Re-imagining World Christianity for the Church Universal:
Andrew Walls and his Legacy
A history department lecture given at Princeton Theological Seminary, 21 March 2011, as visiting MacKay Professor of World Christianity
by Michael Nai Chiu Poon
My aim in this lecture is to discuss the work of Andrew Walls with especial reference to his contribution towards world Christianity. I shall first set his work in context of transitions in the twentieth century, and then discuss Walls’ threefold work: in creating an international community of mission historians, in promoting documentation, and in developing solid study programmes in mission studies. I shall end by exploring the fundamental issues Walls poses for present-day churches.
God’s Splendour in the Abyss
I begin by referring to President John MacKay’s address “Splendor in the Abyss” to the Princeton community at the opening of a new academic year on 26 September 1950. Professor Mackay was back to Princeton, fresh from his Asia Pacific tour. A high point was the Eastern Asian Christian Conference “The Christian Prospect in Eastern Asia.” It took place from 3 to 11 December 1949 in Bangkok, which was shadowed – in MacKay’s words –by Carl McIntire’s “Protestant nihilism.”
My theme “Re-imagining world Christianity” refers to MacKay’s words, spoken here 61 years ago:
I propose to interpret . . . our human situation in these days that are passing. . . . I want to say something about a situation which is admittedly dark, which has about it certain features which might well be described in their murkiness and profundity as abysmal. I am not going to take up much time, however, in describing the horrors of our situation. . . . I will look squarely at the abyss and into it, in order to describe to you what appears to me the shafts of light in its murky depths, rays of divine splendor in the great void.(1)
He then went on to point out three signs of God’s springtime. First, “The judgment and mercy in God’s Springtime”: among which, the renewed friendship between Japanese and American peoples; the international co-operation against the Communist aggression in Korea; the Christian triumphs in Korea; and Billy Graham and other spiritual movements that were taking place outside traditional or ecclesiastical Christianity. Second, the rise of the ecumenical movement. Third, the resurgence of Christian interest among the laity. Mackay ended his address with this summon: “Colleagues, fellow students, and friends, this is the great hope set before us, that the abyss of our time shall become a valley through which we may pass to a better time.”(2)
Hendrik Kraemer, MacKay’s contemporary and leader of the modern ecumenical movement, set MacKay’s analysis within a wider missiological and ecclesial context. His book The Christian Message to a non-Christian World, commissioned by the International Missionary Council for the Tambaram Conference in 1938 raised the issues facing the Christian church in sharpest form. He devoted his opening chapter to interpreting “a world in transition.” For Kraemer,
We are living “between the times.” . . . Humanity is beset with great dangers. Different interpretations of this are possible, and are actually given. . . . For the Christian, however, there is certainly one great cause for gratitude and joy amidst all distress and anxiety. The whole situation is one loud call to fundamental re-orientation.(3)
Why? Kraemer began by pointing out “never before human history has the world and mankind been such a close unity.” Yet “never before has it been such a discordant disunity.” (4) He then went on to discuss the Western crisis. For him, “the outstanding characteristic of our time is the complete disappearance of all absolutes.”(5)He then argued that the Eastern crisis in the East mainly arises from “the penetration of the West into the East.”(6)“The process of destruction and reconstruction in the East is primarily a response and a reaction to a heterogeneous cause.” The greatest change in the twentieth century is that “the East, which not very long ago played only a passive or negligible role in the determination of the course of world history, has become now a factor as influential as the West.”(7)
Kraemer’s observations on the wider socio-political and intellectual undercurrents set the stage for him to address the crisis of the church: the fast-receding public presence in, and in fact, a disconnect with the wider world. With the shattering of the corpus Christianum,Kraemer argued:
the Church has thereby lost its “recognized” or “established” position in the conscience of man. . . . This loss of the ‘recognized’ position in the conscience of man constitutes the present crisis of the Church as to its position in the world. The disintegrated masses, in their hunger for new authorities and symbols to give meaning to life, did not think for a moment of turning to the Church, but turned away from it. That is the first principal fact the Church has to face.(8)
Therefore, the Christian Church in both the West and in the East faced the same root problem – “the relation to the world and all its spheres of life,” and “the same danger lest it solve it in the wrong way.”(9)
Remarkably, the ‘world Christianity’ idea emerged in ecumenical literature in the first half of the twentieth century in this context. Francis McConnell wrote on Human Needs and World Christianityin 1929; Henry Leiper entitled his interpretation of the 1937 Oxford and Edinburgh conferences World chaos or world Christianity.(10) Van Dusen’s 1947 book World Christianity: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrowwritten in euphoric terms shortly after World War II, summed up this vision with these celebrated words:
To an agedestined to survive, or to expire, as “one world,”we bring a world Church. We have seen that in the past century Christianity has become, for the first time, a world reality. For the first time – and in the nick of time.(11)
For van Dusen and his colleagues ecumenical movement, the term ‘world Christianity’ refers to the central calling of the churches worldwide. Churches across the divides need to come together as a ‘world Church’ for the present hour. In Leifer’s words, Christian unity is set “over against an ever more hostile world which presents rival claims to man's supreme loyalty.”(12) Rather than to give in to chaos and divisions, Christians need to bring fresh imagination to their tasks to meet the global “human needs.” The coming together of churches into ‘world Christianity,’ to borrow MacKay’s words, is God’s splendor in the abyss.
