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CHRISTIAN MISSION IN A PLURALISTIC WORLD

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Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology
October 5, 2002

Dr. Christopher Duraisingh

My delight and privilege

I do want to pay a public tribute to the theological heritage of the Orthodox churches 'in playing a significant role in my understanding of the nature of the mission of the Church.



Almost a hundred years ago the well-known journal Christian Century came into publication. It shared an optimism of Christian leaders in the West like John R. Mott that the whole world would be evangelized in their generation in the Edinburgh World Mission Conference in 1910. But note what has happened by the end of the century. There has been an unprecedented revival and growth in all major non-Christian religions of the world. Most of them have become world religions and 'missionary,' with very well established international communication machinery. Religious and cultural pluralization is a fact of life in every country in the West. Temples and mosques mark the landscape of this country. Not too far from here, just at the outskirts of Ashland, Massachusetts, stands a large and beautiful Hindu Temple, with people in worship most of the day. As Diana Eck both through her major research study on pluralism and in her recent book, The New Religious America i demonstrates in no uncertain ternis, that, "the United States is the most religiously diverse nation in the world." The subtitle of the book is provocative: How a 'Christian Country' Has Become the World's Most Religiously Diverse Nation."

In several of the earlier addresses in this conference, the fact of pluralism has, been sufficiently described and therefore I will not seek to describe the reality of pluralism of our times.

The Church has addressed the problem of pluralism for centuries. However, in recent times, the plurality of cultures, identities, values and norms has led to competitive violence unheard of in history; forms of diversity have been conflictual. The dizzying speed of the ever increasing diversity and the consequent conflict and fragmentation are staggering in almost every comer of the earth. There is no reversal to this process. The fact of plural identities in a globalized world has come to shape much of the writings of current social theory as well as fictions. Words such as heterogeneity, diversity, difference, pluralism, hybridity, melange and flux mark much of the creative literature. Today, more than ever before, the world cries out for credible signposts to show that human community is still possible in the midst of all that divides us. Behind it all lies a deeper crisis in understanding, and dealing with difference, the other. We have come to understand that it is no longer enough to talk about diversity; but recognize the challenge of difference; it is not enough to speak about the fact of plurality but face the challenges of pluralistic pictures of the world and values and norms. Whatever else the significance of many recent events may be, including that of September 11, 200 1, they certainly serve as a window on how we handle difference, respond to the 'other', and negotiate plurality at times of crisis.

Three dominant approaches to pluralism in our times:

One may identify at least three distinct approaches to pluralism. I will briefly refer to them by name and move on to my main concern in this presentation - to develop a missionary response to a pluralistic world.

Totalist and tribalist responses to pluralism and identity

In a powerful and perceptive book, One and the Many ii., the well known Church Historian, Martin Marty describes two ways in which people negotiate pluralism in our times. He describes two distinctly different approaches: one is totalistic and the other tribalistic. Both conceive identity 'in essentialist terms, that is, as fixed and substance like. Both assume that difference must be absolute. One seeks to annihilate identities that are different from itself through assimilation, dissolving difference into a greater whole; the other, the politics of identity, seeks to annihilate different and plural identities by eliminating or silencing them. Such essentializing attitudes to identity very often can lead to a universalizing of the particular. That leads to the positing of new and more insidious forms of absolutisms.

As an alternative to the totalistic and tribaslistic appraoch to pluralism stands a third: the liberal way of dealing with difference. Much of North American discourse in multiculturalism betrays such a liberal approach. It acknowledges that cultures and identities are diverse. But simple acceptance of diversity, as in the case of liberal pluralism, does not take seriously the asymmetric power relation between diverse identities. As Homi Bhabha puts it well, "although there is always an entertainment and encouragement of cultural diversity, there is always a corresponding containment of it. A transparant norm is constituted, a norm given by the host society... which says that 'these cultures are fine, but we must be able to locate them within our own gird'. This is what I mean by a creation of cultural diversity and containment of cultural difference." iii It is therefore important to seek an alternative to the dominant liberal attitude to pluralism.

