God's MissionJohn C. Sivalon, God’s Mission and Postmodern Culture: The Gift of Uncertainty (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2012).  121 pages plus notes (29 pp.) and index (7 pp.).  ISBN 978-1-57075-999-4.  $28.00.

Review by Mark F. Fischer

Many Christians in the USA measure the success of the church in terms of the growth of congregations.  Sivalon, a Maryknoll missioner in Tanzania for more than two decades and Superior General of his order six years, questions that measure.  From his standpoint it wrongly views the success of the Christian mission in human and not divine terms.  Sivalon writes, “Self-preservation and the law of survival and success, if made the foundation of our lives, are satanic” (87).  If Christians are to view the gospel as God’s mission, and not their own, they must cease to view success in terms of “proclaiming a dogmatic truth” and “winning souls for Christ.  Instead they should undertake “a practiced awareness of living in the presence of God” (76).

The “gift of uncertainty” is one of the blessings, Sivalon says, of postmodern culture.  This culture “is made up of a radical historical consciousness that tends to make all truth claims relative” (32).  Postmodernity has rightfully displaced, according to Sivalon, the naïve assumptions of modernity:  “presuppositions of rational certainty, distinct categories, and unchanging laws” (40).  Instead, it asks us “to step forward with the gift of uncertainty to grasp with faith and imagination the unfolding mystery of the Trinity in creation and history” (71-2).  As servants of God’s mission, Christians must abandon the hubris that reduces God to a set of definitive teachings. The “unfolding mystery of the Trinity” is not a dogmatic truth, according to Sivalon, but a divine presence available in contemplation and creativity.

God’s Mission and Postmodern Culture poses serious challenges to pastoral practitioners in the USA.  The very first chapter questions the legitimacy of what Sivalon calls “old style mission.”  His illustration of this style is the document written by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Faith in 2000 entitled Dominus Iesus.  The document stated that the church must be committed to “announcing the necessity of conversion to Jesus Christ and of adherence to the Church through Baptism and the other sacraments” (no. 22, quoted by Sivalon on p. 20).  In Sivalon’s view, Dominus Iesus is intolerant of pluralism and diversity.  These are characteristics of the world of today, however, and intolerance of them hinders the missionary – or even the parish priest whose RCIA classes include inquirers not yet ready for Baptism.

John C. Sivalon, M.M.

Father John C. Sivalon wants people to view evangelization as God’s mission.

In the second chapter, Sivalon introduces the concept of “Missio Dei.”  The “mission of God” view of evangelization was a response during the mid-1950s to an older view of mission understood as “the propagation of truths and doctrines deemed orthodox for all and for all time” (35).  Advocates of “Missio Dei” see evangelization not as the task of converting unbelievers, but as “God’s dynamic ‘process’ in which we as church are invited to participate” (35).  In Sivalon’s understanding, this view of mission criticizes “the control and power over mission that many church officials feel they have a right to exert” (endnote, p. 134).  The officials in question include the authors of Dominus Iesus.  Sivalon’s point is that God’s mission is not to control the mission but to invite people to reflect on the way that God is present in their lives.  This “Missio Dei” concept of evangelization might be too sophisticated for a catechism class in a U.S. parish, but it would be welcome among adult inquirers whose religious experience (while differing from traditional Christianity) deserves to be treated with dignity.

Sivalon offers his most profound theological challenge in the third chapter, entitled “Death, God and Trinitarian Mission.”  There he criticizes the concept that the death of Jesus was a “transaction” in which Jesus sacrificed himself to avert the Father’s anger.  “This understanding,” Sivalon says, “presents God as a God who demands retribution” (57).  In place of this transactional model of the crucifixion, Sivalon presents a vision of death “within” the Trinity.  In the crucifixion, the Son of God assumes every dimension of human nature, even death.   God has entered into the world of human suffering, and is thus present with all those who suffer.  Death is no longer an evil and the punishment for human sin (Gen. 3:19).  Instead, it is for Sivalon “the complete self-giving with no expectation of recompense, no expectation of response, and no calculation” (62).  Sin is the cowardly desire to flee from death, which is already a part of God’s history and inner life.  Preaching on the theme of “Death within the Trinity” would be difficult for many priests and deacons, but it would certainly revolutionize the homily of Trinity Sunday.

