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Engaging the Global Polylogue

Why listen to brothers and sisters in the majority world?

When it comes to matters of sexual ethics, no one can quickly iron out the deep differences in the church today. So why should Christian Courier publish an article on same-sex marriage from distant Uganda? Well, I figure if we are truly part of a catholic church, we ought to hear the voices of our brothers and sisters across oceans and borders.

What is the goal of transnational conversation on this tender topic? Listening first. Just that. Maybe listening that might lead to understanding, which could develop into mutual correction and sanctification, and the expanded witness of Christ’s body. But listening is a good start.

How does listening happen without offense being taken from either side? For some it will be hard, and they will have to endlessly forgive. The conversation may have its limits; not everyone need participate; and we can expect the issue will probably be unresolved this side of the new earth. There are other matters to attend to beside sexual morality!

Postcolonial Postures

Besides our catholicity, another good reason to listen is to enact our postcolonial commitments. The Western church has been speaking from a position of cultural dominance for hundreds of years and the majority world has been listening, more or less, voluntarily or not. Consider that we have an overabundance of books, institutions and teachers in the West and we have been consistently sending a portion of them to the majority world. The flow of knowledge, wisdom and spiritual discernment needs to be more multi-directional. You could say that now Joseph wishes to speak back to those who sold him into slavery, opening up a difficult family conversation.

In my circles of transnational mission, the motto has been: “Not from the West to the rest, but from anyone to everywhere.” This is a polycentric model, and in such a scheme the weight of moral authority, too, is decentralized. In fact, the current deconstruction of the Western church begs the question: what moral authority does the shriveling Christian West have in the majority world? This is a contentious question, as family members should always be calling each other to account. But consider that the legacy of slavery and Western imperialism cast a dark shadow on the credibility of the Western church. Two world wars, global warming due to Western industrialization, and the influence of a fast and loose Hollywood morality cast Western Christians into further moral dubiousness.

Many are acknowledging the wisdom of Indigenous ways when it comes to global ecology. Naive Western notions of unambiguous modern “progress” are burning up with climate change. There are certainly other Western assumptions that need chastening. Our credibility is currently weak.

WEIRD West

A third good reason to particularly listen to the voice of the majority world is that they are now the vast bulk of Christians on the planet. “The average Christian today is a poor Nigerian or Brazilian woman,” writes Philip Jenkins (quoting Dana L. Robert) in his now aging book The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (2002). The majority can be wrong, but those on the margins of the vital, expanding movement of God’s people should at least care to listen to the core. Christianity is now a southern phenomenon and gaining acceptance in East Asia, too.

The fact is, the church in the West is in numerical decline, and, more particularly, the liberal wing of the church is closing its doors at an astonishing rate. Take for example the venerable Anglican Church of Canada, which was about 1.3 million members strong in 1961. By 2017, while the population of the country doubled, the Anglicans shrank to 282,412 and most of these members are in their retirement years. The Anglican Journal entertains the projection that, at the current rate of decline, there would be zero Anglicans by 2040 (Jan. 6, 2020). I’m sure more than a few will stick around by then, but their recent split only exacerbated the situation.

Indeed, numbers are only one gauge of fruitfulness. Academics are fond of validating the epistemic privilege of the marginal. But we remain privileged and powerful economically, politically and culturally, which may be again more of a spiritual liability.

Moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his fascinating book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (2012) cites a study showing that the middle-class Western demographic is globally WEIRD. The word is an acronym for Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic, and the adjective is apt because such people are outliers; they are “the least typical, least representative people you could study if you want to make generalizations about human nature.” Maybe we are cutting-edge, avant-garde. But maybe we are just WEIRD.

We know that in the majority world, tolerance for same-sex marriage is very low, although Pew Research reported in 2020 that acceptance rates have been rising slightly over the last 20 years. I suspect these increases are represented mostly in the more wealthy, urban, educated sectors, where WEIRD influence would be most prevalent. Overseas churches and their agencies generally remain in line with historic Christian teachings in moral matters.

Logs in Eyes

Esther Acolatse
Theologian Esther Acolatse

Our dearest idols are often located in our cultural blind spots that others see too clearly. Theologian Esther Acolatse (from Ghana but now at Knox College, Toronto) has argued that there remains a hermeneutical gap between the church in the global South and modern West. The African church, with its animist cultural heritage and the influence of divination found in African traditional religions, lives in an enchanted world where the conflicts of angels, witches and demons affect the details of everyday life. While this runs close to the Biblical worldview, it can be too dualistic, distracting from Christ’s victory at the cross and missing the joy of living filled by the Holy Spirit. It is an over-emphasis on the spirit world and its uncertainties.

