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European Theology Hits Africa:

When the Theological Rubber Hits the African Road

How Europe Can be an Aid to African Development

Jim Harries June 2007 Copyright applies.


The troubles besetting Sub-Saharan Africa are shown in this article to be aggravated by the refusal of the powerful international community, especially that of Europe, to recognize the theological aspects of human existence. A careful examination of the nature of language as used in international debate proves to be a key to the unearthing of causes for common inter-cultural misunderstandings and shows especially why secularism and atheism as European ideologies are problematic in terms of their impact on Africa. What is advocated is a new honest public recognition and response to the plight of mankind as mortal being searching for eternal meaning through theological understanding. This will be a genuine facing of instead of fleeing from truly global and human concerns.


Theology. Africa. Secularism. Linguistics. Pragmatics. Development. Inter-cultural.


It can seem that the historical position of Christian mission as front-runner in international relations has been usurped by secular bodies and initiatives. Christian Europe once shared its Christian faith with the world. Now it shares its commitment to secularism. This article looks at this process of secularisation, and finds it to be wanting. It proposes as a matter of urgency that sharing of God's Word be at the forefront of the foreign policy of European nations, and that theology be returned to her position as the queen of academic studies. The strongholds of secularism are shown to be shaky edifices by comparison to heartfelt theological orientations to life. Formal features of international relations being rooted in the technical and measurable aspects of human existence are shown as being misleading, especially to Sub-Saharan Africa (from hereon referred to as 'Africa'). The use of European languages for international communication has contributed to the hegemony of the technical by occluding the religious and theological from view despite its presence, impact and dynamism. Theology is shown to be a relating to the heart of mankind. This heart is in the end the core of what it is to be human, and it is what counts the most to the occupants of our globe.

This article draws heavily on pragmatic linguistics as its penetrating research methodology. This is the understanding that language meaning is not contained in texts apart from the contexts in which they are interpreted. Changing assumptions about context hence allow for a re-examination of the meaning of texts and discourses.  [1]  

1/ Secularism as Passing Edifice

Humankind's long search for solace and meaningfulness during brief respites (life-times) in this often unkind world continues apace, at least by sectors of the world's population. As a result of its particular direction changing from generation to generation as linguistic and philosophical contours ebb and flow, the accepted wisdom of one age can appear to be naive folly to another. Because the parade of progressively succeeding climates of acceptable wisdom has not come to an end in our generation I suggest, in line with Kuhn's writing   [2]   that this generation is not standing at the summit of the final pinnacle of the mountain of human spiritual endeavour. Rather, as one generation scales the slopes of achievement available to them, they must realize that what appeared to be a 'summit' is a renewed landscape of challenging attractive (especially to new generations seeking to debunk, usurp and re-ask questions considered by their forefathers as closed cases) slopes and peaks ahead of them.

As true as the above, are the intense struggles of those defending exhausted paradigms. Such paradigms, it should be remembered, are not intended only to be impressive, pleasing to the eye, invigorating or even capable of filling the pages of academic journals. They are also the cornerstones and foundations which support towering edifices. The same towering edifices seek to ensure that these foundations remain secure. Edifices shore up cracks and crevices in them because they know that if their foundational paradigms are undermined then they are headed for a big crash. The larger the edifice constructed on them the more important this shoring-up becomes. Great edifices periodically tumble, rather like giant trees in a great forest, creating havoc as they tear through undergrowth on their way down.  [3]  

One such edifice is secularism. Historically of course a mere blip in the great story of mankind, yet to the current generation especially of Western Europe (and all those influenced by it) appearing like a fortress destined for eternal reign. Time will tell, although it is without doubt that much longer-lasting edifices (the Roman Empire comes to mind) long ago joined the history class.

Empires fall, it could be argued, but 'religions' continue. Certainly the great religions which trace themselves back to Abraham, Judaism, which branched into Christianity, from which emerged Islam, can boast vastly longer time-frames than ideologies sprouted in the last few centuries in the west. The reason would appear to be that ideologies, and the edifices that emerge from them, are like lifeless, fragile and transient protrusions from vibrant living bodies. They resemble termite mounds that are vastly more visible than the termites that build them. But whereas mounds show that termites are present, the nature of termites is far more profound than the mounds that they construct. Fox's holes being easier to see than the prowling nocturnal foxes themselves, does not make the holes synonymous to or prior to the animal. As holes and mounds emerge from the activities of foxes and termites, so ideologies emerge from people's religions. In neither case should source (religion) and edifice (ideology) be confused.

I argue in another article that it is time for secularism to be counted amongst world religions.  [4]   Thus its flaws, it's lack especially of metaphysical content, would become glaringly obvious. Secularism is an outgrowth of Christianity. As such is not an independent structure (as is a true religion), but needs the roots of other religions in order to thrive, rather like a parasitic structure that is piggy-backing on other religions. In the end of course, it is the roots that determine the edifice and that are ontologically prior to and superior to the edifice (as a termite against a mound or a fox against its hole).

