16 August 2007

Theology of religion and interreligious dialogue

This is a continuation of a synchroblog article Christianity: inclusive or exclusive?

In the first two parts of this article I noted that writers on "theology of religion" tended to concentrate on the question whether "salvation" was to be found in non-Christian religions, and to divide views on this into "inclusive", "exclusive" and "pluralist". I have tried to show why I believe that this is the wrong question to ask, because no matter what the answer, it does not lead to a "theology of religion".

Some years ago I attended a course on evangelism at the Haggai Institute in Singapore. At that time I was Anglican, and one Sunday I went with a fellow South African Anglican on the course to a service at the Anglican cathedral in Singapore. After the service we went to have coffee at Raffles Hotel, one of the most famous hotels in the city, just to be able to say say we had done so. Then we walked up the road from the hotel to look at the Sultan Mosque, another of the famous sights of the city.

On the way our attention was attracted by a lot of noise from a building on the other side of the road -- a sound like banging frying pans and blowing hooters. It was a Chinese temple, and we crossed the road to have a look. We asked someone what was happening, and were told that it was the goddess's birthday. We wandered inside to have a look, in some trepidation, not sure if we were intruding. Two ministers, dressed in orange robes, were chanting something at a table full of fruit, and would occasionally turn round to two women kneeling behind them and wave incense over them. Every now and then a bloke sitting on one side would bang gongs and another would tootle a sort of oboe affair that made a noise like a bicycle hooter.

Further in was another room with two benches, on one of which was a pig with an orange in its mouth, and on the other a shaved goat. Some people were standing around, others walking about with joss sticks, kneeling down at various places, or bowing and prostrating themselves. On the right was a rack of tablets, -- I wondered if they were ancestor tablets -- and further to the right a kind of altar with a fire. Geoff remarked that the goddess seemed to be doing rather well for her birthday: apart from the pig and the goat there were plucked ducks (with their heads over their backs), fruit, vegetables and more. As we went out again past the chanting ministers a little girl of about nine was coming in, right past the tooter, following her parents, with her hands over her ears and her face all screwed up. I wish I could have taken a photo of her. The place had an oppressive atmosphere of idolatry, and was very ritualistic.

We went on to the Sultan Mosque, a little further up the road. Since it was a Sunday, it was empty, and very quiet, a kind of oasis of peace, with its blue-green carpets, and the noise of the streets seemed far away. We stayed there for a while, enjoying the contrast -- the raucous idolatry of the temple, contrasted with the cool iconoclasm of the mosque.

Singapore is a very pluralistic place, where several religions can be found coexisting. A week later at an Anglican service we met a man who had been a spirit medium and fortune teller. He had become a Christian, but said he had been plagued by demons. This had persisted until he had had a tattoo of a goddess surgically removed from his back, and he showed us the dressings on his back where the tattoo had been removed.

In none of these things did the inclusive-exclusive-pluralist model make much sense. Now I am an Orthodox Christian, and I find that the extremes of the raucous idolatry of the Chinese temple and the cool iconoclasm of the mosque are not for me. Orthodoxy is somewhere in the middle between those two extremes. But that may just be a cultural preference.

The man who had switched from being a devotee of the goddess to Christ did, however, have a theology of religion. He believed that having a tattoo of the goddess on his back laid him open to demonic attack (I do not know if his was the same goddess as the one who had had her birthday the previous week). This was not something that Western missionaries had told him to do, in the course of a general attack on Chinese culture. The church be belonged to, an Anglican parish, consisted mainly of people who were the only Christians in their family. The parish priest had been brought up as a Buddhist, but he did not preach against Chinese religion. He simply told people about Jesus Christ. Most members of the congregation had formerly practised Chinese religions, and most of their relations still did. But when they became Christians they developed a theology of religion that interpreted their former beliefs and practices in a new way, from the point of view of their Christian faith. And this theology or religion doesn't fit very easily into the "inclusive-exclusive-pluralist" model.

As a South African, I tended to look at it differently, as an outsider. I had not encountered Chinese religion before, and there are very few books about it in English, so one can't even read about it. It's not taught in most religious studies courses in non-Chinese universities (I don't know about Chinese ones). Most Religious Studies courses seem to teach that the Chinese religions are Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism, but in fact those are schools of philosophy rather than religion, and to them one could add a fourth, the Thought of Chairman Mao.