A World in Transitions
Deep shifts have taken place since the optimistic beginnings of post-war ecumenical movement.
(1) The interpreters. First, academic communities and political authorities have replaced Western missionaries to be the main interpreters of global realities in the post 1945 years. This coincides with the close of an age of intense and confident western missionary expansion in Asia and in Africa. Take the China mission for instance. Robert Morrison and Elijah Bridgman’s The Chinese Repository (1832-1851), Samuel Wells Williams’ The Middle Kingdom (1848), and Henry Latourette’s The Chinese: their history and culture (1934) once stood as standard references for interpretation of China. John Fairbank, Paul Cohen, Jonathan Spence and others from social sciences and history disciplines have now supplanted the roles of western missionaries. They now interpret Christianity within a wider religious and cultural canvas – at least with little Christian interests in mind.
The reasons for this shift are complex. Retreat of western missionaries from the newly independent nation states is one of the reasons. The growing secularisation in the West – at least in Europe – is another. There is also a growing dissatisfaction with western-centred approaches to interpreting global realities. Social science disciplines, so this argument runs, can give a more balanced understanding of the complex forces that are shaping the present-day world. Furthermore, governments would provide funding for research in critical areas around the world for national security purposes, and naturally enlist academics in social science disciplines for help.
To be sure, the Christian church should welcome such multidisciplinary approaches to Christianity. Present-day social scientists and historians approach Christianity with different sets of questions, and therefore with different suppositions and methodologies. Therefore, they help to connect Christianity to the wider disciplines of religious and social studies – so long as the newly independent churches in the former mission fields can interpret themselves. However, it is not often possible. In many parts of the world, governments keep close watch on religious communities. Take China for instance. The voice of the state-sanctioned China Christian Council is glaringly absent from academic discussions on present-day Chinese Christianity. Books published by the China Christian Council do not have ISBN number, and so are not available to the wider public; China Christian Council also cannot hold international conferences in mainland China. Ironically, the Institute of World Religions of the Chinese Academy of Social Science has emerged to be a main interpreter of Christianity.
As a result, Christian terminologies and concepts are shaped by those outside the Christian communities, who perhaps approach Christianity merely with academic interest. Previously, missionary societies and churches could pay longer-term and systematic attention to the study of Christianity. After all, such studies were connected with pastoral and missionary needs. Academics in today’s grant-driven world work within much shorter periods. Their interests often end on completion of their research projects. The end of western missionary enterprise may well spell the end of the systematic documentation of Christianity worldwide, especially Protestant Christianity.
(2) Geographical focus. Missiological reflections in the post 1945 years have been mainly shaped by African experience. The Communist victory in China in 1949 was a watershed. China with its largest unitary people group and the oldest continuous history has been the focus of missionary activities and studies. The forced departure of western missionaries from China at the beginning of the Korean War ended all that. Clearly, China still captures the popular imagination as the last frontier and crowning prize for missionary activity. However, academic missiological reflections for the past five decades have shifted to sub-Saharan Africa, which has not experienced wide-scale and organized anti-Western movements to the same extent that China has undergone. Therefore, Africa enjoys a greater sense of continuity in mission scholarship. The most influential exponents of world Christianity today are all African specialists. To list, Max Warren, John V. Taylor; Adrian Hastings, Harold Turner, Andrew Walls, Kwawe Bediako, Lamin Sanneh and Jonathan Bonk – their mission outlook are all shaped by African experiences.
