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Prophetic Dialogue: An Invitation to the Dance

January 18, 2013
inagrace

Inagrace Dietterich

During 2013, The Center Blog will explore the theological, biblical, and practical implications of joining in the dance of prophetic dialogue which is also the theme of the Center’s Convocation in Chicago, IL on July 25-27, 2013.

Just as God in Godself is a perfect communion of gift and reception, identity and openness to the other, communion-in-relationship and communion-in-mission, so the church which is called into being by that mission must be a community that not only gives of itself in service to the world and to women and men of the world’s cultures, but learns from its involvement and expands its imagination of the depths of God’s unfathomable riches.1


As reflected in the above quotation, Stephen Bevans and Roger Schroeder frame their discussion of mission around the intriguing concept of “prophetic dialogue.” Reflecting the very nature and activity of the triune God, the church is called to be clear about what it has to offer the world while at the same time being open to learning and expanding its imagination about the ways in which God is active in the world. Just as God both gives and receives, so the church both gives the gift of the gospel in honesty and courage and receives the wisdom of the created world in humility and respect. Prophetic dialogue means that the church affirms human freedom and dignity while at the same time bringing the life-giving gospel into conversation with the challenges and distortions of the human predicament. “That it must be prophetic is on account of the church’s obligation always and everywhere ‘in season and out of season’ (2 Tim. 4:2) to preach the fullness of the gospel in all its integrity. But that it must be in dialogue is on account of the imperative—rooted in the gospel itself—to preach the one faith in a particular context.” As dialogue, mission demands attentive listening, empathy, study, sensitivity, respect, and discernment. As prophetic, mission demands intellectual clarity, honesty, integrity, conviction, courage, and wisdom.


Faithful Watchfulness. Decision concerning the nature of “the present times” is at the heart of prophetic dialogue. In every age the church is called to observe and to name the problematic areas as well as to discern the expressions of hope within its worldly context.  Read More…


Prayerful Contemplation. To flesh out what is meant by mission as prophetic dialogue, Bevans and Schroeder explore six essential components of God’s mission in which the church is called to share: witness and proclamation; liturgy, prayer, and contemplation; commitment to justice, peace, and the integrity of creation; the practice of interreligious dialogue; efforts of inculturation; and the ministry of reconciliation.  Read More…


Meaninglessness and Despair. During a seminar sponsored by Columbia Theological Seminary, participants identified meaninglessness and despair as a central problematic of the present time. “The prevailing mood of humankind, globally considered, must be named ‘despair.’   Read More…


Hope in Action The problematic of meaninglessness and despair is extremely hard to confront and overcome. Covert despair, where a great deal of energy is devoted to denying its very existence, is especially difficult.  Read More…



Conclusion Read More…



Questions for Reflection and Discussion

  1. Why must the church engage in “faithful watchfulness”?
  2. In what ways does your church discern the present times? Where would you like that discernment to be strengthened?

More Questions…




Faithful Watchfulness


eyeworldDecision concerning the nature of “the present times” is at the heart of prophetic dialogue. In every age the church is called to observe and to name the problematic areas as well as to discern the expressions of hope within its worldly context. The church is under obligation to decide—indeed to judge: “You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky; but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” (Lk. 12:56). A church which affirms God’s solidarity with the broken creation and intends to participate in God’s healing of that creation must involve itself in the specifics of its society’s issues. “The disciple community can only become what it is called to be as it is again and again (sacramentally) immersed in the problematic of its context, plunged beneath the threatening waters of the present and impending future, and caused once more to recover its hope in response to the realities of that concrete situation.”2

Douglas John Hall suggests four guidelines for authentically discerning the present times:3 (1) Who are the victims of our society? The priorities and the gaps of a society can be discovered by observing how the poor, the unemployed, the prisoners, the young, the aged, the ill and dying are cared for. (2) How is our society perceived and depicted by its own most reflective members? Listening to and learning from artists, novelists, dramatists, poets, and musicians can enable the church to discover the themes and images of a particular culture. (3) How do the pursuits and values of our society compare with images of the human in our authoritative sources? The biblical and traditional teachings of the church provide a particular perspective for analyzing the cultural context. (4) Within the corporate dialogue of the disciple community, what emerges as the problematic of our culture? The plurality and diversity of perspectives within the church itself can enrich the dialogical process of faithful watchfulness.