Among other things, as I noted in part II of this series, a Christian theology of religion should explain why the Bhagavad Gita is there. And these things will all look different when seen from different perspectives. The Christians in Singapore have just come from Chinese religion, and in their perspective it looms very large, because they are still close to it, not just geographically but existentially. A Christian theologian in Chicago, brought up in a Christian environment, will have a different and more distant perspective on it. So in any Christian theology of religion there will be different perspectives, depending on how close one stands to the religion concerned, personally, historically and geographically.

There would also be at least as many theologies of religion as there are religions. There might be a Christian theology of Islam, for example. In fact there might be several. I've heard some English-speaking Christians, for example, saying "Allah is not God". I'm still not sure whether that is actually a theology of religion, or simply English-speaking chauvinism, because what it primarily asserts is that those who say it believe that God speaks English and not Arabic, and listens to prayers in English but does not listen to prayers in Arabic. It is but a small step from that to saying that Bog is not God, o Theos is not God, Dieu is not God, uNkulunkulu is not God, Gott is not God, and no doubt God is not God, if God is pronounced with a guttural G, as in Afrikaans and Dutch, instead of the approved English pronunciation, with a hard G. But then what about all those Americans in the soaps who are always saying "Oh my Guard!"? Guard is not God? Or should that be God is not Guard? But if Allah is not God, who do Arabic-speaking Christians worship?

As I also noted in Part 2, C.S. Lewis interpreted the Roman Mars and the Greek Ares as Malacandra. That, in a way is a theology of religion, even though Lewis used it in works of fiction. But the very identification of Ares with Mars is a theology of religions, interpreting the ancient Greek and Roman pantheons in terms of each other. And C.S. Lewis was by no means the first to do this, even from a Christian point of view. A Christian work that was very popular in the Middle Ages, the story of Barlaam and Ioasaph, is a Christianized version of a very ancient "spiritual romance" that was composed in India and first written down in an Indian language by Buddhists.

So, as I see it, a true Christian "theology of religions" would deal with questions such as "Why does the Bhagavad Gita exist? It would seek to explain other religions in Christians terms But in order to do that, we need first of all to understand them in their own terms. So I think "theologians of religion" like Paul Knitter have got it exactly the wrong way round. We don't need a theology of religions in order to have authentic dialogue. We need authentic dialogue in order to have a theology of religions. Without such authentic dialogue, we will not have a theology of religion, but a theology of a caricature of religions. Those, like the Chinese Christians in Singapore I referred to, had a dialogue of sorts with Chinese religion, in the sense that they knew it from within before they became Christians. The rest of us are not really qualified, until we have made at least some attempt to understand Chinese religion (see book suggestion below).

And just as there might be a Christian theology of Hinduism, the dialogue would enable Hindus to develop a Hindu theology of Christianity, as indeed some have already done.

[ continued in the September synchroblog on Christianity, paganism and literature ]


  • Budge, E.A. Wallis, (ed) 1923. Barlaam and Yewasef: being the Ethiopic version of a Christianized rescension of the Buddhist legend of the Buddha and the
    . Cambridge: Cambridge University
  • Chamberlain, Jonathan. 1987. Chinese gods. Selangor, Malaysia:
    Pelanduk. ISBN: 967-978-105-4

14 August 2007

Theology of religions

In this month's synchroblog article Christianity: inclusive or exclusive? I wrote that many Christian "theologians of religion" seemed to be asking the wrong questions. The question most of them were asking was "Is there salvation in other religions?", and, depending on the answers they gave, were classified as "inclusivist", "exclusivist" or "pluralist". The names of the categories might vary slightly, but not in any fundamental way.

If asking whether there is salvation in other religions does not lead to a theology of religions, what questions should theologians be asking?

Alan Race, in his book Christians and religious pluralism (London, SCM, 1983), quotes Wilfred Cantwell Smith as saying
From now on any serious intellectual statement of the Christian faith must include, if it is to serve its purposes among men, some doctrine of other religions. We explain the fact of the Milky Way by the doctrine of creation, but how do we explain the fact that the Bhagavad Gita is there?

Race quotes this at the beginning of his book, on page 2, yet one may read through to the end and find that he has still not even attempted to explain why the Bhagavad Gita is there. The same applied to Paul Knitter, and most of the other so-called theologians of religion.