My submission in this presentation is that it is an aspect of the mission of the Church to point to this fourth and alternative way of dealing with difference in God's plural world. How may we be faithful to God's design of enriching human communities through healthy diversity and cultivating a pasture of permanent openness to the other, and to the plurality of cultures and traditions, however strange and unsettling they might be? That is the central question before us.

[[[Biblical vision of an alternative response to pluralism

Already in the Old Testament we see pointers to such an option. In contrast to both the totalist and tribalist vision of the human, the Biblical witness portrays humans as being constituted only in interactive relationships, as an act of grace and as gift of the others. In the Book of Genesis, the story of Babel is immediately followed by the story of the call of Abraham. In Abraham, a people is called, its identity is affirmed, and yet such an identity is inseparable from Go(Ts purpose of "all the families of the earth". In the identity of this one people, all peoples will be blessed. Philip Potter points to the fact that even the word blessed' (in Hebrew 'barak') means to share one's strength, one's being with another, to be with the other." In other words, herein is the identification of God's action as affirmation of the identity and purpose of a particular people and yet as locating it inseparably with the whole of the human community. Identity of an individual or a people is constituted only in relation to and for the same of others. The tribalist exclusivism and the totalist assimilation are rejected. In their place an interactive and dialogical relationship is estabished as the foundation of peoples and nations. The call of Abraham is a call to refuse to let one's identity be absolutized and one's borders closed. It is a call to witness to the divine purpose of constituting identity and difference for the sake of the mutual flourishing of all. An individual or a people, in an Abrahamic alternative, is both an act of divine grace and gifts of others. ]]]

[[(Since the 1970s, the voices that call the churches to take seriously the heterogeneity and plurality that mark peoples around the world, and the continuing asymmetrical power relations among churches, have grown clearer and louder, particularly from those who have been marginalized. Most of the major conferences of the World Council of Churches (WCC) and its assemblies have heard them. World mission conferences 'in San Antonio in 1989 and the one in Salvador, Bahia, in 1996 are no exception. In 1991, the Canberra assembly of the World Council of Churches defined the mission of the Church, stating, "The reconciliation brought about by the cross is the basis of the mission of the Church. A reconciled and renewed creation is the goal of the mission of the Church. The vision of God uniting all things in Christ is the driving force of its life and sharing."' The gospel and cultures study process of the WCC provided space for many to express the uniqueness of their identities, plurality and fluidity even within a single cultural process. It stressed the impossibility of any one cultural expression of the Christian story being the norm for every one else. At the same time, sharing the rich experiences of the gospel across diverse cultures led to the call for the active promotion of cross-contextual dialogue, challenge and mutual enrichment.)]]

What are some of the lessons from the ecumenical learning and mutual sharing and critique for our understanding of mission in a pluralistic world?

The cross-cultural experience has taught us that underlying the dominant ways of dealing with pluralism are three factors. It is these three factors that lead peoples and groups to manage plurality either by assimilating difference or eliminating it. These are three aspects of an attitude, a habit of thought, if you will, that lie behind the totlistic, tribalistic as well as the liberal ways of constructing the other that I pointed to above. They are:

- a 'centering,' an essentializing of one's self, one's nation, market, values, norms, etc. in such a way that they are taken to be the universal and true; the rest are conceived often in oppositional terms;

- an erecting and maintaining of borders to exclude the other, and relationships are primarily external; a silencing or even eliminating the voice of the other;

- a desire for dominating power that turns the other into 'serviceable' to oneself or one's group.

I submit that an adequate understanding of the practice of mission and ministry today involves a de-centering of selves, a courageous border-crossing and empowering multiple even contesting voices within a shared communion. Mission as reconciliation is an embracing of the other in the place of exclusion - a new relationship with God, with each other and with creation that is free of domination and fragmentation in the perspective of the reign of God. It is my belief that the life and witness the Christian communities provide us insights into such a threefold mission that is demanded of us today.

Let me develop each of these three aspects of the mission of the Church briefly.

