Global Christianities: Complicating the Concept

On November 9, 2011, the Center for Christianities in Global Contexts organized and sponsored a noontime panel discussion entitled “Global Christianities: Complicating the Concept.”   CCGC Co-Directors Virginia Burrus and Jeffrey Kuan respectively presided and responded to presentations given by faculty members Chris Boesel and Kenneth Ngwa and Luce Graduate Fellows Adelaide Boadi and Jung-Doo Kim.   The event was not only well attended, with at least 35 faculty members and students present, but also generated unusual levels of enthusiasm and passionate engagement!

Dr. Ngwa , Assistant Professor of Hebrew Bible and a native of Cameroon, spoke first, framing his thoughts as a challenge to the religious imagination.  How can we learn to think differently and better about both “local” and “global” Christianities?  Ngwa focused on two theoretical challenges in particular—the challenge of conceptualizing Christianity as translocal and transnational, on the one hand, and the challenge of conceptualizing Christianity as shaped by particular contexts of religious pluralism, on the other hand.  He emphasized that neither of these is a new or isolable phenomenon, though both are often presented as such.  “For thousands of years, merchants, farmers, servants and slaves, parents, priests, soldiers, griots and writers, explorers and nations and empires have carried their religions beyond local spaces, interacting along the way with other religions and inhabiting new spaces,” he stressed.  All Christians in all times and places have been shaped by layered histories of migration and cultural dialogue, in other words.  “Although technology has greatly increased both the frequency and pace of such mobility and interaction, the phenomenon of globalization is itself not an entirely new one.”  Moreover, mobility and interaction take place according to complex patterns. “The spread of Christianity from the global North to the global South through empire-backed ‘missions’ is no longer the only story to tell,” urged Ngwa.  Pentecostal churches from the global South are now also sending missionaries to the North, for example, while other exchanges are taking place across locations in the South, between Brazil and Nigeria, for example.  And all of these movements and interactions are happening simultaneously, not in linear succession, resulting in the enormous complexity of Christianity on the ground, in which the global is always impinging in multiple ways upon the local.  Ngwa closed by suggesting that attention to the fluidity and complexity of the “layered, lived experience” of contemporary global Christians allows us to be attuned to the fluidity and complexity of exegetical and theological thought that sustains and is sustained by such experience.   In particular, intersecting theologies of liberation and inculturation are, and must continue to be, vigorously reinterpreted by the Christian denizens of a self-consciously global village.  The result, Ngwa suggested, is “a theology that is comfortable with portraying God both as resisting being confined to a house/ temple/ place and also as upset about not having a house/ temple/ place in the small community of postexilic Yehud.”  A God, in other words, who is both global and local, both mobile and settled, at once spirit and tabernacle.

Mr. Kim, a native of Korea who is writing his dissertation in the field of theology, followed with further reflections on why and how the global character, and globalizing process, of Christianity matters.   His proposals were threefold.  “First, the concept of global Christianity entails a postcolonial consciousness,” suggested Kim.  This involves decentering Euro-American  perspectives and cultivating an attitude of mutual listening, learning, and enrichment in the face of the “multiplicity and differences of Christian spiritualities and practices.”  However, it need not require a total deconstruction of traditional doctrine or spirituality.  Like Ngwa, Kim emphasized the layered complexity and hybridity of global Christian cultures and identities that result from ongoing histories of mobility and interaction.  Aspects of Euro-American tradition inevitably sit alongside aspects of Korean tradition, for example, in his own postcolonial theological project.  Kim’s second proposal was that “when we think about global Christianities, we cannot help but ask what is and what is not Christianity.”  What Kim has in mind here is clearly not a conventional re-inscription of a static and unchanging orthodoxy but rather an ongoing process of reassessing what an “authentic Christian spirituality, practice, and vision for the contemporary world should be,” a process engaged in the flow of coalitional activism and ecumenical dialogue.  Third and finally, Kim echoed Ngwa in urging that we attend to the fact that “global Christianities are located in multi-religious and multi-cultural contexts.”  To do so is to shed the mantle of imperialist, exceptionalist, and triumphalist dogma and to acknowledge the worth and interrelatedness of all religions and cultures and the enormous importance of finding ways to join in solidarity “for serving the planetary community that we inhabit together.”

