Knowing God in a Secular World

The Gospel can be a tough sell to people in secular cultures. So we sometimes try to think of attractive ways to describe God. We do what we can to make the church and Christian life seem appealing. And we try to meet people where they are, finding ways that the Gospel is relevant to their deepest longings.

All of these approaches can seem too disparate, like a quest to reinvent Christianity in a piecemeal way. Our idea of the Trinity, our concept of the church, our style of Christian living, and our evangelistic methodology often don’t quite seem related to each other. We might feel that we are attempting to trick people into believing something that isn’t entirely appealing.

But what if a single concept could address each of these concerns and find its deepest embodiment in Jesus himself? That is what the 20th century Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar did with the idea of mission.

In the middle of the last century, the Catholic Church in Europe faced an increasingly secular reality. Societies were moving on from religion, and the Catholic Church had largely walled itself off. The main response to secularization was a fortress mentality.

Some Catholics began to try new approaches, though. In France, worker priests labored alongside miners and dockworkers, embodying the incarnational impulse of the Gospel. In 1952, Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote a scathing book called Razing the Bastions. He argued that the modern world had torn down the church’s defenses. What was the correct response for Christians, then? To tear down even more of the barriers between the church and the world, as well as those between church traditions.

Jesus as Mission

Balthasar himself started a community of Catholic lay people called the Johannesgemeinshaft (Community of Saint John), a drastic step in a church that had prioritized communal living only for monks and nuns up to that point. In his later writings (especially volume 3 of his work Theo-Drama), Balthasar offered a theology that showed why he thought mission was so important for the church.

On the one hand, God is inherently missional.

For centuries, theologians have tried to explain how Jesus could be both human and divine. There are some knotty problems, such as whether the man Jesus knew that he was God. Balthasar addresses this problem by claiming that the person of Jesus is perfectly identical to his mission. Moreover, the knowledge and the actions of Jesus were always intertwined with one another. At every moment, then, Jesus knew himself as the Son of the Father only as he obediently carried out his mission on earth in the Spirit’s power. There was no person apart from mission, no knowledge apart from action.

When we think of God’s perfection, we might think of God as perfectly static and stuck in place. But God’s perfection has always been found in self-giving love between the persons of the Trinity. We see this in Jesus, who pours himself out for us and shows us that God’s perfection is missional. God is not stuck in place. As Jesus, he pours himself out. Click To Tweet

Mission as Art

In describing the life of Jesus, Balthasar compares him to an artist. Drawing on internal inspiration, artists stretch potential and ideas into actuality. Similarly, Jesus met the world as it was and stretched out his existence as a missional divine person to the point of death on the cross. At the point where God’s mission met human reality, we see Jesus as an icon of who God is as Trinity.

This concept of mission also describes who we are as human beings. In his portrayal of Jesus, Balthasar also uses the concept of theater, and he compares Jesus to an actor who shows up on stage and opens space for others. By altering the drama and creating new possibilities for human action, Jesus opened up a widening space for other human beings to be themselves.

Making Space

This space is one in which we, like Jesus, can be theological in the sense that our lives are shaped by God’s missional identity. Such a self-giving way of life makes sense in light of who God is, but it doesn’t make sense apart from the love of God as seen in Jesus.

In turn, each Christian, by imitating Christ, can open up additional acting space, new possibilities for those who come after. Just as Jesus made a new way of being possible for those found in him, so Christians are to open up space for others to be who they are.

These possibilities will not be identical for everyone, but will be shaped by the preexisting material: who we are and what the world around us is like. In the mission of Jesus, there are countless missions yet to be carried out within the space he has opened up. So Peter had one way of being missional, Mary Magdalene another, and Paul yet another. Each of these missions that an individual person has are rooted in the mission of Jesus. They complement each other to build up the church into the fullness of Christ for its mission in the world.

This is good news not only for the church but for people who don’t yet know that God knows them. If there’s anything that people lack in a secular world, it is purpose, meaning, and direction. To be sure, plenty of people are on missions to pursue things like wealth, happiness, power, inner peace, and fame. But this approach to life eventually becomes unsatisfying.

If we understand that our identities as missional people are rooted in the missional nature of God, we have a priceless gift to offer to people who search for meaning and significance. The trouble, too often, is that the church gets in the way. Despite our best efforts, we offer religion and rules to a world that sees no need for those.

Unless our view of God and our understanding of the church are both rooted in the missional life of Jesus, we will keep falling into old patterns for being the church. Until we completely center our Christian lives and beliefs around the reality that God is inherently missional, we will fail to share the gift of mission with people who don’t yet know what they are seeking.

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