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Undying FireThe Mission of the Church in the Light of the Mission of the Holy Spirit
By RONALD WAYNE YOUNG
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2013 Ronald Wayne Young, OMI
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTwo Contemporary Contextual Factors
Presently, there appear to be two contemporary contextual factors that may sway the understanding of the meaning of the Church's mission in decidedly unproductive directions. For this reason, it is important to understand them as much as possible and re-examine the pneumatological tradition arising from the idea of the mission of the Holy Spirit so that the Church's mission may be oriented in such a way as to be appropriately effective for the world today. These two factors are: an eisegesis of personal interpretation among some Christian believers, and the development of new missionary situations in the world.
An Eisegesis of Personal Interpretation
There is an encroaching subjectivism with relation to the Western understanding of the being of God in articulating the activity of the Holy Spirit. It is a form of eisegesis or "reading into" the spiritual traditions and sacred texts a view that supports a previously held position without due consideration of the complexities, paradoxes, or even apparent contradictions that divine transcendence implies and engenders. If religious individualism stimulates relativism because it presents the individual, in all his or her diversity, as the primary hermeneutical foundation, the eisegesis of personal interpretation serves to relativize and privatize traditionally objective and public theological understandings. It can result in such wide diversity of interpretation that mutual dialogue and progress in human understanding regarding the Spirit and all things related to the mission of the Spirit become impossible. This first challenge appears to be one reaction to the difficulties that modernity and its concomitant belief systems place before modern Christianity.
The eisegesis of personal interpretation tends to convert God into the convenient and self-serving image of humanity rather than sustaining the tremendous challenge of converting humanity into people who conform to the "image and likeness" of God. Ludwig Feuerbach might well have given expression to this first factor when he wrote, "Man's notion of himself is his notion of God, just as his notion of God is his notion of himself – the two are identical." It is as though people think they have God "in their pocket." However, when they operate in this way, what they really have is a small mirror reflecting the image they worship as a god. Thus, the transcendent otherness of God and the inherent differences that God may have with the way humans think and behave are minimized or seriously compromised. This is important not only because describing God as accurately as possible matters, but also because God is better, wiser, and more compassionate than human beings are known to be. It is possible to compare one's self with God in terms of love or goodness, but the contrast is immense, the larger part of an expanding distinctiveness as God comes to be known because it is a comparison between the limited and finite with the unlimited and infinite.
The Eisegesis of Personal Power and Prosperity
One particular aspect of this tendency toward an eisegesis of personal interpretation arises from the fact that individuals in the Church sometimes misunderstand the meaning of the idea that the Spirit empowers the Church's mission. Since the seduction of power seems to be one of the great temptations (Matt 4:1-11; Mk 1:12; Lk 4:1-13), even of those who follow Christ, it is understandable and all too human that some would confuse the power of the Spirit with earthly sorts of power. This is to exercise power over people rather than power for and with people. They pretend that their schemes and manipulations to gain authority over others are somehow gospel-mandated and Spirit-blest. On the contrary, the Spirit of Christ is a spirit of humble loving service undeterred by the self- sacrifice and hardship of being a sincere disciple of Christ (Jn 13:1-17).
Another aspect of this tendency is shown in the fact that numerous good and well-meaning Christians confuse the power of the Spirit with good health, abundant wealth, and prosperity in life. However, Jesus died a crucified death, a form of public execution intended to shame the victim in every conceivable way before physical death ensued. Was he not led by the Holy Spirit to reign from the redemptive throne of the cross? Are people not taught by his words and deeds that to follow him as a disciple is to "take up" one's cross and follow by dying to one's self (Matt 16:24; Mk 8:34; Lk 9:23)? Even baptism is a dying to one's self (Rom 6:1-5). In fact, many of those saints who would most readily qualify as great embodiments of the Spirit-led life died from imprisonment, torture, abuse, or disease as martyrs for Christ. As martyrs they well understood that the Spirit had much to do with the fidelity, courage and conviction that they showed under extreme circumstances. What might they think of the "prosperity gospel" with the Spirit as a servant of worldly success?