Many Western theologians write as though religious pluralism is something new, or assert, as Race does, that "the present experience [of religious pluralism] transcends any earlier sense Christians may have had of its significance", which he ascribes to the new mobility brought about by modern means of transport, the academic study of comparative religion and the new missionary consciousness found among many non-Christian religions. This perception may arise from the peculiar circumstances of most Western Christians between the ninth and the sixteenth centuries. In that period Western Europe was nominally Christian, and other religions were to be found only on the peripheries - tribal and nature religions in the north-east, and Islam in the south and east. Only in Spain and North-West Africa did Western Christians continue to live in an Islamic society, and in North Africa the Church had practically disappeared by the eleventh century. By the sixteenth century technological developments in shipbuilding and navigation had allowed Western Europeans to bypass the Islamic world, and once again establish contact with Eastern Asia, and to make contact with most of the American continents for the first time.

For Eastern Christians, however, the picture was very different.

The Church grew in a religiously plural society, and much of this religious pluralism persisted for some time after Christianity became the dominant religion of the Roman empire. In fourth-century Antioch, for example, there were more pagan temples than Christian churches, and the educational system was still basically the Greek paideia. The rise of Islam in the seventh century meant that many Orthodox Christians were living in a predominantly Muslim society, and continue to do so to this day. In Russia, Orthodox Christians were under Tatar rule for some centuries and even in the Byzantine Empire they "felt less threatened by Mongols and Turks than by the papacy, the Teutonic Knights and the monarchies of Central Europe" (Meyendorff 1989:47).

Western theologians like to talk about the "Constantinian era", and "Christendom", but for Orthodox Christians in the Patriarchates of Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem the "Constantinian era" lasted for less than 300 years and was gone by AD 640.

In the Western perception, therefore, a plurality of religions is a new phenomenon, which demands a new theological explanation, while for Orthodox Christians, especially those living among Western Christians, Western theology itself is the "new" (and sometimes more puzzling) phenomenon. Nevertheless the Christian Church came into being in a world in which there was a plurality of religions, and religious pluralism is not really a new thing.

What is new is not the fact of religious pluralism, but the concept of religious pluralism, and indeed the concept of religion itself. Harrison (1990:63-64) points out that "religion", as we speak of it today, was a product of Western modernity, and the sources of Western modernity were the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment.
One of the effects of the Reformation was the exchange of an institutionally based understanding of exclusive salvation to a propositionally based understanding. Formerly it had been "no salvation outside the Church", now it had become "No salvation without profession of the 'true religion" - but which religion was the true religion? The proliferation of Protestant sects made the question exceedingly complex, and led to the production of innumerable abstracts, summaries and the like of the Christian religion, with confessions and statements of faith, in attempts to arrive at a solution. Thus there was a concern for 'fundamentals', which could therefore bring Christianity into a closer relation with other faiths, if the 'fundamentals' were broad enough to include them. Religions, in the new conception, were sets of beliefs rather than integrated ways of life. The legacy of this view of "the religions" is the modern problem of conflicting truth claims.

The inclusive, exclusive and pluralist models all derive from and are shaped by this conception of "religion" that itself arose from historical circumstances in early modern Europe, but these classifications neither explain, nor do they purport to explain, why the Bhagavad Gita is there. They are not so much theologies of religion as attempts to classify Christian attitudes to religious pluralism. Knitter, though he has much to say about the need for "authentic dialogue", does not give much evidence of such dialogue in his book.
There were three different understandings of 'nature', which led to three different understandings of 'religion' and 'the religions'. 1) the natural order as opposed to the supernatural. 'Natural' religion is the result of human sin and stands in opposition to 'revealed' religion. This dichotomy was largely shaped by the Protestant reformers. 2) an instinct, or the light of conscience (also Bacon, and Kant's 'practical reason'. This view is derived from Renaissance thought and ultimately from Stoic philosophy.`In this view the natural is not opposed to the supernatural but complements it. 3) the light of nature is that which springs from reason, sense, induction and argument (Bacon), which Kant later called 'pure reason'. It was this view that developed as the Enlightenment progressed, and led to 'religion' being investigated in the same way as phenomena of the physical universe (Harrison 1990:5-6).

If modernity thus sidetracks the discussion of why the Bhagavad Gita is there (from a Christian point of view) perheps we can find some clues from a premodern source, the Bible.

