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18 March 2019

Recognizing God in the Other: Christian Missions with a Multi-religious World

Synopsis:

Considering what many missionaries have recognized—that long before they ever set foot in a country God had already been working there—this paper encourages us that if we want to know what God is doing in mission and join him in it, we should recognize his work in the lives of the others with whom we have contact. God’s truth can often be found—if only in part—in the other’s religious and cultural background.

Pascal D. Bazzell

Pascal is an Affiliate Assistant Professor of Intercultural Theology and Mission at the Fuller Theological Seminary, USA, as well as representative for the world-wide Church for the Evangelical-Reformed Church of the Canton of Saint Gall, Switzerland. He served with OMF for fifteen years in church planting and development work in the Philippines. During the past four years he has served as a professor for Intercultural Theology at the Koinonia Theological Seminary. He completed his doctoral degree in intercultural ecclesiology and did postdoctoral research on an interreligious Christology through the Swiss National Foundation (SNF) Postdoc Fellowship at the Humboldt University in Berlin. Married since 2006, Pascal and Karina have one daughter and two sons.

Recognizing God in the Other: Christian Missions with a Multi-religious World

Mission Round Table 13:1 (Jan-Apr 2018): 19-23

Introduction

“With your understanding of missions, you are sure to lose all missionary zeal and the motivation to take the gospel to all the corners of the world.” This is only one of the numerous reactions I have received in recent months in response to my understanding of missions.[1] Many of those who react to my understanding support a paradigm of mission that entirely contradicts that which I am at least partially attempting to address in this article. Even so, I do not see another alternative. The traditional concept needs to be re-examined.  Mission needs to be understood as the work of God in the other and thus as the recognition of God’s truth as revealed in the other. Even if many may not readily admit it, missionaries and churches, by way of their mission practices, all too often foster an enemy image in the other, many times without being aware of this. If this is the case, then the attitude and perspective toward the stranger has not fundamentally changed. If I do not recognize God in the other, then I will inevitably hold the perspective that people of other cultures or religions are only liberated through our proclamation of the gospel. This perception of missions corresponds with an understanding of colonial power. In both scenarios, the essence is about how to best conquer foreign lands. Even if the motivation for missions is right, historians will be right to say: “Have they learned nothing from the dark missionary epochs?”

I see no alternative to perceiving mission as God’s work in the other, even if some are uncomfortable with this change of perspective. Seeing God in the other does not, however, imply an uncritical acceptance. Missiology is primarily not a seeking to find commonalities, but a battle to see God working in the other—or not. Amos Young argues that Acts 2:17 describes the release of the Spirit of God upon all humankind and that therefore pneumatological symbols of God’s presence and action will not only be found within the Christian church, but also in other cultures and other religions.[2] Missiology is thus not primarily a discipline of gospel communication from one culture or religion, but the hermeneutics of perceiving God’s working throughout the whole of creation. On the one hand, the Christian sending aspect of the gospel is the core of the Christian faith. The absolute truth of Jesus must be preached throughout the whole earth. In this way missions and evangelization belong to the core essence of the Christian faith and the church as its community. On the other hand, it is increasingly recognised that the Spirit of God is at work throughout all creation in the same way in which he was personified in Christ. Thus God’s revealed truth forms a part of different religions and cultures. The truth of Jesus Christ becomes simultaneously the truth of God’s light that illuminates all humankind (John 1:9). It is not an either/or situation. The message of the gospel and the recognition of truth in the other go hand-in-hand. It is a recognition of the work of God’s Spirit throughout all creation which reconciles humankind in Jesus Christ (the missio Dei) and at the same time a recognition of the commission and essential nature of the church to preach and live the gospel of Christ in all its fullness.