First, Mission as a critique of a culture of autonomous identities and as a proclamation of catholic personhood in Christ.

First, an authentic way of dealing with pluralism calls for a de-centering of individual and collective identities that have been constructed as autonomous and self-sufficient. Look for a moment at the story of the Pentecost. The story is set against the disciples' question whether the kingdom of Israel will be restored and their identity would be affirmed. However, Jesus' response rather highlights that when the Spirit does come upon them, they would disperse. Their collective existence will be de-centered and they will go to the ends of the earth. Their identities from now on are to be defined in terms of their plural locations and the diverse peoples among whom they will go to witness. A centripetal quest is responded to with a promise of centrifugal dispersal. There is no central place, no single language, and no single authoritative seat of power, not even Jerusalem. Later on, the disciples come to learn that baptism itself is a sign of the alternative identity of a new and inclusive humanity, which replaces exclusivist ways of defining oneself. In this process there is a de-centering of identifies, whether they be defined either purely in terms of polis, i.e., the nation/city state to which one belongs, or in terms of blood, i.e., one's ethnic and blood relationships.

Further, the Pentecost story is a powerful paradigm of negotiating diversity. It is the day when in and through the operation of the Holy Spirit the quest for integration and uniqueness leads to the affirmation of diversity in communion and harmony. The narrative in Acts 2 takes care to hold the terms 'each' and 'all' 'in creative tension. Each hears in his or her native tongue and thus monologic traditions are overturned; vernacularization takes place. All cultures and languages are affirmed and yet none becomes the norm. Pentecost both destigmatizes each culture and relativizes all cultures at one and the same time, and thereby brings about a communion of diversity. All are included and yet each is decentralized. The Spirit does not bring about a homogenized, safe and secure, uniformity but a differentiated and costly unity of all people: Jews, Arabs and people from many nations. There is no central place or one sacred language, nor a single seat of power, even Jerusalem. At the end of chapter two of the Book of Acts, we are given a powerful description of a community of relational selves, socially formed, and sharing everything they had with each other.

I am increasingly convinced that one of the major missiological tasks today is to offer a radical critique of modem cultures which tend to conceive of human or one's particular group as a bounded and autonomous entity. The oldest desire or goal of Western logic has been to locate a single, stable, permanent and universal centre, which provides the unity, tames and rules over multiplicity. It is the same logic that operated in the colonial conquests and today continues in the neo-colonial dynamics of globalization. In the process it does violence to that which is different from itself. This has been the case when a religion, a nation or a culture is made into a centre. When Christianity as a religion is envisioned as a centered religion, then, in its missionary enterprise, the alien religious traditions are adjudicated as false and the people of other faiths are turned into objects of the conversion project. Bert Hoedemaker suggests how the modem ecumenical movement as represented by the WCC is a manifestation of such a centripetal process of centering on a homogenous overarching principle of unity. Vi He also points out how other cultures and religious tradition, due to the influence of modernity upon them, have tamed plurality and stifled the popular and the particular by constructing overarching and centralised principles of national cultures and religions. The very notion of Hindutva in India is an ideological and centering in order to manage and control other religious traditions in India such as Islam and Christianity.

It is urgent that we examine ourselves how in our respective contexts and cultures, through centering on an overarching principle, we have allowed plurality to be stifled and genuine otherness to be denigrated in the name of unity, sameness and truth.

[[[(Part of the reason that the Salvador world mission conference was seen as a problem, and a failure by many in the Northern churches, is, in my judgement, due to the fact that it did not deliver a single and unified definition of either the gospel or culture. Many could not tolerate the polysymbolic and polycentric nature of the conference. Central to the dynamic of the conference was a celebration of the plurality of cultural identities and the voicing of diverse experiences and stories of encountering Christ by people in diverse contexts. Identities cannot be artificially limited. Neither can the witnesses to the identity-shaping and freeing power of the gospel in diverse cultures. The very attempt to finalize the findings of the conference in centralized section reports ended up quite contrary in spirit and method to a locally based and rich preparatory process, as well as to the way in which diverse stories were shared during the gathering.)]]]

I often wonder what a missionary practice would look like if we resisted the temptation to ensure the victory of 'oneness' over multiplicity, identity over difference, or the pure over the hybrid. Many recent feminist theorists have powerfully established that there is an unmistakable correlation between domination and a kind of disembodied, abstract and transcendent form of knowledge, applicable everywhere and to everyone. vii As the post modem thinker "Lyotard' makes it clear, the rationality of consensus is only a few steps from the desire for one system, one truth, - in sum, one rationality - to dominate human civilisation. In its extreme, the will to one truth has yielded the totalitarian Reign of Terror." viii

Therefore, it is this mind-set that needs to be de-centered if we are serious about healthy ways of dealing with plurality. I submit that this is an urgent missionary task that the Church is called to undertake in the power of the Spirit of the Pentecost.

Many non-western cultures are collective cultures 'in which nurturing relationships and loyalty to others are supreme social values. Individuals in these cultures are not egocentric, self-contained or non-porous. As an African proverb puts it, "We participate, therefore I am." Contrast this to the Cartesian dictum: Cogito ergo sum, or a possible modem equivalent, "I possess, therefore I am"

Such a decentered approach to the other, in the words of Miraslov Volf, is to "create space in us to receive the other ... The Spirit of God breaks through the self-enclosed worlds we inhabit." ix The Spirit also opens up for us "the road toward becoming ... a 'catholic personality,'... A catholic personality is a personality enriched by otherness, a personality which is what it is only because multiple others have been reflected in it in a particular way."x The Spirit of Christ brings about a catholic cultural identity in the place of either an assimilative globalization or competitive politics of identity.

Mission as courageous border crossing

The second aspect of the Church's missionary presence in a plural world has to do with borders that one group, community or race constructs over against others in order to negotiate plurality. More often than not, the construction of plural identities is also often controlled by binary thought forms. Monological, or egocentric identities, as we saw above, are constructed oppositionally. The identity of an individual or community is defined by differentiating it ftorn what it is not. Each is seen as sharply atomised, this from that, you from me, God from the world, and so on. This differentiation quickly turns into sharp distinctions, and then distinction turns into opposition and confrontation. Further, in order to preserve one's identity, borders are erected and maintained as nonporous. The logical consequence is that differences can no longer be tolerated.

The Acts of the Apostles portrays Peter similarly bounded by borders of race and religion; his attitude to a Gentile Cornelius is shaped by his sense of pollution of those who were different from him and his community. Yet, as the power of Pentecost operates, Peter is given the strength to cross borders and discover that God has no favountes among God's people. How then can we learn to cross borders that we have hitherto kept as not permeable? No cultural or religious borders are impermeable. Certainly, in these days the co-ordinates of all our borders are continuously defined and redefined in terms of our interaction with each other. As Richard Bernstein argues convincingly, "There is no horizon which is ontologically closed ... There are always the linguistic and imaginative resources within any horizon that can enable us to extend our horizon." xi

In other words, we can come to understand what initially strikes us as alien and strange if we have the willingness to cross boundaries set by us, and seek to understand the other. Behind our cultural, linguistic and even national borders there is a significant connectedness of our diverse identities and histories in these postmodern times. Many identities are hybrid, hyphenated and in constant flux. They are continuously defined and redefined in terms of our interaction with other identities. The factor behind many a nationalist conflict and ethnic cleansing in our times is the inability of a people to move beyond their own background or cultural boundaries. We need to remind ourselves that it was the ideology of the incommensurability of races and cultural horizons that motivated the demonic destruction initiated by the Third Reich. Hence, rupturing the spatial and temporal boundaries of our histories and crossing borders are an urgent imperative for our communities of faith in a conflictual and plural world.

Such a border crossing is similar to what John S. Dunne refers to as the phenomenon of 11passing over and coming back"- Describing this new inter-faith relationship as "the spiritual adventure of our time", Dunne says, "Passing over is a shifting of standpoint, a going over to the standpoint of another culture, another way of life, another religion. It is followed by an equal and opposite process we might call 'coming back,' coming back with new insight to one's own culture, one' own way of life, one's own religion. " xii

Here there is no fusion of borders that would mean our individual or group identities are lost. Nor is it a border diffusion or dissolution. But it is a crossing over and a returning so that the co-ordinates of one's identities may now be redrawn in a much richer way due to the gift from the other. In a dialogical context across difference, it is important that one does not bypass the elements of 'strangeness' or possible contestation. Nor can one subsume difference under an already familiar category to oneself.

Such a border crossing is costly for it first demands of us a rejection of oppositional thinking and the binary habits of thought to which we are so used. It is risky for it calls us to be willing to be liminal, and to beat the threshold. All threshold existence is threatening; but it is only when we step across it that we may discover the creatively new.

[[[In Isaiah 19:23-24 the Prophet envisions such a border crossing. The vision speaks of an impossible possibility. Three former enemies now cross borders and walk back and forth to each other over a highway built by God. For Israel, this was costly. It had to give up its privileged position and learn to be on a par with Egypt and Assyria. It had to give up its special name as "my (God's) people" with others who have been hitherto called the Gentiles. But the Prophet speaks of the coming together of these different peoples as though it is God's dream and purpose for humanity. The Mission of the church today, I submit, is to build such a highway over which people of diverse cultures, religions and races can cross borders for both integration as well as the enrichment of their particular identities. It will, indeed, demand from the church a critical examination and renouncing of its theologies that e xclude, and of its missionary practices that maintain impermeable boundaries with others.]]]

Let me now quickly turn to a third aspect of mission in a pluralistic world. Mission toward multi-voiced and polyphonic communities across difference

If we look back at the story of the early church after the Pentecost experience, it appears that the Spirit did not leave the believers with border-crossings alone. Certainly, such crossings brought out newer dimensions of integration or wholeness, and helped redraw the co-ordinates of ecclesial identities. However, the Spirit demanded more. The Spirit led the disciples to the formation of a community where differences could be articulated and contestation was possible. Particularly, those whose voices were not heard were empowered to speak. The concerns of the marginalized, e.g. the Greek widows, became a factor in the structural alteration of the community and its ministries. The stories of those who had been silenced until then could now be heard. The experience of the 'gentiles' became a decisive factor in detenniming the future of theology and mission.

The first council in Jerusalem is a case in point. This story of Pentecost is set in a conflictual context. The powerful 'Judaizers' have their say. Yet, at the centre of the story is the place given to the stories of those who are outside the Jewish community, i.e. the gentiles. Truth is shared not in propositional terms; it is rather shared as stones. James Cone points to the power of story telling in empowerment and community building. He says:

"Indeed, when I understand truth as story, I am more likely to be open to other people's truth stories. As I listen to other stories, I am invited to move out of the subjectivity of my own story into another realm of thinking and acting. The same is true for others when I tell my story ... Indeed it is only when we refuse to listen to another story that our own story becomes ideological, that is a closed system, incapable of hearing the truth. xiii

Cone's warning that community itself is at stake and domination of one group by another is the result when we are closed in within our own stories and turn them into the only valid truth needs to be heeded. He says, "When people can no longer listen to other people7s stories, they become enclosed within their own social context, treating their distorted visions of reality as the whole truth. And then they feel that they must destroy other stories, which bear witness that life can be lived in another way." xiv

Thus the Pentecost paradigm places before us an authentic way of dealing with difference and negotiating plurality; it is by ensuring the intentional creation of a community, a space, in which the 'other' who has been silenced for a long time can now be heard on his/her own terms. It is a space where monologue is given room to dialogue and trialogue for the co-construction of the self and others within a shared communion. It is a space that safeguards differences and yet builds up common sharing. This implies that we have many different voices in and through which we speak. We think and hear others and in and through this we relate to the world. As Mikhail Bakhtin, the Russian thinker puts it, "We are 'the voices that inhabit us."' xv Every relationship is mutual and multi-voiced, genuinely promoting verbal or cultural exchange, so that all those involved 'in the relationship are changed or enriched. Our many voices of heteroglossia offer us a richness of thinking, knowing and experiencing ourselves and everything that is around us. It is through the multi-voicedness that we are constituted as social selves. The absence of multi-voicedness leads a community to dominant modes of discourse; its definitions of truth will remain static and exclusive.

I use the term 'multi-voiced' and not the more familiar terms such as 'multi-cultural' or multi-vocal.' This is primarily to indicate that the space and the community we are envisioning here do not simply include the presence of more or less representatives of diverse groups. Rather, the space and community active foster a setting where a plurality of voices are heard, and in which their diversities and contestation are expressed, and their participation matters in making decisions. Voicing implies exercising power. Therefore, in a multi-voiced community, power sharing is critical. Such a community is possible only when we are willing to give up our dominant roles and inherited structures of power and privilege. Much will be demanded of those who commit themselves for such dialogical and multi-voiced spaces in the midst of a predominantly monological world.

Mission toward a multi-voiced community, witnessing to truth as stories, will necessarily involve a radical vulnerability demonstrated by Jesus. It calls for a genuine 'incarnate presence' before the other, and within the cultures and religious heritage of the people around us. Witness from within is the only proper mode of evangelism worthy of a God who does not control history from without, but rather enters into our history, suffers with it and transforms it by participating in it, fully and really. As the well known Asian theologian, C.S. Song puts it, "Christian mission in essence should be a love affair of the church with other human beings with whom God has already fallen in love…It is Christian believers building with them a community in the power of God's love. If this is what Christian mission is, then Christian mission is God's mission." xvi The practice of mission often tends to forget this central affirmation. Mission, in essence, is an expression of God's pain, and God's love, demonstrated in Jesus Christ to all those human beings with whom God is already in love. Mission in the mode of vulnerable love is necessarily dialogical. It is a genuine listening and responding to stories of God's love as told by others, however strange these stories may sound.

One thing is certain: only when the pain-love of the crucified Christ is in us, shall we be authentic witnesses to the power of the risen Christ, which is the power of pain-love that gives life to all and voice to the voiceless. It is through the solidarity of love to the end that reconciliation of God in Jesus Christ, and the drawing of all of creation into God's embrace, is accomplished in all its plurality, thus witnessing to the 'multi-colored wisdom and glory of the Triune God.

  1. (New York: HarperCollins, 2001)

  2. Harvard, 1997





  3. Signs of the Spirit, Official Report Seventh Assembly, d. by Michael Kinnamon Geneva World Council of Churches, 1991 p.100.

  4. "Religion beyond Modernity: A missiological perspective " in, Philip L. Wickeri, J.K. Wickeri and Damayanthi M.A. Niles, eds., Plurality, Power and Mission, London Council for World Mission, 2000, pp. 172f

  5. For example, see L. Code, What Can She Know? Feminist Theory and Construction ofKnowledge, Ithaca, N.Y. Cornell University Press, 1991 ; Patricia Collins, Black Feminist Thought, Revised edition, London: Routledge, 2000 Ainda Alcoff and Elizabeth Potter, ds , Feminist Epistemologies, London Routledge, 1993 and C.A. McKinnon, Toward a Feminist Theory of the State, Cambridge, MA Harvard University Press, 1989

  6. Ofelia Schutte, op. cit., p.50





  7. "The Hermeneutics of Cross-cultural Understanding " Anindita N. Balslev (ed), Cross-cultural Conversation, Atlanta Scholars Press, 1996 , p.35

  8. The Way of All the Earth Experiments in Truth and Religion New York: Macmillan, 1972 , p.ix

  9. God of the Oppressed, New York: Seabury Press, 1975 , pp. 102-104

  10. Ibid, p. 103

  11. Gary S. Morson, Mikhail Bakhtin. Creation of a Prosaics, Stanford, CA Stanford University Press, 1990 , p.213

  12. C.S. Song, Tell Us Our Names Maryknoll, New York: Orbis, 1984, p.108.