Friday, February 27, 2009

Atheists for Jesus

Matthew Parris, a "confirmed atheist" (but perhaps something of a heretic) writes in the Times of how much Africa needs Christianity. That is, a sincere faith in a God in whom Parris does not believe. His prose is glowing:
Now a confirmed atheist, I've become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts. These alone will not do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa Christianity changes people's hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.
Parris parries the cant criticism of Western postmodernism ably as well:
There's long been a fashion among Western academic sociologists for placing tribal value systems within a ring fence, beyond critiques founded in our own culture: "theirs" and therefore best for "them"; authentic and of intrinsically equal worth to ours.

I don't follow this. I observe that tribal belief is no more peaceable than ours; and that it suppresses individuality. People think collectively; first in terms of the community, extended family and tribe. This rural-traditional mindset feeds into the "big man" and gangster politics of the African city: the exaggerated respect for a swaggering leader, and the (literal) inability to understand the whole idea of loyal opposition...

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 will criticize Parris from the opposite angle. Of course he is critical of tribalism; he grew up in a society founded on the liberation of "Christianity, post-Reformation and post-Luther". Parris' freedom to be an atheist is a direct outgrowth of the worldview he ascribes (correctly) to modern Christianity. Prior to the Reformation, a heretic could not live safely in any society - Socrates was poisoned, Buddha was outcast, Jesus was crucified. Parris finds the older, collective society anathema; the newer, individualistic society is his home.

This does not explain the difference between Christian and secular NGO workers - that difference should give Parris pause. Nor will I here take a position on how accurately the post-Reformation worldview reflects Biblical Christianity.

Hat tip to Inos for the link.

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