Summoned from the Margin: Homecoming of an African

Written by Lamin Sanneh Reviewed By Steve Bryan

Lamin Sanneh begins his memoir with a brief account of a visit in 2008 to the village of Georgetown on the island in the River Gambia where he was raised. This sets the stage for a fascinating account of his upbringing within an impoverished, polygamous Muslim Africa family in a community wholly circumscribed by Islam. This book’s beginning creates the suspicion that the “homecoming” in the sub-title alludes to this return journey to Georgetown, but, in fact, the homecoming refers to his reception in the Roman Catholic Church some decades after his unlikely conversion from Islam to Christianity in 1961 while still a young man in Gambia.

There is a sense in which Sanneh’s memoir is less personal than it is personal intellectual history. In a scant half page he recounts a brief failed marriage in 1968, a broken engagement that resulted in a child with whom his attempts to build a relationship have not succeeded, and then, more happily, his marriage in 1972 to his wife, Sandra. How he thought or thinks about these relationships in relation to his Christian faith, he does not say. He does reflect at some length on his experience of racial and elitist exclusion within the church and in the academy. By the end of the book, it becomes clear that for much of his life, his experience of church has proven disappointing. As disappointing as the exclusion he encountered as an African in the church were his experiences of uninspiring and insipid forms of liberal Christianity that he experienced in his early post-conversion attempts to grow in his understanding of his faith. In a fascinating turn, he critiques the liberal wing of Christianity from a Muslim perspective. From that point of view, the liberal loss of confidence in the possibility of revelation is devastating, rendering inter-faith dialogue virtually meaningless.

Though he speaks in mostly appreciative terms of his encounters with Evangelicals at various points in his life, not least for their serious sense of personal relationship with God, he never seems to have seriously considered becoming one, in part, it seems, because Evangelicalism never seemed to offer an intellectual home but also because it was too committed to American ascendency. Nevertheless, it was, ironically, an encounter with a young “born again evangelical” that seems to have stirred him from years of personal spiritual slumber, resulting in his decision to join the Catholic Church.

Those familiar with Sanneh’s writings will profit from seeing the way in which the ideas for which he has become justly well-known in his professional life converge with and sometimes emerge out of the extraordinary trajectory of his personal life. Those new to Sanneh will value the summaries of the major strands of his thought which have helped establish him as a major intellectual force in the study of both Islam and what he prefers to call “world” (as opposed to “global”) Christianity.

In many ways, Sanneh’s professional life mirrors his personal pilgrimage. Not long after his conversion his early academic pursuits focused on the religion of his birth. Here, Sanneh displayed his willingness to swim against the tide of received scholarly wisdom by focusing on a pacifist form of Islam in West Africa. At the time, the study of Islam was occupied with jihadist forms, often portrayed as the purer stream of Islamic belief and practice well removed from the muddied backwaters of “folk Islam,” a phrase he reviles as condescending. This is not to say, as many do, that Sanneh regards jihadist Islam as a smallish eddy in the wide current of moderate Islam. He speaks, rather, of the “prevailing forces of jihad” against which pacifist Islam has had to hold its patch of higher ground.

One suspects that Sanneh’s early academic focus on Islam, together with his early life in Islam, made possible his later insights into the nature of world Christianity, Christian expansion and mission. Thus, for instance, did Sanneh intuitively resist the still common belief that Christian mission in Africa advanced within conditions made conducive by colonialism. Instead, his own experience was that the colonial powers much more readily accommodated the structures and strictures of Islam, encouraging Islam’s natural identification with the state as a means of preserving the colonial order. So much was this the case, that having made the decision to convert, Sanneh struggled to find a missionary—Protestant or Catholic—willing to baptize him, for fear of disrupting the order. The continuing reality of Islam’s identification with the state creates a situation in which “Muslims honor and celebrate their converts as trophies of faith, while Christians take their converts as charitable ration with a pinch of shame. It forces Christians underground to keep their faith quiet, or else makes them propitiatory tokens of a grateful church for Muslim forbearance” (p. 105). In Sanneh’s experience, “Freedom of religion was a euphemism for a prickly status quo, code for observing the rule of causing no offense to Muslims” (p. 106).

Sanneh’s conclusion that Christian expansion could not be explained as the twin of colonial advance, led him to search for another explanation. Here again, his early life in Islam helped set the stage for his later insight that key to Christian expansion is what he describes as its inherent embrace of the vernacular. Sanneh grew up in an environment in which “Muslim socialization effectively weaned us of any vernacular confidence” (p. 234). In contrast to the sacred status reserved for Arabic, Sanneh came to marvel at the way that Christianity “invests itself in all languages except the language of Jesus. It is as if the religion must disown the language of Jesus to be the faith Jesus taught” (p. 222). This runs quite contrary to the standard narrative which views the Christian missionary enterprise as an exercise in cultural imperialism. Instead, Sanneh vests the significance of the Western missionary movement in the massive linguistic achievements associated with vernacular Bible translation. If the rooting of Christian faith in vernacular languages has served both the cause of Christian expansion and cultural renewal, it has not achieved for vernacular forms of Christianity much of a role in the West. “The unwieldy term ‘Two-Thirds World’ gives the illusion of the West surrendering the quantitative argument without budging necessarily on its qualitative reservations” (p. 228).

If vernacular Christianity is the substance of world Christianity, Sanneh does not see this awakening as a kind of Christian Umma, the intended result of a top-down, carefully orchestrated master plan to achieve a global, religious monolith. This is why Sanneh rejects the term “global Christianity” which tends to evoke the culture flattening, market-driven impulses associated with “globalization.” World Christianity is distinctive for its bottom-up, “culturally diverse polycentric character” (p. 238). For this reason, “Christian unity is now a matter of intercultural openness more than it is a question of doctrinal axe-grinding” in an environment where Christian communities are “characterized by an inclusiveness of idioms and practices” which do not “hew to [Christianity’s] ancient roots” (p. 238).

All of this stands in obvious tension with, say, the recent call of Thomas Oden for the African church to return to the African roots of the Christianity and indeed with Sanneh’s own affirmation of Catholicism’s adherence to the “old teaching” and of its unwillingness to surrender revelation to uncontrolled contextualization. Doubtless intercultural openness is one important dimension of Christian unity, but it is not always clear how Sanneh reconciles his vision of a broadly inclusive, non-doctrinaire Christianity with faithfulness to the apostolic tradition. Sanneh’s ecumenical instincts do not always permit him to be clear about the limits of contextualization, but his commitment to the idea of revelation seems to suggest that there are limits.

Students of comparative religion are not generally disposed to speak of false religion or false teachers, and Sanneh is no different. Alongside the ambivalence he often experienced from the Church, perhaps that scholarly disposition helps explain those seasons of his life in which he was more an observer than an active participant in the Church. And perhaps these things, too, explain why there is very little indication that proclamation and persuasion play much of a role in his sense of mission. Indeed at one point he reports that he has pled with several Muslim friends not to convert. He reflects with melancholy on one such friend who died without making the “unforgiving choice” between the painful path of conversion and shutting his mind to the truth. Whether Sanneh also felt grief over this unmade choice, he does not say. Still, it is clear that many, including many Muslims, have been attracted by what he describes as a life of following the irresistible call of a sovereign God. Sanneh is well known as a perceptive student of religions. But when he speaks, as he does in this book, of his own profound experience in leaving the religion of his birth to follow the resurrected Jesus, he is at times also a powerful witness to the truth.

Steve Bryan

Steve Bryan
Ethiopian Graduate School of Theology

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