Vincent Donovan was a Roman Catholic priest from the US who served as a Spiritan missionary in Tanzania for 17 years in the 1960s and 1970s, evangelising the Masai. Christianity Rediscovered, his memoir of ministry in Masailand is, I think, one of the most important mission-related books of the twentieth century, a treasure that too few have discovered. His experience there propelled him into [disillusionment] but as his title suggests, the disillusionment led to rediscovery.
Donovan found himself caught between the ‘heathen Masai’ and a very confident, well-oiled religious machine. That in-betweenness forced him to rethink the whole meaning of what Christians call salvation, much in the same way my experience amongst ‘unchurched postmoderns’ has affected me. He explains, ‘I was to learn that any theology or theory that makes no reference to previous missionary experience, which does not take the experience into account, is a dead and useless thing…praxis must be prior to theology. In my work [theology would have to proceed] from practice to theory. If a theology did emerge from my work, it would have to be a theology growing out of the life and experience of the pagan peoples of the savannahs of East Africa.’
Similarly, I have become convinced that a generous orthodoxy appropriate for our postmodern world will have to grow out of the experience of the post-Christian, post-secular people of the cities of the twenty-first century.
After some time among the Masai, Donovan described with some disillusionment, the version of Christianity he and other Western, Euro-American missionaries had imported into Africa: ‘an inward-turned, individual-salvation–oriented, unadapted Christianity.’ He became so disillusioned with this approach that he felt the need to move away from the term salvation altogether. One paragraph in the book especially intrigues me:
‘”Preach the gospel to all creation,” Christ said. Are we only now beginning to understand what he means? I believe the unwritten melody that haunts this book ever so faintly, the new song waiting to be sung in place or the hymn of salvation, is simply the song of creation. To move away from the theology of salvation to the theology of creation may be the task of our time.’
As I first read that paragraph, almost with tears, I thought, maybe his faint, haunting ‘unwritten melody’ was actually exactly what the hymn of salvation should be. Perhaps our ‘inward-turned, individual- salvation–oriented, unadapted Christianity’ is a colossal and tragic misunderstanding, and perhaps we need to listen again for the true song of salvation, which is ‘good news to all creation.’
From chapter 4 of A Generous Orthodoxy, by Brian McLaren