Vincent Donovan

Advent IX: Somebody’s out to get me

Few books have left their mark on me as deeply as Vincent Donovan’s Christianity Rediscovered: An Epistle to the Masai. One of the oft-recounted ‘episodes’ in the book concerns Donovan’s ‘conversion’ by a Masai elder who unmasked Donovan’s very Western (enlightenment) notion of faith as predominantly intellectual assent, ‘to agree to’. ‘“To believe” like that’, the elder said, ‘was similar to a white hunter shooting an animal with his gun from a great distance. Only his eyes and his fingers took part in the act. We should find another word’. He continued: ‘for a man really to believe is like a lion going after its prey. His nose and eyes and ears pick up on the prey. His legs give him the speed to catch it. All the power of his body is involved in the terrible death leap and single blow to the neck with the front paw, the blow that actually kills. And as the animal goes down the lion envelops it in his arms (Africans refer to the front legs of an animal as its arms) pulls it to itself, and makes it part of himself. This is the way a lion kills. This is the way a man believes. This is what faith is’.

Donovan’s response? Silence, and amazement: ‘Faith understood like that would explain why, when my own was gone, I ached in every fiber of my being’. But the Masai elder had not finished speaking to Donovan:

‘We did not search you out, Padri … We did not even want you to come to us. You searched us out. You followed us away from your house into the bush, into the plains, into the steppes where our cattle are, into the hills where we take our cattle for water, into our villages, into our homes. You told us of the High God, how we must search for him, even leave our land and our people to find him. But we have not done this. We have not left our land. We have not searched for him. He has searched for us. He has searched us out and found us. All the time we think we are the lion. In the end, the lion is God’. (p. 51)

Does this not go to the heart – and challenge some of our misconceptions – of Advent wherein we celebrate the coming of God, the lion – or, if you prefer Francis Thompson’s image, ‘the hound’ – of heaven among us? For all the time that we are focussed on our waiting, the lion is on the prowl, awaiting his own time to enact the ‘terrible death leap and single blow’ upon us, love’s victim. Clearly, Advent is his waiting too.

It was this lion, of course – this lion from whose generous bounty we live, gift after gift after gift; this lion who is the glory of the Father – who pounced on Mary, pulled her to himself, and made her part of himself. And it is Mary, perhaps more than any other biblical figure, who gifts us with how one lives under and inside a lion; i.e., who gifts us with how one lives the other side of our death. So her Magnificat, as recorded in the Book of Common Prayer:

My soul doth magnify the Lord: and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.
For he hath regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden.
For behold, from henceforth: all generations shall call me blessed.
For he that is mighty hath magnified me: and holy is his Name.
And his mercy is on them that fear him: throughout all generations.
He hath shewed strength with his arm: he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat: and hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things: and the rich he hath sent empty away.
He remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel: as he promised to our forefathers, Abraham and his seed for ever.

Time to reflect: Here’s the ‘Magnificat’ by Arvo Pärt, set to Cal Jones’ (Director and Producer) and Ralph Lopatin’s (Cinematographer) ‘Miracle on the Delaware’:

[Image: Gary Cutri]


‘”What Happened Next?”: Vincent Donovan, Thirty-five Years On’

christianity-rediscoveredDear Bishop,

… Suddenly I feel the urgent need to cast aside all theories and discussions, all efforts at strategy, and simply go to these people and do the work among them for which I came to Africa. I would propose cutting myself off from the schools and the hospital and just go and talk to them about God and the Christian message. Outside of this, I have no theory, no plan, no strategy, no gimmick, no idea of what will come. I feel rather naked. I will begin as soon as possible … (Vincent J. Donovan)

