A Dialectical Approach to the Purpose of Evangelical Missions

July 9, 2015 — 4 Comments

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.”

4 responses to A Dialectical Approach to the Purpose of Evangelical Missions

    George Watson July 9, 2015 at 5:28 am

    Hi David,

    You have put your finger on a very important problem for 21st Century Christianity ?

    If you are Baptised a Christian but you really do not even seek to live your life as a Christian
    in the least, well how Christian are you ? Perhaps not at all ? But then what of the Graces
    of Baptism ? Perhaps you are saved after a very long time in Purgatory.

    On the other side of the coin we have those that say all Religions are equal so you may
    enter into respectful dialogue with those who belong to other religions but you are not to
    tell them that Jesus says you must convert in order to be saved.

    So we are left wondering what to do with the words of Scripture ?

    I will put my trust in the very words of Christ and not in scholars, who frankly many times
    do not seem to live very holy lives, who tease out the Holy Scriptures to mean whatever
    they so choose…

    Yet Paul says: Your Salvation is in Christ Jesus an through no one else…

    I will stand with Paul because he stood with Jesus.



      Thanks for your comment, George. I definitely agree. We Catholics, sometimes, like to distance ourselves from our fundamentalist brothers and sisters by taking a more “open” reading of the Scriptures, but we can only do so much before we make the Scripture mean whatever we want, as you say. On the other hand, I am aware that our church canonizes saints, but we have never condemned anyone to hell. Our Catechism speaks about this matter with great delicacy and truth!

        George Watson July 11, 2015 at 1:47 am

        Hi David,

        I would like to believe that anyone who turns to Jesus will be Saved.
        But what of those who never heard of Jesus in their life ?
        What of those who were mistreated by “Christians” and thus were denied the assurance of Faith ?
        What of those who refuse throughout their existence to be Saved ?

        Ideally God would just appear once a month and explain everything to us but Jesus
        came once and told us to Preach and Live the Gospel, but how many of us do that ?
        For all our fretting of whether or not we should say to non-believers: Here is the Gospel of
        Salvation – come to God via His Son, Our Lord, who died for our sake, while we were still
        Sinners…perhaps if we lived more Christian lives, that witness would obviate the tendentious
        human perplexities over what Christ meant for us to do.

        It is interesting, as far as I know, that no one in the early Church worried about preaching the
        Gospel and thus upsetting other’s religious sensibilities. After all in a Math course the teacher
        does not say: Well I have my opinion of what the answer should be and you have yours, so
        to each his own…

        I think this watering down of the Truth of Christianity which is – Jesus is the Truth –
        ah Pilate, you were speaking to the Truth when you made your remark – makes it easier
        for us to soften our hearts toward sin and harden them toward Charity …
        after all the more uncertainty we introduce into Christianity the less we can be held
        responsible for our Faith/Acts – but correct me if I am wrong, but Jesus is pretty clear
        about what we must do and what we must not do and the consequences.

        I forget, are you finishing up your second year and if so where will you go for studies
        and if not, where will you go for your second year experiments ?


        I am just finishing my first year. In the fall we have the “ministry at the margins” experiment, which involves some sort of service to the poor, typically as jail chaplains, hospital chaplains, or ministers to former gang members/convicts. In the spring of the second year, we do the “long experiment,” which will involve five months of full-time ministry at a Jesuit apostolate.

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