The situation in the West is the opposite – a church disenchanted by the modern worldview, where science is the supreme authority. As assumed by liberal theologians (like Bultmann), we can’t use jets and computers, MRIs and vaccines, and at the same time take seriously the miraculous wonder world of the Bible. For example, Walter Wink showed how New Testament references to a spirit world could be reinterpreted as socio-political forces and psychotherapeutic conditions, taking out the idea of supernatural beings as distinct entities that impinge on everyday life. In effect, Acolatse suggests Western theology is practically materialist.

When it comes to issues of human sexuality, a gulf is growing. The majority world has a different take on the importance of individual expression from the West, and often champions more communitarian and traditional values. This comes with its own weaknesses. There are laws in some African countries that endanger the lives of those exploring their same sex desires, to which human rights groups from the West are applying political pressure. Africans need to hear from their own minority subcultures, from their women and students, too. We all have cultural baggage that Christ seeks to correct, reform and redeem.

That means it may be not only good family relations to listen but an act of spiritual growth. In David Smith’s Learning from the Stranger: Christian Faith and Cultural Diversity (2009), he urges the reader not to see cross-cultural interaction in instrumental terms – in order to change the other or achieve some ecclesial goal – but as a process that itself involves discipleship and spiritual growth. In other words, the interaction itself is part of the journey to spiritual maturity. Missiologist Lesslie Newbigin often said that intercultural encounter was necessary not only for the salvation of those who have not heard the gospel, but also for those who bear witness to it as well. No one possesses God’s Spirit alone, and no one has arrived at the end of spiritual maturity.

Consider this an opportunity to cultivate our spiritual life as rooted Christian cosmopolitans, world citizens still planted in local culture, leaning into a transnational give-and-take. We don’t have to agree; but we can learn respect and humility in the encounter, and hopefully come away a little more like Christ.

This article appeared in print (October 11, Issue 3130) alongside an interview of Reverend Emmanuel Magambo. Read that here: ‘A Ugandan perspective’

  • Peter is Executive Director of Global Scholars Canada, a transnational guild of Christian scholars. He preaches, teaches and writes – having written columns, editorials, news and features for CC since 1997. His book The Subversive Evangelical: The Ironic Charisma of an Irreligious Megachurch (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019) is an ethnographic journey into the life of a megachurch and its “irreligious” charismatic leader. He loves stories that cross boundaries while maintaining integrity.

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3 Comments

  1. Thank you for this Peter. North American Christians need to pay far more attention to their Christian brothers and sisters around the world – and to look back in time as well, to remember the rich history and traditions of the worldwide church.

  2. I appreciate the focus on inter-cultural dialogue, to help all of us better discern how cultural influences affect both traditional views and emerging views. May I suggest giving higher priority to preventing harm to persons as a common ground that is consistent with the most basic and universal teachings of Scripture. I recall working with young people in Uganda during the HIV/AIDS crisis. On the one hand, the heavy, narrow influence of US Evangelical leaders on public policy choices for dealing with HIV/AIDS may well have contributed to some deaths that might have prevented under other approaches. On another front, I had personal connection with the impact of animist views that sexual relations with young girls was an anti-dote or even a cure, which resulted in cases of sexual exploitation of young girls that should not be justified by any cultural beliefs. In my current work on children’s rights I am aware of harm done to young people who do not fit the sexual norms of their culture. If we put a higher priority on preventing harm to people who are created in the image of God, especially young people, we are more likely to align with Scripture and discern cultural influences in traditional thinking as well as emerging questions about the adequacy of how we treat vulnerable people.

  3. Peter – thanks for this article. I note that it is paired with another article, “A Ugandan Perspective.” Again, I appreciate the invitation to listen – and to listen widely.

    As we talk about colonial influences around the world, I found it provocative that the West has multiple ways of influencing. For instance, in Uganda, one way to tell the story is that the “progressive west” has been influencing Uganda by importing a progressive sexuality. This is what I hear from the paired article. But a second way that the story has been told is that a more moderate Uganda was influenced by ‘a gospel of intolerance’ imported by the conservative evangelical church of the Western world. This story has been told fairly thoroughly by Kapya Kaoma (he has a longer research paper, but his work was highlighted in this film – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qcM6GI0TUMQ).

    I appreciate how, as you call us to a listening posture, you notice that the voices we hear will not be uniform – and I anticipate getting to hear some of the complex diversity of the global church both in the pages of the Christian Courier and beyond.

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