Monday, March 12, 2007

Christianity in Africa

Over the past few years I've become more and more interested in how and why ideas and beliefs spread. Following that interest, recently I was googling about Christianity in Africa and came upon an interview with Andrew Walls who is a professor and former missionary in Africa. The excerpt below reveals that while Christianity may gain believers, people do not necessarily completely abandon their prior beliefs. Rather there is an overlap and the missionary, minister, or priest is expected to be able to deal with spirits and witchcraft, something that Westerners are not exactly trained to do.

What aspects of the African experience are being reconfigured in Christian terms?

The role of ancestors and witchcraft are two important issues. Academic theologians in the West may not put witchcraft high on the agenda, but it’s the issue that hits ordinary African Christians full in the face.
Of course, Western theology has made its peace with the Enlightenment, the fundamental assumption of which is that there is a firm line between the empirical world and the transcendent world or spirit world. If you’re a rationalistic person of the Enlightenment, you’ll say either that there’s nothing on the other side of the line or that we can’t know anything about it. Western Christians have particular points on which they cross the line -- incarnation, resurrection, prayer, miracles and so on -- but on the whole they still assume the existence of that firm division.

The world of most African Christians doesn’t have this firm line between the world of experience and the transcendent world. It’s an open frontier which is being crossed all the time. They are very aware, for example, of the active forms that evil takes.

So what does a Christian theologian do when somebody says he’s a witch? Our instinct in the West is to say, Oh no, of course you are not a witch. But what do you do when a person tells you she has killed somebody, that she hated some woman so much she wanted her baby to die -- and then the baby dies. This can be a pressing pastoral issue in Africa.

When African Christians read the New Testament, they naturally see things that Western Christians miss. They can see, for example, that the New Testament plainly deals with demons, and that it also deals with healing -- issues that Western Christians tend to think are part of an outdated world.

It seems that African Christians have two challenges: they are reinterpreting their traditional religious culture in the light of Christian teachings, and at the same time they are responding to the pressure of the Enlightenment worldview and Enlightenment-sponsored technology.

Traditional and Enlightenment worldviews can live together very well. You can drive a car and watch television and still be very much aware of the objective force of evil and may want to call it witchcraft. And the reconfiguration process has a variety of solutions. African traditional universes have several components. Many recognize not only God, but also lesser divinities who are rulers of territories and of departments of life, as well as ancestors who are mediators. In African Christian thought, the God-component is enlarged -- but what happens to the divinities? They are sometimes interpreted in terms of angels and ministers of God, sometimes in terms of demons and enemies of God. African Christianity has a lively sense of the demonic. Ancestor mediation produces still more complex theological questions. All three kinds of answers emerge within African Christianity. But Western theology is not very helpful in providing answers to such questions, because it doesn’t even understand the questions.

John Mbiti has a wonderful story about the African student who goes home to his village with a Ph.D. in theology. This son of the village is greeted with a service of welcome and afterward a big party. During the party there’s a shrieking and a howling and a banging in the tent -- his sister has become possessed. Of course, the villagers immediately turn to the new Ph.D. -- he’s the expert, the one who has received the best theological training. But he’s completely incapacitated for dealing with this African event.

Another thing to think about is that while "Western theology has made its peace with the Enlightenment," this won't be true of most of the new Christians in Africa for whom the Western Enlightenment is not a part of their cultural heritage. We may see forms of Christianity emerge in Africa that are very different from what Westerners are used to and perhaps not in a good way. Religious tolerance, separation of church and state, and the important role of science and philosophy may be absent. It's possible that extremist Christian movements will emerge that will cause some of the same kinds of problems we now see with extremist Muslims. Hopefully, though, as Christianity spreads so too will some of these other values and beliefs.

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