Commitment, Community, Cooperation

The Missiology of Trouble: Liberal Discontent and Metamodern Hope

In Gregory Leffel on September 14, 2017 at 10:36 pm

2016 ASM Presidential Address


In June 2016 OHI’s Gregory Leffel gave the annual Presidential Address at the American Society of Missiology. The text is posted here to provide a picture of how missiologists — that is, theologians working at the intersection of faith and public life — or Greg, at least — understand essential issues and trends affecting the quality of life in our society and what a Christian faith response might include.


The Missiology of Trouble: Liberal Discontent and Metamodern Hope — In 8 points.

[For notes and citations, see the published text at The final, definitive version of this paper has been published in Missiology: an International Review, 45(1) January 2017, by SAGE Publications Ltd., All rights reserved. © Gregory Leffel.]


1. The Anthropology of Trouble 


I’ll begin by quoting anthropologist Roy Rappaport, from his 1992 Distinguished Lecture in General Anthropology at the American Anthropological Association. He called it “The Anthropology of Trouble.” You can see where I’m headed if you substitute “missiology” for “anthropology”:

Anthropology, having spent most of its life in strange places, is, it seems, coming home. Not all of us, of course. Many of us will, and should, remain in our exotic diaspora. . . . But domestic research has never been valued very highly in our discipline, nor has the application of anthropology to the solution of real world problems.

I am advocating the relocation of both engaged and domestic research from anthropology’s periphery toward its center. . . . To move engaged domestic research toward the center of the discipline may be, ipso facto, to move anthropology as a whole toward a more central position in our society’s attempts to reflect upon and to deal with its own vexations and agonies—to anthropologize, so to speak, public discourse.

Coming home to confront our own troubles rather than everybody else’s was not a new idea for missiologists in the 1990s. But if we missiologists, or at least some of us, Picture2repatriate our work to the home front—and I’m speaking here as a U.S. American talking only about my own American society—What are we coming home to? To what troubles shall we address our public witness in word and deed if we “missiologize” public discourse? What new practices must we adopt to do mission in this particular context? What rhetorical master frame shall we put around our society’s “vexations and agonies” to interpret and explain them theoretically and theologically?


2. Coming Home to Trouble


Let’s start with the trouble we come home to. To state the obvious: We’re returning to a society in a moment of disarray. It’s certainly not collapsing. In many ways its institutions remain resilient. So are its people. But like my favorite worn-out sweater, it’s unraveling.

What is unwinding is precisely all that that was built up by a liberal society, a free and democratic society rooted in liberty, over the span of generations. Americans might disagree about how well our liberal society was built. In fact we disagree bitterly over Picture3race, identity, gender, inequality, carbon, foreign terror, or whether the glass is half full or half empty. Many in our minority communities, some whose complaints date to 1492, are not impressed with our liberalism at all. And to the extent that it is mostly the product of white, Western men like me, they have a point, given that their interests are usually overridden by a dominant society that consigns them to the margins.

But even if justice rings hollow for many Americans, we still possess the progressive legacy of one of history’s most liberal nations. Much of even this never-perfected legacy, however, has been unwinding for decades. So is our resolve to protect it, or even to appreciate it.

I want to suggest that our troubles are liberal troubles. We missiologists come home to confront the contemporary exhaustion of America’s liberal social imaginary, its socio-Picture4.pngcultural imagination. Americans wove this tapestry of social, cultural, political, and
economic ideas and practices over two centuries. And in no small measure it is also the product of our churches themselves, especially our majority Protestant ones. Today we are witnessing the degeneration of the social philosophy that has united us since the Revolution.

So, where are we headed tonight? First, I want to remind us of a familiar story about liberalism, one that is so familiar we often overlook it. I want to put the liberalism that we Americans share in perspective, or frame it if you will, to make it a workable concept for our missioners to use in the United States in order to contextualize afresh their public witness. None of this is especially novel, but I want to present a fresh take on it. After that, I want to sketch liberalism’s discontent, the anarchic, post-political, post-postmodern mood we find ourselves in. And then propose a note of hope in something new, an emerging mood I will call Metamodernism, one that we missiologists do well to understand.


