At the intersection

I have lived and worked within the East Mountain community for the past few years and am resharing a thought on this experience and some wisdom I gained along the way. It appears in the format used for EM’s weekly newsletter to partners and supporters.

What is the fastest way to travel from point A to B? When one has ground to cover with limited time and resources available, this is a crucial question. What is the most efficient way to travel the world in order to experience a variety of cultures or serve among other peoples, for instance? One way to confront such a challenge is to construct an algorithm, directing one along a journey from place to place, experience to experience, opportunity to opportunity. However, should we consider culturally shaped spaces and the encounters therein as expressions of the human heart, we are presented with another alternative altogether: positioning oneself at an intersection.

Through East Mountain I find myself living at a constant intersection.

Encountering “the world on your doorstep” is not an unusual experience when living in a metropolitan city like Cape Town. A hotchpotch of cultures finds expression in people from all over roaming the streets and tourist hotspots of the city. They all gather here. Some temporarily; dotting down to take in the sights and sounds before soon taking off again with a bank full of memories (on which airlines are fortunately yet to place a weight restriction). Others again, arriving with not much more than memories; having migrated from somewhere with a desire to establish something of permanence in the Cape of Good Hope.

Although a local, I often find myself among these ‘incomers’ as I play the role of tour guide; and, in the fortunate position of observing the cross-continental, cross-cultural, cross-lingual shoulder rubbing that takes place.

I, however, do not live in Cape Town.


I enjoy the privilege of living near Stellenbosch, and through East Mountain have been given the opportunity of encountering “the world in my living room” – something that hit me as I considered the variety of fluid containers which found their way into our kitchen cupboard through the past few years (see picture). Firstly, instead of saying, “an Englishman, a German and a Frenchman”, one might as well say “three South Africans” and possess the same cultural diversity necessary to tell a proper (or improper for that matter) joke. And so, in having three South Africans in the house, one can very easily encounter three nations in the process of living here. Then, apart from my own countrymen, the community living room is a place where, if you wait around long enough, you will encounter American diversity, the odd Englishman, other Africans, Asians and who knows, maybe one day a stray Australian?

It is at this intersection where my ministry happens. It is here that I learnt what ministry could look like. It is not always about going out but also inviting in. ‘Receiving the sent’, if you will. It is a strangely easy but also tough task. Both highly enjoyable and at times tiring.

My conclusion: it is possible to encounter and impact the world by opening the door to your living room.

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Beauty overcoming Death

“Why would anyone want to get rid of this?”, asks Jonas of his mentor, simply referred to as ‘The Giver’, to end a scene in The Giver (2014) – a film about a community which sheltered itself from the outside world, creating for its citizens some sort of Brave New World. It’s one of the most powerful scenes I’ve experienced in a film. Powerful, not because of an epic speech or victory in battle but because it appeared to communicate a truth which so many of us yearn to gain more insight to. For a moment it appeared to give a glimpse into what may be the answer to probably the greatest question faced by man: why suffering?

The Giver Rosemary's PianoOf all possible worlds, why do we find ourselves in one where suffering reigns? It is always there, always lurking, an undeniable reality. It is not simply the fact that it is here creeping among us but that it is still here, threatening never to depart from us. Every victory is short lived, for tomorrow it is swallowed by death and forgotten.

There is a question – or rather, a scathing accusation – constantly echoing through bomb-ridden cities, poverty-stricken towns, love-depraved suburbs, hospital wards, school playgrounds, lonely bedrooms… why does God not bring an end to this? Asking, “How come the one Being, able to (apparently) destroy evil and end the suffering which flows from it, decide to look on as it devours lives?” Saying, “Knowing what I know, He ought to have done so; long ago already.”

The question goes beyond the problem of human participation in and perpetuation of this evil. It enquires into the problem of a lost Paradise. The notion that a perfect world is (again?) attainable. A world in which not only natural order is restored but also peace to our souls. The belief that life has meaning and that we could somehow grasp what things ought to be like.

Whether we conclude that God is unwilling, unable or practically non-existent for not solving what we believe to be wrong in a way we would like to see it solved, we decide to take up the task of destroying evil and suffering ourselves. We are left with a problematic situation: with the death of a benevolent God came the death of both inherent meaning and the immorality of evil. Nevertheless, we set off on a paradoxical quest to create a better version of the meaningless chaos we find ourselves in, based on the hunch that things could be different.  But what do man’s efforts to replace God as the restorer of peace produce? This might be exactly “why anyone chooses to get rid of this”, to answer Jonas’ question. In our quest to create a better reality we create sub-realities; lesser realities. As we work to reject all the suffering on our own terms, we reject the beauty as well. As we aim to create pain-free lives we end up living less than human lives.

