Saturday, December 04, 2010


An African Indigenous Church meeting for Worship

Here is a link to the notes I compiled for my talk at NCBC on Vulnerable Mission. Vulnerable Mission is an approach to mission developed by Jim Harries in Africa. Roughly speaking the Vulnerable Missionary avoids being a channel of Western culture, language and wealth and instead seeks to work beside his native colleagues using the language and resources they already have. This circumvents some of the problems that arise when Western backed mission becomes bound up with crude attempts to graft the methods and resources of the industrialized world upon African culture, a grafting that often comes to grief in rural Africa because it fails to cater for vast differences in culture and industrial infrastructure. In this video Jim explains in detail what his work involves.

Jim Harries mission is of particular interest to me because it picks up on a recurrent theme in my thinking; namely, the polarisation between the Logos and Mythos world views. The Logos world view builds models of the world using linguistic tokens and in particular exploits the mechanistic “law and disorder” ontology that seems to be the dominant dynamic of the cosmos. This dynamic facilitates the techno-scientific exploitation we are familiar with. The Mythos world view, on the other hand, is far more intuitive and far less easy to articulate. It resorts to mystical connections with reality via feelings, sensings, epiphanies, revelations, rituals, mysticism, mythology, instincts etc. In contrast to the Logos paradigm which seeks explanation using the elemental and the impersonal, Mythos thinking has a propensity to personify the cosmic dynamic by imputing spiritual significance to the events around us. In its world spirits are pervasive; in other words it is inclined toward animism.

If the “Out of Africa” theory is valid then African culture is far older than the cultures of the northern hemisphere. Migration to northern latitudes was probably inhibited by the ice age and thus it is only relatively recently that the north hosted modern humans. It is in Africa then (and perhaps Australia as well) that human culture finds its roots, in particular, its roots in animism. But the experience of finding roots grates and highlights the existential dissonance present in Western thought. In the industrialized hemisphere there is an instinctual alienation from the anonymous social systems and technology required to administrate huge communities: Firstly, the sheer size of these communities means that it is beyond human cognitive ability to know and identify with everyone in a community; tribal identifications are difficult to foster. Secondly, the paradigm of mechanistic elementalism that facilitates industrialization cuts across preliterate animism, an animism that is so natural to the thinking of many aboriginal people, including, it must be said, the religious sensibilities of many Westerners.

The biggest intellectual feat of homo sapiens is not so much the discovery of the laws of physics as it is the ability to comprehend other human psyches – objects which are far more intricate than the relatively elementary models normally dealt with in physics and chemistry. However, humanity doesn’t piece together an understanding of other minds from first principles; when it comes to inter-human relations human beings have a large amount of “hard wired” faculties (like the “language instinct”) dedicated to enabling those relations. These built in social cognitive abilities do such an effective job in facilitating human-human relations that we are unconscious of the underlying complexity of the mental resources they muster, and in most cases this background mental processing only surfaces in our minds as instinctual perceptions. But these instinctual intuitions are extremely important for they make our human relations possible; without them we are autistic. It is no surprise that given this awesome instinctual package of dedicated mental resources for handling the understandding of personality it is very natural to turn the power of this package beyond human society to the cosmos as a whole; very naturally, then, the human mind populates the world with spirits and imputes to it intentional forces. It is second nature for human beings to humanize their environment in this way. In contrast the instrumentalism of science tends to exorcise the animistic dynamic and expels the magical enchantment of religious meanings.

Jim Harries Vulnerable Mission brings him into close contact with an ancient strain of animistic and magical thinking about the cosmos that is often at odds with the successful working of industrial society. Jim’s work with African Indigenous Churches reveals what to Western minds are bizarre practices. But there is no cause for Westerners to feel superior. Animism is not far under the surface of Western society; less than three hundred years ago, well into the Newtonian revolution and the enlightenment, witch hunts were still being conducted in Europe. Moreover, today, many Western Indigenous Churches have a version of Christianity that is weird & wonderful; for example, they may eschew intellectual engagement in favour of a shamanistic relationship with God and Angels mediated through trance like modes of consciousness. (See the video below). They effectively supplement the basic Gospel message of God’s love and sacrificial grace with Gnostic elaborations. In general there is an underlying dissonance in Christian fundamentalist philosophy that manifests itself in a dualistic outlook that sets the material against the spiritual. In contrast the culture of rural Africa harks back to a time when humanity’s world view was less dualistic and more holistic. But the thoroughgoing animism of Africa sits uneasily with techno-scientific mechanism and so it is not surprising that the vestigial animism of the industrial north has resulted in a gnosto-dualist discontinuity in Western religious thinking.

Like gravity and quantum mechanics, science and animism remain as an incommensurable and disunited duality in the West. But the simple mathematical objects of science are too simple to be self-explaining. Science, then, is therefore destined to leave an irreducible logical hiatus in our thought. Self explanation, I submit, is more likely to be found in the a priori complex rather than the simple objects of a law and disorder ontology. The fundamental and necessary incompleteness in scientific explanation leaves a vacuum that those very human abilities for dealing with complexity will rush in to fill; in short Humanity’s personality processing package will readily step into this space with an argument from intentionality. The fundamental incompleteness of scientific explanation will help ensure religion is here to stay; even in the West.

“Angels! Angels! Angels! Angels…” screams Todd Bentley. Weird vestigial animism manifests itself in Western indigenous churches

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