Friday, June 05, 2009

Incurably Religious

Dr Simangaliso Kumalo who did our 'Bible Study' time at synod, made the statement that 'Africans are incurably religious'. I was talking to my supervising minister and we agreed that the size of the Methodist Church amongst black Africans wasn't necessarily an indication of and state of the peoples' hearts. Church is a cultural thing. John Mbiti is the one who has pointed out most strongly that for Africans there is no separation between the religious and the secular. In many ways this seems to be a good thing. Christianity has in most places in black South Africa replaced or mixed with traditional religion. But it seems to be a sad fact that this is a form of religion, not a change of heart. Of course, this is not true for every church attender - there are many genuinely committed people in the black Methodist Church. But the conception of most people within the church is that church has come to be about power and status instead of about love and co operation. It is a difficult mindset to change and a difficult climate to work in.


Steven Jones said...

Hi Jen

Interesting conundrum, this. I've often wondered - every Sunday in the Rosedale area, one sees absolutely HORDES of people decked out in their Sunday best, Bible under the arm, off to church. Yet given the extent of social problems in the area, one cynically assumes that for many of these folks, their Christianity is an integral part of the suit, put away in the cupboard until next week.

John van de Laar said...

Hi Jenny,

Of course this is an important conversation to have. I am a little concerned, though, that you give away your white, western mindset here (forgive my bluntness).

I remember reading in The Healing Stream by George Hacker that for many people simply the choice to go to church is as much a "conversion" as for evangelicals who pray the sinner's prayer.

I am not sure that "cultural Christianity" or "cultural religion" is necessarily a bad thing. The indigenous African community is far more community oriented, and so faith is appropriately expressed in a cultural, communal way. The kind of personal commitment and conversion that westerners seek is not such a big issue simply because the individual is less important.

Now, I know that we feel comfortable when we can call on the individual's commitment and call the individual to live out their faith, but I wonder if part of the struggle we see in the African church is that we've tried to use individualistic methods to transform a community-based culture.

I wonder what would happen if, instad of judging "cultural" Christianity from an individualist, western perspective, we sought to find out how best to tap into the power and transformative impact that can come from embracing a faith that is a cultural reality.

It may be that seeking to minister in this way, and address faith, moral and ethical questions from this perspective could be a key to having an impact on the issues we face here. But, then, maybe I'm just being an idealistic know-it-all. I admit that I haven't really had the opportunity to "live" black African culture enough...

For what it's worth.

Jenny Hillebrand said...

Hi John
I like this that you said. "I wonder what would happen if, instad of judging "cultural" Christianity from an individualist, western perspective, we sought to find out how best to tap into the power and transformative impact that can come from embracing a faith that is a cultural reality."
You have expressed exactly the attitude with which I have come into cross-cultural ministry in phase 1. So much so that my bias is almost the opposite to my natural western one! I hear what you are saying, but I want to defend my statement. Firstly on the basis of my credentials: I am researching a Masters dissertation on the effect of culture in South Africa on Christian community - principally black African, Modern, Post-Modern and (because I want to) Existentialist. So I have given this some thought. Also I have worked with black African churches is various ways on and off for the last 20 years - but never to the extent of this year's 'full immersion'!
Secondly, following on from the question you ask as to what defines conversion. The emergent (small e) thinking is that conversion is seen in an attitude that seeks to bring about transformation in society and the realisation of the kingdom of God on earth. This counters traditional evangelical thinking that may have over-emphasized personal salvation. But surely it is also relevant to community-based cultures? Dr Kumalo gave my thoughts a point of crystallisation when he told us that Rwanda was theoretically 90% Christian at the time of the genocide. South Africa is theoretically 79% Christian according to last census. Do we see signs of that in the townships (because that's what we're talking about, western areas have their own issues)? Do we see people living transformative lives as a result of their Christian experience? And if they are not, what does that say about their experience?
On the contrary, we see church as about power and status and so on (and these are not my thoughts, but my black colleagues').
I agree with you - this is a conversation that needs to be had. I could say so much more - it's something I think about a lot. Thank you for engaging!

John van de Laar said...

Hi Jenny,

Thanks for the grace with which you have responded to my comments. I am impressed by the credentials you bring to this discussion, and your willingness to be challenged both by your studies and your experience - and I am grateful for the challenge that I receive as a result of your being willing to put what you're learning out here on the blog! Please, keep it coming.

The Rwanda experience is a troublesome one, and I guess, a disturbingly relevant issue to raise in the context of this discussion. I have a nagging question, though.

My understanding of Rwanda was that a lot of the Christianity practiced there - that ultimately went wrong and resulted in the genocides - was a westernised, charismatic version of Christianity. In other words, it may actually support my case - when we impose a western "style" of faith on the African community, disaster potentially results. I am open to correction on my understanding of Rwanda here.

My comments are not to suggest that all's well with Christianity in South Africa. There is no question in my mind that the crime stats, rape stats, corruption stats etc. in a country with a high rate of Christian allegiance, indicates that something is wrong. Clearly something of the peace-loving, neighbour-loving, enemy-loving, giving and cross-carrying message of Christ is not getting through. But, this raises another 2 questions for me:

1. What is the solution we need to embrace to address these problems and enable Christ's transformation
to happen? I'm not sure what the answer is. I'm at the Amahoro Africa gathering this week and I'm hoping to hear some possibilities and ideas there.

