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Limuru 2007: Paper 2

When East Meets West and North Meets South:
The Reconciling Mission of Global Christianity (working draft)
by Dr. Cheryl Jones

This presentation is based on three assumptions: first, the old “mainstream ecumenical paradigm is dying; second, Christianity as a whole is thriving, especially in the majority world; and third, the gifts present in the global Christian movement, when kept in the hands of Christ are adequate for the task of the evangelization of the world.

First, the demise of the modern ecumenical movement is not news.  Even the most ardent ecumenists know that the structures built to create and sustain the visible unity of the church are no longer viable.  Over the last decade or so there have arisen a number of new ecumenical tables. The Global Christian Forum represents such an effort.

The World Council Meeting held in New Delhi (1961) articulated a vision of unity of Christians “made visible as all in each place who are baptized into Jesus Christ.”  This visible unity of the church has been difficult to achieve.  Christians are now engaged in conflict, not necessarily between communions (although this still exits), but within communions.  These battles are messy and confusing.  They test ecclesial structures to the degree that the quest for visible unity seems an impossible task.  In many ways inter-faith dialogue seems more promising than intra-Christian dialogue!

A point made a the New Delhi assembly is worth noting:  “the achievement of unity will involve nothing less than a death and rebirth of many forms of church life as we have known them…nothing less costly can finally suffice.”  No one at New Delhi could image the extent of the cost for this unity.  Few could image the world now dawning before us at the beginning of the twenty-first century.  Who at that time would have believed in the demise of the Soviet Empire?  Who would have dreamed of the ripple effects of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965)?  Who could have imagined the decline of powerful ecumenical structures?  Who at New Delhi could smell the stench of death that would come from the Western World as Christianity embraced a secular agenda over against classical Christian truth?  The cost of re-birth could not be calculated in 1961, and I am afraid that it is too costly for some today.

Even among those who seek a new form of ecumenism and applaud the death of the old, there is a lack of awareness of the extent of the death and re-birth necessary for the achievement of the visible unity of the world-wide church.  The so-called “new ecumenism” while grounding the quest for the visible unity of the church in “classic Christian truth,” fails to understand that it has its own Enlightenment blinders to the reality of Christianity outside the Western context.[1]  Western conservatives look to the South for support, but fail to understand the worldview of Southern Christianity.  In doing so they create what Philip Jenkins calls a Mirror effect” finding their own agendas reflected there.  This is the same type of mirror effect that happened in the 60s and 70’s with liberation theology.

The second assumption, namely that Christianity as a whole is thriving, especially in the majority world, needs to be juxtaposed to the first assumption.  Any new form of ecumenism must take into account the new faces, the different worldviews and new voices of non-Western Christianity in such a manner as to honor these forms of the Christian faith on their own terms.  This honoring will require nothing less than a death and re-birth on the part of those seeking the visible unity of the church.

I agree with Dale Irvin’s assessment of the inappropriateness of the term “Christendom” in describing emerging Christianity.  Irvin points out that Jenkins and others use Western perspective and interpretive categories to describe what is taking place today.  Whatever is taking place is not the construction of a new Christendom.  World Christianity has not one center but many.[2]

Irvin’s assessment of the inappropriateness of the term “Christendom” coincides with that of Lamin Sanneh, who does not interpret the massive rise of Christianity in the non-Western world as a euphemism for Christian triumphalism.  Rather, he understands this rise as “the spontaneous coming into being of Christian communities among populations that had not been Christian.”[3]  Sanneh distinguishes between global Christianity as the faithful replication of Christian forms and patterns developed in Europe, and world Christianity being the movement of Christianity as it takes form and shape in societies that previously were not Christian.  In this sense, ‘global Christianity,” and “Christendom” are both anachronistic constructs.  Neither construct is adequate in describing the indigenous, multi-faceted forms of Christianity in the majority world.

Even though there are those who rightly point out there is no such entity as a New Christendom or global Christianity, it is possible to give some basic descriptors of Christianity in the majority world.  Jenkins does a good job of highlighting the common denominator of Southern churches.  He notes that within them is the critical idea that God intervenes directly in everyday life.  This is also the major tenet of Pentecostal churches in the Western culture, although it is modified by a large dose of Enlightenment rationalism.  The worldview sustaining this belief in God’s direct action is one that is “trans-rational, meaning that human reason is transcended and even negated by the logic of the Spirit.  Within this worldview there is little distinction between the realm of the supernatural and that of the natural realm.  “At the core,” notes Pentecostal theologian Jackie Johns, is a worldview wherein the “affective experience of God …generates an apocalyptic horizon for reading reality.  In this apocalyptic horizon the experience of God is fused to all other perceptions in the space-time continuum.”[4]

