Engaging Christianity with the world
A visionary in World Christianity education and research, Assistant Professor Chammah Kaunda of the Global Institute of Theology within the United Graduate School of Theology at Yonsei University focuses his work on rethinking elements of Christianity in a regional context to address and engage real issues people around the world face today. Professor Kaunda shares his story in a one-on-one interview.
As the first full-time African faculty member at Yonsei University, tell us about your journey to Yonsei.
When I was in South Africa - physically, which is my intellectual home, as I put it - I was looking for something much more, looking for new spaces where I can be challenged in terms of my ideas and what I think.
So, when there was an opportunity to come over here, I looked at the university. You know, every scholar wants to look at the university and see if it’s a good university to be part of and what is going on there. And then I realized that Yonsei being one of the leading universities in the world in terms of theology - and other scholarship, of course - but even in terms of the faculty and things that are going on there. So, I thought this could be the best place for me to go and test my ideas under new waters.
So, and then the Global Institute itself, which is the Global Institute of Theology (GIT), has a good program and a good space for me to think about these ideas a little bit more. So, I decided that I should come and be part of something that is moving forward at this stage. So Yonsei was the perfect place for me to be at this time.
What are you currently teaching at Yonsei?
Well, because, within GIT, part of what we have envisioned to do is to develop World Christian scholarship, in theory, in it. So part of what I've been teaching - almost all the courses that I'm doing – they fall under World Christianity as a broader framing of what we are doing. So I teach “Global Theologies” in terms of focusing on Christologies, focusing specifically on Jesus Christ and how they manifest in a different context in the Global South. “Issues of Sexuality” is focusing on Africa much more specifically. What is happening? What's going on? Those kinds of questions that I'm looking at, as well as issues of interfaith - interreligious engagement. Our world is really looking for peace; as everybody is saying, there’s a need of peace. So, I look at all these questions as part of what I've been teaching in the classes.
My methodology has been quite simple when it comes to interacting with students. I love engaging students, and I love classes where we sit down and talk, where we disagree with students. So I’ve tried to create that space for them where they can disagree with me without feeling that I would reprimand them or give them low grades. But, so, I give them, I make them to be comfortable, too, in the classes. So the students, I think, they find it quite interesting in terms of the methodology because it has allowed them to grow by themselves as well. And that has been good. I think my interaction with students has been quite good because they follow me up to the office, and they come and say, “Wow this class is amazing!” or “Are you offering more courses next semester for us to take?” And this was my first undergraduate (class) – it was just this semester. So, it has been so wonderful to teach undergraduates and to just look at how many students have come for, to be honest, I didn't expect students to come for a course on “Sex and God-Talk.” But, students are interested in questions like that, so I find it quite interesting in that regard as well.
What are your research interests?
When I came to Yonsei, I had already started kind of situating myself in terms of research. Much of my research from the past, which I'm still following up trying to clear some of the stuff, was focused on African Christianity, as it interacts with issues of gender, especially, politics, environment, the challenges that we are having.
So, I look at the question, how does Christianity engage with these issues, and how can we rethink certain elements of Christianity as we are searching for the world that is seeking for peace and justice? As you know, the African context is troubled by issues of poverty, especially, and issues of inequalities that we experience. So, I've been trying to follow up those questions and engage them a little bit more hard and to see, do they extend sometimes that Christianity as a function, as a tool of operation that, probably you know about South Africa and the things that were happening, so rethinking the whole system of Christianity in the region and within the particular context of Africa, has been quite a very important question.
How do you think Yonsei should contribute to the international community as a Christian university?
In different ways, I think. First of all, I think - within Korea itself – some, like, we have GIT students. GIT students are all students that are international students, as you know. So, they come from all over the place, and we have 32 of them. That's a big number to have in this space. So much of what I've been thinking is that the students are not yet exposed to the questions and the challenges that the Korean society has been having in terms of practical engagement with the people beyond just doing theories. I think students are looking forward to becoming much more practical, engaging with questions that people are troubled with.
So I've been following up some of those questions as well. In terms of looking at the issue of elderly poverty - probably you know that has been one of my interesting things to follow up and to try to engage. What does it mean for us as Christians? What does it mean for us as GIT?
But beyond now, the borders of Korea itself, I think GIT - even Yonsei University - has a responsibility and a role to play in the world. I think a good university today is one that is engaging real issues that people are facing. As we have already said, issues of ecology are one of the key issues that are affecting the world – it normally destroys the poor. When you look at the issues of gender justice, I think for me those are some of the passionate questions in terms of the challenges that women are facing out there in the world – there are so much inequalities.
And education, actually it should lead us to become, more, a just society, a society that can promote equality. If it's happening in the wider society, it’s us – we should become a voice that should speak life into this. In fact, being Christian makes us have such a huge responsibility.
Any words of advice for students?
Well, at the moment, Christianity has shifted. So, it's shifted from Europe where it was home for almost a thousand years, and all of us, we became, kind of, recipients of Christianity from missionaries. But at the turn of the 21st century, the truth that has come is that Christianity has shifted. It's now, the majority, in the Global South as it were.
So with that shift, it means - also, questions are shifted. Increasingly, we can no longer ask these questions that we have asked in the past, in terms of the European church. We are asking new questions and these questions now are focusing much more on the Global South, with the challenges that we are facing. Because now, the center is nowhere. No continent can claim that it is the center of Christianity. So in terms of theology, also, it means that every space - if we are in Asia, if we are in Africa, if we are in Latin America - we all are now key players in forming our own theologies.
So, what can I say to young students studying theology? First and foremost, go deeper into your own culture. Go deeper into your own context. What are some of the questions, challenges that are in your context? How do you follow them up with a question, with Christianity, with your theology? How do you reformulate them so that you can answer them? How do you respond to them? So what is Christianity actually calling all of us - to reimagine Christianity itself as something that is now an indigenous religion all over the world, not just in one space, something that can change the world? So how do we make Christianity become much more of a just issue rather than just being in our own corners in the church, but in terms of focusing on justice, focusing on the challenges that people are facing? So, I think that will make the whole theological endeavor much more important for the young students.
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