I did not send them – yet they ran – paper from H Willmer

I did not send them yet they ran: 

Missiology and theology : Is theology essential for missiology?

We have heard that some want missiology without theology.  We are at the spluttering stage in response:  how can something so preposterous be given a moment’s attention, let alone be the basis for the proposal to spend good money on an international consultation to do some missiology untroubled by theology?   We splutter, like the old man in One Foot in the Grave –  I don’t believe it.

Jeremiah, an extreme prophet, was a great splutterer.  See  Jer 2 9-13.  Heaven can’t believe what he has to tell – so it is appalled.  But like all good prophets, Jeremiah got beyond the spluttering stage, and he was given something more to say.

We need to get beyond the spluttering stage on this one.  We need to be sober, critical and constructive.

Mission without theology

Mission is made possible and likely by the nature of the world, which is characterised by diversity and movement.   The diverse elements of the world at every level are not static and self-contained within their own boundaries .  They are mobile, interactive, interpenetrating.  They do not leave each other alone.

Since humanity belongs to this nature,   mission has anthropological roots.  Human beings are mobile globally.

Humanity  is like a  donkey – it can carry heavy loads long distances, but it needs the carrot and stick to get it moving.  The world is the carrot – Go West, young man.  The grass is greener on the other side.  The stick is where we are – home is boring and so young men are prodigals.

So people traverse the world, move from one place to another to trade,  to learn and see wonders, to gain military and political control, and to pursue dreams of deological imagination  about empire and world management.    All this is natural, the way humanity is.

Religion part of life, so carried by the  movement which underlies missionand justifies itself by giving heart to it.

All this happens without theology.   The expansion of trade and empire is not led by theologians.   Insofar as mission is a religious aspect of the expansion and meeting of human groups, so it can be understood without theology, to a large extent.

Mission in the modern sense  is a large interesting phenomenon, a great enterprise to manage or share in.   So it breeds missiology, the study of the phenomenon of mission as we know it, to see how it fits into the world, what are the different forms it takes, how it can be improved, how it might be justified in human terms (ie overall is mission good for human beings?)

So there can be missiology which is taken up with the activity of mission, and gives us quite enough to investigate and organise without bothering about God.  Mission seems in many ways to have its own secular dynamics, so that we can understand it scientifically, not needing the hypothesis of God to explain it.

Since mission is a public historical activity, it can be studied in the university without the embarrrassments that beset theology in the modern world.   Business is a big and important human activity, so we have business studies;  mission is a big business, so we have mission studies.

So people can get trained in missiology and say I am a missiologist, as though that exempts them from being theologians.  They can then promote missiology as investigating  ‘scientifically and critically the presuppositions, motives, structures, methods, patterns of cooperation, and leadership which the churches bring to their mandate.’

I would argue that even on this definition of missiology, there is every reason to relate missiology closely to theology.  That is given away by the concluding reference to the mandate of the churches.   What is this mandate and how can it be heard or understood untheologically?

If it is so, that missiology involves theology, the desire to have missiology without theology leads us to ask why such an elementary and blatant mistake should be made.  Are people ignorant or stupid?  This sounds like a rude question but we should never silence it out of some kind of niceness or political correctness.   We are all fallen.  The world shows that having degrees or being in high places is no protection against stupidity.  Most of the world is governed most of the time by people who do not know what they are doing – and we cannot exempt ourselves from this warning.   In the charismatic-heroising culture, in which the top-people in Christian movements exist, this question is stifled.   The top-people are like Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 4;  and the underlings are so schooled in good behaviour and deference that no one is left to point out that the emperor has no clothes.   Christian organisations may or may not be corrupt when they deal with money, but they are often corrupted in self-knowledge.

It may also be that people are not ignorant and stupid, but they are busily engaged in doing the great work of mission and they have too much to think about to give much thought to theology, and they cannot allow themselves to be distracted by those who have leisure to talk about God, in ways which are not quickly operationalised.

We need to stop spluttering and rather to understand soberly why it can come about that Christians think they can have missiology without theology.

And then we need to work seriously to see how theology is essential to missiology.

This is not a simple task.  There are many lines to be followed, and it involves unending discussion and learning.

One initial line occurs to me, which I want to outline here.  But first a remark about theology.