I will always be grateful for my being introduced to Christianity Rediscovered: An Epistle to the Masai by Vincent J. Donovan, who I’ve posted on before. I can’t recall how many copies that I’ve given away over the years but it runs well into double figures (a wee plea: this is not a gloat but an indication of how highly I view this book). The book continues to have a profound influence on the way I think about Church, mission and the Gospel. Yet like many readers of this wonderful story, I was always left with a set of frustrating questions: ‘What happened next?’ ‘Did the Masai Donovan encountered go on to do the self-theologising and self-ecclesiologicalising that he (in the spirit of Roland Allen) had hoped that they would?’ ‘What happened to Donovan himself?’ etc. So I was absolutely thrilled yesterday to pick up the latest copy of the International Bulletin of Missionary Research (33/2 April 2009) and read John P. Bowen’s article entitled ‘”What Happened Next?”: Vincent Donovan, Thirty-five Years On’. The story is significantly sadder than I had hoped, but Bowen’s piece is no less important for that. Bowen also draws attention to his forthcoming edited book The Letters of Vincent Donovan, to be published by Orbis Books.

And while I’m drawing attention to newies, here’s two more to look out for:

You were in this place … but we never knew

About 15 years ago now, I was introduced to a wonderful book by Vincent J. Donovan entitled Christianity Rediscovered. I have posted on this book before, and have never really gotten over reading it. I can’t remember how many copies I’ve given away. I only mention it here because I was reminded of it twice again today.

First, after following some of the (mostly) ignorant commentary on Rowan Williams’ recent lecture on Civil and Religious Law in England: a Religious Perspective. (As well as the copious newspaper and blog articles, there’s also this frustrating discussion on BBC Wales with Kim Fabricius and Peter Hitchens). For a clarification of what Rowan did and did not propose see this post on What did the Archbishop actually say?

Second, I had reason today to revisit a paper given at a Faith & Unity Commission Meeting in 2003. As the report from that commission states, ‘the paper represents the thoughts and discussions of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Ecumenical Commission. It comes out of a couple of workshops held at their Commission meetings in late 2002 and early 2003’. The result is a powerful restatement of the grace of God at work in the world and in particular human communities, the God who is determined to make himself known because he does not want to be God without us. Here is a rich testimony, akin to that which Donovan was offered by the Masai elders. The paper reads:

We are what we are – Spirit People

We Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples believe that the Creator has always been with our people since the beginning of time. Our connection to this land Australia and the stories from long ago emphasise this and reveals to us our ongoing relationship to the Creator. We know that the Spirit is always close to us and within us. The Spirits of our ancestors are always around us looking out for us and showing us the path we should travel. We are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses.

We have been given a gift to offer the rest of humanity; the importance of relationships. The Creator still has a strong relationship with us and helps us build stronger relationships with one another. These relationships also cover everything around us, for it is through the land, water and air that we are continually reminded of this. It is not just the symbol of the rainbow that reminds us about the covenant between the Creator and humanity. There are signs all around us that continually reminds us of the Covenant.

Our peoples are generous, caring and compassionate towards each other and other Australians. We have survived many negative things yet we still reach out our hand in reconciliation. This is the message of long ago from our roots and also the message through the Christian Bible. It has been the message passed down from generation to generation from parent to children since time began.

The Spirit lives on through us and we must continually foster this relationship through acts that remind us of this great truth. These acts are ceremonies, which help us to draw closer to our creator who has left the Spirit with us. Through them we retell and relive the great stories of our past.

Since the coming of the Western Culture, there has been a breakdown in our relationship with the Creator. Our ways have been under threat and this has led us to move away from our roots and into a foreign way of thinking. This has caused hardships within our communities as we struggle to find our way. Sometimes we have failed to recognise the Spirit present with us. We looked to the new culture to show us the way forward and it has led to more confusion and loss of direction. This culture has failed our people. It has shown it cannot satisfy our deepest yearnings.

This culture wanted us to look for the Creator through their eyes. They have failed to see that the Creator exists within our culture. While Abraham was wandering in the desert our peoples had been for many generations living in close relationship with our Creator. We have an Old Testament, which we can now accept as part of our salvation history.

How short sighted Western Culture was to think they had the monopoly on the Creator and how blinded were we to believe this was true. It is up to us to reclaim our beliefs. Our Creator yearns for us to come back. Our relationship has been tested and made stronger because of the many mistakes along the journey because we have learnt so much from the experience. We now know about Christ. This story from the Western Culture has touched and had an impact on our lives.

