Wednesday, July 27, 2022

Thomas Kuhn, Missiology, and World Christianity, Part III

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

Over the past two weeks, I have described the emergence of the current dominant paradigm within the academic field of missiology, its relationship to the field of World Christianity, and some reasons why there may be a paradigm shift on the way in missiology, in part because of developments within World Christianity. In this post, I will reflect on what it would mean for missiology to undergo a paradigm shift.

First, a paradigm shift represents a time of crisis for an academic field, but not necessarily the end of that field. When the colonial mission paradigm collapsed, it threatened to discredit the field of missiology as a whole, and indeed the field lost a good deal of prestige, funding, and positions. But missiology adopted a new paradigm and reemerged into another very productive period of scholarship, helping give birth to World Christianity. Thus, it is important to make a distinction between a field and its reigning paradigm, though there are of course tight connections between the two.

If it is true that missiology is facing a paradigm shift, some might wonder what comes next? Honestly, I do not know. I have yet to see anything that is a clear contender for a new paradigm for missiology. I can think of some possibilities, but I have no confidence that any of these would achieve a level of dominance within the field.

The first such possibility is that a new paradigm of missiology would emerge not from the Western academy but from the Majority World. While the inculturation paradigm was developed and advanced in part by missiologists from the developing world (such as Lamin Sanneh), it had its roots in responding to crises in Western Christianity related to the collapse of the colonial paradigm. Perhaps a new way of thinking about mission that responds primarily to the needs and self-understanding of the church in the Global South will become dominant in the Global North as well.

Another possibility is that new technology or new research techniques will open up new possibilities for missiological research, leading to a new paradigm. If this comes to pass, the Boston University Center for Global Christianity and Mission China Historical Christian Database might be a representation of the sorts of big data computing approaches that would allow for new types of research addressing new questions and yielding new assumptions about missiology. It is important to distinguish between new tools and new assumptions about the field, but the former can influence the latter.

A third possibility is that the increasingly severe environmental crisis caused by global climate change will force a significant re-thinking of Christian mission and its study. In this possibility, a new paradigm of missiology would emerge that sought to distance itself from eco-recklessness and instead centered care for God’s creation (human and non-human). This would parallel the breakdown of the colonial mission paradigm, which was unable to reckon with the historic harm caused by colonialism, and the emergence of the inculturation paradigm, which crafted a vision for Christian mission that affirmed all cultures.

Moreover, there is also the possibility that no new paradigm will emerge, or at least no single dominant paradigm. While missiology is a relatively small discipline, large disciplines like anthropology and history have room within them for multiple intellectual paradigms.

There is also the possibility of the withering of the field of missiology in the face of challenges to its current paradigm. Areas of human knowledge and academic disciplines are not guaranteed to continue.

In the English-speaking world, the field of philology has largely (though not entirely) been supplanted by linguistics, which continues some of the insights of philology but goes beyond them as well and has become a much larger field within academia. It is possible that World Christianity could supplant missiology in the same way.

Another analogy might be the field of geography, which continues, but in a diminished state from the level of attention, prestige, funding, and positions it enjoyed in the early 20th century. Missiology could similarly continue, but with less general interest in its work.

Ultimately, questions about the future of missiology and its dominant paradigm come down to two:

First, does the field continue to generate interesting conversations?

Continuing a paradigm involves both fidelity to core assumptions and the ability to apply those assumptions in new, interesting, and innovative ways. At the ASM conference this year, a friend remarked of a presentation, “That’s the same old thing I’ve been hearing for 30 years.” Normal science is productive when it extends the insights of an intellectual paradigm and applies them to help make sense of more phenomena. A sense that a paradigm is “played out” would diminish it.

Boredom is one threat to a paradigm. Confusion is another. According to Thomas Kuhn, paradigms break down when they no longer effectively serve as framing devices to make sense of the data. In this way, missiology would no longer generate interesting conversations if the assumptions of its dominant paradigm could no longer make sufficient sense of what Christians experience of the church, the world, and the relation between the two. That is essentially what happened at the end of the colonial paradigm, and that collapse threatened the field of missiology as a whole. Such confusion makes interesting conversations difficult.

Second, are there the resources to sustain the people and places (physical and intellectual) committed to having conversations enabled by the paradigm?

That cast of people may change, the places they work may shift, and as the past two and a half years have shown us, even how they have conversations may take new forms. But conversations don’t happen without people and a way to connect them.

For an academic field to be vibrant, it needs a critical mass of people to carry it forward. Those people need employment in positions related to the field. Such positions might extend beyond the academy, as is especially true in missiology, but it is hard to have a vibrant academic field of hobbyists. The people engaged in that field also need conferences, publications, lecture series, and the like to exchange ideas and research funding, libraries, and other resources to generate new ideas.

Of course, it is easy to catastrophize and to see in every change tremors of an on-coming disaster. But changes do matter, and changes in the world, in the church, and in the academy do impact disciplines such as missiology and their reigning intellectual paradigms. Asking where the field is going and how to keep it healthy are a useful exercise for academic disciplines.

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