Thursday, March 5, 2009

God, World, Church

This story is becoming increasingly familiar to me. A church spends a lot of time focusing on its identity. It does this primarily in relation to certain beliefs or ideas. These get shaped into a mission or vision statement, perhaps even a strategic plan if the church is really aggressive. The idea is that if identity can be established before hand, then action will follow. Great theory. It seldom works.

It seldom works for a lot of reasons. The biggest of these reasons, and perhaps the source of all the rest, is that identity discovery is a complex matter requiring more than just self-reflection. We don't know who we are fully before we act. And we don't know who we are fully apart from our life with others.

When we think of identity as something we settle before mission, then the world ends up being only the place where we deliver the things that have already been decided. The world becomes an extension of our project, a target of our good intentions, a passive recipient of a benevolent patron. Often, we define our identities over/against the world, and when we offer them our already determined lives we find them less than impressed. We are often irrelevant to their lives.

The great thing about the missional church movement from my perspective is that is insists that the church only understands its life as a church in mission, as a church in relation to others. Some who write about the missional church still want to define the church's identity before engagement with the world. They talk about the church's essence as something that comes before mission. The church is and then the church does.

But if our identity is truly an identity in God's mission, then we cannot know who we are, not completely, apart from a real life engagement with God's world. We discover who we are in relation to others.

This view of mission makes more sense in relation to a particular view of God. If God is just a set of enduring characteristics, an essence, or enduring substance that is unchangeable or unaddressable, then there is no need to consider the other in terms of our identity or mission. This, however, is not the biblical view of God.

In our last post, we noted that the Cappadocians (you remember them, Basil, his brother Gregory of Nyssa and his other brother Gregory Nanzianzus, well only the first was his actual brother) held together the three persons of the Trinity as one by defining personhood in relation to otherness. We find our personhood only in relation, in this case God as Father, Son, and Spirit. The Cappadocians, however, still wanted to protect the Father from the otherness of the world. God is known primarily only in the inner relations of Father, Son, and Spirit, and the world participates in God only through the Son. The otherness of the world tells us nothing of who God is as a person.

Recent theologians, however, have taken the Cappadocians view of personhood and tied it to the biblical narrative in a way that brings the world back into view. We don't know who God is as Father, Son, and Spirit, apart from a fallen, suffering world. God's identity as Father, Son, and Spirit is only fully revealed in the concrete circumstances of the world, and in particular in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. We know God as Father, Son, and Spirit only through God's suffering participation in, with, and for the world. Our identity, as well as God's, cannot be defined in essential categories, but only in suffering participation with the world.


Kasey Lane McCollum said...

You almost say it but not quite. One of the crucial things we must remember (although I am curious how we could forget) is that we are a part of the world, not distinct from it. Theology and identity are discovered or evolve in our experiences. Cone (and I would agree) says that the gospel ceases to be the gospel unless it speaks to the ghetto, the very core of our human experience.

Mark Love said...

Thank you, Kasey, for bringing it all the way home. And with a Cone quote. Very nice.

I'm following up with some Moltmann, so let's see if I get there.

Kasey Lane McCollum said...