“Between Englishness and Ethiopianism: Making Space at Princeton for Intercultural Theology”
by Richard F. Young, Elmer K. and Ethel R. Timby Associate Professor of the History of the Religions
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Between Englishness and Ethiopianism:
Making Space at Princeton for Intercultural Theology
Richard Fox Young
Good evening. And a special welcome to anyone who might still feel a wee bit apprehensive about being here at Princeton. That's how I felt when I came to the Seminary a decade ago, after living outside the United States for as many years as some of you are old. I wondered how well I would fit in. Occasionally, I still do! A seminary has got to be and continually become, over and over, a home, a welcoming environment, a place where faith is cultivated, relationally, in the context of faithful relationships. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks reminds us of a simple but important truth when he speaks of ‘home’ as a place that we make together.1 ‘Home,’ though, can mean a lot of different things, depending on where one comes from. And so does that wonderful little adverb, ‘together.’ That being so, what I’m wondering tonight is how we might imagine ourselves being and becoming a welcoming community, interculturally, here at Princeton. My address tonight is focused, biblically, on the Ephesians theme of a New—intercultural (‘multi-,’ ‘intermulti-,’ or ‘multi-intercultural)—Humanity in Christ. Whatever one calls it, our New Humanity in Christ entails both a dissolutio (‘breaking down’) and an elevatio (‘building up’) of human cultural particularities; instead of being abolished or trivialized, they are transformed.
"Talk of God,” a Scottish theologian, George Newlands, writes, “is articulated within particular cultures in [particular] ways."2 The illustration I’m going to use comes from a culture within a culture of Christian Europe. Go back with me for a moment to the Elizabethan church of the English Reformation and consider a certain George Aylmer (1520/21-1594), Lord Bishop of London, whom I chanced upon in my reading a while back. I bring him up because Christian history isn’t altogether on my side in recognizing theology’s need of being intercultural.
Aylmer is mainly remembered for a spirited defense of Elizabeth's sovereignty over England against some ill-considered words of John Knox (1514-1572), a pivotal figure of the Scottish Reformation. Known for many well-considered words, uttered some 450 years ago, these were not Knox’s finest. They are found in a book called The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women (1557). Here, "monstrous" means ‘unnatural’ and refers to women being unfit as women for monarchy. If that blast from Knox's Trumpet blows you away, it ought to interest you that Aylmer, the Lord Bishop, who defended Elizabeth, basically agreed: women, he wrote, were "flibbertigibbets," except Elizabeth, who ruled by Divine Right. Bad as that sounds, it’s actually something worse about Aylmer that caught my eye: namely, his privileging of Englishness and his ascription of it to God.3
Yes, that’s right! “God,” the Lord Bishop exulted, “is English.” Unsurprisingly, Aylmer’s English “God” was fonder of the English than the Danes, the French, and the Norwegians whom he singles out, not to mention the dreaded “Scottes”:
Fall flat on thy face before God and give him thanks vii times a day, that thou wart born an English man, and not a French pezant, nor an Italyan, nor [German].
How blessed the English are, the Bishop again exclaims:
[Germans] eat hearbes; and thou Beefe and Mutton. [Germans] rotes [potatoes]; and thou butter, chese, and egges. [Germans] drink commonly water; and thou good ale and beare. [Germans] go home from the market with a sallet [salad]; and thou with good flesh fill thy wallet.4
Obviously, something’s badly wrong here. It’s all so tribal sounding, so culturally confining, so lacking in the generous inclusivity of Ephesians. And this, from a man who had found refuge in Strasbourg, before he was ‘elevated’ to ecclesiastical office, just as Knox had found refuge in Geneva! Still, the last thing we should lull ourselves into thinking is, My! aren’t we more sophisticated, interculturally? Substitute “American” for “English” and do you, or do you not, hear an echo of this same Elizabethan sacralization of nationhood in America today?