Biblical data

The biblical view of other religions is a complex one. In Isaiah 46 there appears to be an absolute monotheism -- the Lord is God and there is no other. In other passages the gods of the nations exist, but are subordinate to the Lord, the "great King above all gods" (Ps 94(95):3). The clearest statement of this is perhaps Deuteronomy 32:8-9:
When the Most High gave the nations their inheritance,
when he separated the sons of men,
he fixed the bounds of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God.
For the LORD's portion is his people, Jacob his allotted heritage.

This translation is based on the Septuagint reading, recently confirmed by some ancient Hebrew manuscripts. The Masoretic Hebrew text says "sons of Israel" instead of "sons of God". I believe the "sons of God" reading (bene Elohim) is correct. This seems to imply that God gave each nation or people its own god, or its own religion. Israel was an exception, and had a hot line direct to YHWH himself, without having to go through a "middle man" - an angelic intermediary or go-between.

These gods of the nations were also national spirits, and were very often embodied in the human rulers of the nations, in the institution of divine kingship. They are the heavenly representatives of the earthly rulers, and stand before the throne of God. The "bene elohim" are the sons of God (Job 6), or in a Semitic metaphor, sons of gods, or simply gods.

Israel does not appear to have had one of these angelic rulers, because of its special relationship to YHWH. But after arriving in the promised land many Israelites were attracted by the political and religious arrangements of the people living there. they found all sorts of religions, and what goes with religions, kings, and they demanded a king for themselves (I Sam 8), thus rejecting YHWH's direct rule over them. So later we find that Israel too has its god, its angelic intermediary, Michael ("who is like God?").

The trouble is that the gods, and the political powers they represent, are corrupt and oppressive (Ps 81/2). The Psalmist prays for the restoration of God's direct rule over all nations, and in an almost exact parallel of the last three verses of Psalm 81(82), Jesus asserted that he had come to do just that (Jn 12:31-32). The gods have allowed injustice and oppression in the nations they have been given to rule, and their rule will be taken away from them:
I say, "You are gods, sons of the Most High, all of you;
nevertheless, you shall die like men, and fall like any prince."
Arise, O God, judge the earth; for to thee belong all the nations (Ps 81:6-8).

The picture here is not one of strict monotheism in the sense of denying that other divinities exist, but rather the assertion that the Lord is supreme over all the gods. The gods of the nations are the vice-gerents of YHWH, and are his servants. But what is interesting is that the last verses of the Psalm are almost exactly paralleled in John 12:31-32, when Jesus says: "Now is the judgment of this world, now shall the ruler of this world be cast out; and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself."

Jesus himself is the one who puts the rebellious gods in their place, and St Paul affirms this when he says: "And you, who were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, having cancelled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in him" (Colossians 2:13-15).

There is indeed a theology of religions here, but its concerns are very different from those of most of the Western theologians who have written on the topic. The concern is not with questions of "religious pluralism" or "dialogue", but rather with the place of the gods in the economy of the kingdom. In the New Testament we read about the spiritual powers that later theologians, like Pseudo-Dionysius, systematized into nine orders divided into three triads: cherubim, seraphim and thrones; dominions, powers and authorities; principalities, archangels and angels. These angelic powers are identified with the stars and planets (Job 38:7) and thus with the pagan gods of Greece and Rome and several other nations. C.S. Lewis used this idea in some of his fictional writings, namely the "cosmic trilogy" and The magician's nephew.

In all this, there is no clear unambiguous statement of exactly what these spiritual powers are. Genesis 1 seems to adopt the strict monotheist approach: other nations may worship the sun and moon, but Genesis 1 does not even call them that, but just refers to the "big light" and the "little light", making them material objects to provide illumination and regulate the calendar, and so demythologizing them. But the other passages I have quoted show that the demythologizing approach is not the only one.

There is also some ambivalence about whether these powers are good or evil. Romans 13 and Revelation 13 demonstrate that ambivalence in the Christian attitude to the state, but the "authorities" of the state are not mere flesh and blood. "Authority" (exousia) in the Bible is spiritual, and Christians find themselves in conflict with "authorities" and "world-powers" (Ephesians 6:10-12). We often speak of the "demonic" and "Satanic" as if they were utterly evil and godless, yet even Satan is among the "sons of God" (Job 1). This is expressed symbolically in Revelation, where it is said that the dragon swept down a third of the stars from heaven (Rev 12:4; 13:9). It may be doubted whether this represents an exact number, or whether it is possible to identify any particular spiritual power as "good" or "evil". The proportion is probably intended to reassure Christians, as Elisha reassured his servant, that "those who are with us are more than those who are with them" (2 Ki 6:16).

