Based on the book “Landmark Essays in Mission and World Christianity” (Orbis Books 2009) this is the third and final in a series of reflections on key writings that have shaped mission thinking over the last seventy years.
A former missionary in
“The Gospel as Prisoner and Liberator of Culture” was first published in 1982 and reflects on how the Christian faith has been expressed so utterly differently in various times and cultures over 2000 years, yet retains unmistakable signs of continuity.
From his description of the first Jewish Christians in 37AD, the Council of Nicea in 325AD, Victorians churchgoers in
What we see here in miniature is the ability of the Christian faith to indwell a culture, to indigenise, to be expressed locally in such a way that the believer can follow Christ and remain a still member of their own society. This is what Walls calls the “Indigenising Principle”
But alongside this indigenising principle, which allows a Christian to ‘feel at home’ in their culture is another… the pilgrim principle “which whispers to him that he has no abiding city and warns him that to be faithful to Christ will put him out of step with his society; for that society never existed, in east or west, ancient time or modern, which could absorb the word of God painlessly into its system.”
And so, authentic Christianity creates this dynamic tension, and it does so always. And this tension is what produces contemporary, localised theologies.
In addressing the importance of this phenomenon, Walls reflects on the shift of Christianity southward to Africa, Asia and Latin America and argues that the developing theology of future generations will reflect this ‘belonging’ and yet ‘not belonging’ primarily as it is experienced in the church of the global south. And the theologies that emerge will reflect not a western worldview, but the issues and worldviews of the majority world where the heartbeat of our faith now pulsates.
And insofar as that theology will be different to ‘western theology’ it will present a challenge to the traditional church, for example as seen in recent years by the emergence of Liberation Theology and its rebuttal by euro-centric Catholic power structures. (Since this paper was first written in 1982 of course, the explosion in global migration has meant that these ‘global south’ theologies are now part of our local landscape. Inevitably therefore, issues such as attitudes to homosexuality, women in ministry, or even the sending of missionaries may well be viewed very differently by those whose world view and theology is markedly different.)
Further, theologies of the south will address issues of the south and not issues that concern us in the north. I remember my good friend Dr K Thanzuava from Mizoram a few years ago saying that no-one in Mizoram wastes time addressing the question ‘does God exist!’ That would be laughable for Mizo, but for us in the secularising west, it is vital. In contrast, some African groups devote considerable effort to issues of appropriate worship during the menstrual cycle, hardly a promising Master’s thesis in today’s British scene! But be careful – missionaries once dismissed African religions as primitive. Let us not make the same mistake as we see emerging new theologies. They will, says Walls, “either puzzle us or disturb us.” Understanding is needed on both sides.
What can hold these theologies and ours together, is that which has allowed the church across the centuries to maintain difference but celebrate unity – the centrality of word and Sacrament, and primarily the person of our Lord Jesus Christ.
No matter what our culture – Zulu warrior or Suburban Bourgeoisie – each of us are reading a word with which we can identify and following a person with whom we identify. But both scripture and Lord disturb us from our comfort, and press us to be pilgrims, and to see in each other that for all our differences, we are both pilgrims together.
This is godly mission – unity and diversity.
This is enlightened mission – not to impose our theology on others, but to celebrate that which others draw out of God’s infinite riches in response to the questions of different cultures.