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

A few years later at the same college I was asked to teach a world religions course. At the beginning that seemed straightforward enough. I picked up books in the library on world religions. I found world religions interesting to explore and to articulate. Gradually though it dawned on me that I had always to teach world religions as perceived by Europeans. This was regardless of how my African students may have perceived the same ‘religions’ had they themselves met their practitioners. World religions as practiced, as my students might perceive them, and world religions as described by Europeans, were two different things. It was the latter Western view of world religions, effectively a view screened through a western theological lens, and not how the students and their own people may perceive ‘world religions’, that students needed to know in order to pass exams.

On arrival in Kenya I had assumed that Kenyan Christians believe in God. Yet I found that their response to ‘God’ was quite different to that I had been used to as a Christian in the UK. In due course I was enabled to study a term widely translated as ‘God’ there in western Kenya, known as Nyasaye. Unlike God, Nyasaye seemed to be the prosperity arising from loud emotional pleading (see also Harries 2011). Instead of a 1-hour long meeting with a presumed spiritual father, a church service in Kenya could be a 3-hour experience of instruction on ‘how to prosper’. Someone having made a decision to consider Nyasaye a translation of the English term God did not spontaneously nullify those African people’s historical understandings of Nyasaye. Saying that Kenyans had adopted the world religion ‘Christianity’ could be to miss some profound differences with what I had in the UK known as ‘Christianity’ (Gifford 2015:4-5 discusses this issue). The translation of Nyasaye as God resulted in an apparent theologisation of ATR.

I realised that in Africa, even ‘religion’ was being invented.

In due course, I had to realise that what I as an outsider from the UK perceived Kenyan Christians as doing when I observed them could be very different to their self-perception. My efforts at describing and systematising their practices using English ended up being means of satisfying theological criterion considered necessary from my British background that might have been totally absent in Africa. Such a perception was far from adequate for profound and true engagement with Kenyan people’s self-understandings. ‘Problems’ that seemed to be there when their church practice was examined using (linguistic and cultural) English could be hot air with respect to people’s own indigenous views of what they were doing. I realised that in Africa also ‘religion’ was being invented. Engaging with such an invented (or reified) ‘religion’ results in an insulating barrier of apparent similarity between where African people are ‘at’ and the heart content of the Christian Gospel as practiced in the West. That is, as a Christian missionary, to reach people ‘where they were at’ required more than an engagement with African religion (Christian or otherwise) as it was presented in English. Engaging in English resulted in meeting with an apparently already theologised ‘religion’ brought into existence in prior encounters between Africans and Westerners, that often had few visible meaningful local roots.

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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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