Theology Back to the Mission Frontier
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J. Samuel Escobar, Ph.D.

Convocation Address at McMaster Divinity College
Hamilton, Ontario - May 13, 1997

As I stand here I am deeply moved by the solemnity of the occasion and grateful for the undeserved privilege of an Honoris Causa Doctor of Divinity Degree, conferred on me by this university. I do not pretend to be a theologian in the strict sense of one who has the gifts that have been cultivated through formal study in order to articulate the faith of the Church in a comprehensive way. But I have to confess that I am constantly captivated by the possibilities of theological discourse to help me to give "a reason for the hope that I have within me." In that sense it has been my privilege to take part in the life of Christian churches and organizations in Latin America, North America and Europe, and to contribute to the self understanding of Christian communities and the definition of their mission in our world today.

Theological discourse is supposed to possess a minimum of order and structure, and theologians struggle for intellectual consistency in their discourse. In our Christian tradition, theological discourse is nurtured and framed by Scripture. Theologians acknowledge that, century after century, that Word has had the mysterious ability to renew, re-invigorate and give new relevancy to theological discourse. Thinkers in apostolic times tried also to express their faith in an articulate discourse. The New Testament writers were witnesses to facts that had taken place in a particular time and location, in the Jewish world: the fact of Jesus. But Jesus himself had taught them that those facts of the Jewish world had a universal significance and that the story had to be told to all the peoples in the world. The first missionaries who moved into the Greek world found some words and some ideas that translated well what they had come to see in Jesus of Nazareth. The story had to be translated and those New Testament writers were attracted by words and ideas of the Greek culture that conveyed their conviction about Jesus the Christ. The Logos was one of those key words they used which conveyed—among others—the idea of consistency.

I am sure that at McMaster University you are familiar with that powerful line in the Epistle of Paul to the Colossians which was chosen as the motto by the founders, and which reads this way:

"God’s son was before all else and by him everything is held together"1

This short, beautiful, and powerful statement about Jesus Christ introduces us into the wealth of Christian theology: the reasoned discourse, the well rounded argument, the historical awareness in the formulation, the precise choice of terms with linguistic precision. A theological category to which this verse relates is, again, "consistency."

Allow me for a moment to dwell on this Christological line, in this statement that "Christ holds everything together." We are living today in a cultural atmosphere which is described as post-modern, a time of painful transitions. The marks of post-modernity are now being experienced at a global level: the end of ideologies, the exaltation of feeling over reason, the rediscovery of the human body, the explosion of religiosity, the ritualization of life, and the marketing of everything, including Christianity. There is a deep and scary awareness that things do not hold together. In contrast with the awareness of consistency in the discourse of Paul, we live at a time in which there is an acute awareness that things do not hold together, in the church, in society, in the whole universe. Within this frame let me make three remarks in relation to the task of theology and theologians.

First, let me call your attention to the fact that the writer of Colossians, the author of this line, stands also on a kind of frontier situation, at a borderline between the consistency of his message and the inconsistency of the world in which he is announcing it. A few lines down the text we find Paul saying:

"I am glad that I can suffer for you. I am pleased also that in my own body I can continue the suffering of Christ for his body, the church. God’s plan was to make me a servant of his church and to send me to preach his complete message to you.2

Why would this missionary theologian suffer? Why this continuous suffering of Christ himself for his body, the Church? Isn’t this suffering of the missionary and the Christ that he proclaims an evidence that things actually do not hold together? Here is the tension in the thrust of all Pauline writings: "God’s order and human disorder," "God’s consistency and the inconsistency of the world." Notice, however, that in this encounter of consistency and inconsistency some way or other the missionary, as well as the church in mission always find themselves placed at a borderline, at the frontier. I believe that here is where theology is at its best, when it is not just an academic activity done in isolation from life, but when it is nourished and made alive by the tensions of the missionary situation, that challenging situation in which God places his people.

My second remark has to do with the new reality of the Christian church in the world today. I may illustrate it in this form. One hundred years ago, Archibald Reekie, who was born in a farm in Kincardine Township, Bruce County, Ontario, came to complete his studies at McMaster University before going out as a missionary to Bolivia, in South America. At that point in history, shortly before the beginning of our century, Christianity was a religion of the Western people, the Christian church had mostly a white face. Almost seventy percent of the professing Christians lived in Europe and North America and mission was the flow of people and resources from the north to the south and to the East. One century later, the numerical balance of Christianity has shifted and statistics today reflect a totally different picture. Like no other faith, the Christian faith is held by a truly global community. Christian mission is now a partnership of churches of all colors and all cultures, and the theological task should also be carried on in such a partnership.

My third remark has to do with religiosity. I went to university in the days in which modernity in its liberal and Marxist forms dominated the classrooms. Some teachers told us that with the enlightenment of humankind through education and the use of technology there was no future for religion. Other teachers, who had found a scientific method to determine the way history was moving, told us that with the application of scientific materialism to the organization of society, religion was going to disappear. The interlocutors of Christian thinkers predicted the end of religion by the end of the century. Now, in 1997, we find ourselves in a world where there is more religion than ever. There is a supermarket of religions and an incredible variety of choices. The times call for discernment and here is the task of the Christian theologian. Such discernment for the theologian comes from God’s Word in Scripture, but it also comes from God’s Spirit. I come from a tradition that has stressed a continuity of faithfulness to the Word. However, in the contemporary situation I think we need to pay heed to what Emil Brunner wrote at the middle point of our century:

It is not merely a question of the continuity of the word—the maintenance of the original doctrine—but also of the continuity of a life; that is life flowing from the Holy Ghost. The fellowship of Jesus lives under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit; that is the secret of its life, of its communion and of its power.3

While theologians seem to be at home in handling words from the Word and in formulating precise orthodox propositions about the content of the faith, they do not know exactly how to handle the reality of the Holy Spirit at work in the church and in the world. As Brunner goes on to say, "Word and Spirit are certainly very closely connected and yet in these pneumatic energies there is something which eludes expression in words, something in relation to which all words are inadequate, if not in fact quite misleading."4 The times call for a new openness to the Spirit in the theological task.

You may be familiar with the Spanish word Mañana, which means "tomorrow." Justo González, the well known Hispanic historian and theologian, invites us to consider a theology of Mañana. In his book under that title, the chapter about "Life in the Spirit" addresses the deeply felt malaise that affects many mainline Protestant denominations in North America, and discards the easy prescriptions that look for structural matters and constitutional revisions as a solution. For González, "The problem really has to do with the meaning of the Gospel and how we apply it, not only in our individual lives but also in the communal and structural life of the church," and consequently, "the solution to our present malaise will not be found until we deal with issues of spirituality and come to a spirituality that is both deeply grounded in Scripture and radically relevant to today’s world."5

"Mañana" does not only mean "tomorrow," and—as many Anglo-Saxons would be prompt to remind us—"the indolent response of people too lazy to make any kind of effort." "Mañana" is the radical questioning of today; it is a time unlike today; "it is a time of a new reality, not the outcome of today’s disorderly order but the outcome of other factors that bring about a breach with an unbearable today." What González finds in the New Testament is that the work of the Spirit "is to allow the believing community to live already, at least partially, in the ‘not yet’ of the Reign."6 I invite you to consider that such a kind of life is the source of true theology.

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