Contrary to the perspective often taken from secularism, 'religion' is not its own foundation but is rooted in the existence of God. If there was no God, then there would be no world and no people, neither would there be any 'religion'.  [5]   God's being may of course be different from the way his being is understood. Yet his being correctly understood being the foundation for true religion, and in turn ideology and those things constructed on their back in turn, would seen to be rather important. Discerning this is the role of theology. It is a re-realising of this situation that will return headship even in Europe to God, and return theology to its status as the queen of academia.

That may not be far away, but as I write it has not yet happened. One major reason for its not yet having happened is, I suggest, secularisms ongoing determined efforts to shore up its sides and fill its (numerous) cracks and crevices. (I hope it is clear that I am not claiming that 'religions' have no cracks or crevices. But that the weaknesses of a living organism are fundamentally different in nature to those of say a rock, piece of metal or non-living ideological structure. Living organisms change shape, bend and compensate in response to change, whereas dead structures crack and break.) Amongst the foundation blocks is the theory of evolution which is constantly defended and supported, not because of any scientific logic that underlies it, but because of the implications for carefully planned human structures in the present age should it be undermined.

The vision of the European Community is increasingly built on the assumption of the non-existence or irrelevance of God.  [6]   Any suggestion that he is existing and relevant therefore threatens the community. Hence European and much of western society is on a determined track of trying to prove his inconsequence. This is not a scientific or objective project in the slightest. There is no 'objective' evidence against God, nor can there ever be, as it is always likely that he has concealed himself where people are not looking. Yet, Europe must fight tooth and nail against God's relevance so as to defend the secular superstructure on which it is increasingly built. The European community cannot, as it stands, acknowledge a role for religion (i.e. God) in the development of a human society. That would be shooting its own foot. Europe's crusade against theology has little to do with the presence or absence of God's truth. It has much to do with desperate shoring up of its own edifices.

2/ Hegemony of the Technical

The development of a society is these days seen as a technical process. So differences between societies are measured by large international bodies on the basis of their visible and technical features. Levels of industrialisation, economic indicators such as GNP (Gross National Product) and measures of prosperity such as rates of infant mortality are at times used to make formal comparisons between countries and communities.  [7]   The 'big issue' underlying all this attention particularly in Africa is poverty.

This formal attention to the physical and technical spills over into different kinds of international relations. The latter are these days described formally by the media in the same way. We have meetings of the G8, being an 'exclusive club' of countries, based on wealth. We have associations of countries on the basis that they all produce oil such as OPEC (The Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries). The United Nations that formally represents the global community is split into numerous bodies like the WHO (World Health Organization), UNICEF (United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund), UNHCR (the UN refugee agency) that are all responsible for technical 'progress' in the lives of people in these different specialized areas. This formal sector of international relationships seems to ignore the most important questions of human life that relate to faith and belief in relation to God's role in the world.

A different picture emerges when the world is considered in terms of conflicts. Suddenly that which appears to be ignored by the UN bodies springs to the surface, and we hear of Christians, Muslims (shias and sunnis), Sikhs, Hindus, Protestants, Catholics, Communists, Fundamentalists, Colonialists and liberation in relation to conflict situations. The things that the UN is primarily concerned over appear not to be the things that define conflicts, or that people care about sufficiently so as to take up arms. Many of the latter are very theological ('religious') concerns. Why is this, and how are these related to one another? Why are formal concerns so different from apparently very human heart-felt issues? Such attention to these kinds of formal concerns has not always been there. Religions and liberation struggles have been around for a lot longer than the United Nations or indices that measure economic growth. I suggest that they are still more prominent in people's thinking. Sometimes economic indicators are used as labels, so 'the poor countries' can be used as a euphemism for 'the superstitious countries'. More and more countries are these days divided between Muslim and other 'religions'. Certainly defense policies of dominant western nations such as the USA and UK are drawn around issues concerning certain fundamentalist Muslim states, these days known at times as the 'axis of evil'.  [8]   A dearth of theologians in the formal sector of government unfortunately means that these concerns may be handled somewhat crudely, without a close appreciation of the actual nature of people's beliefs.

It would seem that many of the world's people are aware that the rifts that divide them are theological in nature, and that these rifts cause major difficulties that at times run into conflicts. This surely forces one to wonder why these features are not reflected in the attention of the large international bodies mentioned above? Perhaps it is because the very wealthy and powerful people in the world have been convinced by the claims of secularism regarding the overriding importance of the physical as against the spiritual / theological, so force an agenda onto the public that ignores the latter? Perhaps the failure to resolve theological difference has led to the choice to try to ignore them? But is such ignoring of critical global concerns justified, if even possible? What does this say about the very purpose of human life in the first place? What effect will there be on the results of academic research if vital issues are so overlooked?

