Summoned from the Margin: Homecoming of an African

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Summoned from the margin : homecoming of an African

I encountered similar attitudes elsewhere. A prominent Methodist churchman based in London advised me against theology during his African tour, saying the church should better spend its scarce resources feeding the hungry than in supporting theological bursaries. An eminent African theologian of his day, Harry Sawyerr, expressed skepticism in a different way when I sought his wisdom: the vocation of theology, he said, should draw you in rather than being something you choose because of personal experience.

I am beginning to have some second thoughts though. The following is a great section on how leaders in the west have been incredibly dismissive of the recent Christian resurgence in Africa and parts of Asia. Why discount it so much? If sanitation is still bad then Jesus must be a joke. Beyond issues of reliability, critics have faulted the resurgence [of Christianity] for failing to deliver the Third World from its chronic problems of AIDS, corruption, tribal conflict, and general backwardness.

For that reason, however otherwise accurate, the numbers are meaningless, for they indicate no movement toward improved sanitation and a higher standard of living.

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At this point of skepticism one realizes that critics have a much larger target in mind than mere quibbles about numbers, and that is the view that Christianity is valid only when it brings about a higher standard of living. In this view Christianity should be a stepping stone to a better life here and now, or its spread is extension of an illusion.

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Perhaps we should take the statistics as evidence of social regression, of movement backwards, the critics insist. These critics see progress as an evolutionary vaccine against the parasite of religion, explaining why the parasite migrates and festers in areas of limited progress, infecting those still fixated on their childhood fantasies. Except by being equally dogmatic, one can provide no satisfactory answer to this sweeping objection except to say that it ignores a crucial dimension of the reality of religion and its roots in the human spirit.

Religion has an other-worldly dimension, to be sure, but indubitably also a this-worldly dimension of moral progress and social justice. In their different ways St. Francis of Assisi and John Wesley attacked poverty, but attacked equally the dehumanization of the poor. The witness of Mother Teresa of Calcutta was in part a challenge to the idea of progress without social conscience.

In that respect the breeding grounds of religion are the spawning fields of the struggle for justice and dignity. The religious voice is often a critical reality in the otherwise callous world of greed and self-centeredness.

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Progress cannot outgrow justice. Critics who are jaded with the religion of their upbringing and are still in the throes of recovery find it hard to be sanguine about the rising fortunes of a religion that has been the source of their disappointment.

But the criticism is overreaching in the sense that one may no more blame the early Christians for their faith not preventing the fall of the Roman Empire, or a Christian Europe for not preventing Nazi and Stalinist pogroms, than post-Western Christians for the resurgence not preventing the political and economic collapse of their societies. The stakes cannot suddenly be higher for Third World Christianity than they were for Western Christianity.

Here, Sanneh points out a key distinction between Christianity and Islam. The first transforms cultures by adapting and integrating them. The other fundamentally swallows them up. Christian missions have tended to fail when they try to act too much like the latter. The embrace of the local name of God is a vital difference between Christianization and Islamization, and the discrepancy has lessons for the history of religion generally. Without the indigenous anticipations of the religion, the prospects of Christianity taking root are slim. Unless converts are able to call on the name of God in the vernacular, they remain fundamentally at risk of sliding away from the faith. Vernacular translation, then, is key to cultural retrieval, renewal, and transformation, the secret to intercultural encounter in its positive phase. Without translation and its indigenous currency, cultural symbols in their isolation atrophy and eventually disappear when challenged.