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The Common Task: a Theology of Christian Mission.

The Common Task: a Theology of Christian Mission by M. Thomas Thangaraj, Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1999, 167pp, ppbk ISBN 0 687 00144-7.

What would a theology of mission look like if missiologists and theologians were to take seriously the findings of those who have concerned themselves most deeply with inter-religious dialogue in the last fifty years? The testimony of such people is now immense and diverse. It includes the voice of Wilfred Cantwell Smith, who died in February this year, as well as those of his many disciples. It includes the work of Roman Catholic scholars who have built on the Vatican II declaration, Nostra Aetate, now thirty-five years old. It includes the achievements of the WCC programmes on dialogue since the beginning, in 1971, of the sub-unit on Dialogue with People of Living Faiths and Ideologies (the Dialogue sub-unit from 1984), and more recently the WCC Office on Inter-religious Relations.

Few people in the world are more fully qualified to attempt to write this kind of theology of mission than Thomas Thangaraj. He is a presbyter of the Church of South India, a pioneer of successful interfaith programmes in the Tamilnadu Theological Seminary in Madurai, a doctoral student of Wilfred Cantwell Smith and Gordon Kaufman at Harvard, and a long-time associate of the WCC dialogue programmes. Thangaraj is currently teaching World Christianity at the Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, Georgia. He brings to his task of writing a theology of mission a deep gratitude to those early Anglican missionaries in India who, together with local evangelists, led his ancestors to their acceptance of Christian faith. "Acknowledging my history", he writes, "leads me both to celebrate the Christian mission and to resolve to reflect upon it with utmost seriousness and gratitude" (p.9). These missionaries and local pastors initiated a "movement that promoted the liberation of those who were oppressed and exploited by both the religious and social forces around them" (p.10).

Accordingly, we will not find any diminishment either of the claims of Christ or the power of the gospel in these pages. Yet as one standing on the receiving end of the Western missionary enterprise, and also as one with close ties of kinship and collegiality to Hindus and Muslims, Thangaraj is aware of the problematic nature and ambiguities of the Christian missionary enterprise, and even of what he calls the "bankruptcy of the traditional views of mission". This bankruptcy he spells out vividly and trenchantly in his introduction, showing us how our world has changed since the highpoints of contemporary Protestant and Catholic missionary work in the 19th and early 20th centuries. As Thangaraj sees it, the "circle of discussion" has widened beyond anything previously conceived, so there should be no more cultural superiority, no more mission as a partner of colonialism, no more ineffable patriarchy, and, above all, no more unquestioning sense of religious triumphalism. Within a "circle of discussion" designe d to include people of all cultures and both genders, the key concept must be "dialogue". This is even more the case when the circle of conversation includes people, as it must, from all the living religious traditions of humankind.

In this context Thangaraj regards the discovery and development of the idea of "inter-religious dialogue" as a "bold testimony to the willingness of Christians to discuss their missional call in the presence of, and in interaction with, people of other religious obedience" (p.15). To recognize this is to become immediately dissatisfied with older theologies of mission which see only a one-way street for missionary activity, and which centre upon evangelism as pure proclamation, and upon making converts as the only real missionary task. Thangaraj expounds his understanding of the dialogical-missionary call in the remainder of the book.

Chapter I shows Thangaraj searching for a new starting point from which to begin the missionary conversation so that it will include rather than exclude other people who have differing ideological and religious viewpoints. The kind of missionary conversation he envisages will sustain an ongoing dialogue and lead to fresh and novel understanding. Thangaraj rejects the Bible as a starting point for such interaction (it is composed of sixty different books and has too many canons within the canon. Furthermore, the Bible is not the only scripture!). He equally rejects beginning with the mission of the church (he says a more divisive concept than church hardly exists: 67%of humanity is excluded from it, and most Christians exclude one another). Even less helpful as a conversation starter, he says, is the concept of the missio Dei (dialogue is foreclosed when there is an a priori commitment to full trinitarian conviction). No more can we begin simply with the idea of "God" (too many people have lived without God: M arxists, secular humanists, Vedantists and certain types of Buddhists). Trying to start off with Christian theological concepts precludes serious, relevant and meaningful dialogue about mission. Instead, Thangaraj suggests, we need to begin with the missic humanitatis: the mission of humanity in which we all are called to share.

Thangaraj suggests that three affirmations about our shared humanity would make it possible for us to share in mission to each other. We are all, he says, self-conscious beings. We are all historical beings. We are all ecological beings. While there is a multiplicity of anthropological understandings, all humans can recognize each other at the level of self-consciousness, historicity and ecological interdependence. Such a recognition makes it possible, in Thangaraj's view, "to engage in a conversation toward developing a common understanding of missio humanitatis". In our own social, political and communal settings we are all engaged in a conversation about the mission of humanity. Thangaraj's own primary example of such a conversation tells of the dialogues he has shared in his own country which have centred upon such a public document as the Indian Constitution.

Chapter 2 expounds the missio humanitatis within the framework of three basic concepts: responsibility, solidarity and mutuality. "The mission of humanity", Thangaraj declares, "is an act of taking responsibility, in a mode of solidarity, shot through with a spilt of mutuality" (p.53). Within this set of formal parameters, there is a Christian contribution to the answer "What shall we do as humans?" This would be the beginning of a Chris tian theology of mission, if we were to use the vision of a mission of humanity both as a heuristic device and as a framework for our constructive conversation.

In chapter 3 Thangaraj moves on to explicate the elements within such a conversation. First there would be the distinctively theological element: our Christian contribution must be "presided over" and directed by our understanding of God. Thus, missio humanitatis will have to be redefined or qualified by missio Dei (pp.6 I-2), and normative for our understanding of missio Dei is the missio Christi, the mission of Christ.

