Global Christianity and the Re-education of the West

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 July 19-16, l995, pp. 715-718. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscriptions can be found at www.christiancentury org. This text was prepared for Religion Online by John C. Purdy.


The author decries the failure of Western theology to allow itself to be transformed by the fact and feedback of global Christianity.

Church History has generally been defined by a Western perspective. What European Christians have thought and done has been considered superior to what Christians elsewhere have thought and done. Chronology has generally been subservient to biography, and biography has been subservient to dogma and theory, especially when the dogma and theory confirm the idea of Western ascendancy. Attention has been paid, of course, to such issues as demography, economics, social status and political forces. But in the main, the human spirit has been stripped of local color, tone and sound in order to become a fit subject for reflection. The emphasis has been either, on the development of doctrine or on religion as an aspect of general human nature.

The tendency to feel awkward about the historical character of the faith has left us in a poor position to appreciate Christianity as a global reality. It's striking how few of my esteemed colleagues at Yale Divinity School make regular professional use of the resources in the Day Missions Library, which contains a treasure of information about the worldwide expansion of Christianity. This indifference contrasts sharply with the flowering of interest in the Western missionary movement shown by departments of history, political science and anthropology. It's ironic that a divinity school can carry out its mission largely uninterested in Christianity's unprecedented expansion around the world. How do we understand this irony? Perhaps it's a measure of how much we have turned our back on the historical dimension of Christianity and on non-Western societies. Perhaps it also indicates how absorbed we are in our immediate context, which causes us to think in terms of decline and uncertainty rather than growth.

In any case, I wonder what the study of church history would look like if it had a global perspective -- if it viewed world Christianity not with a sense of decline and uncertainty but with a sense of expansion and promise. Indeed, might not the entire structure of theological education change if it began to respond to the realities of world Christianity?

Edinburgh scholar Andrew Walls has argued that the shift of the numerical bulk of Christians from Europe and North America to Asia, Africa, Latin America and other areas outside the Northern Hemisphere has had more than demographic significance. Says Walls:

Within a very short period of time the conditions which have produced the phenomena characteristic of Christianity for almost a millennium have largely disappeared. After centuries in which the norms by which Christian expression have been tested have arisen from the history and conditions of the Mediterranean world and of the lands north and east of it, the process has been transferred into a new and infinitely more varied theatre of activity. The conditions of African and Melanesian life, the intellectual climate of India, the .political battlegrounds of Latin America, increasingly provide the context within which the Christian mind is being formed. The process is already beginning to produce changes in Christian of edited by Frank Whaling).

Before 1945, Christianity was conceived essentially in terms of the threefold division of Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant. After 1945 such a view became increasingly untenable. "In practice, seminal Christian thinkers [today] exercise an influence no longer bounded by their own confessions. The central affirmations and emphases of each tradition now often find echoes in the others.

Missionaries had a lot to do with the emerging ecumenical consciousness. On the mission field, Protestantism's antisacramental stance was softened because of the need to provide new converts with local forms and idioms with which to express their new faith. Roman Catholicism, long before Vatican II, began to stress catechism, preaching and the translation of scripture into the vernacular. My own first encounter with the Gospels in an African language occurred when I saw copies of Bishop Maloney's Catholic translation of Matthew into Fula -- a translation made, I believe, in the 1940s or 1950s. And eventually the Orthodox too discovered mission frontiers beyond the boundaries of the Byzantine heritage.

The mission field demanded that Christians respond to local feedback about the meaning and potential of the gospel. Missionaries had to pay attention to the faith as it was transmitted to and appropriated by new believers rather than rely on scruples that stemmed from the doctrinal disputes of Europe. And how different those disputes appeared when seen through the eyes of new converts.

New converts were able to scrutinize Western imperialism in the light of what they learned in the gospel about God's unalloyed love and favor toward the oppressed, the lowly and the outcast. For the subject races who counted for little in the scales of Western colonialism, Christianity was a mass transit movement toward a new consciousness. The faith was conveyed to people in the ample yet hallowed idiom of their mother tongues. And so in hinterland gatherings, celebrations took place in churches, mission-founded and independent, long before political independence arrived or was imagined.

Local Christian preachers, prophets and healers were convulsed, and their societies with them, by the force of the new dispensation. In confession, testimony, prayer and invocation the new prophets emerged as the epitome of their age, infecting virtually all the major Christian denominations with their ebullient, celebratory mood, a joyful seasoning that drew the sting of race, culture, language, creed, status and personal biography.

The new forms of Christian life and practice that were emerging would provide the ecumenical movement with a concrete credibility well before ecclesiastical formulations would attempt to rise to the occasion. It may be instructive for us to ponder how the cause of the mainline ecumenical movement was closely tied to mission, and how its reported decline today appears to coincide with the decline of mainline mission. With the loss of the missionary impulse, the ecumenical movement has suffered to the same extent.

In surveying the history of Christian mission, Walls sees a distinctive pattern:

The history of the great religions of the world displays different types of expansion. In India religious expansion has been unifocal, absorbing and reformulating influences from many quarters but maintaining one geographical focus for its great religious activity. Iranian religion has been catalytic, profoundly influencing other religious traditions but leaving only small communities to embody its own. Islamic expansion has been progressive, steadily spreading out from its original center (which retains a cosmic significance), claiming the allegiance of the whole world and, with few exceptions, maintaining the gains it has made. By contrast, Christian expansion has been serial. It has not maintained a single cultural or geographical center; it has always retained a substantial separate identity; it recedes as well as advances, declines or dies out in the areas of its greatest strength and reappears, often transformed, in totally different areas of quite distinct culture. Christian history is a series of cross-cultural movements, which result in a succession of different Christian "heartlands" as the geographical and cultural center of Christianity has changed. Changing patterns of world order are thus integrally linked to religious history ("World Christianity, the Missionary Movement and the Ugly American," in World Order and Religion, edited by Wade Clark Roof).

One could dwell on the demise of the original geographical and cultural center of Christianity and how that left the religion open to adoption and assimilation in as many cultures as it encountered. More than one historian has commented on how in this respect the Christian movement was responsible for producing for the first time a truly global, ecumenical version of world history, with the meaning and significance of history to be found where the spirit moves and blows, typically among those considered outcasts, the lowly, the oppressed or socially insignificant. Correspondingly, the typical pattern of Christian history is as a movement of the periphery, of the relentless and radical circumvention of the establishment in obedience to a God whose central design leaves earthly arrangements provisional and dispensable.

Walls has sketched for us the shape of what confronts us in contemporary Christianity. He observes that "on any reading of history the missionary movement must have at least something to do with the most striking change in the religious map of the world for several centuries."

One part of the globe has seen the most substantial accession to the Christian faith since the conversion of the northern barbarians; another, the most considerable recession from it since the rise of Islam. The most obvious center of accession is tropical Africa, which even a century ago was statistically marginal to Christianity; the most obvious center of recession is Western Europe, which a century and a half ago would certainly have been identified as the most dynamic and significant Christian center.

There must be some connection," Walls suggests, "between these events and the missionary movement; and the modern missionary movement, though affected in important ways by earlier influences, took shape as recently as the 19th century. Yet how is the contemporary student of Christianity to understand this important motor of modern Christianity?" ("Structural Problems in Mission Studies,." International Bulletin of Missionary Research, vol. 15, no. 4, October 1991).

In looking to theology for help with this question, Walls has uncovered a surprising lack of interest. Surprising, because in the 19th century theology responded with energy and deepening insight to the changes afoot in several branches of learning -- in archaeology, in the discovery of papyri and the text criticism it fostered, in the historical sciences and in the natural sciences, and in changes in society.

. In calling attention to the failure of Western theology to respond meaningfully and in a timely fashion to non-Western Christianity, I do not mean, nor does Walls mean, to imply that Western theology must incorporate Asian and African Christianity into its ascendant framework, but that standard theological sources and methods have failed to show any awareness of the Copernican shift that has taken place in the religious map of the world. And the meager evidence there might be of the glimmerings of an awareness that the entire landscape has shifted is shot through with fear and a sense of threat, or with a corrosive sense of guilt. Yet the "global transformation of Christianity requires nothing less than the complete rethinking of the church history syllabus."

New discoveries take time to sink in. The discovery of the New World was not immediately reflected in European cartography, let alone allowed to replace the old maps and the intellectual assumptions they enshrined. "In fact, the new discoveries were intellectually threatening, requiring the abandonment of too many certainties, the acquisition of too many new ideas and skills, the modification of too many maxims, the sudden irrelevance of too many accepted authorities. It was easier to ignore them and carry on with the old intellectual maps (and often the old geographical maps too), even while accepting the fact of the discovery and profiting from the economic effects." This explains why the innovative intellectual leadership required for revamping church history and reconceiving the teaching of history across the entire academic syllabus, both secular and theological, has been painfully slow in emerging.

Walls has called our attention to the potentially subversive character of mission studies on what happens elsewhere in the curriculum. "Old texts may often be illuminated from the experience of Christian en counter today. The responses to Christianity amid the old religions of Europe that we meet in Patrick or Bede or Gregory of Tours are worth taking side by side with the Christian interaction with the primal religions of Africa. Biblical studies could receive an infusion of new research tasks; and only through mission studies are Western biblical scholars and theologians likely to learn the work done in their own fields by their African, Asian, and Latin American colleagues." It is in fact in mission studies that the West is likely to encounter a compelling and eloquent case for reeducating itself in a way that is the most radical since Columbus. If it does not seem that radical today, that is be- cause old assurances have deceptively long shadows in the twilight, and because change of such magnitude and significance comes to us in hidden and open ways, in the accumulation of scarcely discernible shifts of habit and attention as well as in dramatic breaks.

Christianity has become a genuinely multicultural world religion, thriving profusely in the idioms of other languages and cultures, marked by a lively cross-cultural and interreligious sensibility, unburdened by the heavy artillery of doctors and councils, and otherwise undaunted by the scandalous paucity of money, trained leadership, infrastructure and resources. Nothing better demonstrates the newness of world Christianity than the fact that it has ceased, or is ceasing, to be weighed down by its missionary past. In the churches and congregations we find fresh energy and intelligence being devoted to the production of new hymns, music, artistic and liturgical materials, to the creation of fresh categories for doing theology, to the retrieval of threatened cultural resources, to the application of faith to public issues, and to the promotion of ecumenical sharing and partnership.

We sense in all of this the dawn of a new dispensation, a fresh, if sometimes uneven, point of departure for the apostolic heritage, a galvanizing hope, born of proven confidence that we can move beyond Day One of the missionary landing to enter new fields and spheres with our hearts and minds fixed on the right things. In the meantime, many research centers (concentrated at present in the West, but happily more and more available through new information and communication systems) are laying the groundwork for tangible, sustainable growth and development. Once that infrastructure is in place, there is little doubt that the subject of world Christianity as the unique legacy of the modern missionary movement will make its long-overdue impact and channel back some of its revitalized energy into the necessary transformation of our preCopernican historical universe.

Not too long after the beginning of the modem Western missionary movement, while John Tyler was president of the United States and Sir Robert Peel (best known for founding the Metropolitan Police when he was home secretary) was for the second time British prime minister, James Legge stood in 1843 on the frontiers of the Middle Kingdom, as China regarded itself. As he drew in his breath, Legge felt a palpable sense of excitement at the intellectual greatness of China, a greatness that contrasted sadly with Western ignorance of it. So he set about the immense task of rendering the Chinese classics into English for a Western readership then in the deep embrace of an all-absorbing heroic Romanticism. His aim was to revitalize the world of learning and to expand the abstract intellectual horizons of his European contemporaries.

It took him 30 years and five volumes to accomplish his task, and still he was not done. In 1873, when Japan suppressed feudalism and was turning Westward and the Remington typewriter was invented, Legge returned from China to become professor of Chinese at Oxford. He was a different man from what he was when he left. He had been "subverted" by things Chinese, and this had determined his lifelong calling.

The example of Legge can be repeated for countless others, men and women, then and now, who as missionary pioneers stumbled on priceless pearls which subsequently they gathered and consecrated, recirculating them as humanity's common heritage. It has resulted in a qualitative change in the Western academic syllabus, and thus of the West's self-understanding.

In spite of all that, Western theology still would not be "subverted," preferring instead to look the other way and to exclude from its canon those great jewels of the human spirit, once exotic and alien but now no longer remote. Theology has thus exulted in its domestication, refusing to be transformed globally. The situation cannot go on like that without serious long-term repercussions -- without Western theology, in its splendid isolation, risking those vital connections through which old forms are renewed and fresh vitality released.