The gods of the nations, then, are seen as servants of the one true God. Sometimes they are rebellious servants, sometimes they are obedient servants, but they form part of the created world. The principalities and powers, or rulers and authorities, are part of the creation of God. In relation to human beings they are gods, and yet in relation to God himself they become as nothing - "I am the true God, there is no other."

The "great king above all gods" is the creator of the bene elohim, the gods. This has been confused in modern thought by focusing on a division between the "natural" and the "supernatural". Since the late Middle Ages in the West, and continuing into modernity, beings have been classified as natural or supernatural, with God, the gods, and all spiritual powers being included in the latter classification.

Orthodox Christianity, and premodern Christianity generally, draws the line in a different place, between creator and creature. The gods, the spiritual powers, are part of the created world, the world in which we live. The "principalities and powers" are not merely "spiritual" or "supernatural" forces, but are actually closely linked with the political powers and superpowers of this world, with the economic forces that some would subject us to (like the "market forces" of the free enterprisers).

This is why, in earlier posts Notes from underground: Of egregores and angels, I wondered whether the concept of egregors could be helpful in understanding their relations.

[continued in Part 3]


  • Harrison, Peter. 1990. "Religion" and the religions in the English Enlightenment. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Meyendorff, John. 1989. Byzantium and the rise of Russia. Crestwood: St Vladimir's Seminary Press.
  • Race, Alan. 1983. Christians and religious pluralism. London: SCM.

Christianity: inclusive or exclusive? (Synchroblog)

The theme for this month's Synchroblog, Christianity -- inclusive or exclusive? is rather vague, perhaps deliberately so. It allows people to blog about different things depending on how they understand those epithets.

From recent reading in the blogosphere I get the impression that "inclusive" means that one is in favour of the ordination of practising homosexuals, "exclusive" means that one is not.

But when I go back about 20 years, I encountered the terms mainly in the academic discipline known as Theology of Religion. The terms "inclusive" and "exclusive" were there applied to the views that different groups of Christians were alleged to hold on whether salvation was to be found in other religions or not. The inclusivists believed that salvation was to be found in other religions, and the exclusivists believed that it wasn't. There was a third group, called "pluralists". There is a pretty good summary of that debate and its various views here.

In 1990 I was asked to help with the teaching of the third-year course in Missiology at the University of South Africa (Unisa) which included a half-course in "Theology of Religions" (Course MSA301-B). I was asked to mark one of the assignments for the course, and in order to prepare myself for doing this, I read through the prescribed book (No other name? by Paul E. Knitter, SCM, London 1985) and the study guide issued to students (Kritzinger 1985). This raised a number of questions in my own mind, which I wrote down at the time in order to discuss them with others - especially those who were marking other assignments in the course. I found Knitter's book frustrating, because it seemed to ask the wrong questions, and it seemed to beg too many questions. Other literature on the same topic seemed to have the same shortcomings.

Even though I was called upon to teach the course, I found the whole debate quite meaningless. Whatever it was, it was not a study of theology of religions, but rather a study of different Christian factions. It never got to grips with the content of other religions at all. There was much talk of interreligious dialogue but the dialogue never took place. It was all metatalk, talk about talk, talk about Christian attitudes to talking, and the talking never happened.

The main difficulty I had with Knitter may have sprung from my own failure to understand what "theology of religions" means. I had assumed that, in a Christian context, it meant the Christian understanding of other religions in the widest sense. I have always understood that it was to be distinguished from "Science of Religion"in that theology of religion was concerned with the Christian understanding of, and approach to, other religions, while science of religion was concerned with a phenomenon called "religion" (however defined) and took a more comparative approach. In other words, I understood science of religion to be concerned with questions like "How does a Buddhist regard the Buddha?" or "How does a Christian regard Christ?" and possibly a comparison between them, and I thought that a Christian theology of religions was concerned with questions like "How does a Christian interpret the Buddha and
Buddhist teaching?"

Knitter did not seem to me to deal with theology of religions at all. Throughout his book, the non-Christian religions are somewhere "out there". Knitter seems not to be concerned with a theology of religions, but with reshaping Christian theology to conform to the values he regards as most important, one of which is a "more authentic dialogue". Except that the dialogue does not actually take place. It's all about how to get to the bus stop, but it never gets on the bus, it never goes anywhere.