That scene in The Giver touched me as it illustrated what we may be giving up in our quest to destroy evil along our own reasoning. It reminded me that despite the suffering, our current reality remains very attractive. We would prefer to have tasted this life than no life at all.

I do not possess the knowledge with which to inform you of the exact reason why suffering continues to exist but I would tell you that I am convinced it is being dealt with in the best possible way. It may have to do with the fact that to destroy evil in any other way would mean to destroy life, beauty and all other things with it. The Creator chose to refine and perfect beauty – that which he initially deemed ‘good’ – rather than destroy it. The glorious character of the High King of Heaven was most beautifully revealed as He took on human form and defeated death as He entered into the fulness of life through suffering. Is it not expected then that those made in His image would most completely know, display and enjoy His glory in the midst of suffering? Suffering being part of what beauty overcoming death looks like; beauty often being most obvious in the midst of suffering. And therefore, perhaps, He chose not “to get rid of this”… or suffering, yet.

Who can look at himself in the mirror and honestly say to his own face: “The emotions I feel are meaningless and the music I hear, mere sounds”?



“God does not love some ideal person, but rather human beings just as we are, not some ideal world, but rather the real world” –Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Meditations on the Cross.

“And now we are Free. I will see you again… but not yet… Not yet!” -Juba, character in Gladiator (2000).


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Fighting monsters and contracting horseshoe syndrome

uct burning 2

Seeing the images of historical portraits, valuable paintings and other property being burned on UCT campus – as a reflection of so many other campuses and situations in our country – and reading some of the comments people make in response to it, and I think of:


…an alterntive version of Johnny Cash’s Nine Inch Nails cover of ‘Hurt’, that distinctive voice singing, “What have we become, my sweetest friends?


…how we could avoid a lot of this by being more willing to listen to the average person older than fifty (or forty, or thirty?) – barring many of those commenting on said photos of course; simply because they have lived through this before and tasted its fruits; nothing of this is new. How we don’t value the voices of the old and the dead.


…the low regard in which I held the old and the dead’s opinions on a variety of matters until fairly recently.


…Os Guinness’ warning to beware of ‘horseshoe syndrome’; how many of these opposing parties involved are so similar – think of the shape of a horse shoe and how moving too far left or right brings one to a place almost touching one another. The one group is simply a modern and/or alternative version of the other, operating under different circumstances along a different agenda.


…Friedrich Nietzsche’s warning to whoever fights monsters: that they should see to it that in the process they do not become monsters (and with it, Mark Sayers’ book, Facing Leviathan, in which I recently read this Nietzsche phrase, where he illustrates what conquering the monster truly entails – of which I said: “of the most important books most people will never read”, or something like that).


…Roger Scruton highlighting how unfortunate it is that we diminish society to a social contract in which the living – the present members and minority – are placed in a position of dictatorial dominance over the dead and the not yet born – the majority. He was quite impressed by Burke’s response to the idea of the social contract; that it ought to be considered a trust rather than a contract: the living members as trustees of an inheritance that they must strive to enhance and pass on. Respect for the dead, in Burke’s view, was the only real safeguard that the unborn could obtain, in a world that gave all its privileges to the living. Without the ‘hereditary principle’, according to which rights could be inherited as well as acquired, both the dead and the unborn would be disenfranchised.


These are the thoughts that come to mind as I view the images and read the comments.





“The triumph of the modern, secularist view takes the negative aspect of freedom to excess, undermines the ordered liberty necessary for a republic and breeds a democracy of appetites that hunger for an all-catering state. Thus Tocqueville’s twin tendencies appear contradictory, but they actually feed off each other. Both the rampant individualism of [American] private life and the all-devouring [American] sense of entitlement encourage the state to expand in the name of caring for its citizens. The sovereign individual and the sovereign state are closer than people realise.” -Os Guinness, A Free People’s Suicide


UCT photos by David Ritchie.


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Through the hole in the hedge

“Any thoughts?”, asked a friend on facebook. On whether we should, instead of worshipping some system or trusting it to heal our land, rather focus on “fortifying people from the problems created by the systems that direct their lives and movement?” When she asked this, an article by Peter Bruce has already been stirring thoughts in my head for a few days and thus I answered it based on those initial thoughts. Perhaps not as accurately as I could but answered it nevertheless. Herein, Bruce suggests more effective economic measures and wealth redistribution as the door through which the problem of racism in South Africa could be fixed and a divided South Africa could enter a shared future. His vision of a South Africa with a growing economy and greater participation in it is desirable and the idea of it exciting. What excites me less, however, is that he starts off his article with a theological problem to which he appears to suggest an economic or materialist solution. Did he realise he was opening up a theological problem?

