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Shadow Boxing: The Missionary Encounter with Christian Theology in World Religions

Missionary-scholar Jim Harries investigates whether the term “world religion” is a Western construct and points us toward a new way of sharing the story of Jesus that is free of this stricture.



Globalised Western hegemony has resulted in the obscurest parts of the world having a contrived front to present to Western visitors and investigators. In European languages, many of these fronts are known as world religions. These European-reified inventions can significantly contribute to people’s self-identity vis-à-vis the West. This article suggests that Westerners engaging with communities in relation to their ‘religions’ easily end up engaging their own reflections, boxing their own shadows. The existence of such reflections of the West is what it is here suggested undermined the enthused 19th century comparative theology project. Although created by those deeply influenced by Christianity, world religions are generally idolatrous. Formal dialogue with such Western inventions, apart from confusing the West, can further solidify what was originally reified, and cause efforts at Christian evangelism to falter and flounder. Engaging Christian mission in indigenous languages and without large amounts of outside resources results in responding to people’s actual ways of life rather than communicating ‘through Europe’ to reified world religions. Thus by avoiding contrived contexts, mission effectiveness can be streamlined.  


The scholars who interpreted accounts and findings of 18th and 19th century explorers were deeply rooted in traditions of Western Christendom. They were accustomed to describing the Christian religion in terms of its dependence on a holy text, in terms of its doctrines that determined particular practices, in terms of beliefs, prayer, worship, and fulfilling of a complimentary role to a secular government. The scholars interpreted the practices they learned about people in other parts of the world in the way that was familiar to them. Hence, they made what have subsequently come to be known as other ‘world religions’ appear to be parallels to Western Christianity.


What happened to ‘comparative theology’?

19th century Europe was characterised by much intense Christian belief.[1] One product of this that came under the heading of “comparative theology” was a “voluminous literature, which once filled the libraries of Europe and North America” (Masuzawa 2005:72). Mysteriously, nowadays Masuzawa tells us, this literature is “rarely read, and its very existence hardly recognised” (2005:72). What happened?

Even those who claim to be entirely Bible believing Christians cannot get away from the context in which they are living.

The major focus in Masuzawa’s text is on the invention of world religions. Her historical research unearthed an 18th century belief that there were essentially four groups of religions in the world. Those were “Christians, Jews, Mohammedans, and the rest” (Masuzawa 2005:47). Within this view, Christians are clearly the ones who are OK. Jews and Mohammedans (i.e. Muslims) “in some way did possess religion, but obviously did not have it quite right” (2005:49). The ‘rest’ were idolaters, hence the early 19th century adage “nations ignorant of God, contrive a wooden one” (Goodrich 1834:14).

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Category: Fall 2016, In Depth

About the Author: Jim Harries, PhD (University of Birmingham), is professor of religion with Global University and adjunct faculty with William Carey International University. He works closely with a wide variety of churches in western Kenya in informal theological education. These include many African founded churches, Pentecostal churches, and the Coptic Orthodox church. Jim uses indigenous languages, and local resources in his ministry. He chairs the Alliance for Vulnerable Mission and is the author of Vulnerable Mission: Insights into Christian Mission to Africa from a Position of Vulnerability (William Carey Library, 2011), Three Days in the Life of an African Christian Villager (New Generation Publishing, 2011), Theory to Practice in Vulnerable Mission: An Academic Appraisal (Wipf and Stock, 2012), Communication in Mission and Development: Relating to the Church in Africa (Wipf and Stock, 2013), Secularism and Africa: In the Light of the Intercultural Christ (Wipf and Stock, 2015), New Foundations for Appreciating Africa: Beyond Religious and Secular Deceptions (VKW, 2016), The Godless Delusion: Europe and Africa (Wipf & Stock, 2017), and a novel African Heartbeat: And A Vulnerable Fool (2018). Facebook: Vulnerable Mission. Twitter: @A4VM.

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