Lamin Sanneh: immersed in the drama of world Christianity
By Ray Waddle
Editor, Reflections magazine
The world drama of Christian history is Lamin Sanneh’s daily bread. It’s the theme of his books. It’s etched into his own life. It’s what he sees behind daily headlines too, including horrifically tragic ones.
Sanneh is the D. Willis James Professor of Missions & World Christianity at Yale Divinity School and professor of history at Yale College. For decades he has been tracing the ways in which Christianity transforms cultures and pondering the conditions of civilizations that are moving into a post-Christian identity.
With a range of scholarly interests that extends from the ancient to the here-and-now, Sanneh is deeply concerned about the engagement of Christianity with global, contemporary events.
About the July 22 mass murder in Norway, for example, he stresses his wish that churches there will, in a period of wretched grief, console the nation and convey the gospel insight that “hope is greater than death.”
The bloodshed has triggered widespread debate about the future of religious unity and common purpose in Europe, and Sanneh suggests that the tragedy—the lunatic act of a self-styled Christian who gunned down 78 people because of his hatred of European multiculturalism and Muslims—carries harsh ironies.
“To speak generally, we can see how very easy it is to become like the enemy: his response against enemies was to carry out an action just like he thinks his enemies would—radical violence,” Sanneh said in a recent interview. “He becomes merely an instrument of his own fears, with tragic results.”
And, Sanneh observed, carnage was perpetrated in the name of Christianity—a hijacking of the gospel.
Sanneh worries that the decline of the Christian heritage in Western civilization will leave societies exposed to conflict, violence, and a lack of moral coordinates for the common good.
“Where Christianity is pushed to the side and out of the mainstream, that leaves it open for individuals or ideologues to hijack the name ‘Christian,’ because we give it no intrinsic content ourselves,” he warned. “If no respectable person will defend Christianity itself, then a vacuum is created. If the establishment has nothing to do with Christianity, and Christian faith is reduced to a social indiscretion, that leaves space for lunatics to claim it.”
Can a society keep morality in place without belief in God? On this perennial question, Sanneh is doubtful.
“It’s very hard to establish a credible morality that is not transcendent,” he argued. “Because morality is not about convenience. The threats we face in the public order are not solved by a mere promotion of self-preservation and self-interest. We must somehow invest in the common good. We must all feel a stake in the society. How individuals respond to life’s challenges matters not only to the individual but to the rest of us. It’s not enough to commit to an amalgamation of fragmented individual cultural experiences. A healthy society will be grounded in a morality that transcends self-interest.”
Sanneh, a Roman Catholic, has been a Christian for decades, but his thoughts about the necessity of a moral and religious foundation for society go back to his Muslim upbringing in Africa.
Sanneh was raised in a scholarly, aristocratic Islamic family in Gambia. He knew of Jesus from the Qur'an, but he had no intention of taking interest in Christianity, much less of embracing it. The community expectation was for him to become a Muslim leader and mentor. But as a teenager, his encounters with the story of Jesus took an unexpected turn. He became captivated with Jesus’ plight as described in the Qur'an, then anguished about this godly prophet’s earthly ordeal. It turned into an intellectual and moral struggle for him.
“Jesus was obviously so good, and that made me wonder why he was so hated and rejected. Why should these terrible things happen to him? That bothered me. I decided it could only make sense if God had not abandoned him. The question tormented me: I could not abandon Jesus, or, at the time, Islam either. Jesus’ enemies had enmity toward God. Maybe I too shared such enmity toward God, in which case I needed God’s forgiveness as much as Jesus’ enemies did. All of these things transfixed me on the figure of Jesus,” said Sanneh, who converted to Christianity while still a teenager.
Sanneh’s educational pursuits eventually took him to the University of Birmingham, England, for an M.A., then to the American University of Beirut, and finally to the University of London for a Ph.D. in African Islamic history. He has taught at the Universities of Ghana, Aberdeen, Harvard, and, since 1989, at Yale.
A naturalized American citizen, Sanneh has written much on relations between Islam and Christianity, as well as on the emergence of a vibrant “post-Western Christianity” in Africa and elsewhere.
One influential book, Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture, argues that Christianity’s success and proliferation, ancient or modern, have hinged on the faith’s ability to translate the gospel from culture to culture, adopting and adapting in local languages and idioms, refusing to enshrine any particular civilization as the exclusive or normative expression of the faith.
Sanneh has been critical of Western Christian leaders who discount the rampaging growth of the faith beyond the West. The widely noted shift of Christianity’s center of gravity to the global south has unfolded during his own adulthood. In 1960, most of the world’s Christians were in the U.S. and Europe. Today, only 35 percent are.
He counsels against Western complacency —the secularizing trend of the West’s disengagement from its own religious heritage, an impulse, he said, to gloss “freedom of religion” to mean “freedom from religion,” as if religion is incompatible with freedom, and vice versa. Western self-preoccupation is blinding leaders, including Christian leaders, to dynamic forces of change under way in the world. A post-Western Christianity is proving that the faith as a world force is as vigorous and as potent as ever.
“I believe too many people in the West are too sanguine about their religious heritage—they seem to think they can hold a cultural consensus together based only on a cultural memory of the faith,” he said. “But you cannot continue to draw on the heritage if you do not replenish it. In time, people will forget what that heritage is. Young people won’t learn it. They need inspiration. For the sake of coming generations, churches must exercise their responsibility and retrieve the positive aspects of the Christian heritage. We need to give ourselves to something greater that also has a future.”
He looks to the American experience for signs of wisdom as a post-Christian West attempts to discern a future path. America, he says, is the last great frontier “where the most enduring questions of the human spirit are confronted.”
He finds inspiration in the Founders’ thinking. Individualism, for instance, has always been important to the American character, but the Framers understood it to be based on a religious idea, Sanneh said. “Human beings are made in the image of God. We carry in us the seeds of dignity, the seeds of mutual respect. This is not a gift of government but of God. This is the basis for freedom of religion—also the basis for respect for human rights.”
“The idea of America,” he declared, “is imperishable.”