A Dialectical Approach to the Purpose of Evangelical Missions
Even a cursory perusal of St. Francis Xavier’s letters is enough to offend modern sensitivities. It is almost unbearable for us to read our model missionary’s comments about the lack of “any remedy” for those who die without an explicit recognition of the Holy Trinity at the Sacrament of Baptism. We, for our part, now find solace in the idea of the anonymous Christian, a concept largely foreign to the theological worldview of Xavier. We currently enjoy hearing, “The missionary is only a facilitator. Membership in the Church is not an easier or surer means of salvation” (“1. Introduction,” Handout on Prayer and Meditation). These two models of missionary activity—on one hand the idea of the missionary as the bearer of salvation and on the other the missionary as a personal opportunity for interreligious dialogue—seem to be at odds with each other. It nearly goes without saying that Jesuit theologians have taken different positions on this topic.
I aim to offer a way out of the predicament by giving an existential, dialogical critique. It is a truth phenomenological that the “other” is impossible to know with completeness. We might even venture to say that we cannot know ourselves fully, for God is always closer to our hearts than we are to ourselves (at least on this side of the beatific vision). As quoted in America Magazine, Pope St. John Paul II stated in a letter to Henri de Lubac, “I devote my very rare free moments to a work that is close to my heart and devoted to the metaphysical significance and the mystery of the PERSON” (Feb. 2, 2004 Issue; my emphasis added). The human person is mysterious; God is even more mysterious; and the relationship between the human person and God must be yet more mysterious. Salvation is at the heart of this mysterious relationship between God and humankind, and yet we pretend to penetrate through the mystery via soteriological gymnastics.
Missionary activity, as Xavier conceived it, is mystical, and yet he dares to promote a stark confessionalism. In a similar vein, missionary activity, as some more contemporary voices have suggested, does not carry with it an assurance that baptized Catholics are saved, and yet they dare to make naught of the Great Commission of Christ. Some may critique this measured approach and claim that such sophistry does not move the discussion forward. Others might assert that this point of view does not do justice to the uniqueness of the Catholic Church’s possession of Christ’s authority. To the former group, I will not fail to affirm alongside Kierkegaard that our God is a God of possibilities, and, thus, “maybe” is the most adequate response to questions concerning His will. To the latter, I say the same.
Cardinal Ratzinger, with great appropriateness, has written about the “maybe” character of our age in his Introduction to Christianity: the Christian cannot help but wonder whether the Rock of Christ is actually a row boat upon stormy waters that might capsize at any moment, and the atheist cannot avoid the tantalizing flicker of the “what if” of Jesus’ resurrection. Likewise, we can develop a methodology of missionary work and salvation. We can be humble enough to admit that the one who professes either the strictness of Xavier or the liberality of the contemporary sensibility inevitably comes across the “what if” of the other. Therefore, to missionary evangelization for the sake of salvation, I say, “Yes.” And to the missionary work at the roundtables of interreligious discourse, I equally say, “Yes.”