Secularization’s Crisis: What Africa has to offer the world

This essay is a personal reflection on Africa shared at a meeting with friends during our sojourn in Canada. References and bibliographical information are omitted.

“Africa, your sufferings have been the theme that has arrested and engaged my heart. Your sufferings no tongue can express, no language impart.” William Wilberforce

Let me begin with reference to our Canadian experience. In leaving the shores of Africa we found that we had entered a world more foreign than imagined; we had stepped unwittingly into the clasp of the “most secular city in the world” (DA Carson). West-Coast Canadian culture has been aptly described as incuriosity toward the Gospel, or a loss of appetite (anorexia) for all things Christian. The common mantra “I am spiritual but not religious” belies the fact that there is no actual hunger for the reality of the Spirit, from whom all true spirit-ual things ensue. This is indicative of what is often called the crisis of the secularisation of society in the West.

The Secularization of Society

The notion of the secularisation of (Western) society is a fascinating subject in its own right, with both supporters and detractors of its central thesis; that our society is no longer concerned with religion the way it used to be. Secular, from saeculum (generation, or age) in its Christian Latin usage denotes ‘the world’, as opposed to sacred, from sacer (holy), that which is consecrated to God. Back in 1966 Bryan Wilson called it “the process in which religious thinking, practice and institutions lose social significance”, and Anthony Giddens, more recently as “the process where religion loses its influence over the various spheres of social life”. Or, as Max Weber more imaginatively called it, “the disenchantment of the world”.

There are thus those who are supporters of the Secularisation Thesis (Weber, Durkheim and others), and those who are trying to refute the thesis by suggesting that religion remains a significant force but in unfamiliar forms (Peter Berger; Charles Taylor etc.). Personally, I agree with the latter group, thinking along with Calvin and others that human beings made in the image of God remain worshipping creatures within whom are always found at whatever time or place in history the semen religiones (remnant of religion) and a sensus divinitatus (sense of the divine). In other words, ours is not so much a world in the grip of secularisation, but of de-sacralization or more accurately, desecration.

However, for our purposes, let us call this phenomenon functional secularisation. It is characterised by disenchantment with Christianity in particular (a-theism defined as “knowing which God I do not want to believe in anymore”). Biblical literacy and Biblical morality as anecdotal evidence (in accordance with our experience in Canada) are thus obvious ways in which to measure functional secularization. Such is not only the case in the West, but also in South Africa and the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa.

Implausibility Structures and Defeater Beliefs

Another way to measure functional secularization is by means of “cultural implausibility structures”. At this point I want to reference an influential paper by Tim Keller, entitled “Deconstructing Defeater Beliefs: Leading the Secular to Christ” (available on the web at multiple locations). Keller introduces from the conceptual world of philosophy, two key concepts, implausibility structures and defeater beliefs:

Every culture hostile to Christianity holds to a set of ‘common-sense’ consensus beliefs that automatically make Christianity seem implausible to people. These are what philosophers call “defeater beliefs”. A defeater belief is Belief-A that, if true, means Belief-B can’t be true. … […] … When a culture develops a combination of many, widely held defeater beliefs it becomes a cultural ‘implausibility–structure’. In these societies, most people don’t feel they have to give Christianity a good hearing—they don’t feel that kind of energy is warranted. They know it just can’t be true. That is what makes evangelism in hostile cultures much more difficult and complex than it was under ‘Christendom’. In our Western culture (and in places like Japan, India and Muslim countries) the reigning implausibility-structure against Christianity is very strong. Christianity simply looks ludicrous. In places like Africa, Latin America, and China, however, the implausibility structures are eroding fast. The widely held assumptions in the culture make Christianity look credible there.

I don’t think for a moment that Keller is suggesting in his paper that belief is some form of mental assent or recognition, or that only that which can be accommodated to what is culturally plausible is therefore believable, i.e., a sociological reading of the acceptance of Christianity which denies its supernatural character. The point of gaining a hearing, or of removing the cultural hurdles, is obvious.

