Questioning a Paradigm: World Christianity

This guest post was written by Dr Jason Bruner, assistant professor of religious studies at Arizona State University, as a reflection on the recent conference “Currents, Perspectives, And Methodologies In World Christianity” held at Princeton Theological Seminary. Dr Bruner’s most recent book is entitled Living Salvation in the East African Revival in Uganda. He can often be found on Twitter @jason_bruner.

Is World Christianity a field, a sub-discipline, an analytical disposition? What are its methods, if any? And where is research in relation to it going at present? I will reflect on these questions in light of the proceedings of a recent conference, convened at Princeton Theological Seminary from January 18-20, 2018, which gathered a remarkable group of scholars from around the world who saw their work as intersecting with World Christianity.

Subtle but important distinctions were made regarding “World Christianity” as, variously, a discipline defined by its methods, a field of research defined by its objects or subjects of study, or a discourse. Joel Cabrita, in an illuminating genealogy of the term, highlighted World Christianity’s “anxiety-laden” character with respect to the era of decolonization, which has made the term “morally loaded” and “normative,” and not simply descriptive. Afe Adogame, in conversation with Cabrita, observed that World Christianity is an “imagined discipline,” particularly in relation to “Church History,” which is predominated by a Euro-centric or Western-centric approach. Of importance for Adogame is the anti-hegemonic and anti-colonial discourse of World Christianity.

Dale Irvin, in a keynote address, argued for the importance of recognizing the three intellectual streams of ecumenics, mission studies, and world religions as being historically constitutive of the field and formative of its present shape. He positioned World Christianity as an inherently “subversive” discipline. It was this description that became a common way of characterizing the field, and one that I heard in at least four different panels. In echoing Lamin Sanneh, Irvin located the field’s subversiveness in the interdisciplinary ways it seeks to upend “academic tribalism.” It is with this last formulation that I think most conference participants identified.

Subversion implies a conscious relation to power. Is the field of World Christianity inherently “subversive” and, if so, of whose power? As a field that has become premised, to a great extent, upon the demographic transformations of Christianity worldwide, it would seem that the field has sought to subvert 20th-century social scientific models of secularization. It would also seem to subvert Euro-centric models of writing Christian (or, “Church”) history. Is the “doing” of World Christianity, then, a politicized act of including the marginalized Christian “Other” from the “Majority World” or “Global South”? This move also creates an analytical ambiguity: Is World Christianity defined more by its politics than its method? Even if we regard World Christianity as an “open” field, as Irvin suggested (and an approach I am inclined to), what gets to “count” as World Christianity? Stated another way, where are World Christianity’s boundaries?

I will return to that last question towards the end of this essay. Here, I want to foreground a related analytical problem that was more at the fore of discussion: what are the limitations of “World Christianity” as a discourse, as an imaginary, and as a way of studying Christianity, both contemporarily and historically?

Several people queried the field’s Afro-centric bias, given the formative role of scholars such as Lamin Sanneh, Andrew Walls, and Ogbu Kalu. What are the implications for the field when so much of its scholarship pertains to Christianity in Africa? This has seemingly led to a privileging of studies of Christian independency, with a consequent preference for Pentecostal and charismatic Christianity. The relative marginal positions within the literature on World Christianity of Orthodox Christians, Christianity in the Middle East, Catholicism and, by extension, Latin America, are evidence of a general Afro-centric Protestant predilection within the field, to say nothing of the complete absence of Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses from World Christianity’s analytical frame. Raimundo Barreto argued that Christianity in Latin America was elided from studies in World Christianity because it did not fit easily into the “narrative” of World Christianity as found in Africa and Asia during the colonial period. There were, for example, no presentations at all on Orthodoxy, and comparatively few on Catholicism, perhaps begging the question of whether “Global Catholicism” might create its own historiographical path (or already has, given the recent founding of the journal by that name).

By way of addressing some of these historiographical concerns within the field, the PTS conference was enriched by a number of excellent presentations on Christianity in Latin America from both Portuguese- and Spanish-language contexts. Yet Barreto wondered if “World Christianity” was simply an Anglophone exercise in general, and described the bemusement of his friends in Brazil when he says his position is in “World Christianity,” a term which doesn’t really exist in Portuguese (Joseph Lee made a similar point about the awkward translation of the term into Chinese dialects). Ironically, then, the field that owes a great deal to Walls’ “translation principle” seems bound, analytically, by the challenges of translating itself out of English.

Of what benefit, then, is the appendage of “world” in the study of Christianity? (And nearly everyone at the conference seemed to prefer “World Christianity” to “Global Christianity” or the plural, “World Christianities.”)

To state something that is important and obvious, I’m doubtful that a conference on “Church History” or the “History of Christianity” at Princeton Theological Seminary would have gathered so diverse a group of international scholars. World, as it was used here, tended to denote openness and inclusion, an expansive examination of Christianity that was not explicitly tied to colonial and modern processes of globalization but rather extended through history. Still, Martha Fredericka, among others, queried whether World Christianity as a concept has not been overly tied to modern European colonization as its frame of reference, and pushed for an understanding of the term that extended more meaningfully throughout history.