Hole in hedge_2He describes the impact things like the slave trade or wars can have on groups of people as it had on both black and white South Africans. How people think of themselves or others as commodities rather than human, or imprisoned rather than free. His focus is, however, more specifically on how slavery affected South Africans. Bruce considers slavery an unavoidable outcome of economic necessity and later states that “you cannot commercialise human beings you respect”. The logic, in short, appears to be that a purely economic system led to slavery which in turn led to the racist white (Western) mind suffering from a superiority complex with the abused black (African) mind as the inverse side of that same coin, and thus the obvious way out has to be: a purely economic solution. But did a belief system or an economic system cause people to commercialise other human beings? One does not simply begin selling people as commodities. What makes parents who struggle financially sell their own daughters as sex slaves in certain parts of the world today? A certain worldview or logical jump has to allow for people to be treated in that way.

Bruce presents practices based in dehumanised views of the other and ourselves – thinking of people as either lesser or more than human, animals or gods, belonging to animal-like or god-like cultures – as foundational to racist attitudes. He considers the system of slavery as problematic and acknowledges its influence on the psyche of all parties involved. I understand Bruce wrote his article for a financial publication and thus presents economic solutions to South Africa’s inequality problem but he does start from a problem in the theological sphere of personhood and identity, which in my opinion cannot be solved through a redistribution of resources and further class categorisations. It requires not an economic solution but a theological one. One found not by entering the door suggested above but through the ‘hole in the hedge’.

The question of personhood is always a theological one, shaped by the narrative in which we believe we exist, regardless of whether that narrative flows from a faith based in history or in the fiction created through our thoughts. We derive our understanding of who we are from our understanding of the divine. Could God be bought and sold? Does our God dominate their god? Are we ourselves gods? Are we all without gods? Are we all subject to and held accountable by the same laws based in the same Truth of the same God? Is God relational? Does God have volition? If God does wage war and conquer, by which means? How vulnerable is God in the face of opposition? If God is conquered, how does He respond? Is God just? Does He show mercy?

It requires a certain understanding of God and oneself to treat another person as something other than human. It requires a certain understanding of God and others to consider oneself as something other than human.

man brotherThe slogan coined by Josiah Wedgwood (ironically, the grandfather of Charles Darwin), “Am I not a man and a brother?”, played a critical role in the cause of abolishing slavery in Britain in the nineteenth century. This appeal asked the question “Am I not a fellow human being made in the image of God (man) and did Jesus Christ not die for the African just as He did for the European and people of all ethnicities (a brother)?”[1]. The same could be said of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s appeal to the American people through her novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Was it simply because it appealed to the public conscience of that day or because there was no rational alternative to which the abolitionists could turn?

Without God there is no Truth, only perceptions and rationalisations. Without Truth all ideas are equal, people only as far as they are useful, convenient or necessary. Without the inequality of ideas, racism is a rational inclination which might inconvenience some while granting convenience to others. We cannot appeal to an authority but instead become authorities ourselves. Justice not based in God is justice based in him who best mimics God. Can such justice restore or will it be ever rectifying towards ‘heaven’ as it is proposed by the latest god? These heavens, Roger Scruton argues, are, despite noble intentions, too often much like the world dreamed up and imposed in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four: places where the imperfect individual is replaced with the pure abstraction, where the human world is rewritten as though composed of forces, movements, classes and ideas, all moving in a stratosphere of historical necessity from which the messy realities have been excluded. These “good intentions can never be questioned since nobody knows what it would be like to achieve them”, states Jean-Francois Revel. Or as Joe Boot, speaking at a recent seminar I attended, mentioned (paraphrased): “social justice is a term often used but no one in a strictly secular world really knows what it looks like”.

I am, however, not completely correct in referring to Bruce’s response as non-theological. His response is not too dissimilar to that which flows from a secular humanist theology. Personhood is relativised along with Truth into individual expressions and desires. This is an unfortunate effect of ‘human rights’ no longer derived from God as source: people end up less or other than human. People are reduced to ethnic or cultural groupings, gender categorisations, economic classes and so forth. As most of us hold to some or other ‘doctrine of salvation’ for mankind, there is no longer one ‘true person’, or God, through whom salvation is found but we become ourselves the mythological gods of old, continually at war, looking to subject others to our divinity.

These wars are fought in the name of human rights and in pursuit of the ever elusive, very vague ‘progress’. Scruton recognises this consequence of secular humanism, calling it “the new secular religion of human rights” as it seems to “occupy the place vacated by faith and with it humans have become gods”. “It tells us that we are the centre of the universe, that we are under no call to obedience, but that the world is ordered in accordance with our rights”. Immorality is thus that which infringes on perceived rights and the result of this religion of rights is that “people feel unendingly hard done by. We have made an idol of progress. But ‘progress’ is simply another name for human dreams, human ambitions, human fantasies. By worshipping progress we bow before an altar on which our own sins are exhibited. We kill in ourselves both piety and gratitude, believing that we owe the world nothing, and that the world owes everything to us. That is the real meaning it seems to me, of the new secular religion of human rights. The triumph of sin thereby comes with our failure to perceive it”. In the name of ‘reproductive’ or ‘women’s’ rights, for instance, we legally disallow persons to enter otherwise ‘free’ societies on a daily basis through abortion. This is quite evident in NARAL’s denunciation of Doritos for wrongly “humanising fetuses” in a recent Superbowl commercial. Everything becomes an injustice as these rights pull us apart from, instead of restoring us toward, one another. The solution is not sought in the pursuit of Truth and obedience to One greater than us but in the continual division of people into opposing groups and classes. Is this not also dehumanisation?

It appears that human relations and a commitment to clear thinking on personhood are not central in such pursuits towards progress. Trust in fallen human beings’ ability to meet face to face in a broken world to build systems from the ground up and create flourishing societies is weak or non-existent. We rather look to perfect systems, designed by the gods, to compensate for imperfect human relations and negotiations. Lacking a clear definition of personhood to strengthen human relations, materialist attempts to redistribute financial resources among people seems to depend on a redistribution of personhood among people categorised along different identities.

Steve Biko foresaw a South Africa in which “there shall be no minority… no majority; there shall just be people”, while President Nelson Mandela also spoke of a “people-centred society”. Is such a society attainable when personhood remains a largely undefined concept, not eternally fixed but always at the mercy of those in power? Is the creation of material equality helpful if the rich and poor are equally greedy, suffer from the same sense of entitlement, and have the same skewed views on personhood and neighbour?

Proposing a solution would mean appealing to Truth once again. Truth, not originating from among men but which became human, modelled what being human looks like, and calls all – those considered less and more than human – to become properly human. Truth, so primary and universal, it requires us to extend both our love and judgement across religious, ethnic and familial boundaries – yet, recognising the otherness of others, from this gracious Truth developed a social preference for “neighbourhood and mutual freedom rather than brotherhood and shared submission”[2].

I turn again to Scruton[3] and summarise his thoughts on escaping from the secular hole we dug ourselves into. He argues we return through the ‘hole in the hedge’, as proposed by the Psalmist (Ps. 100), rather than a door towards elusive progress:

‘Be ye sure that the Lord he is God: it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves’. This sentence contains all theology. It reminds us of three truths: that our knowledge of God is a kind of personal acquaintance, summarised in a statement of identity, knowing God by knowing that God is the Lord and the Lord is God; that we did not create ourselves, nor the world in which we live; and finally, that God created us.

When we ask for the ‘why’ of the world – who we are and how we ought to live – we are not turning to scientific projects which answer the ‘how’ questions. We are seeking a point of view outside all time and change, from which we can view the world as a whole. Only God can obtain that point of view. Hence it is to Him that we must look for an answer.

The right course for ‘his people, and the sheep of his pasture’ who have strayed into the unknown territory, is to go back through the hole in the hedge. After a long history of human pride and arrogance that has sundered us from nature, we need to return. This is the essence of the religious life: not progress and experiment, but the journey back to the place that protects us. It is a mark of our sinful nature that those who advocate this course are often sneered at. Yet, there is a way back to those cooling streams, which can be rediscovered at any time.

The psalmist charges us to direct our thoughts outwards, in praise and gratitude: ‘O go your way into His gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise: be thankful unto Him, and speak good of His Name’. Only those who give thanks are able to rejoice, for only they are conscious that life, freedom and well-being are not rights but gifts. A gift is a reminder that others care for us. The doctrine of human rights is prompting us to forget that truth and that is why it is leading to a world without joy. For if the good things of life are mine by right, why should I be grateful for receiving them? Where there is no gratitude, there is no love. Conversely, a world in which there is love is a world in which the good things of life are seen as privileges, not rights. It is a world where you are aware of the good will of others, and where you respond to that good will with a reciprocal bounty, giving what is in your power to give, even if it is only praise. Even in the midst of suffering we enjoy the free gift of life while we might not even have existed. God’s ‘everlasting mercy’ is not the constant forgiveness of sins, but the maintenance of an order in which free choice can guide our conduct even through suffering and hardship. His commands are a great endowment of good will that only free beings can obey.