This means, according to Keller, that speaking the gospel into culture requires two different kinds of action. First, deconstructing the culture’s implausibility structure. “In short, this means you have to show on the culture’s own terms (that is, by its own definitions of justice, rationality, meaning) that its objections to Christianity don’t hold up”. The point here is not that of refuting or opposing the culture, or simply answering the culture, but deconstructing its solutions, showing that the cultural options are illogical, damaging or simply cannot work. Secondly, it is necessary to connect Christ to the cultural narrative, showing “in line with the culture’s own (best) aspirations, hopes, and convictions that its own cultural story won’t be resolved or have a happy ending outside of Christ”.

Keller provides several examples (and refutations) of the implausibility structures operative in the West. He mentions religious pluralism, the problem of theodicy, the challenge of relativism in truth, the track record of Christian History, the rejection of notions of guilt and judgment, and the difficulty with the authority and reliability of the Bible.

With this in mind, let us turn to Africa and focus our attention to its own particular implausibility structures, and in reply, its strength against Western defeater beliefs, which is the dominant intellectual force under which it still finds itself.

African Implausibility Structures

For our discussion I would like to mention three defeater complexes or implausibility frameworks.

First, Africa’s own particular blend of inclusivism. Without providing a full discussion of this issue, we note that African Christian intellectualism in the 20thcentury, from John Mbiti, through Desmond Tutu to Kwame Bediako, have all maintained in some form or another, continuity between the African Traditional Religions and the New Testament. To call this or the church practices that flow from it ‘syncretism’, is too simplistic a designation. It is far better, given the origins of the ideas of the propagators (who almost all completed their studies in Western centres of learning), to call it African inclusivism. (Pluralism would be inaccurate, given its distinctly Christian nominative flavour.) In other words, despite the enormous and real challenges of contextualising the Gospel in Africa, the methodology behind what is broadly called “African Theology”, is distinctly Western. Various examples of this can be cited, but I will refrain from doing so in the interest of time. (Paul Bowers’ article on “African Theology” in the Baker Dictionary is lucid, as is Keith Ferdinando’s critical evaluation of Kwame Bediako’s doctoral thesis.)

Secondly, African theodicy. Theodicy in the West is an individualistic notion and often focused on personal suffering, while in Africa the matter is corporate, pan-African, and focused on the continental injustices often associated with colonialism. Why should Africans, of all peoples on the earth suffer so much and be so far left behind? Let us be reminded that all theodicy has God as subject, and unlike its voluminous reflection in Western theology, African theology has been marked by silence in its defence of the providence of God. Not dissimilar to African Theology’s lack of post-Nicaean reflection on the Trinity, this constitutes is a significant and serious omission.

Thirdly, the colonial-Christian legacy. What has Christianity really done for Africa? How has it marred its identity? How has it created the conundrum expressed by the rhetorical aphorisms; “am I a Christian African or an African Christian” and “did the missionaries bring God or did God bring the missionaries”? All historiography in Africa has to reckon with its colonial history, and with that, its accompanied Christian or missionary history, the so-called “happy accident”. In this instance the historical record produces a narrative which at many points finds itself at variance with the anti-Christianisation refrain now the norm in all intellectual discourse on the subject, even in departments that pride themselves in fearless honesty and integrity in scholarship. There simply is no palate for an alternative narrative, only distaste. This in spite of the fact that something as central as education in Africa itself serves as an example, which in exploring its proto-history through missionary schools provides irrefutable evidence for having yielded the bulk of Africa’s inaugural leaders of independence. If the post- and anti-colonial narrative is here to stay, it is in dire need of nuance.

There are several other implausibility structures, but the ones mentioned are some of the key points which remain unaddressed. The reality is that unless we work at deconstructing such defeater beliefs (which in many cases have become cultural myths), we are going to continue to struggle to make headway towards an indigenous ownership of the Gospel in Africa. These defeater beliefs, unless adequately and comprehensively addressed, will continue to function as substantial barriers against the deep reception of the Gospel in Africa.

