Missional theology and the recovery of a world

In my last post, I suggested that missional theology might best be conceived as the conditions necessary for being attentive to the world as a location for confessing the work of the living God. This attentiveness would include both a fruitful posture and perspective for this work.

All of this assumes the world is something more than an object of God’s–or the church’s– concern. In other words, God is not simply a distant subject working only through the church to reconcile all things to Godself, but the church enters the world expecting to find God already there.

(As an aside, part of the problem of the loss of a world in the theological imagination is the way reality has been defined in terms of subjects and objects, especially in modernity. This is a long story and perhaps worthy of a future post, but it is not the only way to see the world.)

A chief burden of missional theology would be to reimagine the relatedness of God, church, and world, particularly to deliver a world in which God is active and is prior in some ways to the church. Not every way of conceiving theology will get you there.

A few years ago, I read a paper at a conference arguing for views of the Trinity that were both social and open to the world. I wasn’t making this up, but following theologians like Athanasius, the Cappadocians, and, more recently, theologians like Moltmann, Pannenberg, and Jensen, that prioritize God as three hypostasis (persons). Along the way, I critiqued classic Western, or Latin, notions of the Trinity that begin with God as a single ousia (being or substance) that moves toward the world in a series of sendings–Father sends the Son, Father and Son send the Spirit, with all three sending the church. Here, God is a single subject and the world is a dart board at the end of all the sendings, even the sending of the church.

This Western view of the Trinity coincides with practices of mission marked by colonialism and imperialism. The taking of western Christianity to other peoples was indistinguishable from taking the empire, whether it was the Holy Roman empire, or the later Spanish, British, or other colonizing powers. While the relationship between doctrinal understandings and social outcomes is complex, at the very least the imagination related to Western Trinitarian understandings was not powerful enough to disrupt colonial practice, and likely aided it (among other factors).

Trinitarian theology, then, would be one example of a choice to be made theologically that would make a difference in delivering a world. Similar choices are available related to Christology, soteriology (salvation), eschatology (final things), and pneumatology (Holy Spirit). For instance, Douglas John Hall distinguishes between understandings of Christ related to glory (the majority view in his estimation), and a more cross centered Christology (the minority view). He suggests that the theology of glory turns the world into an abstraction, whereas the theology of the cross necessarily takes the particularities of the world’s suffering into account.

Again, my point is that theological choices influence the way we conceive of the relatedness of God, church, and world, which in turn conditions how we attend to the world. A missional theology would attempt to bring together various theological strands in such a way so as to deliver a world.


About Mark Love

I am the Director of the Resource Center for Missional Leadership at Rochester College. Part of my job includes directing a master's degree in missional leadership, a situated learning degree. I am married to Donna and have a son, Josh Love, who lives in Portland, OR. With Donna, I have also inherited three great daughters and three amazing granddaughters.
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