What African Theologians can Teach the Emerging Church

How can we replace the project of relevance with the project of identity, and how might this change of perspective help the Emerging Church? How can we as Western Christians think through the questions of ‘religious past’ and ‘cultural present’ as the intersecting points of our identity rather than as a place for the project of relevance?

(I offer this reflection not for love of criticism, but for love of the Emerging church, and not as an outsider finding fault, but as an insider hoping to fortify, and I offer it as a continuation of Line of Convergence: Global-Urban-Postmodern. It proceeds in 3 parts: Part 1 is an introduction to the Problem. Part 2 will examine the question of Identity as Kwame Bediako sees it through the lens of Patristic and African theologians. Part 3 will look at an appropriation of this method for our postmodern, Western context.)

Part One
– from Relevance to Identity

1. Intro: The question of relevance and identity.
The tyranny of the new –that which is always coming– is our Fate. Our future is always just ahead of us, never arriving, that toward which we long to be relevant. This is Modernity, the never ending production of something new to free us from our custom/tradition/culture. As Stephen Long says, “Modernity is the endless repetition of sameness under the illusion of difference.” And in our modern era the search for relevance within the church is seen in evidentiary apologetics, seeker-sensitive churches, Contemporary Christian Music and the unfortunate Christian subculture. This quest for relevance is also seen in the missionary impulse to reach emerging generations, the skaters/surfer/ravers/hipsters and urbanites of postmodernity. If they are post-rational, post-literate, post-individualistic, intuitive, aesthetic, and image-drive, then let’s be and do that to connect with them. Unfortunately, while seeking to reform and transform the modern Church, the Emerging Church movement many times continues to fall prey to the tyranny of the new and the drive toward relevance undergirded by a missionary theology of contectualization which in a Western setting ends up creating more and more niche market Christian consumers rather than a subversive unified church.

So, what resources might be available to the emerging church seeking a way beyond modern relevance? As we will see, the ancient church fathers/mothers and current African thinkers were/are not seeking to be relevant to their surrounding culture, but were/are seeking a definition and expression of their own particular Christian identity amid their cultural situation. This task of moving from relevance to identity will be mediated through a conversation with African theologian Kwame Bediako’s Theology and Identity.

2. Problem of Identity posed by Kwame Bediako.
Listen to the questions Bediako is struggling through and hear echoes of the Emerging Church. “I have felt the need to seek a clarification for myself of how the abiding Gospel of Jesus Christ relates to the inescapable issues and questions which arise from the Christian’s cultural existence in the world.” And, “The basic argument…is that the development of theological concerns and the formulation of theological questions are closely linked as an inevitable by-product of a process of Christian self-definition”(p. 7). , The enduring problem for the church, according to Bediako, concerns “the Christian’s response to the religious past as well as to the cultural tradition generally in which one stands, and the significance of that response for the development of theological answers to the culturally-rooted questions of the context.” We could summarize this way:

Christian Identity=Religious past and cultural/traditional present.

For Bediako, who are we (past) and where are we (present) intersect in the question of identity. For the Church Fathers the question of identity centered around who are we as Christians uniting the Old and New Testaments in Christ, and where are we in the Graeco-Roman world. For African Theology it is who are we as African Christians in relationship to Mission/Western Christianity (religious past) and Traditional African religions (cultural present).

Part Two– The Question of Identity: Ancient Parents and African Sibling

Ancient Parents: The church fathers had to interact with both Judaism and the Graeco-Roman culture. The question of their religious past meant navigating a dis/continuous relationship Judaism. So they articulated a unified reading of the OT and NT fused in the revelation of Christ. The question of identity in this is who are we is relations to our religious past. The question of their cultural present meant positioning themselves with the Greaco-Roman world. According to Bediako, as we look at the early church we notice two general responses to the question of identity.

The first response is to carve out a distinct identity apart from the surrounding culture. Tatian and Tertullian represent this perspective. They sought to vindicate Christian identity against Hellenism. They wanted to show that Christianity in no way came from, or was indebted to Greek thought or life, and that Hellenism (its philosophical systems and religious life) were dangerous to Christian identity. In fact, Greek philosophy is really a misunderstanding of Moses, who came before Greek philosophy, which means that Christians are old than, and therefore superior to, the Greeks. This defense of Christian identity, while natural and necessary, ends up losing the ability to have an effective witness within dominant culture.

The second response that Bediako outlines in one of affirmation and fulfillment of the cultural present. This is the route that Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria take. These theologians seek to establish Christian identity as not just the culmination of the Jewish tradition, but also as the apex of Greek tradition. Justin is not attempting to fuse the Christian faith with Greek ideals; rather he is attempting to show that the best and brightest of the Greek philosophical tradition, in thoughts, and in persons, was the work of the eternal Word, because Truth has only one source which is Christ. As Justin Martyr says, “His spirit of wisdom was present in very man as his highest intellect, so that not only does Christ represent the culmination of the prophecy of a single religion (Judaism), even though that is the most ancient religion, but He is the incarnation of the Universal Intelligence which it has been the hopeless struggle of every philosopher to understand.” The answer to the sneers of the philosophers that Christianity was not worthy of an intelligent man’s consideration was thus the counter-attack that philosophy had failed, and that only in Christianity was the end of philosophy to be found. And through this they offer a Christian Identity as the culmination of the surrounding culture.