This shift has much more than geopolitical significance. Western missionaries had largely devoted their intellectual energy to engage Confucian and Buddhist thought-forms in China. Matteo Ricci and James Legge’s life-long studies in Chinese classics are cases in point. The shift to Africa opened new intellectual and spiritual horizons. The religious worlds of peoples outside the influences of axial religions took centre stage. The realities they revealed opened new questions on forms and content of the Christian faith, as well as on sources and methodologies in Christian theology. At the same time, Asian intellectual and spiritual traditions (e.g. Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism) are not receiving serious attention from Christian scholars, notwithstanding their continuing influences in eastern Asian societies.
(3) The geopolitical and ecclesiastical realities. Above all, deep geopolitical and ecclesiastical changes are taking place since 1945. The world has developed in multiple ways. There are new forms of growth and new centres of authority; and with that, new forms of knowledge and of information. Globalisation has realigned historical boundaries, makes them fluid, and opens new ways of social identity formation. The terms ‘post colonial,’ ‘post missionary,’ ‘post-denominational,’ ‘post Christendom,’ and ‘post modern’ only underscore the vast transitions that are still unfolding in Christianity and in the wider world. Martin Marty rightly pointed out that the ecumenical movement has lost most of its energy and vision by the close of the 1960s. By the close of the twentieth century, centrifugal forces are breaking up traditional forms of Christianity; transnational and local forces are refiguring relationships in multiple ways.(13)
The passing of the high noon of Christendom in the closing decades of the twentieth century does not merely signify the ending of historical forms of Christianity. Christendom – the building of a unified Christian society – was possible because it rested on a fairly stable geological foundation. Trans-Atlantic Christianity largely inherits this Christendom legacy. Pacific forms of Christianity are different. The Pacific Rim consists of a series of volcanoes that extend from the Indonesia archipelagos, up through the Philippines, Japan, round Alaska and down to the western ridges of the Americas. It is not a stable and unified mass. It in fact consists of a series of conversations: conversations between mainland, seas and islands, between religious and linguistic worlds, and between continental plate fragments that announce their presence in volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. The Christendom edifice speaks of unity, permanence and institutional strengths. Trans-Pacific Christianity however is variegated, volatile and fluid. God is worshipped in breezy bamboo huts and wooden shacks rather than in gothic cathedrals. For Christian communities that live in transient and contrasting situations across the seas, how to confess Christ in makeshift situations is a more important consideration than to agree on a common creed, liturgy and order.
Reimagining the present as a Ephesian Moment
Andrew Walls’ contribution is set against these deep shifts. Walls is not only a leading mission historian in the post 1945 world. His influence reaches well beyond his writings. Walls has devoted himself as well to a lifelong task in collecting present-day Christian source materials, and in making them available for church and academic use. He taught and traveled widely. From the late 1950s onwards, he has taught at Freetown, Nsukka, Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Princeton, New Haven, Akropong-Akuapem, Singapore, Hong Kong, Seoul, and beyond. Where his former students are, there Andrew Walls is.
Walls’ main contribution lies in his attempts to re-imagine Christianity as ‘world Christianity.’ In what follows I shall discuss these attempts and what he has to say to present-day churches.
Frank Whaling’s Religion in Today's World: the Religious Situation of the World from 1945 to the Present Day,published in 1987, featured two essays by Walls.(14)These two essays “The Christian Tradition in Today’s World” and “Primal Religious Traditions in Today’s World”provide a convenient point to understand Walls’ life work.
The date was important. Walls moved from Aberdeen to Edinburgh that year; and with him, the Centre for the Study of Christianity in the Non-Western World (CSCNWW) he founded in Aberdeen in 1982. Clearly then, the two essays were Walls’ summary statements in a time of personal transition.