3. Our Official Philosophy


Why preoccupy ourselves with liberalism? Because I want us to agree with social critic Alan Wolfe that “liberty” is America’s “official philosophy.” Liberty, the sensation of freedom, defines our personal and public sensibilities. Liberty, as a structure of feeling, operates among us much like Ubuntu does among Southern Africans, or the Harmony Way among our indigenous Turtle Islanders. Liberty may not be the only characteristic of the mainstream American experience, but it is the essential one.

By referring to liberalism—that is, by referring to the social imaginary that derives from the logic of liberty—I’m talking about something deep and universal among us Picture5and not about a narrow political orientation. I refer to the overall life-way that emerges from liberal values and that shapes expectations for how all of us live together: conservatives and progressives and moderates in the middle. Scratch the skin and all we Americans bleed liberal.

Charles Taylor proposed the concept “social imaginary” to describe the set of social practices and values that attune us to our social world, including the cultural sensibilities we inhabit wittingly or not. Two essential values lie deep within our liberal social imaginary. First is individual liberty. This is the priority placed on personal independence, individual dignity, autonomy, and freedom of conscience. These priorities underwrite a sense of individuality and free expression. But they also underwrite the insistent individualism of American culture. This is “negative” liberty, as Isaiah Berlin defined it: The drive to be free from anything that controls one’s life.

The other essential value is liberality. It is a mood of openness, decency, and generosity—one might even call it “grace.” Our liberality founds our concern for other individuals, equality, tolerance for diversity of people and their opinions, for justice and the common good of the commonwealth. This is “positive” liberty: Granting to others what each one needs in order to reach one’s potential and to maximize one’s life.

Individual liberty and liberality, respectively, are reflected in the “individualist” and “communitarian” traditions of American liberalism. But our left hand seldom knows what our right hand is doing. Both of these traditions often oppose each other. Even in our presumed “Christian” America, love for self and love for neighbor don’t easily fit together. But blended together these individualist- and socially-oriented liberal traditions have long oriented the liberal identities and expectations of most Americans.

Liberalism is the ballast that stabilizes our ship. Can we conceive alternatives? Sure. “Another World is Possible!” as we like to say. However, any new or radical proposal of a political or moral economy to replace American liberalism—from anarchism to authoritarianism—will fail that doesn’t respect liberalism’s stabilizing gravity as its point of beginning.

This goes as well for a theological interrogation of liberalism that argues for justice and inherent human rights, rather than liberty, as the proper social foundation of a virtuous society. Nicholas Wolterstorff stakes out this counter perspective:

Ever since Hegel, domination and liberation have been the fundamental categories of social analysis and critique. An authentically evangelical voice . . . will question this and propose instead that justice and injustice be the fundamental categories. The fundamental social ill is not that people are not at liberty to do as they see fit; the fundamental ill is that we wrong each other.

Perhaps. But a change in foundations, including this one, as theologically and missiologically compelling as it is, requires a starting point for change. In the United States this means liberalism. We must explain how justice can be granted in and among the citizens of a free society. And also ask whether liberalism, in its liberality, already bears the seeds of justice.


4. Liberal Denominationalism 


American liberalism is far from monolithic. Liberalism as a social practice, as well as the sensibilities we form from it, may be one “religion,” but it is one with many “denominations.” We Americans have plenty to fight over, and we do. But our squabbling is strictly intramural, a family fight over the meaning of liberty.

Picture6Our most basic liberal instinct is to think that “[s]ociety should be organized,” says Richard Flacks, “so that people make their own history.” That is to say, with Alan Wolfe, “As many people as possible should have as much say as is feasible over the direction their lives will take.” We believe in collective self-government, not tyrants, and in reasoned discourse, not propaganda. We believe in the emancipation of people from coercion by the powerful, and in an ethic of equality.

Picture7At the same time our instincts orient us to more material concerns. We also believe in the liberation of property—its protection, and an ethic of its free market exchange. At least this is the mood of our Constitution which frames, as one commentator has put it, “the natural rights of each individual to his [or her] person and property.”

Now, there is more than a little tension between these “people” and “property” instincts, just as there is between our communitarian and individualist ones. Americans lean one way or the other, left or right. The left privileges “people,” emphasizing democracy because it bends toward equality and equal control over social goods. The right privileges “property,” preferring to let markets shape society because they tend to increase wealth and prosperity, at least for certain classes of us.

