The Crisis of the Secularization of Society

What Africa has to offer the world: Implausibility structures and the deconstruction of defeater beliefs

Presented at the Kirkwall Kgotla, 9 February 2013, Dr JB Krohn

Please note that this paper is not a scholarly or research paper, but my own personal reflection. References, bibliography and footnotes are therefore omitted.

It is a tremendous pleasure to be in the “court of friends” (kgotla = Setswana for court) again!

I want to begin with reference to two cases in our current Canadian experience. The first relates to the lack of Biblical knowledge, or rather, plain knowledge of the existence of the Bible, amongst the youth in the geographic area we currently find ourselves in. The second relates to the cultural assumption of a higher moral level (elevation) achieved in the case of an appointed minister of religion who is not only female but also in a same-sex relationship. [Incident details.] It brings to mind the full extent of the exchange (reversed ethics) Paul describes in Romans chapter 1 and in particular verse 32c.

West-Coast Canadian culture has been described to me as one of incuriosity to the Gospel, as anorexia (loss of appetite) for Christian things. 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 spiritual things ensue. We are thus being confronted by the reality of the secularisation of society.

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, age’) in its Christian Latin usage denotes ‘the world’ as opposed to sacred (from sacer, ‘holy’), that which is ‘consecrated to God’. Wilson (1966) described it as “the process in which religious thinking, practice and institutions lose social significance” and Giddens (2001) as “the process where religion loses its influence over the various spheres of social life”. Or as Max Weber 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 think the latter group has it right, 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 (seed of religion) and the sensus divinitatus (sense of the divine). In other words, ours is not so much a world in the grip of secularisation, but of ‘de-sacrilisation’ or 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 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 make reference to an influential paper by Dr 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 to 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 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’s turn to Africa and focus our own attention to its own particular implausibility structures, and in reply, its strength against Western defeater beliefs, the dominant intellectual force influencing it.

African Implausibility Structures

For our discussion I’ll mention three defeater complexes or implausibility frameworks without necessarily providing a response.

First, Africa’s own particular blend of inclusivism. Without providing a full discussion of this issue, we note that African Christian intellectualism in the 20th century, from Mbiti, through Tutu to 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 flavour.) In other words, despite the enormous and real challenges of contextualising the Gospel to 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 evaluation of 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 African theologians have been silent in their defence of the providence of God on this continent. It is a 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 questions “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 deal with its colonial history, and with that, its early Christian or missionary history, the so-called “happy accident”. In this instance the historical record produces a narrative that is so different from the refrain in common thought and speech (and sadly even in tertiary institutions), that it is unrecognisable.

Take education in Africa for example, and explore the history of the missionary schools that produced most of Africa’s first leaders of independence, and one ends up with a different narrative. There are other implausibility structures alongside these, but the ones mentioned are some of the main ones I can think of and which remain unaddressed. The reality is that unless we work at deconstructing these defeater beliefs (which are cultural myths in most cases), we are going

Africa. These defeater beliefs, unless adequately and comprehensively addressed, will continue to hold substantial barriers for 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. It great strength lies in the following African realities.

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’. Its greatest strength against the spiritual barrenness of the West is that it has remained “unenlightened”. Africa was not intoxicated by, or submerged in 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 the mantle. It also means that Christians ought to labour while it is day, for epistemological dusk may sneak up unawares. For those to 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 to what extent 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 a negative or in opposition to appropriating the Gospel, this cultural disposition should perhaps be valued more for the opportunity it presents than merely the obvious danger it presents. In general, Christianised Africa provides multiple ‘pegs’ on which to hook a presentation of 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 another question to whom do I belong? “I am because we are, the community to whom I belong”. I.e., 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.

Fourthly and finally, the African experience of life encompasses suffering and trial as normative, 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 produces, is evidence of a serious loss of character. In terms of gospel reception this gives Africa and other continents with similar character-shaping realities a clear advantage. As Prof 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 valid and meaningful 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 beauty of Africa’s witness.