Thursday, September 12, 2013

Robert Hunt: Chickens talking to ducks (Part II)

Today's post is by guest blogger Dr. Robert A. Hunt, Director of Global Theological Education, Professor of Christian Mission and Interreligious Relations, and Director of the Center for Evangelism and Missional Church Studies at Perkins School of Theology at SMU.  This post is the second of four by Dr. Hunt over the month of September.  You can read the first part of his post "Chickens talking to ducks" here.

In contrast to the West, much of the rest of the world possesses what Taylor calls "the porous self." This self, when it hears a voice, or feels a swelling of joy or sorrow, or loses control (physically and emotionally) understands itself reflexively as being interpenetrated with hidden spiritual realities. It knows itself possessed by a spirit; whether the Spirit of God or otherwise. The linguistic framework within which the person expresses that experience will be determined by culturally based-assumptions. Moreover, exactly which spirit is at play may be a matter for reflection. But whatever reflection there is will be based on the unquestioned assumption of the unity of self and body interpenetrated with the invisible forces of the spirit world.

This porous self understands that it is caught up in purposes and conflicts beyond the human or natural realm. The self is, in a sense, a victim of these invisible conflicts and wishes to be liberated from them - a reason that many turn to Christ. But it does not locate the origin or end of the experience entirely in immanence, but in a relationship with God and God's transcendent purposes. 

In this world of porous selves humans certainly wish to flourish in their persons, family, and society. But this is secondary to and dependent upon a close relationship with God whose Spirit works against and displaces all the other spirits that interpenetrate the self. Thus people value highly the time of being swept up by God's spirit in worship for itself, and not merely as an instrument for motivating and guiding mission.

Perhaps a personal story will make the distinction and problem clearer. When I was teaching in the theological school in Malaysia, our students began to have repeated and unsettling experiences. They were troubled by terrible dreams. We had instances of poisonous snakes entering the dormitories. Things went missing. The students interpreted these experiences as direct manifestations of evil spirits, and attributed them to a curse put on the school by a Hindu woman. She had previously overseen a variety of shrines under a banyan tree on the seminary grounds. When she and the shrines were evicted (exorcised really) she cursed the school. Now it was assumed that the variety of malevolent spirits she invoked were manifesting themselves. 

Thus we did what needed to be done. With the support of local clergy and bishops we had a day long ritual to purify the school of demonic spirits. Students uncomfortable with the ritual itself (some came from anti-liturgical backgrounds) prayed all day in the chapel. Everyone else circumambulated the school grounds, pausing to pray and sprinkle holy water on the building. Special attention was given to the banyan tree. 

Now as we did this, a group of officials from the General Board of Global Ministries arrived unexpectedly for a visit. And at the end of the day they made it clear to me that they were shocked and appalled that a school which they funded and a missionary (myself) that they sent would participate in such unadulterated superstitious nonsense. "Christ sets us free from this kind of thing." 

In this they missed the point. The very concept of "superstition" depends on understanding one's self as a "buffered self" that rises above the immediacy of human experience to reflect on its meaning - AND assumes that meaning is found entirely within the immanent world of material and psychological interrelationships. 

The mission board officials could only interpret what they saw in their own terms. In those modern Western terms it was a fallback into pre-modern foolishness and a waste of time better spent studying theology. Yet for the students and faculty, Christ was concretely setting us free - by evicting the evil spirits that inhabited our school. A day spent removing the impediments to a fuller relationship to God was certainly a day well spent.

From the perspective of our guests what occurred (and here Taylor's work is illuminating) could only represent a more primitive and thus lesser human self-understanding. The moral superiority of modernity was completely assumed. What the Malaysians saw on the other hand was a reality to which the mission board officials seemed strangely blind and therefore incapable of confronting. 

One might hope that some 40 years later Americans engaged in cross-cultural inter-relationships are more cognizant of the way their minds have been colonized by modernity, and can at least recognize that others have a fundamentally different understanding of the self that cannot be dismissed as "primitive" or "undeveloped" or "naive." But even that recognition is a far cry from actually seeking to find a shared theological language for expressing what it means to be a self, or community, in relation to God. 

And this brings us back to the global church. Finding a shared theology of "holy conferencing" across the fundamentally different concepts of self found in the West and the rest of the world is an important part of developing a uniting ecclesiology. Yet thus far United Methodists, in our rush to incorporate the growing churches of the global south, appear focused entirely on political and economic issues. We do not appear to have considered the more fundamental problem of how to do theological reflection across different ways of seeing the self in the world in all its dimensions. 

The danger is thus that our unity will all be on the surface, with essentially Western institutions and western modes of theological reflection laid over non-Western cultures with little consideration as to what they mean from within. We will be global like Apple and Toyota, united in the immanent matters of economic and political relationships and not even cognizant that our languages of self and spirit are different, and thus our supposed unity is an illusion. We will sing "we are one in the Spirit" without recognizing that the meanings we attach to "we" and "one" and "Spirit" are quite different. 

The Malays have an expression for the cacophony of the barnyard, "ayam cakap itik," "chickens talking to ducks." Alas, that may be the true character of our emerging United Methodist global church.


  1. Parts 1 and 2 of this series are both excellent! I'd like to reprint them for the benefit of UM Insight readers. Please advise. Thank you!

  2. Cynthia,
    We'd be happy to have you reprint them at UM Insight, with attribution and a link, of course. We'll also be publishing another two-part post by Robert Hunt next week and the following week that will continue some of these themes.

  3. Mission history is full of the kind of things Dr. Hunt is writing about. In American Methodism, our cross-cultural missions began with the mystical calling of the Methodist missionary pioneer John Stewart. Stewart was an African-American who was saved in a camp meeting, and he got a vision from the Lord to become a missionary to the Wyandott Indians. So he headed for the Wyandotts. He sang and preached to them and warned them to "flee from the wrath to come." Some of them became converted and petitioned for Stewart to be licensed to preach as their minister. Some of the first converts were Wyandott women in abusive relationships who needed help in leaving their husbands. Although Stewart himself heard the audible voice of God, he also resisted when the Wyandotts executed a woman accused of witchcraft. In response to these confusing but gripping events, Methodists organized missionary societies. . . and so began what eventually became the General Board of Global Ministries. . .
    On the other side of the issue, one must never test God with assuming the miraculous. I remember another story from the history of Methodism in India, in which an Indian Methodist evangelist called down the destruction of the local gods worshipped by the people and defied them to kill him. Almost immediately the evangelist died, and people left the church as a result.
    The openness to the "porous" spiritual dimension is hardwired into the history and culture of Methodism in a way that "modern" people have forgotten. The camp meeting was full of spiritual encounters of various sorts. Thank you, Robert, for reminding us that cultural differences are much more than differences in organization or doctrine. It is these deeper issues of what it means to be human, and to relate to God, that have to be addressed in conversations about what it means to be a global church. Thus an attitude of humility and prayer is called for, in dealing with these differences.