For a better instantiation of intercultural theology in the spirit of Ephesians, let’s leap over the centuries from the 16th to the 20th, across the continents from Europe to Africa, and from history to literature. I’m now going to introduce a novel called Ethiopia Unbound, written in 1911 by a Ghanaian Methodist, Joseph Ephraïm Casely-Hayford (1866-1930), the first West African writer of English fiction and probably the best until Chinua Achebe.5 To understand the title, it helps to know that Casely-Hayford was an advocate of Christianity’s Africanization; or, I should say, of its re-Africanization. Inspired by Edward Wilmot Blyden (1832-1912), the Liberian founder of Pan-Africanism, Casely-Hayford believed that Christianity was African in origin and essence. Ethiopia was an ancient center of Christian faith, and it therefore figured as a symbol for Pan-Africanists who felt that decolonization was indispensible to Christianity’s becoming African again. Think of Ethiopianism as an early instance of African Christian theology.6 Now, an extraordinary passage from the novel, which has tonight’s reading from Ephesians inscribed at its beginning:
In late Victorian England, two young men walk down London’s Tottenham Court Road. Kwamankra comes from the Gold Coast (Ghana) and studies law; the other comes from England itself, Silas Whitely, Bishop Aylmer’s modern-day avatar. As you might suspect, Whitely is not a person of color. A student of theology, Whitely harbors doubts about Jesus Christ’s divinity but is about to be ordained in the Anglican Church anyway. Kwamankra, who is not a Christian but an African traditional religionist, finds it hard to understand why Whitely has so much trouble believing in Jesus’ divinity. At his flat on Russell Square, Kwamankra tries out a bit of intercultural theology to help Whitely resolve his doubts. Whitely’s problems all go back, he says, to “the feebleness of the idea of God in the Anglo-Saxon language.” Then, taking a dictionary of Fanti off the shelf, Kwamankra turns to the letter ‘N’ and begins to tell Whitely about God’s strange and wonderful names in his mother tongue: “It is a big word, so big that you can hardly imagine it: —“
He who alone is great.
Lest Whitely think that Fanti has only one such word for ‘God,’ Kwamankra treats him to another, “Nyami”:
He who is I am.
He then cites a Fanti proverb:
Wana so onyi Nyami se?
Dasayi wo ho inde, okina na onyi,
Nyami firi tsitsi kaisi odumankuma.
Who says he is equal with God?
Man is to-day, tomorrow he is not,
I am is from eternity to eternity.7
Unaccustomed to thinking of God by any other word or name, Whitely labors under a disadvantage in this exchange. And when Kwamankra poses a ‘what-if’ kind of question, the cultural-boundedness of Whitely’s theological training becomes painfully evident:
[Kwamankra] “Supposing Jesus Christ had been born of an Ethiopian woman instead of Mary of the line of David, do you think it would have made any difference in the way he influenced mankind?”
[Whitely] “What a strange question. […] Whatever put such an idea into your head?”
[Kwamankra] “Yes, it is strange. […] But, tell me, what is there extraordinary in the idea?”
[Whitely] Oh, I don’t know. Habits of thought, convention, and all that sort of thing, I suppose.”
The rest of the story? Whitely’s doubts remain unresolved after his ordination and he winds up on the Gold Coast, a tragi-comical colonial chaplain preoccupied with just one thing, making sure that African and European Christians are buried no less than sixteen feet apart in the Accra cemetery.8 How very, very badly Whitely needed an interlocutor like Kwamankra! Here, I’m thinking again of George Newlands and a comment of his that puts into sharp relief what Whitely has missed out on: “Christian faith has always maintained,” he says, “that human language about God reflect[s] in part a response to God’s prior approach and presence to humanity.”9
Let’s pause a moment and consider how “whiteness” might lie behind Whitely’s intellectual paralysis, his failure to grasp hold of that Johannine, Logopneumatological truth. Ethiopia Unbound is a literary work; realistically, however, the odds were against an exchange like this ever occurring. That hardly ever happened, I’m told by Cephas Omenyo, a Ghanaian who was our Visiting Professor of World Christianity here at Princeton a few years ago. And why not? Well, for that I turn to Ira Bashkow, whose book, The Meaning of Whitemen, is an ethnographic study of a Papua New Guinean people, the Orokaiva:
It is no historical accident that the whiteman, as a perceived cultural presence, is a global phenomenon, and it is thus unsurprising to hear that the blanco gringo in Mexico, the laowai in China, and the obroni in Ghana are all similarly archetypes of western modernity, wealth, and race privilege, personifying the legacy of imperialism, the ideal of development, and the force of globalization.10
I suppose this makes Ethiopia Unbound a postcolonial novel earlier than postcolonialism itself. The window it opens up on God, however, is what I find helpful about it. Still, notice how quickly Whitely slams shut the door onto intercultural theology that Kwamankra opens up, if barely a crack. In that door I feel as if my fingers had been caught; I want that guy Kwamankra to be my interlocutor. Many in the global South want us to be theirs, but find to their dismay that it’s very hard. Elsa Tamez, a Latina Reformed Church theologian who did her higher studies in Switzerland, puts it like this: the price, she says, of having a decent conversation with the Western theological academy is that you have to play by its rules, or not at all.11 That’s hardly fair, is it?