In fact, there is a spectrum of liberal denominations on the left and the right. Each denomination is enshrouded in ideological orthodoxies and entrenched pieties. Most of us join comfortable congregations in one or another of them. In the post-war period we thought we had reached equilibrium in the middle—“the end of history,” so to speak—and called it “democratic-capitalism.” On the left, those disappointed with such centrism because it fails to resolve racial exclusion and class inequality, emphasize greater democratic control and public participation, or “social democracy.” On the far left, some insist on even more direct democratic control over government and markets, and autonomy for their local communities and their personal lives. These advocate a form of “social libertarianism.” On the right, disenchantment with democratic-capitalism leads to demands for greater market freedom and laissez-faire, neoliberal free market economics. And on the far right a “market libertarianism” calls for its own form of property-based anarchism and complete freedom from government.

In practice, our liberal spectrum resembles a horseshoe. Liberalism at both the left and right ends of the spectrum bends inexorably towards autonomy and individual liberty. Towards, as James Scott puts it, a “precious zone of autonomy and freedom in state systems increasingly dominated by large public and private bureaucracies.” Our natural default is to freedom from all forms of social hierarchy and power, be they government, social institutions, business corporations, or churches. But there is a limit to this convergence. Libertarian radicals at the far left and right ends of the spectrum, from the New Left to anarcho-capitialists, have attempted on occasion to find common ground on the basis of personal liberty. These attempted convergences failed over each side’s reciprocal commitments to the liberation of people, on the left, and the liberation of property, on the right. Both sides re-discovered a fundamental American liberal contradiction. At the end of the day, a purely egalitarian democracy and a pure market-driven society are incompatible.

The strength of American liberalism as a social practice has been to keep the left and right in balance. Actually-existing liberal practice is a centerline down a crowded highway. It achieves balance, on one side, by recognizing, emancipating, and enfranchising the low and marginal, even if these are forced to demand their rights through protest that exposes the injustices that oppress them. On the other side, it gives sanction to free market wealth production and social tradition as if both can be counted on to mature in their social consciousness over time.

Our centerline is more than an averaging of public opinion. It is a perennial struggle between social opposites, sometimes violent either rhetorically or physically, to form a common center. I want to call this centering sensibility metaxis. Metaxis is the perception that the common good is always somewhere between or beyond our polarities. The word “metaxis” means to oscillate between poles of imagined opposites in the hope of being enriched by both, and thus create something better from both of them—like the old social movement street chant that goes, “We’re not Left! We’re not Right! We’re out in Front!” Metaxis is the operating center of the logic of historical liberalism. I’ll have more to say about it later when we discuss metamodernism.

Our current troubles, including tensions between our churches, can be understood as the weakening of the metaxis, or the reconciling logic, of our liberal imaginary and the polarizing of our extremes. We have managed to divorce individual liberty from liberality. We have cleaved our individualist leanings from our communitarian ones, and pitted property against people. Liberalism has lost its soul in the process, a fracturing that begs missiological understanding.


5. The American Reformation 


This raises an interesting question: Does American liberalism have a soul that humanizes it? Yes, it does. To a significant extent it is a religious soul—though certainly not entirely so when we also account for other political, economic and philosophical influences.

Picture8The roots of American liberalism are much more Christian, or at least much more Protestant, than we might imagine. These roots were set during the eighteenth century in what was the first sustained attempt to contextualize Christian faith in a new American society. This project connected the Reformation’s theological heritage with the tradition of English civil liberties which dates back to at least the thirteenth century; with rising bourgeois property freedoms, themselves with a long history; and with the new rationality of the Enlightenment. Historian Amy Kittlestrom calls this far-reaching synthesis, pioneered by New England ministers, the “American Reformation.” Others call it the “evangelical enlightenment.”

In brief, The American Reformation radicalized the European Reformation’s central value—liberty of conscience—and extended its meaning to emphasize individual free will, moral agency, and private judgment. It also incorporated into theology many Enlightenment values such as rationalism, free thinking, common sense, self-determination, social equality, self-expression, and traditional political liberties. Above all, the American reformers stressed moral virtue—personal and civic—as the proof of theological claims. Its open-minded advocates argued, in fact, that any belief must be proved virtuous by the good it produces in society. Taken together, these values constituted a “liberal” way of life, a form of Christian humanism rooted in individual liberty, virtue toward others, and progressive innovation.

