On February 23rd Lamin Sanneh gave an address at the University of Chicago Divinity School on the topic, “Resisting Mission / Redefining Engagement.” Afterward I sat down with Professor Sanneh over lunch to talk about the Div School’s upcoming 5th Annual Ministry Conference. He offered some great insights and provocative points that only increase my excitement for the conference on May 1-2. One of the organizing questions of the conference is why isn’t there more academic and ministerial collaboration between Christian communities around the world at a time when Christianity is growing so rapidly? I began my conversation with Professor Sanneh on this topic.
Ministry Conference: The chief question of the ministry conference is, as forms of Christianity are being increasingly indigenized around the world, how do and how ought those affect local Christian practice here in the U.S?
Lamin Sanneh: Well I think one of the obvious ways - and I’ve seen this in practice - is to establish partnerships between churches in the U.S. and churches in Asia and Africa. And that partnership being, you know, senior pastors in churches in the United States should visit however briefly the partnership counterparts in Asia and Africa.
I think it’s important to sort of break down the domestication of Christianity in America, in the United States, where Christianity is a sort of neighborhood project or community project and it doesn’t really think of itself as being connected with anyone else anywhere else. Paul called this cultural idolatry. And the next stage, I think, is to establish a way in which young people in the church here can engage people in the churches over there. And the third step may be to establish within mission committees in the United States a program in cross-cultural outreach.
MC: What would be the theological impetus for that? What theological understandings say “That’s important” for local churches?
LS: I think it’s important to sort of break down the domestication of Christianity in America, in the United States, where Christianity is a sort of neighborhood project or community project and it doesn’t really think of itself as being connected with anyone else anywhere else. Paul called this cultural idolatry. That you become very narcissitic, that you become concerned only with yourself, not with your brothers and sisters in the wider community of faith.
MC: What would be the aim or goal of those forms of interaction? For instance there’s been a rise in popularity of short-term mission trips where the purpose is not even primarily serving the people that you’re going to visit anymore, but rather to have a profound faith experience for yourself. So, what are the purposes of this kind of interaction?
LS: Short term mission, on the positive side, is a sign of the awareness that Christianity is no longer a Western or American monopoly, and therefore the unilateral way of looking at it – we go there to give them faith – has to be given up. That’s the positive side. The negative side, however, is that short term mission may also be just an extension of American individualism. I’m going there for my own benefit. Too bad about them, but it’s all about me. And that doesn’t really break down any walls or any barriers. It doesn’t really expand what I call the Christian vocabulary of the wider family. Christianity is the most pluralist and most inclusive religion in all the religions of the world. And yet Christians sometimes behave in a very exclusivist way, individualistic way so that our practices don’t really reflect the broader the wider reality of Christianity so short term missions are both and opportunity and a peril.
MC: One thing that I have an interest in is theological education in the third world. There is a large need for training pastors, but, because of expense and of time, pastors can’t afford to travel and go to bible college for three years. So one response has been that a lot of local churches are founding their own bible colleges. There are a number of these schools and hundreds of pastors who’ve been trained in these schools. Do you see any way in which that type of phenomenon does or ought be instructive to Christian practice here in the States or is it just sort of its own thing?
University of Chicago students have access to a much larger, greater library of books than Augustine ever did. And yet, you look at his work and what he was able to accomplish, and you say how did he do it? Well the reason mainly was because he was a parish priest.Or for a different type of example, consider the church of North India is an ecumenical denomination that began, I believe, in the 1930s. Churches that were previously mission affiliated essentially dropped their mission affiliation and said “We’re not primarily Baptist or Anglican or Lutheran; we’re primarily Indian,” and they began an ecumenical denomination. So again the same question: What instruction does or should these type of movements provide to Christian theological education in the U.S.?
...living experience of the Christian life helped to sharpen their minds and their ideas so that language itself became for them means of witness.LS: We come to religion, the study of religion from the point of view of the text, studying the text, studying books. I’m a great believer in doing it the other way around. Actually, practice of the Christian faith informs your understanding in certain ways. Text by itself can come alive in ways that it would not if you merely look into the text; it remains a kind of inorganic information which it depends for you to bring to life. The bible is a book of faith but we made it a text of study. And look at someone like Augustine, bishop of Hippo. University of Chicago students have access to a much larger, greater library of books than Augustine ever did. And yet, you look at his work and what he was able to accomplish, and you say how did he do it? Well the reason mainly was because he was a parish priest.
MC: Wow. That’s really great.
LS: He was a parish priest. And the same thing with the others, Origen and the others they were priests; they were pastors. They had great erudition because their living experience of the Christian life - their practices - helped to sharpen their minds and their ideas so that language itself became for them means of witness, of being faithful. And so you couldn’t be frivolous, with language. Augustine said that he met many people who wanted to deceive, but he didn’t know anyone who wanted to be deceived. So the academy itself can benefit from the exposure of these ideas to the field, and I believe that what happens in the field takes up new life when you have the opportunity, the privilege of reflecting on it. So the two are not necessarily opposed. They go together. Only you have to change the combination of them.
MC: One final question: So with some of these ideas of theology being deeply embedded in experience, in the parish, in meeting needs and being amongst the people. With these ideas in mind do you see a need for the work of theology itself to change, and, if so, in what ways?
LS: I think theology has to grasp the significance of the boundary or the margin. Not just marginality as an economic issue -those who are poor. Or marginality as a physical issue - those who are handicapped. But marginality as a kind of moral consciousness - that we have a responsibility as scholars not only to consume values but to produce values, to create values.
So that business people architects and professional classes don’t get away with the idea that knowledge is value free and therefore they are not accountable to anybody.Not only to take what is our right but to give something back. And I think we have this idea that we should press for human rights, the rights of minority, the rights of those who’ve been denied their rights and so on. That is true, but the heart of Christian theology should be this task of producing not consuming values. Producing value. Creating values. Often by taking mainstream establishment values or ideas and redeeming them. For that way, the task of theology would be the renewal of society, the revitalization of intellectual thought, the renewal of society. So that business people architects and professional classes don’t get away with the idea that knowledge is value free and therefore they are not accountable to anybody.
MC: Yeah, that’s a critical point.
LS: And that’s a big task for us to do. And I can’t see history doing that. I don’t see geography doing that. Or physics or astronomy. But theology can do it.
MC: So is it problematic then to have both a theology and a theological ethics department.
MC: Well I guess we’ve got some work to do here at the Divinity School then!