All too often church dogma and theology place priority on the proclamation of the right concept and image of God. This poses the risk of wanting to press the works of God into the correct mould. The world-wide church provides a clear indication that there are different perceptions of God. For this reason, this short essay advocates impetuses for the hermeneutics of perception—towards the other. This is of great significance for Christian missions. Where clear boundaries are set towards the hermeneutics of differentiation, a door is opened towards the hermeneutics of perceiving God’s work beyond personal, ecclesiastical, and theological limits. This is not about relativizing the gospel. Rather, it is about connecting with the experience of God in the other in order to be part of the missio Dei. Christ’s “metanoia” message is meaningful for all humankind, cultures, and religions, but only in the early Christian understanding of a turning to Christ and not in the way of a conversion or turning away from one’s own culture or religion.

Recognizing God in the other

Church history points to a concept of the Great Commission involving a mission to people. Ralph Winter’s prophetic address during the 1974 Lausanne Congress for World Evangelization describes Christian missions as a mission to all peoples. From this present-day model, Christian missions among the peoples evolved, wherein the gospel is preached in a relevant way and where biblical theology and church are aligned with the culture.[3] In my missional journey in the Philippines, however, I discovered that the missio Dei is at work long before the missionaries come onto the scene. Contextualization does not adequately capture this dialogical nature of missions, whereby various aspects of God’s work (or that of the gods and spirits) are being evaluated and exchanged. Missions implies that we recognize the work of God in others as part of the missio Dei and enter into it.[4] This insight led me from the perspective of Christian missions among the peoples, which emphasises contextualisation, to my present-day understanding of missions with the peoples, which respects the divine in the other.

Christian missions with the people

Jalal-ad Din Muhammad Rumi, a thirteenth-century Sufi scholar, wrote: “The truth was a mirror in the hands of God. It fell, and broke into pieces. Everybody took a piece of it, and they looked at it and thought they had the truth.” Reflecting on this poem, I asked myself how church history with its missionary expansions would have developed if it had been shaped by Paul’s statement that we as believers now see in a mirror obscurely (1 Cor 13:12). Although we have received the fullness of God’s truth through Jesus Christ, we recognize that we fail to comprehend the whole. Although God gives the truth generously to the receiver, it does not imply that the completeness of truth is not undivided. For the Giver—in this case God—is always bigger than his revelations.[5] Rumi’s statement recognizes that there are truths that expand beyond a contextual understanding and its social position. Furthermore, Rumi ascertains that others also possess God’s truths, meaning that they were intended to comprehend specific truths.

The missio Dei is the basis of existence for God’s people (first the Israelites, then the church). But at the same time, God is at work in a mysterious way in all cultures and religions. Missions is therefore perceived as the entering into God’s work of salvation in the other part-bearer (of God’s truth). The purpose is an exchange beyond the boundaries which we have set before God and which hinder our missionary activities. The story of Peter and Cornelius, which plays a key role in the beginning of the mission to the Gentiles, underlines this. In this story, we see how the early church learns to recognize the work of the Holy Spirit in the other. The story of God’s revelation in this passage becomes a prophetic rectification for Peter and the early church. This encounter, as well as Peter’s openness towards the Holy Spirit, changed the principles of the church, its mission practices, and its theology.

Missiology that recognizes the work of the Holy Spirit outside one’s own sociocultural, theological, and church borders, must give room to the divine in the other. This includes the divine in the religious other. And this takes place without the need to deny our Christian faith or to relativize the gospel. Rather we engage through mutual encouragement in finding the whole truth together. Engaging in the hermeneutics of perception in recognizing God’s work in the other will impact the way we respond to the other. As the Holy Spirit helped Peter to overcome cultural and theological barriers, may he also erase our exclusive mindset.

Cornelius needed to jump over sizeable hurdles as he took a step towards Peter in order to accept the gospel of Jesus Christ. To help Peter overcome the barriers that held him back, God used the vision of the large sheet from heaven. Cornelius and Peter were then placed in a metaphorical relationship with each other, each having been led by their own respective visions. Despite their differences, they were united as receivers of different revelations. Their standing side by side had a new and unique significance. This is how the Holy Spirit positions his work: it is spread between the participants, rather than being placed exclusively on Peter or Cornelius.[6] It would be a missiological error to either assume that all revelations are equal or that there are no revelations apart from our missionary endeavours to spread the gospel. It is the function of missiology to recognise the kind of revelations given to both sides of the mission frontier and the degree of their significance.

