One of the most surreal things about living in a remote part of Africa was how strange holidays became: New Years, Valentine’s Day, Easter, 4 of July, Thanksgiving, Christmas. Without all the cultural scripts and consumerist trappings – and often with little variation in weather – it was easy to question the significance of these western holy days. Probably the starkest example of this was the two or three Easters we celebrated in wildlife parks:
“What does the resurrection of Jesus have to do with a Cape buffalo?” I would ask as I gazed into the obsidian orbs of a mud-caked beast shaped like bovine hostility. No ready answer came to mind, yet I knew intuitively that one would have to be found.
Easter 2008 we spent in Kidepo National Park with a group of expatriate missionaries and NGO workers. On the morning of March 23, I wrote the following reflections:
Being in this group of [folks with] various religious commitments once again highlights the odd place I find myself in. Tomorrow’s Easter, and as I imagine taking part in the service, I notice that I feel like an alien or outsider to these activities. I feel somewhat lost on the religious landscape. The loss of my ruling meta-narrative really has led to a loss of significance. I am in search of another meta-narrative.
Is Christianity about knowing the truth about the world and existence, or is it about concealing the truth that the only significance life has is what we make of it (existentialism), and that the Judeo-Christian narrative framework provides the necessary thought structures to cope with life and provide hope? Hope does not have to reflect reality in order to fulfill its function of comfort.
What place in the world is there for a person who has transcended their own mythology, who has glimpsed beyond the canopy of language, who has shaken loose the linguistic crust that forms throughout life? If it’s true that to be human is to have a mythology (an interpretation of reality), then I can’t go on without a story.
And it’s quite clear that I can’t go on with my old story.
My experience of Christianity in America had been of a religion well adapted to a highly literate society. First of all, it was based on a Holy Book. To be a mature Christian required one to not only read the words of Scripture but also interpret them and apply them to real-life problems and situations. Our church services revolved around preaching and teaching from textual sources like the Bible, the scores of Bible study lessons, small group programs, and Sunday school curricula. On top of these, we had Christian radio stations, TV channels, concerts, conferences, camps, etc. that to one degree or another made use of written language. The Written Word reigned supreme.
But what about in a pre-literate society? Would the absence of the Written Word prevent the Living Word from doing its work? The premise of our work in Wycliffe Bible Translators was that every person on earth needed to hear or read the Scriptures in their mother tongue in order to know the Living Word. But is writing really an inevitable product of human or even cosmic evolution? Did an Intelligent Creator really predestine that humans invent writing and acquire literacy in order to know their purpose for existing? In northern Uganda, surrounded as we were by raw ecology – rocks, trees, sky, mountains, animals, humans – a literate-only path to eternal life no longer made sense.
Two days after Easter, on March 28, 2008, I pondered these questions:
The relationship between writing and Christianity continues to intrigue me. They certainly seem to go together like hand and glove. Writing facilitates a perceptual and psychological distancing from the surrounding life-world, thereby distracting humans from their Old Testament mandate of ruling over the rest of creation. Writing also reinforces the dualisms emphasized in the New Testament: body/soul, earth/heaven, natural/supernatural, etc. It does this by allowing language – originally an organic film draped over the environment – to be fully self-reflexive and reflective, stranding concreteness in an abstract, inorganic realm of ink and paper…
Now, distancing oneself from a miserable earthly life for survival’s sake is, by all means, a completely reasonable thing to do. If doing so serves to give people hope, then it is good. In other words, if it works, if it does what it claims to do, then good for it. My question, though, is this: is [Christianity and the transcendence of earthly life] the only way to have hope, or should we learn to live without ultimate hope, or does it reflect some kind of objective reality, some primordial truth about the world?
More to the point, could there be an ecological faith, a panentheistic theology, and even a ‘Christian animism’? What would a trans-generational Christianity look like without the psychological effects of hyper-literacy? How could the truth embodied in a bibliocentric religion instead be embodied in an animistic approach to life?
Two months later (June 10), I added the following thoughts while perched on a boulder:
I’m thinking about this eco-bio-geo-theo-logical worldview that has captured my imagination. Only in the West do people have the time and luxury to concoct such bizarre, sterile, and cold systems like Calvinism, where God looms self-seeking, jealous, stern, and oh so inorganic. In Karamoja [the region we had moved to], the realities of a daily life deeply embedded in the local ecosystem call for a theological vision that takes a more naturalistic approach. Whatever else God does, we must first deal with how he works in the rain/drought, fertility/sterility, health/sickness, milk/blood, fruit/thorn, life/death of primordial planetary existence and exigence.
What was God doing for the millions and millions of years before the Hebrews and the Greeks came along? Before writing? Before language???