Winter Spring 2011 issue cover


Christianity Becomes Unfamiliar

World Christianity is changing the study of world religions.

Illustration by Pep Montserrat. Cover design by Point Five Design.

By​ Devaka Premawardhana

A specter has long haunted the study of world religions, the specter of Christianity. The nature of that haunting, however, demands reconsideration as Christianity, while decreasingly significant to the study of world religions, becomes increasingly significant throughout the world: Dalits in India converting in numbers large enough to trigger reprisals from Hindu nationalists; women in Colombia combating machismo by introducing their husbands to Pentecostal values of sobriety and fidelity; youth in Zambia balancing kinship obligations with church-stimulated aspirations to middle-class “modernity”; and laborers in China gathering in house churches unbeknownst to the State Administration for Religious Affairs. These are just a few of the numerous Christianities of the non-Western world nowadays grouped under the rubric “world Christianity.”1 My aim in what follows is to raise some critical questions of this emerging academic field by describing it against key debates in the study of world religions during the past half century. The place of Christianity in those debates must, I argue, be reassessed in light of what observers refer to as a historic shift, away from Europe and the United States, in Christianity’s center of gravity. Contemporary world Christianities relate to world religions and to the study of them differently than the theoretical construct of a singular Western Christianity ever could.

The Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard Divinity School was established at the end of the 1950s to study religious traditions unified by not much, perhaps, other than their non-Christianity—an intervention crucially needed at a time when the Christian tradition occupied not just center stage, but the only stage in many higher education curricula. The founding mission for this new center—the “sympathetic study of world religions”—suggests the first of three notable turning points in the relationship between Christianity and world religions: the freeing of the latter from the often dismissive and denigrating gaze of the former. In this perspective, Christianity remained forcefully, albeit negatively, present; the mark of its presence was its absence.

Before long, the problem of the relationship between Christianity and world religions shifted slightly. The question arose, at this second juncture, of whether the very category of religion reflects uniquely Christian preoccupations. Christianity came to be seen as providing an often unacknowledged template for what “Orientalists” constructed, looked for, and meant when they classified this or that set of phenomena as a world religion. While the first problem, of dismissal and denigration, was solved by sidelining Christianity, the second problem, one of distortion, was solved by bringing the centrality of Christianity to light, the better to minimize its impact.

With Christianity’s simultaneous retreat in Europe and rise in the global South comes a third development in the relationship between Christianity and world religions. It is signaled in the subtitle of Dana Robert’s recent publication, Christian Mission: How Christianity Became a World Religion.2 Although Christianity has always been included at or near the top of world religions listings, the assertion here is that Christianity has only recently become, in any geographically meaningful sense, a religion of the world. José Casanova describes Pentecostal Christianity in particular as “truly the first global religion.”3 Lamin Sanneh, a leading authority in world Christianity, argues that Christianity “is now in the twilight of its Western phase Its future as a world religion is now being formed and shaped at the hands and in the minds of its non-Western adherents.”4 Underlying all these considerations is a ready, by now familiar, set of statistics. In 1900, two-thirds of the world’s Christian population resided in Europe; by 2000, less than a quarter did. In that same hundred-year span, the African Christian population mushroomed from 10 million to almost 400 million.5

The flourishing of Christianities in the non-Western world, the third moment in the history I am sketching, invites a reexamination of the methodological and conceptual relationships constructed between Christianity and world religions in the first two moments.

The methodological relationship, as I suggested, is evoked in the phrase “sympathetic study of world religions.” Sympathy involves, according to the Center for the Study of World Religions deed of gift, the withholding of “critical evaluations of other faiths from the point of view of humanism, traditional Christianity, or any preconceived systematic analysis.”6 Two significant assumptions govern this statement: first, humanism and traditional Christianity are disjoined from “world religions”; second, the difference between them maps onto the opposition of the familiar and the strange. The explicit need for sympathy—”bracketing” in phenomenological language—would not, after all, arise except to prevent misperceiving the strange through the lens of the familiar. This objective is commendable, no doubt, but not without problems. By opposing “traditional Christianity” to world religions—world religions that, when listed, rarely include anything like “untraditional Christianity”—Christianity is assumed to be in all cases familiar. Its internal multiplicities, its own strangenesses, get swept away. The resulting flattened, monolithic Christianity is confined to its modern Western expressions, an unwarranted reduction in any time period, but most certainly today. Given not only its presence but its preponderance in the global South, Christianity can no longer be taken for granted as familiar.

How can we study, sympathetically, phenomena for which we have little sympathy? How can we allow space for the “repugnant cultural other”?