But, you may be thinking, ‘I just got here, Mr. Young, I don’t even know what our rules at PTS are, let alone anyone else’s! Intercultural theology sounds nice, but it’s too hard to do.’ In that case, let’s look once more at Ethiopia Unbound. At the end, Casely-Hayford does something really interesting; there, he shows how even a slight change makes a huge difference. He plays a neat little historiographical trick, called a ‘counterfactual’ (i.e., “if x changes, y might not occur”); counterfactuals work best when the change introduced is minimal without being trivial.12 Let’s say that instead of Jesus being crucified in Jerusalem, Pilate sends him to Rome, for trial, and our Lord and Savior gets a reprieve from Caesar. That one’s pretty maximal, isn’t it? Try another: let’s say Switzerland is actually an island in the Caribbean, and instead of being born in Europe Karl Barth, a Swiss Reformed theologian, was born a Rastafarian. Now, I ask you, who’s going to take that seriously? George Newlands, bless his heart, thought that one up (the Rastafarian twist is mine); it seems, though, just a wee bit implausible, don’t you think?13
Supposing Jesus Christ had been born of an Ethiopian woman …
That’s it! That’s all that Casely-Hayford asks you to imagine differently. But see how radically changed things are only a few degrees of latitude and longitude away! The counterfactual shift to Africa works like a solvent on the taken-for-grantedness of Christian History; yes, it reinvests that history with a sense of contingency (Divine contingency!), as if it did not necessarily have to be that Aristotle or Kant or Wittgenstein are the only interlocutors one could possibly have. And how differently things might look if instead of Greek or Latin, our theological vocabularies had been shaped by Geez, Ethiopia’s ancient Christian language—or, for that matter, by Fanti, Tamil, or Chinese, instead of our “feeble” English. Casely-Hayford, in short, shows us how we might strip off the corrosion on Christian history of the kind that says a decent conversation about theology cannot be had in any language other than English.
Here, one thing not at all counterfactual to take note of, is that Christianity is African. Casely-Hayford was unaware of it, back in 1911, but even then Christianity’s geographical center of gravity was moving toward Africa, massively. In fact, if you drop a pin onto the center of a Google Map of world Christianity, it would fall on Timbuktu.14 Now is there, or isn’t there, an irony in that? It’s why we have books nowadays with titles like How God Became African by Dutch historian Gerrie ter Haar.15 Timbuktu, of course, is a great center of Islamic culture; radiating out from there, however, you begin to get today’s densest populations of Christians, with Rome and Canterbury, New York and Chicago on the margins of the Christian world. Not that things that happen here are of marginal significance; Boundless Faith, a book by Bob Wuthnow, our neighbor in sociology at the University, reminds us of the undiminished Global Outreach of American Churches (as the subtitle goes).16 That’s a sobering thought, if men and women like Silas Whitely of Ethiopia Unbound, who slammed shut the door onto intercultural openness, are being graduated from our theological schools.
Here, though, I have to pronounce both a ‘yes!’ and a ‘no!’ on Casely-Hayford. He’s opened me up to God but also closed me off. The reason? Ethiopia Unbound capitalizes on some invidious, racialized essentializations, pitting European against African, Black against White.17 That’s a pretty Manichaean kind of dualism, isn’t it? The many of you here tonight who are neither White nor Black, know that between Englishness and Ethiopianism (as it were), American discourse often excludes the middle. That’s why you ought not to graduate from Princeton without being immersed in a book like The Future is Mestizo, by Vegilio Elizondo, one of America’s most illuminating Hispanic theologians.18 A favorite sociologist of mine, Stephen Warner, says this of how Diaspora Christianities are changing America:
[W]hen Americans think of Christians, they will decreasingly be able to think simply of whites [and African Americans]. They will also think of Asian students conducting Bible studies and witnessing for Christ on college campuses nationwide. … ‘Catholic’ will no longer be code for ‘Irish, Polish, and Italian’ but will have to include ‘Mexican, Filipino, and Vietnamese.’ When Americans think of Asians, they will not just think of exotic religious Others but also of believers who thump the Bible and ask you if you are saved. Race and religion are increasingly decoupling.19
Even so, Warner observes of white Americans that we “still tend to claim Christianity as [our] property,” “with a mixture of arrogance and exasperation,” “even when many of [us] wish [we] could disown it.”20 In a recent issue of Theological Education, Daniel Aleshire of the Association of Theological Schools makes this comment: “Racial diversity is crucial for effective theological education.”21 A PCUSA sister institution that has reflected deeply on this is McCormick in Chicago. David Esterline, of its faculty, asks this important question:
Are those of us in the majority culture ready to … set aside our ownership of the normative culture, … and turn to listening, learning from and valuing those whose gifts are different from ours? If we expect all members of the household of God to be welcomed in our congregations, we [students and faculty] need to give careful attention to the ways we listen, learn, and teach in our seminaries.22
And so, as I close, I go back to Jonathan Sacks, whom I paraphrased earlier, except with this small change, that theology is a thing we make together, interculturally.
