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

In practice the holistic gospel that I am describing brings the products of the scientific approach e.g. modern biomedicine, hand-in-hand with the Gospel. Unfortunately or otherwise, the gospel which is said to be the authority, does not explain how modern biomedicine works. The basis for the explanation of modern medicine lies in dualism. Dualism though is not found in Africa and does not make sense in Africa. Try as they might, while many Africans may be able to do science by believing in the Gospel and carefully following instructions; they struggle to take it to heart as do Western men. Dualism, to many non-westerners, is nonsense. One can only add; quite right too. As I have explained above: it doesn’t make sense.


Dualism and Dependency

Because the products of dualism that come with the gospel are dependent for their running on a way of thinking that is absent in Africa, African ‘development’ is accompanied by an enormous dependency. Because the products of the holism that Western mission these days tries to pursue arise from dualism, the holistic gospel comes to be gospel-plus-handouts. The association of Gospel preaching with material gifts has various serious deleterious side effects. Not least – it results in a distorted theology. In addition, it gives a great boost to prosperity teaching. It can draw a lot of the wrong attention. It constantly weakens leadership and results in disputes and division resulting from misguided envy and perhaps also righteous indignation over the unbalanced allocation of resources.

Ironically, when the association between gospel promotion and the products of Western life/gifts continues to become stronger and stronger, some Westerners no longer perceive a role for the gospel by itself. Hence the AVM (Alliance for Vulnerable Mission) sometimes meets opposition to its proposal that some missionaries to the non-West should work on the basis of local resources. This opposition can be of the order of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit (Matthew 12:31), as it suggests that the Holy Spirit cannot work if his actions are not backed by Western money. In the meantime the task of any indigenous African pastor or evangelist who has not yet made a lucrative friend in the West becomes more and more difficult as Christians prefer to attend churches where they are given handouts. Such disenfranchising of conscientious spirit filled African servants of God I consider to be inexcusable. Serious re-thinking needs to be done in the whole area of holistic mission.

Contrary to the apparent presuppositions of many Westerners – dualism is not the natural order of things. Dualism is not a default understanding of life. Rather, the dualism we are talking about is a peculiar product of a particular set of developments powered by European Christianity. Many people, for very good reason, are quick to point to the benefits of dualism, in which can be included numerous technical innovations, medical care, modern transport and unfortunately, also the gun and the atomic bomb. Dualism is an incredibly valuable resource, to be judicially shared and not to be kept by one set of peoples (the West) so as to oppress or create endless dependence by others on them (much of the non-West, certainly much of Africa).

The necessary moral component for a helpful spread of dualism has already been identified. Products of dualism, such as atomic weapons, can easily be abused. Already in today’s world, major political powers are very concerned over the prospect of having nuclear armaments fall into the hands of Islamic governments. Islam is considered to provide an insufficient moral basis from which to handle the full power of such dualistically-rooted technology. Christianity in the minds of many seems to do better – but experiences such as the carnage caused by Hitler in a very Christian part of the world in the 20th Century should not be forgotten too quickly. Fear of the consequences of atomic warfare probably underlie aid policies of Western governments who know that countries dependent on one’s aid (especially if also one’s language) as in many parts of Africa, do not easily become a military threat. For a Christian who believes in the universality of God’s love for all of mankind this is an inadequate reason not to share what one has with others. A Christian believes that when others take on faith in Christ, God’s Holy Spirit lives in them, and then it should be possible to trust them with the power of dualistic thinking, i.e. scientific understanding.

It should be clear at this stage that the appropriation of a scientific worldview does not arise from a diminution of belief in spirits. It appears to arise instead from a true appreciation of the over-arching power of God (which of course will result in a dimming of the perceived power of spirits). This is not to say that we teach about God in order for people to become dualistic. What we teach is what is guided by God’s Spirit, and it is what is recorded in the Scriptures, that are the very necessary foundation of non-dependent sustainable moral development! Taking people such as those in Africa large doses of the products of dualism which is not in proper theological perspective or context, is like a man with a ladder on his shoulder unthinkingly turning hither and thither causing the ladder to crash into people in a crowd.

To introduce people to dualism is to give them understanding. This requires starting where people are, and taking them to where they are not. Because of the vast cultural gap between Europeans such as the British (owners of English) and many Africans, for Africans this has to occur in African languages. This process can be assisted by Western peoples concerned for Africa learning and then ministering in African languages. The same should leave the unwieldy swinging ladder at home. That is – they should build what they do in the resources they find where they have gone. This is what we know as vulnerable mission.

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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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