Dr. Boesel, Associate Professor of Systematic Theology, initially approached the topic from a slightly different perspective, offering the poignant autobiographical reflections of one “raised in the colonies and shaped by colonial racism.”  Having grown up in a white American missionary enclave in the Philippines, Boesel learned first-hand that the ethnocentrism and racism that permeate Christian theologies and practices of mission “is not about bad people.” Rather, it is about how even unusually good and well-intentioned people are inescapably implicated in a deeply problematic set of histories, mindsets, and doctrines.  If Anglo-Europeans have long understood themselves called to bring “their” Christianity to “other” parts of the globe, what might we offer, under the banner of “global Christianities,” as a corrective to that damaging heritage?  “It is one thing—and hard enough—to correct problematic assumptions,” Boesel suggested.  “It is another thing, and perhaps more difficult, to correct, or to know how to correct, the history.”  The challenge, Boesel went on to explain, is immense, especially if we understand Christianity to be a fundamentally historical religion, i.e., “a response to a particular historical event in a particular time and place,” only knowable to those who did not witness the event as “a piece of news” brought by others “from across the seas,” as it were.  To share the saving Word with the world is a matter, after all, of giving, not receiving, and of proclaiming, not listening.  “As a systematic theologian, this is an issue that I find most challenging,” Boesel confessed.  Moreover, if we employ the language of “global Christianities” to create a space “for non-western Christians, churches and communities of faith to speak and practice with authority in their own theological voice out of their own cultural traditions, histories, and experience,” do we not encounter a further challenge?  In a “progressive and still very ‘western’ place like Drew,” are we not at risk of making space for others to speak only if their theological voices accommodate our own norms? Boesel asked.  “That can sound very much like western folks still telling the rest of the world how they can and cannot be Christian,” he averred.  Yet the problem is not easily solved, as it seems to entail an embrace of global differences that may themselves appear to be part of the roadblock in the way of a new ideal of “global Christianities”—for example, advocacy of a triumphalist theology of missions.

Focus on the challenges presented by the globalization of Christianity continued with the remarks of Ms. Adelaide Boadi, a native of Ghana who is writing her dissertation in the field of sociology of religion.  Boadi, like Boesel, presented us with a set of difficult questions, centering on “issues of power, validity, and vulnerability, and the how of negotiating the ‘glocal.’”  First, how ready are we to revise or reassess traditional, western-centered theology?  How ready are we to become knowledgeable about the “two-thirds” world, and to recognize that knowledge of Africa, for example, is not merely relevant but crucial for U.S. Christians, and also that the knowledge about “global Christianities” must necessarily arrive to us from elsewhere, inflected by other vocabularies and ways of knowing?   Second, how far can we go in accepting as fully legitimate the non-progressive or fundamentalist Christianities that are flourishing in many parts of the global South?  To what extent are these incorporated into our curricula, destabilizing our own certainties?  In raising these first two sets of questions, Boadi’s presentation performatively embodied the complex issue of the location of speech:  in a place like Drew’s Theological School, is the “global” always “other” to a “we” that is somehow outside of the “global”?  is that “we” unexamined in its own complexity, difference, and heterogeneity?  that is, do “we” attempt to call attention away from local differences by projecting those differences onto global others?   Her presentation, like Mr. Kim’s, also highlighted how the engagement of global Christianities brings into play the issue of “authentic” (or in traditional terms, “orthodox”) Christian identity.  Who decides who is or is not a “true” Christian, and what are the criteria by which such decisions are made?  Finally, Boadi called attention to a case of the “glocal” (as she aptly named it) that is very close to home indeed, namely, the vulnerability of international students at Drew, asking how much vulnerability the broader Drew community was willing to take on, in subjecting itself to self-critique.  What is our responsibility toward each other? she framed the basic and urgent ethical question.  And might other Christian cultures have something to teach us about that?

The panel respondent Dean Kuan reflected on a number of common themes that ran through the panelists’ remarks, including “the question of definition and who gets to define.”  Like Dr. Boesel, he also shared autobiographical reflections, recalling  the life-changing moment in which he decided that he would be something impossible, “Christian and Chinese,” by attending his grandfather’s traditional (non-Christian) funeral.   This anecdote seemed to perform very powerfully the slippage between a colonialist missionary perspective in which Christianity is opposed to “indigenous cultures” while masking its own Anglo-European cultural underpinnings, and a postcolonial deconstruction of that opposition that reveals that all Christianities are inculturated, partial and situated–that all are “Christian and,” and then some!

The energy of the response of the audience to the panel discussion was strong, even explosive.  One person highlighted the significance of Ngwa’s argument that “globalization” as a concept “is a recent conceit of western exceptionalism”—a complication that surely deserves more reflection.  Picking up on themes in Boesel’s and Boadi’s remarks, there was also further discussion of the use of humor at the expense of fundamentalist Christian identity and belief:  does this not display a disturbing contradiction with the call to embrace difference?  Another person wondered how exactly we can distinguish our own post-missionary visions of global Christianities from missionary ones, especially where these visions arise (partly) in missionized contexts.  Yet another raised the question of what the implications of a serious consideration of the global character of Christianity are for the education of ministers.  The conversation had to be called to a halt with many still wanting to join the discussion.

Two follow-up panel discussions are scheduled for the spring semester.—Virginia Burrus, Professor of Early Christianity and Co-Director of CCGC