Theology being ignored by government and official bodies of course does not mean that there are not many people, i.e. missionaries of all sorts, aiming to share their understanding of God around the globe. Those who say that the missionary era in Africa ended in the 1960s  [9]   seem to be proven wrong by research done by the likes of Heam.  [10]   But mission is now often done on the American model, in which there is a formal separation of church and state. (Although in America itself the dynamic of that supposed separation is very interesting, when the inclination of the evangelical vote in the USA has become critical to national politics, and the president is himself very overtly Christian.  [11]  )

I do want to point us to a particular problem caused by this separation of church and state. We have already seen that European and other so-called 'secular' governments attempt to ignore 'religious' issues in their activities, including their international relations, including their overseas aid programmes. Mainstream aid and development activities therefore go on oblivious to the cultures and beliefs of people sending the aid and those being impacted. The powerful scholarship intended to convince the masses of the wisdom of such government actions in turn ignore the issues that people are dealing with on the ground.  [12]   As a result Christian mission strategies designed and implemented by citizens of countries governed by secular governments, are informed by scholarship that has had to ignore 'religious' realities. Hence supposedly secular thinking throws mission strategies into error. (I say 'supposedly' secular thinking, because there cannot be truly 'secular' thinking in a religious world, as secularists will constantly be meeting with the contours of communities that have been set up through religious beliefs.) Relying on the 'private sector' to fill the missionary role in international relations and development is problematic, if only because this 'private' (non-government) sector is misinformed.

All this is to say that while the European Community (for example) may thrive (or may not, that is not my point) on the back of secularist policies, its powerful global impact is, in propagating misunderstandings, putting much of the rest of the globe into jeopardy. The heralding of untruth as truth (i.e. secularism) may be a convenient (short-term?) solution to some European issues (like the growing Islamic population), but in promoting untruth is immoral in its overall impact. It would be, I suggest, more honest and more helpful in the long run for Europeans as also other nationalities to acknowledge the 'religious' underpinning of their societies.

To put this in another way, it should be clear that western nations these days set themselves up as examples for African states to imitate in their search for 'development'. But part of the picture (the 'religious part of their history) being hidden from view has given African imitators an incredibly difficult task! Setting oneself up as an instructor in bread-baking, but concealing the role of yeast in the process, would result in many frustrated student bakers. Presenting human development as a technical rather than a foundationally religious / theological process, is surely as misleading.  [13]  

3/ Translating-Away

Significant theological differences are these days easily occluded from view by over-simplistic language policies; especially the adoption of English as official language by many African states. The English used is not technically a nationalized or appropriated English, but the original British or American English, the idea being that using a foreign English will oil wheels of education, international aid and trade. Because of this and in order to be acceptable to the native English speaking world, only a particular slant on the African country concerned can be communicated back to the west. That is, because 'international' English, education, trade practices and so on are adjusted to fit to certain contexts, a country aiming to share in such either must have the structures that result in such contexts or give the impression of having them.

Another reason only a particular slant on one's country can be communicated internationally is the limits of a particular language, particularly if it is someone else's. For a culture that is different to speak 'truthfully' to another using the language of the other, will clearly be to break normal language use conventions, which Africa does not want to do as it wants to be considered an equal in international relations and is tired of 'abusive' terms such as 'primitive'. This confusion can be illustrated by looking at sports. To explain the playing of football using the language of cricket will result in abuse of the language of cricket. To avoid abusing the language of cricket, the game of football must be described as if it is cricket, which can be quite a distortion.  [14]   This is the kind of distortion that is common in inter-cultural relations today.

Let me illustrate this communication handicap further using the same example of sport between Kenya and England by way of example. Let us imagine that both England and Kenya play cricket, a game that originated in England. Now let's imagine that Kenya decided to adapt the way that they play the game, perhaps by introducing on off-side rule for fielders. Because 'offside' is not a part of acceptable cricket terminology in England, this could not be mentioned in international discourse on cricket. Because Englishmen will invariably consider any infringement of the rules of their ancient game both illegitimate and destructive to true cricket, Kenyans will keep quiet so as to avoid being spurned. As a result all Kenyans and all Englishmen, except for the very few who have participated in or very carefully watched both sides play, can be assuming that they are playing the same game, when in actual fact the 'offside rule' may have significantly changed the game's character in Kenya.

This, and much more, is what is happening in international communication between Anglophone Africa and the native English-speaking world. The way to avoid it would be for African countries to run their affairs using their own languages. Then the necessary middle step of translation could be more informative as it could be done intelligently by well trained people who are familiar with both contexts, so with sufficient explanations of differences and the vagaries of the translation process itself. In other words, because accurate translation requires a detailed knowledge of the languages and cultures of source and target texts, having well qualified experts translate should bring more helpful results than crude attempts arising from little knowledge, as often occurs today when translation is done by laymen. This applies whenever there is a cultural gap between communities, regardless of whether the language they use is the same or different.

One factor preventing this  [15]   from happening in the current age, is the lack of people who have the required knowledge. That is, people with long term and vulnerable exposure to the cultures and languages at both ends (Africa and Europe). I suggest that the best person to 'translate' European matters to the African end, is an African person with long and deep exposure to European culture, and vice versa. My analogy of a view of a foreign culture, is a view of a scene from a particular vantage. For example, a view of a mountain while standing on an adjoining plain. The plain represents one culture (for example European) while the mountain represents another (African). The person who will appreciate someone's view of the mountain from the adjoining plain is not someone on the mountain but someone with them on the plain. The person on the mountain overlooking the plain may have almost no idea of how the mountain appears from the plain.  [16]  