And I believe it never goes anywhere because it starts from the wrong place, by asking the wrong questions.

"Is there salvation in other religions?" is the wrong question.

First of all, it is the wrong question because Christians believe that there is no salvation in any religion, including Christianity. Salvation is in Christ, not in religion.

Secondly, if Christians can't agree among themselves on what salvation is (see, for example, here, here and here), how can they expect to find it in other religions, especially if, like Knitter, they don't even examine or discuss those religions?

Thirdly, do the "other" religions think salvation (in the Christian sense) is at all important? Should we not rather ask how those religions pereive their own goals, and only then consider whether and how they relate to Christian ideas of "salvation"?

To use a consumerist metaphor, it is like describing the different views of the customers and staff of a bakery about the quality of bread to be obtained from the builder's merchant, selling cement, bricks and window frames. The icnlusivists would say yes, the bread you get from the builder's merchant is just as good as the bread you get from the bakery, as they spread jam on a slice of cement loaf, while the exclusivists would say it isn't as good. What neither group appears to consider is that it isn't bread at all.

[continued in next post]

Other synchrobloggers this month

08 August 2007

The Caucasian Church is flourishing

When I think of Caucasians I think first of Stalin, who was probably the most famous Caucasian of the last century or two, the former seminarian who tried to destroy the Church and propagate atheism. Under his rule more than 200000 clergy and monastics were killed, and many more were sent to concentration camps.

But what is happening in his homeland, Georgia, today?

What is happening to the Christian faith he once tried to destroy?

The Church is flourishing, that's what.

Read all about it in Notes from a CommonplaceBook, travellers tales, with beautiful pictures, of a recent visit to Georgia.

07 August 2007

Harry Potter as a Christian allegory - gullibility as a horcrux

Sue has posted some interesting thoughts about the Harry Potter series in Abstractions: Harry Potter as a Christian allegory.

While I don't think it is really accurate to describe the series as an allegory, there are some allegorical tendencies within it, for example the satire on educational bureaucracy I pointed out in an earlier post on Zemblanity in Education. But satire is not necessarily allegory.

One of the things in Sue's post can be accurately described as allegorical though -- (warning, spoilers ahead) -- when Sue describes the process by which a satirical post in The Onion was believed as literally true by some Christians in the USA, and was propagated as truth.

The way in which Harry Potter himself turns out to be a horcrux in which part of Voldemort's soul is hidden is perhaps an allegory of the way in which the gullibility of some Christians led them to believe and propagate an urban legend that was not merely untrue, but harmful.

I was able to observe this at first hand because someone sent the piece from The Onion to me by e-mail, with no indication of its source, and urged me to pass it on to many others in a kind of spam operation. I read it, and suspected that it was probably satire, as it was too over the top to be true. I did a web search for Harry Potter and The Onion, and bingo - there it was. I wrote to the person who had sent it to me, warning them that they had been duped into accepting a satire as true. So yes, the way Harry Potter became a horcrux that contained part of Voldemort's soul is indeed an allegory of the way in which the devil gets a foothold in the souls of Christians, and incites them to do his work by spreading malicious gossip in the belief that by so doing they are serving God.

06 August 2007

New SAMS Web page

Since August 2007 the Southern African Missiological Society has had a new web site at

Please go there to see the latest news and information about SAMS. The material on the old site at http://www.geocities.com/missionalia/ will be retained to preserve links and search engine listings, but, with the exception of the AIC pages and material, it will no longer be updated.

In future I may use the old site to post more material specifically on African Independent Churches (AICs).

the next SAMS congress will be held on the campus of the North West University in Potchefstroom/Tlokwe from 23-25 January 2008. Since the Edinburgh 2010 organising committee has asked SAMS to take responsibility for the commission called "The development of Christian communities in contemporary contexts", the SAMS business meeting agreed to focus in the following two congresses on gathering and analysing stories of vibrant and sustainable Christian communities in Southern Africa. The theme for the 2008 SAMS was fixed as "Mission in humilty and hope: Stories of hope-giving Christian communites in Southern Africa." It was also agreed that hope-giving has alot to do with healing and reconciliation, so that a concerted effort will be made to gather stories of healing and reconciling communities.

03 August 2007

Zemblanity and education

A few years ago I was a member of an SGB of SAQA, that is a Standards Generating Body for the South African Qualifications Authority. It was the standards generating body for Christian Theology and Ministry, and had to generate standards, that is learning outcomes, for various theological qualifications from Grade 10 to Doctorate in Theology.

The SGB completed its work a couple of years ago, and a bunch of standards were registered. But now, it appears, they have to be revised, and so the SGB is being reconstituted, and will have to jump through all the bureaucratic hoops again.

I don't mind too much. I quite enjoyed the meetings, because I met a group of stimulating and creative people from a variety of Christian traditions. I was able to meet some old friends and make some new ones. But the work we were required to do was frustrating. One could see that it had some good intentions and good goals -- to raise the general standard of education, to weed out incompetent and fraudulent educational institutions and so on. But at the same time it seemed likely to stifle initiative, frustrate learning, and make education prohibitively expensive.

I was thus interested to read this, which seems to sum up the drawbacks and dangers of the current system: Changing the World (and other excuses for not getting a proper job...): Serendipitous Learning and Zemblanitous Education

The core of it deserves to be quoted:
...serendipity has an opposite. An antonym, in fact. (And how often do you get to use that word?) 'Zemblanity' is a more recent coinage, the work of the novelist William Boyd:
So what is the opposite of Serendip, a southern land of spice and warmth, lush greenery and hummingbirds, seawashed, sunbasted? Think of another world in the far north, barren, icebound, cold, a world of flint and stone. Call it Zembla. Ergo: zemblanity, the opposite of serendipity, the faculty of making unhappy, unlucky and expected discoveries by design.
All this I learned by following up a presentation by a Finnish guy called Teemu Arina - which I came across thanks to a post from Artichoke. Teemu reckons (and I agree) that "making unhappy, unlucky and expected discoveries by design" is a pretty good description of what happens in formal education, when "learning outcomes" are specified in advance.
And I've been rereading Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, where the bureaucratic mentality of educationists (or pedagogicians, as some of them like to call themselves) is satirised in the person of Dolores Umbridge.

Outcomes-based education was introduced into South Africa after our first democratic elections in 1994. It was an attempt to remedy the damage caused to the South African education system by four decades of the National Party policy of "Christian National Education" (which, as Christian educators often pointed out, was neither Christian, nor national, nor education). The damage was worst in Bantu Education, which was hived off into a separate government department that made the Ministry of Magic in Harry Potter look positively sane. The whole evil system was underpinned by the pseudoscience of "Fundamental Pedagogics", which was used to cripple thousands of student teachers at the start of their careers, and consisted mainly in the rote learning of obscurantist definitions of terms that were dressed up in pompous and bombastic language -- a smoke and mirrors trick to make them appear more "scientific". For example, one had to learn such terms as "Temporal Andragogics" (the History of Adult Education, I kid you not).

One of the "learning outcomes" of this system was that students learnt that you did not have to understand this outlandish terminology, you just had to learn the definition by rote and repeat it in the exams. The most important learning outcome was slavish political correctness. You said what your teachers, lecturers and bosses wanted to hear.

At the University of South Africa (which trained more teachers than any other institution in the country) a Fundamental Pedagogician said (of an incomprehensible passage in a first-year study guide), "they don't have to understand it, they just have to learn it." Or, as another one said to a person who was trying to translate a study guide from Afrikaans to English, and could not understand the Afrikaans text, "you don't have to understand it, you just have to translate it." This was said without tongue in cheek, dead seriously. Dolores Umbridge had a great deal to learn from the Department of Fundamental Pedagogics at Unisa; she was a mere amateur by comparison.

After all that, I can sympathise with "outcomes-based education" (OBE), at least in theory. It moved the emphasis from curriculum (input) to what is actually learned. It takes away the excuse of teachers who say "we taught them that but they didn't learn it."

But as it has been applied in South Africa, I doubt that it can remedy the disease of "Christian National Education". Many teachers who were trained in Fundamental Pedagogics will, and have, treat it simply as a slightly different variety of political correctness -- new terms to be learned by rote and used, especially when within earshot of your boss.

So Outcomes-Based Education comes with its own vocabulary. The emphasis is not on what teachers teach, but rather on what learners learn, so it is important to think of learners as people who are learning, regardless of age, and so when speaking of the actual education process one speaks of "learners" rather than "students" or "pupils". Students study, and pupils are supervised by tutors, but learners learn. But when a teacher is quoted in a newspaper as saying that "One of the pu... learners was run over by a car outside the school yesterday," you know that political correctness is rearing its ugly head again. It doesn't matter what the word "learner" means, it is the one my boss's boss wants us to say. Rote learning of educational jargon does not make a good teacher.

