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Archive for the tag “African theology”

Kimbanguist Church

Our parish priest, Father Athanasius Akunda, has just returned from a meeting of the All-Africa Conference of Churches (AACC), and reported that there has been a heated debate about whether the Kimbanguist Church can remain a member of the AACC.

The Kimbanguist Church is the largest religious body in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and has been a member of the AACC for several years. It has, however recently changed its theology, and is reported to be no longer trinitarian.

Father Athanasius told the meeting that the Orthodox Church participated in ecumenical bodies like the AACC on the understanding that, whatever the differences in theology or practive there might be among the member groups, they at least held a common faith in the Holy Trinity. If the Kimbanguist Church no longer believed in the Trinity, then it was no longer Christian, and ought not to remain a member of a Christian body like the AACC. Rather it should acknowledge that it was a different religion, and engage in dialogue with Christians through acknowledged interfaith dialogue.

I’m curious to know what changes have taken place in the Kimbanguist Church’s theology, and why. I’ve asked about this in the African Independent Churches discussion forum, but so far there has been no response, so I thought I would appeal through a blog post to see if there is anyone who knows of recent developments in the theology of the Kimbanguist Church.

Witchcraft accusations and exorcisms in DRC

BBC News | AFRICA | Congo witch-hunt’s child victims:

Congolese children are being accused of witchcraft and made scapegoats for the country’s many ills. Jeremy Vine reports from Kinshasa on the gruesome business of exorcism.

The sect – run by a free-thinking Congolese Bible teacher called Prophet Onokoko – has 230 children on its books. All are accused of witchcraft. Many have been thrown out of their family homes. All will have to undergo some kind of ritual exorcism to expunge the evil spirits.

I have a database of African Independent Churches (AICs) and would be interested in more information on this one, and on Prophet Onokoko. Does anyone have any more information on the history of this church, and its theology?

Christianity, paganism and witchcraft

I’ve been asked to read a paper on the Christian understandings of paganism and witchcraft at the conference of the Association for the Study of Religion in Southern Africa (ASRSA) in May.

The following book, announced by John Morehead, will be released too late to consult for my paper, but I’d welcome recommendations of other recent books that might throw more light on the subject. Meanwhile, I might mention the forthcoming book as a p[ossibly useful one on the topic.

Morehead’s Musings:

I am pleased to be able to begin promotion for the forthcoming book, Beyond the Burning Times: A Pagan and Christian in Dialogue, by Philip Johnson and Gus diZerega. This volume was approximately three years in the making from conception to finished product, and it is now in the final stages as Lion Publishing prepares for its marketing and publishing. I was privileged to serve as editor and project coordinator for this book, which represents a major step forward in dialogue and understanding between Paganism and Christianity

Catching up on the blogroll and tying threads together

December has been a somewhat broken blogging month.

A couple of weeks ago there was a storm that knocked out our phone lines for a couple of days — a cable struck by lightning or something. No sooner had that come back than we lost web access — run out of bandwidth again, halfway through the month! No I don’t do YouTube and podcasts, so it must be someone else in the family — perhaps my son downloading updates to his graphics program, which he’s using to draw fleas.

Then it comes back, and then it’s off again. Telkom has a thing that lets you buy extra bandwidth now, but it doesn’t seem to work. There’s a problem, they apparently didn’t like my credit card, so I report the problem but there’s no feedback. They simply don’t reply. Later my wife tries with her credit card, and that works, so we are back on the web, but for how long I don’t know.

So I try to catch up with blogs I read — starting first by checking on visitors to my blogs who have either left comments, or who have left a record of having visited through MyBlogLog. Then I go on to my blogroll, and so eventually discover several others who have been blogging on similar topics to me, so here is some of the catchup, and linking similar threads together. Some of them have been on my other blog, Khanya, which I use for afternoon and evening blogging, since Blogger works only in the morning. If it were afternoon now, I’d be blogging this on Khanya too, but since it’s before noon, I’ll use Blogger while it’s working.

Christian responses to witchcraft and sorcery

This is a topic that has long been of interest to me, and I recently blogged about it on my Khanya blog, noting an apparent difference between Christian responses in Southern and Eastern Africa, and those in Western and Central Africa, notably in Nigeria and the DRC. And this seems to be spreading to the Western world as well, through the African disapora.