Walls began his essay “The Christian Tradition in Today’s World” by elaborating a “fundamental shift” in Christianity since 1945:
Today over half the Christians in the world live in the southern continents of Africa, Asia, Latin American and Oceania. The change has much more than demographic significance. Within a very short period of time the condition which have produced the phenomena characteristic of Christianity for almost a millennium have largely disappeared. . . . The conditions [in the southern continents] increasingly provide the context within which Christian mind is being formed. The process is already beginning to produce changes in Christian priorities, and in the structure of Christian thought, practice and government.(15)
Walls went on to argue “the end of Christendom”: “In the continuing Christian histories of Africa, Asia and the Pacific, the missionary period is already an episode.”(16)The character of Christianity in post-Christendom times would become a main theme in Walls’s writings. To him, the end of Christendom holds historic significance; it opens the prospect for genuine international partnership. He looks forward to a renaissance in mission studies:
It must be international, because the gifts of the church belong to the whole church. And as students of mission worldwide our histories are interdependent, our materials and our methods cross-cultural. We are all – Northern continents and Southern, American and European – dependent on one another.(17)
He elaborated this insight in his lecture “The Ephesian Moment.” For him, Christians across the divides need to grasp the Ephesian moment and calling:
We need each other’s vision to correct, enlarge, and focus our own; only together are we complete in Christ. . . . The Ephesian moment, then, brings a church more culturally diverse than it has ever been before; potentially, therefore, nearer to that “full stature of Christ’’ that belongs to his summing up of humanity.(18)
Clearly, Walls is at one with MacKay and van Dusen. In fact, ‘world Christianity’ and ‘world Church’ have now become a more immediate gift and urgent task since 1945. The “need for each other’s vision” is no longer about international relations. It refers to our duties towards fellow citizens and new immigrants at our doorsteps. Walls pointed out: “The Great European Migration has been succeeded by a Great Reverse Migration, bringing peoples from Asia and Africa to Europe, and Asia, Africa and Latin America to North America, Asia to Australia and Polynesia to New Zealand.”(19) In fact, huge demographic changes also take place outside the Western continents. Peoples from different linguistic and ethnic now live as fellow citizens of the same nation in many newly independent countries that were formed in the post World War II years. Migrant-workers are a huge presence in many societies. For the Christian message to be able to connect to new societies and new nations in post 1945 world, Christian churches can ill afford to express themselves in terms of disjointed Christianities. “The Ephesian question at the Ephesian moment,” Walls pleaded, “is whether or not the church in all its diversity will demonstrate its unity by the interactive participation of all its culture-specific segments, the interactive participation that is to be expected in a functioning body.”(20)
Sadly, church leaders and Christian theologians have not paid much attention to the ecclesiological implications of Walls’ Ephesian question. Many focus on what he has to say to missiologists, and not what he has to say to the churches. What captures popular imagination was Walls’ observation on the demographic shifts of Christianity to the southern continents. (21) Statistical tabulations of people groups became a central missionary research activity. The World Christian Encyclopediaand the recently published Atlas of Global Christianityare cases in point. (22)The Missions Advanced Research and Communication Center published a series of country profiles in the 1970s and the 1980s under the general title “World Christianity.” Therefore ‘world Christianity’ has become a descriptive term that refers to Christian communities outside the western world. As such, interpreting ‘world Christianity’ would not need much imagination. Country reports would do. However, it runs at risk of interpreting Christianity in terms of its local particularities. World Christianity then becomes a buffet of disjointed Christianities, with questions like “which Christianity” and “whose identity” coming to the fore that cannot be resolved on their own terms.
For Walls, this would not do. Christians need to see themselves and the world whole. In his recent essay “Documentation and the Ecclesial Deficit,” Walls insisted that churches run the risk of “reading its past in local rather than pan-Christian terms and its retreat from the New Testament norm of divided peoples sharing in the one covenant.”(23) At the same time, Walls is clear that the terms Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox are becoming of less value as descriptors of present-day Christian reality. Hence, we need to be attentive to the spiritual world of the peoples and to understand the larger maps of spiritual reality. Walls said:
Our position is analogous to that of Adam in the creation story, when the birds and the beasts were brought before him and he gave them names. It is our task to name the creature, but we can name them after we have seen and examined them.(24)
This concern underlines Walls’ second essay “Primal Religious Traditions in Today’s World” in Whaling’s 1987 book, in which he discussed the content and structure in ‘primal religions’ and gave a penetrating exposition on the situation of primal religions in the post 1945 years. The essay embodied the fruits of his long-time partnership with Harold Turner that began when they realised that historical trajectories and western missionary models were inadequate to explain the new realities of African independent churches. Therefore, Turner devoted himself to detailed work in clarifying and fixing terminology, as well as in charting the forms and flux of multi-layered interactions between mission-organised Christianity and African traditional society. Turner eventually defined the field of ‘new religious movements,’ surveyed it worldwide, identified the materials, and established the area as having a distinctive place in the study of religion.(25) ‘Primal Religious Tradition’ was in fact a term Walls and Turner finally settled with, after earlier experiments with the terms ‘living tribal religions’ and ‘traditional religions.’(26)
Building to last
Walls’ vision for world Christianity underpinned his infrastructural undertakings. For him, documentation and mission studies are foundational to re-imagining Christianity for the church universal. Christians need memory:
We need it, not only to understand where we have come from, but also where we are. It enables us to negotiate our relationships, to recognise dangers, pitfalls and opportunities. To be without memory . . . renders one incapable of forming assured relationships. . . . In other words, memory is the key to identity.(27)
Walls recognised that long-term institutional commitment, coordination and collaboration are crucial to building solid mission scholarship. In other words, he was clear that he needed to create an international community of missiologists, mission historians, and practitioners from different parts of the world. Moreover, clearly as well, source documents are indispensable for the study of present-day Christianity. So new repositories and libraries need to be established, and new instruments need to be developed. Furthermore, since the ‘world Christianity’ idea is central to the churches, the discipline must then become an integral part of mainstream ministerial formation programmes.