We did not have Jesus amongst us as the Apostles did but he left us the Spirit of the Creator with us. We know this Spirit to be the same Spirit who is with us now because of what it has done and continues to do. This Spirit of relationships reminds us about our responsibilities to one another and creation and that we all come from the same source of life. This Spirit is also the Spirit of the Rainbow Serpent, the Brolga, the Emu, the Stars, the Fish, the Plants, the mountains and much more. We must hold on to and strengthen our Spiritual heritage.

As a Minority we stand as the strength of this Land. We affirm our belief in the Creator Spirit who created us. It is in our connection to this deep sense of belonging that our Identity lives. Our Culture can never be broken. We embrace our past. We are alive in the present and have hope in the future. The Creator Spirit calls us into a search for a deeper relationship with himself and each other. The Creator Spirit calls us to renewal.

Back in 1996, Wadjularbinna Doomadgee, a Gungalidda Leader on the Gulf of Carpentaria too bore witness to what Donovan had also ‘discovered’:

So the sad thing about it all was the missionaries didn’t realise that we already had something that tied in with what they’d brought to us. They saw different as inferior, and they didn’t ask us what it was that we had. And it’s very sad because if they had asked … things may have been different today.

Our people, before the white man came were very spiritual people. They were connected to land and creation through the great spirit, there was a good great and a great evil spirit … And Satan was the great evil one. So there wasn’t much difference in what the missionaries brought and what we already had …

One of the songs we used to sing regularly at our weekly college chapel services, and which bears witness to this reality, is Robin Mann’s You were in this place. I offer it here as a prayer:

1. At the dawn of the ages
You pulled land from the sea
With your Word You invented
All we know, all we see
Creek and desert and forest,
Red and grey Kangaroo
You were in this place
But we never knew.

2. Do we take after Jacob –
Blind to what lies at hand,
Needing dreams to inform us
God is here in this land?
See him suffering and dying,
Bread and wine tell the news
You were in this place
But we never knew.

3. Paintings seen on the rock face
Footprints left in the sand.
Campfire next to the river,
Songs that rise from the land
Signs that seem so elusive,
Shadows just out of view.
You were in this place
But we never knew.

4. Jesus, open our senses
Help us to see you today
In the person beside us,
As we work, as we play.
While we love you and serve you
May it never be true:
You were in this place
But we never knew.

A reflection on Vincent Donovan

In The Church in the Midst of Creation, Donovan builds on his previous work, Christianity Rediscovered: An Epistle from the Masai, and in many ways it really cannot be appreciated without having first read that book. I was particularly reminded of one part of his earlier work where he writes about what he is observing amongst the Masai, an observation that is pertinent for his later book. He observes:

There is no use arguing that it isn’t true happiness they have, or that they aren’t really happy – because they are, at least in that momentary escape from their loneliness and hopelessness while drinking the rich butterfat milk of their Zebu cattle, or striding across the Masai plains, or dancing the beautiful dances of the nomads. St. Paul says this happiness is a sign of God among them. He was here before we ever got there. It is simply up to us to bring him out so they can recognise him.

Writing from back home in the United States, Donovan, in The Church in the Midst of Creation, has, between the Preface and the Epilogue, nine chapters in which he peruses back and forth across history seeing the way that the Roman Catholic Church has became standardised, specialised, and centralised (he argues largely because of the industrial revolution), with a uniformity imposed by the Vatican and a Christ who has become a European Christ and has shackled the Spirit. Donovan responds by proposing a cosmic, or planetary, Christ.

