Constants in Context: ways of perceiving culture in mission.


Book Cover Constants in ContextThe turn of the year is always a time of looking back and looking forward. Not least the heavyweight, if now compact, newspapers seem full of reviews of books and recommendations. For me the most important book I have read recently has been Constants in Contexts by Stephen B. Bevans svd and Roger P. Schroeder svd ( Orbis , Maryknoll , 2004). Although this began as an introduction to the theology of Mission, it seems to have grown into something which not only fulfils its original brief but also extends the debate. I am happy to recommend it for reading in 2005.

These Divine Word missionaries place theology and mission within the changing history of the world and the Church. Not least they are able to provide a framework to illuminate how certain constants in Christian thinking and practice are articulated at various times and in various places. Their vision is broad, ecumenical and multi-cultural. And although one may often find that there are certain things which could and should be treated in greater depth, one is left with the feeling that most of the events, themes and issues are at least touched upon.

The constants which define the missionary nature of the Church are identified as: Christology (the person and work of Christ); Ecclesiology (the understanding of the Church); Eschatology (the movements to the future and what the end of the person, the Church and world will be); Salvation (where and when and how the redeeming, rescuing and saving power of God in Christ is achieved and what it is); Anthropology (the theological understanding of humanity; and attitudes to Culture – this last of course being my excuse to consider this book in this ‘culture slot'!

These constants have different weights and expressions within three types of theology (A, B and C). Type A sees mission primarily as saving souls and extending the Church. One of its earliest expressions was in Carthage and in the writings of Tertullian . The emphasis is often on obeying the law that has been revealed by God. Type B would see mission as the discovery of the truth. It is more associated in the early centuries with Alexandria and is associated with such a figure as Origen . Here the emphasis is on philosophical reflection and human reason coming into contact with divine wisdom. Type C would see mission as commitment to liberation and transformation. Its locale was Asia Minor and in particular Antioch. The key person who encapsulates this would be Irenaeus (who yes came from Lyons not Antioch). The important thing here were witnessed events and actual history which is in the process of being transformed by God.

This framework strikes me as helpful in describing many aspects of mission, Not least it helps us to get a handle on how the mission of the Church relates to cultures. Culture in Type A would be largely ‘classicist'. It is concerned with universal norms and expressed within the Canon of High Art and élite good taste. A key cultural element of mission would be translation . Mission in such a classicist attitude would largely consist of translating the laws which should be obeyed, including the laws of music and art, to those who don't know them. Type B would be more ‘empiricist', that is to say it would see human experience as a place within which one might discover the divine. Origen said that the work of Christians ‘is to take the materials of the heathen world and fashion from them objects for the worship and glorification of God'. The mission watchword would be, in modern parlance, inculturation . Type C would see culture as part of history which both needs transformation and is in the process of being transformed. This cultural analysis of and commitment to social change is often called, with due acknowledgement to Liberation Theologians, praxis . Culture in Type A is about learning the tradition of what is good and what should be followed, in Type B it is about recognising what is good within human experience and practice – ‘the way we do things here', Type C is about a critique of what is and a commitment to change.

There is a danger to typologies that we set up caricatures in which we distort certain features to distinguish one compartment in a neat frame from another. The truth is that these types of theology are not hermetically sealed one from another. Carthage, Alexandria and Antioch may be distinguishable but they are connected as important sites for Christian learning. In our Church we must learn to value from the tradition, what to applaud in the contemporary and have the courage to change what needs changing. Obedience to revealed law, discovery of experienced truth and the transformation of history are not contradictions but aspects of wholeness in Christian mission.