Response to R. Todd Mangum’s Presentation at May 4, 2022 Colloquium
Part of Educating Urban Ministers in Philadelphia After 2020 project
Presentation Question: What are the theological resources that we have drawn on and have found renewed relevance in during the crises of 2020 and will need to inform future theological reflection?
In his thought-provoking presentation, Dr. Mangum discussed a number of theological resources offered at Missio Seminary. This peer review will interact with three of these resources: generous orthodoxy, missional theology, and the diversity of our backgrounds.
Primary Theological Resource 1: Generous Orthodoxy
What follows here is based on my prior understanding of generous orthodoxy and having taught it for over ten years. Generous orthodoxy bears witness of the intentional diversity of God’s creation and God declared, “It was good” (Gen 1:25). Generous Orthodoxy opens up the possibility for the diversity God intended to flow out of the Church into the world as participants in the missio Dei. There is a relationship between diversity and unity: unity is predicated upon diversity. In John 17 Jesus prayed for His disciples “to be one (i.e., unified) as He and the Father were one” (NRSV). In 1 Cor 12:12-17 Paul compares the diversity of the Church to the functioning of the human body. When we deeply grasp diversity as part and parcel of God’s creation, we recognize that things neither are nor need to be the same or uniform. Embracing this notion gives Christians “permission” to be diverse and to disagree without being disagreeable—and to collaborate.
The notion that diversity is inherently a problem is drawn from our human need for control and, to a degree, our need for security and comfortability within ourselves and with those around us. As the term comfort zone connotes, we, Westerners, want to live, move and be around and with that which is familiar to us.1 We seek or demand uniformity/conformity to what I/we want. The Western notion of binary dualism’s inherent “either/or” mandate creates a hierarchical arrangement of competing items. At minimum, under this need for control our primary focus seems to be about correctness or about “being right” or “being on the right side” or “being innocent.” My particular embrace of a God-created diversity is tempered by Generous Orthodoxy’s warning against an “anything goes” mentality.
All things and beings in the cosmic and earthly realms have been impacted by sin and the Fall. To be clear, this includes us human beings. This human desire for control is born out of human need. But that’s us, not God. Theology, as “God-talk” or “faith seeking understanding, is a patently human activity. God does not do theology; we human beings do theology. It is a human production about the Divine. As theologians or as producers, consumers and doers of theology, we must proceed with full cognizance that all of our constructs and all of our stories emerge from finite, sinful/sin-prone human sources. All of us and all of our theologies and all of our stories are not above scrutiny and reproach.
The sovereign Creator God was, is, and will be, and God did, does and will do as God deems fit. There is something inherently wrong about always wanting to be right or to win or come out on top all of the time. Although those who claim to be God’s people often are consumed with these concerns, God is not similarly consumed. For example, in His ministry, Jesus focused on the kingdom of God: preaching it, teaching it and demonstrating its kairotic nearness. Jesus did what he did without being overly focused—as we have seen in the past and see in the present—on “being right” or on declaring “I win!” More can and should be said about this matter but time and space limits me in this current occasion to expound. More will be forthcoming in another venue.
The Importance of the Theological Journey/Theological Narrative or Backstory
Todd Mangum’s paper provides me with some key missing pieces of information about Missio Seminary, the theological institution at which I’ve be an adjunct instructor of theology for over 10 years at the time of this colloquium. His sharing of Missio’s story—including its ideological, theological and practical developments, markers and milestones—filled in for me a number of gaps and lingering questions that I had about Missio. Some of these queries I was unaware that I had. Time and space limit my expounding upon these specific queries here, but of critical importance is that Mangum’s telling of Missio’s story from his perspective reminds me that every institution, every group and every individual has a story. I am reminded that every story has and gives meaning and is told from a unique perspective. The knowing and the telling of institutional, corporate and/or personal stories contribute heartily to the processes of identity formation, esteem building, and generating purpose/mission. The power of story flows in more than one direction: minimally, story flows from the storyteller(s) to her/his/their listening audience and then from the hearers back to the storyteller(s), expressed by the hearers’ responses, questions and new data they’ve digested and potentially learned. The stories are worth being told and worth being heard.
Mangum’s narrative portions caused me to responsively reflect on the following items relative to story. The sequence in which the following items are presented does not necessarily suggest an order of importance.