This form of Christianity engages the primal struggle between order and chaos and understands that there are demonic forces at play within this struggle.  Richard Shaull describes such Christianity as flourishing at “ground zero” of this primal struggle.  In his research among Brazilian Pentecostals he identified what he considered to be a new interpretative paradigm of Christianity, one he defined as the “reconstruction of life in the power of the Spirit.”[5]  This power to reconstruct life is most profoundly manifest in those places where “the most basic forms of life in the community-the family, local neighborhoods, social, economic and political structures are becoming unglued, leaving masses of poor people in both rural and peripheral urban areas without stable work, medical care, or opportunities for education.”[6]  They live in a situation of almost total abandonment.

In these regions of the world truth is experienced as encounter of a power that is able to liberate from evil.  In the face of evil the power of the gospel brings direct divine intervention.  When social institutions fail and political solutions become corrupt the Christian way becomes the solution.  It offers healing for sick minds and bodies, the power to reorganize broken lives, to overcome addictions and to give people a sense of their own identity and worth.  Salvation is first and foremost deliverance.  “It is,” as Harvey Cox describes, “the ability to lure anarchy into the sacred circle and tame it.”[7]

Southern Christianity offers what Andrew Walls characterizes as unique opportunities to witness the life of the apostolic church.  Quoting his former professor, F.L. Cross, “We know next nothing about the ante-Nicene church,” Walls asserts: “We now have better resources for understanding the patchwork of fragments of Christian literature that survive from before the age of the great councils by examining the recent histories of the churches of Africa and Asia than the Bodleian or the Vatican libraries can yield.”[8]  While Walls may be overstating the case for apostolic life being currently visible in the Southern churches, the evidence seems overwhelming that the life of these churches provides a dynamic hermeneutical window for interpretation of ante-Nicene Christianity.

It is my thesis that a new form of ecumenism is needed that is able to embrace the challenges of world-wide Christianity.  While many are aware of this need, there is little understanding and even fear of the forms of Christianity that are emerging in the East and in the South.  Here we are today in a quandary where the words of Matthew Arnold seem most appropriate:  We are living between a past that is dead and a future unable to be born.  This time-between-times is indeed frustrating but it is also pregnant with promise.  As never before we are in need of death and re-birth for the sake of the visible unity of the church.

The third assumption, namely that the gifts that within this global Christian movement, when kept in the hands of Christ are adequate for the task of world evangelization, calls us to re-conceive those gifts, revision the task and experience conversion.

The Tasks Ahead

I do not pretend to have answers as to the way ahead.  There are only hunches from my limited vantage point as to how the Holy Spirit may be at work creating God’s original and real oecumene.   If we are to take seriously the world-wide church we face challenges.  In light of these challenges, Andrew Walls notes that the church historian’s work at the dawn of the third Christian millennium requires the dual tasks of re-conception and re-visioning.  He mentions conversion as a sub-category of re-visioning, but I think it should be a separate task.  Borrowing from Walls, it is my belief that the ecumenical challenge at the dawn of the twenty-first century requires re-conception, re-visioning and conversion.

Re-conception.   Those wishing to construct a new ecumenical table must re-conceive the resources or gifts..  This means not only re-discovering the classical ecumenical heritage, but also taking stock of the resources found within the vibrant Spirit-led lives of those Christians living a “second-century church.”

One primary gift Christianity in the West/North offers to the new ecumenical table is the legacy of Great Councils of the church which have been preserved within the more traditional churches.  This legacy contends for the apostolic faith of the one, holy, universal and apostolic church.  It is this faith, grounded in the ancient ecumenical teaching which serves as witness to orthodoxy.

Another resource found within the classical ecumenical heritage may be described as “the gift of Christian humanism.” The legacy of Erasmus, namely the joining of intellect and love is worth preserving.  The legacy of the classics of Greece and Rome in early Christianity continued in the liberating and humanizing liberal tradition of Northern Humanism.  This tradition served as the seedbed for the Reformation and the advancements in democracy of the last centuries.

The gifts of democracy, individual freedom and critical thought have served the church well.  While I will concur with Stanley Hauerwas and others that the vision of democracy guiding many of the American theologians at the dawn of the 20th century planted the seeds of a civil democratic religion rather than authentic Christianity, I want to point out that within the West there have been seeds sown for human rights.  Sanneh observes that 18th century Christianity represented a “social revolution of enormous impact for the new world and for Africa by offering outcasts, salves and captives a moral perspective on their exclusion.”[9]  The post-colonial reading of Christianity does not often tell the whole story.  Christianity from the West has been a catalyst for reform.