However, the illusion of familiarity is unhelpfully sustained from within world Christianity by the research decisions many in this field make. I am referring particularly to the preference for those Christianities that tend to be most palatable to the liberal and secular sensibilities of Western academic settings. Intentionally or not, we in the academy sanction certain expressions and downplay others. Particular favorites are Latin American liberation theologies and South Asian theologies of religious pluralism. I am not opposed to the study of these varieties of Christianity; they have been, and to an extent remain, significant intellectual and social movements, versions of which, moreover, I readily support. However, I have come to ask myself, what about the experiences of Christianity coming from Latin America, Africa, and Asia that matter not to me, but to many, if not most, Latin Americans, Africans, and Asians? What about those religious phenomena that may strike “rational” intellectuals as jarring, disturbing, or downright bizarre: those, for example, that involve frenzied preachers and fire-baptisms; those that take seriously the existence of demons and conduct ritual exorcisms; those that insist on exorbitant tithing in exchange for health and wealth; those that conduct “spiritual warfare” so as to “conquer the world for Christ”? How can we study, sympathetically, phenomena for which we have little sympathy? How can we allow space for what we often dismiss, in Susan Harding’s words, as the “repugnant cultural other” or, in Robert Orsi’s, as “bad religion”?7 These questions press on us urgently today as Christianity grows most explosively precisely in its Pentecostal and charismatic forms. For the first time, perhaps, in the history of the modern West, Christianity is largely, to modern Western sensibilities, unfamiliar, every bit as strange and exotic as the “mystic East” was ever imagined to be. If to free them from Western Christian biases was once reason enough to study world religions sympathetically, it now also justifies studying world Christianities sympathetically.

The second relationship between Christianity and world religions that I would like to reexamine is the conceptual one. The caution against applying, or imposing, the category of religion uncritically across time and space finds its boldest expression in the writings of the comparative historian of religions Wilfred Cantwell Smith. As early as 1962, Smith argued that the contingent roots of “religion” in early modern Europe distort the very things the word presumes to describe.8 Enlightenment epistemological critiques, Protestant disenchantment, and the scientific model of a mechanical universe combined to separate a newly necessitated supernatural realm from a newly secularized natural realm. This dramatically changed the nature of belief in the West: what was a performative gesture of trust in the axiomatic became an intellectual assent to the dubitable.9 Smith argues that this reformulation of belief served to systematize the otherwise fluid, ineffable, and existential dimensions of faith. Religion as a system, especially as a “belief system,” came to be “a concept of polemics and apologetics” premised on the essential incompatibility of one “belief system” and another.10 The anthropologist Talal Asad convincingly argues that the Reformation-inspired elevation of belief over practice is what made it possible to conceptualize religion “as a set of propositions to which believers gave assent, and which could therefore be judged and compared as between different religions.”11 It reified the otherwise elusive and multiplex profundities of religion-as-lived, making it possible to speak of religions, in the plural, as discrete, hermetically sealed entities, the conditions for what the South Africanist David Chidester calls “apartheid comparative religion.”12

In the wake of these conceptual critiques of religion, what does it mean to speak, as scholars of world Christianity tend to do, of Christianity as a world religion? Enthusiastic accounts of Christianity’s newly global status are possible because of Christianity’s growth outside the West. There, however, post-Enlightenment and post-Reformation assumptions about religion have held less sway than they have in the West. Jesuit missionaries like Matteo Ricci in China and Roberto de Nobili in India, by translating the gospel into Confucian and Tamil terms, respectively, long ago demonstrated the futility of compartmentalizing customs and cosmologies into non-overlapping systems.13 Enslaved Africans, when forcibly transported across the Atlantic, stealthily affiliated their deities with Catholic saints, maintaining continuity with their past despite tremendous pressure to erase it.14 Even Protestants, heirs to the Reformation emphasis on belief, have been shown to fuse Christian and non-Christian traditions in countries as diverse as Brazil, Sudan, and Thailand.15 These examples illustrate that in much of the world, particularly where Christianity is most rapidly spreading, religions are generally not lived as mutually exclusive entities or experienced as discrete “belief systems.” This suggests another question: if European Christianity is what, in part, gave systematic and bounded qualities to the modern category of religion, is world Christianity still a world religion? My presumption in posing such a question is that world Christianities can be used to diagnose the limits of European categories—religion being just one of them—and thereby contribute to the project of provincializing Europe itself.16

It would of course be wrong to assert that membership in a well-defined tradition has never mattered to people in postcolonial settings. As anthropologist Webb Keane put it, what Dutch Calvinist missionaries accomplished in Indonesia was not so much “the inculcation of a new religious doctrine” as “the introduction of a new category of religion altogether.”17 Even if religion was not a local concept before, this matters less than whether religion shapes self-understandings now. Still, Christianity’s greatest expansion today is precisely among those people whose behaviors and beliefs have never easily been translated by the word “religion,” a difficulty evidenced by the train of labels long used as alternatives: paganism, heathenism, and animism, to name a few. Ethnographic studies from places where such things are said to exist suggest that practitioners draw eclectically from the resources of Christianity and their “traditions,” more concerned with achieving some blessing, healing some ailment, or repaying some spiritual debt, than with heeding the arbitrary borderlines where one “religion” ends and another begins. These differences in how religion is understood highlight the need to refrain from universalizing one or another claim and to listen attentively to a variety of voices. But to whose voices are we listening? To whose do we remain deaf?

