The Kindness of God (1)

At IBI we are looking forward in a couple of weeks to a visit by David Smith, who is senior research fellow at International College Glasgow and the author of significant books on urban mission and theology – some of which I have blogged on. David is coming to teach for a week on our Masters programme.

Kindness of GodI’m going to do some posts on his new book, The Kindness of God: Christian Witness in our Troubled World, (2013). David writes both passion and with compassion – a rare combination. And I can guess he ain’t go to be popular with Christian supporters of the blessings of free-market capitalism.

One of the flip sides to global mission is that it is not a one-way process. In the past, there was the notion of Western missionaries bringing the ‘pure gospel’ to the pagan rest of the world. This gospel was imagined to be culturally free. But as David Smith, says, mission “triggered entirely unanticipated critical question concerning the relationship between the message of Christ and the missionary’s own culture.’ (39)

And the critical questions he refers to revolve around the relationship of Christianity in the West with free market capitalism. He puts it this way,

“I want to propose that in truth the most urgent dialogue which needs to take place is that with the advocates of modernization and Westernization and that therefore our primary task is to reflect on the degree to which the fundamentally secular assumptions of the ideology of market economics may have distorted our understanding of the gospel and compromised our mission.” (36)

In chapter 2, he traces the story of the rise of economism, where economics began to be treated like science, with the associated credibility and prestige of being ‘true’. This development was a fruit of Enlightenment optimism and confidence in human reason. The future would be brighter, richer and progressive. As economics advanced, theology retreated to the realm of the private and personal – even as evangelicalism grew in strength in the 19th century.

Quoting Newbigin, who talked of the ‘syncretism’ of the church in with West, Smith’s argument is that Christianity in the West has developed a dualistic theology that has left it dangerously comfortable with the status quo (the quasi-religious deification of the sovereign power of the market and the privatised world of faith). A result is that the church has been ill equipped to offer prophetic critique to the gods of the age.

Returning to the theme of mission, Smith suggests that it is Western Christianity’s captivity that led Western missionaries to engage in mission without questioning their assumptions around capitalism and colonialism. And of the greatest challenges of world mission today is Islam, for it is Islam which has resisted such dualism and fears Christianity is but a vehicle for Western imperialism. It is the Islamic vision of the just state which offers for many a powerful and attractive alternative to the ugly ruthlessness of Western capitalism.

So, Smith asks, will it be places like Africa that will develop new theologies of the political and economic realm? For it is Africa that Christianity intersects with Islam and with the terrible realities of human suffering and injustice.  (there’s a challenge to Hargaden, off to do a PhD in Aberdeen on the theology of money!).

Comments, as ever, welcome.

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