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

I have above tried to make a case that can make sense to a Westerner for something that is for numerous African people considered obvious. To Africans, for one’s late grandmother to be speaking to one in a dream is not a puzzle. A person’s life-presence is expected to be floating around their dead body. Why should there not be a fifth dimension after all? Why should there not be such a dimension to life?

Gravitational forces that are not understood by science are capable of bending light.[13] Why should spiritual forces be incapable of influencing physical forces and material objects? Clearly they are not incapable. The spirit (i.e. the life) in possession of a human body constantly animates it. The same applies to all plant and animal bodies. A difficulty that has antagonised understanding of this is perhaps the English term spirit. Presumably under the influence of scientific hegemony, spirits have been required either to have some physically identifiable bodily manifestation, or not to ‘exist’. In fact, the English term spirit represents an incredibly powerful force, which the Scriptures tell us also has the nature of being, that is beyond scientific identification. If it were not so, then our bodies could not even function. Every time someone moves their arm, they are performing what is scientifically speaking a miracle. Not because scientists cannot explain the chemical functioning of muscles; but they cannot identify what it is that is in you that wants to move your arm, i.e. life.


Scientific Hegemony

The scientific hegemony passed down through generations of Western people is now so dominant as to barely be questioned. Horton observes; there is a “limited vision of natural causes provided by common sense” (1993:202). Although Horton is making the point that the distinction between ‘natural’ and other than natural is not a clear one for African people, he still seems to ascribe some kind of comprehension of ‘nature’ to traditional African people. Western man easily but unjustifiably extends his own presuppositions to others, including to Africans. In reality – the notion that the world is essentially a mechanistic system in which ‘natural’ objectifiably identifiable forces prevail, is far from universal to the human species. This presupposition regarding “common sense” is not necessarily common at all. Compare the well-known Italian philosopher Gramsci, who pointed out that common sense is “continually transforming itself”.[14] Realising this might free so-called global processes of Western origin from restricting the field of research to the so-called scientific. This makes it clear why ‘religions’ are always centre stage on the global scene; they deal with that dimension of human existence that is actually in the end all that people have to depend upon; life.

Note that I am not here advocating a return to superstition. Rather, I am pointing to the central role for so-called religions that take the fifth-dimension in human life seriously. I speak as a Christian missionary to Africa, trying to explain to Westerners some aspects of life and identity of many of the people on this great continent. I explain such by pointing out that actually the peculiar ones are the Westerners.

The way that Western missions to Africa have been caught up in the enlightenment project is these days perceived by many scholars. The sheer depth of the immersion of the Gospel into that which is essentially not gospel is not so quickly apparent. Adherence to a science/spiritual dualism itself prevents smooth development of relationship between the West and Africa; so different are African people’s ways of thinking from those common in the West. One of the latest strategies intended to solve the issues that arise when dualists are reaching out to monists with the gospel, is the holistic or integral gospel. This is hard to argue with in monistic terms, where everything anyway consists of wholes. In Africa the spiritual and the material are anyway one. On the other hand, a dualistic community such as that in the West invariably interprets the holistic gospel as spiritual plus material, i.e. as two categories put together. The difficulty in doing this arises from the fact that they have developed separately. The brilliance of Western civilisation has been to bring about a dualistic separation between material and spiritual. Bringing the spiritual in hand with the material that can only develop in the absence of the overtly spiritual (i.e. the products of dualistic thinking) is not necessarily helpful for monistic African people.

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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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