A Perspective on God’s Mission  

Posted by Adam in , ,

For at least 2/3 of my life, I had an easy answer to the question “What is God’s mission in the world?” I thought the answer was obvious. I honestly can’t remember anyone overtly teaching me the answer I would have given. It was easily assumed, and commonly held. After giving a blank stare and blinking a few times, I would have responded, “Saving souls.” If I had been asked to unpack my simple answer, I’d have wondered what rock you had been hiding under, and then said something like:

People have an immortal spiritual essence (component) called a “soul”. Because of the bad choices that all individual humans make, this spiritual essence is bound of an eternity of after-life torment in Hell. However, God has made a way through Jesus for our “souls” to be saved from this fate, and instead experience an afterlife of disembodied bliss in Heaven. One need only believe, follow the prescribed “steps” to accept one’s salvation, and stay out of trouble to change their eternal destiny. That’s all God’s really after in this world. He wants individuals to agree with the right ideas, and behave themselves, so that their “souls” will have a desirable afterlife.

My handy little definition of God’s mission served me well for a while. The really nice thing was that my main responsibility in regards to the mission was to make sure that I personally agreed with the “right” ideas, followed the “right” steps and reasonably behaved myself so that my fate in the afterlife was secure. Everything else seemed irrelevant. Even the idea of somehow participating in God’s mission to others, while a “good” thing to do, was rendered superfluous. I was oblivious to the more holistic Jewish understanding of a “soul”, and more oblivious to how much the definition that fed my spirit/matter dualism owed to Greek philosophy.

Eventually though, my simple and self-serving definition began to crumble. Among other things, as a sophomore in college I accompanied my father on a month-long mission trip to Ukraine. It was a paradigm-shifting, life-altering event that shook me to my core. Upon my return to the United States, I found my self-absorbed, afterlife-centered faith to be unsustainable, and the anemic, ethereal “god” it served to be unworthy of both worship and devotion. Unfortunately, both that version of faith and that understanding of God appeared to be prevalent in the church in North America. I thus came to a fork in the road: one path led away from Christianity and church altogether, and the other was the rocky and dangerous path of an active catalyst for change. One was a path of abandonment, while the other was the path of exploration. I chose the later.

My exploration of Scripture, Theology and history has led me toward a different understanding of God’s mission in the world. Theology enabled me to begin to see the narrative of scripture as a whole. No longer content to mine scripture for propositions and steps, I began to see a thread that ran throughout the entire story. In the Creation narratives, God tasks the human beings He created with bearing his image to the rest of his creation. Those humans make a selfish choice that throws the harmony of God’s creation into fractured chaos. Prior to that choice, creation is characterized by perfect harmony; between God and humans, between humans and other humans, and between humans and God’s creation. Human beings were able to find their value from the harmony that characterized their existence. After the choice was made, that harmony was shattered in all of its dimensions, and the world became a very different place. However, God would not be undone. As the world descended into chaos, God called a man we know as Abraham into a special relationship. Through Abraham, God would bring forth a people for Himself. God would bless them, and they would BE a blessing to the nations. In short, they were to bear God’s image; to reflect who God is. In spite of their noble calling and miraculous beginning, the people of God tend to be more interested in getting blessed than being a blessing to anyone else. Things don’t go so well for them in general because they tend to see their election as indicating favored status rather than as a commissioning. Even so, God does not give up on either his people or his mission in the world. God delivers them again and again, that they might live into their destiny. Eventually, God acts in a way that defies their imaginations, in order to move beyond the impasse. As his people cry out under the iron-fisted oppression of Rome, God became a human being. The Creator of all that is came into the world as an embryo in the womb of a teenage girl. Her song in the gospel of Luke, proclaims the redemptive work that she believed was being enacted by this incarnation. She believed that things were being set right; that the powerful would be torn down from their thrones while the humble are exalted; that the overfed would be left empty while the hungry would have their fill; that God was remembering His people and His promise. Her son grew into the man we know as Jesus, and powerfully proclaimed and enacted the Good News that God’s Kingdom is at hand; that it is “near”. He looked forward toward a time when “all things” would be “renewed”. Eventually, he was executed by the empire and the religious leaders of his own people. However, the grave doesn’t hold him. Whereas his life modeled the Way God intended His mission-oriented people to live, his death and resurrection open the door for all humans to become a part of this missional community, and free them from both the cycle of their sin and the threat of death. Liberated from guilt and fear, they are thus enabled to partner with God in His mission of the restoration of all things to the harmony that was lost in all of its dimensions. They are free to join God in reconciling the world to Himself.

