A Conversation Between Professor Lamin Sanneh and Graham Joseph Hill
On World Christianity, Christian-Muslim Relations, & Translating the Christian Message
At Yale University on Monday, April 20, 2015
The Late Professor Lamin Sanneh was D. Willis James Professor of World Christianity, Yale Divinity School, and Professor of History, Yale University
“We in the West are a confident and articulate people, and theology has served us well as a vehicle of our aspirations, desires, and goals. There is no shortage of theological books on all sorts of imaginable subjects, with how-to-do manuals instructing us about effective ministry, how to fix our emotions, how to affirm our individual identity and promote our choices and preferences, how to change society through political action, how to raise funds and build bigger churches, about investing in strategic coalitions, etc.
All this language leaves us little time or space to listen to God with the chance that God may have something, and even something else, to say to us, especially if that something else challenges what we want to hear.
On the matter of the cultural captivity of the Gospel in the West, the renewal of World Christianity may have lessons to teach us all.”
Lamin Sanneh, thank you for joining us.
Long the dominant religion of the West, Christianity is now rapidly becoming the principal faith in much of the postcolonial world—a development that marks a momentous shift in the religion’s very center of gravity. Can you please explain what the term “postcolonial” means? And, can you please tell us about this shift in Christianity?
Post-colonial means the era following the end of colonial rule. The shift of Christianity’s center of gravity is, in the first place, statistical. The majority of Christians today live in the southern hemisphere.
But the shift is more than statistical. It has to do with the cultural outlook of new believers. Today, Christianity’s religious frame is much bigger than the scholastic constraints the West imposed on it.
In the West, the Bible is dispensed by rules of exegesis; in World Christianity, it is relied on as a source of power and guidance. In the West, prayers are said and observed; in World Christianity, believers pray for miracles, signs, and wonders, much like in the New Testament. In that sense, the shift of Christianity’s center of gravity is a return to the energy of the religion’s first emergence.
What are the roots of this “post-Western awakening”?
The roots of the awakening are several. First is the movement of vernacular Bible translation. This movement included creating grammar and dictionaries for languages never before written down. Grammar and dictionaries became catalysts for cultural renewal and social change. The vernacular Bible helped to bring forward indigenous agents whose role in the reception and appropriation of Christianity was, accordingly, enhanced. Cultural renewal and Christian revival went hand-in-hand.
The end of colonial rule removed the impediment of foreign interference with this local cultural potential, creating the cascade of conversions we have witnessed in the past generation.
How have African, Asian, and Latin American Christians outgrown Christianity’s colonial forms and restructured it through their own languages and idioms—a process that often occurred outside, and sometimes against, the lines of denominational control?
Probably no factor has been as decisive for the appropriation of Christianity anywhere it has succeeded than that of mother-tongue adoption. In the modern period, this has been demonstrated with abundant evidence.
The connection between the vernacular and religious resurgence seems to be fundamental, and where that connection is weakened, the prospects of success are correspondingly diminished.
[bctt tweet=”The connection between the vernacular & religious resurgence is fundamental.” username=”GrahamJGHill”]
You say that the effects of such changes have been profound, transforming not only worship, prayer, and the interpretation of Scripture but also art, aesthetics, and music associated with the church. Can you please describe these?
It belongs to the cultural renewal of vernacular translation.
How is this “post-Western Christian awakening” expressed in its richness and diversity?
Some 2000 languages are now embraced in vernacular Bible translation.
What tension and conflicts are emerging in this experience of Christians in the postcolonial world?
Christian unity is no longer as remote as it once appeared—at least on the level of inter-denominational encounters among new believers.
What is distinctive about Christianity as a world religion, and how does it compare with Islam’s missionary tradition?
Unlike Islam, Christianity has no revealed language. The Gospels are a translation of the teaching and preaching of Jesus.
Both religions are missionary, but Islam does its mission by promoting an untranslated Qur’an, valid only in the original Arabic, whereas Christianity, by contrast, does its mission entirely by translation.
[bctt tweet=”Islam does mission through untranslated Qur’an. Christianity relies on translated Bible.” username=”GrahamJGHill”]
Islam measures its range and impact by the extent to which its Scripture continues to be revered in the language in which Muhammad spoke, and Christianity by how effective mother-tongue translation is.
Christianity spawns variety and diversity because it is invested in translation, which depends on interpretation.
What challenges do conservative, non-Western forms of Christianity pose to Western liberal values and Enlightenment ideas?
At present, the challenge of World Christianity is dealt with by defining Western Christianity as something different or the advanced stage of what World Christianity will eventually become. So there is not much exchange and interface. That will change with time because of reasons of scale and the cumulative energy of World Christianity.
How can we reconceive Christianity in a way that frees it from its European and imperial contexts, permitting the faith to adapt to the kaleidoscopic realities of different societies around the globe?
That is already happening, for example, with the loosening of the colonial inhibition and the recovery of the New Testament ethos of the early church.
How do we give pride of place to the recipients of the Christian message rather than to the missionaries themselves?
Giving pride of place to the recipients of the Gospel is not something we or anyone else does. It comes with the turf of access to the vernacular Bible and the ability to express faith in the mother tongue.
You write that, in Africa, mission and translation were and continue to be integral parts of cultural renewal in the face of the relentless onslaught of imperialism in its classic and contemporary forms. Can you please explain what you mean?
Language is fundamental to culture and society. Once believers possess the Scripture in their own language, they become decision-makers in identity and ethical responsibility issues. That process began under colonial conditions and outlived colonial rule.
You say that the West does not own the gospel and that the future of the tradition lies in its “world” character. Can you please describe what you mean here?
The West is itself only a stage in the transmission of the Gospel, its high water mark once, but now no longer so, as is evident in the gravitational shift of the momentum of Christianity. It calls for a new sense of partnership, not continued paternalism.
We often hear about the extraordinary growth of the church in Africa. What do you see God doing in the church in Africa today?
The preponderance of Christianity in Africa brings with it a challenge to overcome ethnic division and ethical disarray in public life. Transparency and accountability must be addressed.
What are the opportunities for the church in Africa today?
To contribute to the unity of Christians, promote interfaith relations, contribute to the building of the family, promote the education and advancement of women, mobilize a movement of civic virtue, and help strengthen institutions and structures of the common good.
What relationship should African and Western Christians have with each other?
I think the proper relationship is one of partnership and mutual support, especially if that helps strengthen the sense of our oneness in Christ.
What social issues must the churches of Africa and the West address today?
With the understanding that by and large, Christians are among the poorest groups in Africa, it is important to work to improve society and for accountability in public life. The temptation of political advantage must be resisted, as must the enticement of power.
But I don’t think the churches must bear sole responsibility for the failures of the secular nation-state that the West introduced but has failed to take responsibility for.
African believers face a challenge somewhat different from the challenge of secularism. Believers need to recover a sense of belonging and identity grounded in faith and sustained by a life of worship and ethical commitment to the common good. Nation-building is important, but the values and norms that make a nation great are ultimately spiritual, and that is something believers must work to provide.
What is the mission of the church? How does it pursue this mission?
The mission of the church is to be a servant to the world in the name of Christ, to hear the cry of the poor, the wounded, the outcast, the hungry and thirsty, the sick, the orphan, the cry of mothers for their children, to hear these cries with the ears and compassion of Christ and to respond with His grace and example.
How can the church renew its theology, ministry, and mission?
By taking its directions from the people and their lived experiences. Theology must outgrow its scholastic habits and submit to the kenosis of Christ in order to bring glory and honor to God.
How can the church activate all of God’s people in mission and ministry?
The church must be the light and salt of the earth, which is not a matter of social scale or political mobilization. It is a matter of leading and guiding by example, of penetrating society with sacramental power.
Is there anything else you’d like to say to us today?
We in the West are confident and articulate people, and theology has served us well as a vehicle for our aspirations, desires, and goals. There is no shortage of theological books on all sorts of imaginable subjects, with how-to-do manuals instructing us about effective ministry, about how to fix our emotions, how to affirm our individual identity and promote our choices and preferences, about how to change society by political action, how to raise funds and build bigger churches, about investing in strategic coalitions, etc.
All this language leaves us little time or space to listen to God with the chance that God may have something, and even something else, to say to us, especially if that something else challenges what we want to hear. Yet, without reciprocity in the moral life, of hearing and responding to the intimations of the Spirit, it is hard to see how God can be salient in the lives of modern men and women.
On the matter of the cultural captivity of the Gospel in the West, the renewal of World Christianity may have lessons to teach us all. The West is confident that the key to access to the mind of God is a cultural advantage. Given the fact of the West’s unrivaled command of cultural resources, including an advanced civilization based on political and economic ascendancy, it follows that the West holds the upper hand in the things of God. By the same token, given the meager record of societies in Africa, Asia, and Latin America in economic and cultural attainment, it is clear they lack a corresponding grasp of the mind of God and thus must be discounted in any serious reckoning with the teachings of Christianity. Therefore, these societies remain inferior to the West, with little to teach the West in spiritual matters.
With this mindset, it may escape the West that even its own cultural heritage, say, of Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates, is not exempt from the criticism that may be leveled at the heritage of the Prophets, the Psalms, and their successors of the New Testament age as being an irrelevant relic.
Modern amenities like paved roads, hygiene, sanitation, medicine, technology, and the material affluence that have brought us a longer and more comfortable lifestyle have not necessarily made us less needful of the heritage either of Aristotle or the Prophets despite their poor living conditions. We flatter ourselves to think that truth and faith are mere evolutionary adjuncts of the human condition, to be discarded in the solvent of scientific enlightenment. We know better, as witnesses, how much we retain of the heritage of the past. Movements in World Christianity will make this truth even more evident to us.
Lamin Sanneh, thank you for joining us today.
The late Professor Lamin Sanneh was the author of over a hundred articles on religious and historical subjects and several books. Most recently, he published “Abolitionists Abroad: American Blacks and the Making of Modern West Africa; Faith and Power: Christianity and Islam in “Secular” Britain” (with Lesslie Newbigin and Jenny Taylor); and “Whose Religion is Christianity? The Gospel Beyond the West.” He has also written “The Crown and the Turban: Muslims and West African Pluralism”; “Religion and the Variety of Culture: A Study in Origin and Practice”; “Piety and Power: Muslims and Christians in West Africa”; and he’s co-editor of “The Changing Face of Christianity.”
Professor Sanneh was an Honorary Research Professor in the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, and a life member of Clare Hall, Cambridge University. He was chairperson of Yale University’s Council on African Studies. For his academic work, he was made Commandeur de l’Ordre National du Lion, Senegal’s highest national honor, and received an honorary doctorate from the University of Edinburgh, Scotland.