Prayerful Contemplation


prayerTo flesh out what is meant by mission as prophetic dialogue, Bevans and Schroeder explore six essential components of God’s mission in which the church is called to share: witness and proclamation; liturgy, prayer, and contemplation; commitment to justice, peace, and the integrity of creation; the practice of interreligious dialogue; efforts of inculturation; and the ministry of reconciliation.

The section on prayer and contemplation contributes to the discussion of “faithful watchfulness.” While considered by many to be important religious practices, they are usually not viewed in terms of “living missionally.” Prayer is a missional activity as it aligns those who pray with God’s purposes in the world. Prayer opens hearts and minds so that God’s will may done in and through those who pray as it transforms them into more available partners for God’s work in God’s creation. Contemplation, the cultivation of an attentive and receptive attitude, leads to the ability to wait, watch, and listen. When the world is seen through God’s eyes, reality is not avoided, but a broader vision and deeper appreciation of “God’s unfathomable riches” emerge.

The practices of prayer and contemplation are an important component of prophetic dialogue. Because they are never disembodied but take place in a particular context with a definite focus, prayer and contemplation involve both attentive dialogue and prophetic utterance and action. Participating in God’s “communion-in-mission,” the church is in touch not only with God’s will but also with the world’s deepest problem areas. Open to and filled with God’s active presence, these meditative practices lead not to quietism or withdrawal from the world but to an active “speaking forth” that is at the heart of prophecy.


Meaninglessness and Despair


During a seminar sponsored by Columbia Theological Seminary, participants identified meaninglessness and despair as a central problematic of the present time. “The prevailing mood of humankind, globally considered, must be named ‘despair.’ Despair means literally the negation, diminution, or dearth of hope (spes). In the absence of public expectancy strong enough to generate viable policies of meaning and direction, human beings and communities are abandoned to the mercies of leaderless systems, unquestioned ‘necessities,’ and false promises.”4 In light of the increasing social and economic separation of the haves and have-nots, the seminar recognized the distinction yet connection between the hidden or covert despair of the “possessing peoples” and the open or overt despair of the “dispossessed peoples” of the planet.

cpfIn their further reflections, the participants began to identify the covert despair of the affluent as the most problematic form of despair. The challenge of life without adequate food or shelter, the pain of physical suffering, and the anxiety of a future with no prospects of improvement are obvious. But the paradox is that “perhaps just because the poor cannot avoid confrontation with the pathos of their human condition that remarkable expressions of hope are frequently found among them.”5 Recall that in the Beatitudes, it is “the poor” (or the “poor in spirit”) who are declared the blessed recipients of life within the kingdom of God (Lk 6:20; Mt. 5:3).

The materially successful people of the planet are cushioned from the stark realization of how meaninglessness and despair are shaping their lives. The emptiness of their personal and family life is avoided by the almost compulsive attempt to find meaning in materiality (consumerism, the cult of the body, the quest for status and security through the ownership of possessions). While the source may be repressed or hidden, the behavioral results of despair are clear: “Our society seems to be increasingly full of fearful, defensive, aggressive people anxiously clinging to their property and inclined to look at their surrounding world with suspicion, always expecting an enemy suddenly to appear, intrude, and do harm.”6 The two expressions of despair—covert and overt—are complexly interwoven as the insatiable appetite of the possessing peoples perpetuates the status quo of the dispossessing peoples.


