“Can the West Be Converted?”

“Can the West Be Converted?” July 28, 2017


I hope not.

The great missionary theologian Lesslie Newbigen asked this question in 1987. For him, and many others the secular West had become, whatever its Christian inheritance, a realm that had lost touch with a full experience of God’s grace. It needed conversion.

This theme has been repeated by any number of non-Western theologians. One, Gilliam Mary Bediako has written an excellent essay entitled “Christianity in Interaction with the Primal Religions of the World” (in Christianity and Religious Plurality, ed. Shenk and Plantinga) that ends by wondering if Western Christians can recover a “primal vision of Christian faith” by learning from non-Western Christians.

The unfortunate assumption in Newbigen’s work, widely accepted in American Evangelicalism, is that there exist cultures with certain traits – in this case those found in primal religions – that are more authentically Christian than those that do not possess these traits. Post-Enlightenment Western culture is the usual target of the accusation of lacking the traits necessary for authentic Christian faith, but one could add ancient Greek culture – as Newbigen alludes to in his book The Foolishness of the Greeks.

But don’t think it is just the West that shares these flaws.  There is also Confucian culture and those cultures formed out of Theravada Buddhism and many other schools of Indian philosophy. Western culture is by no means the only culture to distinguish the immanent and transcendent and question or even dismiss the transcendent from human experience of discovery of self and world.

The problem with this normalization of certain cultures and cultural traits as the only bearers of authentic Christianity is that it likewise normalizes a particular range of human religious experiences as the only authentic experiences of human faith. It also normalizes a certain set of human expressions of Christian faith as the only authentic expressions.

In essence it says to hundreds of millions of Christians that their faith is less than authentic because it is not rooted in a particular type of immediate sense of the supernatural expressed in ecstatic worship. Or as Bediako asserts “the secularizing tendency that reduces such intense expressions of primal Western spirituality to the level of beautiful poetry.” (p.204) As if beautiful poetry is somehow a reduction and not quite possibly a fulfillment of spirituality.

In essence we have the assertion, understandable in the face of centuries of Western colonialism, that it is the West that needs to be converted by Africans and Asians whose Christianity is more authentic than that of Western Christians.

Yet ultimately this is cultural colonialism in reverse. It is based not in the technological, economic, and managerial power that allowed the West to reduce the peoples of other cultures to servitude, but in the supposed spiritual superiority of non-Western Christianity as measured in both fervor and rapid growth: a fervor and growth that will conquer Western religious institutions as surely as the colonial powers conquered African and Asian institutions. While the West arrived in Africa and Asia believing itself to be the pinnacle of universal human progress, we now have African and Asian cultures asserted to preserve that which is primal (and thus universal) in the human perception of God.

This claim is further justified by G.M. Bediako by asserting only those forms of Christianity that have rediscovered their primal roots are vital and growing in the West. Apparently Western Christianity must now justify itself on African terms if it is to be authentic.

In this view the West offered nothing more than science and technology, so as Kwame Bediako says, “New knowledge of science and technology has been embraced, but it has not displaced the basic view that the whole universe in which human existence takes place is fundamentally spiritual.” (199)

To say that this is simplistic, albeit in exactly the way contemporary American evangelicals have a simplistic view of the Enlightenment, is an understatement. The Enlightenment, for all its highly visible failures, brought to birth (again if one considers similar cultures in Asia) a new understanding of human personhood as possessing in itself the rights to freedom, self-discovery, self-expression, and personal responsibility. These are the long delayed fulfillment of the promise of the Gospel, even if extending them to non-Europeans was too long coming.

More importantly the “new knowledge of science and technology” that Kwame Bediako mentions is possible only because science systematically excluded the spiritual from its efforts to understand the human experience of the world. And if the truth discovered by science is in any way God’s own truth about the world that God created then science is every bit as in touch with God’s spirit as any primal religious community, albeit in a distinctly apophatic way.

The genius of Bediako’s essay is (along side Lammin Saneh and her husband Kwame Bediako) she demonstrates in primal African religions the rich resources for reconceptualizing the possibility of religious pluralism that she rightly asserts is undermined by Enlightenment dualism. But this doesn’t justify going further to suggest that primal cultures are somehow intrinsically superior bearers of the gospel than Enlightenment culture.

No culture and no particular enculturation of the gospel is a fully adequate expression of the incarnation of God in Christ. Rather than dichotomizing secular and African cultures and worldviews as do Bediako and others (notably Charles Taylor), we need to recognize that the very concepts of immanence and transcendence, secular and sacred, material and spiritual will ultimately be interrogated by a rich multi-cultural dialogue. But this is only possible if the authenticity of faith (to avoid the loaded word “spirituality”) of each expression of Christianity is recognized along with the inadequacy of any human language to fully represent reality.

The truth about God and the World manifest in Jesus Christ isn’t something to be taught or learned. It is something to be discovered together. 

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