Academic journal article International Review of Mission

A Universal Faith in a Thousand and One Contexts

Academic journal article International Review of Mission

A Universal Faith in a Thousand and One Contexts

Article excerpt

This paper is written to test a hypothesis launched thirty years ago, namely:

. . . the truth that the more the Tradition is expressed in the varying terms of particular cultures, the more will its universal character be fully revealed.(1)

For surely one of the key questions in the far-ranging complex of theological puzzles that has come to be referred to by the summary phrase "gospel and culture," a question often raised though hardly yet (in my experience) readily answered, is this: How can the Christian faith both be known (and practised) as universally true and take all sorts of different forms in detail in response to (and as suggested by) the many different "cultures" in which it comes to be accepted?

As the title "Called to One Hope - the Gospel in Diverse Cultures" chosen for the 1996 Conference on World Mission and Evangelism shows, this has become moreover an urgent question at a time when the numerical majority of Christians has passed from the "old" Christendom to the "younger" churches of Africa and Latin America, and - more important - when the political and spiritual initiative in world affairs is less and less felt to belong as of fight to the "over-developed" and selfishly greedy nations of the north Atlantic that still in practice lay claim to it.

The "diversity of expressions" is not just an inoffensive theological conundrum. It lies at the heart of both the apologetic and the peace-making tasks of today. How can Christian faith expect to be accepted as true while its institutions and models of universality are so overwhelmingly identified with an "old" and discredited world order?

A personal way in

That Montreal hypothesis became vivid for me twenty years ago when Lukas Vischer asked me to write a "personal account" of the Faith and Order Commission meeting at Accra in July 1974, as an overall introduction to the published report of that conference.(2)

As at most other such meetings, all sorts of current questions had featured in the discussions - by no means only those foreseen in the specific agenda. In struggling to pull these together, I found myself dissatisfied with the then current distinction between "classic" ecumenism and "secular" ecumenism,(3) and so experimented with adding a third category, that of "cultural" ecumenism. I owed the stimulus to do so in part to John Deschner's suggestion at Accra of an "ecumenism of diversity," which he saw as focussing on "the praxis of mutual recognition":

African liberation movements, German Landeskirchen, American women's caucus, an Orthodox patriarchate, the Lausanne Conference (of "evangelicals"), the Nairobi Assembly (of the WCC): we know how to confront these with one another, but can we truly call them to the praxis of mutual recognition of each other as Christians? Can we teach that praxis? How to see each other in Christ, and support each other, and practise hospitality towards each other in all their growing strangeness?(4)

And rather more to the article "Faith, Hope and Love in the African Independent Church Movement" by John Mbiti that I had been privileged to receive for publication,(5) in which Mbiti summed up the importance of all that was going on in the huge number of "new" churches in Africa in this way:

The Independent church movement is an African opportunity to mess up Christianity. For the past two thousand years, other continents, countries, nations and generations have had their chances to do with Christianity as they wished. And we know that they have not been idle! Now Africa has got its chance at last.

"The integrity of Christian faith," I wrote in explanation of the term "cultural ecumenism," "and, therefore, of the Church, to which the ecumenical movement is dedicated, must be such as to encourage the proper enhancing of all the varying strands of human identity and culture."(6)

Since then, over and over again I have found myself, like so many others, in discussions centring on "culture" or "context," often fascinating and important discussions, yet in which I have had to puzzle over how to hold things together, to identify appropriate guidelines, amidst all the complexities of different cultures, for discerning and following the universal character, indeed the universal truth, of Christian faith and obedience. …

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