Picture17Not surprisingly, as Kittlestrom notes, among these American reformist preachers were “the first people in the world to call themselves liberals.” But the word “liberalism” is applied liberally in this tradition. We can trace it back to the great proto-Unitarians like Charles Chauncy and Jonathan Mayhew, but also to Jonathan Edwards, and later to the ecumenical openness of Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell, and to Charles Finney’s revivals. And we can trace it forward to Walter Rauschenbush’s Social Gospel, of course, but also to the fundamentalist social crusader William Jennings Bryan, who famously claimed he would not let the nation’s working men and women be “crucified on a cross of gold.”

The American Reformation was an intellectual revolution. It cast a long, liberalizing shadow over the entire history of the United States: both religious, from Unitarians to Fundamentalists; and secular, from Transcendentalists and Pragmatists to Progressivism and the New Deal. As historian David Hollinger points out:

 . . . the engagement of Protestant Christianity with the Enlightenment . . . was — and continues to be —a world-historical event, or at least one of the defining experiences of the North Atlantic West and its global cultural extensions from the eighteenth century to the present (2013:3).

But let me cut to the chase. Given the preponderant influence of Protestant churches emerging from the Second Great Awakening, after 1800, America’s new, insurgent, democratizing culture was effectively “Protestantized” and enriched by a liberal, Christian humanism. At the same time, Protestantism itself was effectively enlightened and democratized. Good Christians became good citizens, proving their virtue in public service. The growing Protestant “mainline” provided necessary institutions—ecclesiastical, educational, and benevolent—to anchor civic life.

Picture9Protestantism’s liberalizing energy, strong as it was in the nineteenth century, faded over the last. It’s creativity is gone. Much of its humanist legacy is memorialized in America’s distinctive post-Protestant secularism. This uniquely American secularism carries on Protestantism’s ethical tradition, but without its churches, among that class of many Americans claiming to be “spiritual but not religious.” Our church traditions themselves, however, generally have polarized and ossified around either one or the other of the communitarian and individualist “denominational” poles of American liberalism: the Protestant “two party” system, as political scientists like to call it.

Overall until the 1960s there remained a liberal consensus, both religious and secular, that mediated political, social, and religious disputes. Our liberal consensus was centrist and required compromise on all sides. In return it offered a universal perspective that all points of view could be accommodated within a single, integrated cultural vision. It tempered public discourse. It was shot through with Protestant influence and substantially sustained by our churches. So great, and so suddenly forgotten, was this religious influence that even the conservative Catholic social critic Joseph Bottum laments the “death” of the Protestant mainline as “the central historical fact of our time.”

If there is trouble in our land of liberty it is because our political, cultural, and religious consensus broke apart in the racial and political radicalism of the 1960s, and in the conservative counter-movements that followed them. In practice and ideology, liberalism has lost its soul. Consensus has dissolved into dissensus, and there are consequences: the radius of trust shrinks, solidarity declines, and individuals seek their interests alone.


6. Post-political Libertarianism 


So, where does this leave us today? Liberalism is far too protean to die. But where is it headed among the fragments of dissensus?

We’ve been overtaken by a new mood, a substantial reshaping of our structure of feeling. Call this mood “post-political libertarianism.” Think of it as liberalism, the sensation of liberty, running to extremes, an excess of liberty rather than its loss.

Picture10Taking the word “political” in the general sense of common public life, our post-political mood is one of a loss of confidence in the central institutions—governmental, economic, educational, civic, and religious—that traditionally organized our liberal society. It is a long-term legitimacy crisis. Political philosopher Giorgio Agamben captures the mood with his claim that, “Nowhere on earth today is a legitimate power to be found; even the powerful are convinced of their own illegitimacy.” Many of us no longer believe our institutions are capable of containing the splintering interests and competing claims of a divided, pluralist society. Instead we’ve come to prefer radical autonomy, or what is properly called libertarianism. In other words, to refer back to our “horseshoe,” we are living much closer to the libertarian ends of the liberal spectrum than we used to.

Picture14Anarchism also defines our new mood. We can take “anarchism” in the sense of what many of us fear: the breakdown of social order into chaos. And some of this is happening. On the other hand, and this is more descriptive of our present circumstances, anarchism is also the principled quest to live free from the coercion of bureaucratic hierarchies, both public and private. Anarchism embraces radicals on the left and on the right. It also describes the social phenomenology of the marginalized underground—of the poor, of minorities, and of reformers searching for creative alternatives—that lives below the radar of our official institutions and ideologies. Anarchism in both its chaotic and principled forms is a feature of our emerging post-political, libertarian transformation.

