January 23, 2008

Ask Anything Wednesday: African Apologetics

Welcome to Ask Anything Wednesday. This week I am answering another great question. Please keep them rolling in! Just submit your question--on anything!--in the comments section below and I'll consider responding to it in our weekly feature.

"I have a question about the similarities and differences in confronting cults and equipping the church when it comes to working within two different cultures (Western vs. African).

"Does it appear that there are going to be challenges in the apologetic work you will be doing in Africa that are unique to Africa? That is, do you perceive there to be any unique cultural issues bound up with the way Ugandans, for example, think or approach life that will present challenges for you that you don't face here?

"In the same vein, are there challenges that are unique to the west--ways of thinking that cloud our vision that are not so prevalent where you are going?"

Let me begin by honestly saying that I have not spent enough time in Africa to provide a detailed or specific answer. At the same time, I am very much aware of the questions you raise and will take these issues into account as I seek to defend our faith in Africa. My goal is not to bring Western argumentation to Africa; my goal is to equip African believers themselves to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.

Essentially, this means that all apologetics is dependent on the context in which it takes place. Tim Keller often makes this point when talking about defeater beliefs. In his article "Deconstructing Defeater Beliefs" (in PDF format), Keller writes:
Every culture hostile to Christianity holds to a set of 'common-sense' consensus beliefs that automatically make Christianity seem implausible to people. These are what philosophers call "defeater beliefs". A defeater belief is Belief-A that, if true, means Belief-B can't be true.

Christianity is disbelieved in one culture for totally opposite reasons it is disbelieved in another. So for example, in the West . . . it is widely assumed that Christianity can't be true because of the cultural belief there can't be just one "true" religion. But in the Middle East, people have absolutely no problem with the idea that there is just one true religion. That doesn't seem implausible at all. Rather there it is widely assumed that Christianity can't be true because of the cultural belief that American culture, based on Christianity, is unjust and corrupt. (Skeptics ought to realize, then, that the objections they have to the Christian faith are culturally relative!) So each culture has its own set of culturally-based doubt-generators which people call 'objections' or 'problems' with Christianity.

When a culture develops a combination of many, widely held defeater beliefs it becomes a cultural 'implausibility-structure.' In these societies, most people don't feel they have to give Christianity a good hearing -- they don't feel that kind of energy is warranted. They know it just can't be true. That is what makes evangelism in hostile cultures so much more difficult and complex than it was under 'Christendom.' In our Western culture (and in places like Japan, India, and Muslim countries) the reigning implausibility-structure against Christianity is very strong. Christianity simply looks ludicrous. In places like Africa, Latin America, and China, however, the implausibility structures are eroding fast. The widely held assumptions in the culture make Christianity look credible there.

As you can see, the key to understanding how to defend the faith in Uganda and East Africa is to assess their implausibility-structures and defeater beliefs (as a side note, I am unsure of Keller's conclusion that the implausibility structures are eroding fast in Africa--Christianity is making great strides, but many challenges remain!). Once these beliefs are known, a Christian can effectively respond to them with the gospel and biblical truth.

One difference between the West and Africa that I already recognize has been pointed out by Philip Jenkins. As I mentioned previously to the ACFAR Network, he states: "Global South Christians, in contrast, do not live in an age of doubt, but must instead deal with competing claims to faith." This statement has tremendous implications for Christian apologetics. So much of our apologetic is geared toward doubt. But these usually aren't the primary challenges given against Christianity in Africa.

With all of this in mind, what do we do? We strive to understand the culture(s) that God has called us to minister to. I am in the process of learning more about East Africa and look forward to seeing how the Lord will use me!