In The Mystic Way of Evangelism: A Contemplative Vision for Christian Outreach, Elaine Heath takes a fresh look at the way God views and responds to human beings and sin. By default—it seems—the Church in the west has primarily grounded its theology of sin and redemption in human rebellion, the guilt of sinners, penal substitution and the violent wrath of Jesus in the End Times. This has—at times—painted the gospel somewhat morosely; conveying a message that pales in comparison to the radiant love and life-infusing hope that scripture speaks of about God and the good news of Jesus.
Heath casts the character, Julian of Norwich, in her revitalized story of human sin and redemption. Speaking of Julian, Heath writes: “she locates sin in the context of wounds, offering a therapeutic vision of redemption” (p.42). In this therapeutic view of redemption, the fall of humanity does not originate in “willful or proud rebellion,” but rather, “as a consequence of childlike exuberance leading to a mistake” (p. 40). Julian’s approach captures the heart of the gospel, where God looks upon the human predicament with wisdom and a Father-like heart. Here, we are given the picture of the cross, where Christ not only absorbs humanity’s sin and shields them from despair, but suffers with them out of passionate love and a tender concern for their welfare.
In Julian’s therapeutic redemption, God looks upon human beings “with pity and not with blame” (p. 42). God does so, because He can see the “original wounds” behind humanity’s sin—wounds that He wants to heal so deeply, that God is willing to be “crushed” so His children can have everlasting peace (Isaiah 53:5).
The impetus for Church renewal
Following John of the Cross, Heath employs the dark night of the soul as her impetus for renewal in the Church. She writes, “to once again become evangelistic in the healthiest, most holistic sense, the church…needs the ‘severe mercy’ of great loss” (p.24), There are, as may of us know, significant problems in the North American Church today, especially in Evangelicalism. From “dysfunctional congregations,” “pathological board members” and the many unhealthy expressions of Evangelicalism that have abandoned Jesus-centered theology and witness, Heath says that Christians in North America are confronted with the “pantheon of religious idols that have supplanted the God we claim to worship” (p.29).
Heath attributes the breakdown of Jesus-centered Christian mission to cultural accommodation in the Church. Instead of living a life of faithful discipleship and self-giving love, Christians have allowed “consumerism, competitiveness and individualism” to invade their lives Heath claims (p.29) To rid ourselves of what she calls “disordered attachments,” the Church needs a dark night of the soul (p.27). Only then, will Christians be renewed for healthy and whole Christian mission in the world.
The Solution? Holistic salvation and evangelism
In many Christian circles in North America, salvation and evangelism have been limited to the individual person. Whether it’s rapture theology spawned from the myth of a violent God or the various forms of individualistic triumphalism seen in the prosperity gospel or some forms of holiness movements, Christians in the west are increasingly adhering to a theology of salvation and evangelism that has abandoned the earth as a whole.
Heath calls on the Church to revitalize its theology of salvation and evangelism using a holistic approach. “Evangelism rightly understood,” writes Heath, “is the holistic initiation of the people of God into the reign of God as revealed in Jesus Christ” (p.12). Casting John Woolman as her model, she argues that Christians would do well to “envision the holy life as the exercise of justice and peace not only among people, but between people, animals, and the rest of creation” (p. 108). For Heath, whether it is the realm of discipleship, vocation or evangelism, Christians are called to be vessels of eschatological hope, proclaiming and acting out God’s salvific purposes today for creation as a whole. “The Christian’s vocation, according to Woolman, is to liberate people, animals, and the earth from oppression, in whatever form it presents itself” (p. 110). I believe this holistic approach to salvation and Evangelism is desperately needed if the Church is to be renewed for mission in a world plagued not only by human injustice, but ecological injustice as well.
Evangelism needs to proclaim the gospel in its entirety—including the restoration of all creation. Jesus tells us that God cares for “the birds of the air” and “the flowers of the field” (Matt 6). In his sermon “The New Creation,” John Wesley proclaims: “insignificant as they seem, [animals] are the offspring of one common Father, the creatures of the same God of love” (from: The Sermons of John Wesley: A Collection for the Christian Journey, p. 654).
Therefore, I think Heath is right when she proclaims: “Evangelism is not good news until it is good news for all creation, for humanity, animals, plants, water, and soil, for the earth that God created and called good” (p.114). By embracing an evangelism that is holistic, the Church will be poised to speak the hope of the gospel into a world that is in need of ecological restoration and a fresh vision of the biblical God of hope and restoration.
“Christian mysticism,” writes Heath, “is the God-initiated experience of being moved beyond oneself into greater depths of divine love” (p. 15). This movement away from individualism and towards God’s love is essentially a call to faithful discipleship. But in order to be faithful disciples in our world today, Christians in North America must break free from their soteriological impoverishment and begin to revitalize their view of God by faithfully responding to the pervading values of individualism so that a holistic evangelism can overtake the world. The Church must present the gospel as eschatological hope—God’s mission to make His love concretely universal under the Lordship of Christ.
Yes! Christian “evangelism is not good news until it is good news for all creation” (p.114).