The psalmist concludes by telling us of God that ‘his truth endureth from generation to generation’. Discovering this truth, we encounter what is permanent – or rather what is beyond time and change, the eternal peace that serves as the divine template, so to speak, for our brief homecomings here on earth. When we take those tentative backward steps that I mentioned earlier, trying to restore this or that little precinct of our mutilated Eden, we are creating icons of another pasture, outside time and space, where God and the soul exist in dialogue. We are prefiguring our eternal home.

“Any thoughts?” Should we, instead of worshipping some system or trusting it to heal our land, rather focus on “fortifying people from the problems created by the systems that direct their lives and movement.”





“Should we women [and surely we men can follow suit?] who belong to different racial groupings, not reach out to one another, make the journey to one another’s heart, so that our children and grandchildren may inherit a future of peace in this beautiful country of ours? Should we not seek opportunities to work together? Establishing proper starting points among a people, a multi-racial country, a miserable world, lies to a large extent in the hands of women. There are enough of us willing to do it because we are open to undertaking the longest journey, from heart to heart, person to person.” –Alba Bouwer speaking at a women’s gathering in Johannesburg, 1982

[1] The ‘image of God’ and ‘incarnation of Christ’ concepts thus guided their reasoning.

[2] Scruton R 2014. How to be a Conservative. Bloomsbury: London, UK.

[3] Scruton R 2005. Gentle Regrets: thoughts from a life. Continuum: London, UK.; p. 234-239.

*’Hole in the hedge’ photo from
Posted in Christianity, Human Behaviour, Life, Slavery and Human trafficking, South Africa | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Stellenbosch, Afrikaans and South African identity

These are one of those ‘one paragraph’ facebook posts which became a blog post as my thoughts developed while I wrote and am looking forward to hear your thoughts.

What do these TEDtalk presentations (see links below) bring to the current discussion around language at Stellenbosch University? English as official language provides access (to some in their first language, to many in their second and others in their third) and connects more people to one another, but that may not be the only effect it has. The simple argument that Afrikaans ‘excludes’ is simply too simple, and incomplete.

Don’t Kill Your Language – Suzanne Talhouk

Don’t Insist on English – Patricia Ryan

The World’s English Mania – Jay Walker

Die Ander Kant (The Other Side) – A South African ‘Coloured’ perspective

When we say Stellenbosch ought to be a ‘South African’ university as opposed to say a White University or a Cape University or an Afrikaner University or an Afrikaans University, are we actually able to define ‘South African’? When we do define something we make it exclusive. It is ultimately impossible to move away from exclusivity.Taal

I won’t die if everything becomes English and neither would my children. I am an eighth generation South African (from before it became South Africa with its current borders I believe) who are currently operating in our third home language since: German, Dutch, Afrikaans… English? My first known ancestor to arrive in the Cape was German ‘Johann Heinrich Hoffmeister’ but was soon registered and ‘Dutchified’ as ‘Jan Hendrik Hofmeyr’ to better fit the culture – I assume his mother tongue was German, although he arrived from a region which was under Dutch rule at times. I am thus not of the opinion that my language is that which ultimately defines me (the one Arab lady in the video might be of that opinion though) but think that the TED speakers might be correct in saying that the country will get poorer, or at least lose a part of its collective mind and diversity should English become mainstream. Not my death but perhaps the slow death or transformation of its cultures. Not the end of the world but a move away from diversity towards uniformity. Away from local cultures towards a global one.

My understanding is that apart from political agendas, a major factor in language changes within (white/Afrikaans) South Africa has been the desire to transfer truth on ground level. I have not read extensively on any of this but it appears that a great influence on the Afrikaans transplantation of Dutch as written language among the people, was the need to serve the less educated and often illiterate (white and coloured) with the Gospel, as they struggled to partake in its fullness while Dutch alone was the official Church language[1]. Assuming the University of Stellenbosch does possess a great ‘truth’ to which more people want and need access, Afrikaans seems to be portrayed as the ‘Dutch’ (or ‘Latin’ in Catholic Europe until Bible translators began making the Word accessible to the masses in their mother tongue so that they may know God and freedom through their own tongue and culture) and English as the national vernacular (or ‘old Afrikaans’ as per above example), despite it being so as a second language.

Language can indeed be a barrier but the former trend referred to seemed to cross that barrier by expanding the choice of language from the position that truth is universal, transcending and celebrating diversity of cultures. Our current approach appears to contract choice into a single language option. The question following is how well our various cultures can continue to exist within an English framework – again, assuming they have to continue to exist in the way they currently do, at all.

The question we have seemingly grappled with from the start is how to live as a diverse people while pursuing a single national identity. Is the idea that we remain a rainbow with separate colours moving in the same direction or that the State mixes all the colours together and the end result is ‘South African’?*

If the rainbow is the goal, it would make sense that institutions displaying various cultures would co-exist, regardless of whether they are public institutions or not. If the melting pot is the end goal with only one official language in mind, English makes sense.

Taal_mother tongue

The following is based on the 2011 SA Census and serves as an estimate:

English is the most commonly spoken language in official and commercial public life – but only the fifth most spoken home language representing a mere 8,2% of the population. South African creativity has developed its own version of English. Combining the influences of the many other languages spoken in the country. The traditional Oxford Dictionary incorporated many South African words which have become common usage, such as kraal (village of huts) and trek (travel by ox-wagon).

Afrikaans is the second most spoken language in South Africa. There are approximately 6 million people who can speak [Afrikaans]. The language is only 90 years old, it is officially the youngest language in the world.

Zulu is the most commonly spoken mother tongue (23,8% ), followed by isiXhosa (17,6%) then Afrikaans (13,3%), Sesotho sa Leboa (9,4%), English (8,2%) and the rest made up by the remaining six languages.[2]

*If I’m not the only one asking, “What does it mean to be ‘South African’?”, then perhaps that is a good question to we ought to engage with.

[1] Any historical insight on the development of mainstream languages in South Africa is welcomed; this is merely something I have noticed in works I’ve read. I do recognise it as the typical approach by Bible translators beyond South Africa and even Europe though, and that it did play a role in the development of more languages.

[2] Source:

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Theology as Deliverance

As odd as it may sound, theological studies – man’s study of God and how to relate to Him as human persons – is often thought of as a “faith killer”. This is the case within certain Christian circles at least. Elspeth Barnett, a theology graduate from Kings College London, tells of how she held this ironic fear. She recounts how, before embarking on her degree in theology, she received her “fair share of Evangelical warnings”, reminding her to be cautious of having her ‘faith’ undermined. Barnett goes on to tell of how, despite a good Christian grounding (a Christian upbringing, cross-cultural mission work, serving within her local church setup) and the forewarnings, studying theology ended up being the biggest trial her faith endured up to that point.

I have begun walking a similar journey a few years ago. My entrance into theological studies was not accompanied by a specific fear or list of warnings attached to it. I have, however, held this suspicion towards academic theological institutions and was aware of the notion that “the more advanced a person becomes as a theologian, the less eager evangelist he becomes”. I pursued these studies primarily because I had the hope of eventually studying philosophy. Theology would provide me with an academic qualification more conducive to philosophical studies than that of my qualifications in commerce at the time.

theologian_bookRegardless of my intentions for pursuing theological studies, the experience was in many ways similar to the one described by Barnett. Both of us had our personal faiths challenged, both experienced the process as frustrating at times and both concluded it (theology) to be a necessary part of growing as members of the Faith.

I believe the suspicion among both Evangelicals and evangelistic-minded Christians are mainly based on three theological positions. Yes, even those who may be suspicious of the ‘intellectual theological’ pursuit of God hold theological positions! Before we consider the first position, it is important that we acknowledge that all people are theologians in the broad sense of the word while Christians are all theologians in the narrow sense. All people interact with their experienced reality from a belief system which includes a view of ‘ultimate reality’ (God) and a doctrine of man. Christians too, define God in certain terms and consequently view themselves in light of that understanding of God, regardless of the source(s) for their interpretation of these.

The Christian mind

What is the role of intellect in one’s relational pathway to God? Can God be known through the mind? It is impossible to deny the contribution Christian thinkers made to theology and church tradition through the ages. Augustine of Hippo (AD354-430), arguably the most influential theologian to date and often referred to as “the second founder of the Christian faith”[1], was also renowned for his philosophical work, some[2] of which dominated the intellectual life in Europe for more than a thousand years.

As a student of Greek philosophy, Augustine was familiar with the Aristotelian notion[3] that knowing or agreeing happens not only on an intellectual (logos) level but simultaneously on psychological (pathos) and social/ethical (ethos) levels as well. He argued that the integrated person should practice integrated worship by means of his “head, heart and hands” along the biblical command to love God with one’s whole being, including mind, heart and strength (Matt. 22:34-39; Mk. 12:29-31; Lk. 10:26-28). His philosophy on music is the foundational reason behind much of the sophisticated music which was developed and written through the European church leading up to and beyond the Protestant reformations and is still evident in modern musical pursuits within Western culture. This is a good example of how heart worship, often associated with music and hymns, is dependent on head worship.

