The Spirit World in Africa and the West: Contextual Theology for the Church

A REVIEW: Esther Acolatse. Powers, Principalities, and the Spirit: Biblical Realism in Africa and the West. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018.

Dr. Acolatse, with a background in Ghana, Princeton and Harvard, was a conversation starter for a Global Scholars retreat at Tyndale University in Toronto in July 2019. We seek to organize public lectures and panels that equip and network Christian scholars across Canada with a missional imagination for the world, and this book tackles that mission directly and provocatively.

Acolatse’s new book on supernaturalism in Africa and the West

Esther Acolatse frames the problem well: a hermeneutical gap between the church in the global South and modern West. The African church, with its animist cultural heritage and the influence of divination found in African traditional religions, lives in an enchanted world where the conflicts of angels and demons affect the details of everyday life. In A Secular Age Charles Taylor called this the “porous self”—a worldview where supernatural forces not only manipulate the environment and social system, but also the enter into individual consciousness to wreak havoc and harm. While this seems close to the Biblical worldview, it can be too dualistic, distracting from Christ’s victory at the cross and missing the joy of living filled by the Holy Spirit. It is an over-reading and over-emphasis of the spirit world as found in the New Testament.

The situation in the West is the opposite—a church disenchanted by the modern turn to the rational as the real. Acolatse takes Rudolf Bultmann as her prime example, who famously wrote that “We cannot use electric lights and radios and, in the event of illness, avail ourselves of modern medical and clinical means and at the same time believe in the spirit and wonder world of the New Testament” (New Testament and Mythology, 1984:4). Bultmann’s project was to demythologize the Bible, to subtract the mythology (fables) from it to make it credible to his imagined modern audience, so that only the essential truth of the message was left. Walter Wink later showed how New Testament references to a spirit world could be reinterpreted as socio-political forces and psychotherapeutic conditions, taking out the idea of supernatural beings as distinct entities that impinge on everyday life. In effect, the context of modern naturalistic philosophy works to cultivate a form of a reductive theological monism.

Charles Taylor’s terminology compliments Acolatse’s diagnosis, as he argues the modern self is “buffered” from any mysterious spirits, and instead attributes terrors in the night not to real spirits, but to something one ate for dinner, a hormone imbalance, or some chemical issue. Even if we see a dark, dampening of a person’s personality, the modern buffered self can interpret it all as “coded manifestations of inner depths, repressed thoughts and feelings.”

Acolatse maintains that both South and West have deficiencies, but the South is closer to the Biblical picture, and she endorses “Biblical realism”—“scriptures own way of interpreting itself.” She insists that myths are human stories that every culture inherits and shapes, and that the West equally operates according to myth. Drawing on Colin Grant who says myths are “unavoidable and elusive,” she says myths are “the perspectives and positions that we take for granted”—in other words, not fables or lies but a worldview. Myths are not someone else’s cultural take, but one’s own, often invisible, frame for interpreting the world, and the West has inherited the closed universe found in the Enlightenment’s historical package.

For a Western recovery of the Biblical worldview of the spirit world, Acolatse turns to Karl Barth first. In a fascinating investigation of Garrett Green’s work on Barth, she suggests Barth didn’t just dismiss all religion as unbelief—he was much more nuanced than that. Christianity in particular, Barth saw as both “the demolishing and sublimation of religion.” Religion is revelation when at its best, and the revelation is, somewhat paradoxically, that works-righteousness religion is idolatry. Still, revelation must be accessible to the human for salvation to be experienced, and that says Acolatse, is bridged by Christ’s incarnation and the Holy Spirit’s power. So both the religion of Western atheistic science, and the religion of African Traditional Religions, are judged in Christ and called to faith in the Biblical witness—which includes a dynamically charged spirit world.

Dr. Esther Acolatse

Acolatse’s work reminds of what the late Peter Berger wrote about the social construction of reality, and how modern consciousness has been alienated from a taken-for-granted cosmology that overlaps with the social world, resulting a cosmic “homelessness.” No longer plagued by demons, but also bereft of a sacred canopy.

Another anthropological work that intersects with this discussion is what Tanya Luhrmann has written about charismatic Christians in California in When God Talks Back (2012). It suggests that Acolatse’s West/South binary may not be as clear cut as she suggests. Luhrmann spent a number of years observing and interviewing Vineyard churches, a more recent charismatic-style tradition that includes a number of megachurches. What she notices is that in a pluralistic situation where there are many alternative choices with regards to faith, Christians can playfully layer their consciousness with different epistemological frames. When evangelicals pretend to experience God directly beside them, talking with them, as she observes them doing, she says they understand this both in a play frame and in a real frame—an “epistemological double register” (2012:378). The evangelical knows they are pretending that God is an imaginary companion—and act as if he is real. The double register, however, playfully blurs the epistemological layers, so that the experience is “real but not real, not real but more than real, absolutely real for all time but just not real in that moment” (378). (Interesting note: Luhrmann, an anthropologist at a secular university, had a transforming spiritual experience while doing this research.)

There are millions of Christians (and people of other faiths) in both South and West who live with this “double register.” They operate alternately in two frames on reality, and both frames have a truth to tell in certain contexts—without necessarily negating the other. Global South and modernist West, rational and supernatural, can be both correctives and complements to each other. This “double register” suggests a divided loyalty that may not be ideal, and Luhrmann suggests that the two registers can blur, which must come with some tension and distortion. Still, this dance between doubt and faith, reductive monism and supernaturalist dualism, is to a large degree the condition for living in our globalized world.

Again, as Acolatse says, the Christian’s goal is to live grounded in Word and Spirit, and that means living into the liturgy of Christ’s death and resurrection, which is not a divided life, but one that dies to both reductive monism and supernaturalist dualism in order to rise to life in union with Christ, by his Spirit. This is kingdom living, first and foremost. But a semi-dualism remains the current reality, in which Christ’s victory is sure, but our lives remain porous to both structural evil and other mysterious presences. The struggle is against flesh and blood, but more significantly in a realistic Biblical worldview, against principalities and powers that seek to sabotage the community of faith, hope, and love. Acolatse alerts us to this on-going conflict, real not just on structural levels, but in our everyday household and workplace life.

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