In my catchup, first through MyBlogLog and then through my blogroll, I discovered that some of my blogging friends have also been blogging on this topic:

If you’re interested in the topic, those are well worth a read.

We’ve also been discussing it in the AIC mailing list. One things that strikes me about all this is that it seems to point to a significant divergence between Pentecostal and Neopentecostal theology, and between the attitude of Zionist and other “Spirit-type” African independent churches (AICs) on the one hand, and Neopentecostal AICs on the other.

I say “seems to point” because there does not seem to have been enough research on this topic. It’s something that needs urgent attention from African and Pentecostal theology researchersbecause people are dying, and so far the reasons are mostly based on guesswork.

For me there are at least three big questions, probably more:

  1. What is the reason for the apparent differences between Eastern and Southern Africa and Western and Central Africa?
  2. What is the difference between Pentecostal/Zionist theology on the one hand, and Neopentecostal theology on the other?
  3. What is the link between Neopentecostal theology and Neoliberalism? How far have Neopentecostals bought into the Neoliberal ideology, and is Neopentecostalism simply a contextualisation of the gospel in a Neoliberal worldview (thinking of economic liberalism rather than political liberalism here).

The Golden Compass

Before the film The Golden Compass (based on Philip Pullman’s novel Northern Lights) was released, there was an SMS campaign by some people in South Africa urging people to boycott the film. I blogged about this at The Golden compass — to boycott or not to boycott. When the film was released I went to see it, and enjoyed it, but found it rather over-simplified. But once again, I’ve discovered some of my blogging friends had written far better reviews than I could:

The first is from a neopagan, and the second from a Christian perspective, and both are well worth reading. Lots of people have written reviews of the film, but these are two of the best.

Entities in the land of echoes

I recently finished reading an interesting novel, Land of echoes by Daniel Hecht. It is a kind of ghost story, based on beliefs of the Navajo people in the south-western USA.

One thing I found strange and rather off-putting, however, was that the author kept referring to the ghost as an “entity”. It seemed an odd sort of word to use in the context of the story. Apart from its use by database fundis, I’ve only seen “entity” used with such frequency in American atheist polemics. I wonder if “entity” has a meaning in American English that it doesn’t have elsewhere.

One of the things I found interesting about the book, however, was that the plot revolves around possession by an ancestral spirit, the Navajo term for which is chindi.

At the moment I’m busy editing a book that deals with similar phenomena in Zimbabwe, where Shona-speaking people are often troubled by ngozi spirits. These are angry or vengeful spirits with a grudge, and could include the spirit of a murdered person, the spirit of a servant who was not paid, or the spirit of a relative who had been wronged, such as a mother who had been wronged by her children or a husband or wife who died unhappy.

This is not confined to Zimbabwe, however. A few months ago a woman I know told me of her half-sister and her daughter who were murdered by burglars who broke into their house. A few weeks later one of the murderers confessed to her, saying he could not sleep because the spirit of the murdered woman was haunting him, and she went to the police and the four murderers were arrested.

The parallels go even further, however. The book is a study of Christian healing ministries in Zimbabwe. One Christian healer in particular uses methods very similar to those of traditional (pagan) healers, and also very similar to those described in Land of echoes. This is the method of reverse possession, where the healer allows herself to become possessed by the spirit that is afflicting the victim, and the victim’s family then engage in dialogue with the spirit (now inhabiting the healer). When the healer “returns” from this state, she offers prayers, but has to be told what happened while she was under the influence of the ngozi spirit.

While many Christian healers, especially those in African independent churches, have ways of dealing with the various kinds of evil spirits that people in local cultures believe in, very few seem to adopt this method of dealing with them.

I won’t say too much about Hecht’s novel, as I don’t want to include spoilers for those who haven’t read it. I found it improved towards the end. At the beginning, apart from the strange and frequent use of “entity”, I was also put off by something that had annoyed me about The da Vinci code — supposed experts who seemed remarkably ignorant of their own supposed field of expertise. In this case it was a parapsychologist who seemed to be ignorant of the phenomenon of “possession”. But once those hurdles were over, it was quite an interesting story.

I’d be interested in knowing of any other instances of Christian healing ministries dealing with the same phenomenon, and how they deal with it.

