Missioscapes and Globalized Modernity
Some Theological Reflections (Questions) on Imagination and Cultural Flows
Jannie Swart, Luther Seminary, St Paul MN (November 10, 2007)


 Given my involvement in Allelon’s Mission in Western Culture Project as a research assistant for Alan Roxburgh and as a fellow South African participant with Frederick Marais at the last two annual think tank meetings regarding this project, I wish it was possible for me to be part of what promise to be a rich conversation in Stellenbosch next week (instead I am preparing for a cold Minnesota winter while Alan is enjoying good South African red wine).  Apart from my hope and desire to keep my own research, course and dissertation work as PhD student at Luther Seminary in continuous conversation with many of the partners present at the Stellenbosch meeting,  I am also responding with a few theological reflections on Frederick’s invitation two days ago to respond with a few remarks (if I want to do so) after reading prof Smit’s paper on mainline Protestantism in South Africa and modernity.

 To read prof Smit’s paper was the delightful part of responding positively to Frederick’s invitation.  As someone who has always been hugely influenced by prof Smit’s work,  it was a very energizing exercise to read his “tentative reflections” (which, of course, are always much more than his very modest intentions and claims!) on matters that were very intentionally part of my own agenda of theological reflection over the last two years.  I developed high regard for many (amongst whom I should mention Charles Taylor and Jurgen Habermas) who take seriously any effort to deal with modernity proper before jumping into any so-called post-modern paradigm (however it is defined).  I appreciate prof Smit’s paper in the same light.
The difficult part is to make any substantial contribution to this rich discussion.  However, for the sake of just sharing some of my own theological reflections (questions) and references of the last two years regarding some of the themes that emerge from prof Smit’s paper, I dragged myself out of my hesitancy this morning and I dare putting together a few remarks on paper.

Church in the Cultural Flows of Globalized Modernity

 Prof Smit’s “six material claims” (pages 2-4) on South African churches’ “collapsing into modernity” after apartheid,  indicating the interwovenness of Church and South African society’s transformational processes of “radical modernization” that cannot easily be described and analysed by any “single theoretical approach,” opens up the question on “how they (churches) respond” as embodied existence (“very specific, concrete and visible, social forms”) within society’s processes of modernization.  Since prof Smit also frames this within a larger context of globalization, as “the complex cultural, economic and political processes… impacting on the whole world… also having real effects on South African society today” (par 10, p 3), I want to share a particular influence in this regard that provided my own work of the last two years with a fruitful hermeneutic for the sake of theological reflection.

 I refer to the work of the Indian born, New York based, social or cultural anthropologist, Arjun Appadurai (who was a student of Hannah Arendt and whose work is in many ways well connected with the philosophy of Charles Taylor).  Reading two of his books in conjunction, Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization (1996) and Fear of Small Numbers: An Essay on the Geography of Anger (2006), pictures both the possibilities and destructions within the flux of the complex global cultural flows of modernity.  I want to highlight two ways (among other) in which I find Appadurai’s work helpful.
 First, Appadurai has a heterogenic approach to culture that plays into what prof Smit expresses as the importance to see “modernisation as an ongoing process difficult to define, rather than theories who speak about modernity as something known, or of modernisation as primarily synonymous with economic growth and technical progress” (paragraph 9, p.2-3).  Appadurai always prefers to talk about cultural (as an adjective) rather than culture (as objective or substantive) to stress what he calls the disjunctive nature of cultural flows.  Cultural as an adjective allows for a more context-sensitive and contrast-centered approach to flows of difference in globalized modernity.  He uses difference in a heuristic sense that brings out both the similarity and contrast between categories of identity in cultural flows, and uses it to emphasize the importance of situatedness and embodiedness.  I found it increasingly important in my own theological reflection to take into account this kind of understanding of cultural flows within the dynamics of globalized modernity.  It is fruitful in the sense that it avoids any static notions of culture.  Prof Smit warns not to “see the church as somehow separate from these historical and social processes” (par 8, p 2), and he shows how churches are “not merely actors, but they are (also) being acted upon” (par 11, p 3).  This observation places conceptualizations on the relationship Church-culture in a totally different perspective, and I want to make a few remarks towards the end of my reflections on the profound implications this has for an understanding of the Church’s participation in the life of God in which God is the primary acting Subject in the world and the Church is seen as embodied existence within that reality.
 Second, Appadurai’s Modernity at Large presents theological reflection with an understanding of how social imagination took on new meanings within the radicalization of modernity (he especially singles out what happened through migration and media flows).   Appadurai uses landscape metaphors to describe different ethnoscapes, mediascapes, technoscapes, migrationscapes, financescape, and icescapes within the cultural flows of globalized modernity.  Appadurai develops an argument by showing how these disjunctively interrelated different -scapes are forming the building blocks for the shaping of imagined worlds.  Imagined worlds refer to the multiple worlds that are constituted by the historically situated imaginations of persons and groups spread around the globe, and they are able to contest and sometimes even subvert the imagined worlds of the official mind and of the entrepreneurial mentality that surrounds them.  From this definition it becomes clear how his cultural understanding of situatedness, as well as his emphasis on agency (and sometimes resistance), are playing a major role in how he sees the shaping of social imagination.

