My friend Cath has been enjoying my recent reflections on Tanzanian theology, and asked me what has been challenging or helpful to me. I was aiming for a coherent blog post, but for the time being, I’m just going to reproduce the stream of consciousness comment I made to her on our Facebook page, as it’s just about blog post length! Please feel free to join the conversation!
That’s a question with a long answer! A few angles, though there’s more to say than this…
Since we got here, we’ve been committed to seeing Tanzanian theology on its own terms, getting inside the headspace, believing it to be logical and efficacious in its context (in contrast to approaches that consider African theology to be ‘an inch deep and a mile wide’, or to have big holes in it, or to be unsophisticated.) But even with that belief, I’ve had nagging questions, like where sin fits in, and the atonement. Does it matter that they don’t feature? What I’m exploring in these posts is that they actually do feature, but you need to be able to recognise their uniquely Tanzanian character. Once this had clunked into place, I now feel like I see it everywhere; I can make more sense of Tanzanian theology and practice, with this interpretive key. This is important because we can end up talking at cross-purposes, or offering solutions that make sense to us, but don’t make sense to Tanzanians. For example, if you come in talking about Christ as the one who is cursed so we don’t have to be (which I have done in the past, when I did a biblical theology of blessing and curse at a TAFES discipleship camp once), you may be saying something biblical, but it might not be the thing that animates discipleship in this culture. So, the more we understand, the more we appreciate the sophistication and appropriateness of Tanzanian theology, and the more we are able to speak in its terms. I could just do this kind of processing in a journal, but I do it in a public space like a blog in hopes that others, especially from Australia, will benefit from what I’m learning too, that as my appreciation for my brothers and sisters in this part of the world grows, so Aussies and others will have the chance to have their appreciation for Tanzanian sisters and brothers increased as well. It’s a small part of undoing some of the colonial and neo-colonial attitudes that have shaped ‘missions’ (of which I am also undoubtedly a part!)
Secondly, this is not only beneficial for those we are working with. (I do precious little teaching these days anyway, though my cultural processing enhances Arthur’s coaching work.) But I have also long felt that the preoccupation with penal substitutionary atonement in our tradition offered little to those who are vulnerable or stressed, including women. The emphasis on sin and confession all too often drives those who already have sensitive consciences, and who are already strung out and pouring themselves out for others, further into these states rather than lifting them out. But here we have a people and a theology who are preoccupied with the question of how Christ sets us free, and they’re not only talking about that in terms of the guilt I experience because of my sin. I want to listen more and reflect more on how this kind of theology, and the different angles on the atonement, could be co-opted for the benefit of the vulnerable. A question I’ve often found myself asking is, “I know what Christ does for me if I’m the sinner, but what if I’m the one who has been sinned against?” We are all both, but our theology is strong on the former but not the latter. My culture is not as cognisant or frightened of immediacy of the spirit world, but I think we are growing in our understanding of how we are trapped by forces bigger than ourselves, so I feel like there’s lots that I can benefit from here. Fear/power worldview and the theologising that occurs in it, isn’t just good for Tanzania, but illuminates our own world and gives us theological resources we might otherwise not have access to or reflect on.
Thirdly, in writing this, I’ve been wondering if when you ask a Tanzanian why Jesus came, they might be more inclined to answer that he came to be raised (whereas my tradition would be more likely to say that he came to die, and then we tack the resurrection on – even if we think it’s super important, it doesn’t often animate us in the same way, because of our guilt/innocence worldview.) Clearly, they don’t dwell only on the resurrection – as this post showed, there’s some sophisticated theology of the death of Christ going on! But many of the sermons in Acts jump straight to the resurrection with little mention of the death of Christ, and living in a culture which is more inclined to do that enriches my understanding of those sermons. So it helps me to read the Bible better!
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.