Saturday, February 25, 2017

Insider Jesus 5: Religion and the Mission of Christ

This chapter is the meatiest of Insider Jesus: Theological Reflections on New Christian Movements, and if you only read one chapter, it should be this one. Dyrness summarizes most of his main points thus far, and builds upon an interesting discussion of religion in regards to mission today.

Because of the Reformation and Enlightenment where religion became an abstract, cognitive enterprise, Westerns are naturally incapable of understanding other ways that religion can function in peoples lives.

I am using religion in the general sense of the particular cultural practices that develop to express the inbuilt human longing for God— the spaces humans construct to look for and even find God. (Kindle 1908-1909)

Naturally we tend to assume that religion everywhere functions, or should function, in the same way that it does in the West. The result has been the tendency to essentialize religion as a homogenous concept that retains its identity across space and time. (Kindle 1920-1922)

The Western missions movement has tended to radically displace new converts from their place and cultural identities. But…

…what if we thought of religion, or religions, including Christianity, not as fixed entities with clearly defined borders but as fluid spaces that reflect particular cultural situations, where people have developed various ways of responding to God (or gods or the spirits)? Further, what if we understood those spaces as places where people are working out the possible meaning of God’s presence there, “so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him” (Acts 17: 27), as Paul puts it— that is, as hermeneutical spaces where people are not only open to God’s voice but also prepared (by the Spirit) for that word? (Kindle 1955-1959)

In this understanding, the gospel must be framed in the cultural logic and aesthetic patterns that make that place feel like a home. Religion becomes a necessary place for people to work out for themselves what it means to follow Christ.

My goal in this discussion of the nature of religion is not to suggest that the Western view is mistaken, or that the Muslim view is somehow privileged, but to recognize the fundamental differences in these approaches. (Kindle 2006-2008)

It’s not that Western Christianity is bad, but it is just that- Western. Western Evangelical Christianity…

…represents an appropriation by a particular stream of the Christian tradition of early modern (and later Enlightenment and Romantic) sensitivities. This tradition represents, I would argue, an important interpretation of the work of Christ that allows it to be heard in a modern Western setting; it is a critical hermeneutical space. But in terms of the broader Christian tradition, even in terms of biblical teaching, it is not necessarily privileged— even if, for its practitioners, it is a more transparent and satisfying expression of the gospel than any other. It does not represent the full meaning of religion, nor does it exhaust the possibilities inherent in the gospel. 33 Moreover, sensitive listening to Muslim believers discloses practices that, though different from those typical to Christians, issues in experiences that we might characterize as life giving, even if they are not salvific. But if this is so, we might venture to reframe the question raised earlier: might it be possible for other practices, developed in vastly different settings, to be carriers of genuine faith in Christ?

There is indeed a continuity and discontinuity between the gospel and all other religious contexts, including Christian ones. God is at work in all contexts, and yet the gospel is not found naturally in any one culture.

Though all people desire to know God and seek after this God, and though this quest and the wisdom it embraces are expressed in their religion and its sacred practices and writings, the “news” about Christ is not indigenous to any culture. This is to say, God is present and active by the Spirit when the gospel is being proclaimed and Scripture read, in a way that is special and unlike the general way God is otherwise present in all cultures and religions. With all the insider movements we examined, though God was the primary agent, there also were secondary agents— missionaries, Bible translators, and teachers, those who in some way gave witness to the work of Christ and made the Scriptures available. 51 Such activity has been central to the development of Christianity in all its many forms and gives evidence of discontinuity. (Kindle 2240-2247)

Therefore there must be a discontinuity between the gospel and religion. Yet Christ did not come to do away with religion but to transform it from within.

Earlier we discussed Jehu Hanciles’s argument that the missionary movement stemming from the Protestant Reformation did nothing to dismantle the structure of Christendom. By this he means the assumption of a single model of the Christian faith that is tied invariably to Western political systems and culture. As we have seen, these colonialist assumptions have come in for heavy criticism in the last century. As Hanciles put it, by stimulating a wide variety of indigenous movements, or “the message proved to be the undoing of the messenger.” 58 While few missionaries harbor any illusion of rebuilding a Christian empire, there is an important residue of this heritage; for many there is still a belief in a single normative expression of the Christian gospel. Here Hanciles’s discussion is relevant. He writes: “If the Christendom notion of one normative expression of the faith belongs to a passing era, perhaps no concept is more definitive of the new epoch than diversity of forms and expressions.” 59 (Kindle 2312-2321)

So what do we do with syncretism?

Every Christian religious expression represents some combination of indigenous values and religious practices (whether one stands or sits, how one prays or offers gifts, etc.) and the impact of the Christian gospel (the work of Christ as described in Scripture) on this. (Kindle Locations 2336-2338)

So how do we think of mission?

That is, the goal of God’s work is not a perfect religion, nor merely a functioning church, but a new heaven and earth where righteousness reigns. And the Spirit of renewal is busy in every place, seeking those who will be a part of this new creation, who will together grow into the likeness of Jesus Christ. It is this larger goal that finally motivates our evangelical mission. (Kindle 2429-2432)

Then what is the church? That is the subject of the final chapter.

Thoughts:

  • I found the discussion on syncretism wanting. Of course there will always be mixing, but what are the safeguards? Dyrness would probably say that I am too quick to ask the question.
  • I agree that the gospel must be incarnated into local contexts so that it feels like home, at least both the pilgrim and indigenous principles (Walls) in play (there must be some discontinuity as Dyrness also states). But religion is really conflated with cultural practices in Dyrness’ framework. Or perhaps in my framework they are too easily separated? These assumptions/ presuppositions on the difference between religion and culture are probably the heart of evangelical disagreements on insider movements. In my Complexity of Insiderness article I said that the “term “religion” is vexingly elastic and creates misunderstandings nearly every time it is used in the insider movement debate.

Next, Chapter 6: Conclusion: Is God Doing Something New?

4 comments:

Abu Daoud said...

I think I need to take issue with him on an historical level. The concept that there is one normative (if very broad and diverse) community that encompasses all disciples of Christ is much older than the Enlightenment or the Reformation, nor was it really born in the West, but Egypt and SW Asia. I am speaking of the word 'Christianity' in reference to all those who follow Jesus and belong to the movement he started.

Warrick Farah said...

He is quoting Jehu Hanciles’ Beyond Christendom, the chapter on the “Birth and Bankruptcy of Christendom: a Missiological Reflection.” Pgs 110-111:

“In the final analysis, “the drive to extend Christendom worldwide and maintain Western hegemony carried the seeds of its own destruction. And the discontinuities unleashed their own disintegrating impact.”79 If the Christendom notion of one normative expression of the faith belongs to a passing era, perhaps no concept is more definitive of the new epoch than diversity of forms and expressions. This is so specifically because the globalization of the Christian faith, the crowning achievement of the Western missionary movement, has transformed it not only into a non-Western religion but also into a religion defined by local expressions and marked by cultural plurality. As it turns out, this development restores a biblical ideal that was obscured and subverted by the Christendom project.”

I’m curious as to your pushback, or perhaps there is some misunderstanding. What would you say is the “single normative expression of the Christian gospel?” I don't think you would say there is one.

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