Religious symbols as aid to developing local theology

Joey Dela Paz writes (Missions and Theology: Religious symbols as aid to developing local theology)

I’m reading illiam Dyrness’ book entitle Invitation to Cross-Cultural Theology. Here, Dyrness did five case studies of the way ordinary Christians, in a variety of settings, think about and live out their Christian faith. He points out that Academic theology have a lot to learn about theologies of the people that are done outside the bounds of Western academic setting and from written sources.

That is one of the reasons why I find the African Independent Churches (AICs) so interesting, especially the Zionists. One of the things that I have been thinking about recently, because of a book I am working on, is the use of holy water in healing.

Martin West, in his book Bishops and prophets in a black city (Cape Town, David Philip, 1975), writes:

The administering of holy water appears to be fairly uniform. Sufficient water (either from tap water or a spring) is put in a large container and then prayed for by a prophet, or by all the prophets and other senior officials of the church. In some cases the blessing of water may include stirring with a holy stick. The water is then given to the congregation members to drink, usually in small glasses, at a particular time in the service. In the Full Gospel church, for example, drinking of holy water often takes place at the same time as members are treated at the Holy Place. During the dancing they may come to the table which has the holy water on it, be given a glass to drink, and then receive a blessing and laying on of hands by a prophet. This is a rather informal approach, but in other churches the drinking of holy water may be much more formal.

What strikes me about this is that the description is almost identical with the celebration of the Great Blessing of the Waters that takes place in Orthodox Churches at Theophany (Epiphany). When the water has been blessed, members of the congregation come forward, and are sprinkled with holy water (the priest dips a sprig of basil into the vessel containing it, and uses that to sprinkle it) while drinking the water from glasses. At the end of the service members of the congregation bring bottles and other containers to take the holy water to their homes (usually the plastic bottles in which one buys bottled water in shops). They drink this when they feel ill, or use it for sprinkling it on objects they want to bless, or if somethuing bad has happened.

I very much doubt that the Zionists learned to do this from the Orthodox Church (which has done it for centuries), and yet the fact that the ceremonies are almost identical seems to point to something in human nature that needs to worship in this way, or the Zionists rediscovering something that their Protestant predecessors had dropped — premodern religion emerging from the veneer of modernity, perhaps?

The AICs usually have very little “systematic theology”, and missiologists have referred to the “enacted theology” of the AICs. Actually something similar happens when Western theologians write about Orthodox theology. They usually base what they write on written works by Orthodox Christians, but Orthodoxy does not have a systematic theology, but rather a holistic theology. Written theology must be read in conjunction with the enacted theology, and cannot be understood apart from the Divine Liturgy and the other services of the church. Orthodoxy cannot be understood apart from orthopraxy.

I referred to something similar in relation to holy water in an article Sundkler deconstructed: Bethesda AICs and syncretism, which I also cited in the December synchoblog on syncretism.

Orthodoxy, postmodernity and the emerging church

Last weekend we had Bishop Jovan of Ostrog Monastery in Montenegro visiting. He spoke on the miracles associated with the relics of St Basil (Vassilje), the founder of the Ostrog monastery.

It was difficult to follow what he was saying, because the interpreter was not very good, and I found that even I knew when he was mistranslating (using “religion” when the bishop meant “faith”, for example). It comes of the communist education many Serbs had, I suppose.

Later I got an opportunity to talk to Bishop Jovan, and to clarify some of the things he had said. Among other things he had spoken about the contrast between the emphasis in Western theology on intellectual knowledge and rationalism, and the Orthodox emphasis on life. He spoke of the danger of trying to intellectualise and rationalise things like the healings that had taken place at Ostrog, and the temptation to use these to try to “prove” the existence of God. Miracles of healing can easily become idolatrous if we fail to realise that the biggest miracle is the incarnation. What is important is not education, but holiness. Book religion is not enough: the Western church may have holy books, but the Orthodox Church has holy people, like St Basil. As an Anglican friend, John Davies, once wrote to me, what we need is not more good men, but more holy men.

On thinking about this, it seems to me that the core of this is the difference in anthropology. Western anthropology sees the individual and the collective. In the West there may be debates about which is more important, the individual or the collective. But Orthodox anthropology sees persons in community.

On the way to see Bishop Jovan I was listening to a talk show on the radio, and the host, Xolani Gwala, was interviewing the author of a book called I am an African (unfortunately I have forgotten the name of the author). One of the points made by the author of the book was that European (Western) thought saw people primarily as individuals, whereas in African thought community is more important. The contrast he made was almost exactly the same as that made by Bishop Jovan and other Orthodox Christians when comparing Orthodox anthropology with Western anthropology.