This entry was posted on Thursday, July 2, 2009 at Thursday, July 02, 2009 and is filed under , , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .

10 comments

Interestingly, I think a student of Scripture can disqualify the inherited view you described by virtue of decent exegesis alone. And, the narrative language you used was developed and is employed by many people who do not see the narrative through particularly missional lenses. So, I was going to ask whether a Post-Conservative Theology in an American Restoration Movement Context can be other than a kind of missional-narrative theology, but I think the question probably needs to be should it, for it clearly can emerge as something else. What I'm getting at, then, is this question for the post-restorationist community: if we answer that it should indeed be a missional-narrative theology, then on what basis do we draw that conclusion? If it is not to be a priori our starting point (and I hope not, for "missional" is faddish enough to be dangerous in that way), then an important facet of our theological task is articulating the essential priority of missio Dei for the church's hermeneutics.

That's something I'm very interested in. Thanks for your thoughts, Adam.

July 2, 2009 at 7:27 PM

Greg,
Full disclosure: I typed this up for a assignment for one of the grad school classes I'm taking. 1000 word preliminary essay, and it was supposed to have an autobiographical element. As such, I was working with a word limit (which is hard for me ;) ), and it is the story of how I personally got there. I'm more of a theology guy than a Biblical Studies guy, and that's what enabled me to begin to disentangle my faith from modernity with its reductionism, formulas and contextless propositions. I'm not seeking to define Theology for everyone. I'm just putting my perspective in dialogue.
Interestingly enough, I can't "un-see" the connective narrative anymore, though I know that there are people who think it's somewhat contrived.
Thanks for adding your voice and questions to the conversation. I'd be interested to see your perspective. the assignment was to articulate your current understanding of the mission of God in the world. 1000(ish) word limit. You are encouraged to use your own faith journey as a part of your explanation. ...just if you have time.
Blessings,
AE
P.S. I can't believe you made me own up to posting my homework. I'm so ashamed ;)

July 2, 2009 at 7:45 PM

Having reread my comment, I'm wondering if I sound more contrary than I intended. Hopefully not. I find myself in basic agreement with what you have laid out in admittedly brief form, but the prolegomenal question I raised is one that I am struggling with. Anyway, I think I'll try to offer my view as you suggested, though I too find 1000 word essays painfully restrictive. Alas for verbosity.

July 3, 2009 at 12:15 AM

One of the interesting things I've always observed in the topic of "the mission of God" is that most popular interpretations of scripture lend that mission to be us or the world. I'm like you Adam, being raised in the same tradition (and at some point even the same church :-)) always heard about Gods mission being about me, my belief and my behavior. I still think God is interested in those things but are an element of that mission. One of the things that shook my foundation were the minor prophets. Those crazy sidewalk preachers who all seem to be saying that God is interested in Himself and His holiness and that if Israel didn't agree they can just be leveled or conquered. Looking at our selfish concept of heaven and hell seems to make more sense when I look at it through the lens of God maintaining His Holiness. This makes the world a vessel through which God's glory can be revealed through creation, salvation or damnation. Of course in the Americana brand of Christianity, making God the centerpiece of the mission is not very marketable...

July 3, 2009 at 1:13 PM

Greg,
I'll look forward to reading your perspective, and I sincerely do appreciate your comments. I didn't read them as particularly contrary. They were exactly the kind of dialogue I was seeking. I did make one edit based on your comments (in the paper as well). I changed my use of the word "missional" to "mission-oriented" for the sake of clarity.
AE

July 3, 2009 at 1:29 PM

Craig,
Good to hear from you man! We'll have to catch up sometime via phone/email/facebook/etc.