The kind of westerners who could give the most helpful description of Africa for westerners are those who have had a vulnerable exposure to African society. That is, those who determine to work in the language of the African people they are reaching, and who do not invest outside resources in their ministry in the African country concerned.  [17]   I have explored the detailed features of vulnerable mission elsewhere.  [18]   It would be a radical departure from current practice to have African people explaining the nature of life in Europe to Africans. These days most Africans learn about the west from westerners, or books, communications and materials produced by westerners. This has obvious difficulties, as it makes it hard for the 'foreign' to link with the 'indigenous', the latter being unknown to the initiators of communication. Having an African learn about Europe using a book written by Europeans is going not from known to unknown, but from unknown to unknown. Because the impact of words used within a culture arises from within a culture, and because African people are unfamiliar with European culture, this means that they will not have a grasp of the impact or implicatures of the words used in the discourse. To go from known to unknown, an accepted necessary foundation in educational theory, requires Europeans to be taught by a European who has had exposure to Africa, and not an African who has had exposure to Europe. Similarly it requires an African to be taught by an African who has had exposure to Europe, and not a European who has had exposure to Africa!

The situation still largely found in Africa is contrary to the above. That is, in formal educational systems, Africans are required to learn about Europe (i.e. modern and so called civilized ways of life) from Europeans. Given this situation, there is a need for efforts by Europeans to attempt to grasp what is happening in the African milieu. I believe that the two principles, working in the local language and not subsidizing one's ministry, are the best way to do this so as to acquire and maintain the vulnerability that is important to maintain open communication.

Following the principles of vulnerability is the least a European can do in searching to speak sense to a culture that is foreign to him or her. The use of a European language while in Africa will occlude numerous avenues of learning from view. Investing financially in what one does using foreign money is a way of insulating that activity (whether it be 'Gospel' or 'development') from adoption by the target community.  [19]   It results in the acquisition of yes-men, making it always difficult to know when something is said to please and when it is said because it is true.

The examples I have already given above are of sport and of baking bread. I suggest that they apply equally to theology. I have expanded on this at length in the article 'The Name of God in Africa', in which I argue that unless or until formal theological debate in Africa occurs in African languages, it will remain very difficult for African people's basic perception of the nature and character of God to change.  [20]   This is because if the African name for God is used, then his nature is assumed already to be known in advance, and if the debate is in a European language such as English, then modifications to his character make God appear to be a foreigner (i.e. a European).

4/ The 'Mis-appropriation' of Language

I want to continue to present the case that the use of European languages to express public theology in inter-cultural perspective is problematic. This time I argue that it is because the theological content of, for example English, has been (mis)appropriated by the secular world.

In my approach to this case one assumption that I make is that English was once more of a 'religious' language than it is today. I think there is ample evidence for this. Well researched historical accounts of English speaking people describe or relate a level of religious practice/belief that is not widely held or even considered acceptable by formal English society today. For example, the great historian the venerable Bede describes extremely 'superstitious' practices of the occupants of Britain of his day.  [21]   The church in the Middle Ages is well known to have had much greater powers than it does today.  [22]   Crusades for the liberation of the holy city Jerusalem engulfed Europe for nearly three hundred years.  [23]   Historians describe the events of the enlightenment, age of reason and emerging out of the dark ages as a process of the recognition of and then adoption of rationality as against religious belief.  [24]   Tambiah points out that as generations come and go even the possibility of the existence or acceptance of what was once common knowledge can disappear from the collective memory.  [25]   It is very hard for British people today to even imagine the religious fervour that was once there in their country.  [26]  

As people's understanding of God's (or gods') role in society has diminished, so language that was once specifically theological has been appropriated by the secular world. 'Clean' that was once akin to 'holy' has been restricted to the absence of physical dirt.  [27]   'Safe' these days refers to a position regarding this worldly dangers, rather than having an assured place in heaven. Peace is considered to be the absence of war, or a certain social feature, rather than a heart-felt quality imbued by the divine. Love when referred to in the UK is very likely to be between people, especially a man and a woman, rather than from God to mankind. Sanctuary is a place to retreat from the troubles of the world, rather than a place to meet the divine. Life itself, while a mystery, is considered a natural rather than a divine quality. Wisdom is no longer linked with a fear of God (unlike that referred to in Eccl. 12:13). Power is looked at as between human societies and as being on a rational platform rather than as either a divine hold over mankind or human manipulation of divine powers. The term exorcism conjures up images of primitive functionaries spreading irrational fear. Preaching is considered to be forcing someone to believe against their better judgment, rather than an exhortation to take God's commands seriously. Anger is considered an 'emotion', and not an inward spiritual presence, and so on.

What has happened in a sense is a deification of the individual (although native English speakers are unlikely to put it that way). That is, people are taken as if they are complete and independent units, spiritually self-contained (a philosophy often known as individualism) rather than needing to draw on the society of which they are a part for their spiritual sanctity. This philosophy continues despite much contrary evidence. Such a focus on a person as having rights and needing over and above everything else material and physical things is, in ignoring man's social nature I suggest quite damaging in Europe. It ignores a serious ailment of western people, known as loneliness. It has surely contributed to children being bored if they don't have sufficient stimuli from things (toys) and has them see the resolution of boredom as being more and better toys, and not quality company or patient perseverance in adversity. Depression has become a major and serious ailment,  [28]   surely related to the atomization of human society. Living for oneself rather than for others is falsely being promoted as the route to true happiness. Endless evidence for the truly gregarious nature of mankind is ignored. For example bereavement and the breaking up of marriages and families causes major stress. In other words, while it is known that to a very large degree true joy, happiness and peace arise not from material plenty but from having fulfilling and meaningful relationships with others, this is at the same time officially denied.

