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It has been about 18 months since the Brace family left the US to return to South Africa. God is blessing the work, opening doors for us to serve and employ the training that we received at SES. Nel and I continue to praise God for our time spent at SES. On a daily basis, we engage with students, the local Church, and those in our African community, leaning upon the things we learned formally in the academic program at SES and also the informal conversations that we had with SES friends and faculty over the years. This training has been essential in preparing us for the diverse and challenging South African spiritual landscape.
What does the spiritual landscape look like in South Africa? South Africa is a very diverse country with eleven official languages, diverse cultures, and a very complex and troubled history. South Africa is still recovering from a bitterness and racist hatred rooted deep within the history of the South African Apartheid; I call this the “post-apartheid hangover.”In many ways, the racial tensions are like those within the US, but with an added intensity that leaves many wondering: “Will we ever recover.” Sadly, these tensions are often the catalyst for protest and violence. South Africa suffers terribly from violent crime. Within the last 2 years, our Ratio Christi group has had two of our students assaulted. One girl was robbed at knife point for her phone and a second student mugged and stabbed. Furthermore, South Africa is also a country with the greatest gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots;” a problem worsened by an unemployment rate of ~25%. One can stand in Santon and be surrounded by million-dollar houses and “high-end” shopping malls, but travel a few miles and they will find thousands of people living in tin shacks. To compound matters, like all countries in Africa, South Africa suffers deeply from corruption.
Well, what about ideologies and the worldviews of people in South Africa in addition to the socio-economic, historical, and political problems? South Africa has every major worldview well represented within its community. South Africa has the largest Indian community in the world outside of India. So much of what one can find in India is well represented in South Africa. Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Hare Krishna (the largest Hare Krishna temple in the Southern Hemisphere is in South Africa). European ideologies and progressivism are alive and well in South Africa. Skepticism is on the rise, and the LGBT movement in South Africa, aided by one of the most liberal constitutions in the world, is also campaigning very strongly. Postmodernism and Scientism are flourishing in the South African University system. In the liberal arts departments, postmodernism reigns supreme. In the departments of science and technology, Scientism dominates with an iron fist. Political convictions are also very diverse. South Africa has a very strong Communist Party, and most of the political parties tend towards Socialism.
On top of all of this, South Africa’s traditional religions bring challenges against Christianity that one rarely finds in the U.S. or Europe. Polygamy is enshrined in the constitution for the indigenous cultures who practiced polygamy before the Europeans arrived. Ancestor worship is a major issue that I have engaged in on a number of occasions with South African students. And just to top off this melting pot of ideologies, the efforts of the Church are severely hampered by rampant Word of Faith and Prosperity Gospel teaching. The fact that African people, including the South Africans of European descent, tend to be more spiritual makes them easy targets for the those “preachers” who peddle anti-intellectualism and fideistic theology. All of this leads to a wonderful cocktail where the mainstream cults and local indigenous cults flourish. This issue is so rampant that one of our RC students made a South African cult the subject of his Ph.D. studies. The cult of his choice began within an evangelical church setting.
With this being the spiritual landscape in which Nel and I find ourselves , we constantly thank God for our education at SES. We employ our training with folks on a daily basis. What might this look like?
Given the ideological minefield that one has to wade through, we constantly have to think about distinctions between the various claims that are being made in order to clarify and progress our conversations with both believers and unbelievers. Simply getting people to clarify their ideas; define their terms; realizing that some ideas are not connected; see that this does not follow from that; distinguishing between an emotional outburst and an argument; pointing out an inconsistency; realizing the consequences of committing to certain ideas and what follows from these; this is the kind of stuff we face every day, and the range of topics on which we converse is diverse: theology, ethics, politics, worldviews, philosophies, science, economic and social issues.
