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

It should be becoming clear that Western Protestant Christians created ‘world religions’. In many cases at least, these remain grossly dependent on the West for their ongoing sustenance. (Indigenous practitioners of these religions do not themselves propagate their identity as the West perceives them. Such identity only continues on the back of Western scholarship, Western economic subsidy and the Western media.) Even the means other religions use to demonstrate their own superiority over Christianity is often of Christian origin. This can be illustrated by a quote from Vivekananda: “the Hindus have received their religion through their revelation, the Vedas. They hold that the Vedas are without beginning and without end”. This was Vivekananda’s way of staking a claim for Hinduism on the world religions’ map. He staked this claim, whether he realised it or not, by echoing biblical terminology (Masuzawa 2005:264). Mainline churches in Africa can remain enormously dependent on funds from their Western headquarters (Gifford 2015:93-4). One reason at least for this, is that the foreign funds are required to maintain those aspects of church functioning that according to the West are supposed to be there, but that actually only continue on the back of that funding.

Were ‘world religions’ invented when the West encountered the Rest?

I hope my reader understands clearly that I do not say the above as a triumphalist wanting to show off how much more superior my ‘religion’ is than others. Rather, I am bringing to the surface an important aspect of history and contemporary truth regarding the status quo in our age. My particular interest in the light of the above is for moral justice. Christianity is the primordial source of the flourishing of so-called religions in our contemporary world. Realising this should confirm our moral imperative to share the Gospel more widely. That is to realise that much of what is ‘admirable’ in other world religions that seems to be similar to Christianity, are actually dependent creations of the theology of the latter. Sharing the Gospel of Jesus with others is the way they can be helped to be sustainable parties to benefits that God desires them to enjoy.

My awareness of the above has come to me, in part at least, as a result of a long term of living in Africa. Knowing what they once had, and perceiving what the Gospel has to offer, many Africans (those not caught up in the stringent rules of Islam mentioned above, sometimes on fear of death)[7] are rushing for Christianity. At the same time, other people and certainly major institutions concerned for the future of Africa and the world seem determined to turn a blind eye to this scenario. Political correctness gives other ‘world religions’ credit that belongs to Christ. This may well be the deception for which, in millennia to come, the twentieth century will be known.


Implications for mission

I want to consider the implications of the above insights for contemporary mission. How might realising that other ‘world religions’ are formed out of Christian theology affect global mission efforts?

Should we refuse to help someone who is lost because they do not know they are lost?

One immediate implication would seem to be that mission should be stepped up! That is to say, if other ‘religions’ are not actually ‘independent religions’ as we have imagined them to be, but un-orthodox imitations of Christianity created by previous generations of Christians, then presumably we would prefer people to have the ‘real’ thing rather than counterfeit copies? In the past, the existence of other religions might have cowed missionaries. Depending on the liberality of the potential missionaries and the force of the world religions discourse received by them, they may have declined to share the Gospel of Christ out of respect for people’s pre-existing beliefs. We don’t need any decline in respect for others. Yet in the light of this article, respect may better be shown by sharing the Gospel rather than by declining to do so. Should we refuse to help someone who is lost because they do not know they are lost? Is it respectful to do so? Is it respectful to deny the Gospel to people because powerful members of their communities present their own ‘religion’, as taught by previous generations of Westerners, as if it is a kind of Christianity?

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Category: Fall 2016, In Depth

About the Author: Jim Harries, PhD (University of Birmingham), is 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), and a novel African Heartbeat: And A Vulnerable Fool (2018). Facebook: Vulnerable Mission. Twitter: @A4VM.

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