Once we realize that the source of joy, frustration, anger and other such 'emotion' is outside of a person, and closely connected to his/her society and the divine, then we are a lot closer to the African belief in the activity of spirits. Unpleasant spirits come, as the New Testament also seems to suppose, when someone does not have a right relationship with God, something presumably assumed by British people in bygone centuries, hence the high priority they gave to getting this relationship right.

It should be clear that key terms describing human relationship and feelings having been in native English appropriated to a secularist world view, means in turn that English is no longer capable of expressing the minds and worldview of some non-European people. These terms and their meanings and implicatures (those things implied when these terms are used) being keys to many theological debates, should now show clearly why and how the nature of a theological discourse is transformed in the process of translation from African languages to English.

A further observation on the nature of 'community' and 'individualism' seems here to be warranted. To view an individual as a being who acquires meaningfulness in life in interaction with his /her material and physical environment may be incorrect. But, that does not mean that it is inconsequential. On the contrary, it appears that such a view of humanity has contributed to the great material success achieved by western people in recent history. It has meant that western 'communities' have been and continue to be able to co-operate in the fulfillment of material and economic (economics really being a view of human societies reduced to their material components) advances. The enormous differences between this and African kinds of communities are often not fully realized. The term 'community' has become secularized in the west, and is a poor description of what is found in Africa. Traditional 'communities' in Africa are bound together by spiritual ideals such as taboos, customary laws, fear of witchcraft and curses. They are not necessarily materially-productive in the western sense at all; hence physical conditions of the life of African communities often remain very limited, and measures of human prosperity such as life expectancy, infant mortality and so on are frequently concomitantly low.

5/ God and the Heart of Man

European theologians rarely seem, from an African perspective, to give sufficient attention to the relationship between the heart of man and the Almighty God. God is assumed by Europeans to be 'up there' and making more or less irregular incursions in the 'down here' world that us mortals occupy. While God's Spirit (the Holy Spirit) is recognized as indwelling human hearts, thus enabling them to better do what constitutes 'godly living' here in this world, what is rarely considered, is that the heart of something can be considered as its G(g)od. God-like qualities of the heart are recognized by some other people around the world, certainly including some in Africa. Hence for the Luo people of western Kenya (by way of example) hearts  [29]   (chunje) of people who have passed away are synonymous with juogi, which are also nyiseche, which can translate as 'gods'. The Luo say 'Nyasaye lak mana e ringre dhano' or 'God moves in peoples bodies'.  [30]   The view that the Luo have of God as living in people's bodies, is very different from the European one of an old man in the sky who has set nature to run itself, but makes occasional incursions or 'theophanies'.

There seems to be a similarity here with the position of monistic Eastern religious, believing that everything is god, unlike monotheistic religions which say that there is one God whose identity is distinct from his creation. Ogot considers many Africa people to be monistic.  [31]   Assuming this to be true, we need to note that the movement from monism to monotheism will need to follow a different course from that of atheism to monotheism. Western Christian apologetics and the theology that grows out of is showing that God exists and does not not exist. It would seem that a different approach to theology is needed for those African people who know God exists, and believe him to be inhabiting trees, rocks, animals, houses, mountains, land, people etc. This different requirement is illustrated by Figure 1 below:

Figure 1. The Nature of God and Theological Education in Africa and in Europe

The Nature of God and Theological Education in Africa and in Europe

The vertical axis measures the degree of conviction that people have of God's existence. The horizontal axis his assumed proximity to them. Y represents the true nature of God (Yhwh). E then is the European understanding, doubtful of God is there at all, and if he is around he certainly is not very active. A is the African understanding of God, certain that he is there and assumed to be constantly active. The arrow representing direction e (about 40 degrees) represents appropriate theological education for Europe (E) to help Europeans to get a closer understanding of Yahweh, whereas the arrow a (about 270 degrees) represents the same for an African (A). Note that moving a to E (a) does not take the European person to a closer understanding of God at all, but away from it, to some kind of impracticality. So also, if e is moved to A (e). In terms of this diagram, inappropriately contextualized theological education may not only be irrelevant, but can actually move someone further away from a true understanding of God, or have the effect of denying the true nature of God.

Some theologians will argue that Yahweh belongs on the far right hand side of the diagram, because he is constantly everywhere and active in everything. Practically speaking, I think this is a hard position for a European to support, as it leaves little room for science. For example, if my pen rolls off the edge of the table and drops onto the floor, did God do that? If we say that gravity is a force of nature, then we cannot presumably at the same time say that it was God, in the sense that God willingly came as the pen was rolling so as to be here to push it down towards the ground as it left the edge of the table top.

