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

The above account of the known religions of the world should be read with the understanding that, contrary to widespread assumption, the modern comprehension of what a ‘religion’ is arose around 1700 (Cavanaugh 2009:160). Before that time, people neither had ‘religions’ or discussed or debated about religions. Early modern people did not explore belief systems as if they were stand-alone systems. Instead they were recognising that there are different nations or peoples (Masuzawa 2005:61). Prior to 1700, the English term religion was most often used to refer to the practices of Christians sufficiently devoted to their faith to join monastic orders (Cavanaugh 2009:64). The religious were understood in contrast to the secular. The term secular was used to refer to priests who worked outside of the monasteries (2009:80). The four-part classification of religions mentioned above is therefore not very ancient. The fact that it might have been a European norm by the first half of the 19th Century should not have us think that it was such for centuries before that.

Masuzawa explores the emergence by the early 20th century of a world religions discourse. The previous four-way classification of the 19th century had by this time disappeared. In its place was a new scheme, apparently arising almost spontaneously, of around eleven recognised ‘world religions’.[2]

In her examination of relevant scholarly endeavours in the 19th century, Masuzawa points us to two schools of thought. “Comparative theology”, she tells us, was held in “contradistinction to comparative religion”, the latter also being known as “history of religions” or “science of religion” (Masuzawa 2005:22). Unlike comparative religion, comparative theology was in due course “deemed not scientific” (2005:23). On this basis, given the rise of the credibility of science in the 19th century, comparative religion continued from strength to strength, whereas comparative theology, that assumed Christianity to be uniquely singular and in the end “beyond compare” (2005:23), was rejected.

I want to suggest that the above discussion has a lot of relevance to contemporary missionary practice. Even those who claim to be entirely Bible believing Christians cannot get away from the context in which they are living. One’s belief in the Bible must always be impacted by a context. Part of the contemporary Western context is the ongoing, widely held supposition that comparative evaluation of ‘religions’ ought to be scientific and not theological. The ongoing rejection of any supposition that a ‘comparison’ between religions should be based on theology is a major factor, I suggest, that has helped to turn today’s young people away from pure Gospel ministry towards mission-as-social-action and development. The thesis I want to propose is that the underlying reason for this turn away from pure Gospel ministry is that the popular understanding of other religions, i.e. world religions plus others like ‘African religions’, has been constructed on the back of Christian theology. Christian theology fails to critique them, because Christian theology was the very scaffolding around which they were built and the very blueprint on the basis of which they were designed. While now hidden from view, such implicit means of their historic construction leaves other ‘religions’, as designed by the West, relatively immune to Christian theological critique.

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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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