What in the World is World Christianity?
My real engagement with the phrase, “World Christianity,” happened when I was appointed as D. W. & Ruth Brooks Visiting Professor of World Christianity at Candler School of Theology, Emory University, Atlanta, GA. When that professorship was advertised in 1987, it was described as the Chair on World Mission and Ecumenism. After I accepted the invitation and joined the faculty in 1988, it was named as Chair on World Christianity. Perhaps this is due to the fact that the term “World Christianity” was already familiar to people at Emory University. In 1945, Henry Van Dusen of Union Theological Seminary, New York, had delivered the Jarrell Lectures at Emory University and those lectures were later published under the title, World Christianity: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow (Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1947). Interestingly, Van Dusen highlights two aspects of what he means by World Christianity. Those are Christian mission, and Christian unity – the two that the Chair on World Christianity was committed to.
Let me highlight two significant perspectives that this term offers us today. First, World Christianity – understood as world-wide Christianity – helps us to define the scope of Christianity. By calling it world or global Christianity we have removed all possible limits to the scope and extent of Christian community. Such a widening of the scope and extent of Christian community is not something new. It started at the Jerusalem Council in 52 C. E. when the early Christians decided to remove some of the limits to the scope and expanse of Christianity and has continued through centuries. Yet, the scope of Christian community has always been under pressure with the question of who is in and who is out, and by the desire to make a particular form of Christianity as the benchmark as well. At every such occasion, the Christian community has voted on the side of opening up the expanse of Christianity. Therefore, the term “World Christianity” stands as a constant reminder to the inclusive character of Christianity highlighting its catholicity.
Second, the term World Christianity has placed Christian faith alongside of other World Religions, such as, Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, and so on. Dana Robert rightly titles her book: Christian Mission: How Christianity Became a World Religion (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009). Since the term “Christianity” implies a religion or a religious system, Christianity becomes one religion among the various religions of the world. This is partly due to the historical turn in which Christianity ceased to be Christendom, but came to occupy its rightful place in the midst of all the religions of the world as one among them. By using this term instead of “World Church,” we have also recognized the wider and multi-faceted religious movement called Christianity.
What is World Christianity then? It is the world-wide Christian community that stands with open arms to welcome anyone from any part of the world to its fellowship, and kneels with bended knee to take its humble yet rightful place among the religions of the world.
M. Thomas Thangaraj
Visiting Professor of World Christianity
Professor Emeritus of World Christianity at the Candler School of Theology, Emory University