By John Azumah, Visiting Professor, Yale Divinity School
On Saturday February 29, 2020, over 1100 guests filled the Great Hall of the University of Ghana in Accra, to celebrate the inauguration of The Sanneh Institute. In attendance were Christian and Muslim scholars, diplomats, religious leaders, students, family, and invited guests from West Africa, Europe, the Middle East and Unites States.
The new institute is named for the late Lamin Sanneh, who, until his sudden passing in January 2019, was the D. Willis James Professor of Missions and World Christianity at Yale Divinity School and Director of the Project on Religious Freedom and Society in Africa at the MacMillan Center. Under the leadership of Professor John Azumah, and, like Sanneh, a scholar of African Christianity and Islam, the Sanneh Institute seeks to build bridges of mutual understanding in West Africa.
Preceding the inaugural lectures, an international conference of 61 Christian and Muslim scholars and leaders presented and discussed almost 40 papers on the conference theme of “Territoriality and Hospitality: Christians and Muslims Sharing Common Space.”
A delegation including Sanneh’s widow, Sandra, a Senior Lecturer in the Program of African Languages, and son, Kelefa; YDS Dean Greg Sterling; Dr. Michael Glerup (Yale’s MacMillan Center); the Gambian High Commissioner to Ghana were received by the Vice President of the Republic of Ghana, Dr. Mahmudu Bawumia, a Muslim himself and an advocate of inter-religious harmony. Dr. Bawumia pledged his own and that of the Government of Ghana’s support for the Institute.
On the evening of Friday, February 28, YDS Dean Sterling hosted a banquet for conference participants, Yale alumni, special guests, and the inaugural speakers.
The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams and Professor Farid Esack, a Muslim theologian at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa, delivered inspiring and thought-provoking lectures on the theme.
In his lecture, Dr. Rowan Williams talked about God’s transcendence and what this could mean for human existence. Dr. Williams underscored the fact that God is sovereign over all space. Rather than belong to any space, God belongs to a form of reality in which God depends on nothing but himself. In this way, humans do not invite God into their space. Rather, God invites all of humanity into the fullness of God.
For his part, Prof. Farid Esack underscored the need to make space for the other, drawing on Islamic texts and history to buttress his point. Taking a cue from multiple Qur’anic references to God as The Greatest, Dr. Esack pointed out that humanity owes everything to God. Consequently, the most appropriate response to God’s benevolence would be to not reduce God to religious and national boundaries but to let God be God and to celebrate diversity as a gift from God.
“The subject of Christian-Muslim relations in Africa addressed by Profs. Williams and Esack were themes fundamental to Sanneh’s research efforts and led to the founding of the Project on Religious Freedom and Society in Africa at the Macmillan Center. John Azumah and his team should be congratulated for the successful launch of the Institute. We look forward to future collaborations” said Michael Glerup, Executive Director of the Project on Religious Freedom in Africa.
The inaugural events were funded and sponsored by The Blankemeyer Foundation, Yale Divinity School, MacMillan’s Project on Religious Freedom and Society in Africa, and the Center for Early African Christianity.