The Dedication of the Nagel Institute
for the Study of World Christianity
Calvin College, May 2006
By Lamin Sanneh
I am honored for the invitation at the dedication of the Nagel Institute for the Study of World Christianity. The occasion represents a remarkable, even historic convergence of several things, which gives our gathering here a special meaning. It goes without saying that Calvin College commands an esteemed place in the front ranks of Protestant liberal arts colleges in North America. It has held steady to its mission of providing a first rate college education in the framework of its Reformed Protestant heritage, and done so with extraordinary faithfulness, dedication, and vision. It has never stopped exploring new and fresh ways of being all it can be in an ever changing world. Given the massive currents of cultural upheaval sweeping the campuses across the country, it is impressive that Calvin College has not only survived but has also flourished. A vigorous stream of academic endeavor continues to stir through this community.
The second point of convergence is the worldwide post-Western Christian resurgence. I use the term ‘post-Western’ in the sense of ‘post-colonial’ but without assumptions of the baggage of colonialism and the prickly reflexes of post-colonial studies. In my sense post-Western means indigenous discovery as the primary stimulus of the current Christian resurgence. I do not minimize, or mean to minimize, the impact or importance of colonialism and its effects; I only do not wish to be entirely anachronistic or conspiratorial – to give the idea that colonialism lurks behind every expression of Christianity. I am not convinced such a sideways swipe at the religion yields much of instructive value, whereas a post-Western view allows us to appreciate the importance of the indigenous forces in Christian historical developments.
That post-Western factor became apparent immediately after the end of colonial rule, roughly from about 1965. I was a freshman in college in the United States then, and understood little of the subject. In fact, I was reading more about Mao and the new China, about Ho Chi Minh and Vietnam, about Nehru and India, about Nasser and the United Arab Republic, and about Sukarno and Indonesia, than about the nationalist movements in Africa. You would be right to think that I thought Christianity had no future in the brave new world being hammered out by the modern architects of nationalism. But how wrong I was about how little I understood of how God’s spirit was shaping a new age of Christianity. The wind of change was ushering in new horizons.
This brings me to Calvin College. The establishment of the Nagel Institute should be a boon for the academic enterprise, but especially here at Calvin. The post-Western Christian resurgence is poised to open new vistas of cross-cultural and intercultural opportunity and challenge and to offer a unique stimulus for the renewal of the liberal arts curriculum. There may be better ways of connecting students and faculty to the wider world than a critical understanding of the forces unleashed by the worldwide Christian movement, and if so I do not know them. There are obviously equally challenging ways of encountering the world, yet in few areas can students do so on the same basis of exchange, encounter and reciprocity as in World Christianity.
This is not a new thought. Max Müller, for example, expressed similar sentiments already as far back as the 19th century, as did many perceptive missionary scholars before and after him. Drawing on the strengths of Calvin, the Nagel Institute is destined to play a formative and formidable role in conditioning the environment for Christian studies in North America and beyond – of that I am convinced, and a little envious, too, if I may confess a secret sin. We have discussed the establishment of such a center at Yale for many years, but have made only modest progress in that. Yet I am proud of Calvin for its achievement in this regard, and delighted at the opportunity to mark it with you. The Lord’s vineyard can never have too many workers.
The third factor is the circumstance of Joel Carpenter’s appointment as founding director of the Nagel Institute. I think it is significant for Joel as an American historian of Christianity to agree to lead the Nagel Institute. The historical dynamism of World Christianity requires an historian of Joel’s experience and insight to take the measure of the phenomenon, and, besides, America has itself become one of the most active frontiers of the worldwide Christian resurgence. Much of what is happening to thrust Christianity forward as a world religion is happening right here on our own doorsteps, thanks to the immigration surge and to the expanded opportunities of mass travel. If we take into account reports of conversion movements afoot in Asia, particularly in China, then it places America right at the center of a major geopolitical shift. I thought Time Magazine missed the point when it elected not to recognize the 20th century as the American century and instead appointed Albert Einstein as the Man of the Century – and who could argue with that. But it may well be that the 21st century will be a Chinese century – who could doubt that? As some have argued, if China in the 21st century embraces Christianity with anything like a critical mass, that would have implications for America in terms of shared values and objectives. It would remake the map of international relations. I am not vain enough to think that I, or any of us here, will be around at the end of the 21st century (heaven help us), but we should have little doubt that by then the Nagel Institute for the Study of World Christianity will have left a considerable legacy for posterity.
