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Vulnerable Mission

A further difference between British as against East African understanding of pneuma arises from a British tendency to question the very existence of spirits. British people often do this, it seems, without a clear understanding of what ‘spirits’ are. They are assumed to be made up of ‘spiritual bodies’ as against ‘physical bodies’. Some British people suggest that spirits do not ‘exist’. Further investigation reveals that British people’s lives are considered to be impacted by memories of their childhood, psychiatric disorders, sexual abuse, troubling experiences and other such things. British people may claim not to ‘believe in spirits’ because they attribute other factors (such as the above) to effects that African and other people attribute to ‘spirits’. The very term spirit in English is ambiguous. Its origin in Latin is spiritus—‘breath’.[19] For British people who claim not to believe in the existence of spirits, news of pneuma hagion will be received very differently from East Africans, whose issue with ‘spirits’ is not that they do not exist, but that they all seem to be evil.[20]

Without going into great detail, it should be clear that orthodox Christian teaching takes pneuma hagion to be a member of the trinity and therefore one of the three persons of the godhead. Pneuma hagion then is referred to as ‘he’ and not as ‘it’. At the same time, for whatever reason related to widespread understanding of the nature of spirit and presumably to the fact that he is referred to by a description (the Holy Spirit) as against a name (as in the case of ‘God’ and ‘Jesus Christ’) pneuma hagion is still in East Africa frequently considered to be a power rather than a person. We may ask—how understanding of ‘pneuma’ in terms of personhood is affected by terms used to refer to him in East Africa? In Kiswahili, terms such as moyo, mzimu and uchawi, roho and in fact also mungu[21] do not come into the ‘person’ category of words, so technically it is grammatically wrong to refer to such as ‘him’. It is grammatically correct to use ‘it’. In Dholuo, there is no grammatical distinction between reference to ‘him’ as against ‘it’.

My reason for referring to the above complexities is not to impress or bamboozle my readers regarding the details of East African beliefs about pneuma hagion. But it is to just begin to illustrate the enormous contextual complexity that one has to face in seeking to grasp indigenous people’s understanding of such a theological term. I do not believe that this complexity is particularly great. That is – East African understandings related to pneuma are no more complex than Western, say British ones. But they are different from British ones.

Cultural backgrounds do make a difference in how mission is carried out.

The above differences between West and not-West (in our case Britain and East Africa) are, in my view consequential. They are affecting peoples’ understanding of the nature and activities of pneuma hagion for the many reasons stated above. If they are so consequential in determining the understanding of people before they set foot in a church, or in determining understanding of key words that they will meet when they open the Scriptures, then presumably they need to be consequential to those preparing to teach, preach, share or encourage the church with teaching from the Scriptures? That is, theological education that seeks to impart orthodox teaching needs to be aware of the kind of tendencies to unorthodoxy mentioned above so as to counter, prescribe, or counter-balance them.

I consider that the exploration of and consideration of people’s pre-understanding of key ‘theological’ terms such as pneuma is a part of what is required in order to bring about contextualization of the Gospel. Contextualization implies being able to communicate God’s truth genuinely, penetratingly and honestly to people other than ones own. Neither the term pneuma nor people’s understanding of it (or of ghost, roho, jachien, moyo, nyasaye etc.[22]) is especially or exceptionally complex. The same kind of complexity is found in the use of almost any term in one language as against another – even if it can be a translation of it; hence the widely acclaimed need for contextualization of the Gospel message. It is how to achieve such contextualization that I want to consider in the second part of this article.

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Category: In Depth, Summer 2019

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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