I'm with you. I think that the categories that have been imposed on Theology (or politics, or whatever...) are less than helpful. What we wound up with (in popular thought) was that conservative/evangelical theology preached a gospel of personal salvation while liberal/mainline theology taught what was commonly referred to as the "social gospel" (though to employ the term "social gospel" this way somewhat mischaracterizes the work of Rauschenbusch, who coined the term). These imposed categories enforced a "bounded-set" approach to theology (frankly, on both sides of the divide), and rendered a more holistic understanding, much less basic dialogue, impossible. Consequently, those content with these polarized/entrenched positions devoted themselves to simple indoctrination, whereby they molded God more and more in their own image. In some ways, it calls the book of James to mine, where he basically says that the question of whether faith or works saves us, is a nonsensical question that betrays a basic misunderstanding of salvation itself.
However, there are fresh winds blowing in Theology. More and more people are identifying with post-conservative and post-liberal schools of thought, where they own the traditions that inform them, but reject the categories as restrictive. Rather than a "bounded set" approach with lines that can't be crossed, they (we) take a "centered-set" approach. We remain centered on Christ, while exploring the implications...even in dialogue with those from other perspectives. We seek a humility that admits our finite nature, our tendency to see a God that looks very much like ourselves, and our embeddedness in our own perspectives. We must assume that there is always more to learn and new, fresh ways to embody the gospel in a changing world. Further, we see the Personal Salvation v/s Social Justice divide for the false choice that it is. Biblically, we are the people of God saved by Christ for the sake of the world...saved to be agents of salvation...blessed to bless.
AE

July 3, 2009 at 1:52 PM

Adam,

Thanks for sharing your story. I can appreciate your shift in understanding of scripture. I think it leads to a more healthy practice of faith. I have two questions:

1) Are you saying you no longer hold a Cartesian substance dualist concept of a living eternal soul? Do you mean to limit your critique to the body/soul question and continue to support material/spiritual categories? Can you clarify? It seems like you would need dualism in order to have this underlying notion of a "God's eye view" or "objective reality/narrative" that was prominent in modern theology.

2) About narrative theology... These are various texts spanning centuries, and comprised of a wide variety of literature from authors who did not communicate directly. Do you mean to imply that there is an objective (correct) master interpretation (narrative/mission) that emerges unblemished from these texts, which have been selectively arranged and manipulated?

You provide a wonderful critique of the outcome of your former theology, but you are not exactly addressing its core premise - a ghost steering the whole machine. I'm probably wrong and misunderstand you, but I can't figure out how you got from A to B without shedding most of what made A possible (the legacy of Descartes).

As always, thanks for your posts and for putting up with my questions!

July 3, 2009 at 2:03 PM

Mike,
Hey man. I was wondering if you would weigh in on this one.

1) The concept of the soul as "every human being 'having' a spiritual essence that is inherently immortal" is not a particularly Biblical idea, as far as I can see. This point is not unique to me, and is brought out by many Christian authors and theologians, including N.T. Wright (see "The New Testament and the People of God". The idea that the soul is immortal, that it is somehow equivalent with your intellect, and that it is imprisoned within your body seems to owe more to the ideas of Plato, Helenism, and even a particular strand of gnostic influence than anything Biblical (popular though these ideas may be.) The Biblical concept of the soul seems a bit more complex and nuanced. Some argue that the Jewish concept of the soul was not a component of a person, but rather the fullest expression of all that person is, was, or will ever be. Regardless, the popular concept of a soul should create some difficulty for even those who hold to the the most literal reading of the Bible, when it speaks of the righteous being given eternal life, while the unrighteous experience a second death. However (and this is where you'll disagree with me ;) ), I do think that "soul" points to a reality that says there is more to us than chemical reactions and electric impulses. (how's that for ambiguous?)

