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Wolfhart Pannenberg on Missionaries

In a secular milieu, even an elementary knowledge of Christianity’s history, teachings, sacred texts, and formative figures”dwindles. It is no longer a matter of rejecting Christian teachings; large numbers of people have not the vaguest knowledge of what those teachings are. This is a remarkable development when one considers how foundational Christianity is to the entire story of Western culture. The more widespread the ignorance of Christianity, the greater the prejudice against Christianity. Thus people who do not know the difference between Saul of Tarsus and John Calvin are quite certain that Christianity has been tried and convicted as a religion of oppression. When such people do get interested in religion or “spirituality” — their interest being a natural reaction to the shallowness of a secularist culture — they frequently turn not to Christianity but to “alternative religions.”

In this cultural circumstance, it is not easy to communicate the Christian message. The difficulty is exacerbated by the cultural relativizing of the very idea of truth. This is a very significant change from the secularism of the Enlightenment. The secularist thinkers of the Enlightenment challenged Christians to justify their truth claims by rational argument rather than by simple appeal to religious authority. But both Christians and their opponents assumed that there was a truth about the matters in dispute. That cannot be assumed today. In the view of many, including many Christians, Christian doctrines are merely opinions that may or may not be affirmed according to individual preference, or depending on whether they speak to personally felt needs.

The dissolution of the idea of truth — of truth that does not need my approval in order to be true — severely undercuts the Christian understanding of evangelization or mission. Missionary proclamation was once understood as bringing the truth to others, and was therefore both legitimate and extremely important. For many today, the missionary enterprise is a matter of imposing our personal preferences and culturally conditioned prejudices upon others, and is therefore not only illegitimate but morally offensive. Beyond the question of missions, we might ask ourselves why people should embrace the Christian faith unless they think that the apostolic teaching is true. More precisely, today the question is whether it is even meaningful to claim that Christian teaching is true. The idea of truth is absolutely vital for the Christian faith. The destruction of that idea is key to legitimating a secularist culture, since the idea of truth touches on secularism’s greatest vulnerability.