Friday, December 2, 2016

Missiology and Tedium

I am in the middle of writing a paper comparing the missiologies of the Orthodox missionaries of 19th century Alaska and those of late 20th century Kenya.  This is interesting (to me, at least) because, whereas Protestants and Roman Catholics have long developed thoughtful and involved missiologies, and even developed their own category of academic studies, the Orthodox, in contrast, are rather new to the missiology game, at least as it has been played in recent decades.  Part of this has to do with the fact that, more than any branch of Christianity, the Orthodox have been more ‘under the cross’ than any of the others, though this is not to make little of the suffering of anyone who has found themselves facing persecution for identifying as a follower of Christ.  Part of it has to do with the fact that the Eastern Church is not wired like the Western Church.  It has never been a priority to systematise theological knowledge in the East, as if if were actually possible to understand God.  The great systemizations of Western theologians have given just that impression - that their authors know their subject.  And it is true, these men (and some women) have mastered vast mountains of information about their subject, as well as what just about everybody else thinks about their subject.  And to hear any one of these great theologians speak is to be amazed at what they have to say. 

But in the East, this temptation has been more readily resisted - this temptation to think that by knowing about something, one actually knows that something.  There is an awareness of and passionate respect for mystery in the East, a realization that the so-called truths of theology can only take one so far, and are instead are beyond verifying, that the subjects of theology are actually beyond knowing.  This has never meant that theology collapses into subjectivity (the way the epistemology and certain rooms of theology are doing so in the West today).  Rather it puts the emphasis back on God the Holy Trinity, and upon the Trinity’s astonishing acts of self-revelation, and on how that revelation should be understood, interpreted and applied through the guidance of the Church’s Tradition.   Some aspects of this revelation have been viewed as through a glass darkly.  Others have, dramatically, been face to face, as women and men and even children were confronted with and blessed by and challenged by the words and presence of the incarnate Son of God Himself, Jesus of Nazareth.  But even in the face of Revelation Himself, we are confronted with intractable mystery - How can this person be both God and human?  How can He save His people from their sin?  How can He rise again after being executed?  etc.  There are, of course, no shortage of ideas, and many books and papers have been written in every generation since He walked this earth attempting to address these very things.  But for all the words we still don’t know the hows and the whys and the wherefores.

But this was just an example.  Back to missiology.  Missiology is the attempt to study the transmission of the Christian gospel and its impact on individuals, communities and cultures through the establishment of churches.  One on-line definition calls it ‘the science of the cross-cultural communication of the Christian faith.’  But to reduce missiology to a ‘science,’ in my opinion, reduces the study of missions to that of the amassing and plumbing of a body of knowledge, an organising of missionary facts, as if this described the reality.

In the East this is about as satisfactory as coming up with a ‘how to’ set of directions as to how the sacraments ‘work’.  The (western) Roman Catholic Church has long held that sacraments are ex opere operato, ‘from the work worked’.  This means that the sacraments work when they are validly effected, independent of the faith of either the recipient or the performer of the sacrament.  But this is to answer questions that neither Jesus nor the apostles ever answered.  It points to the existence of a ‘system’ of sacramental theology that demands certain answers apart from and beyond what the Revelation we do have actually says.  In the East, we have sacraments, but no sacramental theological system.  The sacraments are means of God’s grace. They Church has faithfully passed down certain ways of accessing these God-given gifts, but nobody has presumed to put a limit on how God gives his grace or how it must be received.  Rather than two sacraments for Protestants (an unfortunate allergic reaction to medieval Roman Catholicism), or seven sacraments for Roman Catholics, there are as many sacraments for the Orthodox as there are ways that God may choose to manifest his love.  We celebrate seven in the Orthodox Churches, but nobody is so foolish as to limit God to seven in the way He chooses to govern His world.