We are right to splutter when we hear of missiology being separated from theology, but we also need to take account of reasons for being wary about theology.   Theology is not what the guild of those who are called theologians do and offer.  Theology is not what universities and seminaries now practise under that label.  Most of what academic theology does is at best the history of theology, or snippets of it, and even the science of religion.   Theology, thinking and speaking of, from, towards, with and maybe for God, lurks around the margins of the theology in higher education.  It is also not well-represented by what churches do.  Their talk of God which is incessant is a constant invitation to theology but also a prophylactic against it.  (Cf the ‘garrulous silencing of God’  identified by E Juengel, quoted by Rachel Muers, Keeping God’s Silence, (2004)  p 28)

So when we say, no missiology without theology, we are not saying, No missiology about what some of us who are classed as theologians in the contemporary, institutionalised way have to offer.   The only theology that really counts here, that will serve, is not theology within the limits of the university model, any more than the tongues which come from unthinking ecstasy, but it is theology which is generated by God in God’s way, which often leaves us stumbling and speechless like Moses at the Burning Bush.

No missiology without theology is not an instruction to listen to the theologians, but it is a reminder to let God be God rather than pretending we already as we are do justice to God.

 So the particular point I want to raise here.

Mission implies sending and – a Sender.  Theology is not merely the statement about God who sends, which provides a foundation for our immense busyness in mission activity and consequently technical practical missiology.   Theology asks questions which shake us (cf Andrew Shanks on shakenness)

It is characteristic of the Bible that it is full of examples of theology which is made to serve mission uncritically.   There were the court prophets.    Promoting the cause of the people of God or the kingdom of God may be taking God’s name in vain, using talk of God to bolster what is not of God.

It is also characteristic of the Bible that it tells us of God questioning this whole show, radically.   The Bible again and again puts people who think they are close to God in the position of asking themselves whether they are.  So in the Last Supper, the disciples are provoked to ask, Is it I?  though they were not able to ask the question seriously enough and they still said We will go with you even to death.   But at least the question was raised there, in contrast to the way we have all eliminated it, in the way we have turned the Last Supper into the Lord’s Supper or whatever we call it.

And this kind of questioning in the Bible is not something which is done in the heart only. It is embarrassingly public.  The true prophets like Elijah trouble Israel.   So Jeremiah puts the fundamental question to the prophets, asking them to think about their mandate rather than assuming they have one and then being busy.

I did not send the prophets, yet they ran;  I did not speak to them, yet they prophesied.

But if they had stood in my council, they they would have proclaimed my words to the people, and they would have turned them from their evil ways, and from the evil of their doings.  (Jer 23.21-22)

The Bible asks of all mission: Who sent you?   The God with whom we have to do is a God who is not unreservedly committed to us, or embodied in us.  Rather this is the God who is free to leave the Temple, to distance himself from his people, and to ask embarrassing questions.   God asks: Did I send you?  Why do you think I sent you?

Thus the Bible induces doubt into mission, of an essentially theological kind.  And how we hate doubt, especially this kind of doubt, which is not about whether a statement is true, but is about our identity and our foundational relations.

It does not simply ask, Is your mission just and kind and helpful to human beings?

It asks,  Does it have a good conscience before God?   (From this point of view we can perhaps understand Paul a bit better.  He is often portrayed as being sensitive about his standing with the churches, as though he were an insecure control-freak – and in truth, he may have been that kind of human being; but out of that human matrix, he came face to face with the issue of how he, or any of us, stand before God, where the final and basic truth about us is made plain.)

So theology is not merely a reservoir of information or language useful in mission, not the ordering of religious skills that serve in mission, but asks radical questions we can only escape if we are complacent and self-assured.

The Bible asks these sorts of questions not merely in interrogative sentences or soundbites, but in the stories of the way God and people walk together in the world, disputing as they go.   This is true in the OT and espeically clear in the Gospels, in the relation of Jesus with disciples.

Jesus chose disciples not just to send them out to preach, but so that they should be with him.  And being with Jesus is the most uncomfortable revealing thing.   Can we keep going with Jesus when he is so demanding, so critical, asks for such radical turning?   A disciple’s life is not an easy one.  It does not bring the comforting assurance of having a friend who is always with us and for us.

The Gospels present us an invitation to life, individually and in community, which is a learning – discipleship – in a curriculum which is not designed on the best modern principles.   It does not cut up the learning material into manageable small steps, and it does not hold out the prospect of success achieved by smooth  incremental progress.  It directs us towards the cross, death as defeat.  It is much closer to the raw realities of human existence.    We are not only given mission to get on with, but are expected to be honest with the question of our sending, and whether we have got it right.

Theology is relevant to missiology in many other ways.  This is but one.  But it is a key question.

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