There are echoes here of a response he offered to a review of his previous book, Christianity Rediscovered, where he wrote that

While we have to admit that Western Christianity has monopolized Christ, and has shackled Christ in the bondage of a single culture to such an extent that the Western Christ has become a stumbling block for the Holy Spirit, Christ will remain, I believe, the point at which Christianity and Hinduism will meet, the point at which Christianity and every religion and culture will meet. It will serve no purpose at all to water down the heart of the Christian message to make it more acceptable to the world of humankind. We must bring the full brunt of the gospel message to the religions and cultures of the world. The understanding of Christ will undoubtedly change, and expand and grow as a result of this process, perhaps even in a frightening and unfamiliar manner, but it should have grown long ago out of the narrow dimensions of the Mediterranean Christ.

He develops this thought further in The Church in the Midst of Creation where he advocates the need for the Western Church to embrace a planetary Christ, a world Christ. He writes:

We have to admit that after all this existence and scientific scholarship, after nearly two thousand years of Christianity, the Christ that is worshipped in our churches, the Christ that is the basis for our church and all its faith life and activity, is no more than a Mediterranean Christ. That is as far as Christ has grown. European and American theologians see nothing wrong with that, nothing wrong with the fact that we have not even begun to think of, or search for, the meaning of a planetary Christ, a world Christ. We continue to let all our efforts revolve around a Mediterranean Christ. We of the West have monopolized Christ…. There is surely more to be revealed about the Christ than is already known. But we, trapped in our own culture with its exact and measured scientific view of the world, with our lack of sacramental vision, may not be the ones to discover it. Like Mary Magdelene, we are afraid to let go of Christ, to let Christ out of our grasp, out of our control.

This kind of thinking raises serious questions about how we understand the nature of Church as Incarnational. In what sense are Christ’s people his form in the world? This is a different question than that of whether of not the Church is a continuation of the Incarnation. With Forsyth, I contend that it is not. However, Donovan’s question, one of many raised in his book, is one that I wish to consider in this post, albeit briefly.

I think that we need to respond to this question firstly by seeing the Church as a kenotic community. There is at the heart of reconciliation the solidarity with the world which the Church does not take on as an extra-curricula activity, but which is constituted of its very existence as the kenotic community. The kenosis of Christ is the ‘self-emptying’ (Phil 2) which constitutes the inner movement of condescension and humility which characterises the life of the Son to the Father. As Jesus drew his disciples into his own ‘self-emptying’ life and ministry of obedience and service to the Father on behalf of the world, he formed them into a ‘kenotic community’. As those who bare continuous testimony to the presence of Christ in the world following Pentecost, the Church exists as the community where the world can discover and experience its own participation, reconciliation and salvation in the kenosis of God in Christ. Karl Barth noted that ‘The world does not know itself. It does not know God, nor man, nor the relationship and covenant between God and man. Hence it does not know its own origin, state or goal. It does not know what divides nor what unites. It does not know either its life and salvation or its death and destruction. It is blind to its own reality. Its existence is a groping in the dark.’

All this serves as a sober reminder that the Church does not ‘possess’ Christ as its own. To this end, Bonhoeffer observed that ‘Everything would be ruined if one were to try and reserve Christ for the Church and to allow the world only some kind of law, even if it were a Christian law. Christ dies for the world, and it is only in the midst of the world that Christ is Christ.’ It is not as though the world needs the Church in order to have Christ; the Church also needs the world in order to know Christ. In this sense, Christ’s existence in the world is ‘non-religious’ or ‘worldly’. Thus there is a certain ‘boundary-lessness’ to the Church in the world. Because Christ is the true centre, there are no longer any boundaries by which one can determine or define the existence of God in the world. So there is a need for us to be able to speak freely of the reality of the world for the Church, and of the solidarity between the Church and the world. The latter because the true community of Jesus Christ does not exist esoterically and invisibly but visibly and exoterically, so that it may be noted by the world around. Otto Weber notes,

Seen Christologically, every rejection of the world by the Community would have to place in question “docetically” the incarnation of Jesus Christ. It would have to have been the case that God did not become “true man” in Jesus Christ if the Community were intended not to be “truly” in the world. But above all, the victory of the Resurrected One over the “cosmos” (John 16:33) would have to be disregarded if the Community were supposed to understand the “world” solely as a confusing, alien reality, to be held at a distance and excluded.