The training at SES, specifically in the areas of philosophy, has been so critical to helping us navigate these kinds of conversation. Our foundation as Christians is built upon the sound orthodox idea of God derived from both General and Special Revelation. But, it is not enough to just know one’s own worldview. Paul quotes the pagan poets in Acts 17, which presupposes he had read them and this lesson we see being played out in our own lives. The philosophical training at SES introduced us to many of the philosophies of the age, many of which are incompatible with the Christian Faith and being able to distinguish these and point them out to folks is so valuable in terms of having meaningful conversations.
One should certainly begin as a Christian with the Christian worldview and this is the basic problem for most Christians in South Africa. Sadly, most Christians are often biblically illiterate and have a superficial understanding of basic theology and the Bible. We spend much of our time just straightening out the theology of Christians. From here we can begin to attend to their questions and those of their friends. But much of this kind of work is aided by the training we received from SES. We are able to understand how different worldviews affect the views of a person and govern their concepts on every aspect of a person’s life. Classes in metaphysics, epistemology, and especially logic have been so important to us on a personal and practical level. I would never have guessed that my class in metaphysics would be so useful in my daily discussions with folks.
So the “tool”, which SES gave us and we deploy on a consistent basis, is our philosophical training integrated with the biblical and theological studies. The balance of these disciplines has been so significant. Correctly understood philosophy is the handmaiden to good theology, and I would also add to that good apologetics and meaningful evangelism and discipleship. Indeed, the effect of this integrated theology has had such an effect on some of our Ratio Christi student that they have demanded from Nel and me that we begin to offer a class on Logic! So in addition to discipleship, theological, biblical, historical and worldview teaching, Nel and I also teach first principles, basic classes in philosophy, and we now are offer a class in Logic, which meets independently of the other meetings.
Now,let me demonstrate for you the significance of my SES training within the context of the South African mission field. The question of colonialism, which is connected with apartheid, is in the mind of most students in South Africa. Since the majority of South Africans are black, this issue is perhaps the main objection to Christianity made by South Africans. A typical question coming from a student might be framed like this: “You white people come to Africa and give us the Bible and take our land.” Or “Christianity is a destroyer of cultures….look at what colonialism has done to so many cultures!” So acute is this issue that there are efforts to purge South Africa of the “imperialist ideas.” Indeed, there is a movement called “decolonization”, in which the proponents seek to revise all government and social programs and more specifically education programs because they are “western centric” and oppressive.
Not only are these issues significant, they are potentially violent due to the recent history of South Africa. So before anything can be said to these students, the gentleness and respect of 1 Peter 3:15 has to be absolutely primary. The next task is then is to seek to disentangle Christianity from British Imperialism, and this is not an easy task, since the history of Christianity and Colonialism is replete with examples of terrible Christians who were guilty of oppression and the destruction of cultures.
Now this is a current work in progress for the Braces. We are offering a response, but both Nel and I have much work to do on this subject in order to distill a more thoughtful and informed response. The first thing that we are going to have to do is to spend some good time reading the history is order to get the true story. So much of the political discourse in South Africa begins on a historic assumption of the past and in which there is often no referent. So say it a little more bluntly, people are guilty of telling “pork pies” about the past. The history of South Africa is very complex, and everyone, black and white, has dirty laundry to deal with. Secondly, one then has to begin the task of separating the Gospel and the work of Christ from all of this mess — this is no easy task. But unless there is a solid biblical basis and informed theology working alongside the philosophical and logical training, then attempting to articulate a meaningful response to this terrible historical and ideological cocktail is impossible.
Nel and I are not fearful of the challenge to dive into these issues, and this because the same Christ in whom we find our confidence is the same Christ who is King of SES and the a program which takes very seriously the condition of both the Christian heart and mind coming together. Is SES one of the best Christian programs at providing a broad basis in theological studies from which students can actually engage the culture? I know of no other program and community that is doing a better job overall.
Indeed, the very ministry with which we are involved, Ratio Christi, is a function of the heart and spirit and those with the training and desire from SES to do something about one of the major problems in our culture and that is the problem of the academy and the wholesale loss thereof on the part of Christians to engage the minds of tomorrow’s future leaders. May God bless, lead, and strengthen SES toward a bright future.