Here are a few sketches to describe aspects of this anarchic mood. For the sake of time I can’t offer more than brief caricatures to describe them (though some of them are heartbreaking). Many of us sense these trends even if we don’t have labels for them. So, tentatively, let me propose a few labels for further discussion at some other time (please forgive the stereotyping):

Anarcho-loneliness: Each year the Economic Policy Institute reports further decline of the working class and the poor, who struggle from loss of secure employment. Men and women are thrown into a lonely struggle to survive in the YOYO (You’re-On-Your-Own) economy. The resulting personal instability leads to disconnection from social and civic institutions. Don’t forget that many of the religious “Nones,” as pollsters call them, are not agnostics. They are simply poor and disconnected from churches.

Anarcho-tribalism: Robert Hunt argues in a recent article in our journal that shifting social structures cause the breakdown of stable, traditional public identities. Yet the myriad new tribes that have formed around self-constructed identities in response to this are even more fragile, leaving many of us anxious about who we are Picture16in the churning competition between anxious tribes. (In fairness, I want to carve out a special category for those communities that have had their separate identities forced on them by discrimination, but I don’t have space here.)

Anarcho-narcissism: Contrary to popular perceptions, social psychologist Jean Twenge and others report in recent studies a steady decline to the lowest levels of civic and political engagement among young adults, age 18-35, in 40 years. This is accompanied by a nearly exclusive concern for individual self-advancement—an individualist, consumerist, careerist orientation, and a self-enterprising spirituality without churches.

Anarcho-localism: Since the 1960s there has been a reprise of social libertarianism (“small is beautiful,” “think globally, act locally”) reflected in self-generating local collectives which envision new institutions built around direct, participatory
democracy, exchange cooperatives, worker-controlled economic democracy, local currencies, local foods, and local design and craft production. But it Picture15is also reflected in the freedom some find in small and worker-owned business enterprises.

Anarcho-capitalism: This, on the far right, is a self-described anti-state/anti-corporation movement seeking to organize social life around unimpeded, individualist market exchanges. It claims this name for itself.

Anarcho-Silicon Valley: But our post-political libertarian mood finds its most sophisticated expression among business, cultural (and countercultural), and technological elites, originally among those in the influential West Coast centers of digital technology, media, and investment. Here is a post-political sentiment to reframe society in a deeply libertarian, free market, technological grid. It is an antinomian cosmopolitanism that regards the nation-state and public institutions as nuisances. It looks to personal autonomy, entrepreneurial creativity, calculated disruption, big data, market forces, technological innovation, and spontaneous social evolution as the new social foundation. Serious critics call this the “Californian ideology,” “a heterogeneous orthodoxy for the coming information age.” Snarky online critics call it “anarcho-Silicon Valley.” It represents a widespread, self-confident consensus that science, technology, economics, a touch of Eastern consciousness and elitist social Darwinism, along with unencumbered individual autonomy are the vanguard of the new post-political future. It is a captivating utopia of data-driven, socially mediatized culture, and an evolutionary path into a transhumanist blending of mind, body, and artificial intelligence—in other words a utopian “millennium” that some call the “Singularity.”

I’m being playful with these labels, but purposefully to provoke further reflection. This is not all that is going on in our society, certainly. But post-political libertarianism is a leading indicator of an entrenched mood. The fact that we have reached a point at which we might even speculate about the unwinding of our liberal social imaginary in the terms of anarchism—principled and chaotic—demonstrates the centrifugal forces of our age of unraveling.


7. Metamodernism 


Not only missiologists are concerned with such social atomization and the nihilism it produces. So are most social theorists and concerned citizens, who are justifiably tired of our collective unraveling.

If we are looking for signs of hope, let me suggest that something else also is afoot in the structure of feeling that defines our new mood. To put it in the culturalist categories so many of us like to use, both modernism and postmodernism are exhausted. That is to say, argue cultural theorists Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker, “our current modernity can no longer be characterized by either the modern discourse of the universal gaze of the white, western male or its postmodern deconstruction along the heterogeneous lines of race, gender, class, and locality.”