Within Northern/Western Christianity there are the resources of educational institutions, finances and human talent.  The manner in which these gifts are offered is critical.  Too often these resources have been seen as centers of power over people rather than avenues for power with people.

I’m sure that there are many other gifts coming from the North/West.  Unfortunately, some resources such as TV preachers, the gospel of prosperity and canned worship would be best not shared.  However, due to the media these “gifts” are flooding the South.  For that I offer an apology as a representative of the Pentecostal tradition.  What is seen on television is not the best gifts we have to offer!

The churches of the global South offer us the great opportunity to witness the reclamation of important traits of the apostolic church.  These churches would assert that there can be no apostolic truth apart from apostolic power.  It is this gift that makes alive the Christian witness offering to a hurting world the power of Jesus as savior, healer and deliverer.  It is this great gift, namely the power of the gospel to reconstruct life in the face of death that is desperately needed not only in the global South but in all the world.

A second gift of the South is the joining of the quest for visible unity with the mission of the church.  The ecclesiology offered in the South is one that understands the church as God’s primary agent of reconciling the world to God.  Whereas conciliar ecumenism has collapsed mission into social witness, Southern churches offer a “militia Christi,” the army of the Lord against the forces of darkness.

The South offers the gift of the resource of Scripture as Spirit-Word.  For many Christians the text is a portal for the entrance of divine power into human history.  They remind us that God’s presence always accompanies God’s Word.  Pentecostal theologian Steven Land notes that this marriage between the Word of God and the Spirit of God allows for fusion of time and space.  In this fusion people are carried back to biblical times and forward into God’ future.[10]  Thus the gospels present a Christ “now present in the world and in their lives, manifesting the same divine power, and doing what he did in Galilee.”[11]

Corresponding to this fusion of Spirit and Word is a radical liberation of the Holy Spirit from the confines of Scripture and the liberation of the Spirit from the oversight and control of the church.  Herein the Spirit is free to reveal Christ in prophesy, healing, exorcisms and other miracles.  This liberation calls for a empowering of the laity who are used by the Holy Spirit in these manifestations.

Re-visioning.  Those wishing to construct a new ecumenical table must face the challenge of re-visioning.  This will require of us some huge paradigm shifts.  It will call us to move away from the Western assumption that the development of a single ecumenical model will have universal application.  More effort will need to be made in taking into account local relevance “in the selection of themes and in judging what belongs to the foreground and what belongs to the background.”[12]

There has already been a great deal of re-visioning in regards to the ecumenical movement and certainly this will continue.  There are even those who believe that the modern ecumenical movement has fallen victim to too much re-visioning.  They point out the turn the World Council of Churches took in 1966 at the World Conference on Church and Society as an example of a move away from classical Christian teaching in favor of human revolution and liberation.  Ideology replaced sound theology and the quest for the visible unity of the church was replaced with other utopian visions.

However, in response the cultural captivity of the ecumenical movement, we must be careful to avoid a form of ecumenism that fails to take seriously the human condition and the Spirit’s work among the marginal.  The conditions of oppression, hunger, poverty and human trafficking are not peripheral to the ecumenical calling.  Southern Christianity offers us opportunity to re-visit the good intentions that fueled the World Conference on Church and Society in a manner that is faithful to the biblical witness.  The challenge that Richard Shaull offered at the 1966 conference, namely to see God’s presence and activity in the midst of human history, especially among the poor and the marginal is a call that should be taken seriously in 2007.

What Shaull did not see in 1966 and later came to realize was the need to see God’s presence and activity in religion among the oppressed.  This need is in all of us as we seek the visible unity of the church.  It is tempting to see such Christianity as representing a lesser developed, less rational “haven of the masses.”   Re-visioning requires of us no less than death of prejudicial assumptions that create typologies of Christianity based upon socio-economic deprivation.  This then, moves us toward conversion.

   Conversion.  A re-visioning of world Christianity calls for conversion and not just re-formulation.  As Walls points our, “conversion means turning not substituting a new element for old- or adding a new element to the old, but changing the direction of what is already there.”[13]  Let us remind ourselves again that the WCC Assembly in New Delhi called for death and re-birth.  This will require of all of us, those from the North and those from the South, those from the East and those from the West to die to old assumptions regarding each other.