Therefore, Walls embarked on infrastructural projects. To list:
1. Walls set up the Standing Committee on Bibliography, Documentation and Archives at the 1978 International Association for Mission Studies (IAMS) Meeting, Maryknoll, New York.
2. He founded The Centre for the Study of Christianity in the Non-Western World in Aberdeen in 1982.
3. He founded the M. Litt. programme in Religion in Primal Societies in Aberdeen, and later the undergraduate Primal Religions studies in Edinburgh.
These three infrastructural undertakings are met with mixed fortunes.
(1) Creating an international community of scholars
The Standing Commission on Documentation, Bibliography and Archives held its first meeting in Urban University, Rome, from 24 to 30 July 1980 under the title “Mission Studies and Information Management”.(28) It set the directions that would remain remarkably consistent for the next three decades. Walls highlighted three issues in his closing address: (1) accessibility of source documents; (2) compatibility between IT infrastructures; and (3) accountability. (29) On this third concern, he pleaded:
· We have a responsibility to the whole Christian Churchfor it needs information for the proper fulfilment of its mission on earth; . . . .
· We have a responsibility to the churches and people of Africa, of Asia, Latin America and the Pacific: for it is their history, their documents, the expression of their faith and life over which we in differing degrees hold power; . . . .
· We have a responsibility to the mission agenciesof the West; . . .
· We have a responsibility to our colleagues in scholarship in other disciplines; . . .
· And we have a responsibility to each other.
By and large, the Committee on Bibliography, Documentation and Archives that Walls founded since then focused on the first two concerns. Over the years, DAB had invested much energy in technical issues. Walls’ three-point summary in Rome 1980 however rested on a deep concern to underpin international partnership with Christian foundations and commitments. An undisciplined use of information and communication technology could become tools of exclusion that further impoverish the Third World from genuine partnership in mission studies. He was above all anxious for DAB to be a community where mission scholars, archivists and librarians can collaborate and support one another in mission studies. For him, rigorous and deep mission studies require teamwork:
None of us is self-sufficient. [Mission] studies as we have envisaged here could produce a series of bilateral and plurilateral links, person to person, institution to institution, both within North America and intercontinentally. All this requires trust; the best arrangements are usually those between people who already trust one another and want to work together. But the aim will be to raise the quality, the range and the depth of our scholarly work; the rigor and comprehensiveness of its method, its fidelity to sources, its attention to detail, its vision and insight, its sense of holy vocation.(30)
Despite the southward shift in Christian demography, the end of the western colonial and missionary period has not in fact brought about a new spring of theological developments worldwide. Western academic institutions with their mature infrastructures offer conducive settings for focused academic work. The West continues to attract able scholars worldwide. Unstable socio-economic and ecclesiastical situations in the southern continents also contribute to a relentless brain drain to the West. Walls discussed the structural issues in mission studies in an essay published in 1991. (31) As a result, mission studies and interpretation of world Christianity are firmly rooted in the West. American professional bodies – for example, the American Society of Missiology (ASM) – continue to set the directions and standards of mission scholarship. Christian scholarship is still mainly communicated through publishers in the West. The worldwide teamwork that Walls hopes for is still a distant dream.
