Arthur’s previously argued that much of the talk of prosperity in Tanzania coheres more with the Bible’s wisdom tradition than it does with western ideas of the ‘prosperity gospel’. We’ve become convinced that prosperity teaching in Tanzania meets a very real need in Tanzanians’ lives and recently as I was thinking about Tanzanian cosmology, it struck me why.
In an animist culture like Tanzania, the spirits are capricious. The world is disordered and chaotic; you can’t predict what might befall you or who might succeed. Perhaps God is like that, and the need to appease or manipulate him is part of what fuels the popularity of the prosperity gospel. In this context, wisdom is the counter narrative. It suggests that God has set up the world in a certain way. For example, eating vegetables contributes to good health; trustworthy people earn a name for themselves in business which leads to success, etc. This wisdom teaching brings the radical message that God is a God of order, and that he sees what is going on in his world. A good way to live is not beyond us; God has shown us how he has set up the world. Far from being at the mercy of the spirits, our decisions and actions do matter.
This teaching of God having an order in the world also invalidates those who have become wealthy in ungodly ways. It suggests that this is not the result of God’s favour, but ill-gotten gain which is outside of God’s order. The person who has become rich in this way can expect to be held to account by God. Wisdom thus provides a critique of ‘prosperity gospel’ because it suggests that wealth in and of itself is not necessarily a good thing.
The wisdom tradition doesn’t provide guarantees of wealth and blessing nor does it reverse engineer the world to suggest that the presence of wealth is an automatic sign of God’s blessing. Instead, it suggests that as we patiently follow God’s wisdom, we ought to expect that wisdom to produce goodness and life. We westerners de-spiritualise this and call it ‘common sense’ because the spiritual is less prominent in our worldview, but for a culture where the spiritual looms large and is often malevolent, a theology of an order in God’s good world is counter-cultural, offering freedom, empowerment and life.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.