The Perceived Nature of God in Europe and in Africa: Dealing with “Difference” in Theology, Focusing on “Altered States of Consciousness”

Context-dependence of meaning resulting in serious loss of content of theological language between the West and Africa, leads to the conclusion that genuine African theology must occur using African languages. To verify this conclusion, consideration

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Transcript  ReviewMissiology: An International online version of this article can be found at: DOI: 10.1177/009182961003800404 2010 38: 395 Missiology  Jim Harries Theology, Focusing on ''Altered States of Consciousness''The Perceived Nature of God in Europe and in Africa : Dealing with ''Difference'' in  Published by: On behalf of:  American Society of Missiology  can be found at: Missiology: An International Review  Additional services and information for Email Alerts: Subscriptions: Reprints: Permissions: Citations: What is This? - Oct 1, 2010Version of Record >>  by guest on June 22, 2013mis.sagepub.comDownloaded from   The Perceived Nature of God in Europe and in Africa Dealing with “DifSerence ” in Theology Focusing on “Altered States of Consciousness ” JIM HARRIES Context-dependence of meaning resulting in serious loss of content of theolog- ical language between the West and Africa leads to the conclusion that genuine African theology must occur using African languages. To verify this conclusion this article considers the use of distinct labels for reference to God arising from diflerent “cultures ”followed by a study of altered states of consciousness and their impact on theology especially in Africa. To suggest that a considerable portion of the missionary transmission of the gospel in Africa in modern times may have erred theologically in not understanding the gospel in the way that the apostle Paul did would be such a serious verdict to puss on a justly heroic enterprise that one hesitates to entertain the idea. Yet this may well be what happened and some of the most perceptive interpreters of the modern missionary movement Westerners themselves have pointed this out. (Bediako 2007:6 A Note on Sources When I first traveled to Africa in 1988, I had just completed agricultural training and was determined to “help the people” by expressing my Christian faith using my newly acquired agricultural knowledge and skills. The dissonance I observed (in the course of three years of rural secondary-school teaching in Zambia) between Western missionary outputs and their reception by local people took me from agriculture, via rural development, to engaging in a Bible teaching ministry. After 17 years of Bible teaching in one rural village, living as a single man closely integrated into the African community around me, I have felt increasingly convicted to share about the need for Western mission workers to Africa to recognize and minister in the context of real difference between worldviews. This article represents an attempt at sharing some underlying ramifications of “cultural difference” between African people and the international missions’ community. I find that some of the important points that Jim Harries has taught theology in Southern then Eastern Africa since 1988 in extension teaching programs using indigenous African languages, as well as at an internationally rec- ognized seminary. His Ph.D. applies insights acquired from pragmatics to mission in western Kenya. He has published many articles, including some in Missiology. He may be contacted at jimoharries@gmail. com Missiology: An International Review, Vol. XXXVIII no. 4 October 2012 by guest on June 22, 2013mis.sagepub.comDownloaded from   396 Jim Harries I attempt to make are not easily rooted in Western academic method. I attempt to supplement academic argument through drawing on personal experience and faith- conviction. dditional Introductory Notes Readers are asked to ignore the capitalization of “God’ -that anyway does not arise in oral discussion. I have used a capital “G” for “God” and a capital “N’ for “Nyasuye ” throughout this article. While this article focuses on the Luo people of western Kenya, I make reference to “Africans” more generically when what is discussed is more widely applicable than only to the Luo. In line with the fact that scholars these days acknowledge a basic similarity in African cultures, it seems sensible to make frequent reference to “sub- Saharan Africa” as a whole, rather than to give the impression that the Luo people are singular and different from those of other ethnicities in the sub-continent. Regarding abbreviations: References to Africa in this article are to sub-Saharan Africa. ASCS refers to altered states of consciousness. Introduction In the first part of this article, I re-explore theological debate through considering God as he is, as distinct from God as he is perceived by different people in Europe and Africa. Distinguishing God as perceived in Africa (among the Luo of western Kenya) from God as perceived in Europe (more specifically the U.K.) from God as he is, results not in three Gods; but in one God perceived in different ways. Exploring God’s nature in this way reveals startling errors that have arisen in the past when the only one term has been used inter-culturally to refer to him. In the second part, I make a frank exploration of the srcin of ideas about God through so-called ASCS (altered states of consciousness). While nowadays in the West considered to be somewhat inconsequential and of natural rather than divine srcin, these are shown as having been instrumental in shaping Western culture as it is today. In many parts of Africa where “natural” is not a distinct category, ASCS continue to play a key role in theological thinking. The implicit role played by ASCS in Africa is used as a case study in considering the difference between God in Africa and God in Europe, to emphasize the need for the development of African theological debate in African languages as the only way to genuinely preserve African categories. This need arises from the enormous difficulty (in essence impossibility) of preserving African categories and contexts in languages dominated by people unfamiliar with such. My 22 years of experience of living and ministering among grassroots African Christian communities have prompted much of the challenging reflection expressed in this article. In my writing I encourage Western academics to relocate their academic presuppositions onto an African epistemological foundation when discussing African concerns. I draw on personal experience of how the world appears from Africa, as Western authors implicitly draw on their personal experience of the world from the West. Experience has shown me that theological education in Africa is dominated by the West and that this is due to the West’s financial and linguistic dominance. Westerners believe that they have a superior way of life to share. African people often agree with by guest on June 22, 2013mis.sagepub.comDownloaded from   The Perceived Nature of