The Language of Faith in Southern Africa by Dr Hermen Kroesbergen
Department of Religious Studies Seminar: The Language of Faith in Southern Africa
How can we do justice to what people in Africa say concerning the spirit world? On the one hand, we will have to acknowledge that the everyday lives of these people often do not differ much from the lives of those who do not speak of the spirit world (or speak of the spirit world differently). On the other hand, these people emphasize that the spirit world is real and others are missing something if they do not see it. How can we give an account of language concerning the spirit world that does justice to both these aspects?
This question is my main concern in my recent book The Language of Faith in Southern Africa; Spirit World, Power, Community, Holism and in this presentation. People in Southern Africa speak of spirits, witchcraft, men of God, powers, miracles, and so in, in ways that have often made me wonder how they can seriously believe all those things. On the other hand, my secular friends in the Netherlands often wonder the same thing about me as a (Western mainline) Christian. So what is going on here?
In philosophy, theology and anthropology there have been two main approaches to this question: some (we could call them ‘critical realists’) say that believers use metaphors or pictures to describe the same things that happen to everyone else in the world; others (we could call them ‘postmodernists’) say that believers live in an ontologically different world: for them it is simply true in the dumb sense of the word that there are spirits, gods, miracles and so on. Neither of these approaches is able to do justice to both the importance of language of faith for believers, and the way we all live in one world.
I argue for a different approach: statements made in the language of faith are responses to experiences of a world full of contingency, uncertainty and chance. They concern reality, and someone misses a particular aspect of reality if one does not speak this language, yet believers themselves know and show in their lives that this language works differently from factual language. One prays for something that is uncertain, one asks a diviner about something that is not clear – by praying or going to a diviner someone acknowledges that these things are uncertain or unclear.
I will use examples from the language of faith in Southern Africa to argue for this perspective and apply this perspective to what is said about powers, prosperity and holism in this context, showing that this perspective allows us to do justice to what people in Africa say concerning the spirit world.