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

Science may be useful, but it cannot be meaningful. This is because its tenets deny the very foundation of meaningfulness. Life, according to science, only exists in its effects and not in its essence; whatever constitutes the essence of life is outside the realms of science. While the continuation of life as we know it may require oxygen and water, that of itself says little about life itself. Life has yet to be identified by science. In fact, it seems that it cannot be identified by science. This is because it is in a realm that is other-than science. This means that the whole of science is rooted in a foundation that is both other than it and beyond it. It is incredible to find people in Europe and North America who in their daily lives appear not to have grasped the above. I say, appear not to have, as in an ever more basic sense anyone who is alive must know that they are alive and that everything else hinges on their being alive. They must realise this, surely, even if they then appear by some of their words and actions to deny it.


What Appears is not what is

Perhaps we are more aware in Africa than in other parts of the world that what appears to be is not necessarily what is. That is to say; the unseen determines the seen. That which is ultimate and which is of fundamental importance is life (Magesa 1997: 32, 48, 77, 174, 237). Life is important, and life itself is unseen. The importance of other things should be measured against it and can never be beyond it. Surely that makes sense. What is visible in the so-called material world is a certain portrayal of life. It is an arena for life that of itself is neither adequate nor sufficient to justify or support life. It is clearly contingent on something else that is not seen. This is starkly pointed out by Blunt (2004:318). The arena in which life is played out may be visible. The essence, life itself, remains a mystery.

How come then, my sceptical reader may be asking, are there scientists in Africa, some good ones? Let us remember that; you don’t have to believe in science to do science. You can do science while doubting it. This is a bit like so-called religion. Someone behaving as if they are religious does not prove that they ‘believe in’ the doctrines of the religion concerned. So someone’s behaving as if they are convinced by science does not of itself prove that they believe in science. It is as possible to have rice scientists as it is rice Christians. We can just as well have prosperity science as we can prosperity gospel. Both are means to an end, but not necessarily an ultimate end. Many people in Africa who talk science may not necessarily ‘believe’ in science.

Language can obscure the above. I was recently talking to an African colleague in Nairobi. He explained to me that more and more Kenyan people are secular. After further explanation I realised that what he meant by this was that they give more credence to the possibility of revenge of their ancestors than they do to Christian or other religious systems. In the West the term ‘secular’ can be loosely used to describe those who do not adhere to certain religions. In Africa it refers those who follow traditional religions. In the course of transfer from the West to Africa, the content of the term ‘secular’ has been transformed.[4] Anyone who supposes that secularists in Africa ‘believe in’ science, may be far from the truth. As I have mentioned above; such would make little sense in Africa. This article suggests that it would make little sense to anyone who thought hard enough about it. Meanwhile, ‘secular’ people in much of Africa appear to be those who ‘believe in’ their tribal customs. Iteyo tells us that to Africans materialist teachings are “alien, absurd and therefore not acceptable” (2002:150).


‘What do you believe?’

You (my reader) may not believe me. Perhaps you have already picked up your phone and called your African friend to ask them what they believe? Probably you want to ask them: “do you believe in science or do you believe in ghosts”? Hang on a minute. What is science to someone who could not get their head around a notion that someone may possibly believe that only what is ‘real’ exists? ‘Science’ comes to mean what they want it to mean. Someone intelligent will acknowledge faith in science, because not to do so would be to be considered foolish. Conceding that one ‘believes in ghosts’ seems to be inviting some kind of mockery. This does not mean one does not know that one’s long-dead grandmother can harm one’s life prospects. It means that one knows how not to talk. We must not forget that a rising percentage of African people are forced to spend (and encouraged to spend) ever more years of their life rote-learning Western ways of expressing themselves using Western languages, in the formal education system in Africa. What African people learn helps them to pass exams. Denying ‘belief in ghosts’ is the quickest way to avoid difficult subsequent questions and to identify oneself with a very dominant global value system.

Let us remember also, that science discourse using European languages works; knowing how to engage in such discourse can be incredibly materially fruitful. I can hardly emphasise this point strongly enough. The incredible value of English rises exponentially when someone knows how to use it as native speakers use it. (Rather contrary to the claim by some that native-standard English is of no greater value than any other colloquial English in today’s globalised world, for example see McKay (2002).) This advantage has no let up. That is to say – there is no clearly identifiable point on the competitive stage at which someone should cease to follow native-English language use patterns and instead just ‘speak honestly’ from their heart. On the contrary – the latter practice has numerous ‘dangers’. It is very difficult for a start to be very honest about one’s heart-level feelings in a language that is not one’s own and that does not resemble one’s own. Attempts to do so may even invite condemnation. Why else has it become so common for mixed ethnic churches with Blacks and Whites in them to self-segregate into separate Black and White churches even in supposedly very integrated racial communities for example in North America?

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Category: In Depth, Summer 2015

About the Author: Jim Harries, PhD (University of Birmingham), is 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), and a novel African Heartbeat: And A Vulnerable Fool (2018). Facebook: Vulnerable Mission. Twitter: @A4VM.

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