Peter’s Vision, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54209. Original source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/paullew/2413614561/

Christian missions with the people expresses a new missions approach for our present-day pluralistic context. Inherent in this approach is the actual attempt to grasp God’s saving grace in the other—including the religious other—and simultaneously remain grounded in the truth which is wholly revealed in Jesus. In this endeavour, we need to remind ourselves of the reality that David Bosch highlighted:  there is no pure gospel.[7] Rather it is always a component of a culture. Thus, the Good News in our present pluralistic world has been smudged by negative historical influences, such as the crusades and colonialism. If missionaries initially were concerned about not preaching a double-sided gospel—the gospel of Jesus Christ and of their own culture—the challenge of our day is to not reinforce negative historical and contextual associations with a specific setting.[8] Nowadays the gospel is a part of many cultural and religious traditions, though it is often incomplete and sometimes misleading. And yet, not recognizing the fact that God’s truth and revelation is a component of the other underlines the negative historical and contextual associations people have with the gospel. Even if the actual context constitutes a different setting for Christian missions, the beauty of the Bible does not determine a specific manner of missions. Rather, the Bible testifies to the diversity of missions.

“Christian missions with the people” is an emphatic acceptance of the divine in the other. This approach attempts to recognise the work of the Spirit in the other and to participate in it. Christianity is shaped by the fullness of the truth of God in Jesus Christ, but missions today also needs to include an openness to God’s work outside our ecclesiastical and theological boundaries. Whereas it was assumed in the past that the Christian church (or the missionaries) stand between God and the other (Christian missions to the peoples), our present understanding with the emphasis on contextualisation has the understanding that the church has the whole truth and uses dialogue to explain the gospel to the other (Christian missions among the peoples). Christian missions with the peoples goes a step further to where a dialogue takes place between God and the church, between God and the other, and between the church and the other. Thus, the truth of God in the other becomes part of Christian missions. At this point, Christian missions means participation in the dialogue between the triune God and the other. This leads to a complex, dialectic space.

This concept of missions promises to promote a spirit of humility as the importance of the other, including the religious other, becomes apparent. This should hopefully expose the triumphant spirit which, in some churches and mission organizations, still pervades missiological methods and theology. The presentation of a rather dark picture of the other as a lost soul as a means to motivate the church to go to the ends of the earth is still prevalent. Historians are likely to look back on our era with surprise as they take note of the fact that the church has continued to send out colonialists. What would the attitude of missionaries be if they are only presented with a demonised image, and what would their attitude result in considering that the demonised image inevitably leads to military strategies and the language of spiritual warfare in order to conquer the dark lands for the gospel?[9] If we, however, recognize that God reveals himself to the other even before the missionary is present, then our current mission practice will hopefully be characterized by more humility because mission belongs to God and not us.

Missiology is therefore the discernment and recognition of the presence, the action, and even the absence of the missio Dei. It is not always easy to recognize the true work of God because of ideologies about what God’s work should look like.[10] Thus, recognizing the missio Dei outside our boundaries and participating in it can be difficult. The language and categories often vary greatly from those we are used to within our Christian churches. Contextualisation has just as many limitations because it often uses the language and categories of the western world, resulting in misunderstandings, or even worse, the misinterpretation of God at work in the other and therefore results in judgment.

The Magi by Henry Siddons Mowbray (Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons

Whereas fear of syncretism tends to limit our understanding of the missio Dei, we do not find this fear in the God of the Bible. In the story announcing the birth of Jesus Christ, the Bible tells us about the wise men who used astrology in order to understand the mysteries of the universe. Their insights about the star led them to the King of the Jews, whom they then worshipped (Matt 2:1–12). Jacques Matthey uses this story to illustrate that some people outside of God’s chosen people seem to understand the significance of the person of Jesus and the transformation he brings into the life of humankind better than his chosen ones do.[11] God himself describes the heathen King Nebuchadnezzar as “my servant” (Jer 43:10) and the Persian Cyrus is called “his anointed” (Isa 45:1). Or take the example of the compassionate Samaritan—a person of another religion, culture, and ethnicity—used by Jesus to demonstrate, first of all to his audience and then to Christians over thousands of years, what it means to be a good neighbour (Luke 10:25–37). Amos Young points out that “if the glory of the new heavens and earth will be constituted in part by what kings and nations bring into the New Jerusalem (Rev 21:24, 26), it is inconceivable that such will be bereft of the beauty found in other faiths.”[12]

