by Lamin Sanneh
Lamin Sanneh teaches missions and world Christianity and history at Yale Divinity School. He is an editor-at-large of The Christian Century.
This article appeared in the Christian Century, October 4, 1989, p. 875. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at http://www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Paul suggests to Timothy that remembering his ancestors increases his faith, and more: it is a warrant for recognizing faith.
The Apostle Paul understands that there is no inherent conflict between the personal and communal aspects of faith. No human being is born an orphan. We are all born into a family. The Bantus of South Africa say, Umuntu, ngamuntu, ngabantu — a person is a person because of other persons. We are born into relationship, we grow and live in relationship and we die in relationship. Our modern Western notion of personal independence and psychic autonomy distorts the truth about us. Transposed into African, the sophisticated Cartesian formulation Cogito ergo sum, “I think, therefore I am,” would read Cognatus ergo sum, “I am related, therefore I am.” To the question “Who are you?” the African would answer, “I am my mother’s and father’s child, of the lineage of so-and-so, of the house of X and Y, of the tribe of Z.” By which time the impatient European or American has moved on to other matters. Yet the Bible is replete with such genealogical material, and even Jesus is situated in its repetitive detail.
Although faith challenges individuals, heroic individualism does not exhaust faith’s fullness and power. At its heart is the gift of memory, the ability to recall and reappropriate. Faith does not just arouse and satisfy the craving for individual gratification or fill our hunger for self-esteem, important as those things are. Faith connects us with others, grants us a name and an identity by which we can respond to God’s call, and assures us that others know that name. Thus is established the social roots of person-hood. When those roots are touched then the branches of my being stir in response. A baptismal is thus the symbol of our integrity, the cup of sacrament filled with the whole body. When Africans name a child at a dedication ceremony they think of it as giving life, the abundant life of relatedness.
And so the apostle affirms Timothy’s faith by a threefold naming — the names of his grandmother and mother and his own name. Wherever the faith has spread it has promoted and been promoted by this sense of names. As long as our names exist the church has hope of continuing community.
Our despairing age needs to be reminded of the Christian perspective on names. Naming is a form of theological reasoning, a kind of discourse in divine relatedness. Scripture abounds with examples of naming as invocation, supplication, vocation and answerability. Genesis speaks of the unnamed void as chaos, a profound psychological insight. The secular tendency to see naming either as a diagnostic procedure or a judicial investigation acts like a vacuum, removing the thick layers of human interconnectedness. Religion rests on that interconnectedness. Naming lies at the center of healing and wholeness. With it we remember, recollect, respond, act and celebrate. Without it we invoke the chaos of Genesis, the chaos of modern disenchantment — diseases are named and individuals unnamed in hospitals and clinics; offenders are deprived of their names in courts and jails; the namelessness in workplaces drives people to despair.
But recall a name, and you impart life; make it a family name, and you bring eternity to earth. We do not have to be Kantian or Dukheimian to understand this. A name is a burning bush that illuminates human centeredness. Timothy, child of Eunice, child of Lois, is not his own. Like Israel, he is united in his parents, scattered in the tribe and gathered under the covenant. His name is fed by blood, nurtured by human milk and inscribed in the soul. When it is called he answers as no one else can, the natural bow of the branch toward the stem.
A well-known parable makes the point in another way. It speaks of a holy man who received a turkey as a gift from one of his devotees who knew it was his favorite meat. Following a large feast, the religious teacher was confronted a week later by some visitors who had heard about the feast. They were fed the leftovers. Thus began a stream of visitors, each expecting to be fed by the teacher’s dwindling larder. Finally the last batch of visitors came, introducing themselves as the friends of the friends of the relatives of the devotee who gave the turkey. To the guests’ chagrin the teacher emerged from the kitchen bearing a bowl of hot water. He emulated their formality by assuring them that in the bowl was the hot water from the soup from the leftovers from the turkey that his disciple brought him. No further visitors disturbed him. The formal character of the story conceals a crucial point with regard to naming. The mere ceremony over a bowl of hot water is not enough to pass for real food. Yet human beings expend vast resources to defend forms that have little content and therefore little capacity to nurture, and religious authorities are among the most culpable. Even a gifted teacher is powerless to nurture people whose sole reason for coming is a remote connection to someone else’s name. Name-dropping is not only socially tedious, it is spiritually empty.