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The Deception of Language and African Theology

Author: Jim Harries
Date: 05.05.2010
Category: World Faiths, Media Engagement, Reconciliation

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Originally Posted in English

When people say things and they do not mean what I think they ought to mean – judging by what they say, then it is easy to blame them.  But I am not sure that is right.  ‘They’ know what they are saying after all.  That is ‘normal’ for them, in their community.  It is I who am misunderstanding.

Why? Why? Why? Why the gap in understanding, yet I agree that people are essentially the same.  Also – the natural world around people (us) is essentially the same.

Sometimes the West seems to be proud that it has marginalised theology out of academia for the last 200 years.  That seems to be the source of the answer to the puzzle!  The West has been so clever to remove theology from people’s radar screens that it can now appear to the rest of the globe to be a blind monster.

The study of theology, is the study of what is not seen, or known by our senses.  Well, says positivistic philosophy – then clearly it does not exist and deserves to be ignored!

This thinking ignores the pivotal role that ‘theology’ has had in getting the West to where it is now.  It is like someone who has climbed onto the 10 foot high roof of a house with a ladder.  Then he burns the ladder and forgets about it, while amazed at the incompetence that results in others failing to scale the slippery walls with their bare hands!

The reality is that everyone on earth lives on the basis of certain theological presuppositions.  This is true whether or not they are ‘religious’, or whether or not they are theologians.  After all – you don’t have to be a brain surgeon in order to have a brain!

While visible differences in someone’s context – such as climate, altitude, soil types, topography – influence their way of life, so also do invisible differences – different assumptions about the nature of God(s).  Attempts at bringing ‘development’ to Africa, have focused on the former – and largely ignored the latter.

You can’t afford to ignore religion: “to ignore the spiritual dimension of life is to ignore the main driving force of many of the poorest people in the world” (Krige).  Secularism having become a dominant world religion (that has a very poor philosophical foundation) of positivism is creating and perpetuating enormous cultural and economic gaps between Africa and the West.

It is not only secularism.  It is also the notion that European languages can be used to bring ‘development’ in Africa that is vastly overstretched.  People use language so differently, and to ‘force’ African people to use English and other European languages ‘properly’ may be to force differences into hiding, but not to do away with them.

Thankfully the church in the West is not ignoring Africa’s spiritual plight.  Unfortunately though, because it is prescribing solutions from a distance, it is prescribing Western solutions to African problems.  There is an urgent need to challenge theological assumptions in Africa (as of course elsewhere).  This must be done using African languages, and using them in the way that Africans use them.

Keywords: language, Africa, theology, deception, vulnerable mission

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Reply Flag 0 Thumbs Up Thumbs Down digitaldion (0)  
South Africa

Hi Jim,

Thank you for your insightful post.  I have often considered the notion of language, communicative intention, and the hermeneutic filters of the listener.

Ron Martoia - a North American Christian who has done quite a lot of work with us here in South Africa, wrote some great books on this subject.  In particular his book ’Static’ and his most recent book ’The Bible as Improv’ discuss this notion in great detail and with great creativity.  See Ron’s work at http://www.velocityculture.com

Rich blessing in your work and ministry,

Dion


09.05.2010

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