An Eisegesis of Analogy and Idealization
Throughout Christian history, there have been many attempts to represent the Church using analogical imagery. While the use of analogy has been helpful in gaining some theological clarity, inadequate applications of such abstractions can cost the Church much in terms of an honest awareness of how the Spirit works with the diversity of limited, struggling flesh and blood human beings which constitute the living Church. An example may be seen in the biblical analogy of the Body of Christ (Eph 4:12). Sometimes this analogy has been used to quell diversity rather than to affirm a unity of diverse working parts, "the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament ..." (Eph 4:16) This is because the members of the Church never exhibit an unqualified unity as may be apparent in a physical body. Rather, they are by analogy "somewhat like and somewhat unlike" the unity of the physical body. They are like a physical body as diverse parts working together. They are unlike a physical body in that they never achieve the autonomic unity that lacks personal self-consciousness, rational thought, and moral free will. Analogous idealizations are not the same as realizations. If analogies of the Church are used, they must be used in a way that brings to fruition the ideals embodied in the faith of Christ in an authentically human expression.
Alternatively, incomplete or inadequate uses of an idyllic image may leave the impression that Christian perfection is an esoteric process available to only a select few of the Spirit's chosen while the masses struggle and strain in some sort of losing battle. This misinterpretation can lead to curious kinds of perfectionism, externalism, or self-affirming elitism. One example is the use of the image of the Church as the Bride of Christ (2 Cor 11:2; Eph 5:22-27). Applied inadequately, it could be used to imply that the Church has no relationship with sinners. After all, the Church is meant to be "without spot or wrinkle." Thus, the Gnostic anthropological thesis finds a foothold in certain communities. As a result it becomes difficult for many to believe that ordinary people can become extraordinary people through the work of the Holy Spirit. However, with a careful reading it can be observed that the Church is "spotless" because she is filled with sinners who have obtained forgiveness through the waters of Baptism effected by the proclamation of the word (Eph 5:25-26). Ideals are good guides but poor leaders.
An Eisegesis of Issues supplanting Evangelization
It seems that great energy is expended by some to equate or supplant evangelization with otherwise good things like ecumenism, interreligious dialogue, a mission of witness to gospel values, the fundamental option for the poor, ecological theology or even holistic spirituality. What could these otherwise laudable activities mean if they are separated from the inner nature of the Church for whom Jesus Christ is the essential answer to the situations of life? With whom can there be ecumenical harmony, an interreligious dialogue, the spread of gospel values, authentic solidarity with the poor, a Christian ecology, or a focus on spirituality if these concerns were separated from the foundational union of the Spirit with the Church that results from and leads to evangelization? While these aspects of modern Church life may not be equated with simple accommodations to popular culture, they can be used in an issue-driven way to replace the primary activity of the Church's evangelization. This, too, can be understood as an eisegesis of personal interpretation.
A fear of greedy proselytism or an overwhelming sense of the need to protect the freedom of people might cause some to hesitate in their efforts at evangelization. Nonetheless, there exists a constant reminder that the overarching reason the Church exists is for the mission of evangelization. Paul VI stresses the importance of the Church's mission of evangelization, stating that "... the presentation of the Gospel message is not an optional contribution for the Church. It is the duty incumbent on her by the command of the Lord Jesus, so that people can believe and be saved. This message is indeed necessary. It is unique. It cannot be replaced. It does not permit either indifference, syncretism or accommodation. It is a question of people's salvation." Thus, while discussions of the Church's explicit need to evangelize are unfashionable in some circles today, evangelization remains necessary if the Church is to follow the Spirit's call and live life in the grace of the Holy Spirit.
These fears and concerns as well as sincere efforts to avoid the pitfalls of missionary shortsightedness that can result from inadequate attempts to offer people the sublime beauty of life in Jesus Christ are understandable. It is not difficult to find some televangelist equating evangelization with the promise of everlasting life for a speedy donation or the swift recitation of a few well chosen words. Nevertheless, the Spirit-endowed Church must evangelize because it shares in the very nature of God, a nature replete with love. According to Benedict XVI, "Unless the mission is oriented by charity, that is, unless it springs from a profound act of divine love, it risks being reduced to mere philanthropic and social activity."
This love disturbs the complacent waters of self-absorption, moves toward awakened consciousness, and requires expression that is in every sense evangelization. It is rare that such a thing as a silent and inexpressibly invisible love exists, at least not when there is freedom to speak out or to act. Love, of its very nature, emboldens desire for communication. Thus, it is precisely the mission of God's love that must be the centerpiece, source, and foundation of every honest effort at evangelization. Indeed, it is this "love" that Christians name the Holy Spirit. The many dead-ends of the eisegesis of personal interpretation obscure the clarity of a loving evangelization that leads humanity to an encounter of true self-discovery in God.
