I’m currently sitting in an airport lounge in Lilongwe, waiting for a flight to Nairobi before catching another to Arusha. As much as it is inconvenient to have to ping pong around central and east Africa, it is nothing compared to the travails of travel by other means. I investigated driving but given road conditions and international borders, it would have been a 36 hour journey each way.
Most Malawians never travel outside the country and I can see why. Today my driver, Charles, was probing about Canada. “Don’t they need labour in Canada?” Among the many realities that Charles can barely comprehend is just how far away Canada is. It is approximately 15,000 km from our home in Abbotsford. Charles has never been to Mozambique which is about 100 km from here.
There have been plenty of commentators noting that modernity collapses space and time. We can move faster therefore the distance from here to there is “less.” Canada is still a long way away but I could get there in less time than it would take to drive to Arusha. This is true only for those who have the means. The world is still very close for someone like Charles.
As interesting and as important as these observations about the relative nature of time and space might be, in reading John Flett’s Apostolicity: The Ecumenical Question in World Christianity, I came across another aspect of this phenomena. Flett spends a chapter on a somewhat obscure early 20th century theologian named Hoekendijk. It would take too much to unpack both Flett and Hoekendijk but one of the big take away observations that Hoekendijk makes is that for him, ecclesiology (the study of the church) has been rooted in space. This is in contrast to ecclesiology finding itself in time. Christendom, the kind of Christianity present in the Western world till very recently, designed church (and here the confusion between saying church to indicate a building and church to indicate a people is very illustrative) as a structure, as a place within a parish that was then organized by areas which in turn found itself in a larger judicatory and so on. In my tradition there are congregations (local), presbyteries (roughly county sized), synods (roughly provincial size), and General Assembly (national). Each locale is nested in the next.
Hoekendijk argues that we have focused on space too much and not enough on time. Jesus, the apostles, and the early church had a wide plurality of forms but all of them believed that they were on the Way. Like Moses and the Exodus, God is a God on the move, and while that implies a relationship to space it doesn’t mean that occupying space is what determines how we structure our lives together. [Flett doesn’t bring this up so I don’t know if it is Hoekendijk does but the law surrounding the construction of the tabernacle is exactly this. Scripture determines that God is a God on the move and God has a good deal to say about how that is to happen. God is a God who moves through time and space in a prescribed way but does not stay still.]
Think about the difference between building a house and going on a long trek like a canoe trip. You prepare differently. You think differently. Your actions betray a different sense of the relationship that you have to space. We’ve spent centuries building houses but, Hoedendijk argues, instead we should have been equipping ourselves to be good trekkers.
Hoedendijk’s ideas are hard to convey and I’m still digesting them but as I head to Arusha for the World Conference on Evangelism and Mission (CWME), I’m considering how mission has been understood using space. First the missionaries come and they erect a “mission.” I live on the grounds of one such mission which is proudly the “mother” of the CCAP and of “democracy” in Malawi (a fusion of church and state that should not surprise given the consistent agenda of both). Then, they go about bringing people into the mission, enculturating them to the point that they too can go and plant congregations. Mission is like Starbucks or Tim Hortons in this sense – get market penetration and establish proximal locations for services. The missionaries bring God with them, plant God down and eventually convince people to come and see the God that they have brought.
I can hear the cry from my New Parish Collective friends or the Hauerwasian mafia – There is value in the local! Virtue is formed in community! I know that. But does that blind us to assumptions that we make. When hipster white folks move into a hipster white neighbourhood is one thing. What about cross cultural exchange, especially when there are discrepancies of economic and political power? The question is what value is there in cultures that don’t have our Christian franchise yet? Is the only way of witnessing to Jesus Christ to move into the neighbourhood, build a house the same as we had at our last home and then start telling and showing everyone how much better our house is than theirs?
This isn’t charitable but I’m not sure that it is inaccurate. Good intentions don’t make for right actions. In fact, good intentions can make wrong actions worse because they are done with an ignorant zeal immune to truth. Hoping to have some stimulating and insightful conversations this week about these kinds of issues.