Because of slight changes in my course syllabi necessitated by some additional travel last semester I found myself grading book reviews by students on two different books which stood in rather odd juxtaposition to one another in a way they never had before. Shusako Endo’s Silence and David Livermore’s Serving with Eyes Wide Open were the two texts students wrote on for my “Church in Mission through History” and “Christian World Mission” courses, respectively. The absurdity emerged as I wrote comments on papers about “short term mission” and encouraged students to think more deeply about what has become a very popular – even trendy – form of being involved in mission while in the same sitting also responding to students’ heartfelt questions about what apostasy meant for tortured Jesuits in 17th century Japan and what it means for ministry in light of the cross today. Both books speak passionately of mission. To be clear, I am neither terribly interested in dismissing short-term mission efforts as wholly unhelpful, nor am I wanting to romanticize the brutal persecution of Christians in 17th century Japan or anywhere else. Both books have their place and have much to teach.
And yet it is hard to escape the fact that the picture of Christian mission in these two texts is so very different that it stretches the definition of “mission” in challenging ways. I was reminded as I graded these papers on Endo’s book of similar feelings I had reading novels and short stories by Albert Camus in a course I took with Elie Wiesel at Boston University. At the end of one of those novels (I think it was The Rebel) Camus writes that one ought to learn to “live and to love and to refuse to be a god.” Camus might rightly affirm the Jesuit protagonist in Shusako Endo’s Silence for living in that way. By contrast, what disturbs me too often in reading students’ papers on short term mission and even in reading my own comments on their papers is that too much talk of mission today stays so very close to the surface of life and stuck in a programmatic or techne (as opposed to poiesis) way of thinking.
I recently shared with students a lot of statistical information about the status of world Christianity while working with the World Christian Database in class. After demonstrating the wonder of such a statistical tool I was uneasy. I warned them to not use these statistics in such a way that they thought too highly of themselves in being able to “capture the world with numbers.” This, after all, is quite a danger for many people – perhaps especially those who are trained as economists. I have never forgotten the warning in Herman Daly and John Cobb’s book, For the Common Good, where they noted the dangers of the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness.” For as much as I enjoy teaching with these statistics and having students tell me what they found surprising about them I still, at the end of the day, desire to stress more the opening words of the Second Vatican Council’s Lumen Gentium and affirm “the mystery of the church.” Maybe it is just a more ecclesiological way of expressing what Camus intended.