I’ve recently come across Vincent Donovan. He was an American Catholic missionary priest in Tanzania in the 1960s and 70s and wrote a book in 1978, ‘Christianity Rediscovered’, about his experiences among the Maasai* and how he came to see Christianity differently as a result. I had never heard of him before but apparently he is a favourite among UK evangelicals.
I can see why! Donovan challenged the prevailing ‘mission station’ methodology of his time by proposing to “just go and talk to them about God and the Christian message,” not by direct confrontation but by “going through several preparatory, preliminary stages” (p.31). His missiology is shaped by deep listening and humility as he learns how the Maasai see the world. His story thus has a purity to it that many missionaries in today’s world long for, because the people he is speaking to have never heard of the Christian God or encountered other Christians. The process of contextualising the Christian gospel is still incredibly complex for Donovan but he also contends with fewer postcolonial or neo-colonial factors which today complicate engagement.
It might be easy then, to see himself as the bringer of the good news of Jesus, but Donovan ends up taking a different approach, one which seems to surprise him even as he says it. At one point, a representative asks him, “Has your tribe found the High God? Have you known him?” to which Donovan, replies:
No, we have not found the High God. My tribe has not known him. For us, too, he is the unknown God. But we are searching for him. I have come a long, long distance to invite you to search for him with us. Let us search for him together. Maybe, together, we will find him. (p.52)
The book is called ‘Christianity Rediscovered’ because Donovan finds his own faith re-shaped through seeing the world – and God – through the eyes of the Maasai. Reading his book is an invitation to join him in that rediscovery. One passage in particular wrapped its tendrils around my heart. It was in a discussion about faith.
[The Masai elder] pointed out that the word my Masai catechist, Paul, and I had used to convey faith was not a very satisfactory word in their language. It meant literally ‘to agree to.’ I, myself, knew the word had that shortcoming. He said ‘to believe’ like that was similar to a white hunter shooting an animal with his gun from a great distance. Only his eyes and his fingers took part in the act. We should find another word. He said for a man really to believe is like a lion going after its prey. His nose and eyes and ears pick up the prey. His legs give him the speed to catch it. All the power of his body is involved in the terrible death leap and single blow to the neck with the front paws, the blow that actually kills. And as the animal goes down the lion envelops it in his arms (Africans refer to the front legs of an animal as its arms) pulls it to himself, and makes it part of himself. This is the way a lion kills. This is the way a man believes. This is what faith is. (p.62-63)
I loved this picture of a faith that is anything but cerebral, where the whole body and self is involved, where you love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. I do not want to be a person whose faith is limited to eyes and fingers. I want to have a lion’s faith!
But the Maasai elder was not yet finished. He had more to say about faith.
We did not search you out, Padri,’ he said to me. ‘We did not even want you to come to us. You searched us out. You followed us away from your house into the bush, into the plains, into the steppes where our cattle are, into the hills where we take our cattle for water, into our villages, into our homes. You told us of the High God, how we must search for him, even leave our land and our people to find him. But we have not done this. We have not left our land. We have not searched for him. He has searched for us. He has searched us out and found us. All the time we think we are the lion. In the end, the lion is God. (p.63)
What a turning of the tables! That in the end, we are not the ones who seek God but he is the one who seeks us. It is pushing the analogy too far to see ourselves as the prey here: the image here is of the lion’s wholeheartedness not his predation. God does not merely pursue us with his eyes and fingers but like a lion.
This image gives me much to reflect on: a God who draws near and makes us a part of himself, a God who is ‘all in’ asking me to give no more of myself than he has already given, a God who seeks and who finds.
*Maasai with three ‘a’s is the correct spelling. Masai with two is a colonial misspelling which Donovan uses.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.