African Siblings– Now for African Theology the question of identity is, who are we as African Christians in relationship to Missionary/Western Christianity (religious past) and Traditional African religions (cultural present)? Concerning Missionary Christianity, instead of positively appropriating their religious past like the church fathers, they need to critically disentangle themselves from Western Christianity. They are de-westernizing Christianity in their process of self-definition as a means of dealing w/ their religious past.

Listen again to two African theologians Bolago Idowu and John Mibit (discussed by Bediado) and hear echoes of the emerging church, yearning to be itself rather than just relevant. Idowu, a Nigerian, seeks an African church beyond the west, and by this he means “simply that the Church should bear the unmistakable stamp of the fact that she is the Church of God in Nigeria. It should be no longer an outreach or a colony of Rome, Canterbury or Westminster Central Hall in London, or the vested interests of some European or American Missionary Board. The Church in Nigeria should be the Church which affords Nigerians the means of worshipping God as Nigerians; that is, in a way which is compatible with their own spiritual temperament, of singing to the glory of God in their own way, of praying to God and hearing His Holy Word in idioms clearly intelligible to them. She should be the spiritual home of Christian Nigerians, a home in which they breathe an atmosphere of spiritual freedom.”

But, again, this is not a process of making the church relevant, or of actively “indigenizing” the Church, but rather a reflection of already dwelling in cultural while also being Christian. As John Mbiti says, “We can add nothing to the Gospel, for this is an eternal gift of God; but Christianity is always a beggar seeking food and drink, cover and shelter from the cultures it encounters in it never-ending journeys and wanderings.” And therefore “to speak of ‘indigenising christianity’ is to give the impression that Christianity is a ready-made commodity which has to be transplanted to a local area. Of course, this has been the assumption followed by many missionaries and local theologians. I do not accept it any more.”

Both Idowu and Mbiti, knowing that neither their African traditions (cultural present) nor the faith of the West (religious past) are beyond criticism, they hope to both affirm and fulfill the culture they live in, while living into the gospel given by God. And from their efforts spring a self-confident African Christian identity which neither fearfully repeats the traditions of the West, nor reflects without difference African culture, but boldly moves forward negotiating both.

Part Three– Postmodern Identity?

Now, back to our initial question: How can we replace the project of relevance with the project of identity, and how might this change of perspective help the Emerging Church? To answer this we must of course answer the questions of ‘religious past’ and ‘cultural present’ for Western Christians which interest as the point of our identity rather than as a place for the project of relevance.

Western Religious Past: As I see it, the process of coming to terms with our religious past will happen as we grapple wit both our Post-Constintian situation and our need to de-westernize the Faith. To de-westernize the Faith means living beyond the encroachments of Enlightenment rationality and practices which evacuates the Faith of it power. The Emerging Church is already doing this but it would certainly be helped through and exploration of global theologies which have been developing in the third world for over 20 years. And then in addition to this we need to think through just what it means to live in a post-Constantinian situation. A situation which is vast different than that found in the Third World because it means living with the specter of our own violent church history, instead of a history imported from another place as in the African case examined above.

Western Cultural Present: Just as African theologians sought a fulfillment of the African religions which constitute their cultural present, how might Western Christians fulfill and critique the religion of the West, the religion of liberal-democratic-capitalism?

i. For Westerners, we are not dealing with current pagan religions (which African, Asian, Indian theologian must contend with). Rather we live in a secular and post-secular culture. Secular in the sense of living after the Industrial Revolution where everything sacred turns to vapor through manufacturing and science; secular as living after/in Capitalism where all relationships are transformed into producer and consumer. But post-secular in the sense that religion and the spiritual have been reintroduced into society/culture as a commodity changed and exchanged like any other material or semiotic product. The sacred is now a special-effect disconnected from a way of life.

ii. In addition to this material revolution there is the Intellectual Revolution of the Enlighten which defines the cultural horizon of the West. But just as a pagan religion that Bediako might investigate in Africa, the Enlightenment has its own myths, stories, hopes, fears, and ways of life which giving meaning to the human project, just like any religion, and its called.

Fulfillment culture– As discussed in Part 2, we should take the perspective of the Church as the fulfillment of any particular culture, rather than merely an antagonistic counter-culture or a seeking to be relevant sub-culture. It is not that we will change for you (relevance), but we accomplish (in identity) what you desire to be. So instead of appropriating postmodern elements/forms (whether practically for evangelism or philosophically for theology), and instead of hastily rejecting everything that smells of modernity (like sermons, Sunday gatherings, or pastors), we should look toward the trajectory of these elements and show that in Christ (in his body the church) they are fulfilled.

However, this task is complicated because our culture has no clearly articulated vision of the Good toward which it is aiming. The only Good for the West is Freedom which has ended up hanging itself on the leash they tied religion to (religion which always thwarted Freedom in their opinion.) So how do we fulfill the aspirations of a culture which has non besides consumer choice? Unlike the ancient Fathers and African brothers, we must first take the negative route of articulating the void, exposing the lacks and false leads of Western culture (and this, of course. is where the real work begins beyond superficial readings of pop-culture trends.)

As we negotiate b/w our religious past and our cultural present we will find our identity as Christians within postmodernity, and through this we will seek the fulfillment of the culture we are immersed in, rather than a superficial relevancy to it.

So the questions i’m still working on

  • What are the contours or intersections of our identity- global, urban, post-modern?
  • What are the barriers to expressing our identity?
  • How do we connect this identity to the universal Church?
  • Who are the missionaries? Who are the natives?

Geoff Holsclaw is a church leader in Chicago, Illinois, USA and part of ‘uprooted’ – a collaborative friendship to understand and engage the emerging post-Christian culture