The Perils of Missionary Theology

Theology is a fundamentally missionary enterprise. “It has,” as Linda Woodhead writes, “more to do with witness than invention” (in Gunton, ed., The Practice of Theology, 403). The fundamental ambiguity of missionary discourse, of course, is the attempt to communicate truths across idioms, to introduce a message which originated in another historical moment in the present. This inevitability is not detrimental to mission, but simply the natural outworking of an historical revelation. This feature distinguishes Christianity (and its quite different relatives, Islam and Judaism) from the Eastern religions.

In Pannenberg’s Christianity in a Secularized World, he confronts this inherent difficulty head on: “So how,” he asks, “should the churches conduct themselves in the world of a secular culture in order to make it easier for people to move from the implicit presence of the religious theme in their lives to an explicit Christian commitment of faith? What can theology contribute to this?” (in Gunton, 360). The missionary theological options–which, one should note, are ecclesially situated–range, Pannenberg writes, “from the various forms of assimilation to a move in precisely the opposite direction” (ibid.).

When theology completely assimilates itself to the thinking of secular culture, “the content of faith becomes so empty that the question arises why one should still turn to religion at all” (361). On the other hand, when a sharp antithesis is driven between faith and the dominant, secular culture, the former “appears as irrational commitment to a content which is regarded as ‘true’ only in a private perspective” (360). What is actually needed, Pannenberg argues, is a theological account of rationality.

From the early murmurs of the risen Christ in the margins of the Empire, the Christian gospel has had to confront the claims of pagan reason. As Pannenberg states, “From the beginning the link with reason has been part of the missionary dynamism of Christianity. In the Christian patristic period it characterized the claim of the gospel to universality against all the irrationalisms in which late antiquity was particularly rich” (364). To overcome absorption into the pantheon of Mediterranean religions, Christian theology had to demonstrate that it was the bearer of a universal truth, and thus, a universal rationality. Pannenberg, in this light, states, “the opportunity for Christianity and its theology is … to oppose the shortcomings of secular culture with a deeper and broader reason” (363, 364).

Linda Woodhead confronts a homologous issue in feminist theology, which she laments “has failed to be sufficiently theological” (in Gunton, 399). Importantly, this results, in Woodhead’s view, from insufficient attention to the church, which “feminist critique relegates … to a secondary role” (401). Woodhead reads feminist critiques of Christianity as oddly uniform, despite their divergent conclusions. They together share “main features [which] may be traced back to the early days of the Enlightenment” (ibid.). Feminist theological critiques typically reduce Christianity to a set of dogmas, or what Rosemary Radford Ruether calls, “codified collective experience” (ibid.). In Woodhead’s own phrase, “textually encoded beliefs” (400). This “thin reality … occludes the thick reality of the Trinitarian God and of those communities which are caught up in His [sic?] life” (401).

In a manner parallel with feminist theologian Sarah Coakley, Woodhead argues that the life of the Trinity makes the Church a site of grace. Instead of a rigid hierarchical–worse, patriarchal–institution, the Church is “the place where human beings are caught up into God’s life” (402). In other words, the place where people are, in Mary Daly’s phrase, “becoming whole persons” (in Gunton, 390). By such healing, “women can generate a counterforce … challenging the artificial polarization of human characteristics into sex-role identification” (ibid.). But this occurs only in the Church.

Which leads to the central thrust of Woodhead’s concern: that feminist theologians are more fundamentally feminist than theologians. It may be possible to hold a strong feminist concern as “less a meta-narrative than an ethical conviction or principle” (402). But too often, feminist theologians “hold it as a more basic commitment than their commitment to Christianity, even as their sole and unrevisable commitment” (403). In this, the project of theology is essentially abandoned, for to be a theologian is to witness to the God who has come to us in Christ–a witness that occurs only within the sphere of being caught up into the life of Christ’s service to the Father, in the fellowship of the Spirit.

Thus, theology without Christian commitment becomes necessarily impotent. In Linda Woodhead’s words:

The failure of feminist theology to produce truly constructive Christian theology is due, in my view, to the incoherence of its project. Christian theology has never been constructed on the basis of ‘experience.’ Rather, it has been constructed on the basis of encounter with God in Christ, mediated through the Christian tradition. It has more to do with witness than invention. (403)