od in Europe and in Africa 397 this for pragmatic reasons, and prefer to ignore cultural differences between themselves and Westerners in the course of aspiring to fulfill utopian aims. God as He Is and God as He Is Perceived Translation Ignores Differences Numerous forms of and means of communication in today’s world presuppose the inconsequentiality of translation processes. That is -they assume that what can be said to one community in one time, place, or context can equally clearly be said to another community in another time, place, or context. In addition, they assume that replication of identical (for practical purposes) communication is achieved in a relatively straight-forward way. These pragmatic assumptions regarding the efficacy of translation continue to be made by ignoring the world as it is. Their somewhat utopian aim o bring global unity to humankind, not by addressing “differences” but by ignoring them nfortunately is misled if it assumes that ignored differences will simply go away. One only has to hear news broadcasts from around the world to see “simplified translation processes” in action. Someone from an obscure corner of the world speaks, and instantly dubbed over their incomprehensible mutterings, a much more helpful voice tells us in everyday English what the person is saying, and we understand Communication in today’s world ignores, that is, the fact that word meanings arise from the context of their use, and the fact that the context concerned is unavailable to the listener.’ Naming God Related to this but specific to the field of theology, a difficulty that very quickly surfaces in the use of the divine name is that of distinguishing God as a particular being with particular features, from God as a generic term referring to the supreme divine being. The fact that there is a God tells us little of his nature. Perhaps it is through its deep and wide exposure to Christianity that the English speaking world has chosen to use the same term for God generically as a divine being, and God as a specific being with particular features to be “believed in.” That is, someone in the native-English speaking world challenged with the question “Do you believe in God?’ has known implicitly that the “God” referred to has Judeo-Christian features. This continues to be assumed even when they talk about “Africans believing in God” or “God of the Hindus.” Such difficulty is overcome in inter-human interaction through the use of personal names as against generic terms. If there is a particular man named Bill, then to say “Bill likes eating sausages” is different from saying “man likes eating sausages.” In human society the individual man Bill is rarely confused with the generic “man” of mankind. It is accepted that Bill may have a particular character that is not shared by mankind in general. The root of the difficulty in naming God is presumably the belief (that I share) that God is one, whereas humans are many. The unity of God is shrouded in mystery even in the Judeo-Christian tradition.* God’s oneness is clearly of a different order to man’s oneness r how could he be omnipresent, omniscient, and transcendent all at once? We assume God to be listening to the prayers of a little girl in China, while attending to the plans of the president of America, while bringing rain to Africa and by guest on June 22, 2013mis.sagepub.comDownloaded from   398 Jim Harries blessing to a church in Argentina. All that is quite a feat God, despite his unity, unlike man, can be different things to different people. The difficulty I am addressing here is how to label or name such “different things” that occur simultaneously with unity. This dilemma is in simple terms comparable to the ways one person can relate to many others. He who to me is “dad,” to someone else is “son,” to someone else is “friend,” to someone else is “boss,” to someone else may be “someone met on a bus” and to someone else “husband.” One person can clearly be all these things without compromising hisher unity or essential “oneness.” But this is an insufficient analogy for describing God, who frankly is “father” of everyone (Matthew 23:9), but yet is understood differently by different people in different parts of the world. For example Muslims have a different understanding of God than do Christians, Shia Muslims than do Sunni Muslims, Hindus’ understanding is different again, and African Traditional Religionists’, different again3 Prior understandings of God will clearly carry over at least to some extent should someone become a Christian, so that Christians who were once Muslims will have certain understandings of God in common, that will be different from Christians who were once Hindus, and so on. While not wanting to delve further into the more philosophical side of this issue, do see it as important for the purposes of this essay to make some distinctions between perceptions of God, and I suggest that the failure to make such distinctions has at times led theology (and other disciplines) astray. Hence I will use “God’ to refer to God generically as the divine being, but ‘‘ ’ underlined and in italics) to God as he is traditionally understood in Western (more specifically British) society, and “Nyasuye for God as he is understood in African (more specifically Luo) ~ociety.~ od then is God as understood by British people, whereas Nyasaye is God as understood by certain African people. We can then ask whether is God, and whether Nyasaye is God. Referentially, I would suggest the answer is “yes,” but de- scriptively, maybe “no.” In other words, the characters of God and Nyasaye may differ from each other in important respects, and may not resemble the character of the true God in important respects. This is assuming that British and Luo people all know that God is there, but that their view of God (i.e., God / Nyasaye may differ from the true character of God. I assume the meanings of words to arise from their use (Wittgenstein, cited in Hanfling 1989:42). Another way of saying the above, therefore, is to say that because Africans make a different use of the term Nyusaye than British people make of the term God, his character will be perceived differently by Africans than by Europeans. For example, to Europeans he may be a thinking being to be understood in such a way as to make sense of life, whereas for Africans he may be a powerful being to relate to in order to bring prosperity. The Qualities o od There may be important differences in the qualities attributed to God, and the actual qualities of God. This is comparable to saying that there may be differences between what we know to be Bill’s nature, and what we know about mankind in general. To say “man is intelligent” is different from saying “Bill is intelligent.” “Man” could be intelligent, but Bill could be deaf, dumb, and blind. Bill may be intelligent, but mankind as a whole may not be. To say “Bill is an engineer” is to imply that he is by guest on June 22, 2013mis.sagepub.comDownloaded from 
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