Chapter four re-interprets, from the standpoint of the “Missio Dei” approach, the traditional aspects of mission – proclamation of the gospel, witnessing to God’s presence, inter-religious dialogue, human development, and worship and praise.  The missionary’s concern is not so much winning converts for Christ, Sivalon says, as it is about the conviction that mission is God’s work.  Instead of defining mission in human terms, the post-modern missionary accepts “the magnitude of the mystery of God” with “the gift of uncertainty.”  He or she grasps the “unfolding mystery of the Trinity” (71-72) with faith and imagination.  Such an approach “resonates much more with the dominant postmodern culture of today than a ‘salvation through a single grand narrative’ understanding of mission” (71).  Proclaiming the gospel of the Trinitarian mystery, i.e., the mystery of God accepting the reality of death on behalf of all, the post-modern missionary refuses to “limit salvation to ‘saving souls’” (81).

Sivalon concludes the book with testimonies to the “Missio Dei” approach from various missioners (chapter five) and offers a new paradigm of ecclesial existence as “openness to the other” which invites intimacy with God and one another (chapter six).  Although his book is written from the viewpoint of an expatriate missionary, its radical perspective on the gospel will challenge churchgoers in the USA.

Many U.S. pastoral practitioners will be uneasy with Sivalon’s relative indifference to the conventional markers of pastoral success.  From his perspective, the evangelical imperative is not about expanding the size of the congregation or increasing the collection but about conversion.  “The call to conversion in this perspective is a call to convert from the selfish, death-denying acts of self-interest and survival at any cost to a heart filled with death-accepting self-emptying love,” writes Sivalon (91).  “It is a conversion of the heart that in no way implies a necessary explicit adherence to a particular religious expression or social institution.”  Sivalon is undoubtedly committed to the gospel and reveres Jesus for expressing God’s solidarity with us in death.  He does not, however, identify conversion strictly with Baptism and formal church membership.  This aspect of Sivalon’s teaching may be more appropriate for an expatriate mission than a U.S. parish, and will be hard to understand for Catholics here.

Sivalon makes his argument in terms of postmodern culture, which he defines in a variety of abstract ways.  “All reality is socially constructed” (30).  “The only acceptable metanarrative is that there is no possibility of a metanarrative” (30).  “Absolute truth is impossible because the social world is so complex that we can never wholly grasp it” (31).  Underlying these statements is a plea for humility and a recognition of human limitations.  While Sivalon’s use of the technical vocabulary of postmodern thought is not always persuasive, his treatment of the Trinity as “relationality,” as “differe[a]nce,” and as “event” invites people to reconsider this mystery more imaginatively.

Throughout the book Sivalon engages in a polemic against the “romantic conservatives.”  They interpret St. Cyprian’s “outside the church no salvation” as a call for exclusion and they herald Dominus Iesus as their manifesto.  They are romantic because they look back with nostalgia to a time when the missionary enterprise was easier to understand.  They are conservative, not in their authentic fidelity to the gospel, but in reacting to postmodernity with fear.  Sivalon links romantic conservatism to the movement known as the “new evangelization.”  He does not mean the term primarily as it is used in the apostolic exhortation by Pope Paul VI, Evangelii nuntiandi.  He refers rather to the term as used by Pope Benedict XVI in his 2010 establishment of the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization. It is not clear, however, that the call for “new evangelism” among already-Baptized Catholics necessarily implies the romantic conservatism of which Sivalon speaks.

Pastoral practitioners in the USA cannot ignore the empirical markers of church success, such as increasing the size of the congregation and meeting projections for income.  At the same time, however, no one can doubt the value of Sivalon’s critique.  Christians too often confuse the empirical benchmarks of church success with the achievement of God’s mission.  Sivalon’s book reveals the difference and warns us about confusing the two.

To return to the book reviews page, click here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *