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The Preeminence of Life: Towards an African Christian Cosmology in Intercultural Context

A fresh look at how emphasizing full life can transform how we do mission.

Without life all else that may be considered of value is nothing. African people are not easily convinced of the hegemony of science that seems to sideline life itself. Once undermined, the rather groundless assumption that life only exists in a chemical host, is easily replaced by questions regarding the nature and activity of spiritual powers. So-called holistic mission often runs in the face of African reality through drawing on the products of a Western dualism that Africa does not share. Dualistic understandings result from faith in a high God, something that is best advocated from a vulnerable approach to mission.

Note: The author’s experience of Africa is limited. His comments refer to some of the African people and contexts with which he has personal familiarity.



This article takes an original approach to the question of how to do mission in Africa. It is designed to help a missionary or potential missionary from the West to avoid some of the foibles that can stand in the way of effective ministry. It intends to help the West to see itself in an African mirror. It intends, through under cutting some Western mythology, to enable the Western reader to see Africa more clearly. It identifies and exposes issues that tend to discourage the development of deep and lasting intercultural relationship. Thus it intends to encourage healthy relationship.

This article points to limitations of the scientific/dualistic worldview that is very common in the West. It deems belief in science to be a pragmatic option undergirded by faith. It goes on to consider implications for understanding life that arise from the realisation that life itself falls outside of the realm of scientific discovery. Implications of the above are applied to the missionary encounter with African people. The weaknesses of dualism and science in engaging African worldviews are exposed. Some implications of these weaknesses are explored.


I am Alive

This author has over 25 years been increasingly immersed in African ways of life. Instead of having his own children he has informally adopted African children. Instead of using English at home he uses African languages engaging with those children. Instead of driving a car he rides a bicycle to visit villages of Western Kenya. Instead of seeing his identity as being to bring better things from the West to Africa, he endeavours to live God’s word in a contextually relevant way. Whether or not he has succeeded in this, his life outlook has definitely been influenced by the process. Those who like to see non-Western inputs into Western scholarship, Christian or otherwise, should bear in mind the above source of some perhaps otherwise unconventional approaches taken by this author.

I am alive, and life is all I have. Yes, I may have money, I may have a house, I may have a good reputation, I may have a family, but the value of all of these and everything else I have hinges on one thing – that I am alive. Should I no longer have life, then I could no longer consider myself to be in possession of the above things. In that sense; and that is really a most important if not the most important sense: life is all I have.[1]

Increasingly in the West it seems as if ‘science is it’. Everything seems to be measured by the dimensions of science. Even social disciplines such as anthropology, sociology, economics, psychology measure themselves against science; the more scientific the better. Some folks known as positivists or naturalists claim only to believe in that which is scientifically measurable. To them, what falls outside of the perceptible realm of science really does not exist. For them – value in life is evidently other than life itself. How strange! How peculiar – to value humanity according to what is not its essence.

All science is a product of life. There has never been a scientist who has not been alive. Yet true science seems to be done by those who ‘pretend’ that they are not. True scientists attempt, that is, to remove the influence of their being alive from the object of their investigation. Thus they convert, in their minds, that which they see as living beings, as if they were not alive at all. Thus is the foundation for objectivity. There is an assumption that things exist, whether or not they are perceived. The universe as a result becomes a place that pre-existed, in which people happen to have found a place. People have become a product of statistical chance. This is an amazing reversal; instead of starting with us or I as people have for centuries, science endeavours to suppose one’s non-existence, and then to theorise how one might have come to be.[2]


Science has its uses

Science has its uses, but may be a terrible slave-master. Science undoubtedly has its value. It has also had and continues to have many disciples. There seem to be people who believe that the ultimate purpose in life may be serving the needs of science. This belief is upheld despite the evident fact that the realm of science excludes life itself. Science presumes life to be meaningful but can provide no evidence for its meaningfulness. Science builds on a foundation laid by someone else: It seems to be clear that certain religious beliefs necessarily provide (and provided) a foundation from which science was able to emerge. I suggest that science can be an abuse of that foundation. It denies peculiar forms of European Christianity that underlie its own roots (Weber 1930).[3]

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Category: In Depth, Summer 2015

About the Author: Jim Harries, PhD (University of Birmingham), is professor of religion with Global University and adjunct faculty with William Carey International University. He works closely with a wide variety of churches in western Kenya in informal theological education. These include many African founded churches, Pentecostal churches, and the Coptic Orthodox church. Jim uses indigenous languages, and local resources in his ministry. He chairs the Alliance for Vulnerable Mission and is the author of Vulnerable Mission: Insights into Christian Mission to Africa from a Position of Vulnerability (William Carey Library, 2011), Three Days in the Life of an African Christian Villager (New Generation Publishing, 2011), Theory to Practice in Vulnerable Mission: An Academic Appraisal (Wipf and Stock, 2012), Communication in Mission and Development: Relating to the Church in Africa (Wipf and Stock, 2013), Secularism and Africa: In the Light of the Intercultural Christ (Wipf and Stock, 2015), New Foundations for Appreciating Africa: Beyond Religious and Secular Deceptions (VKW, 2016), The Godless Delusion: Europe and Africa (Wipf & Stock, 2017), and a novel African Heartbeat: And A Vulnerable Fool (2018). Facebook: Vulnerable Mission. Twitter: @A4VM.

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