Ass. Prof. of the University of Thessaloniki
Reconciliation as a pneunatological mission paradigm
(Some Preliminary Reflections by an Orthodox)
There are two parameters which constitute, and to a certain degree determine, the new perspective of the theology of mission in the third millenium of the Christian presence in the world. The first is the pneumatological dimension, expressed in two seemingly contradicting, but certainly highly converging, phaenomena in the field of world mission, at least with regard to their future perspectives: on the one hand the amazing expansion worldwide of the pentecostal movement, and on the other hand the consolidation of the trinitarian theology as a useful tool in the ecumenical dialogue in almost all ecclesiological, sociological, moral etc., and above all missiological reflections. This comparative new methodological paradigm was strongly proposed mainly (but certainly not exclusively) by the Orthodox, who experience a renaissance in missionary activity. The trinitarian revolution in contemporary Christian theology, which was strongly felt across denominational boundaries – from post-Vatican II Catholicism to evangelicalism – was a rediscovery of the theology of the Holy Spirit of the undivided Christian Church, and in fact a radical overcoming of the old medieval (but also later) Christocentric universalism, which in some cases developed in a christomonistic imperialism and and oppressive expansionism.
The second parameter is an increasing awareness of the liturgical dimension of our Christian self-understanding; an awareness that has been underlined in post-modernity as an important element of the Christian witness – maybe not as central as the proclamation of the word, but certainly as a constitutive element for the presence of the Word in our historical realities “for the the life of the world” (Jn 6:51). The exclusive emphasis of the old mission paradigm on the rational comprehension of truth, and as a result of it on the verbal proclamation of the Christian message, gave its place to a more holistic understanding of mission in post-modernity.(1)
In contemporary mission theology both these dimensions could not have found a stronger affirmation and a better application than in the slogan of the next World Mission Conference “COME HOLY SPIRIT, HEAL AND RECONCILE”. In the history of World Mission Conferences, the one to be held in Athens in 2005 (9-16 of May) is unique in many respects.
First of all, it is the first ever to be convened by the Commission on World Mission and Evangelism (CWME) of the World Council of Churches (WCC) on a clearly pneumatological focus. After the experience of the Camberra VII WCC General Assembly in 1992, also on a pneumatological theme, the 2005 Athens World Mission Conference is the first missionary event with such a pneumatological nuance. With an apparent awareness that the Christian mission is rooted in the mission of the Triune God, the Conference Planning Committee (CPC) of the CWME is reminding all member Churches of WCC, affiliated mission agencies, as well as the wider Christian constituency (Catholics and Evangelicals), that the witness of our (alas still divided) churches and Christians is nourished by the healing presence and power of the Holy Spirit. “Called in Christ to be Reconciling and Healing Communities”, as the main theme of the conference affirms in a Christological line, we are also reminded that an integral part of our Christ-oriented mission is to receive reconciliation with God, and become in turn reconciling and healing communities in celebration, witness, mutual love, forgiveness and respect. One of the purposes of the conference, therefore, is to underline that we are called in Christ to create and multiply such safe spaces, hospitable to those who are stigmatised, lost, searching for meaning or community, and to journey with victims of violence and sin towards reconciliation and justice.
Secondly, it is the first missionary conference that has been organized with a liturgical flow in all its activities, let alone the slogan which is shaped in a prayerful manner, i.e. as an invocation of the Holy Spirit to heal and reconcile, in other words to take Him/Herself the initiative in mission.
Thirdly, it was by God’s providence that this conference is the first ever to be convened in an Orthodox setting, hosted by the Orthodox Church of Greece, namely by a Christian tradition which more than any other tradition has contributed to the rediscovery of Pneumatology, not as an isolated doctrine but in close connexion with Christology to such an extend that one can now talk about a Christology pneumatologically conditioned and vice-versa.
Lastly, this conference is the first in the history of major missionary conferences to move beyond the classical themes and towards an understanding of mission as reconciliation, which together with the notion of healing will certainly be the main focus of the world mission community. To be honest such a radical shift, especially at a time when there are good signs of an attempt to reunite the missionary forces, needs a theological reasoning, something which was attempted by the preparatory working document “Towards mission as reconciliation”. The eventual choice of the enitre focus of the next World Mission Conference was neither accidental (i.e. influenced by contemporary developments, as for example the post September 11 situation), nor a radical retreat from a dynamic and offensive Christian witness, oriented towards converting the inhabited world (oikoumene) to Christ, to a defensive reorientation of our missionary task towards a lukewarm reconciliation process. It was mainly determined by the pneumatological orientation in contemporary mission theology.
My modest contribution is meant to provide some theological explanations to this new orientation, and to highlight some of the above stated dilemmas from an Orthodox perspective. More precisely: (a) I will briefly refer to the historical development of the Church’s understanding of mission; (b) I will then relate the understanding of universalism in Christian mission theology to Pneumatology; and finally (c) I will attempt to present a pneumatologically conditioned christological foundation of mission, focusing on reconciliation.
1. Both these two dimensions are closely linked with the eschatological understanding of the Holy Spirit and the eschatological understanding of the Church. The eschatology constitutes the central and primary aspect of the Church. Hence the priority of the Kingdom of God in all ecclesiological considerations. Everything belongs to the Kingdom. The Church in her institutional expression does not administer all reality; she only prepares the way to the Kingdom, in the sense that she is an image of it.