Both African and Orthodox anthropology tend to see man in terms of persons in community rather than in terms of individual or collective. The individual is like a monolith, a single stone. The collective is like an aggregate, a pile of stones. But the person in community is like a building; in biblical imagery, like living stones built into a temple. As a Zulu proverb puts it: umuntu ungumuntu ngabantu — a person is a person because of people.

What Orthodox and African anthropology have in common is that both are premodern, and therefore contrast with the modernity of Western anthropology. Western anthropology is “European” in the sense that modernity arose out of certain cultural movements that took place in Western Europe, especially the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment. But there is nothing intrisically “European” about it, any more than the “person/community” model is intrinsically “African”. I believe the author of “I am an African” errs in associating it too much with geography, though he does make the point that it is primarily a matter of values.

Before the Renaissance Europe was premodern too. Christian mission in Anglo-Saxon England, in Solomonic Ethiopia, and in Kievian Rus used essentially the same methods and were based on the same values, and the same anthropological assumptions. It was modernity that made the difference, and modernity is not confined to Western Europe, but is spreading throughout the world; the process is usually called globalisation.

It is one aspect of modernity, reason, that was the subject of Roman Pope Benedict XVI’s controversial Regensburg address. The media focused their attention on its alleged anti-Islamic content, but the deeper implication has gone largely unremarked: that Christianity is fundamentally “Western” or “European”, and that there is no place in it for “African” or other non-Western insights.

Orthodox Christianity, as Bishop Jovan remarked, does not altogether reject modernity. We make use of modern technology, like air travel and the internet. We can accept the scientific method, based on empirical research and reason, to better understand the natural world. But what we can learn by using these methods is not all that we need to learn, and exalting them into ideologies, such as rationalism, empiricism or positivism, becomes idolatry.

Postmodernity in the West is a reaction against modernism. Among other things it is a recognition that what we can know through reason and empirical investigation is not all we need to know, and that what we can learn through the scientific method can tell us nothing about values. In addition, the notion that the scientific method makes researchers objective and their findings “value-free” is a delusion.

To that extent, Orthodoxy can empathise with Western postmodernity. And Orthodoxy can also empathise with the “emerging church” movement that is trying to come to grips with postmodern society in the West.

In the last few months I’ve been trying to find out what this “emerging church” movement is about, and something of its missiological significance. I’ve tried to read and listen and ask questions, but have said little. But now I think I can say something about the emerging church movement from the point of view of Orthodox missiology.

Several people who have identified themselves as part of the “emerging church” movement have said things like “Orthodoxy has much to teach us about spirituality”. And it is here that I wish to make a distinction.

As an Orthodox Christian, I am suspicious of words like “spirituality”. It is a Western word, and denotes and connotes a Western concept — “spirituality” tends to be divorced from “materiality”. Yes, Orthodoxy has terms like “dushevnost”, which can be translated as “spirituality”, but a better translation would be “Life in the Spirit”, because it denotes a specific relationship with the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father.

In Orthodoxy, “spirituality” cannot be divorced from “materiality”. And so here is another point of difference between Orthodoxy and the West, even the postmodern West: Orthodox theology is holistic, whereas Western theology, even (or especially) emerging or postmodern theology, is eclectic.

It could be said that eclecticism is a characteristic of postmodernity, and that may well be true, but it is a characteristic that arises from modernity. Western (ie modern) thought is analytic. In studying something, it breaks it down into its separate components and examines each one separately. And this is not necessarily a bad thing. If you want to find out what is wrong with a car engine, you might need to dismantle it to replace the worn-out main bearings, for example. But that tells you nothing about what a car is for, or the effect that it has on society or the environment.

For Orthodoxy, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Isolating aspects of Orthodoxy, like “spirituality” loses something essential. So, if there is to be dialogue between Orthodoxy and the emerging church movement, the holistic/eclectic difference is one of the things that needs to be looked at. Not in isolation, of course.


PS: I am posting this in various places. For the sake of communicating with the emerging church movement, the main one is my blog here. That is because emerging church people seem to communicate mainly through the blogosphere, rather than through mailing lists or newsgroups, but I’m posting it in mailing lists and newsgroups as well, where there are others whose views and opinions I value. Some of those forums, on Orthodox mission and Christianity and society, can be seen in the sidebar.

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