Jürgen Schuster expresses a difficulty in understanding that God should only hear prayers from a particular biblical tradition and reject all other prayers from people outside these traditions. Furthermore, Schuster argues that the criteria used here is not the question of the “right” or “wrong” religion, but God’s response to people’s worship of God has to do more with the heart attitude of the worshipper than their religious affiliation.[13] Because there is no pure gospel, there is also no pure Christianity. Christianity is a cultural fellowship, an enculturated community. Therefore, fear of a syncretistic Christianity should not limit us—unfortunately, this has already happened. Rather, we should emphasize a correct attitude which will result in a more biblical Christianity. Schuster rightly argues:

In our effort to find clear formulations and clear content-related notions, we missionaries and theologians from the West tend to first of all resolve the question as to who God is as compared to other gods. We have the notion that a person can only “believe” in the biblical sense if they have understood this difference. Interestingly, God proceeds in the reverse order. He begins his story with a person with the image of God available to them at that point in their lives. And he invites the individuals, who have encountered him and to whom he has spoken, to join him on a path. While journeying together on this path, God permits himself to be known more clearly and thus the concept of who God is becomes increasingly clearer. It is a dynamic event. And during this process, fear of syncretistic perceptions may quickly befall. God does not share in this fear. He sovereignly journeys on his way with this person.[14]

For this reason, we need a greater missiological hermeneutics of perception which does not presuppose the “right” notion of God in the other, but which opens itself towards God’s work in the other. This should not produce a blurred syncretism or an overemphasis of context over the Bible, but rather, the intention is to address the prevalent tendency in our current missiology towards a word-flesh and spirit-flesh dichotomy. Confessions of faith and traditions frequently attempt to provide a theological framework for the missio Spiritus, whereas its nature is: “The wind blows wherever it pleases” (John 3:8). And every now and again such unexpected blowing will lead to tension in our mission practice and theology. When correctly implemented, however, the strength of missiology is its ability to hold both aspects in the correct tension, on the one hand being grounded in the Bible and the traditions, and on the other hand recognizing and participating in the missio Dei. When missiology is able to hold these two aspects in perfect tension, then it truly becomes the “mother of theology,” not only for the New Testament, but also for the church in our current theology.[15]

Embodiment of the truth in relation to the other

Christian missions means engaging in a relationship with our neighbour. The aim of Christian mission is not to create a meta-religion or a meta-theology. Instead, we should bring our declaration pertaining to the truth, such as our claim that Jesus is the only Way, the Truth, and the Life, into tangible areas of engagement with our neighbour—the imams, the rabbis, the prostitutes, and the businessmen. Missions with the people supports our intent to buttress the gospel within the tensions of universality and particularity through the cultural and secular media of our time. Therefore, Christian missions in today’s world should be characterised by a communication of the truth, not only from one’s own religious perspectives, but in a dynamic and tangible relationship with the other, thereby including the truth of the other. Gerhard Gäde expounds that since there is only godly truth, the truth in other cultures and religions are in principle the same truth that is proclaimed by our own religion.[16] For our present day pluralistic context it is essential to further develop a missiological Hermeneutics of Perception in order to more ably recognize the presence of missio Dei in other cultures and religions.

In conclusion, it needs to be said that missions with the peoples is about being co-pilgrims in faith with the other, seeking and proclaiming God together. Christian missions is thereby not characterized by only giving, but also by receiving; it is not only about proclamation, but also about listening to the work of the triune God in the other in order to participate in God’s mission, precisely missions with the people.

