Wednesday, April 6, 2022

Ubuntu and Sanctification

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

The United Methodist leaders from Asia, Africa, and Europe behind the Christmas Covenant, the first major piece of UMC legislation from outside the United States, have identified three guiding principles behind that legislation: We are all children of God, ubuntu, and bayanihan. Two of these principles are notable in drawing on non-Western cultural concepts.

In the spirit of cross-cultural dialogue, I will treat the statement of these principles as an invitation to the whole church to engage in theological reflection on ubuntu and bayanihan and consider how these concepts can contain lessons for Methodist/Wesleyan theological thinking in other contexts as well. In this post, I will reflect on the connection between ubuntu and sanctification. In another, I will reflect on the connection between bayanihan and connectionalism.

The description of ubuntu offered by the Christmas Covenant reads as follows:

Ubuntu is an African concept that embodies a way of life where humanity is based on the understanding of interdependence and community life. It is lived recognizing that we are all created in the image of God and should do unto others as we wish it be done unto us. Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa declares, “The profound truth is, you cannot be human on your own. ... You are human because you participate in relationship. It says a person is a person through other persons. This is what we say. This is what the Bible says. This is what our human experience teaches us.”

The comments here on the image of God and the inability to be human on one's own made me think of the Wesleyan concept of sanctification.

According to Wesleyan theology, humans are created in the image of God. Sin, however, mars and defaces that image of God. Salvation, then, is about the restoration of the image of God in us through a two-step process: First, in justification, our guilt is removed. Second, through the on-going process of sanctification, we are made more holy, which is to say, more loving towards God and other humans.

I've known and believed this theological account for a long time and have looked at the concept of sanctification in particular as key to what it meant to be Methodist, one of the unique Methodist contributions to the pool of Christian theological insight.

I will admit, however, that, coming from an individualistic cultural background, I had understood the process of salvation and sanctification in primarily individual terms. Yes, sanctification was about growing in love for others, but it was a process that played out in the individual, or so I thought.

Meditating on the concept of ubuntu called that individualistic understanding into question for me. If we think about salvation as a process of being restored to true humanity (as encapsulated in the image of God), then ubuntu suggests that true humanity must be interpersonal, not merely individual. We are persons through other persons, and so we become saved persons through the salvation of our relationships with other persons. It is not possible to be sanctified, and thus not possible to be truly saved, apart from our relationships with others. Thus, the concept of ubuntu highlighted for me the interpersonal and communal nature of salvation and sanctification.

Seen in this way, then, the Wesley conjunction of personal and social holiness takes on a new light. Personal and social holiness are no longer two concepts that must be held together despite a tendency to fall apart. Much less are they two opposing concepts that people are asked to line up behind in a soft-pedaled version of the fundamentalist/social gospel or evangelical/progressive debate.

No, personal and social holiness are instead two logically interconnected aspects of what it means to be a full and sanctified human in light of the concept of ubuntu. Being a full human who lives up to the highest ideals of humanity necessarily involves connection to God (personal holiness) and love towards others (social holiness). Anything else would be an incomplete and truncated humanity.

(Incidentally, I think the Chinese Confucian concept of ren can be used as an interpretive lens for sanctification in much the same way. One bit of cross-cultural theology begets another.)

There are many further consequences of this ubuntu-informed understanding of sanctification that I do not have time or space to explore here. Relative to the current state of the UMC, one could probably reflect on what such an ubuntu-informed understanding of sanctification means for relations among different groups of Christians.

Let me conclude, therefore, by reiterating that reflecting on the concept of ubuntu challenged my theological thinking and suggested new insights to me. I hope it can do the same for you.

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