The incarnational solidarity between Christ and the world binds the Church to the world and the world to the Church in a critical but positive tension of judgement and reconciliation, of sin and grace. As Barth says,

Solidarity with the world means full commitment to it, unreserved participation in its situation, in the promise given it by creation, in its responsibility for the arrogance, sloth and falsehood which reign within it, in its suffering under the resultant distress, but primarily and supremely in the free grace of God demonstrated and addressed to it in Jesus Christ, and therefore in its hope…. Solidarity with the world means that those who are genuinely pious approach the children of the world as such, that those who are genuinely righteous are not ashamed to sit down with the unrighteous as friends, that those who are genuinely wise do not hesitate to seem to be fools among fools, and that those who are genuinely holy are not too good or irreproachable to go down “into hell” in a very secular fashion…. since Jesus Christ is the Saviour of the world, [the Church] can exist in worldly fashion, not unwillingly nor with a bad conscience, but willingly and with a good conscience. It consists in the recognition that its members also bear in themselves and in some way actualise all human possibilities.

Given this, there is an obligation placed upon the Church towards the world. This obligation is the responsibility for the world, or to the world, which Christ assumed in coming to the World as the Word. So one cannot discharge obligation to God and at the same time be irresponsible toward the world.

But at the same time, there is a necessary contradiction which must be borne within the ‘same body’, a contradiction that Donovan, in my opinion, fails to take seriously enough, and which Hauerwas and Willimon bear witness to when they write:

The challenge facing today’s Christians is not the necessity to translate Christian convictions into a modern idiom, but rather to form a community, a colony of resident aliens which is so shaped by our convictions that no one even has to ask what we mean by confessing belief in God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The biggest problem facing Christian theology is not translation but enactment. No doubt, one of the major reasons for the great modern theologians who strove to translate our language for modernity was that the church had become so inept at enactment. Yet no clever theological moves can be substituted for the necessity of the church being a community of people who embody our language about God, where talk about God is used without apology, because our life together does not mock our words. The church is the visible, political enactment of our language of God by a people who can name their sin and accept God’s forgiveness and are thereby enabled to speak the truth in love. Our Sunday worship has a way of reminding us, in the most explicit and ecclesial of ways, of the source of our power, the peculiar nature of our solutions to what ails us.

Returning back now to our earlier discussion regarding that necessary contradiction between Christ and the world, we might deduce that the reconciliation of the world to God produces and sustains the contradiction for the sake of its healing. Thus, the ‘kenotic community’ exposes the contradiction by virtue of its solidarity with the world. Barth discusses the problem between the reconciliation actualised in Christ and the contemporary situation of the Christian in the world as the ‘divine problem’, and says that God takes up this ‘problem’ and solves it in the presence and action of the Holy Spirit.

Thus there remains a ‘difference in solidarity’. ‘In Jesus Christ the community and the rest of humanity constitute a differentiated, yet in this differentiation firmly integrated, whole.’ This leads to a three-part conclusion: (i) the world would be lost without Jesus Christ and his word and work; (ii) the world would not necessarily be lost if there were no Church; and (iii) the Church would be lost if it had no counterpart in the world. The ‘difference’ is the presence of Christ – ‘For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them’ (Matt 18:20).

With this theological horizon, and motivated by his conviction that God is still creating and calling the Church to participate in what is its ontological purpose for being, Donovan appeals for the people to “refound” the Church. His experience with the Masai, and what this experience has helped him to discover in Scripture, has clearly played a significant role in shaping his sense of creation’s direction. Writing out of a post-Vatican II context, he finds Scripture pointing to an ecclesiastical model with increased simplicity in its lifestyle, with less oppressive hierarchy, with less space between leaders and people at all levels, and with a keener awareness of the pressing needs of a close-by world. In his last chapter, he gives us a glimpse at how such a congregation could look. He also espouses an approach to evangelism whereby both parties are changed by God during their communicative interchange. It is with this awareness that he argues for “evangelization of culture” which includes genuinely mutual dialogue with the other major faiths of the world. His argument is interesting: that convert-making is geared to individuals and its success is measured numerically, when what is required is to evangelise the whole culture.