Another church father, John of Damascus (ca. AD 676-749), who continued in the tradition of Augustine and Boethius (AD 480-524) to integrate Greek insights into Biblical revelation (also visible in Paul addressing the Areopagus, Acts 17), taught that “to be spiritual is to cultivate the life of the mind”. The Greeks gave up on rationality while the Biblical teaching that “eternal life was to know (the rational) God and Jesus Christ” continued the case for it. The later mass-awakening of the European mind continued through the works of reformers such as Wycliffe, Tyndale, Luther and Calvin, who made it their business to make the Bible available to all people, that they may discover Truth for themselves. It is said that most every European alehouse and tavern at the time became a debating society as the people developed a critical mind, questioning traditions of the church and decisions of kings. They knew then that the Word of God was an authority higher than that of church and state combined. In the noble Berean spirit (Acts 17:11), studying and discerning the Word became a daily pursuit to many; the means to their liberation[4].

Not only were the people liberated from oppressive authorities, but in developing a Biblical worldview they became liberated from pre-Christian worldviews (pagan animism, Greco-Roman monism, and Islamic fatalism) still active within church culture at the time. History shows that Christian societies only develop a Biblical worldview and see its effects over time, as the minds of its people are transformed.

While the head is of no use apart from the heart and hands, it remains central and irreplaceable in the experience and on the journey of knowing God.

Salvation, faith, and doubt

What does Barnett mean when saying, “theological studies put my faith on trial”? She could mean one of two things.

First, she was in danger of “losing her salvation” and becoming an unbeliever. This will depend on how salvation is defined and the role worldview-altering ideas play in becoming ‘saved’. Important questions which follow are whether she is saved due to her beliefs or believes because of her salvation, and whether salvation is a process or an event?

If salvation is obtained through human effort or belief, it follows that exposure to and engagement with ideas is the ultimate basis from which salvation is obtained or lost. We are left to face a multitude of ideas on a daily basis and destined to believe the most convincing ones. The ‘gift’ of salvation is thus only for those able to obtain and hold on to it. From this perspective it would make sense to engage only with those ideas which lead to one’s salvation in the first place and avoid any alternative which may result in the loss of salvation. If salvation is in fact the gift from God which resulted in Barnett’s belief in Christ as the Messiah, contradictory ideas could be engaged in more freely without the fear of losing her salvation because of it.

Salvation ‘obtained’ allows us with the possibility of one to multiple salvific events and a process of moving towards a possible, eventual obtaining of salvation. Salvation ‘bestowed’ by God would argue for an initial event which is inevitably brought to fruition through a process.

Second, it may very well be that, instead, Barnett’s personal faith was challenged – her view of who God is and how she relates to Him was challenged by the Bible. If salvation does indeed contain a procedural aspect, misunderstandings about God, one’s salvation, and relationship with Him are to be expected along the way. Waves of doubt and belief are part of the salvation process as much as attraction and the desire to love are part of a marriage union. The covenant determines the status, not the beliefs, feelings or actions of those bound by the covenant.

Evangelistic zeal

Looking into the effect of theological studies on evangelistic tendencies, evangelism should first be defined. All would agree that the expected fruit of evangelism is people professing their belief in Christ as Lord and being added to the Church. But is evangelism primarily the proclamation of Good News or rather an invitation to respond to Good News? One may argue that it is both but should one emphasise either one, evangelistic zeal and success are likely to be measured differently. The former may argue evangelism is successful as long as the Good News is accurately proclaimed while the latter is more likely to measure evangelistic success based on the response to the Good News.

Theological studies may lead to the proclamation of a false gospel but may also help churches reach more people more effectively with the Gospel. I am familiar with organisations that are very committed to an intellectual pursuit of God through the study of the Word while being very committed to operating among unbelievers in order to share the Good News with them. How would one measure whether such organisations act as effective evangelists?

A personal journey

Many of my personal beliefs were challenged as I began to engage not only with current theological debates but also with Church history and the contexts in which many of our modern beliefs developed. I found that, as is the case with societies, even though I was a Christian operating within a predominantly Christian culture, my worldview contained animistic, fatalistic and also Gnostic elements. Theological studies helped me develop a more Biblical worldview and thus had a positive impact on my faith life.