2. Building structures for documenting world Christianity
The Centre for the Study of Christianity in the Non-Western World at Aberdeen moved with Walls to Edinburgh. The Andrew F. Walls Centre for the Study of African and Asian Christianity, founded in Liverpool Hope University in 2008, largely continues Walls’ vision to develop repositories for present-day Christianity.
Walls’ tribute to his friend and colleague Harold Turner in fact reflects his own journeys in documenting Christianity. The title of his essay is telling: “Building to last: Harold Turner and the study of religion.” (32) It underlined the challenges in documentation. Building up source documents is a systematic and collaborative undertaking. The scale of the work makes it a daunting prospect for individual scholars and entrepreneurial enthusiasts. The task becomes even more difficult because “world Christianity” is not yet recognised as a mainstream academic discipline in western scholarship. To some, it is a clerical undertaking for librarians and archivists – and not for academics. Furthermore, preserving historical documents is often not a priority for churches in the southern continents. Documenting world Christianity, then, is a groundbreaking enterprise. The challenge is “building to last.”
Walls’ tribute to Turner in fact also embodied his own ideals and perhaps the difficulties he faced in translating visions to realities. For Walls and Turner, the study of present-day Christianity must rest on solid historical research. Therefore, systematic collection of source materials is indispensable to building up this field of studies. This however demands lifelong sacrificial commitment and institutional support that perhaps few are willing to undertake.
Take Southeast Asia for example. Perhaps except for the Methodists in Singapore and Malaysia, most Protestant churches do not have formal record management policies in place. Overall, record keeping is not a priority; qualified church archivists are even harder to come by. Money is perhaps not the key issue. For wealthier Singapore Christians, documentation seems unnecessary within the grids of world evangelisation. Relativeto neighbouring countries, Protestants in Singapore have a significant numerical and social presence in their own island-nation. They therefore project a confident image to the rest of Southeast Asia. In practical terms, Singapore churches are confidently planting churches and engaging in various forms of mission outreach in both their own nation and in neighbouring countries. Strategic studies would seem more important and urgent. Along these lines, documentation is wasteful, and distracts the church from its central mission task. After all, underground illegal missionary activities in ‘hostile’ nations should perhaps remain undocumented. For some Southeast Asian countries, making inventory list and finding aids of church documents (and even seminary library catalogues) public would also make such literature vulnerable to governmental control.
Besides, documentation of Southeast Asian Christianity depends on long-term collaboration between Christians who previously shared the same social worlds and now live in separate national identities. For instance, the history of Christianity in Singapore is part of the history of Christianity in Malaysia. The converse is also true. The territory however is still struggling with histories of intraregional imperialism and rivalry. Churches and institutions across the socio-economically and socio-politically diverse territory have scarcely established trust and pursue concrete forms of collaboration. Ironically, local churches have more incentive to develop ties with the west.
3. Setting up mission studies as an academic discipline
Walls’ two essays “Eusebius tries again: Reconceiving the Study of Christian History” and “Structural Problems in Mission Studies” set out his visions for, and perhaps setbacks in establishing mission studies as a thick discipline. (33) He has in mind mission studies would lead to a renaissance – both in Christian theology proper and the wider intellectual world.
