Needs and Opportunities in Studies of Mission and World Christianity

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In the course of my work at Orbis Books I have reached a number of conclusions about needs and opportunities that present themselves in regard to studies of mission and world Christianity. These conclusions constitute the basic premise of this essay. To phrase the premise, I borrow insights and freely adapt words I first heard from the lips of Professors Lamin Sanneh and Andrew Walls: Christian scholarship, for the sake of the Gospel and to be faithful to prophetic and inculturation dimensions of Christian mission and discipleship, must challenge certain assumptions of liberal society that affect both the secular and the Christian theological academy.

At this point, it may suffice to say that for much of the secular academy, Christian theology is akin to voodoo. In contrast, Asian and local religious traditions - native American, for instance - usually find respect in the academy. In that context, the emergence of world Christianity is scarcely commented on by either Western Christian theologians or the secular academy. As for Christian universities and seminaries, they are so involved in theological critiques of one kind or another that it takes a fair stretch of the imagination to recognize anything like scholarly reflection on the missio Dei. Their theological studies often appear to follow contemporary cultural and academic vogues; they do little to help remove distortions in the lenses through which we view the Gospel. Although it is delicate to bring it up, a question cannot be avoided: Is the theological professoriate more dedicated to enhancing its guild or to spreading the Gospel?

I believe that in the final analysis, in the context of that question, Christian scholarship must ultimately grapple with five basic issues that stem from contemporary "historical" as opposed to "dogmatic" issues:

1. Problems that arise from social and historical studies indicating that Christianity has been syncretistic from its origins have not been resolved. The attempt to deal with the problem of relativism and finality has largely been unsatisfactory; in that context the problem of authority, accordingly, is central: What deserves to stand as authentic Christianity in a pluriform world? How do we determine it? Put another way: In what manner do realities intrinsic to the Gospel transcend the relativities of history?

2. Insight into the syncretic nature of every instance of concrete, historical Christianity leads to insights into its particularity. This makes claims to universality problematic. Nevertheless, the Gospel of the kingdom as preached by Jesus and the church is a message about the universal and eschatological scope of divine, saving, healing, forgiving grace revealed in Jesus. Christian thought must learn to deal with particularity and relativity, on the one hand, while, on the other, upholding the need to declare a universal and final Gospel. How can that universality be made clear in the light of critiques - for example from the poor, women, Asians, Africans (in Africa and in the diaspora) - that powerful groups within Christianity monopolize what counts as orthodox?

3. Although Third World(1) Christianity - in its concreteness, as opposed to an idealized image of it - is not taken seriously in the North, it is today the living center of the Christian tradition. For one kind of northern theology, expressions of Third World Christianity that are not grounded in "approved" readings of biblical and early Christian literature are suspect. For another, the origin of world Christianity in the missionary movement fatally implicates it in the colonial era. Moreover, taking world Christianity seriously as a reality and not merely an idealized construct means criticizing both the myth of "native innocence" held so fervently by the academy and the secular academy's hostility toward Christianity, which masks as agnosticism.

4. Clarifying the meaning of mission in a contemporary situation - with its hostility to the notion of conversion, combined with respect for all religious and cultural traditions - is a major task confronting Christian theology. …