However, as an anthropologist, his argument represents a constructivist approach to imagination (and therefore, human agency).  It becomes even more clear when he refers to the work of the imagination as “neither purely emancipatory nor entirely disciplined”, but as “a space of contestation in which individuals and groups seek to annex the global into their own practices.”  Working within the anthropological tradition (since the work of the sociologist Emile Durkheim) that stresses collective representations as social facts, Appadurai sees the collective representations of the imagination “as transcending individual volition, as weighted with the force of social morality, and as objective social realities.”
Imagination became a social force in the practices of the lives of ordinary people amidst the cultural flows of globalized modernity.  In this sense, there is a huge difference between imagination and fantasy.  Imagination features as agency, which means that (different than in fantasy) thought are not divorced from projects and action.  Imagination becomes the fuel for action rather than a means to escape (as in fantasy).  It also means that Appadurai mainly works with a collective rather than individualistic understanding of imagination.  He uses imagination as a property of collectives, and not merely as a faculty of the individual.  He talks about the imagination of a group of people, which he calls a “community of sentiment” that “feel things together.”  Therefore, imagination as social practice is different from mere fantasy, simple escapism, elitist pastime, or mere contemplation.  It is rooted in the social lives of people, contains the work of real social practices, and has collective power.  By doing this, Appadurai brings together the idea of technically produced images (in the Frankfurt School sense), the idea of the imagined community (borrowed from Benedict Anderson’s work), and the French idea of the “imaginaire” as a constructed landscape of collective aspirations.  Imagination refers then to an organized field of social practices, a form of work, and a form of negotiation between sites of agency and globally defined fields of possibility.  This places the imagination central to all forms of agency, which in itself is a social fact and a key feature of the new global order.

Missioscapes as the Church’s Imagination (embodied existence) within Cultural Flows
How do we theologically reflect on the kinds of contributions like the above mentioned work of a social/cultural anthropologist?  Over the last two years, I happened to consider contemporary developments in anthropology as a necessity for theological reflection in the light of late modernity developments, but so are many contributions from a variety of disciplines.  But even if it is just a “valuable insight” among many other, without attributing to it the status of a “single theoretical approach that can neatly analyse and describe what has been happening here” (as prof Smit rightly puts it on p 2), we still have the task as theologians to ask questions on location, methodology and content of theology within context.  And how do we ask and answer those questions in a way that breaks with modernity’s very seduction of putting the self (read: individual, human agency, church) upfront as the primary acting subject?

One of the most fruitful contributions of the development of the global missional conversation is indeed to put the focus back on God as acting Subject within the God-world relationship as primary framework for understanding human agency (read: imagination, action) and the position of the Church as participants in the reality of the missio Dei.  Since the Willingen missionary conference (1952), with Barth hovering in the background all the time, and the mission theology influences of Lesslie Newbigin and David Bosch, the missiological paradigm changed dramatically from a focus on the mission(s) of the Church to the mission of God as embodied existence in the midst (read: in, under, over, against) of cultural flows.  Subsequently a number of Gospel and Our Culture Networks emerged in a number of countries all over the world (especially those with modern, western cultural dynamics as part of the fabric of society).