Let's consider further though just what role God does have in our lives. Many African people I know are likely to give him thanks for relief from colds, a good days taking in a business, being alive, being pleased, being joyful, getting a good husband or wife, feeling good, passing an exam and so on. In other words, God is given the credit for everything good in life. Similarly loneliness, illness, accidents, mishaps, sadness, having a wife who deserts her husband etc. can all easily be blamed on Satan. The fatalist may consider all the above to arise through good or bad fortune or luck (which begs the question of the relationship in Africa between 'luck' and 'god').  [32]   The rationalist considers it to be due to either random uncontrollable forces, and / or careful planning and foresight. Hence rationalists have devised calculated means for planning a business, take multivitamin tablets to improve their health, invest in DVDs to keep themselves entertained and happy, spend time being counseled before getting married and so on. For such rationalists, God deserves no particular credit for success in life.

So then, where is the truth, and which of these positions is the most appropriate? Reference to divine names being common in British English, although these days considered as swear words (Oh God! Bloody hell! Jesus! and so on), suggests that there was a time in British history when God got more credit than he does now, and begs the question of just what those swear words do still mean to people. (If someone's saying 'Oh God!' or 'Jesus!' is not some kind of appeal to the divine, then why continue to use the divine name?) I suggest that God is not as constrained to 'life' in the sky' in Britain as even some European Christians are inclined to think, despite Britain's being theoretically 'secular' (see above).

But the Christian theologian, and also the perceptive monist, are today faced with a puzzle. And that is, why or how those people who neither seem to pray to God nor give him credit for their actions still seen to prosper, and certainly from an African perspective looking at West Europeans, prosper enormously? Why isn't Western Europe and the European Community suffering from earthquakes, famines and catastrophes in return for their godlessness?

I can suggest various answers to that question.  [33]   There have been many times in history when the enemies of God's people have prospered, and not God's people themselves.  [34]   But that has not made God to be any less God because, as the book of Job clearly explains, God is unfathomable to the human mind (Job 42:1-3). As mentioned above, material prosperity is certainly not all there is to human life, without doubt poor people can be happier than wealthy people. So also sick people can be happier than those who have been cured by illness that can be treated using money. For example, someone treated for a broken leg may walk to a prostitute and acquire a venereal disease, which they would not have been able to do if they had not been treated. Someone ready to face suffering may be happier than the person determined to flee from suffering but who still suffers. A parent who donates a kidney to their child at the cost of their own health is presumably happier to suffer health-wise while watching their child prosper than they would have been had their child died. A parent who is sickly but knows that their children are in God's hands may be happier than a healthy parent whose children have no regard to God and are murderers or drunkards. This is of course related to ultimate questions that in the end only God can answer, what is human life for, and this especially in relation to eternity? Who cares if one spends forty years scraping together a living in poor health if this earns one an eternity of joy? Surely this is much better than to eat well for eighty years and then go to hell?

Assuming though, as is commonly done, that God desires long life, health and happiness on this earth for his people, still begs the question of how this is to be achieved; even to the rationalist. What is the best way out of the poverty and catastrophes that epitomize Africa's enigma,  [35]   may not be a simple a question of 'more money' as appears often to be assumed. Gifts of 'more money' can make someone idle, or into a drunkard or polygamist rather than into a responsible citizen, conscientious worker or good spouse or parent.

Europeans concerned with issues of African development usually have their eyes focused on peoples physical, and to a lesser extent social contexts. People's theological perceptions are not expected to hinder carefully planned (by Europeans for Africans) economic and material progress. If they will hinder them then the assumed best course of action is to ignore them until they 'come right of themselves'. But what of taking the alternative approach; of taking people's theological assumptions to be the most important, from which their social and physical lives will flow? This is essentially the Biblical approach, and I have argued above the one that is innate to human understanding, although bypassed by today's wealthy classes and decision makers in international bodies. The primary question then is how to assist someone to move (in the African context) from a monistic view of life to one in which they get a clear view of the true nature of Almighty God, and in the western context from atheism to a true knowledge of God. I have suggested that current interventions by the west into Africa are not aiding this process, so arguably are not in the best long term interests of the African people.  [36]   Perhaps then, I am suggesting, what ought to be in the view of planners of 'development' of African people, should be African people's hearts, and not their GNP, infant mortality, longevity, literacy and so on, as tends to be the case today.  [37]  

6/ With a view to the African Heart

38Some may prefer to argue that neither the west, nor the east nor anyone else, has either a responsibility or a right to 'help Africa to develop'. They may well be right, that 'Africa' may have been better off with less rather than more outside interference. Today however, that is almost a mute point. By opening its arms widely to outsiders, Africa has made itself enormously dependent on them materially, financially, socially, linguistically, educationally, in terms of infrastructure and in almost every way. Dependence having been created the question for the non-African world is how to intervene, and not whether to intervene. Resources given as aid must have some strings attached.  [38]   The question is which strings, and this question has to be addressed primarily by the giver ('the west') and not the receiver (Africa).

I do not see European people as having a good track record, in assisting 'primitive' people to 'develop'. Whether it be Australian aborigines, native Americans, even the Black's in the USA, assimilation has not succeeded, and these people often seem to be left more in a crisis than on a course to development. Countries that have a better showing economically than Africa have, unlike Africa, kept their own languages, and limited the control of foreigners. So Qorro tells us that: 'In the more recent past, South East Asian countries were part of the Third World countries until mid 1960's when they changed the medium of education from English to their indigenous languages. Today they are becoming part of the First World and are being referred to as "South East Asian Tigers."  [39]   With ever growing levels of foreign intervention, is Africa going to end up populated by whites with natives confined to a dependent existence in reserves? If contraception hadn't been there to help western countries control their own population's growth, this may already have happened long ago.