To indicate the nature of the challenge that lies ahead of us, what kind of agenda might the Nagel Institute pursue? The following issues in World Christianity should be borne in mind:
World Christianity is diverse – it has spread to every conceivable corner of the globe; it has also affected every Christian denomination, with the result that churches have become increasingly diverse.
World Christianity has brought about a remarkable interface with other religions and drawn them out of their isolation. The real story here is not that Christianity is challenged by religious pluralism but that Christianity has confronted other religions with the challenge of pluralism. Scholars should not put the cart before the horse.
World Christianity comprises over 2 billion people the vast majority of whom are young – below 35. They are the future of the religion.
World Christianity has stimulated an enduring interest in the old religions and cultures by giving them shelter. The Christian resurgence involves a parallel attempt at cultural retrieval and transformation. Societies and cultures must change or be changed. Christianity offers a rationale for internal change.
World Christian resurgence transcends categories of denomination, nationality, citizenship, race and class. It shows that political/national distinctions are inadequate in accounting for the appeal of Christianity. The unifying themes of World Christianity are impressive, but they are hidden from us by the division and fragmentation of political and national borders. A study of these unifying themes should offer a healthy correction to the present overemphasis on race and culture.
As a visionary leader who is more than equal to the challenge – I say this not to embarrass a good friend – Joel will be the first to say that the Nagel Institute should be an enabler, an advocate, and a facilitator. That suggests a strategic role for the Nagel Institute, and in Joel you have a supreme strategist with uncommon wisdom and generosity of spirit. The timing of the establishment of the Nagel Institute and of Joel’s appointment could not have been more opportune. For nearly half a century Christian statesmen – Benedict XV, Pius XII, Archbishop William Temple, John R. Mott, and Billy Graham, among others – have labored mightily to draw the attention of the West to signs of the coming post-Western Christianity, and for half a century the theological curriculum has resisted. The codes and systems that served the church so well were ill adapted to reflecting the new changes. The missionary movement spawned the post-Western resurgence that institutional Christianity found hard to accept. Yet theology is not tamper proof, as political correctness has shown. Today the choice is different, that is, whether the forces of the post-Western resurgence can be ignored any longer when whole continents and sub-continents are being engulfed.
Joel has been instrumental in raising awareness of the new developments when at the Pew Charitable Trusts he spearheaded in the 1990s a grant-making program to promote study and scholarship of World Christianity. It is appropriate that now back at Calvin Joel should see this particular chicken come home to roost at the Nagel Institute. It seems too auspicious an event not to see God’s hand in it. “There’s a certainty divinity that shapes our ends, rough hew them how we will.” If I may be so bold, that may also explain why I find myself drawn to this place at this time in spite of how improbable it all seemed when I first contemplated coming here. At this place and time Calvin College is sowing the seed of an idea whose fruit will without question benefit countless generations of scholars and leaders.
Let us spare a thought for World Christianity itself. On the margins of the world the Christian movement has involved great variety, and examples of moving personal commitment that is radical and intimate in nature. In that picture of the transformed life, Christianity has been a force of gravity in the search for personal meaning and for the renewal of cultural vitality. Surprising for its pace and scope, the present resurgence offers plenty of incentive for study, reflection, teaching, and discussion, but also, at the Nagel Institute, hopefully an opportunity for sharing, partnership, and exchange.