Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press



David Lindenfeld

The terms “World Christianity” and “global (or world) history” refer to academic fields that have become widespread in recent decades, reflecting the highly interconnected world we live in, and in part attempting to move away from an exclusively Western interpretation of how that world works. Yet it is striking that these fields have moved on largely parallel tracks without becoming genuinely interdisciplinary. “It is remarkable,” historian Patrick Manning wrote in 2003, “how little discussion of religion appears in the world history literature for recent centuries,” an observation that still holds true.[I] Manning attributes this to two causes: 1) the tendency to interpret modern religious phenomena in secular terms, and 2) the preference for local studies rather than bravely tackling a global history of religion. To these factors I would add a third: a relative paucity of vocabulary to describe the varieties of cross-cultural religious interaction. One often relies on “syncretism” as an umbrella-like term, but I think we can do better. My research into the strategies that indigenous peoples across the globe have used in their interactions with Christian missionaries may serve as a starting point.

  1. Resistance, which can be active and violent, as in the Boxer Uprising, or passive. It also finds expression in movements like Liberation Theology.
  2. Selective Incorporation of some features of a foreign religion into one’s cultural pattern that nevertheless remains dominant. For example, the absorption of Christian migrants into the Hindu caste system dating back to the third century.
  3. Concentration of Spirituality. In these cases, indigenes use foreign incorporations to sweep away large portions of their native practices in an attempt to intensify or purify their commitment. Anti-idolatry campaigns furnish the most readily visible examples; emotional revivals figure in as well.
  4. Conservation of Form. Here a society will identify itself as Christian, appropriating much from missionaries by way of content, while at the same time preserving the deeper structures of its own group, which may be quite different culturally from that of the missionary. The Nahuas (Aztecs) in colonial Mexico exemplify this, having largely forgotten their pre-conquest deities but embracing the veneration and propitiation of Catholic saints.
  5. Vernacular Translation.[ii]. By this I mean not a line-by-line translation, e.g. of the Bible, but how a group translates the meaning of the entire Christian story in its own terms. Often the Old Testament plays a prominent role in this process: many colonized or oppressed peoples can easily relate to its themes of enslavement, exile, and liberation.
  6. Dual Participation refers to the compartmentalized practice of two distinct traditions, without necessarily attempting to translate one into the other.[iii]
  7. Selective Acculturation. Although out of fashion in post-colonial discourse, this term is needed to describe a group’s attraction to and embrace of a culture that is not its own. Prime examples would be the enthusiasm for Western-style education as brought by the missionaries and above all literacy itself, not to mention the positive feeling of being part of a wider world.
  8. Acceptance and Commitment. Although this could conceivably cover the phenomenon of conversion itself in its individual manifestations, the focus is on public and collective instances, such as the attraction of community in an urban setting for newly arrived migrants; the ability to stand up in the face of persecution; and the willingness of indigenes to become active proselytizers themselves. South Korea and the Pacific Islands exemplify these patterns.
    It remains to be seen if these patterns can be applied to interactions with other world religions.

[i] Patrick Manning, Navigating World History (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), 248. Compare Joel Cabrita, David Maxwell, Emma Wild-Wood, eds., Relocating World Christianity (Leiden: Brill, 2017), 27 (“world historians have been slow to engage with religious history”).
[ii] The term comes from Saurabh Dube, “Conversion, Translation, and Life-History in Colonial Central India,” in David Lindenfeld and Miles Richardson, eds., Beyond Conversion and Syncretism. Indigenous Encounters with Missionary Christianity, 1800-2000 (New York: Berghahn Books, 2012), 31.
[iii] The term comes from William K. Powers, Beyond the Vision. Essays on American Indian Culture (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1987), 106.

World Christianity and Indigenous Experience by David Lindenfeld
World Christianity and Indigenous Experience by David Lindenfeld

About The Author

David Lindenfeld

David Lindenfeld is Professor Emeritus in the Department of History, Louisiana State University. He has been researching cross-cultural religious interactions worldwide for nearly ...

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