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

One’s belief in the Bible must always be impacted by a context.

Christianity is these days no longer considered “beyond compare” (see above). In contemporary times even missionaries are frequently forced to consider Christianity to be only one of a number of comparable options, and sometimes an arbitrary choice. The reason the discipline of ‘comparative theology’ had to be rejected was because it was comparing things that were portrayed as being essentially the same (in so far as they were all defined by Western Protestants) as if they were different.


How comparable ‘world religions’ emerged

Two very prominent ‘world religions’ often considered to be in ‘competition’ with Christianity are Buddhism and Hinduism. I want to consider briefly how, according to Masuzawa and Srikantan, Buddhism and Hinduism emerged from the category of ‘the rest’ so as to become members of the new high-status multi-faith category of world religions.[3] I use this consideration of Buddhism and Hinduism to help to enlighten us about the status of ‘world religions’ in general, by comparison with Christianity.

Given the recent hegemony of world religions discourse, one might think that Buddhism just always was Buddhism ever since it was founded, but that Europeans took until the 19th century to ‘discover’ it. This has been the popular view. Almond, however, tells us a different story. According to Almond, Buddhism was actually not “waiting in the wings … to be discovered” (1988:12). On the contrary, by mid-19th century, the “West alone, knew what Buddhism was, is and ought to be” (1988:13). That is, only Westerners were at the time seriously researching a history that no one else knew. The forefathers of today’s Buddhists had to be told that they were Buddhists, and what Buddhism historically entailed, by Westerners (1988:4). The Westerners researched by Almond who did this were Victorian Christians.[4] Because they were Victorian Christians much of the discourse that defined Buddhism was, and in many ways still is “uniquely Victorian” (1988:ix) and uniquely Christian. Edward Said explained: “[that] orientalism makes sense at all depends more on the West than on the orient, and this sense is indirectly indebted to various Western techniques of representation that make the orient visible [and] clear” (Said 2001:47). As a result, Buddhist ‘religion’, shackled together by Western Christians, through a process that included some “mischievous” reporting (Almond 1988:2, citing Richard Collins, a 19th century missionary to India and Ceylon) became “a formidable rival to Jesus Christ” (Almond 1988:2 citing George Cobbold, 1894).

Srikantan gives us an in many ways parallel account to that of Buddhism above with respect to Hinduism (2015). Srikantan is especially concerned with legal systems. He considers in this respect the colonial history of India. By tracing the work of various historical figures, he illustrates the British colonialist’s concern that a legal system be put in place in India, and that the system should be peculiarly Indian. Colonialists paid particular attention to local Indian leaders’ decisions as recorded in various cases and judgments. They then sought to systematise the same into legal codes (2015:54). Srikantan points out that although examples (i.e. cases) on which the new Indian legal system was to be built came from India, the logic applied to the cases by the colonialists interpreting them was very much Western. This logic, while at times secular, was also theological, based on the Christian Scriptures rooted in the history of the Western church.[5] “The manner in which custom is constituted as legal knowledge” Srikantan argues “is connected to Christian theology” (2015:60). As a result, the process engaged by colonialists in India that ended up establishing Hindu law codes followed the previous European pattern “where[by] custom was upheld but juxtaposed against the alternative of God and His law” (2015:63). “Mosaic Law … was thus inherent to the agenda of legal reform” by a process of “theologization” (2015:92), a function that Indian scriptures the Vedas “cannot perform” (2015:79). These were the kinds of processes that I refer to above as misunderstandings of translation, that resulted in the “reification of Hinduism” (Masuzawa 2005:286). When Indians themselves adopted what the colonialists left for them, what they had was “not unlike the liberal Protestantism of the West” (Srikantan 2015:297).

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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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