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. 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.