What is going to make the difference between the success and failure of western interventions into Africa is an important question, if not the important question. The response that I am suggesting should I think already be clear. The key to meeting needs of a foreign people is to do with their heart, and to do with God. People, hearts, and also God are complex. As in western societies so also in non-western; people are not 'helped' by standing apart from them at a distance, but by drawing near to them in true love (not a love of 'giving things' from a distance, but a godly love of self-sacrifice) and understanding. These two, as I have already suggested elsewhere, are achieved by missionaries who approach people from a position of vulnerability, more specifically by using the language of the people being reached, and refusing to subsidize whatever intervention they are engaging in with foreign funds.  [40]   Most of all by ensuring that their message is religious, deeply rooted in the Bible and in Christian tradition, and not in a secular Europe that makes little or no sense to those being 'reached'. Here is a test of love. If those who are in Europe who claim to be Christian fail to meet it, then perhaps a question mark should be caste onto the reality not of God, but of the depth of Christian commitment found in European believers.


An acceptance in practice of the foundations of the ground rules of secularism, including the presumption of atheism, these days seems to be a condition given for 'development' of the poor countries of the world. This applies to large organisations such as the IMF (International Monetary Fund) and MDG (Millennium Development Goals), and to all kinds of micro-projects. Can we expect thinking people just to accept such? It seems that the 'global south' is being asked to sacrifice it's heart to (have a chance to) win the wealth of the world. Surely God is grieved.

No 'primitive' country has ever developed into an advanced nation on this basis. Secularism is in this article shown as being a denial of part of what it is to be human. That means, that it is incomplete as a way of life. It is like a piggy-back system or ideology; secularism is effective only in interaction with another religion. In Europe this role is filled by historical Christianity. But how can it be expected simply to transfer over to African contexts that have no long Christian history? In reality, it cannot, and to promote secularism in Africa is to promote a system that cannot acquire local roots. In effect this means that dependence is generated, because a vital and necessary ingredient to its operation is missing.

International relations, including activities from Europe promoting development in Africa, this article suggests, should not conceal their theological underpinnings. Doing so is unjust. Concealing of theological presuppositions in western academia has thrown scholarship off kilt. That this process has become so hegemenous that many scholars are no longer even aware of it while perhaps not a problem to Europe itself, creates difficulties for those who would like to imitate Europe's maneuverings. Africa is certainly a case in point. Even those Christian and other missionaries who go to Africa are handicapped in their presenting of the Gospel that should be the salvation of the African people, in so far as they accept the declarations of the western academy. Things have reached the stage at which the best thing for Africa could be to cut the bridge to the west. This not being practical in today's world means that Europe needs, in the interests of the rest of the Globe let alone their own people, to discard its current faltering secularist stand and render its theological moorings open to public view, scrutiny and debate as well as to new divine revelation.

(to be placed at 'Figure 1')

[1] Stephen C. Levinson, Pragmatics: Cambridge textbooks in linguistics. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983) and see also Jan Blommaert and Jef Verschueren, Debating Diversity: analysing the discourse of tolerance. (London: Routledge, 1998)  Return to article

[2] Kuhn tells us that paradigms periodically succeed one another as competing schools of thought constantly question the foundations of others. (TS Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. (2nd edn) (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970), p. 162.)  Return to article

[3] See Daniel 4:22-23.  Return to article

[4] Jim Harries, 'Mission to the South, Words to the North: Reflections on Communication in the Church by a Northerner in the South.' Exchange. In press.  Return to article

[5] 'If a sentence is about t, then the existence or actuality of t can be assumed to be non-controversial or given, unless there are specific indications or assumptions to the contrary.' (Stephen C. Levinson, Pragmatics. Cambridge Textbooks in Linguistics. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), p. 221.)  Return to article

[6] International Humanist and Ethical Union, 2007. 'EU Berlin Declaration "a victory for Secularism."' 2007. [accessed 6th June 2007]  Return to article

[7] Claire Melamed. Adjusting Africa: structural economic change and development in Africa. (Oxford: Worldview Publishing, nd), p. 20.  Return to article

[8] The term 'the axis of evil' was used by President of the USA George Bush on January 29th 2002. It is used to refer largely, although not exclusively, to fundamentalist Islamic countries. Wikipedia. 'Axis of Evil.' [accessed 6th June 2007].  Return to article

[9] Such as Green in: Maria Green, 'Why Christianity is the Religion of Business: Perceptions of the Church among Pogoro Christians of Southern Tanzania.' 25-44 In: Journal of Religion in Africa XXV 1, 2, 30, 1995.  Return to article

[10] Julie Heam. 'The 'Invisible' NGO: US Evangelical Missions in Kenya.' np. Journal of Religion in Africa. 32:1 (2002) pdf  Return to article

[11] See Ann Coulter, Godless: the church of liberalism. (New York: Crown Forum, 2006).  Return to article

