Friday, October 23, 2009

Atheist pro deo?

Matthew Parris

Not precisely pro deo, though self-proclaimed atheist Matthew Parris, writing for the Times Online last December, does state that "As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God," for what he really means is that he has come to believe that Christianity is having a beneficial influence in Africa. Actually, as someone who lived in Africa as a youth some 45 years ago, he had long already noticed a positive effect, albeit with reservations:
It's a pity, I would say, that salvation is part of the package, but Christians black and white, working in Africa, do heal the sick, do teach people to read and write; and only the severest kind of secularist could see a mission hospital or school and say the world would be better without it. I would allow that if faith was needed to motivate missionaries to help, then, fine: but what counted was the help, not the faith.
A more recent trip to Africa subtly shifted his views, for he tells us that his former position was inadequate:
But this doesn't fit the facts. Faith does more than support the missionary; it is also transferred to his flock. This is the effect that matters so immensely, and which I cannot help observing.
Actually, he says that he first noticed this at age 24, when he traveled by land across Africa:
Whenever we entered a territory worked by [Christian] missionaries, we had to acknowledge that something changed in the faces of the people we passed and spoke to: something in their eyes, the way they approached you direct, man-to-man, without looking down or away. They had not become more deferential towards strangers -- in some ways less so -- but more open.
His more recent trip, several decades later, reaffirmed that earlier impression and added to it, for he noticed something about the NGOs whom he met:
I noticed that a handful of the most impressive African members of the Pump Aid team (largely from Zimbabwe) were, privately, strong Christians. "Privately" because the charity is entirely secular and I never heard any of its team so much as mention religion while working in the villages. But I picked up the Christian references in our conversations. One, I saw, was studying a devotional textbook in the car. One, on Sunday, went off to church at dawn for a two-hour service.

It would suit me to believe that their honesty, diligence and optimism in their work was unconnected with personal faith. Their work was secular, but surely affected by what they were. What they were was, in turn, influenced by a conception of man's place in the Universe that Christianity had taught.
Parris offers his theory for how Christianity works its liberating effect and encourages a disciplined individualism:
Anxiety -- fear of evil spirits, of ancestors, of nature and the wild, of a tribal hierarchy, of quite everyday things -- strikes deep into the whole structure of rural African thought. Every man has his place and, call it fear or respect, a great weight grinds down the individual spirit, stunting curiosity. People won't take the initiative, won't take things into their own hands or on their own shoulders.

How can I, as someone with a foot in both camps, explain? When the philosophical tourist moves from one world view to another he finds -- at the very moment of passing into the new -- that he loses the language to describe the landscape to the old. But let me try an example: the answer given by Sir Edmund Hillary to the question: Why climb the mountain? "Because it's there," he said.

To the rural African mind, this is an explanation of why one would not climb the mountain. It's . . . well, there. Just there. Why interfere? Nothing to be done about it, or with it. Hillary's further explanation -- that nobody else had climbed it -- would stand as a second reason for passivity.

Christianity, post-Reformation and post-Luther, with its teaching of a direct, personal, two-way link between the individual and God, unmediated by the collective, and unsubordinate to any other human being, smashes straight through the philosphical/spiritual framework I've just described. It offers something to hold on to to those anxious to cast off a crushing tribal groupthink. That is why and how it liberates.
I take it that Parris is a Protestant atheist (as he elsewhere in fact admits), and he seems to be theorizing about a rural Africa of the past, perhaps of his childhood. Moreover, he overemphasizes the individualist aspect of Christianity, for even Protestantism insists that the believer belongs to the body of Christ, which is the church -- a more abstract concept of the church than in Catholicism, of course, and not to be fully identified with any particular denomination, but a corporate dimension nonetheless.

I do therefore wonder -- and I'm merely wondering, mind you -- just how beneficial for Africans are such churches as the "Mountain of Fire and Miracles Ministry" . . . though possibly even a gospel of wealth has its liberating aspects, from a sociological perspective, at any rate.

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