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

At the same time Magesa tells us that: “Foreign languages are always a serious drawback in the discussion of African religion and other African realities. African theologians are realising that efforts must be made to study Africa’s realities in the indigenous languages of the continent to evoke more genuinely and more accurately their content” (1997:39). It should be clear that the use of native-English-style communication that enhances often lucrative engagement with a prospering global community, at the same time makes it more and more difficult to achieve self-understanding.

To many African people; the notion that there may be life without intervention by numerous mystical forces is so illogical as to be close to ridiculous. One only has to think of a story like that of the garden in the forest to begin to see such reasoning.[5] It is however equally clear in many parts of the world and especially where major resources and power are at stake – that it can be the ultimate in folly to admit that one is thinking such things. Someone wanting to know the take of numerous Africans on such issues ought to try spending a decade or two living in an African community, as a member of that African community…


‘Life’ in Africa

In all the African languages I am aware of, the term regularly translated into English as life, is something one can have more or less of. Life is not an ‘on/off’ thing. The objective is always to have more of life. In this sense ‘life’ in Africa is more like health in English; more is always better. As with other aspects of monistic thinking however, the more that is better in Africa includes material wealth as well as bodily health. The Luo people have an interesting way of describing someone who has died. They can say that chunye ochot. This implies that the heart has been separated from the body. Life (ngima) is no longer in the body as in a living person. Instead, there has been a rift between body and life.[6]

The notion that life can separate out from the body is not a new one in the history of mankind. Because life is found to not-exist in scientific terms, the question of whether life continues once the body is gone is a difficult one for scientists. Their default answer must be no; because they anyway do not know what life is.

All known living organisms are assumed to engage in certain basic chemical processes. For example – they are assumed to variously alter the arrangements of hydrogen, carbon and oxygen atoms in the course of metabolic interactions. Scientists make the assumption that life, that which they do not at all comprehend, can only exist in a context in which these elements are providing it with a sustenance or a habitat. This seems to be confirmed by the discovery some years ago now, that new life consistently emerges from contact with older life. This applies even to fungi. Fungi were once assumed to appear to emerge from nowhere (a theory known as ‘spontaneous generation’). Closer examination revealed that they spread by means of tiny spores carried in the air.[7]

To note that observable new life always emerges from observable old life is however not to have identified life itself. The fact that its now visible scientifically perceivable manifestation requires an organic context is not actually to demonstrate that there cannot be life without such a context. Even in a physical body life has no apparent role and fills no known space. How can we say with any certainty that the continuation of life is dependent on a supply of oxygen? Allow me to unpack this a little: All scientific studies done so far on the human body appear to reveal that the body’s metabolic processes can be explained chemically. In those instances where chemical explanation falls short, it appears that there are aspects of chemistry that are not yet known, and not that chemistry is an inadequate explanatory medium. That is to say; research on the physical processes that enable bodily function have yet to reveal the presence of a necessary and identifiable material that could be considered to be life. At the same tine it is clear that life is essential for chemical processes to continue in a living organism. It should be clear not only that life itself is of a different fundamental nature than is the rest of the body. It should also be clear that something that is not chemically identifiable may be not chemically dependent.[8]


Life and Gravity

Life could be a kind of force that acts independently of a medium. A comparable example would be gravity. Gravity is clearly identifiable and recognised by science as being a force. It also remains beyond current levels of scientific understanding.[9] It is amazing that such a fundamental force in human existence should not yet be understood. Gravity can be measured by its effects on substances and objects, and not in itself for what it is. The gravitational pull of the planet now called Pluto was observed before Pluto itself was identified.[10] Gravity appears to emerge from a material presence, according to a formula often written as follows: F = Gm1m2/r2.[11] That material presence need not be within the system studied for its effects to be evident.[12] Again, while gravity is observable by the way that things fall towards the centre of the earth, gravity is still there even when nothing is falling. Gravity acts on human bodies, while remaining independent of their chemistry. In some respects, gravity resembles life.

The above is not to say that life is gravity. It is merely to point out that as gravity is an unseen dimension that works without physical presence, it may parallel life itself? It follows that – because life is only scientifically observable when in chemical combination to produce living organisms does not mean that life is necessarily absent where there are no organic materials present. Life is a mystery. There is no way of knowing how lifes that are not in organic context interact with each other. Lifes may be all over the shop. Unconnected lifes may be capable in unperceived ways at engaging with the lifes that happen to be located in organic union in bodies. For example, they might influence them through dreams. Modern technology can help us to perceive some possibilities. I can pick up a small metal object, put it to my ear, and talk to someone thousands and thousands of miles away as if they are standing beside me. This is something that a few decades ago would have seemed impossible. Why should it be so difficult for lifes to communicate with each other through an unknown spiritual media, something like a 5th dimension to existence?

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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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