This morning we went to TGIF to hear Tom Price speak on Building civilisation without becoming uncivilised.
Next week I will be speaking at TGIF on African Independent Churches, which also, in a way, relate to the question of civilization, but more on that below.
Tom Price quoted G.K. Chesterton as saying “Civilisation, what a wonderful idea, someone should start one.” I’m not sure if Chesterton actually said that, and such quotations are a bit elusive, like the other famous one about America “going from barbarism to decadence without an intervening stage of civilization.” I thought that one was Ambrose Bierce, but I couldn’t be sure.
It doesn’t matter much, though, because Tom Price had some very good things to say, and I won’t try to reproduce them all here. He noted some threats to civilisation, and how to counter them, and commented on the relationship between Christianity and civilisation.
One of the questions he posed was how one defines civilization.
I had one of those “Aha!” moments when I was browsing in a university library and my eye lit on a book title Die stad in die mens. Perhaps I was dreaming, because when looking it up in the library catalogue, I cannot find it. But what struck me about it was that it expressed perfectly the difference between urbanization and civilization. If urbanization is about man in the city, civilization is about the city in man.
And that recalled another obscure book (though one that I do have on my shelves), Zulu transformations by Absolom Vilakazi. What Professor Vilakazi discovered in his research was that the main cultural difference among the people where he did his research, in the Valley of 1000 Hills, was between Christians and Pagans. Among Christians, on could find urban values even in the rural areas; among pagans, one found rural values, even among urban workers. In other words, pagans were urbanised but not civilised; Christians were civilized, even when not urbanized. That was over 50 years ago, but it does signify the contrast between man in the city, and the city in man.
It also reminded me of the book of Lamentations, where the refrain is “How doth the city sit solitary when it was full of people.” It seems to the lamenter that cities full of people are a good thing, and that expresses something of the notion of civilization. And if you Google for “abandoned places” you will find something of the same theme in popular culture today.
And I wondered how much that linked with the Victorian missionaries’ triad of Christianity, commerce and civilization?
Vilakazi didn’t attempt to answer that question — he was an anthropologist, not a missiologist, and such a question was beyond his brief, or remit, as people would say nowadays.
Nineteenth-century Western missionaries in Africa tended to think that Christianity, commerce and civilization went together. One of those who propounded this view was David Livingstone, who thought that the church could not develop in security in Africa while the slave trade continued, and so believed that the slave trade must be superseded by “legitimate commerce” before the Christian churches could take root. That wasn’t, however, a notion that seemed to occur to St Paul. This notion also led later historians of the historical materialist school to assume that Christian mission was simply a more oblique means of spreading the gospel of capitalism.
The explosion of Christian mission in Africa in the 19th century also instigated anthropological studies of the cultures the missionaries went to. But we had to wait till the late 20th century before anyone thought of doing an anthropological study of the missionaries themselves. It takes two to tango, and if Christian mission was an instance of cross-cultural communications, one needs to study both cultures doing the communication.
This task was undertaken most notably by Jean and John Comaroff (I’ve heard rumours that they will be visiting South Africa this year) in their book Of revelation and revolution:
Anthropological study of missionaries and their converts.
The thing that strikes me most strongly in this is that the Western missionaries were modern, and came from a culture shaped by modernity, but the Africans they tried to evangelise were essentially pre-modern. Some have taken these differences to represent an essential difference between European and African culture, but it is not difficult to see that if a missionary came to So0uthern Africa from 9th-century Europe they would be on the same page as Africans, and would be as little understood by their fellow missionaries of a millennium later as the Africans were.
The 19th century missionaries brought a gospel that had been contextualised into Western modernity, tailored to solve the problems of 19th-century Westerners. They discovered that 19th-century Africans faced an entirely different set of problems, which they did not understand at all, like witchcraft. Ninth-century missionaries would have had no difficulty in relating to those problems, but 19th-century missionaries could not. So they thought the solution was to civilise Africans, in order to give them problems that the missionaries thought their gospel could solve.
This is a huge over-simplification, of course, and one could write a whole series of books with qualifications and nuances and all that good academic stuff.
But one of the things the Western missionaries did was translate the Bible into local languages, and teach people to read it. And the Bible is a thoroughly pre-modern book. And one of the effects of reading the Bible was that many African Christians began to recontextualise the Westernised gospel back into pre-modernity, and one result of that was the appearance of African independent churches, or AICs.
That is what I will be speaking about at TGIF next Friday, 22 April 2016, 6:00 am for 6:30, at the OM Link building on Kitsch Corner. If you’re interested, come along.