Hope in Action


The problematic of meaninglessness and despair is extremely hard to confront and overcome. Covert despair, where a great deal of energy is devoted to denying its very existence, is especially difficult. “According to the Christian faith, it has taken the entire wisdom and generosity of God to begin—even to begin!—to transform the soul of restless, alienated humankind.”7 Human despair can only be transformed by the renewal of genuine hope. The reality of worldly despair evokes a melancholy future which only a lively and courageous hope—one that does not ignore the data of despair—can engage and transform. Such a hope must be concrete, embodied, and context specific as it offers an alternative vision of meaning and purpose for human life.

hopeHope is a central theme of the Bible and a central belief of Christianity. As an expectation linked to faith, Christians do not hope for what they have, but rather what they long for (Rom. 8:24). Christian hope is radical in nature, for it is grounded in God’s act of raising Jesus from the dead and thus “making all things new” (Rev. 21:5). This hope is not a naive optimism, but is the affirmation that in Jesus Christ the principalities and powers of a fallen and hostile world have been overcome. Rather than being shaped by the meaninglessness and despair of the world, Christian hope is shaped by life-changing, grace-filled, despair-banishing presence of the God “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Rom. 4:17). Even in the midst of despair, the God is actively at work bringing hope and new life.

Christian hope calls for resistance—active resistance to the hopelessness that is defining the world. And at the same time the church must pay attention to the expressions of hope, even those which can only be seen by the eyes of faith. Christians “hope against hope” (Rom. 4:18) as they witness to the God who transforms despair into hope and makes new life possible. As the embodiment of the gospel of Jesus Christ, hope represents a new order of priorities. “Through his message about the reign of God, Jesus challenged his followers to be his witnesses, to have a new vision of what life is about, to live by new values and to enter into new relationships with each other as brothers and sisters in Christ, thus helping to transform the world through acts of love and service.”8


Conclusion


Mission as prophetic dialogue listens to and acknowledges the reality of meaninglessness, and despair. Entering into the dance means entering into the midst of the ambiguous and even hopeless circumstances of human life. But dialogue with the world means not only identifying with the problematic areas of human life, but also discerning God’s loving presence and thus offering a prophetic word of creative hope. Living missionally is hope in action when “it is the whole way of living, acting, and speaking which arises from the fact that we have already received the first installment of the promised treasure, the first fruit of the promised harvest, and can therefore work and wait with both eagerness and patience for the fullness of what God has promised for God’s whole creation.”9




Questions for Reflection and Discussion


        1. Why must the church engage in “faithful watchfulness”?
        2. In what ways does your church discern the present times? Where would you like that discernment to be strengthened?
        3. How can prayer and contemplation contribute to “faithful watchfulness” and thus to prophetic dialogue?
        4. How do you believe meaninglessness and despair are expressed in our culture?
        5. What additional problematic areas can you identify?
        6. Where can you discern a “lively and courageous hope” in the life of the world?
        7. How would you describe the basis and the nature of Christian hope?
        8. What are the challenges and what are the opportunities of “joining in the dance” of prophetic dialogue?



1 Stephen Bevans and Roger Schroeder, Constants in Context: A Theology of Mission Today, forthcoming publication from Orbis Books.

2 Douglas John Hall, Thinking the Faith: Christian Theology in a North American Context (Fortress Press, 1991). p. 81-82.

3 Ibid., pp. 134-141.

4 Walter Brueggemann, ed., Hope for the World: Mission in a Global Context (Westminster John Knox Press), p. 16.

5 Ibid., p. 90.

6 Henri J.M. Nouwen, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life (Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1975), p. 46.

7 Brueggemann, ed., Hope for the World, p. 92.

8 Musimibi R.A. Kanyoro, “Called to One Hope: The Gospel in Diverse Cultures,” in New Directions in Mission & Evangelism 3, James Scherer and Stephen Bevans, eds. (Orbis Books, 1999), p. 136.

9 Lesslie Newbigin, The Open Secret: Sketches for a Missionary Theology (Eerdmans, 1978), p. 71.


Inagrace Dietterich

Inagrace Dietterich

The Rev. Inagrace Dietterich, Ph.D. is the Director of Theological Research at the Center for Parish Development.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. October 31, 2013 12:13 pm

    Lovely, yet challenging post! Thank you for bringing this to the table for folks to discuss.

    Like

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