1. Jonathan Sacks, The Home We Build Together: Recreating Society (London and New York: Continuum, 2007).
2. Newlands, George. The Transformative Imagination: Rethinking Intercultural Theology (Aldershot, Hampshire, England; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2004), 7.
3. On gender and politics in The First Blast of the Trumpet, see chapters 8 and 9 of Rosalind K. Marshall, John Knox (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2008). From her, I derive my understanding of “monstrous” as ‘unnatural.’
4. My citations come from the original of Aylmer’s unpaginated rejoinder to Knox, An Harborowe for Faithfull and Trewe Subjectes, against the late blowne Blaste, concerning the Government of Wemen (1559), accessed on EEBO (Early English Books Online).
5. On Casely-Hayford, see Donald R. Wehrs, Pre-Colonial Africa in Colonial African Narratives: from Ethiopia Unbound to Things Fall Apart, 1911-1958(Aldershot, England; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2008).
6. For an overview, see Jehu Hanciles, “Ethiopianism: Rough Diamond of African Christianity,” Studia historiae ecclesiasticae 23, no. 1/2 (1997): 75-104.
7. Of the two terms for ‘God,’ the second (more correctly: Nyame), is in current use among Christian speakers of Fanti. On the use of such names in West African Christianity more broadly (Ngewo among the Mende, Olorun among the Yoruba, Chukwu among the Igbo, etc.), see Andrew F. Walls, The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of Faith (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1996), 94-97.
8. Casely-Hayford, J. E. Ethiopia Unbound: Studies in Race Emancipation (London: Cass, 1969 ), 3-11, 19-21, 26-29, passim.
9. Newlands, Transformative Imagination, 34.
10. Ira Bashkow, The Meaning of Whitemen: Race and Modernity in the Orokaiva Cultural World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 2.
11. Elsa Tamez, “Our Struggle as Mestizos.” In Navigating Romans through Cultures, edited by Khiok-khng Yeo (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 2004), 168-170.
12. On counterfactuals, see Unmaking the West: ‘What-If’ Scenarios that Rewrite World History, edited by Philip E. Tetlock, et al., eds. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2009), 14-44.
13. Newlands, Transformative Imagination, 22.
14. Todd Johnson and Sun Young Chung, “Tracking Global Christianity’s Statistical Centre of Gravity, ad 33 – ad 2100,” International Review of Mission 93/369 (2004): 166-181.
15. Gerrie ter Haar, How God Became African: African Spirituality and Western Secular Thought (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009).
16. Robert Wuthnow, Boundless Faith: The Global Outreach of American Churches (Berkeley: University of California Press).
17. Wehrs, Pre-Colonial Africa, 35.
18. Virgilio P. Elizondo, The Future is Mestizo: Life Where Cultures Meet (Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado, 2000).
19. Stephen R. Warner, “The De-Europeanization of American Christianity.” In A Nation of Religions: The Politics of Pluralism in Multireligious America, edited by Stephen R. Prothero (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2006), 247.
20. Warner, “De-Europeanization,” 233. Syntax reordered.
21. Daniel O. Aleshire, “Gifts Differing: The Educational Value of Race and Ethnicity,” Theological Education 45/1 (2009): 15.
22. David V. Esterline, “Multicultural Theological Education and Leadership for a Church without Walls.” In Shaping Beloved Community: Multicultural Theological Education, edited by David V. Esterline and Ogbu U. Kalu (Louisville and London: Westminster John Knox Press), 17.