Taking the three basic concepts of solidarity, mutuality and liberation, Thangaraj redefines each of them for the Christian community as it goes about its mission. Responsibility becomes "cruciform responsibility". The cross is a symbol of protest against the demonic exercise of human responsibility. Thecross is also about resurrection, and declares that responsibility has to do with the future. Thangaraj quotes the South African ethicist D.A. Smit: "To be responsible means to deliberately, consciously take responsibility for what is going to happen" (p.68). Cruciform responsibility is exercised in humility and prayer. Solidarity becomes "liberative solidarity", based on the incarnation and the crucifixion (see Hebrews 2:14-17). Here Thangaraj draws compellingly upon insights of feminist theology, which speak of compassionate solidarity, "the communion of the sufferer in her pain, as she experiences it" (p.71, quoting Wendy Farley). But solidarity is not merely for solidarity's sake; it has the "express and i mmediate goal of liberation and justice" (p.74). And mutuality becomes "eschatological mutuality", where Christians are invited to join with the groaning of the whole of creation as it moves towards the day of freedom and liberation (see Romans 8:22-3). Mutuality is necessary for the just transformation of human societies into communities of justice and peace, for it is quite clear that no one tradition has the resources within itself, to take but one example, for the liberation of the environment from human exploitation and ecological disaster. The work of the Holy Spirit is clearly manifest in this "eschatological mutuality".

Within these new perspectives Thangaraj redefines and reformulates, in chapter 4, the four key issues in missiology: evangelism, conversion, transformation, and dialogue. Of evangelism Thangaraj says that it is "a rightful and legitimate activity of the local church. But it has to be a cruciform activity...to be done in a spirit of vulnerability and humility" (p.82). However, to deal properly with any of these four issues means a rereading and a reinterpretation of our Christian past. Thangaraj offers this in chapter 5. He sees historically eight models of mission: Mission as kerygmatic presence; mission as martyrdom; mission as expansion; mission as monastic service; mission as the conversion of the heathens; mission as mission societies; mission as education; mission as joint action for justice and peace. To each of these he brings salient criticism in the light of the categories expounded in chapter 3. For example, on mission as expansion he reminds us that "militaristic imagery and language has not yet fu lly been exorcized out of the vocabulary of Christian mission. Hymns, writings and speeches continue to use militaristic imagery, which promotes the idea of mission in subtle ways" (p.109). Cruciform responsibility would rather critique such a militant understanding and eschatological mutuality will not allow us to see others as simply enemies of the gospel who must be conquered and subdued. Similarly, if mission is exercised in a spirit of eschatological mutuality and liberative solidarity, we cannot help but develop "an appreciative and courteous view of other religions" (p.113).

Chapter 6 turns to the unavoidable question of how to understand afresh the scriptural testimony concerning mission. Thangaraj presents for us a broad vision of his own theological vision. He calls this a "re-imagining" of the biblical vision and presents his material under the headings of the Mission of God (the "shared mission" of a "suffering God"); the Mission of the people of God (its serious engagement with issues of peace and justice: "such an engagement is not simply for conquest or success, it is also expressed through suffering and failure", p.131); the Mission of Jesus; the Mission of the disciples; and of course the Mission of humanity.

All are invited to the feast of the reign of God. Such a vision demands that we view the mission of humanity as that which is practised in a setting of dialogue and engagement with one another. All bring their gifts to the feast, and, in a sharing of all gifts, the mission is shared with God (p.137).

But Thangaraj knows that he cannot leave it there: there are difficult texts and these might count against his whole thesis. There are John 14:6 and Acts 4:12 and Thangaraj deals faithfully with them both.

His last chapter raises the question, "How do we motivate the people in our churches and congregations for the kind of mission we have sketched out?" Three groups of people come to his mind. First, there are those who would drop mission entirely from the agenda of congregations and seminaries. These, he says, need to be reminded of the great good Christianity has done for many peoples in the world. Second, there are those who are under the influence of postmodern thinking and extreme individualism. These, the benevolently indifferent, need to be brought into an awareness of the interconnectedness of all life. Last, there is that potentially large group who would regard Thangaraj's theological and soteriological universalism hardly inspiring as a motive for mission. Where, they would ask, is the passion for souls and the imperative need to rescue unbelievers from eternal punishment? Thangaraj believes, as I do, that there are better and more powerful motivations. For him they are doxological, christological, e cclesiological, and eschatological, and he offers illuminating commentary on these in terms of his own central themes. Thus the doxological motive is not limited to the glory and splendour of God as it has been revealed in the past, or as it may be present in our midst today.

It is a doxology of hope as well. It is an adoration of God that waits in eager expectation of the revealing of the glory of God in end times. Since God, as we have described in the biblical vision in the last chapter, is a missionary God, adoration of God invariably leads to involvement in mission by those who adore God (p.149).

This book is a marvellous introduction to missiology for students in theological seminaries and colleges (to be sure, it reflects many years of teaching such courses in India and the USA). But missiologists also need to know that this book could well be put into the hands of those fellow teachers of theology who seem to consider that the whole missionary enterprise was a serious mistake, and who occasionally recommend that the word "mission" be deleted from the Christian vocabulary. Such academics need to be challenged by the passion and engagement of a fellow scholar and teacher who, as Thangaraj says of himself, has been prodded "to rethink the idea of mission from the ground up"(p.9).

Rev. Dr Kenneth Cracknell is professor at the Brite Divinity School of the Texas Christian University, USA.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:CRACKNELL, KENNETH
Publication:International Review of Mission
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 2000
Words:2267
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