One regret, one hope with Emma Wild-Wood

Reading time: 4 minutes
In this series, Professor Mona Siddiqui, Assistant Principal Religion and Society, chats to members of our community to find out more about them. Each fortnight she’ll be asking, what is the one regret that has shaped their past, and what is their one hope for the future.

This week Mona’s guest is Dr Emma Wild-Wood, Senior Lecturer in African Christianity and African Indigenous Religions, and Co-Director of the Centre for the Study of World Christianity.

Mona Siddiqui: Emma let’s start by you telling us a little bit about your research and in that could you also explain what African indigenous religions means.

Emma Wild-Wood: I come to looking at religions in Africa from a social historical perspective but that leads me to quite contemporary work and I use ethnography as well. One of the things that I do in my research is look at the intersection between Christianity and indigenous African religions. That term, we often use to mean religions that work around an ethnic group and that emerge from their polities and from their particular concerns around health and wellbeing. There are lots of similarities across these different groups and they are changing all the time but there are also some significant differences depending on which part of the continent they are in. Of course, these indigenous religions have also spread across the Atlantic, largely as a result of the slave trade and this is maybe familiar with groups like Umbanda or Candomblé which have some roots in the African continent as well.

MS: You are also Co-Director for the Centre for the Study of World Christianity. Could you tell us what your role is there and what, today, is understood by world Christianity?

EW-W: I direct the centre with Dr Alex Chow. One of our main aims is to develop a flourishing community of postgraduate students who come and study with us. What they are studying is how Christianity as a practice, a religion, a set of ideas, as an engagement with society, operates perhaps quite differently from how we might have traditional ideas of it in the western world. It raises questions about what we call religion but also how Christianity is infused in different cultures, how it meets other different religious traditions and so on.

MS: Do you think that, generally, people in the west are even aware that Christianity is growing much faster in the developing world or the global south than it is in the west?

EW-W: I think on the whole not. I think there is a rise of awareness in the last 20 or 30 years. I think often there is an assumption that it is linked to empire or neo-colonial engagement and I think what we learn in world Christianity is that those people who are Christian around the globe are often migrants, they are often moving around, they often have very localised practices and they don’t understand themselves as being connected with necessarily large bodies of political or economic power.

MS: In your view, I know this is a very large and general question, what would you say is one of the biggest challenges to Christianity in the west?

EW-W: That is a big question. I think that many people find that they don’t require a supernatural answer for life’s questions. I think some of our institutions are considered to be outmoded and unhelpful and I think increasingly for younger generations there is a lack of knowledge about Christian tradition or a confusion about it.

MS: Looking back at either your recent or distant past, what would you say is your one regret?

EW-W: If I may just add something, as a preface to this, about a research project I am doing, I am working with researchers who are in DR Congo at the moment looking at the way faith communities in the northeast of Congo are responding to Covid-19 and vaccination and so forth and trying to understand the mechanisms of trust and meaning making for faith communities and their relationship with the state. I think as I have been thinking about a regret, this is a place that I lived in for seven years and it has been insecure as an area for over 20 years now and one of the things that I look back at as a scholar and as somebody who is very closely associated with friends in Congo is this regret about that situation, about this kind of inherent violence in the situation and its really been playing a large part in this particular research project that I have been doing.

MS: And your one hope as you go forward?

EW-W: Again, in terms of this project, I am very much hoping that it may make a difference to people’s lives on the ground. We are hoping that it may make a difference between the way in which civil society and government operates at local and provincial level and this is something that the Congolese researchers on the project are taking forward but I am also hoping that this area of the world may have access to vaccinations for Covid-19 because that’s another difficult issue that they are living with – the relatively few numbers of vaccines that are reaching the country. That’s my immediate hope.