Why Do We Assume Western Theology is Superior?
by Tamie Davis
When asked about the value of African theology for Western Christians, the late Ghanaian theologian Kwame Bediako said, “Well, Christianity is thriving where we are, and it’s waning where you are, so maybe there is something that could be helpful to you all.”1 It’s a gracious invitation with a little sting in the tail, reminding us that for all the seminaries and books and libraries in the West, Western churches are still heavily in decline. Bediako’s point was not that book learning or academic rigor are not valuable – on the contrary, he was a significant contributor to both, teaching at universities for a good part of his career. But the perceived theological riches of the West are not mirrored by growth in the church, which might get one asking how shiny they really are.
Theology fuels the church, and it fuels mission. In 1792 when William Carey wrote his famous essay about the use of means, he was responding to a theology in which God’s sovereignty was so great, a Christian’s obligation to share the gospel was effectively removed. Carey deconstructed this theology, arguing that evangelism has always been part of the church’s witness and that using means – like ships to sail to India and money to fund missionaries – was not at odds with God’s sovereignty but rather an outworking of the Great Commission. He was part of the modern Protestant missionary movement, a tradition in which many of us find ourselves today. Theology matters, and it can contribute either to the decline of the church or to its growth.
My aim here is not to critique Western theology or to start laying blame for the decline of the Western church; it’s to ask if we have the humility to listen to theology from the Global South. After all, as we note the growth of the church in Africa, it would make sense to suppose that theology has played a role in it.
I often hear concern from my fellow missionaries about the kind of theology which has fueled this growth. They say things like, “The church in Africa is a mile-wide and an inch-deep.” The assumption is that the kind of growth we are seeing in Africa is like the seeds sown on the rocky soil without strong roots, or the ones that look good to start with but then get choked by the weeds of the world. I hear that Africans, with all their talk of prosperity, do not have a well-developed theology of suffering or perseverance.
And yet, as Marilyn Gardner reminded us recently, the church in the Global South is well-practiced at suffering, whether it be a result of religious persecution or socio-economic circumstance. Knowing what it is to live without safety and security, Africans may have fewer faulty theological assumptions that need to be unpacked than those of us whose lives are more comfortable and less precarious. As my Tanzanian friends assure me that ‘God is able, just pray and have faith,’ I ask them, ‘But what if it doesn’t work out? Is that a sign that my faith is poor or that God is not able?’ And they laugh. They laugh! Because my question seems ludicrous. They say to me, “Tamie, you know God is still God, right?” How’s that for a theological statement!
And theology is carried out in bodies and practice as well. When someone dies in Tanzania, very little attention is given to blame, but for three days or more everyone gathers and just sits together out of sympathy. And these sympathy visits continue well after that period. I was once visiting an older mentor whose husband had just died, when someone else turned up. Her husband had been a church leader, and the visitor was a pastor who had worked under him. This pastor had driven for two days to sit with her in her grief. He listened, and they cried and prayed. It was a couple of hours. Then he ate a meal and drove the two days back the other way. I can only imagine his weariness, but Sunday was coming and he needed to be back with his congregation. Tanzanians may not have a theological answer to ‘why God?’ – it may not be the question they’re asking – but I think they’ve understood a great deal of the compassion and self-giving of God. We must grapple with the fact that these practices are profoundly theological.
The Holy Spirit is clearly at work in Africa, growing Jesus’ church. Why would we think that as he was doing that, he was focused only on numbers or only on endurance? We can recognize the Holy Spirit’s work in growing his church numerically in Africa; why are we so reluctant to think he might be doing it theologically as well? It doesn’t have to look the same as ours to be true, because it’s responding to a different context.
In championing African theology, Bediako did not think that African theology ought to be transplanted into the West. He spoke of African theology and Western theology as “overlapping circles, sharing in their overlaps certain common elements and features, which . . . give them a ‘family’ air.”2 That makes sense: Western and African Christians share a brother and a Father yet contend for their faith and are grown in very different places. Like a family, there are times when we need each other. The song ‘Waymaker’ became a bit of an anthem for 2020, bringing hope in a global pandemic and becoming a prayer for breakthrough as the US grappled with racial violence. It’s an African song, penned and sung by Nigerian worship superstar Sinach. In 2020, it was African theology that people found they needed.
To come back to the digging analogy—for all our depth, it’s possible those of us who’ve dug a mile deep have somehow found water rising around us. If our African sisters and brothers are standing at the top, offering to hoist us out to see the progress they’ve made on their hole and learn from that, wouldn’t that seem like a good idea?
I am not advocating for an uncritical acceptance of African theologies, or any other theology from the Global South. To be sure, some are faulty, just as there are many false teachers in the West. But those of us who ‘live overseas’ are rarely in danger of uncritical acceptance; many of us are here to give, contribute, teach and train. Indeed, we are used to hearing about poverty and famine in Africa, and it’s easy to assume that this is true theologically as well, that somehow all the ‘good theology’ got concentrated in the West like the world’s capital. We may even be told this by local people who are beholden to our greater monetary wealth or who are used to thinking of that which comes from the West as better. But Jesus spoke time and again of how wealth warps theology, and that ought to give those of us from wealthy countries pause about the quality of our own theology.
The kingdom of God is growing in Africa; are we sufficiently poor in spirit to be inheritors of it, together with our African sisters and brothers?
- Quote appears in various places attributed to Kwame Bediako, though the original source is unclear. It can be accessed here.
Bediako, Kwame, “African Theology as a Challenge for Western Theology.” In Christian Identity in Cross-Cultural Perspective, edited by Martin E. Brinkman and Dirk van Keulen, 8:52–67. Studies in Reformed Theology. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2003.
Tamie Davis lives in Tanzania with her family and is doing a PhD looking at the theology of prosperity of a group of Tanzanian women.