Secular option may not be so foreign after all

Published April 1, 2004

I am one of those people who believe that Canada’s emergence as a secular state is a gift from God, yet to be acknowledged by our churches, and certainly not identified as such by fundamentalist liberals. What better time to think about this gift than during the Easter season? Two facts confront us. Without the resurrection there is no Christianity, and secondly, it is through the resurrection that Christians are called to a life with unlimited horizons, beyond the boundaries set by worldly aspirations and institutions.

It is in this context that I find Lamin Sanneh’s Whose Religion Is Christianity? – The Gospel beyond the West, an exciting read. His penetrating historical and cultural analysis, coupled to a vision of an emerging world Christianity, sheds some much needed light through the shadows cast over western Christianity in the 21st century. He is very careful to draw a distinction [pullquote] between global Christianity and world Christianity. The word ‘global’ carries threatening freight, suggesting world dominance by western institutions with all their peculiarities, and western churches with their missions and theologies are not exempt.

Lamin Sanneh is a native of Gambia who is presently professor of missions and world Christianity and of history at Yale Divinity School. His years of study have led him to evaluate not only what in the West we assess as the post-Christian era, but also the movement to post-Western Christianity as evidenced by the distinctive growth of Christianity beyond Euro-American boundaries. At present more than 60 per cent of the world’s Christians live beyond those boundaries and as Anglicans we know that our own communion reflects this development. So what does this mean for the future of Christianity in our western world?

He suggests that in encountering world-wide Christian resurgence it will be discovered that, “the secular option may not be foreign to Christianity after all, but may represent an impetus of the religion from its original conception when a line was drawn between God and Caesar (Mark 12:17; Matt. 22:21) and believers were enjoined to pin their hopes on the kingdom of another world. In that world Caesar’s sword could not do God’s bidding.”

Western church history reveals that perhaps wrong choices were made, and that pursuits of ecclesiastical social dominance were misguided, to the detriment of both the church and the gospel. He believes that, “We can overcome this polarization (God / Caesar) by recalling the circumstances that gave birth to the church as a divine office rather than a political institution, enabling the church to flourish in spite of every attempt by the state to suppress it.”

He then makes the case for the emergence and development of world Christianity through a dialogue format which confronts the questions, some ninety of them, that western Christians might raise about his assertions. It helps here that Lamin Sanneh does not set up straw men. His answers reveal the careful reflection he has given to his subject. I was particularly attracted to his discussion comparing the African Creed of the Maasai people of East Africa and the Nicene Creed. The former presents a positive, confident and hope filled belief – it ends, “We are waiting for Him (Jesus). He is alive. He lives. This we believe. Amen.” There is little sign, “of the words smelling of the litigious lamp, of the scars of bitter theological battle, of rubbing in the noses of the vanquished, of haunting heresy, or of the West’s twilight mood,” that cast a pall over the Nicene creed today.

He believes the key to the resurgence of world Christianity is to be found in the Scriptures in what he calls mother tongue variations. “Being the original Scripture of the Christian movement, the New Testament Gospels are a translated version of the message of Jesus, and that means Christianity is a translated religion without a revealed language.” He further believes that, “Translation is the church’s birthmark as well as its missionary benchmark.” When the Gospel is translated in terms of local language, culture and traditions it becomes the Word of God in power. Again in dialogue format he discusses the Bible’s role.

He concludes that “Christianity is not intrinsically a religion of cultural uniformity … Bible translation enabled Christianity to break the cultural filibuster of its western domestication to create movements of resurgence and renewal that transformed the religion into a world faith.” In a secular Canada we are freed culturally to rediscover our place within that world faith community.


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