from New Eastern Europe, 2015, #5
Rediscovering the Value
of a National and Religious Identity
A Future and a Hope: Mission, Theological Education, and the Transformation of Post-Soviet Society. By: Joshua T. Searle and Mykhailo Cherenkov. Publisher: Wipf & Stock, Eugene, OR, USA, 2015.
Book Review by Maryana Hnyp
The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 marked the beginning of a profound and broad transformation process. For the post- communist states it meant a chance to free themselves from the iron grip of the imperial and socio-economic abilities, while for the outer world it was a wake-up call to the pos- sibility of establishing a new and more much complex set of economic, political and social relationships with the former Soviet states. The contemporary language of Europe’s interests towards the post-Soviet countries shifted to become predominantly (if not exclusively) a discourse on business, economics, national policy and geopolitics. The case of contem- porary Ukraine, however, testified that there should be much more to this agenda than just geopolitical and economic interests. As recent events have clearly demonstrated, there is a language of values and personal and civic dig- nity which remains central to the democratic transformation of this country and sets a tone for its relationships with other states.
For Europe though, as the British scholar of Ukrainian studies Rory Finnin argues, Ukraine remains largely a terra malecognita: a diverse, complex, understudied and often badly un- derstood country. In contemporary research, this state finds itself at the crossroads of the general decline of humanities and the dete- rioration of Eastern Slavic Studies. The richness of Ukrainian culture and ethnic and religious diversity, so masterly expressed and developed through numerous literature genres, cinema- tography, arts and iconography to name a few, is being harshly overridden by the hard power of political and economic discourse.
Characteristically for Ukrainian society, Christian churches and other religious com- munities played a pivotal role in the redis- covery of the value of national and religious identity. Ukrainians relearned the nature of the church itself as a particular form of social life and the role it plays in a solid and healthy social formation. The question of what role, if any, churches should play in the international political conflict between Ukraine and Russia, seems to capture the attention of intellectuals, yet still remains a marginal area in comparison to other research interests.
One of the few valuable and timely contri- butions that fills this gap is the collaboration between two emerging theology scholars, Joshua T. Searle and Mykhailo N. Cherenkov, titled A Future and a Hope: Mission, Theological Education, and the Transformation of Post-So- viet Society. While representing two different cultures and perspectives, the authors offer a balanced inner and outer view of the present situation of Ukraine’s political, economic, social, ecclesial and theological transition, and argue for a broader and more complex understanding of these processes. With an excellent sense of contemporary“church-fatigue”in most western countries and the lack of ecclesial self-criticism in Eastern European countries, Searle and Cherenkov develop an objective evaluation of current developments and offer a number of suggestions on how the Evangelical churches in particular, but also other Christian ecclesial communities, can rediscover their prophetic presence and mission in the society.
The book is designed around seven chap- ters, each of which focuses on a particular aspect of the transformation of Evangelical church traditions, practices and theology in the former Soviet countries. The chapters are far from being self-contained; they naturally blend into one another, touching upon differ- ent aspects of this evolution. The opening two chapters provide an overall analysis of the stag- es of transition of Evangelical missiology and
identify a few patterns in paradigm shifts in the genuine maturation of the church. The authors identify four main dimensions of this evolution, which, in their opinion, dictate changes in the life and ministry of the church: the shift a) from an ecclesiocentric missiology to a “mission of the kingdom”; b) from a mission of a few to a holistic mission and a priesthood of all believ- ers; c) a call to revive, awaken and reform the church structures for an effective ministry in a changing world; and d) a shift from the usual short-project thinking and naïve exclusivity to a meaningful partnership between churches and religions. Based upon these observations, Searle and Cherenkov argue for the necessity of incarnational, person-oriented theology and ministry, which necessarily results in social and ecclesial transformation. While offering a well- learned analysis of the post-communist legacy, a thread of consumerism, economic, political, social, religious and spiritual challenges the authors’ search for new and creative ways of knowledge transmission. They challenge the methods of religious and theological educa- tion in the post-Soviet countries and create an argument for the necessity of a contex- tual theology.
The chapters that follow bring the focus to one of the most urgent, yet arguably over- looked areas in both theological discourse and practical ministry of the Evangelical churches, namely socio-political theology. Building upon their understanding of the universality and urgency of the call for transformation, with a particular emphasis on the attitude of active co-responsibility, Searle and Cherenkov make a serious attempt to push behind the Soviet legacy of blind obedience and conformism. Based upon a genuine sense of dignity, equality, fundamental rights and freedom of all, they oppose any kind of oppression and argue for a new focus on social justice in Ukraine. Resem- bling many liberation theologians, yet without a clear reference to them, Searle and Cheren- kov insist on the significance of the practical effectiveness of contemporary theology: it is not enough to proclaim the good; the church is called to manifest and achieve it and do it with a conscious preference for the common good. Echoing the Vice Rector of the Ukrain- ian Catholic University, Myroslav Marynovych, they call for the inculturated Christianity em- bedded in human relationships.
The efficaciousness of the structural trans- formation of the church, as argued in A Future and a Hope, is ultimately bound up with the renewal of the church’s self-understanding and the rediscovery of the church’s genuine mission – to be the intelligible sign of unity, by testifying a loving God and maintaining an openness to the signs of the times. Searle and Cherenkov rightly point out that there is a close interdependence between the church’s perception of itself as being an embodiment of the union of God and openness to unity with other ecclesial communities which manifests this profession of faith. Exploring the challenges for honest, respectful and receptive ecumeni- cal discourse – a church without walls – is, in my opinion, one of the most valuable parts of this contribution.
The discussion on the church during the EuroMaidan, offered in chapter five, builds an argument for the rediscovery of the church’s role as the epicenter of the social process. Espe- cially now, when the post-EuroMaidan Ukraine is experiencing the dramatic anthropological metamorphosis from homo Sovieticus to homo
Maidanus, the church’s role is indispensable. The authors argue that as an inseparable part of the human environment, the church should and must become involved in social transfor- mation by its prophetic presence, remaining vigilant to the signs of the times, witnessing the good and criticising the evil; by teaching God’s word, and more importantly by learn- ing its manifestation from people within and around it; as well as by taking concrete action in reaction to social injustice.
The conclusion offers a critical evaluation of leadership, governance structures, training programs for senior ministers and theological education in the post-Soviet context. Focused primarily on the Evangelical Christian Baptists, these parts of the contribution emphasise the priority of the church’s self-understanding as the Body of Christ over an institutionalised form of community, and develop a set of con- crete, and at times bold, recommendations for a Christ-centred, values-based transformative missiology, fully embedded in the present con- text with a greater lay participation.
A Future and a Hope is a successful attempt to bring back the good news – the Gospel – to the scholarly discourse on the social and political transformation of the post-Soviet societies. It is clearly one of the first attempts to design a genuinely contextual theology and missiology for the post-Soviet societies. Honest, brave, and intelligent, enriched with personal experiences, at times pessimistic and harsh, yet justified, this contribution is written with a great compassion and an unpretentious concern for the people of Ukraine. It embraces the past and tries to conceive the present in order to look to the future of Ukraine with hope. It is highly recommended reading not only for professional theologians, academics and missiologists, but for anyone interested in social and ecclesial transformation as well as in the role and future of churches with openness to an ecumenical union in Ukraine.