Picture13Hope for our current modernity derives from the natural push and pull of the logic of our liberalism. Liberalism’s individualistic, negative logic naturally drives us toward libertarian fragmentation. But at the same time liberalism’s liberality, its positive logic, just as naturally pushes back in a communitarian direction. We need to recognize the “double movement” that is always going on within the logic of liberalism. Liberalism’s centering instinct—I called this metaxis earlier—is always operating among us.

Here is a countertrend to consider. Since postmodernism ran out of breath twenty years ago the question has been, How do we characterize our growing post-postmodern mood without a name? A dozen proposals vie for consideration. Choosing among them is, at this early stage, a little like trying on new clothes at the mall to see if something fits.

Let me go out on a limb and endorse a new clothing line produced under the “Metamodern” label, proposed by a number of cultural theorists including Vermeulen and van den Akker. The prefix “meta,” by the way, is not meant to be taken as a claim to yet another in a sequence of ever-newer modernisms. Rather, the “meta” in metamodernism makes use of the concept I introduced earlier: metaxis—the oscillating between poles that stabilized the left and the right of our liberal social imaginary. This is not a pendulum swinging in Hegelian dialectical fashion from one side to the other, but an integration along many lines of differences, along many simultaneous frequencies, looking beyond both sides for something new. Metamodernism, as its proponents present it, looks for a reconciliation of the relationships between imagined opposites, including the opposition of modernity and postmodernity. In doing so it attempts to disclose and to resolve perennial tensions rooted in our basic humanity.

What kinds of oppositions are linked in the metamodern vision? The list is long. On the cultural level, for example: irony and sincerity, self-interest and empathy, competition and altruism, critique and affirmation, realism and romanticism, matter and spirit. On the social level: self and society, “Us” and the Other, detachment and commitment, place and planet. A metamodern mood affirms the past, discerningly, and takes moral responsibility for the future. It might be that we can even uncover a hidden unity behind our excessive pluralism.

Certain themes, the substance of this new mood, come through in the various literatures that I lump together as “metamodern.” These literatures include cultural theory which explicitly uses the term (as noted above), but extend to the “metaxological” metaphysics of philosopher-theological William Desmond, and to related fields such as critical realism and neo-cosmopolitanism. Generally speaking, metamodernism reacts against modernism’s overly-quantified utopian naiveté. Foremost, however, it is a reaction against postmodernism’s excessively critical irony; its deconstruction of the “self”; its loss of master narratives; and its claim of “the end of everything,” of history, of truth, humanism, art, of progress; all of which together breed cynicism and passivity in the face of our troubles. Along with this, metamodernism protests the permanent postmodern struggles between identity communities, left and right, minorities and majorities—many with legitimate grievances, many not—each contending for its own interests in a sea of social and political power. It protests a pluralistic society that has been trivialized as a funhouse of mirrors where all we see are distorted images of ourselves, and become idiots to each other. Metamodernism contrasts postmodern parataxis—the setting off of self-enclosed, incommensurable communities over against each other in a position of conflict—with metaxis—a standing between and beyond, looking to expose and reconcile the myriad tensions that separate us.

The emerging metamodern sensibility sits much more easily with the awareness that we possess a real self, a soul or something like it, capable of struggling forward for social decency and the unity of the species. It also sits more easily with accepting the continuities of the past rather than expecting a radical break from them. This means it accepts the continuity of, for instance, the deeply sedimented values of our liberal history, along with even their spiritual influences. It sits well with the construction of new grand narratives. It is willing to imagine a flourishing future “as if” we might one day get there. Utopias, or at least the study of them, “utopistics,” are once again subjects for consideration.

Admittedly, the literature on metamodernism is thin. Who knows if the name will stick, even if its sensibility sticks around. But I think this story has legs. Why? Because its mood also sits easily with the Millennial generation as their modernist grandparents and postmodern parents are gradually emeritized. Younger adults seem willing to try to apply metaxis to the sensibilities we bring to life, a point made by critics of their art, literature, film, architecture, and politics. But I think this also applies to a willingness to reconsider the logic of historical liberalism.

The rising generation appears less interested in polarizing conflicts than they are in reconciling the imagined oppositions of liberalism. We might renew our attempts to reconcile liberalism’s traditional oppositions: of individual liberty and liberality; of individualism and communitarianism; of people and property; of left and right. Millennials, to use a clumsy term of generality, are, I think, much more interested in liberalism than their parents, even if they don’t use the name, or associate it with its rich Protestant past.