Unfortunately, he falls victim, I believe, to contemporary culture’s addiction to “new age” expectations. Citing as his gurus Sorokin, Rahner and Toffler, he argues that our time (written in 1989) is a time of significant change to the point where we are “an age in the process of breaking up”. His discussion is helpful in that he argues for the need for the Church to ‘grow-up’ to meet these changing conditions, but I wish that his grounding in Scripture reminded him that the new age is God’s gift in Christ and is not a pseudohistorical concept.

In light of this, NT Wright, in a discussion of Romans 9-11, offers some poignant insights into the Church’s ontological nature as that which issues from the Cross – that place/event which serves as the passionate concern of the Church, led by the Spirit, as the loving justice of God to all the world in real space and time. He writes,

And when the church really turns to face this task, as it must if it is to be true to its vocation, it will find (as Paul saw in 2 Corinthians particularly) that its role is Christ-shaped: to bear the pain and shame of the world in its own body, that the world may be healed. And with this we realize (in case it were not already apparent) that there is no room in this hermeneutic for a Christian or ecclesial triumphalism, which is precisely what Paul is opposing in Romans 11. The church is called to do and be for the world what the Messiah was and did for Israel … The church must find out the pain of the world, and must share it and bear it.

Another issue that is raised by Donovan, moreover, raises this issue of the Church community’s place in time and space. In other words, in what sense is the Church an eschatological community? Surely the Church is the community that is determined by its final destiny, the resurrection of the Incarnate Word-Son of God, Jesus Christ. The Church’s ‘now-life’ is lived in this realised sense as Christ’s presence in the Church and world is as the Coming or Last One, and it’s in this sense that his ministry is one of reconciliation, liberation and hope.

Karl Barth wrote that “We must understand that God is the measure of all reality and propriety, understand that eternity exists first and then time, and therefore the future first and then the present.” In this sense the Church is simultaneously the ‘kenotic community’ and the ‘ek-static community’. The ek-static dimension of the Church’s life is its orientation toward the ultimate destiny, by which it ‘stands out’ (ek-stasis) of its existence in solidarity with the world toward the source of its life and being in the Christ who is coming.

A brief story. Imagine that geese could talk, Kierkegaard once said, and that they arranged things so that they too could have their Church services and their worship:

Every Sunday they would assemble together and a gander would preach. The essential content of the sermon was the exalted destiny of the geese, the exalted goal for which the creator had destined geese (and every time his name was named all the geese curtsied and the ganders bowed their heads). With the help of their wings they could fly away to far countries, blessed countries, where they really were at home; for here they were just like exiles. And so every Sunday. Then the gathering broke up, and every goose waddles home. Then the next Sunday off they went to the service again, then home again. That was all. They throve and grew fat, they became plump and tender… that was all. For while the sermon sounded so exalted on Sundays, on Mondays they would tell one another of the fate of the goose who wanted to take his destiny seriously, with the help of the wings the creator had given it. And they spoke of the horrors it had to endure. But they prudently kept this knowledge among themselves. For, of course, to speak of it on Sundays was most unsuitable, for as they said, in that case it would be obvious that our service would be a mockery both of God and of ourselves. There were also among the geese some that looked ill and thin. Of them the others said, “You see, that’s what comes from being serious about wanting to fly. It is because they are always thinking of flying that they get thin and do not thrive, and do not have God’s grace as we do. That is why we get plump and fat and tender, for it is by God’s grace that one gets plump and fat and tender.

So it is with Christians, added Keirkegaard: they conclude that the domesticating grace of God is not meant to take seriously the wings of the Spirit, for to do so emaciates one’s well-being and destroys one’s peace as an earth-bound creature. Whereas, in fact, the wings are meant to be used – humans have Spirit, and thus are destined to live a transcendent life of ek-statis, the content of which is love.