this growth takes place through the process of translating the faith into new languages and new cultures.45 Walls says that "the attempt to transmit faith in Christ across linguistic and cultural frontiers revealed that Christ had meanings and significance never guessed before."46 May we say something similar about the encounter of Christian faith and the "other" of postmodernity? Is postmodernity a "culture" into which the Gospel may be translated, or is it a condition from which the Gospel must be liberated? Perhaps the question is: who is on a mission to whom? Are postmoderns on a mission to save theology or are theologians

45 Walls and Sanneh stress the translatability of the Gospel, which entails the recognition that no one culture has a monopoly on the form of language and life the Gospel may take. See Lamin Sanneh, Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1989); Andrew Walls, The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of Faith (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1996), esp. ch. 3. I recognize that these authors are primarily concerned with the history of "foreign" missions, that is, the history of the church in the west taking the Gospel into new geographical regions. I am extending their argument to the postmodern condition, considered as a culture, a move they may well wish to resist. Interestingly enough, however, Walls is aware of postmodern concerns about "difference" and comments that translation is "the art of the impossible" (p. 26). Christian confidence in translation rests on God's prior act of translation: the incarnation.

46 Walls, The Missionary Movement in Christian History, p. xviii.

on a mission to save postmodernity? Again, it seems that we must reject the terms of this either-or. The term "mission" is nevertheless appropriate, for there is indeed a tacit purpose behind the postmodern turn.

Pride and sloth: postmodernity as spiritual condition

The mission of postmodernity, I suggest, has to do with bringing about not only new conditions of experience, but a new shape of living, to use David Ford's phrase.47 Now the shape of life - the habitual patterns of thinking, of speech and of action - constitute the "spirit" of an individual or a culture. To the extent that culture and society are always exercising influence over the shape of our lives, it is no exaggeration to say that culture is a work of spiritual formation. The condition of postmodernity is neither simply philosophical nor simply socio-political, but spiritual, a condition in which belief and behavior come together in the shape of an embodied spirit.

But which spirit? What shape? Again, opinions differ. Critics of postmodernity would no doubt prefer speaking of spiritual deformation rather than formation. In the final analysis, perhaps both modernity and postmodernity fall short. Modernity cultivated autonomous knowing subjects and so cultivated shapes of life for which neither tradition nor community was a priority. If one had to associate the spirit of modernity with one of the seven deadly sins, surely it would be pride: pride in human reason, pride in human goodness, pride in human accomplishments. It is precisely at the prideful constructions of modernity - buildings, conceptual systems, po-^ litical regimes, theologies - that postmoderns direct their iconoclasm and ideology critique. Postmoderns aim to situate reason, reminding modern pretenders to a God's-eye point of view that they are in fact historically conditioned, culturally conditioned, and sexually gendered finite beings.

"Little children, keep yourselves from idols" (1 John 5:21). Are there idols peculiar to postmodernity? The preference for the creature over the Creator no doubt takes many forms. Human reason can lord it over divine revelation; human creativity can displace divine command. Yet the besetting temptation of the postmodern condition is not pride, 1 submit, but sloth. According to Dorothy Sayers, sloth is the sin "that believes in nothing, enjoys nothing, hates nothing, finds purpose in nothing, lives for nothing, and remains alive because there is nothing for which it will die."48 The question is whether certain forms of postmodernity act as corrosives to the

47 David F. Ford, The Shape of Living: Spiritual Directions for Everyday Life (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997).

Dorothy L. Sayers, Christian Letters to a Post-Christian World: a Selection of Essays (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1969), p. 152.

conditions for the possibility of commitment, poisoning the will by depriving it of anything in which to believe ultimately.

Consider, for example, the postmodern stance toward the other. In modernity, the other (the weak, the foreign, the marginalized) was repressed, forced inside totalizing systems. In postmodernity, the other becomes the object of ethical concern. Or does it? Postmodern thinkers typically view the other as so different from anything our categories can name, so resistant to categorization, as to be unable to say anything positive about it. The other virtually dissolves. Lacking substance, the other, once again, becomes easy to ignore. For how can one care for or love that whose nature is unknown to us? Is it possible genuinely to love without knowing? Christianity too, of course, seeks to protect the "other," but it does so by naming the other: "neighbor."

Evangelism and discipleship: postmodernity as sapiential condition

It may be, then, that theology has a mission to postmodernity. Christians have an interest in promoting a particular shape of life, a particular spirituality, because they know something about the true end of humanity. They know it not because they discovered it but because they were told-The knowledge claim that Christians make about human nature and destiny is based neither on speculation nor observation, but upon apostolic testimony. It is not an apodictic truth, but a story: good news, a gospel. Ultimately what theology wants to say to postmoderns concerns wisdom: about living in accordance with the shape of the life of God displayed in the life of Jesus.

Can the Gospel, this message about the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ, indeed be translated into the conditions of postmodernity? The Gospel was foolishness to the Greeks, and to the moderns. Will it fare better in postmodernity? "The devolution of Wisdom into Knowledge into Information may be the supreme source of degeneration in the postmodern society."49 Let us sincerely hope that this will not be the case. We have learned from the postmoderns that knowledge is not disembodied. On this point, postmodernity and incarnational Christian faith are agreed. What is needed, therefore, is a translation of the Gospel that goes beyond conveying propositions - a translation that would concretize the Gospel in individual and communal shapes of living. Proclamations of the Gospel must be accompanied by performances that embody in new situations the wisdom and love of God embodied in the cross.

49 Mary Midgley, Wisdom, Information, and Wonder: What is Knowledge For? (London: Routledge, 1991).

What shape will Christian wisdom take under the conditions of postmodernity? It is perhaps too soon to tell. But it should not be superficial, a mere surface phenomenon of culture. For Christian wisdom, embodied in the canonical Scriptures and the catholic tradition, is historically dense. In a situation where being is felt to be unbearably light, postmodern theology should seek to express ultimate significance - the weight of glory. It should strive for a shape of life that repeats differently the life of Jesus, a being-toward-resurrection where one's thoughts, feelings, and doings are conditioned not by the ephemeral processes of this world, where rust and moth corrupt, but by the narrative of the triune God, a story that plumbs the heights and the depths and which inserts us into the dramatic flow of evangelical reality.

Further reading

Best, Steven arid Douglas Kellner, The Postmodern Turn {New York and London:

Guilford Press, 1997). Connor, Steven, Postmodernist Culture: An Introduction to Theories of the Contem porary (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989). Griffin, David Ray, William A. Beardslee, and Joe Holland, Varieties of Postmodern

Theology (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989). Harvey, David, The Condition of Postmodernity (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990). Hassan, Ihab, The Postmodern Turn: Essays in Postmodern Theory and Culture

(Columbus: Ohio State University press, 1987). Hyman, Gavin, The Predicament of Postmodern Theology: Radical Orthodoxy of

Nihilist Textualism? (Louisville: Westminster/John Know, 2001). Kirk, J. Andrew and Kevin Vanhoozer, eds., To Stake a Claim: Mission and the Western

Crisis of Knowledge (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1999). Lakeland, Paul, Postmodernity: Christian Identity in a Fragmented Age (Minneapolis:

Augsburg Fortress, 1997). Lyotard, Jean-Fran├žois, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984). Tilley, Terrence W., Postmodern Theologies: The Challenge of Religious Diversity

(Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1995). Ward, Graham, "Postmodern Theology," in David F. Ford, ed., The Modern Theologians, 2nd edn (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), pp. 585-601.

0 0

Post a comment