8. The Missiology of Trouble


So, seeds of post-political despair, seeds of metamodern hope. Both grow in the soil of our current mood. As liberal discontent grows, our society moves, almost unconsciously, in two directions at once: towards anarchist dissolution as well as towards metamodern reconciliation, while our troubles mount. These are not superficial troubles. Our political economy is buckling at the seams. The first to feel it are the poor, wage workers, minority communities, women. But insecurity, discrimination, and class conflict affect us all. What can, or should, we missiologists make of this?

Picture11I’m sure by now you’ve noticed that I haven’t talked in specifics about our society’s troubles, nor of the relations of power that drive them. All of us could provide a long list of specific troubles. Nor have I talked about what our churches are doing about them, or even what the Bible might say about them. You might have expected more ethnography, or theology, and might find all of this impressionistic. I’ve run long on the abstract and short on the concrete. But I’ve done it on purpose, for two reasons.

First, I want to confront the anxiety we feel to do something, and to do it now. We are after all a practical people. But I want to avoid what Emmanuel Katongole calls “prescriptive haste” that all too often betrays an “ahistorical innocence,” a “frantic activism,” a false “relevance,” and a “failure of imagination.” If ever there is a time to prioritize reflection over action, it is now. If we’re patient, though, and willing to think in terms of the decade it may take to reposition our public witness as a transformative, missional movement of change—then, yes, I can sketch six categories of public action around which we can organize sustained collective social engagement. There isn’t time to unpack these tonight, but I have discussed them at length elsewhere. At minimum, we need to:

• Theoretically describe the existing social and cultural opportunity structure—our context—that both constrains and liberates our public witness. Tonight’s talk fits into this category.
• Compose a comprehensive, theoretical/theological rhetorical master frame to shape our public witness and issue a coherent, unified public call to action.
• Develop a public action strategy including clear objectives and new tactics of social engagement.
• Build new mobilization structures for organizational strength and recruiting resources.
• Generate a transformative culture to demonstrate and reinforce the new sensibilities we want to promote.
• Support the personal formation of transformative missioners.

But this is a story for another time. Tonight I am merely looking for a place to begin; for something foundational below the troubled surface; for a conceptual framework of values, intuitions, and practices that locates our missiological research deep within the sensibilities of American society; for a clearer sense of context to locate our missiological imagination. Can we find beneath our society’s current troubles a coherent framework that helps us to better grasp the problems we face, to better explain them, and to better organize our thoughts about them and our actions to engage them?

Picture12I’m looking for what are called “mechanisms of the middle range,” something akin to the reconciling interconnections suggested by the term metaxis. These are the often missing conceptual linkages between our abstract ideas and thoughtful aspirations (theoretical and theological ones, in our case) and our informed public actions. Or, as Charles Tilly put it, I want to discern the operational links between “the stratosphere of abstraction and the underground of thick description.” We need well anchored conceptual linkages in order to hack our way through the thickets of received ideologies and sectarian pieties.

As you might have guessed, I’m suggesting that a closer analysis of American liberalism provides us with a set of middle range mechanisms to better grasp the context of our current circumstances. A better understanding of liberalism provides a history and a set of sensibilities and values to work with—and perhaps provides us with missiological guidance. All of this might help us to structure and support a fresh contextualization of our gospel’s public claims and public actions. Perhaps we might even draw again upon the riches of our own American Reformation and ask afresh, What does Christian faith have to do with liberty?

Our period of unraveling will certainly be followed by a time of consolidation around new narratives and practices. Whether this happens sooner or later is hard to say. But whoever comes first to frame a compelling vision will have first mover advantage to redefine our social imaginary, that is, to redefine our identities, our social practices, our values, for the next half-century. I hope we missiologists are among them. Not that I am nostalgic for a return to the modernist, Protestant-inflected liberal consensus of the past. Its 1960s fracture marked a clear point of no return. Nor am I issuing a call for a “Christian America” simply because in the past Christians were influential in the development of its liberal society. We have to move on, humbly and helpfully, as engaged citizens, as just some among the many others who are seeking a better future together.

Mostly what I’m saying is that, to restate the obvious, missiology comes back home to trouble. We repatriate our work to the home front to confront our society’s vexations and agonies, to missiologize public discourse for the public good. But we also do it to make our public witness intelligible, in this case intelligible to a liberal society in the midst of its own unraveling.

And this is why a public missiology is imperative.







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