With respect to missiology the literature that I have become familiar with attempts to say what can be said about the great themes of cross-cultural evangelism, the various strategies employed, the profound insights elucidated, the great personalities who have set their shoulder to the plough.  Other disciplines are plundered, such as history, anthropology, theology, biblical studies, linguistics and the like.  Theories are advanced, others are debunked. The whole process has been academized and professionalized, with proper journals, scholarly books, conferences and the like.

In the rush towards legitimacy, it seems, to this observer at least, that all the sound and fury is in danger of missing the point, to badly paraphrase Shakespeare.  My experience of the ‘mission field’ since my first foray in 1980 has engaged with precious few of the great themes of missiology as such.  In fact, most of my experience can be described by the unhappy word - tedium.  I have made many good friends.  Had many good opportunities to do what I am trained to do, which is to preach and to teach.  I have given my two cents’ worth in conversations at every level from spouse to friend to Bible Study class to congregation to conference to dais of experts.  But mostly, being a missionary has meant living my life in a cross-cultural context, and that has meant large swaths of time with not much to do.  And if one adds the time one has been sleeping during all that time, then the actual percentage of time spent doing something as a missionary is actually quite small.  It’s amazing that we humans are able to accomplish anything at all when you think about it.

I think that God is actually (and surprisingly) most interested in my tedium.  When I am operating in my strength, in my abilities, in my ‘calling’, I am doing what I feel most comfortable doing.  I am doing what I can do.  But when I am outside that zone, in the quiet times, the times when I don’t have enough to do, when I’m not cramming my schedule full of everything I can just so I can give the appearance of being busy and important, it’s these times that God finds me, the real me, me as I am, the me left to my own devices.  I think that God is actually most interested in the me of tedium because he knows that if I cannot be touched and transformed there, all of the rest is actually worthless dust and noise.

This calls to mind that Jesus himself was born into what, for Him, was a cross-cultural situation.  Jesus himself never systematised anything.  (It might actually be good for us Westerners to repeat that several times!)  He spent His time as an infant as all infants do, with His mother and caregivers.  He spent His time as a boy as all boys do, playing with sticks and rocks and dirt and friends.  He spent his time as a teenager as all teenagers do, studying and hanging out with friends.  He spent his time as a young man as all young men do, learning a trade with his father, working and earning a living.  With respect to his ‘ministry’, the subject of almost all that is written about Him in the gospels, those three years comprise less than 10% of the time he spent alive on this earth.  What was he doing the rest of that time if he wasn’t doing ‘ministry’?  He was living.  With all the relationships, all the quiet, times, all the visiting, all the listening, all the joking and laughing, all the reading and studying, all the time apart praying, all the things that we do.  Except that he didn’t have a radio, or a TV, or an iPod, or an iPhone, or a laptop or all the other things you and I feel like we need to save us from boredom.  Dare I say the Incarnate Son of God experienced boredom, too?  If He was truly human, the answer must be yes.

So it’s actually in this most needy hole of our lives, our tedium, our boredom, that we find ourselves most of the time. Our professional Christian identities eschew any suggestions that our maximalized lives may be anything other than optimally utilised.  It is, moreover, strange that our systematized theologies pretend this aspect of our humanity does not exist.   It’s equally strange that our systematised missiologies ignore this aspect of our missionary reality.  But a theology and missiology that is not touching our tedium is not touching our humanity, nor is it touching our reality.

In this it would be wise to catch up with our Lord Jesus Himself, who not so much addressed this as lived it and therefore sanctified it.  His life was full of empty moments.  So is mine.  And likely so is yours.  Resisting the temptation to understand why or how, it is enough to begin to enter the sacramental potential of our tedium.  By the incarnation, even this catches sacramental fire and becomes a means of grace for me in God’s hands.  It’s part of God’s shaking loose from me everything that is not worthy of the New Jerusalem, filling every corner of my mind and heart, mending the broken parts, cauterising the diseased, wiping the tears.  And it doesn’t happen when I am too busy to hear or care.  This does not mean that I find something more or better to do.  It means, simply, that I find God.

Knowledge is not insignificant.  But knowing God the Holy Trinity is infinitely better.

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