Although the missio Dei conversation needs a critical engagement from many perspectives,  the fruitful prejudice of that contribution is to consider God as actively involved in the cultural flows of the world.  Which means that we have to find ways of discerning God’s presence in non-static notions of God-world and Church-culture relationships.  And how do we do that from a particularly Reformed theological heritage that has both unique resources and huge danger signs on any such endeavor?  On the one hand, the Reformed tradition has a strong and relevant doctrine of creation that is important for the discussion on the relationship God-world, and we have a pneumatology (with Calvin as “theologian of the Spirit”) to embrace anthropology (as two sides of the same coin) for the sake of an embodied theo-cultural understanding of ecclesiology at the intersection of God and world.   However, on the other hand, we also have the strong (Barthian like) warning signs of natural theology as an influential part of our tradition, and closer to home the history of  (neo-Kuyperian) understandings that can easily lead to a theological justifications of something like apartheid.  Indeed, how do we critically and theologcally reflect on imagination within globalized modernity’s cultural flows?

In this regard, I want to (very briefly) share just a few areas (questions) that became part of my own reflection over the last few years, and that are all in some way connected to prof Smit’s elaboration on “three basic forms of the church” (worship and congregational life; policies and practices of denominations and the ecumenical church; spirituality, witness and actions of individual believers) as the “very specific, concrete and visible, social forms” in which the church exists.

  • First, theological reflection on imagination that moves beyond a mere constructivist understanding of human agency and resistance within the cultural flows of globalized modernity. It seems to me that a pneumatologically rooted understanding of imagination, integrated with a theological anthropology (imago Dei),  will serve us well in our theological conversations about an ecclesiology in the dynamics of a radicalized and globalized modernity. I have found works by Paul Avis (God and the Creative Imagination, 1999), David Bryant (Faith and the Play of Imagination, 1989) and Garrett Green (Imagining God) very fruitful contributions to theological reflections on imagination.   It is especially Bryant who proposes a theological understanding of imagination that frames the complex nature of the relationship between God’s agency and human agency within a more integrative dynamic that enables both a constructive and receptive approach to the role of imagination.  This is a theological position that stresses the importance of seeing pneumatology and anthropology as “two sides of the same coin.”  It is a pneumatology that understands God’s active involvement in the world as the work of the Spirit in and through the imagination of people who are formed by God’s imagination, but who are also transformed into agents who imagines a different world possible.   How does this play a role as a crucial dimension in prof Smit’s understanding that, as churches in contemporary global processes of modernization, “they are not merely actors, but they are being acted upon” (by the dynamics of both the Spirit and culture)?   What is the role of a theo-cultural imagination shaped by worship/liturgy that “form identity, collectively and individually, communities of character and characters within community… able to subvert, undermine, and challenge existing social constructions of reality, making it possible… to see with new eyes, to look in other directions…?” (I wish I could be part of the conversation on prof Muller and Cas’ presentation on a missional hermeneutic for liturgy!).

Second, the question is also how we enter these theo-cultural imaginations (both as the imaginations of individual believers in the everyday practices of their lives and in its communal forms such as denominations and local congregations) as locations of theology?  And what does it look like in the South African context, both in terms of the social fabric dynamics and the ecumenical nature of ecclesial spaces?  Allelon’s Mission in Western Culture Project picks up on this conversation in a certain sense.  As I tried to indicate in a research assignment for Allelon’s think tank gathering two years ago (Alan and Frederick can testify to this), the GOCN movements became almost moribund in many countries as a result of a certain kind of disembodiment from the imaginations of local Christian communities within the flux of all kinds of modern cultural flows (with the ever present danger of becoming philosophical abstractions from the lived realities of actual people and communities).  One of the most challenging questions is how to enter these imaginations for the sake of carving out visions for the Church’s faithful witness as participants in the life (mission) of God in these cultural flows and for cultivating habits and practices within these dynamics. (How much I wish I could be part of Pieter’s presentation on entering the imaginations of local churches!).
 Thirdly (and now I’m running out of time!), how does culture change within these dynamics?  If it is true that culture impacts on the Church and that the Church impacts on culture, then reflections such as Graham Ward’s Cultural Transformation and Religious Practice (2005) become extremely important.  Ward addresses this question from the point of view of “from what place does theology speak,” “how do cultures change,” and “what is the relationship between religious practices and cultural transformation”?  Maybe Alan will elaborate on this…
Fourthly (and finally!), it also presents us with new challenges in the post-apartheid South Africa on what it means for the Church’s position and role in civil society (something prof Smit asks towards the end of his paper, p 21) that goes beyond mere agents of social action or a movement of moral regeneration (however important each of these is in its own right).  It is especially important for the Dutch Reformed Church (hopefully as an integral part of a united Reformed Church in Southern Africa) to find its vocation in the lifeworld between politics and economics,  and to avoid the post-apartheid seduction to marginalize itself from the public sphere in the light of the apartheid legacy.