New Missionary Situations
More importantly, there is a second consideration in better understanding the aligning of the mission of the Church with the mission of the Spirit that arises from new situations in the world evoking a new missionary response. Why is this more important? It is because mission is involved and is rooted in the quest of the Church to reflect adequately the greatness of God and not merely the personal interpretations of some of God's People.
New human situations have arisen constantly throughout history. While this process is nothing original, the present economic movement toward globalization, scientific "progress" without moral consideration, and the often-myopic anthropology of many post-modern visions of humanity arise as new opportunities for missionary outreach. At the same time, they consciously and unconsciously influence those who participate in the mission, creating a greater potential dissonance with the view that the Church's missionary activity must reflect the Spirit's mission as faithfully as the moon reflects the light of the sun.
Since every culture expresses both the light and darkness of the human beings that inherit it, it may be observed that missionaries are people of their cultures. They can consciously and unconsciously represent those things which express the greatness and wisdom of a given culture as well as those prejudices, historical dilemmas and negative values which await enlightenment. Thus, the encounters with new missionary situations are always calls to self-awareness and honesty among those who would present the Good News.
One element of these relatively new situations that needs to be considered is the contest between a largely economically motivated globalization of business interests and the concern to protect localized cultural identities and their traditions. Globalization itself is not new. It has been at the heart of every empire, with the concurrent effect of diminishing diversity and emphasizing commonality for the sake of imperial order. Thus, in globalization's latest expression, local cultural uniqueness is often sacrificed to the need for new markets of capital, and ancient cultural symbols are forsaken in favor of the ever-inspiring multinational corporate logo.
It should be recognized that globalization in itself is not necessarily an evil. At the same time as certain global business interests experience the temptation to behave according to a narrow economic vision of the humanity they claim to serve, globalization can take the form of a practical response to many of the great social issues facing humanity worldwide. These may include poverty, illiteracy, and the need for genuine social development that anticipates other types of societal advancement. Thus, globalization must not be dismissed out of hand because of any latent negative influences upon human self- understanding, for it has a certain potential for positive contributions to the global human situation.
Progress without Morality
Another factor in this new situation that needs to be noted is a positivist view of scientific progress that promotes the development, use, and application of modern technologies that seem to outstrip moral advances. Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and George Orwell's Nineteen-Eighty-Four are already upon humanity and many of the greatest fears presented by science fiction have become scientific fact. Who could have imagined or anticipated the globalizing force that is modern air travel or the Internet? Yet, there are few things that have more impact on daily life with the ability to cross international borders and cultural boundaries in the present than these rapid technologies of travel and communication. Even so, for all of their benefits, air travel and the Internet each have a dark side that was not anticipated. The rapidness of modern air travel has the potential to spread disease and the convenience of the Internet includes the growing reach of pornography into homes and other places where it never would have been allowed.
Author Mary Shelley seems to have understood one aspect of the difficulty of scientific progress without morality in her presentation of Frankenstein. Frankenstein is an apparently human being constructed of bits and pieces without consideration for the consequences of its manufacture. Such a construction is a slow but inevitable outcome of the consequences of the unregulated ambitions of scientific exploration, sometimes leading to social domination. Shelley's work raises the questions: At what point does our use of technology under the banner of progress leave humanity with something less than human? Is humanity merely bits and pieces, constructed of evolutionary goop that by sophistication of accidental arrangement of random matter achieves self-awareness? Who gets to benefit from our new technologies of life enhancement and prolongation? Is this technology exclusively for the rich or will it eventually "trickle down" to the lower classes in the form of medical benefits offered for the good of the multinational company? Humanity is nowhere near answering all the questions that its technologies raise, yet humanity marches forward into a supposedly better tomorrow.
A further feature in this new situation that deserves to be noted is the challenge posed by the systematic reduction through moral compartmentalization and social commodification of the human person in the light of merely political, economic, or nationalistic concerns. To gain political control over vast segments of society or to gain a better market share, humanity has been divided and subdivided into opposing interest groups and "played to," "sold on" or "allied into and against" flocks of other self-interested individuals. Strangely, the over-emphasized cultural quest for individuality and personal uniqueness leaves people most vulnerable to a herd mentality of "rugged" individualists.
Excerpted from Undying Fire by RONALD WAYNE YOUNG Copyright © 2013 by Ronald Wayne Young, OMI. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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