On the part of Western Christianity our conversion means that we soberly examine our gifts of the Great Councils, humanism, democracy, critical thought, fiscal resources.  We have been guilty of holding to the great confessions without the power those confessions represent.  We have been guilty of substituting critical thought and personal autonomy for authentic life giving faith.  We have made highly refined dialectical engagement an idol.  As a result, we have turned the Great Festival of Pentecost into a lukewarm, inclusive soup rather than understanding it to be the fire that burns and purifies, dividing as well as uniting.

In addition, conversion means that we soberly examine our sense that Western Christianity represents the pinnacle of evolutionary development.  This belief can be seen in Bishop John Spong’s assessment of majority world spirituality as “a very superstitious kind of Christianity” that is “one step removed from animism.”[14]  In order for there to be visible Christian unity the Western church has to die to its elevation of certain forms of scientific reason as more developed than other ways of knowing.

In constructing a new ecumenical table those from the West/North should avoid the mistake of assuming the role of Evangelical and Pentecostal churches to be that of adding vitality and zeal to the quest for unity.  While we may have zeal and vitality we are also deeply theological.  We do not appreciate adding the spiritual flavoring to meetings without our voices helping to shape the theological questions.

In regards to the churches of the South/East, conversion would mean not being so quick to label Western Christianity as “apostate” or “post Christian.”  Churches in the South must appreciate that there is a depth of piety and passion for the gospel that continues to permeate non-majority world Christianity.  Refusing to dialogue only hinders the reconciling work of Christ in his wounded and broken body.  If that reconciling work is not found first in the churches how can it then be seen in the world?

In addition, the churches of the South must appreciate the costly legacy of human rights and democracy that is found in the North/West.  This legacy is one that the governments of the United States and the European States should continue to acknowledge as having roots within Christianity.  In a world where the status of women is still deemed inferior there are heart-breaking stories of injustice and abuse.

To the Southern churches I offer the ancient story of Bishop Nonnus (448), who was moved to prayer for the notorious but beautiful sinner Pelagia.  The bishop’s time of prayer was punctuated with many tears and acknowledgement of his own sins.  During this time of prayer the weeping was so intense it was later described as a “festival of tears.”  I would ask that the Southern churches and their leaders avoid the temptation of judgment and instead offer the gift of tears for the tarnished beauty they see in the North.

It is with reference to that tarnished beauty I will end my presentation.  During the time of prayer for the conversion of Pelagia, Bishop Nonnus had a dream.  Here are his words:

I wish to tell you of the dream I had last night.  It seemed to me that as I was standing in the corner of the holy altar during the course of the service, a black dove, vile and covered with filth, flew about me; and I unable to endure its stench.  When the deacon exclaimed, ‘Catechumens, depart,’ the dove flew away, and I saw it no more until the Liturgy was completed.  After the dismissal, we left the church, I suddenly caught sight of the dove again, and it flew about me once more.  I stretched forth my hand and laid hold of it and plunged it into the font of water which stood in the narthex of the church.  In that water it was cleansed of all defilement, and when it flew off, it was a pure and white as snow, and it flew up to heaven and became invisible.”

For all of us I offer these words: May we begin the journey ahead with a great festival of tears, acknowledging as did Bishop Nonnus our need for cleansing.  Then may we stretch forth our hands to the North and to the South and to the East and to the West, taking hold of tarnished doves, bringing them to the one font that will make us all pure and white as snow.  In so doing, may the world be reconciled to Christ.

Cheryl Bridges Johns

Church of God Theological Seminary

[1] Examples of “new ecumenism” can be found in the “Princeton Proposal for Christian Unity.”  See also Christopher Seitz, ed., Nicene Christianity: The Future for a New Ecumenism (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2001).

[2] Dale Irvin, “Global Faith: Not Made in the USA,” The Christian Century, July 27, 2004.

[3] Lamin Sanneh, Whose Religion is Christianity? (Eerdmans, 2003), p.22.

[4] Jackie Johns, “Pentecostalism and the Postmodern Worldview,” Journal of Pentecostal Theology (1995), 73-96.

[5] Richard Shaull & Waldo Cesar, Pentecostalism and the Future of the Christian Churches (Eerdmans: 2000), p. 116.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Harvey Cox, Fire From Heaven, …..

[8] Andrew Walls, “Eusebius Tries Again,” in Wilbert R. Shenk, ed. Enlarging the Story: Perspectives on

Writing World Christian History (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2002), p. 4.

[9] Sanneh, p. …

[10] Steven J. Land, Pentecostal Spirituality: A Passion for the Kingdom (Sheffield Academic Press, 1993).

[11] Shaull, p. 192.

[12] Walls, p. 14.

[13] Walls, p. 21.

[14] Quoted in Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom, p. 121.

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