- Life is a gift from God (even though it may not seem like it at times). We are created in God’s image. Everyone is of value and everyone has a story worth sharing.
- Like certain portions of the biblical record, our and our people’s stories are records telling of our/our people’s relationship and interactions with God and our/our people’s relationships with others. It testifies of when we acknowledged God was in the midst of our lives and when we tried to do it on our own without God.
- Stories bear witness of the roads we’ve traveled in life’s journey: where you/we have been, where you/we are and where you/we are headed. They contain the good, the bad and the ugly; the highs and the lows; the circumspect paths and the crooked paths you/we have trod; and the life lessons learned and the life lessons missed.
- Our stories are inscribed or documented—whether retained in our memory, recorded and communicated by oral, audio-visual and/or written methods. They are critically reflected upon and analytically discussed in a way which deepens our self- and group-understanding and sense of meaning/purpose, and improves our voices/articulation skills, and sharpens our perspective. It is through this process that we continually learn and teach.
- Finally, this leads me to discuss the importance of understanding and embracing one’s own or one’s own group’s theological story/journey–in all of its twists and turns. It is of critical importance to understand and embrace your theological journey—and to do so without elevating it above the stories/journeys of others, without allowing others to diminish your theological story/journey and without self-diminishing your own theological story.
A Word to Those Persons Not in the So-called Mainstream (“Non-mainstreamers”)
Don’t dare fret if you’ve entered into the Christian theological academy from the margins or from a non-traditional or “non-mainstream” location. This is an affirming “shout out” to the many persons who enter seminary from a lesser touted ecclesial, ethnic, cultural, educational, geographical or grassroots location. This is a pronouncement of celebration. It is not written to “take a shot” at those who come to seminary from a more central location—i.e., from more traditional ethnic, cultural or ecclesial places. Rather, this is an intentional, non-tokenizing encouragement to marginated folks seeking and/or obtaining a theological education in preparation for the Christian vocations to which they have been called. In other words, this affirmation is for those seminary “newbies” who may not (or may) have a clue who or what the folks who have been in seminary for a while are talking about, are thinking and what they are doing and why they are doing what it is they do. Such persons may deem the more established seminarians and the professors they encounter as “foreign” in terms of their language, the authors and readings they reference, their perspectives, etc. This is more than just saying they are new to the academic theology process. It means that their particular theological stories/journeys are not sufficiently (re)presented in the seminary curriculum and discourse. In some cases, their reality and experience are tokenized or completely absent from the overall academic and socio-cultural environment of the seminary. My admonition to non-mainstreamers is “Keep it moving, don’t be daunted by this challenging situation.”2
Primary Theological Resource 2: Missional Theology
In keeping with the emphasis on the importance of story I will be autobiographical. At the time of my initial contact with Missio in 2011, I had been—for years—searching for ecclesial and for ecclesiological improvement. By this I mean, in the years leading up to 2011, I was seriously pondering and researching the theological question: How can the Church become increasingly more of what God intended it to be and to do in the world? Based on the dialogues in which I was engaged and the reading materials I was consuming at that time, I knew that engaging this question was not just a solo project: I was not alone in acknowledging that the global body of Christ was not being and doing what God wanted it to be and do in the world. Many Christians before our present time, during our time and in the future, respectively, have been, are and will be engaged in addressing vital ecclesiological queries of this type. I was guided by the belief that if the Church is being and doing what God intended it to be and do in the world—as salt and light, for example—the world would not be in the dire condition that it was in.3
It was at Missio Seminary (then Biblical Theological Seminary based in suburban/rural Hatfield, PA, with an urban satellite campus in North Philadelphia) that I encountered some help with my ecclesiological question: missional theology. Time and space limit my explicating the specifics in great detail here, but missional theology’s emphases on centrality of God’s mission (missio Dei) as God’s primary activity for, to, and on behalf of the world, aided me in these ways:
- Missional theology declares God’s mission (missio Dei): a way of expressing God’s primary activity for, to and on behalf of the world. Organically and derivatively, the mission of God is the Church’s mission—but it is the Church’s mission in a way that does not make the Church central. That is, the missio Dei is about God, not about us [the Church].4
- Missional theology acknowledges the multidimensional nature and impact of God’s redemptive missional activity in and for the world. Mangum references in his paper, missional theology is “holistic and transformative.” In other words, God’s mission is about the eternal/cosmic and the material/temporal; it’s about the past, the present and the future. Missional theology speaks to God’s intentionality and capacity to facilitate liberative change at the individual/personal, group/corporate, structural/systemic and universal/cosmic levels.
