God's Mysterious Presence


I began reading the rather scholarly article, which is not unusual.  One of the things that you get when you earn a doctoral degree is the assumption on the part of people that you are a scholar.  I could probably offer a decent dictionary definition of what being a scholar means.  But let’s keep it simple.  Clearly, a scholar is linked to school.  And surely school connotes education.  So my preference is to link being a scholar with education.  In my case, I hope that is life-long education.  To me that is not a throwaway phrase used in higher education, as well as, business circles.

I find scholarly articles still helpful in my life for two reasons.  In the first place, they challenge me to think and reflect at a higher level.  Reading this kind of piece requires that I engage it and ponder things as I go.  It is an active form of reading.  In the second place, these scholarly pieces provide new and/or challenging content.  I have enjoyed reading widely.  I know most of my religion scholar peers find my involvement in the business community a bit odd.  I also like to add to the breadth and depth of my own “specialty,” which I would claim is spirituality.

And so, I began an article entitled, “The Work of Discovery: Interreligious Dialogue as Life-Long Learning,” by Jesuit Michael Barnes.  I expected to be informed; I did not expect to be inspired.  I am pretty comfortable with interreligious dialogue, so I expected to be “for” most of the stuff I would be reading.  In the early part of the article, however, Barnes began talking about the missionary endeavor.  I was a little taken aback.  If I am honest, I am not quite sure what I think about the Christian missionary effort.  Clearly, there are some parts of that story that leave me a bit cold.  I think there is a rub between what many missionaries think and the different world of interreligious dialogue.

In Barnes’ words earlier missionaries often were motivated to supply what was “missing” in the lives of all those folks around the globe who were living without Christianity.  Then I hit a sentence in the article that simply arrested my attention.  It was one of those sentences, which so grab you that you cannot move on.  You have to linger, savor, digest and then figure out what you are going to do with what you just learned.    

Recognizing the Christian context of the sentence, I nevertheless began to grasp the universal implications of what it meant.  Barnes writes, The Church’s task is not to supply a somehow ‘missing’ Spirit but to co-operate with what God is already doing in a world shot through with the traces of God’s mysterious presence.”  Pretty quickly I realized what Barnes was doing for me was to provide a theology to articulate a way that I could embrace being a missionary!

The word, missionary, is still a loaded word for me and, I’m sure, for many.  But the idea is ok.  The spiritual question really is, how do I share and care about the world and the people in the world?  When we pose this question this way, it is not just a Christian question.  It is a question that anyone who claims to be spiritual can legitimately ask.  Barnes’ sentence gave me a nice way to narrate how I can do that sharing and caring.

In the first instance, I like his focus on “co-operation.”  He talks about co-operating with God.  I would personally like to extend this and talk about co-operating with others---even others from different religious traditions---who are doing their missionary thing.  There is mutuality in co-operation.  It demands a kind of humility to be effective.

In the second instance, I like Barnes’ assumption that God is already doing in the world.  I love the way he puts it: “in a world shot through with God’s mysterious presence.”  As I understand it, God is already involved in missionary work!  God is a missionary!  God is already involved in sharing and caring for the world and the world’s peoples.  Barnes assumes the world is already permeated with God’s mysterious presence.  I say Amen!

When we look at the world we inhabit, clearly there are traces of sin (or whatever debilitating word you prefer).  Murders, mayhem and the like are too prevalent---that’s a given.  The question is about the alternative: is there sharing, caring and love at work to bring healing and wholeness.  Barnes’ view of God says there is.  I agree. 

But this cannot remain merely a theological assumption.  It has to become a practice of my action and, hopefully, your action.  The Christian tradition claims that God so loved the world, that God cared and shared.  I affirm this and feel called to live the truth of it in my life.  I guess I can be a missionary, too!

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