However, I am pretty sure that the answer is not to insist on a western, individualist form of faith. What concerns me, though, is that it seems that it is exactly this faith that is starting to gain significant ground in the townships, and is impacting our own church's membership.

2. We have been speaking about the township church here, but I'm concerned that the question fails to take account of the dangerous position that the white segment of our church is in as well. While it feels like the "whities" are different - they have a "real" relationship with Jesus, and they make individual commitments, so that must be good, right? - the individualist faith of the white, western-influenced church is equally flawed. When we can go to church in expensive buildings with all the technological bells and whistles while our brothers and sisters are dying of hunger a few hundred metres away, something is wrong. This faith is equally broken and in need of transformation. Again, the question is how?

So, I suspect we're on the same page for much of what we're saying, and I am thankful for your willingness to challenge and be challenged.

I'm not sure if my comments here are just adding to the noise, but I hope they may contribute in some way. I hope we can keep this conversation going...


Jenny Hillebrand said...

Hi John
I'll respond properly when I have more time - I just wanted to say in the meanwhile that I am JEALOUS of you being at Amahoro! May you be mega-blessed and please share it on your blog!

Thomas Scarborough said...

With regard to John's comment, I dealt extensively with Western individualism in my recent studies in the United States -- and how this impinges on the Church. I'm not sure this can be sustained. Was it not a form of Western "communalism" (whichever word one might prefer) that ruined the Church? This is a huge subject, so all I can do is to suggest it here. This would refer to strong bonds of community (including the historical aspect) which resisted the personal encounter with the Holy, or Sacred.

Jenny Hillebrand said...

Hi John
This conversation could branch in so many directions and I think they are all important. I do think that we are on the same page and that conversation in possible. May I just respond to you question 1. with two points? The first is that I think that we have reached a point of no return in terms of the influence of westernism on Africa. And this has nothing to do with the church. People pay far more attention to the activities of Vavi and Cosatu on the one hand and Generations and Oprah on the other than they actually do to the church. I know very little about Cosatu, but I suspect that it doesn't represent the best of traditional Africanism! I think you would agree that there is no going back and the question is how do we go forward.
Secondly, from my western perspective, I have not in all my research been able to find an understanding of African community that I don't consider oppressive in one way or another. This is a great disappointment to me! How do you see this African ideal? Can you describe how it should work? Would you be willing to sacrifice western ideals (such as gender equality) to an African ideal?
I would imagine that Amahoro will look at some of this. But I'd be interested to hear your thinking!

Jenny Hillebrand said...

Hi Thomas
What are you saying is not sustainable? Individualism or strong community? I'm interested, but not sure if I understand. It sounds like you are also saying that there is the danger of oppression in strong community? Give me more concrete hooks - you mean the time when the church said 'believe as I say' and restricted the Bible to the priests? I must admit my church history is a bit scratchy!

John van de Laar said...

Jen, if I understand you correctly, you're saying that "western" culture is now impacting "African" culture to the extent that there can be no African culture without this influence - is that what you mean by a point of no return? If so, I agree - culture is dynamic, and cultures that interact will necessarily influence and change each other. I do think this is happening in Africa, and has both benefits and problems.

I do wonder about the sense you have that African culture is "oppressive". While I agree that traditional patriarchal African ways of being sit very uncomfortably with my sense of gender equality, I do have a sense that some of this is changing - and we need to remember that western culture still struggles with this as well. How it changes, though, may be very different from the journey that has happened in the west.

That's where the Gospel holds power, I believe. As Leonard Sweet says, Christ is able to enter a culture, take it on, be incarnated into it, but remain a challenge to it, and able to transform it through that very incarnation. Christ is doing this in both African and western culture, I believe (I hope!). It may be happening slower than we would like, but I do believe it's happening. That's why conversations like this are so important in my view - they are part of the process of transformation.

Thomas, I'm not intending to place communal spirituality over against individual spirituality - apologies if it came across like that. In my view both are necessary. However, the tendency in most cultures/churches/groups of people is to over-emphasize one or the other. This can be helpful in creating a way of connecting with God that is shared and understood - although it may look different or even wrong to people on the "outside". But, it also necessarily limits our spirituality. I guess this is the challenge of all spiritual practice - that it both facilitates and limits our experience of the divine.

I hope these rambling thoughts have some value somewhere! I'll share what I learn at Amahoro - hopefully that will also expand our conversation here.


Thomas Scarborough said...

I like John's reply. Often it is said that individualism is the bane of the Church. Not necessarily. A simple example is this Church, which I inherited fifteen years ago. There was a strong communal bond which resisted spiritual life and movement. It was only when that was broken that the Church really entered a better phase.

Steve Hayes said...

Just about all Christianity is "cultural" to some extent, except perhaps where Christians are a minority, and possibly oppressed.

I've seen people get put on church councils and committees for reasons that have little to do with the Christian faith, and that happens in all kinds of social circumstances.

And it seems to have existed from the beginning -- it certainly seems to be behind what St Paul wrote in Romans 12:1-2.

Jenny Hillebrand said...

I just want to say that I'm not too sure what I meant by finding cultures oppressive. Because I think in that sense I would also consider democracy oppressive (the minority are oppressed by the majority). It may be that there is no way around this.
I think that Thomas and John are both advocating a spirituality which is both individual and communal and that I agree with 100%.