- Based on Mangum’s brief narrative of Missio Seminary’s history prior to circa 2003, Missio and I wouldn’t have worked out. Among reasons, including that I am a Pentecostal-oriented, liberation-minded, African Caribbean American person, Missio Seminary (then Biblical Seminary) would have been mutually incompatible. We wouldn’t have gotten along well at all. Timing is everything. As the saying goes, “God is an on-time God.”
- Mangum’s honesty in acknowledging the challenges/pitfalls of achieving the goal of Missio’s transitioning from non-missional to missional institution is both accurate and refreshing. As it is at the personal and corporate level, transitioning from being non-missional to missional at the institutional level is a process and not an event.
Primary Theological Resource 3: The Diversity of Our Backgrounds, Joined and Merged in a Single Missional Educational Ministry Training Institution
As Missio continues to transition from being non-missional to becoming missional, partially evidenced by moving its headquarters from suburban/rural Hatfield, PA, to Center City Philadelphia, it must avoid becoming an institutional parallel of U.S. residential housing movements from the post-World War II period to the present. As a preliminary way to avoid this type of student body composition change during its suburban/rural to urban move, Missio must ask itself questions such as:
- In what ways has the composition of its student body paralleled “white flight,” particularly that of the 1950s-1970s, of white middle- and upper-class people from the cities to the suburbs and the subsequent influx of people of color into those, at-the-time, newly vacated urban spaces?
- How do we ensure that Missio does not parallel more recent gentrifying trends as in the return of white people to urban spaces and a pushing aside/pricing out of the long-term urban residents of color? By this I mean, will Missio’s currently diverse student population change to one that becomes more and more White?5
Missio’s board, administration, faculty, alumni and other concerned persons must be vigilant to avoid this race- and class-oriented trend.
1 “Now firmly embedded in cultural discourse, the metaphor of ‘leaving one’s comfort zone’ became popular in the 1990s. The phrase ‘comfort zone’ was coined by management thinker Judith Bardwick in her 1991 work Danger in the Comfort Zone: ‘The comfort zone is a behavioral state within which a person operates in an anxiety-neutral condition, using a limited set of behaviors to deliver a steady level of performance, usually without a sense of risk. Within the comfort zone, there isn’t much incentive for people to reach new heights of performance. It’s here that people go about routines devoid of risk, causing their progress to plateau.’” https://positivepsychology.com/comfort-zone/#comfort-zone; accessed 7-1-22.
2 God has a unique way of noticing, of working with and of commissioning persons not of the mainstream. Again, I say this not to “take a shot” at the mainstreamers but as an encouraging “shout out” to the non-mainstreamers to say that God sees you and knows you even though your story may be marginal to, foreign or simply not a part of the discourse disseminated within the theological academy. 1 Samuel 16:7 and John 1:46 emphatically reminds us of this reality.
3 In the midst of my quest to address this ecclesiological question, I was keenly aware that I was not exempt from this ecclesial dilemma: as member of the Church, I knew for certain that I, too, was part of the problem. But I also knew that I could be a small part of the solution; rather than complain about it, I needed to be part of the change I and many others sought. Borrowing from the U.S. Army advertisement campaign, I and many others desired to see the Church reach her potential and “Be all it can be.”
4 My stating “It’s about God and not about us” is in significant ways, hyperbole—but necessary hyperbole. I do this to combat the innate human tendency to make ourselves the center of in what we undertake (“It’s about me/us”). Missional theology stresses that God’s mission comes from the Triune God’s Triune being and character. We, as the redeemed people of God, are graciously afforded the privilege and responsibility by God to participate with God in what God is doing in and for the world. We are not in control of things. Our inherently human tendency to attempt to usurp God’s authority in the missio Dei process requires us to embrace a continuous reminder of God’s appropriate place in the missio Dei and our appropriate place in it. The historical churches’ development of the construct of Christendom and its contemporary remnants are evidence of this human tendency to make it about us.
5 At the time of this writing, I have taught at Biblical/Missio as an adjunct instructor of various courses for almost 11 years. I have taught students who are African Diasporan people (i.e., African, African American, African Caribbean), Asian people, Latinx people and White people.