[1] My idealistic understanding of the Great Commission has been greatly altered by my experiences while serving for almost fifteen years in Mindanao, the second largest of the Philippine islands. The context there is characterized by decades of conflict and colonialization, during which indigenous Muslims have been systematically supressed and exploited by Christian settlers, an act promoted by the central government of the Philippines based in Manila. In 2015, I introduced my early thoughts on my present understanding of missions in a presentation at the 2015 four-day jubilee conference of Fuller Theological Seminary´s School of Intercultural Studies. This is found in their conference publication: Pascal D. Bazzell, “Who Is Our Cornelius? Learning from Fruitful Encounter at the Boundaries of Mission.” The article has also been published in The State of Missiology Today: Global Innovations in Christian Witness, Charles Van Engen, ed., Missiological Engagements (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016). I developed some of my thoughts further for the combined conference of the Evangelischer Arbeitskreis für Mission and the Arbeitsgemeinschaft für biblisch erneuerte Theologie in Basel, Switzerland. This article, which was published in German in the conference publication, describes my present understanding of mission. This edited version incorporates only a rough overview of my thoughts, just sufficient to make a broader outline perceivable.

[2] Amos Yong, “The Holy Spirit, the Middle Way, and the Religions: A Pentecostal Inquiry in a Pluralistic World,” Evangelical Interfaith Dialogue 2, no. 2 (Spring 2012): 8.

[3] See Jonathan Tan, Christian Mission among the Peoples of Asia (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis, 2014).

[4] See Antonio M. Pernia, “The State of Mission Today,” Verbum SVD 55, no.1 (2014): 20, http://www.missionswissenschaft.eu/media/missionswissenschaft/docs/Pernia9-25.pdf (accessed 24 Jan 2018).

[5] Reinhold Bernhardt, “Coordinates for Interreligious Discernment from a Protestant View: Transcendence— Freedom—Agape—Responsibility,” in Criteria of Discernment in Interreligious Dialogue, Catherine Cornille, ed. (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2009), 59.

[6] David J. Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis, 1991), 297.

[7] David J. Bosch, Transforming Mission, 297.

[8] These are very different contexts to those which Paul found in Athens when the gospel of Jesus Christ was first preached. A good example of contextualization is when Paul referred to “the unknown God” as he proclaimed the Gospel (Acts 17). However, we often don’t encounter the same context as Paul when his audience heard the gospel for the first time. Yet, many of us like to be like Paul and do all the interpretation for our hearers while forgetting to listen to how the Spirit of God worked in that context two thousand years ago.

[9] The commission of the church is to proclaim the fullness of the gospel in Jesus Christ. This naturally implies that the church enters into a spiritual battle against the forces and powers of evil (Eph 6:10–18). Every culture and religion (including Christianity) is held in bondage by the same demonic powers and forces. The proclamation of the gospel is a proclamation of being set free from these powers and forces of evil, a freedom that can only be found in Jesus Christ.

[10] Scott W. Sunquist, Understanding Christian Mission: Participation in Suffering and Glory (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013), 145.

[11] Jacques Matthey, “Pilgrims, Seekers and Disciples: Mission and Dialogue in Matthew,” International Review of Mission 91, no. 360 (January 2002): 125.

[12] Amos Yong, Missiology and Mission Theology in an Interfaith World: A (Humble) Manifesto, http://cms.fuller.edu/EIFD/issues/Fall_2014/Missiology_and_Mission_Theology.aspx (accessed 24 Jan 2018).

[13] See Jürgen Schuster, “Biblische Randbemerkungen zum Umgang mit dem Begriff „Religion“,” in Jürgen Schuster, Volker Gäckle (Hg.), Das Evangelium und die Religionen: Religionskundliche Fragen – religionstheologische Folgerungen (Berlin: LIT, 2015), 47.

[14] Jürgen Schuster, “Biblische Randbemerkungen zum Umgang mit dem Begriff „Religion“,” 50.

[15] Sunquist, Understanding Christian Mission, 10.

[16] Gerhard Gäde, Christus in den Religionen: Der christliche Glaube und die Wahrheit der Religionen (Paderborn: Ferdinand Schöningh, 2010), 83.