Walls developed this argument in two fronts. First, for Walls, mission studies demands theological integration. Walls argued mainstream theological fraternity has not yet grasped the historic changes that are taking place. For him, the southward shifts in Christianity are similar to the Copernican Revolution and the European discovery of America. The theological discipline needs to be overhauled:
New Discoveries were intellectual threatening, requiring the abandonment of too many certainties, the acquisition of too many new ideas and skills, the modification of too many maxims, the sudden irrelevance of too many accepted authorities. It was easier to ignore them and carry on with the old intellectual maps. . . . We must insert the shape of the church as it is today onto intellectual and theological maps that were drawn according to the canons of what it used to be.” (34)
Second, Walls argued that mission studies are important not only for “the church throughout the oecumene.” “The whole world of scholarship, sacred and profane” needs such scholarship. Walls noted that western missionary movements had played an indispensable role in advances in modern scholarship. The present secularisation of knowledge, therefore, represents a rejection of Christian heritage. Walls noted:
[The nineteenth century] saw scholarship immensely enriched by the missionary movement . . . . But the other great modern religious development – the recession from the Christian faith in western lands and the consequent marginalization of theology – has intervened. The secularization of thought has submerged the missionary connection of learning with the missionary movement.(35)
Walls insisted the world of learning needs Christian scholarship; and so Christianity cannot retreat into a ghetto despite the growing secularising tendencies in the post-Christendom world. He referred to Lightfoot and Westcott’s lasting contribution at the nineteenth century, at a time also of huge intellectual change:
To abandon the labour of integrating old and new learning would have been simply destructive. The nineteenth century saw plenty of wild theorizing, plenty of unbalanced sloganizing. But the agents of revitalization, the abiding influences for good, were those with depth of scholarship, who sought its integrity with the ongoing faith and life of the church. . . . Mission studies must interact with ongoing work in the history, languages, political, economic and social organization, cultures, and literature of the Southern continents (not to mention many aspects of the Northern). It is necessary therefore to realize that the world of learning is a mission field too. Quality, depth, and range of scholarship are the marks of a vocation – and a collegial and demanding vocation, needing all the traditional missionary attributes of devotion, perseverance, and sacrifice. (36)
The programme that Walls founded in Edinburgh in fact did not survive. In fact, fewinstitutions are able to support such study programme. Documentation programmes are even rarer. The Christianity in Asia Project and the M. Phil. in World Christianity programme at Cambridge University ended with recent faculty movements. Turner’s collection on New Religious Movements in Primal Society in Birmingham is left, according to Walls, inert and uncared for. (37)
Sustained mission and historical studies programmes outside the West are even rarer. For instance, out of the 127 faculty members in the South East Asia Graduate School of Theology consortium in 2008, only 8 were in history discipline and 13 in missiology. Most of them in fact come from Indonesia (7 out of the 8 historians, and 6 of the 13 missiologists). Most of them in fact come from Indonesia. In comparison, there were 40 faculty members in biblical and 30 in theology disciplines. (38)
The reasons are in fact obvious. Churches put their resources in what they see to be more practical tasks. History courses in seminaries find themselves in direct competition with ‘practical and pastoral subjects’ within congested seminary curriculum. Faculty members would rather devote their time to publication than to what they see to be “library work” that has little to advance their own credentials in a competitive academic world. To build up source materials to enable ‘hard’ historical scholarship, as Turner did, is a even more remote consideration. Furthermore, historical disciplines need years of linguistic and academic formation that cannot readily fit into short-term faculty development programmes and scholarship funding schemes. After all, few seminaries can release faculty members for advanced studies beyond three years. As a result, history becomes a low priority for churches.
This problem shows up in theological education. Fresh seminarians in Protestant theological colleges often begin their theological formation with little understanding of the great traditions of their forebears. More important, they come with little understanding of their own churches’ theological and spiritual traditions. Source document studies – so much part of the staple diet in classical traditions – has almost disappeared in theological formation. Curricula may expose students to the history and theologies of western Christianity; but students are often ill informed of the Christian pilgrimage of their own localities. Still less have they been equipped with interpretative lens to understand the forms of present-day Christianity in the new heartlands of Christianity in today’s world.
Again, seminaries in the West face similar problems, though perhaps in different forms. To some, the end of western missionary expansion in fact may mean the end of “western experience and interest” in the wider world. Therefore, within the Christian church, studies in world Christianity have become a largely irrelevant subject. Present-day users in the Special Collections divisions in Yale Divinity School Library and in the School of Oriental and African Studies Library are more likely academic researchers from different parts of the world rather than seminarians and church pastors. Except for resourceful institutions, seminaries in the West have stopped collecting Christian literature outside their own cultural and geographical confines. The reason is clear: ‘world Christianity,’ taken to mean the study of Christianity overseas, is not essential to ministerial formation. Clearly, this raises serious questions on the theological competence of future generation of Christian ministers. Pastors that have little knowledge of the maps of realities can hardly interpret their own situations. They would find it difficult to critique the powerful movements of thought of the time, and to discern ‘God’s splendor in the abyss’. Defence of the faith can then turn into instances of ‘Protestant nihilism.’ Christianity runs the risk of becoming culturally and socially determined phenomena, interpreted by those government officials and those in social disciplines who have little understanding of Christian concerns.
