John C. Sivalon, MM. Godís Mission and Postmodern Culture: The Gift of Uncertainty. Maryknoll: Orbis, 2012. Pp. 160. ISBN 978-1-57-75-999-4. Reviewed by Andrew T. McCarthy, Anna Maria College, Paxton, MA 01612. (firstname.lastname@example.org) Godís Mission and Postmodern Culture offers a valuable but complicated argument for such a short text. It is well worth the effort to follow this argument, written by a person who brings the wisdom of deep mission experience together with a fresh perspective on the postmodern culture. John Sivalonís book is also an important balance to the extensive material coming to light on the New Evangelization. It offers a view of mission that does not respond defensively against the postmodern culture. Instead, it seeks to discover the presence of God in the world that we have, not the world to which some want to return. This might be described as a deeply contextual theology in which the political, social, economic, and cultural movements of the community are seen as sources of Godís revelation.
Working with the idea that enculturation is the discovery of God in a given culture, not the imposition of an external cultureís construal of God upon that culture, he begins by identifying the values of the postmodern culture, all of which are signs of a developing consciousness in an evolving world. Drawing on the work of Roger Haight and William Frazier, he describes enculturation in terms of incarnation and locates uncertainty as the key revelatory element. Adding in Jacques Derrida, he expresses the beautiful insight that ďthe gift of uncertainty portends the gift of faithĒ (17). Uncertainty also unleashes imagination and creativity, each of which plays a strong role in his thinking.
Sivalonís social analysis is incisive as he identifies four major shifts that affect contemporary mission. The political shift away from colonization left many missionaries identified with former colonial powers. An academic change moved away from euro centrism as the only culturally appropriate reference point. Vatican II led away from a view of Church as institutional intercessor between the world and Godís kingdom to a new understanding of the church as a sacrament of God present in the world. The final shift occurs with the postmodern culture itself wherein certainty gives way to culturally conditioned development. He describes the resultant social uncertainty through a comparison with the element of uncertainty in science.
A carefully laid out understanding that the Missio Dei is truly Godís mission to the world, has the human missionary in a responsive mode, based on an intricately formulated understanding of the Trinity. According to David Cunninghamís work, modernityís attention to individuality absolutized it in a manner which could not make sufficient room for the concept of three in one. Added to this was an insistence on distinct hierarchical differences. Postmodernity, in contrast, sees borders and categories more vaguely, insisting that elements of reality are less clear when isolated. Sivalon goes on to engage in some fairly technical scientific discussion to support his application of paradigm theory to the Trinity. This is a valuable ďtake-awayĒ from the book. Calling on particle theory, he notes that, in nature, duality extends from unity. He also uses the scientific observer effect to support the idea that indeterminacy is a part of nature. Accordingly, we cannot know the reality of something we observe because the mere act of our observing presence alters both the observer and the observed. Indeterminacy stands as scienceís version of uncertainty. Added to this is another scientific analogy of unity from diversity derived from Quantum Mechanics which remains an alternative to the traditionally personalized view of Trinity as unity from diversity.
Sivalon turns to a further analogy between Trinity and the postmodern conception of difference. A game with alternative spellings does not manage to obscure a powerful notion that difference, seen as parts negated by opposition, undermines the potential of seeing difference as a whole which is necessarily greater than the parts. Scholars interested in the Trinity will take note of these and other views of the concept.
Another complicated but fruitful argument seeks to show how God is present to suffering in the postmodern world. Finding that the denial of mortality is the basis of sin as alienation, he locates Jesusí acceptance of death as a ďnoĒ to sin. Building on Moltmann and Von Balthasar, he identifies God as present to Godís own suffering in the incarnation and death of the son. God dies to God as a dying to self. The missionary participates in Godís mission by participating in this divine dying to self as a profound act of decentering. It plays out in a ministry of presence not proclamation. Sivalon goes on to provide some concrete stories of missionary experience where elements of his Trinitarian model of mission are discernible, but the examples came across as efforts to apply postmodern missionary behaviors in regions which have only begun to grapple with the influence of the postmodern culture. An example of missionary application in a definitively postmodern culture would have been well received.
Godís Mission and Postmodern Culture proved a very interesting and valuable book. It should be on the ďmust-readĒ list for anyone who is interested in engaging in missionary ministry. It would also be an essential part of any contemporary course on Mission. Finally, it can fit an important niche in an ecclesiology course when covering Church as Godís presence in the world.