It concerns me that much work in world Christianity disproportionately privileges the missionary in the mission encounter. Sanneh, despite showing how translating the Bible creates conditions for what he calls “indigenous agency,”18 seems, on the whole, more intent on refuting the terrible caricature of the missionary-imperialist than on revealing how Christianity is received and refashioned in everyday practice. Since even the most context-sensitive missionary can never fully control the range of meanings of the local signs that get attached to Christian referents, translation almost inevitably destabilizes the gospel itself.19 This outcome Sanneh fails to consider, assuming as he does an unproblematic correspondence between local form and missionary content. My sense, however, is that “translating the message” frequently ends up transforming the message.

Illustrative of this is a story told to me by Vinny Stanzione, a friend who has lived for more than 20 years among the Tz’utujil-speaking Maya in the Guatemalan highlands. He has written movingly about the local trickster deity MaXimón, beloved honoree at festivals, recipient of sacrifices, and granter of blessings.20 The Maya have given him a variety of names, indicative of his multiple guises and the multiple reasons they have for keeping him close. They most frequently refer to him as the Mam, an affectionate form of Rilaj Mam, the great-grandfather. Other designations include (in translation) Saint Simon, the skunk, the last born of the rain angels, lust boy-lust man, the Lord of Death, and—in recognition of his bold fashion sense—the Lord of Looking Good.

Listening to Vinny talk, I could not help but wonder about the impact of Pentecostalism, booming as it is in Guatemala. Surely the pastors and missionaries of these churches have made it to the countryside and condemned people’s devotion to the Mam. Indeed they have, Vinny confirmed. They come and say, “You have these illnesses, you’re unemployed, your relationships are in trouble. Want to know the source of these problems? The devil! Want to know who the devil is? MaXimón!”

I imagined how offensive this must be, an affront to authentic Maya religiosity. Is it not an outrage that these missionaries come from afar and, completely disregarding how dear the deity is, denounce him as the devil? MaXimón, the devil? MaXimón, the devil?!

Vinny laughed and revealed how unperturbed his friends in fact remain. “The devil?” they ask. “Well, okay—just another name for the Mam.”

At the discursive level, such Pentecostal demonization provides a paradigmatic case of a patently unsympathetic approach to other religions. But how is this discourse experienced by the Maya themselves? Rather than the demonization of MaXimón, might it be the “Mayanization” of the devil? Campaigns of spiritual warfare may change the meaning of local deities, but just as plausibly they may change the meaning of the devil.21 How can studies of missions account for such subversions?

They would need to start by refusing to privilege what the philosopher Michel de Certeau calls the top-down strategies of knowledge-producers (whether foreign missionaries, indigenous missionaries, or contextual theologians) over the bottom-up tactics of knowledge-consumers—those who “make (bricolent) innumerable and infinitesimal transformations of and within the dominant cultural economy in order to adapt it to their own interests and their own rules.”22 Accounting for the lifeworlds of ordinary converts would reveal the limits of conversion conceived according to the Pauline ideal: renunciation of all that came before in exchange for the supposedly stable content of the Christian “belief system.” In the micropolitics of everyday practice, where existential commitments and social relations matter most, academic and ecclesiastic anxieties about the borders of traditions and the limits of orthodoxy fade in importance.

Even in the seemingly least accommodating, least flexible Christian expression—Pentecostalism—porous borders conducive to overlapping traditions are evident. Demonization need not be abnegation. The creative bricolage of the Maya suggests that it need not even be condemnation. To avoid missing such dialogical dynamics and the indeterminacies of religious change, anthropologists Jean and John Comaroff suggest that a better word for conversion may be conversation.[23] I in turn suggest that a better word for missiology may be conversiology: not the study of missions, but of conversions; not the study of missionaries, but of their targets—those who convert, those who resist converting, and the many who find themselves in between.

Christianity has long haunted the study of world religions, but today Christianities no longer lurk in the shadows of the world or of world religions. In response to Christianity’s new demography, the field of world Christianity has arisen. Its most engaging studies attend to the ways in which the everyday experiences of nonelites defy conventional understandings of religion, conversion, and identity. By focusing attention there, the academic study of religion can go beyond positing Christianity in opposition to, or as prototype for, world religions. It can also go beyond merely reasserting Christianity, in its new global expanse, as one among the world religions. For, my argument has been, religions as lived are always intersecting and interpenetrating. Instead of worrying about how to include Christianity among world religions, perhaps we can simply recognize that it already exists within them, and they within it.