2. Nope. That's not what I mean. First of all, the texts aren't all written in a narrative form. Secondly, I like how Brueggeman characterized the OT texts as "testimony and counter-testimony" of a people who are bearing witness to their experience of their God (my understanding of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit does not disallow such a characterization). That being said, there is an implied narrative that I believe emerges. Are their other narratives that can emerge for other people? Without a doubt this is true. Are any of these narrative interpretations objectively true? No. As perspective-bound individuals we create the opportunity for great evil and distortion when we claim to be free of perspective. That is why it's critically important for us to listen to other voices...to help us see outside of ourselves...to prevent a self-justifying, self-worshiping idolatry. Can there be narrative interpretations that are invalid for the Biblical text? Individually, they all are to some extent. However, I hold to the idea (as Karl Barth, among others did) that God is best understood as revealed in Jesus, and therefore any interpretation of Scripture, narrative or otherwise, that cannot be reconciled with the person of Jesus is invalid. How do I objectively know that this is determinative? I don't. I believe it. Is there an objective reality? I think there is, but I think that individually, we have no access to it as our view is always colored by our own perspectives. However, together in community I think we can get closer.

Thanks for your questions, man. I always appreciate the dialogue.
AE

July 3, 2009 at 3:02 PM

Adam,

"I do think that 'soul' points to a reality that says there is more to us than chemical reactions and electric impulses"

In one sense I agree with you here. I do see human consciousness as something that emerges out of the physical reality of our brains and bodies. It's more than the parts, but fully dependent on the parts. Descartes was wrong, but so are some of his reductionist critics. There is something "else" that emerges, but that doesn't automatically throw us back to ancient supernatural or superstitious explanations either.

"...and therefore any interpretation of Scripture, narrative or otherwise, that cannot be reconciled with the person of Jesus is invalid"

I might be getting too picky, but this is one of the big problems I have with institutional Christianity and why I struggle with using the label right now (though I really want to). I'm glad you introduced this topic, so I can pick your brain. Maybe you can help me here...

That statement (as well as much of our Christian language) implies a strong confidence in something that our attempts in the last few centuries of searching for the "historical Jesus" has shown to be inconclusive. It relies on our ability to state with certainty who this "person" of Jesus really was. It seems entirely too arrogant for us to use that confident language and risks being extremely naive about our sources and the nature of historical studies in general. Notice that you didn't say the "narrative of Jesus". You said "person". Was that intentional? How can you follow up a posture of uncertainty, with a statement of such exclusivity and certainty about what is valid or invalid?

Our liturgy, prayers, and rituals have no caveats. I feel like we need Derrida around in every church service urging us to add qualifying phrases to every prayer, creed, and song. That would be interesting (though not very poetic)!

July 3, 2009 at 5:16 PM

Mike,
I'm approaching this from a post-conservative, post-critical perspective. (the vast majority of post-liberals are also post-critical).
I find value in historical criticism (and literary criticism, etc.), however I also understand that we are applying many of our modern critical criteria to a pre-critical text that is making no attempt to conform to these criteria as they did not exist at the time of authorship.

I know that you feel differently about this, but I really resonate with what Karl Barth once said regarding this kind of thing:

"Paul spoke to his contemporaries as a child of his age. But much more important than this truth is the other, that he speaks as a prophet and apostle of the Kingdom of God to all men in all ages. The differences between then and now, there and here, must be considered. But the differences have no significance for what really matters. The historical-critical method of biblical research has its place; it points to a preparation for understanding that is never superfluous. But, if I had to choose between it and the old doctrine of inspiration, I would resolutely choose the latter. It has a greater, deeper, and more important place because it points directly to the task of understanding, without which all preparation is worthless. I am happy that I do not have to choose between the two. But all my attention has been directed toward seeing through the historical into the spirit of the Bible, which is the eternal Spirit."

I also think we all need Derrida and Kierkegaard, and even contemporary questioners like Pete Rollins, John Caputo, and even David Dark to unsettle us, make us question our assumptions (or even just own some of them as perspectives and assumptions), and inject us all with a healthy dose of humility. I'm not sure any of us even have an identity without our commitments and convictions, but I'm also not sure that any identity is worth having if it doesn't add equal part of humility and love to the mix.

Blessings,
AE

July 6, 2009 at 10:03 PM

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