[12] Renownedly that of Jeffrey Sachs: Jeffrey Sachs, 'The End of the World As We Know It: the fight against extreme poverty can be won, but only if Bush recognizes that military might alone won't secure the world.' Guardian. Tuesday April 5th 2005, [accessed 16th May 2005). Sachs works on the basis that 'the barriers to development in Africa are not in the mind, but in the soils, the mosquitoes, the vast distances over difficult terrain, the unsteady rainfall' (Sachs, 'The End of the World'). He appears not to consider that the perception that people have of soils and mosquitoes may be different from his because of their beliefs and view of the world, and that these perceptions are important.  Return to article

[13] I have considered a closely related issue in detail in relation to the name used for God in Africa in: Jim Harries. ''The Name of God in Africa' and related contemporary theological, development and linguistic concerns.' 2006. [accessed 31st May 2007)  Return to article

[14] Jim Harries, 2006. 'Missions, International Relations, and Inter-sport Language in the African Context.' [accessed 6th June 2007].  Return to article

[15] That is, accurate intercultural translation that takes full account of the context at both ends.  Return to article

[16] See also Jim Harries, 'Language in education, mission and development in Africa: Appeals for local tongues and local contexts.' 2006. [accessed 6th June 2007].  Return to article

[17] Investing outside resources in a ministry carried out in Africa clearly sets it apart from the local community, or what the local community could do for itself.  Return to article

[18] See for a list of articles.  Return to article

[19] This is how I understand the title of the article by Karnga: Abba G. Karnga, 'The Need of Second Touch Upon Christianity in Africa.' 1994. Unpublished.  Return to article

[20] Harries. 'The Name.'  Return to article

[21] Frank A. James III. 'Venerable Bede.' 95-116 In: Michael Bauman and Martin I. Klauber. Historians of the Christian Tradition: their methodology and influence on western thought. (Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman and Holman Publishers, 1995), p. 109.  Return to article

[22] Jesse Lyman Hurlburt. Hurlburt's Story of the Christian Church. (Chicago: The John. C. Winston Company, 1918), p. 105.  Return to article

[23] Hurlburt. Hurlburt's Story. p. 128.  Return to article

[24] Gerald R. Cragg, The Church and the Age of Reason 1648-1789. ( Middlesex: Penguin, 1960).  Return to article

[25] S.J. Tambiah, Magic, Science, Religion and the Scope of Rationality. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), p. 28.  Return to article

[26] Christina Larner, , Witchcraft and Religion: the politics of popular belief. (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1984), p. 114.  Return to article

[27] There is a use of 'clean' that is other than this, so someone who is clean has no criminal record, but this is a relatively limited use of the term.  Return to article

[28] 'Between 5 and 10 per cent of the population are suffering from the illness to some extent at any one time.' (Hamish McAllister-Williams, 'Who gets depressed?' 2005. [accessed 6th June 2007).  Return to article

[29] Chunje translate 'hearts' in the metaphorical sense. In the biological sense, chuny refers to the liver and not the heart.  Return to article

[30] Paul Mboya, Luo Kitgi gi Timbegi: a handbook of Luo customs. (Kisumu: Anyange Press Ltd., 1983), p. 25.  Return to article

[31] Bethwell A. Ogot, 'The Concept of Jok.' 1-11 In: Ogot, Bethwell A., Re-introducing Man into the African World: Selected Essays 1961, 1980. (Kisumu: Anyange Press Ltd. 1999), p. 10.  Return to article

[32] These two were said by Odaga for the Luo people of Kenya to be the same, i.e. 'god' to be a synonym for luck. (Asenath Bole Odaga, 2004, 'Christianity and the African Customary Practices.' Maarifa Lecture given at Kima International School of Theology, 23rd June 2004. Unpublished.)  Return to article

[33] This is of course the question known as theodicy.  Return to article

[34] A read through the books of Kings in the Old Testament makes this clear.  Return to article

[35] Tokunboh Adeyemo, 'Africa's Enigma.' 31-38 In: Belshaw, Deryk, & Calderisi, Robert, & Sugden, Chris, (eds) Faith in Development: partnership between the world bank and the churches of Africa (Oxford: Regnum Books Ltd. 2001).  Return to article

[36] See Figure 1 above and Harries. 'The Name of God.'  Return to article

[37] See also Jim Harries, 'Heart-Led Development: an East African Study.' as was submitted to the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies for the IDR Workshop: The Integration of Christian Mission and Transformational Development: practical implications Monday 20th and Tuesday 21st September 2004, At the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies, Woodstock Road, Oxford. [accessed 1st June 2005].  Return to article

[38] Jim Harries. 'Difficult Questions of Giving - A Response.' 2007, [accessed 20th April 2007].  Return to article

[39] Martha A. S. Qorro, 'Unlocking Language Forts: the language of instruction in post-primary education in Africa with special reference to Tanzania' 187-196 In: Brock-Utne, Birgit, Desai, Zubeida and Qorro, Martha, (eds) Language of Instruction in Tanzania and South Africa (LOITASA) (Dar-es-Salaam: E & D Limited, 2003), p. 194.  Return to article

[40] See website VULNERABLE MISSION.  Return to article