Writing a memoir that describes both a spiritual and an intellectual journey is fraught with danger. How much do you reveal and what do these revelations say not only about the person writing the memoir, but the people and events encountered along the way? Some memoirs are mere fluff, while others are full of pathos. Lamin Sanneh’s memoir may lack the pathos of Stanley Hauerwas’s Hannah’s Child, but there’s no fluff here either. Instead, we find a revealing look at one man’s journey from his African Muslim roots into Christianity, a journey to America, and finally a homecoming of sorts in the Roman Catholic Church. It’s a journey with many twists and turns that offer insight into the challenge posed by conversion not only to the one converting, but to those left behind and those who are destined to receive the convert. It is also the story of a person's entrance into a different world setting, and the difficulties encountered as a stranger in a strange land. The title catches his own experiences as an African, with Muslim roots, finding his way in a Christianized, but often secular West. In Summoned from the Margin, the highly respected Yale University professor of World Christianity tells his story, one that is rich in detail, is intellectually stimulating and spiritually challenging. It’s not an easy read nor a quick one, but it is a worthwhile read.
Lamin Sanneh is the D. Willis James Professor of World Christianity at Yale. Before that he taught Islam and World Religions at Harvard and the University of Aberdeen. He was born into a Muslim family in the African nation of Gambia, the oldest son of his father’s second wife. He was raised to be a devout and observant Muslim, but something pushed him to explore outside this faith tradition for spiritual answers. His quest was not easy. His context was almost entirely Muslim – except for the colonial officials he encountered in Gambia. He attended an Islamic focused school, learned the Qur’an and the theology and practices of his faith. It provided structure and context, but ultimately questions about relating to God in a more personal way drove him to seek answers in Christianity. He writes that there was little introspection in the religion he learned as a child, no “quest for the interior light, a spiritual rite of passage with atoning possibility” (p. 56). There is, of course, comfort to be taken in the orderliness of this religious context, but for him, something else was needed. His journey out of Islam was a personal one. He moved into this new religious arena, maintaining respect for the faith he left behind. This isn’t, as many conversion stories can be, an attempt to cast aspersions on one's earlier faith experiences.
His path to conversion had little assistance from Christians. Even after going to a “Western School,” the religion he was taught continued to be Islam. At least in British controlled Africa, where Islam was dominant, there was tacit agreement between the colonial officials, including church officials, not to evangelize the Islamic populace. So, when he went looking to the churches, both Methodist and Catholic sought to direct him to the other – the Anglican Church was too connected to the colonial government to be a suitable landing place. He was finally able to receive baptism in a Methodist church before heading to America, for college. In America, Sanneh experienced a very different religious context. Being Black, he didn’t find welcome in predominantly white churches, and being African he wasn’t completely accepted into African American society. One of the themes that emerges from the book is how he experienced Protestant Christianity, both in its evangelical and mainline/progressive expressions. For those of us in the liberal/progressive mainline, Sanneh’s experiences should serve as a strong reminder of how easy it is for liberalism to become condescending in its responses to the other. His eventual turn to the Catholic Church is a result of never finding complete welcome in the Protestant community. He found a similar experience present as a faculty member at Harvard and Yale – not fully accepted due to color and background. Fortunately, he found people who helped him navigate these realities, but the journey wasn’t easy.
Sanneh’s journey into academia would take him back into conversation with his Islamic roots. As he began graduate studies, he was directed toward the study of Islam and its relationship with Christianity, enabling him to be participant in Muslim-Christian dialogues. He did this, in part, by looking at the ways in which the scriptures of these religions help shape their contexts. In his efforts at comparison he came to an intriguing conclusion that we would benefit learning from regarding the role that Islam plays in Muslim society:
The lesson I took from this was that Islam constitutes a radical intellectual challenge to the West, not by virtue of any overt offensive in particular, but by virtue of the West’s own blind spot on religion. If and when the challenge became overt, a naïve West might think a muscular military response, modulated with economic inducement, would be all it would take to dispose of the problem, showing how the religious blind spot can induce obsessive behavior as an avoidance strategy.
What he discovered and sought to convey to others was that Islam is a very “this-worldly religion.” That is, “Islam applies rules of personal obedience and appearance as well as rules of government, banking and finance, international relations, sanitation, art and architecture, music, and so on. Islam does not turn its back on the world” (p. 156). The carrot and the stick of the West will not be effective in furthering relationships. Understanding and respecting the role Islam plays in society is key.
Sanneh’s journey led him to several stops, including studies at the University of Birmingham (UK) and the American University in Beirut, before finally entering a Ph.D. program at the University of London. In the course of these studies, Sanneh focused his attention on the possible alternative to the idea of Islamization through Jihad, which has been the dominant thesis of Islamic expansion. He sought to look to another possible explanation, a more “pacific” version. He found such a version present in the expansion of Islam into Africa, as seen in the establishment of “pacific clerical communities in medieval West Africa,” a tradition that has continued into the present age. Eventually, his teaching responsibilities at the University of Aberdeen would broaden his focus to include not only Islam, but African Christianity. As he engaged in these continued studies that eventuated from his teaching responsibilities, he came to focus attention on the influence of the vernacular in religious expansion. Here he was able to compare the Islamic emphasis on Arabic as the divinely chosen language of the faith, whereas Christianity had embraced the vernacular.
Moves to Harvard and then Yale, expanded Sanneh’s opportunities to explore the deep relationships of these two faith traditions of his own experience. They also afforded him the opportunity to explore the impact of translation on society. What was missing – personally – was a true religious home. He was a scholar of religion, who had converted from one to another, but he hadn’t yet found that home that would form him fully. Eventually, however, he found that home in Catholicism. He found in Catholicism a more stable core that would give sustenance to his own faith life. He writes that “Catholicism became an exit strategy from the confinement of the upscale liberal agnosticism that has long commanded the world of academia. I felt a lively sense of emancipation surrounded by the signs and symbols of the mystery of God in the ungrudging, faithful witness of the church. That fact was the connection to the worldwide community of faith spread within and across national boundaries” (p. 267). What Catholicism gives Sanneh, it seems, is a sense of rootedness that had been lacking to that point in his journey. Being on a journey that began as a move of the individual, in the end he found solace in a faith tradition that sought to check vapid individualism.
This is very much an intellectual memoir, but it also has strong spiritual dimensions. Sanneh offers some insight into familial relations, especially early in life, but they are not the focal point. What this memoir does, more than anything else, is give us an opportunity to explore the relationship of seemingly rival religions as they manifest themselves in the life of one person. For those interested in the issue of conversion, this is a most helpful book. It will also be of interest to those engaged in interfaith conversations, for in this book we will be taken beyond the temptation toward a lowest common denominator experience of religion. As I noted earlier, it’s not an easy read, but it is an important one. Indeed, it serves as an important challenge to the way in which we envision religion present in our society.