  1. Among the debates in the field is the question whether the term “world Christianity” would be better rendered in the plural: world Christianities. My preference is to use the singular in reference to the academic field and the plural in reference to the empirical fact.
  2. Dana Robert, Christian Mission: How Christianity Became a World Religion (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009).
  3. José Casanova, “Religion, the New Millennium, and Globalization,” Sociology of Religion 62 (Winter 2001): 437.
  4. Lamin Sanneh, Disciples of All Nations: Pillars of World Christianity (Oxford University Press, 2008), xx; emphasis mine.
  5. For these and other useful statistics on Christianity’s changing global distribution, see Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (Oxford University Press, 2007), 2-3; and Sanneh, Disciples of All Nations, xx.
  6. John B. Carman and Kathryn Dodgson, Community and Colloquy: The Center for the Study of World Religions, 1958–2003 (Center for the Study of World Religions, Harvard Divinity School, 2006), 17–19.
  7. Susan Harding, “Representing Fundamen-talism: The Problem of the Repugnant Cultural Other,” Social Research 58 (Summer 1991): 373–393; Robert A. Orsi, Between Heaven and Earth: The Religious Worlds People Make and the Scholars Who Study Them (Princeton University Press, 2005), especially chapter 6.
  8. Wilfred Cantwell Smith, The Meaning and End of Religion (1962; Fortress Press, 1991).
  9. Wilfred Cantwell Smith, Faith and Belief (Princeton University Press, 1979), especially chapters 5 and 6. See also Jean Pouillon, “Remarks on the Verb ‘To Believe,’ ” in Between Belief and Transgression, ed. Michael Izard and Pierre Smith (University of Chicago Press), 1–8.
  10. Smith, Meaning and End, 42–43; Smith, Faith and Belief, 120.
  11. Talal Asad, Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Power in Christianity and Islam (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), 40–41.
  12. David Chidester, Savage Systems: Colonialism and Comparative Religion in Southern Africa (University Press of Virginia, 1996).
  13. Samuel Hugh Moffett, A History of Christianity in Asia, vol. 2, 1500–1900 (Orbis Books, 2005), especially chapters 1 and 5.
  14. There is extensive literature on this. A classic is Roger Bastide, The African Religions of Brazil: Toward a Sociology of the Interpenetration of Civilizations, trans. Helen Sebba (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978).
  15. Stephen Selka, “Morality in the Religious Marketplace: Evangelical Christianity, Candomblé and the Struggle for Moral Distinction in Brazil,” American Ethnologist 37 (May 2010): 291–307. Sharon E. Hutchinson, ” ‘Cattle Aren’t Killed for Nothing’: Christianity, Conversion, and the Enduring Importance of Prophets,” in her book Nuer Dilemmas: Coping With Money, War, and the State (University of California Press, 1996), 299–350; Edwin Zehner, “Orthodox Hybridities: Anti-Syncretism and Localization in the Evangelical Christianity of Thailand,” Anthropological Quarterly 78 (2005): 585–617.
  16. This project, a critical response to Eurocentric discourses of the academy, is notably expressed by the historian Dipesh Chakrabarty in his book Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton University Press, 2000).
  17. Webb Keane, Christian Moderns: Freedom and Fetish in the Mission Encounter (University of California Press, 2007), 84.
  18. Lamin Sanneh, Whose Religion Is Christianity? The Gospel Beyond the West (W. B. Eerdmans, 2003), 55. Sanneh’s seminal work on this topic is Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture (Orbis Books, 1989).
  19. See Vicente Rafael, Converting Colonialism: Translation and Christian Conversion in Tagalog Society Under Early Spanish Rule (Cornell University Press, 1988).
  20. Vincent Stanzione, Rituals of Sacrifice: Walking the Face of the Earth on the Sacred Path of the Sun (University of New Mexico Press, 2003).
  21. See also Birgit Meyer, Translating the Devil: Religion and Modernity Among the Ewe in Ghana (Edinburgh University Press, 1999).
  22. Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall (University of California Press, 1984), xii–xiv.
  23. Jean Comaroff and John L. Comaroff, Of Revelation and Revolution, vol. 1, Christianity, Colonialism, and Consciousness in South Africa (University of Chicago Press, 1991), especially chapter 6.

Devaka Premawardhana is a PhD candidate in religion and anthropology at Harvard University, whose dissertation on the rise of Pentecostalism will be based on ethnographic fieldwork in Mozambique. These words are adapted from remarks given as part of the Center for the Study of World Religions’ 50th anniversary symposium held at HDS on April 15–16, 2010.

Please follow our Commentary Guidelines when engaging in discussion on this site.