Much of this began with a move away from the postmodern notion that we are individuals detached from community, history and a grand narrative. In a humbling way I rediscovered the fact that we are called to be custodians of the Gospel handed down to us by communities of faith who lived in contextually different cultures. Grasping the covenantal Biblical narrative and understanding the Old and New Testaments in light of this story made the Bible more readable to me than before. My faith became more logical and liveable as I understood more clearly how I fit into history and related to God and the world as someone saved by His grace. I am now able to read the Bible in order to come to terms with my salvation and have God work in me both to will and to do for His good pleasure.

Theological studies liberated me from a mind prone to strive for God’s favour, an animistic one that tried to control God’s hand, but also one that often led me to passivity as I resigned to fatalism. God is sovereign and I cannot control him but He created us to imitate him in community, fulfilling our creative mandate of shaping and sanctifying space and time that His Glory may dwell among us.

In light of Barnett’s conclusive quote by Sir Francis Bacon, “A little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism, but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion”, I conclude that it is only improper, half-hearted, or dishonest theology that paves the road to faithlessness.

Vishal Mangalwadi tells of the Indian mystic, Osho Rajneesh, whose teachings are peppered with phrases such as “Intellect is the chief villain” and “Do not use your mind” while his religious philosophy aims to achieve “a point in (one’s) mind where there is no thinking at all”. He encourages his followers with a sign which reads, “Please keep your shoes and your mind outside the temple”.

May Christians ever involve their minds and feet as they engage with God and share that experience with others. Whether it is for the sake of personal mind renewal, deeper relationship with my Church community, or to better proclaim the Gospel to others, I intend to continue engaging seriously with the Word and other people’s understanding of it. I do this knowing that my salvation is secure in the hands of Him whose perfect, finished works I have been called to walk in.

[1] McGrath AE 2011. Christian Theology: an introduction. Oxford, U.K.: Wiley-Blackwell.

[2] City of God and Confessions.

[3] Dickson JP 2014. Top 10 tips for Atheists this Easter. Online article. Accessed via

[4] Mangalwadi V 2011. The Book that made your World: how the Bible created the soul of Western civilization. Nashville, TN.: Thomas Nelson.

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The Bible, Music, and the Western Soul

Thoughts and quotations from a book I am currently reading…

“Criticisms of the Bible are recognition of its unique cultural power. Contrary to what my university taught, the Bible was the force that had created modern India.”

“Western (education) can make good robots but it cannot even define a good man… The postmodern university can teach one how to travel to Mars but not how to live in one’s home or nation”

Vishal Mangalwadi wrote The Book that made your World in response to criticism by politicians of the Bible’s effect on Indian culture. It acts primarily as a warning/reminder to the West of what they are sacrificing along with their biblical heritage.

He surprisingly begins with the topic of music, stating that “Those who think that the universe is only material substance and the soul is an illusion find it hard to explain music.”

church music_3He goes on to tell how music was always held in high regard, after theology only, at the educational core of Biblical (‘Western’) cultures, as it was seen to consist of mathematical harmony and associated with a rational, eternal, unchangeable, meaningful and objective reality under a monotheistic, intelligent designer. Much of this was due to St Augustine’s philosophical works on music and the influence it had on Europe. The pipe organs in church was the world’s most advanced machine until the mechanical clock and stood as emblems of the West’s unique desire and ability to use the arts, science, and technology for the glory of God as well as for the relief of humanity’s suffering and toil.

While top modern/postmodern music artists are so attractive because they capture human suffering in their lyrics, those who have gone before saw hope through the pain, as is still the case within the Christian musical tradition. Kurt Cobain is held up as the musical symbol of the West’s state under the post-Augustinian Nietzschean world. While Augustine affirmed every human being as a trinity of existence (being), intellect, and will, Cobain bought into the Nietzschean idea that God is dead and thus the self too is dead. This is aligned with the Buddhist idea of the self as illusion. Cobain is, however, held up as a legitimate icon because he lived by what he believed. Only a few followed his example of suicide but most follow that of Sartre and Camus who advocate for choice in spite of the nihilism they embraced. Suicide is not necessary because an own reality could be created through choice – Cobain did not create such a reality for himself.

Golden Pipe Organ - Granada, Spain

Golden Pipe Organ – Granada, Spain

Music did exist within non-Christian cultures but was hardly ever treated in a similar manner and developed to the same level of complexity and, states Mangalwadi, universities with a Christian heritage tend to still hold music in a much higher regard than most universities founded upon secularism during the twentieth century. Within the church, music is also less developed where St Augustine had less influence.

This is mainly based on and quoted from the first chapter ‘The West without its Soul: from Bach to Cobain’ from Mangalwadi’s The Book that made your World: how the Bible created the soul of Western civilisation.




photo of organ via
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