Around these broader conceptual debates were a host of thoughtful, provocative, and creative presentations, and I wish to use some of these presentations to anticipate future trends in scholarship pertaining to World Christianity. Many of the presenters positioned their work at the intersection of the “anthropology of Christianity” and “World Christianity,” thereby recognizing these respective sub-fields as having different inclinations, methods, and perhaps objects of study.

The conference benefitted from a variety of fascinating presentations by graduate students, many, if not most, of which were utilizing methods from history, theology, and the social sciences, particularly anthropology and ethnography. Most presentations that addressed the intersection between World Christianity and the anthropology of Christianity advocated for an approach that acknowledges theology or “takes theology seriously” in the ethnographic encounter. What this actually meant was not always clear. I think some of this ambiguity has quite a lot to do with scholars trying out new methodological approaches, which I’m confident will produce fresh and creative lines of inquiry. My following comments, therefore, are directed much more broadly than any individual presenter. What seemed to be indicated was less a clear methodology and more of an inclination of what scholars will be more attuned to. But as theology and ethnography negotiate their renewed relationship within World Christianity, I do think that greater attention needs to be given to some basic questions: What counts as “theological language” in ethnography? Is theological language different from other forms of language and signification, and why? What does naming some language as “theological” do for the ethnographer?

One might also query whether the field of World Christianity has really been all that distant from theology, or, if it has been distant, then it hasn’t been distant for long. The preference of most participants’ use of “World Christianity” to “World Christianities” perhaps owes to the lingering theological lens of scholars such as Walls and Sanneh, and the analytical implications of preferring the singular to the plural—a challenge that originated very much from the anthropology of Christianity-were not addressed in any panel I attended.

Is it a theological assumption or conviction for a singular “Christianity” that undergirds or legitimizes the preference for the singular? Is this not theology working, as Talal Asad sarcastically dismissed Clifford Geertz’s formulation of religion, “innocently enough”?

Or perhaps theology’s effect within World Christianity never was “innocent,” which is to say that it has always been acknowledged. Perhaps nowhere is this more apparent than in the quantification of World Christianity, in which the question of what “counts” as “Christianity” is a literal one. And no one is more central to this aspect of the field of World Christianity than David Barrett.

As Gina Zurlo observed, Barrett was motivated by a desire to “use social scientific training to the glory of God.” One implication of this desire was Barrett’s interest in “legitimizing [religious belief] through quantification.” Given David Barrett’s foundational role as the demographer of Christianity worldwide, one might question the extent to which “World Christianity” can be considered an outgrowth of an ecumenical Protestant mapping of the world. In what ways have studies on World Christianity inherited this Protestant theological cartography? Related to this point, but raised in another context, Elias Bongmba asked, “Has social science invented ‘Pentecostalism’ in Africa today?” which might be one of the most interesting, provocative, and critical questions that was raised at the conference.

Where do these questions and issues leave us with respect to where “World Christianity” is heading as a field of inquiry?

It seemed that most papers that I heard employed a variety of methods and analytical frameworks, borrowing variously from anthropology, sociology, theology, ethnography, and history. In this sense, the field will seemingly remain “open,” to use Irvin’s term, for the foreseeable future, especially with respect to method. This methodological bricolage was most generative with respect to conversations dealing with anthropology, theology, and World Christianity.

There were other methodological provocations which will, if taken up, prove fascinating. Several presenters suggested shifting away from (religious) “tradition” and towards other analytical frames. Of these, migration remained a key theme in many presentations, while geography and “place” were raised as important possibilities, which was suggested as a way of moving outside of the (theological?) predilection within studies in World Christianity for categories of belief and identity.

On this point, Corey Williams offered a provocative possibility regarding the boundaries of World Christianity. His observation, based upon fieldwork among the Yoruba of Nigeria, was that “in a lived world, the boundaries of religions are not clear or limiting,” from which he suggested that studying “World Christianity” ought not be bound by the tradition of Christianity. Likewise pushing against some of the Protestant bias of the scholarly tradition of World Christianity were scholars advocating greater attention to themes of embodiment and sensorial modes of experience and expression. If these lines of scholarship are taken up, and I hope they are, then one can expect to see a more serious convergence of scholarship on World Christianity and the Anthropology of Christianity.

For those who define themselves more squarely in the “World Christianity” camp and might be worried about the dissolution of its previously distinctive emphases, I think it would be productive to take up a version of the founding question of the anthropology of Christianity: What difference does World Christianity make?

I conclude with one final example of World Christianity as a subversive practice, which I take from Dean Kaye’s opening remarks. Kaye stated that gathering in Princeton, at this moment in American history, to welcome scholars of Christianity from around the world (approximately 1/2 of participants came from outside US) is an essential act of hospitality. In this sense, the most important element of the subversiveness of the field of World Christianity might be its most basic: in creating a common place for American, European, Asian, Latin American, and African scholars to gather, then the field of World Christianity might position itself as a witness to a Christianity that sits uncomfortably when confronted by nationalistic boundaries.

The author would like to thank James Bielo and John Flett for their constructive comments on an earlier draft of this essay.

Read more about this topic in these posts on this blog.