More than sixty years ago, much attention was then devoted to the decolonisation of theology and of ecclesiastical structures, in response to Communist threats in the post World War II settings. Globalisation has since radically changed the ways Christians form their social worlds, locate their identity and give expression to their faith. Not only are the historic terms and classifications no longer useful as descriptors of the Christian reality. Newer binary terms like ‘global South/global North,’ ‘East/West,’ and ‘denominational/non-denominational’ may in fact misrepresent Christian experience and patterns of life in our own nations and around the world, and restrict the choices that churches handle conflicts. The Anglican Communion crisis is a prime example of how misrepresentation of reality can lead to a global fratricidal ecclesiastical war that makes little sense to the wider world. Only the fresh vision of ‘world Christianity’ can change that. To be ‘world Christian’ is an ecclesial undertaking: to see Christianity and the hope it offers to the world in light of the Ephesian moment. ‘World Christianity’ is essentially ecclesiological and eschatological.
This brings us to Andrew Walls’ chief concern. Andrew Walls’ greatest strengths perhaps lie in his inspiration leadership and connection-making ability. His capacity to improvise, to accept setbacks and move on; above all his capacity for friendship and his commitment to rigorous scholarship make him an elusive scholar. With tireless stamina, humble spirit and inquisitive mind, he is constantly on the move: trotting around the globe to connect with friends and to give support to new initiatives. Akrofi-Christaller Institute in Ghana, at Overseas Ministries Study Center New Haven, and the Centre for the Study of Christianity in Asia Singapore, and on and on have become his tents and altars along the way.
Walls would tell us Christian partnership, mission enterprise, and public engagement will not go far without attention to the larger maps of Christian encounters and spiritual realities and diligent development of solid scholarship: the trivial round and common task that the Princeton Theological Seminary community does in its daily course, with minds set to hallow all it finds. To Andrew Walls, John MacKay and all faithful servants of the church ecumenical, we give thanks to the living God, whose Son Jesus Christ enter our fragmented and twisted histories, to enable the whole creation to share in his space and time.
Dr Michael Nai Chiu Poon is Director and Asian Christianity Coordinator of the Centre for the Study of Christianty in Asia (CSCA) at Trinity Theological College (TTC) in Singapore. For the Spring Term 2011, he is the John A Mackay Professor of World Christianity at Princeton Theological Seminary.
1. John A. MacKay, "Splendor in the Abyss," Princeton Seminary Bulletin44, no. 3 (1950): 6.
2. Ibid., 15.
3. H. Kraemer, The Christian Message in a Non-Christian World(New York: Harper, 1938), 1.
4. Ibid., 2-3.
5. Ibid., 6.
6. Ibid., 17.
7. Ibid., 20-21.
8. Ibid., 28.
9. Ibid., 30.
10. Francis John McConnell, Human Needs and World Christianity(New York: Friendship press, 1929); Henry Smith Leiper, World Chaos or World Christianity, a Popular Interpretation of Oxford and Edinburgh, 1937(New York: Willett, Clark & Company, 1937). See also Movement for World Christianity, World Christianity: A Digest, 3 vols. (Chicago, IL: A Movement for World Christianity, 1937-1939); Robert Brank Fulton, World Christianity(S.l.: The Yenta Christian Fellowship, 1941).
11. Henry P. Van Dusen, World Christianity; Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow(New York,: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1947), 251.
12. Leiper, World Chaos or World Christianity, a Popular Interpretation of Oxford and Edinburgh, 1937, viii.
13. Martin Marty, "The Global Context of Ecumenism 1968-2000," in A History of the Ecumenical Movement. Volume 3, 1968-2000, ed. John H. Y. Briggs, Mercy Amba Oduyoye, and Ge Drgios Tsetses (Geneva: World Council of Churches, 2004), 3-26.
14. Andrew F. Walls, "Primal Religious Traditions in Today's World," in Religion in Today's World: The Religious Situation of the World from 1945 to the Present Day, ed. Frank Whaling (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1987), 250-278; Andrew F. Walls, "The Christian Tradition in Today's World," in Religion in Today's World: The Religious Situation of the World from 1945 to the Present Day, ed. Frank Whaling (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1987), 74-108.
15. Walls, "The Christian Tradition in Today's World," 80
Michael Poon is canon of Saint Andrew’s Cathedral, Singapore, and former director of the Centre for the Study of Christianity in Asia, Trinity Theological College. He is a member of the Standing Commission on Unity, Faith and Order of the Anglican Communion, and Anglican member of the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission.