We are reflecting during these days on the impact of the dominant liberal capitalist economic and commercial systems on our societies and on the challenges they pose to us as witnesses to Jesus’ Good News of the Reign of God. The poor are not only increasing in number but are becoming poorer. The resources of the earth, common to all, are being abused by a few and depleted and destroyed. Social inequalities follow the growing economic inequalities and give rise to tensions and violent conflicts. We have seen how the economic and commercial systems are supported by the political systems, whatever be their democratic façades. The political regimes are further sustained by military systems that impose internal and external control to facilitate economic and commercial activity. The military systems are in turn promoted and sustained by the industrial complex through the production and sale of arms. We are also realising how this network of exploitation and control today has global dimensions. We understand how the monetisation of the economy has given rise to financial markets in which, through speculation, money makes more money.
We realise that the only effective way of witnessing to and promoting the Reign of God in this situation is to adopt a two-pronged strategy. On the one hand we have to show in practice that people can meet their needs through alternative technologies and alternative economic and commercial practices. On the other hand the people must progressively gain participative control of the systems that govern their lives and, in this manner, humanise and socialise them. This strategy has to be pioneered by small groups of people who link themselves into networks; nationally and internationally, to put pressure on the powers that be so as to bring about progressive change.
I would like to suggest that such a strategy will not be effective unless it is accompanied by a cultural transformation, namely a change in peoples’ world-views and systems of values. The roots of such a cultural transformation will be a spirituality that motivates, inspires, and enables people to search for a fuller life for all. Any spirituality today, in a world of religious pluralism, can only be human and global, cutting across religious frontiers. The mission of the Good News in such a context requires counter-cultural communities who do not believe in the power of money or numbers or even of truth, perceived in the abstract, but in the power of the Spirit and in their own call to serve.
Radical Modernity or Post-Modernity
Sociologists are not in agreement about whether we are now in a period of post-modernity or of radical modernity. I think that one reason for this dispute is how one looks at modernity itself. We can look at modernity as having its beginnings with the push given to science in the age of Descartes, Newton and Blake. Science discovered its autonomy with the principles of rationality and immanence. People were convinced that the phenomena of nature can be understood by the powers of practical reason, through observation and measurement, analysis and experimental verification. Investigation discovered nature’s laws, based on the principle of cause and effect, without feeling the need to invoke supernatural causes. Technology, with human imaginative skills, sought to use the laws of nature, not only to predict natural phenomena like eclipses and earthquakes, but also to control nature and to produce goods, using nature’s laws. Monetisation facilitated commerce and mechanical production of goods provided the objects for trade. Science, technology and commerce have joined forces to dominate the whole earth and become global. Some would even say that, driven only by the quest for profit and not bound by any national or cultural roots, it is bound to become global. This is what is happening today. Globalisation however has not brought community among peoples, but only fragmentation and competition for the scarce resources. People feel that they are slaves to the impersonal forces of machines and markets. All these developments do not imply the end of modernity, but its full flowering or its radical, global consequences.
But the people who speak of post-modernity also have a point. Modernity also refers to a new outlook on the world that had its origin in relation to modernity. Science affirmed the autonomy of the world for purposes of analysis. People absolutised this autonomy and denied any transcendent Principle on which the world was dependent. Science used practical reason for its discoveries. People said that anything that cannot be analysed by practical reason does not exist. Technology provided the tools for the production of material goods. People imagined that the power they had over nature was absolute and allowed them to exploit it without limit or control. Such a shift in perspective is not simply the natural outcome of science and technology, but is the result of a human, moral choice, through which theoretical reason becomes the slave of the practical one. The new developments brought about by science and technology also gave rise to the myth of indefinite and continuing progress. History was seen as uni-directional. People felt that they were masters of themselves and of the world. It is this modern outlook that is being questioned today. After two world wars and many, even more deadly, regional ones rather than progressing mankind seems to be moving towards self-destruction. There is a growing awareness that all knowledge is conditioned by a variety of human factors and that any pretension to objectivity and absoluteness in knowledge is misplaced. The Transcendent has refused to disappear and, faced with the risks and uncertainties of life, people seem to be turning again to religion in some form. The ambition of building one world governed by reason has collapsed in the face of the experience of and the self-assertion by ethnic, cultural and religious pluralism. The groups searching for alternative technologies and experiences of community witness to the failure of the modern ideal. From this point of view one can say that we have moved into a post-modern phase.
A Cultural Crisis
We are therefore living a moment of crisis and tension between the radical modernity of the scientific-technological world and the post-modernity of the cultural perspectives. Nowhere is this tension more actual than in the realm of community and religion. On the one hand modernity has broken down the traditional groups including the family and promoted individualism, mobility and competition. On the other hand, faced with an inhuman world, people are searching for new identities and relationships of support and solidarity and finding it in factors like ethnicity and religion. Even in the field of religion people are moving away from institutional controls and dogmatic certainties to associative communities and to an experience of freedom to search and to choose. People who postulate post-modernism focus more on the deconstruction of modern societies than on any viable alternatives. No one seems to emerge with an alternative vision. This is unfortunately true of the Churches too. Though there is much talk of mission, a convincing new vision that one could propose, relevant to the post-modern world, seems lacking.
Modernity and the Churches
One reason for this is that the Churches themselves have become compromised with modernity in many ways. Some Christians would even claim that modernity itself is a fruit of the Christian doctrine of creation that sets the Creator apart form the created world and gives the latter an independent reality. The scientific world-view has largely been accepted by Christians who either voluntarily limit their faith to the sphere of revelation and the supernatural as opposed to reason and nature or seek to show that their faith too is not opposed to reason. The Churches willingly believed in the myth of indefinite progress and added to it the sacred dimension of salvation history. They believed in the invincible and uni-directional march of history and imagined themselves to be at the vanguard of that movement. While they were critical of some of the aspects of the commercial and colonial conquest of the world, they did profit from the facilities it offered to further their mission. Their vision of mission as the planting of the Church in a process of universal, of course religious, conquest in the name of God was not very different from the colonial perspective, mobilising financial and personnel resources, though it may have been expressed in biblical images. The Churches have sought to dialogue with the philosophical perspectives of modernity, letting modernity set their theological agenda rather than seek alternatives to it. It is significant that many of the small groups that are trying out alternative life-styles often look to the Orient for inspiration and the exodus from the institutional structures of the Church is not decreasing.
The Churches seem hesitant to move towards reconciling the pluralism of perspectives among themselves, in spite of many inter-confessional dialogues. They have not really come to terms either with the cultural and religious pluralism of the world, in spite of continuing study projects on “Gospel and Culture” and on “Dialogue with Other Living Faiths and Ideologies”. I am aware that I am making broad general statements and that there were and are small groups of people in the various Churches who are walking along different paths. It may also be that my view of the Churches looked at from India, with our experience of continuing economic and cultural colonialism and of a Christian existence that makes us foreigners in our own country seems different from the view had by others looking at it from elsewhere. But the question I wish to raise is how much the Churches themselves have been affected by the perspectives of modernity and how free and ready they are today to be on mission witnessing to the Reign of God in the post-modern world. Are the Churches ready to accept cultural and religious pluralism that is struggling with the monochrome perspectives of modernity, the freedom of people even in the sphere of religion and their quest for associative, experiential communities moving beyond institutional structures?
Our Mission Today
What are the challenges then to mission in a post-modern world? I would like to make two clarifications at this point. First of all the Good News of Jesus directly addresses the world-views and value systems of our cultures and through them seeks to influence the choices that we make in the economic and political spheres. That is why I am speaking here of post-modernity rather than of radical modernity as the locus of mission. Secondly, any vision of mission in today’s world must arise from the point of view of its victims — the poor, the marginalised and the oppressed. They are the mediators of the challenging demands of the Good News. (Talking in Latin America I need not elaborate this point).
Our mission today should be to offer an alternative way of living in the world. I would like to highlight three aspects of this alternative way. They are: an affirmation of life, an experience of life in community and an awareness of transcendence.
An Affirmation of Life
Modernity has accustomed us to turn everything into an object which can be observed, measured, manipulated and exploited for selfish, human ends. Growing mechanisation makes the human a slave of the machine. Such an approach to nature has led to a large scale exploitation and destruction of nature and its many forms of life, jeopardising the ecological balance and the future of our earth itself. The human being too is objectified. The human body is treated like a machine, whose life processes can be interfered with and controlled to one’s own benefit. Medicine has become an industry. The media has turned the human body into a consumer product. Human labour has been commodified so that it can be bought and sold in the market. The current economic system has increased the mass of the poor in the world who are not able to meet their basic needs to live a dignified human life. Even the life of the rich is dehumanised by consumerism so that life loses its meaning and becomes a burden and an alienation.
In this context, the Good News affirms life. Affirming life is not believing in life after death, but promoting life before death. God is the Creator and giver of life to the cosmos and to human beings. In making human beings in God’s own image, God made them, not only to live in harmony with nature, but also to be creative and lead life to its fullness. Contemporary science has made us aware that life is a network that links the whole cosmos into an eco-system. It is not just a giant machine as industrial technocrats seem to assume or lifeless matter that one can exploit with impunity. Human life too is part of this system. The earth can survive without man; but mankind cannot survive without the earth. But the cosmos itself finds in human beings a new, creative dimension of life that gives it a meaning and purpose. To affirm human life is to affirm the human subject, who has freedom and who, while rooted in nature, can create a fuller life with richness and diversity. The human person is not a machine, condemned to repetitive action. Man’s freedom is more than the randomness that one can discover in nature; it can be purposeful. To defend and promote life is therefore not only to enable the poor to survive, but to affirm their freedom, their capacity for creative self-expression, and the means and space necessary for their creativity to be fruitful and enrich human life. Human beings do this through culture, through which they humanise the world and give it meaning. They learn to use science and employ appropriate technologies for human purposes. To affirm life is to affirm culture, the identity it brings to people, the diversity of its expressions and the freedom that is necessary for its creation.
Life in Community
To discover life profoundly is to become aware of it as sharing, as gift, as love, as community. If the cosmos itself is a network of life, man becomes human in and through a community. It is in relating to another that one fully discovers oneself. This is not a discovery of contemporary psychology. This is an experience of life. God made the human person male and female in God’s image. This sets up a basic relationship and reciprocity that governs the whole of life. But because man is made in God’s image, this reciprocity is not automatic, but has to be assumed and lived by the human being in freedom. The human person is born in community; but the community has to be constantly built up.
Human egoism, shown in desire and love for power is the obstacle to community. This egoism has been further strengthened by the modern stress on individualism and competition. Even the so-called corporate culture owes loyalty, not to the other, but to the company. Any consideration for the other is seen as interfering with the unique objective of pursuing profit. So there is a culture of individualism and anonymity. But in a competitive world individualism involves not only isolation from the other, but also the effort to dominate the other. The domination takes the form of economic power, supported by political and military power. It leads to social inequality, that is based on economic inequality, but often shown cumulatively in many other spheres. Such domination of human beings by other human beings has taken a particular historical and cultural form in the domination of the men over the women as a group. Some have pointed out how this sexual domination is very much part and parcel of the whole scientific-technological- commercial enterprise that privileges certain human characteristics identified as male, like aggressive and exploitative domination, and, that the exploitation and subjugation of women goes hand in hand with the exploitation and subjugation of nature.
Jesus’ Good News of the Reign of God projects an alternate vision of community. He proclaims justice and liberation to the poor and the oppressed. He befriends the poor, the outcaste, the sinner, publicans and the marginalised of his own day. He brings healing and wholeness to the people suffering under physical, psychological and social oppression. By his preaching and miracles he set himself against the representatives of Mammon in his time. He proclaims a new law that privileges poverty and meekness, peace and justice, forgiveness and reconciliation. He gives us a new Commandment of love, sharing with us his Father’s love and life. He does not hesitate to lay down his own life as an affirmation of his love, thus actuating the power of reconciliation. He leaves us a memorial banquet that symbolises and experiences in the sharing of food the sharing of life with each other and with God.
Such a community in God is held together by the bonds of love and mutual acceptance. It is not based on geographic, ethnic, cultural and religious unity. It is not bound by national, economic or caste barriers. It is not only comfortable with multi-culturalism, but sees it as the creative variety and richness of the human race. Its model of community-in-difference is neither architectonic like a building or temple nor even organic — like a tree or a body — but human-divine like a family or the Trinity itself. We would not dare to propose the Trinity as a model, if Jesus himself had not done so: “May all be one as you Father are in me and I am in you. May they be one in us”! (Jn 17:21).
An Awareness of Transcendence
Jesus in his own person is the presence of God to humanity in its life, history and togetherness. The incarnation of Jesus is the assurance that the divine is not merely an addition from the outside to the human person but is a dimension of the human. It is part of human history. Jesus is God-with-us, God-in-us. One of the consequences of the immanentism of modernity is the declaration of the absolute autonomy of the cosmic and the human. It denies any meaning for transcendence, which is not necessary for its understanding of the world. In the face of such denial, it is not helpful to affirm transcendence as something in addition to the cosmos or as something that follows history in the future. We have to discover transcendence as the depth or roots of the cosmos and of the human. On the other hand we cannot fully understand the cosmos and the human person unless we see them as rooted in the Transcendent. This enduring reality is personalised and made historical by Jesus’ entry into our history and his continuing presence with us.
Secularisation is one of the consequences of modernity. In so far as it involves a certain autonomy of other social institutions from religion as an institution and its domination on every aspect of life, it is indeed welcome. It has done away with a God who is simply an image of our ignorance, stepping in to explain what we have not yet discovered. But when the autonomy becomes, not only absolute, but atheistic, it subverts the real. The tension today is, not that people have lost interest in religion, but that they accept without question the autonomy of the cosmos, so that religion becomes a private affair catering to personal psychological needs rather than making social demands. In Jesus as part of our history, God’s secularity is affirmed and becomes real to us. God is not above us or beyond us or before us. God is with us energising us for our life in the world leading it to fullness. He is particularly manifest in the poor, the oppressed and the marginalised in whom the quest for life is acute. It is the image of the Spirit, not only praying in us, but groaning in the very forces of the cosmos, giving birth to a new humanity of freedom, fellowship and justice in a new world. This alternate vision of the cosmos does not cut us away from it in our quest for the divine but helps us to become aware of the divine in its transcendent depths. To become aware of the secularity of God is to relativise the religious institutions as special and exclusive mediations of the Sacred. They assume a symbolic role of service.
The challenge of mission today is therefore to be a counter-cultural community that will embody in itself these values of life, community and transcendence so as to witness to and to promote the Reign of God in the world. How do we envisage such counter-cultural community? To be counter-cultural is to be prophetic. It is to challenge people in the name of a vision of what they ought to become, by embodying that vision. In this sense it will always be critical of the present. We can perhaps understand better what such counter-cultural communities should be by attending to what they should not be.
Quality or Numbers?
As we approach the year 2,000 there seems to be a millennial fever gripping some people in the Church who want to conquer the world for Christ. It is in the tradition of many such missionary projects in the past. It counts the numbers. Sometimes the attraction of quantity may make them overlook quality. Without wanting the counter-cultural communities to be intellectual, social or spiritual élites I think we can expect them to be people committed to their vision of the new society. They will not be mere sociological Christians. They will not seek the power of the institution. They will be serious searchers of the divine-human, respecting personal freedom including their own, and valuing pluralism as richness. When the community is not people-centred but becomes institutionalised in some way and related to political and other institutions, then it seems to lose the prophetic intensity and earnestness of the Good News.
Involved or Liminal?
When this happened in the history of the Church, the people who wanted to offer alternatives tended to set themselves apart as liminal communities — that is communities on the border line, so to speak — offering their witness and challenge not only to the world but also to the Church community. The Churches have had their hermits, contemplatives, monks, mendicants and various forms of apostolic groups in the course of their history. Such liminal communities may be symbols of the Reign of God. But by their very nature they cannot be models for the people in the world. They are reminders of ideals that all are expected to live. But the ideals are lived out in a way that not all can imitate them. Speaking of the symbolic world of culture, Anthropologists distinguish between ‘models of’ and ‘models for’. Counter-cultural communities should be both ‘models of’ and ‘models for’ the communities of the Reign of God. Their challenge will not be actual if they are not actively involved in the world in some way. I wonder whether some of the so-called secular institutes or movements, involved in the world in various ways, but representing and offering models for a different way of living, may not be more relevant today than the traditional religious institutes. Many of these, in any case, are or have become so task-oriented that they do not have much symbolic impact. When we think of community institutional structures immediately come to mind. When people come together for a common purpose we have a community. Such communities can be more or less permanent.
One can belong to more than one community. One can contrast John the Baptist and Jesus. John lived in the wilderness and preached conversion (cf. Mt 3:1-6). But Jesus lived with the people and preached the coming of the new world of the Reign of God and practised what he preached by gathering the poor, the oppressed and the marginalised around him.
An Alternate Way of Life
A counter-cultural community, in order to be authentic, should not be satisfied with presenting a model for a different way of life. It has to be involved in bringing about a transformation of the present world. It does not represent an absolute or otherworldly future. It suggests an alternate way in which people can live here and now. Its witness is rooted in history and seeks to change its course. It will necessarily get involved in peoples’ movements. Its favourite self-images will be leaven or salt or light. It does not avoid conflict. But its conflict will be in the perspective of community. It does not rely on political, economic or military power. Its strength is in its moral power based on truth and love. One often discusses in the abstract about the relative efficacy of violence and non-violence. Violence may occasionally throw out a tyrant or a dictator. We still have to hear a true story where violence has brought about a social transformation. The option for the power of truth and love is more than a strategic option. It is the only authentic way for a counter-cultural community.
Such counter-cultural communities may not always carry the label ‘Christian’. They may belong to other religions or they may be multi-religious. Given the present situation in the world today one can even say that often they are actually multi-religious. In the past our mission has often targeted the followers of other religions. The supposition then was that ours was the only true religion. Our evaluation of other religions and at least of some of their followers is more positive today. Besides, faced with the threat of global disaster brought about by radical modernity, we see in all those committed to an alternate world allies rather than enemies, whatever be their religious or ideological affiliation. A positive approach to believers of other religions is as much a reality of the post-modern world as multi-culturalism. Mission today will be dialogical. The dialogue should not limit itself to polite conversation but engage in common action for the defence of justice and the promotion of community. In Asia we have examples of such multi-religious communities.
In recent years one speaks about the need for a global ethic. Ethics somehow remains at the merely secular level. We should rather explore the possibilities of a global quest for spirituality, rooted in the experience of the divine or of the Transcendent. We should seek to go beyond agreeing upon some common human values that we wish to promote. Because I do not think that we can move towards a new human world if we keep God out of it. The religions, in spite of their differences and tensions, must play an active role. They should and will of course motivate and inspire their own followers. But beyond that they should create an atmosphere that takes seriously what I have characterised above as transcendence.
Religious leaders in Asia in recent years who have chosen to be counter-cultural in the face of the ravages brought about by liberal Capitalism and the free market system have distanced themselves not only from capitalism, but also from the alternative offered by Communism. They see them both as equally atheistic. Their positive affirmation is that one cannot have a just society which is not founded on religious perspectives of transcendence, whether the Ultimate is seen in personal or impersonal terms. This is true, for instance, of Ali Shariati in Iran, Mawlana Mawdudi in Pakistan, Mahatma Gandhi in India, Bhikku Buddhadasa in Thailand and Thich Nhat Hanh in Vietnam.
People who have a deep experience of their own religion seem able to dialogue with others and to learn from them, because the deeper one’s experience of the divine, the more one is aware of the limits of that experience. The greater one’s focus on God, the more ready one is to recognise God’s presence in others.
A Paradigm Shift
Our mission in the past has been so much directed to strengthening ‘our’ religion and conquering or making inroads into other religions that the focus of the mission on the Reign of God and the perception of the believers of other religions as allies in a common struggle with Mammon may be termed a paradigm shift. Our theological reflections are still coming to terms with this shift with questions turning around the uniqueness of Christ. (Going into these questions would require another address). But, I suggest that the discourse about the uniqueness of Christ is often a hidden discourse about the uniqueness of Christianity and about our desire to be the sole ‘possessors’ Christ. I think that we will not solve such questions without a real experience of working with other believers in our common fight with Mammon. Praxis must precede theory. Then we may discover that Christ is present, enabling the people, wherever the power of Mammon is challenged. Our mission to witness to this presence does not allow us to claim exclusive rights to it. What is more post-modern than such an experience of pluralism and a call to dialogue in the context of mutual respect and collaboration?
Let me recall some of the main points I have made by way of conclusion. Though our struggle against Mammon takes primarily economic and political forms, it has to be supported by efforts at cultural transformation. Today there is a tension between the radical modernity of science and technology and the post-modernity in the area of culture. The tension is all the more acute since post-modern trends in culture are not offering an alternate vision for life. This crisis is an opportunity for mission. The alternate way proposed by the Good News of Jesus in dialogue with post-modernity will have, among others, three characteristics: an affirmation of life, an experience of life in community and an awareness of transcendence. To embody these perspectives we need counter-cultural communities, who will be both ‘models of’ and ‘models for’ the communities of the Reign of God. They should be neither institutional nor liminal. In today’s world such communities will be inter-religious, people of different beliefs and ideologies united in their common struggle against Mammon.