What Africa has to offer 

What becomes transparently clear when living on another continent however, is how attractive Africa is as a place of spiritual vitality and life. Its great strength lies in some of the following unique actualities.

First, its pre-Modern epistemology. What Africa has to offer in essence, is its pre-modern worldview, a pre-enlightenment or pre-rationalistic form of reasoning—the ‘shape of our thinking’. Ironically, its greatest strength against the spiritual barrenness of the West is that it has remained in some sense, to use a dangerous word, “unenlightened”. Africa was not intoxicated by, or submerged into the waters of rationalism, and hence it has retained enough oxygen in the lungs for the heart and the mind both to function, and to function together. Connecting faith and reason does not necessitate an apologetical effort comparable to a shift in Newtonian physics, nor are thinking and worshipping deemed mutually exclusive categories. Africa did not have its own Descartes or Kant, and for that we should be both grateful and watchful for those who desire to take on their mantle. It also means that Christians ought to labour while it is day, for epistemological dusk may sneak up unawares. Those for whom all this sounds ‘backward’ should note just how hard it has become to communicate truth to the whole person in the West. I recently heard Tim Keller say to his New York audience, “allow your imagination and your heart to lead your mind to Christ”, an indication of the extent to which the mind has been programmed to be prejudiced against Christian belief (or any form of belief) in the West. 

Secondly, curiosity towards spiritual realities. If the West is marked by incuriosity, then Africa is marked by a lively curiosity towards the world of the spiritual and the religious. Often factored by conservative Christians as negative or in opposition to the appropriation of the Gospel, this cultural disposition should perhaps be valued more for the opportunity it presents than merely the obvious dangers it may harbour. In general, Christianised Africa provides multiple ‘pegs’ on which to hook an apologia for Christ, and the conceptual categories of a Christian worldview are both existing and functioning in society. There will come a day when the low spiritual ceiling of Africa might recede and the curiosity that comes with it might fade.

Thirdly, a corporate view of personal identity. In Africa the who am I question is answered by posing the counter question, to whom do I belong. To which the answer is “I am because we are, the community to whom I belong”. In other words, Africa resolves the question of personhood in a way that appears restrictive to the Westerner, but is in actual fact a liberation from the tyranny of individualism. The basic notion of society in Africa does not revolve around the individual in isolation from, but rather in relation to the rest of society. This is a profoundly powerful foundation for the future of society when compared to the crisis individualist autonomy has thrust upon the West, especially as seen in the contemporary debates around human sexuality and human identity. Of course, the collective identity poses its own problems in need of addressing (somewhat mitigated by decades of Western individualism seeping through the cracks). Nonetheless, there remains an opportunity for shaping a biblical view of personhood, neither collectivist nor individualist. 

Fourthly and finally, the African experience of life widely encompasses suffering and trial, and is thus formative in shaping human character on this continent. We often focus on the lack of moral character in Africa (e.g. business ethics, leadership integrity and so on), but it is also true that we are dealing with a majority population who have their character shaped on the anvil of suffering and trial and poverty. The West with its aversion and avoidance of risk and insecurity and trial is no longer exposed to this powerful culture-shaping tool in the way it used to generations before. Its capitulation to consumerism and the self-entitlement it engenders is evidence of a serious loss of virtue. In terms of gospel-reception this gives Africa and other continents with similar character-shaping realities a clear advantage. As Professor Edmund Clowney is reputed to have said, “the only requirement for being born again is nothing, and there are not a lot of people who have that”.

Africa and the World

It is clear then that Africa has a valuable role to play in God’s kingdom purposes for the whole world. In global perspective, it has a peculiar character whose riches has the power to enrich others, and its unique intellectual attributes hold an unexpected challenge to the implausibility structures of the West. However, it has its own defeater beliefs to contend with, which, if they are not deconstructed or earnestly addressed, may tarnish the multi-faceted beauty of the jewel which is Africa’s witness.