Natural Theology and Colonial Missions

I’m currently reading Savage Systems: Colonialism and Comparative Religion in Southern Africa by David Chidester. It’s part of a larger reading project which could simply be titled: “Oh no, I’m going to be a missionary….”. The critical aspect of the project will involve reading books that describe various missionary practices and theologies as they pertain to the “project of civilization.” The shape of the modern world is the product of Christian missions (it was the Pope who blessed the “age of discovery” as a part of the Church’s mission and divided the world between ruling European powers). J. Carter has argued that the idea of race is born out of a theological discourse (if you want a kind of genealogical point of origin, he points to 15th century Spain, and the blood purity laws passed against Jews: race develops from the biologization of heresy). I want to get a better grasp of how missions was configured and deployed from this point forward; the goal is to better identify, clarify and personally feel the problem of modern missions. The constructive aspect of the project is to find a way forward. I hope to read some more general works on missions, but I’m expecting to get most of my help from Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. These two theologians identified the problem of Christian missions (though they didn’t call it that) and started to push theology past it. Through Barth and Bonhoeffer, I hope to reconfigure a theology for Christian missions.

In Savage Systems, Chidester highlights a peculiar feature of colonial comparative religion: when the colonial boundary (the “frontier”) is being contested by an indigenous population, the people are deemed to have no religion. However, “when the frontier closes, and hegemony has been established, a dominated subjected people are discovered to have a religion that can be inventoried and analyzed” (69). For example, the Hottentots lacked a religion from 1600-1654, then had one once a European settlement was established. When this establishment expanded, the Hottentots were again deemed areligious (from 1685-1700). Once the expansion ceased and the settlement was stablilized, the Hottentots were seen to possess a native religion. However, the colony started to spread again in 1770 and thus the Hottentots were again deemed to lack any religion (69). Even when they were deemed to have a religion, it was a religion that either resembled the stubbornness of the Jews or the superstition of the Catholics (70): “the Hottentots were credited with a religion that discredited them” (70).

The difference between Jews and Catholics seems to be based on a different failure. Jews stubbornly resisted Christian conversion, and thus exhibit a moral failure that explains their nonconversion; Catholic superstition is a sign of ignorance. Thus, the Hottentots’ resistance to Christian conversion stemmed from either a moral or an intellectual failure. The intellectual failure was ultimately traced back to a different kind of moral failure, laziness. All three features could be tied together; Georg Meistert claimed in 1687 that the “absence of any religion among them was equivalent to their lack of literacy and industry” (45). Given their “bestial” language (37), the Hottentots necessarily lacked the ability to produce any kind of natural religion (and therefore, any proper human society, and therefore, any proper humanity per se).

Even though the recognition or denial of Hottentot religion constantly shifted, the missionaries zeal to analyze and discover (or produce) the native religion remained constant. Whether the verdict was positive or negative, the question was always being posed (and not only by missionaries but also by travelers, explorers, scientiests, and colonial administrators). No observer thought that the Hottentot’s would exhibit the marks of “revealed religion,” but they all pondered whether they were capable of producing a natural religion.

Natural theology, in the broadest sense of the term (especially as it is developed on the mission field in colonial Southern Africa), is the search for a merely natural (meaning, non-divinely inspired, not revealed) religiosity. What the European observers tried to catalogue was whether Hottentots had any idea of God, a transendent creator, and whether they developed any kind of rituals and ethics to relate to that idea. They knew that the Hottentots had various customs and rituals; the question was whether these rituals marked the presence of a rudementary knowledge of God or whether they marked mere superstition (and hence ignorance, laziness, and the absence of religion).

Chidester catalogues how the answer to this question varied according to the solidity of colonial control. In short, fighting natives had no religion (and hence were subhuman); conquered natives were religious after all (and hence capable of being absorbed into civilization). What interests me is how this compartive procedure stems from the search for a “point of contact” within the indiginous culture that would prepare it for the gospel. If the people resist the gospel, then they either lack a cultural starting point altogether (which makes them less than fully human), or they exhibit a cultural moral failing that prevents the gospel from taking root (laziness or stubbornness).

The search for a point of contact thus brings with it a compartive procedure. The missionary’s native culture–a culture that has accepted the gospel–bears the marks of proper human culture. It has proven to be receptive to the gospel, and therefore (either naturally or by grace), has been brought out of sinful resistance. Those who refuse the gospel fail to measure up to the proper form of human receptivity (modelled by the missionary’s culture). They lack what the sending community possesses: industry, civilization, intelligence, language, literacy, piety, a proper understanding of authority, etc. The resistant native population, within this strategy of comparison, can only be registered as a lack, as an absence, as the inverted image of the (colonial) missionary. They therefore lack religion. The dominated population is no longer violently opposed to the colonial settlement; they therefore exhibit some kind of potential harmonization within European conquest. They have some unformed religious potential.

This comparative natural theology held a privileged place within colonial missions. Missionaries (and other European observers) continually searched for–and registered (or produced) the presence or absence of–an African “unknown God.” Convinced that there ought to be a “point of contact” (an African natural religion), European missionaries expressed shock at how uncivilized (and bestial) the areligious African were. Once they were brought under colonial control, their continual resistance to the gospel was read as a deformed religious response (on model with the Jews and Catholics). Natural theology, therefore, operated as a kind of intellectual backdrop (already worked out in missional polemics with Muslims, Jews, and later Catholics) through which to register the human differences encountered in the colonial world. The debate surrounding natural theology (i.e. Karl Barth’s strident rejection of it) ought to be placed within this context. Natural theology is not just a doctrine but a disposition, a way of inhabiting the world that carries with it certain procedures of comparison and judgment whose concrete force can be most properly felt on the colonial mission field. In other words, the practical outworkings of natural theology are what Chidester describes in, and calls, “Savage Systems.”

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