African, Western, and Post-Enlightenment Western Cultures

For what it’s worth, here’s my cultural insight for the week.

It’s a well-known truth that we tend to view the world through the lens of our cultural presuppositions, and that these deeply- but unconsciously-held ideas shape the way we approach and articulate the universal truths of God’s Word.  Because of this, theological resources produced in a western context aren’t always as effective or well-received in Africa as they are in their original contexts, and we missionaries are frequently warned against trying to import western cultural presuppositions into Africa along with the Gospel.

In light of this, I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how well-received are Martin Luther’s small and large catechisms as teaching tools here in Africa, and it has led me to re-think my cultural categories a little.  I used to categorize cultures, so to speak, with the biggest, thickest line lying between western and non-western cultures.  I viewed every culture in the west as having basically similar underlying suppositions, while all non-western cultures had values of different categories entirely.

While it certainly remains true that there are differences between western and other cultures, I am now more inclined to draw the biggest, thickest line in a different place.  It seems to me that the biggest cultural barrier between modern Americans and Europeans and everyone else in the world is not so much the fact that we are western but the fact that we live in the post-enlightment age.  It is the values of the 18th-century enlightenment more than any others that make us distinct from other cultures, including our own pre-enlightment western roots.  This explains why, in at least some important ways, the culture in which Martin Luther lived bears more similarities to African culture than our own.

For example, post-enlightenment culture is extremely egalitarian, diminishing differences between people whenever possible, whereas both African and earlier western cultures place a much greater emphasis on social position and order, with the elderly in particular being highly regarded.  Luther’s table of duties with its biblical distinctions and hierarchy rubs modern American sensibilities the wrong way, but it is quite acceptable in an African context.

Another example is that post-enlightenment culture has deistic tendencies such that even Christians often downplay the practical, day-to-day influence of the spiritual realm, both the divinely miraculous and the demonic.  In contract, both African and earlier western cultures are much more aware of supernatural powers as a daily part of life.  (Just count the number of times Luther mentioned the devil in his catechisms!)

Also, the thinking of post-enlightenment culture (i.e., Descartes) begins with the individual, who determines his identity, relationships, and place in society; whereas in African and earlier western culture the family and community are more likely to precede the individual.

Finally, post-enlightenment, post-Darwinian western culture has an almost unshakable confidence in the inevitability of upward progress of the human race, a view not shared by Africans and earlier westerners.

I don’t claim to have anything like a thorough understanding of African cultures, but as I spend time here I am beginning to understand my own culture a little better by looking at it from the outside, and that is a step in the right direction.

One thought on “African, Western, and Post-Enlightenment Western Cultures

Comments are closed.