Again, real life trumps satire like Harry Potter every time. At the University of South Africa a few years ago a task group was set up by the university administration, and the task group announced that its task was to "facilitate conflict".

The theory behind the South African Qualifications Authority is good in some ways. If you had standard learning outcomes at various levels, then it is easier to say that one qualification is equivalent to another. A person transferring to a different university or a different faculty can be given credit for previous learning because they have achieved known outcomes to a known standard. Scammers who rip people off by offering bogus qualifications at fly-by-night institutions with high fees and low standards can be closed down.

But sometimes education, especially in a specialised field like theological education, can be, and sometimes is, done on a shoe string. I visited the St Sergius Institute in Paris in 1968. The students lived in poverty, in a basement under the church, with an open drain running down the middle of the floor, and cloth partitions between the beds. Most of them were Russian exiles, but some came from other countries. Their teachers were part time, their library facilities were minimal. They would never pass inspection by the educational bureaucracy. Yet they were motivated to learn, and learnt what they needed to learn. Registering such an institution in the new South Africa would be virtually impossible, and the fee for a single inspection would be more than the institution's budget for three years. Far better that they should use the money for improving their teaching and facilities than on bureaucracy.

In South Africa today there are hundreds of refugee teachers from Zimbabwe who are better qualified than many South African teachers, and whatever the problems of Zimbabwe in the past or present, were not crippled by "Christian National Education". Some of them teach in unregistered private schools, which would be closed down if the education authorities knew what was going on. But they are probably doing as much to remedy the deficiencies of South African education as many of the bureaucrats.

And back in the "old" South Africa a friend of mine, John Aitchison, organised a night school for the staff of the then University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg -- cooks, cleaners, gardeners and so on, who had had little chance of education as children. Another volunteer effort, run on a shoestring, the teachers all being students and a few lecturers. By such means some people were able to bypass Bantu Education and have education for liberation. But it would be difficult to run such things under present regulations.

To return to Zemblanity. Another friend of mine, Larry Gilley, once returned from a meeting of people trying to develop an interdenominational Sunday School curriculum at which they had debated the relative merits of a Bible-centred curriculum or a child-centred curriculum. He remarked that it didn't matter much, because whichever one they opted for, they would still end up with a curriculum-centred curriculum.

You may change the government, you may change the system, but zemblanity in education will cling like a limpet.

02 August 2007

Jean Charles de Menezes exonerated

A report of the British Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC), just released, has finally refuted all the rumours that Jean Charles de Menezes, shot by police officers at Stockwell underground station two years ago, was in some way responsible for his own death.

These rumours, spread by the police and the media, were that de Menezes had behaved suspiciously, or was dressed strangely, or had failed to stop after a police warning. The report, after an exhaustive examination of the evidence, shows that he did nothing whatever to cause the police to shoot him, and that nothing he had done or not done had contributed in any way to his death. There was nothing that he could have done to avoid his death, which was caused by circumstances entirely beyond his control.

There were several disturbing features of the report.

One was that a police press release had said that de Menezes had failed to stop after a warning. It turns out that this item of disinformation was routinely inserted in such press releases by the person who compiled them, regardless of whether they were true or not.

These were the same police sources that were urging the need for 90-day detention. It is yet another sign that Blair/Brown's Britain is more and more coming to resemble Vorster's police state in South Africa in the 1960s.

01 August 2007

Al-Jazeera TV news network

My wife was feeling ill and stayed home from work today. She was channel hopping on the TV, and came across the Al Jazeera TV news network, and was quite impressed, and called me to have a look.

I don't watch much TV, but the programme I saw was quite impressively presented. It was about Russian journalists by didn't follow the Putin line on Chechnya being assassinated. And I found it interesting that in showing the funeral of one of them, the camera lingered on the priest, and on the cross on a nearby grave. It impressed me, because Western secular journalism tends to ignore such religious symbolism, unless, of course, it is the domes of St Basil's Cathedral in Red Square, but for the average Westerner that is as much a symbol of communism as of Christianity.

In establishing shots, too, they showed street scenes as seen by the average Russian, with trams and trolleybuses, rather than shots of the Kremlin.

It may be misleading, of course, that was just one programme, but I found the different approach was quite striking. I think I'll be watching it some more.


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