Free for all?

“It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God..." Acts 15.19


One has heard it said, and the impression is confirmed by African theologian Victor Ezigbo, that the African mindset is such as to be keenly aware of a spiritual dimension to life which is constantly exerting pressure on the physical, or material, dimension through myriad deities which may be benevolent or malevolent. Far from manipulating such deities, people feel obliged to negotiate, plunging them into a permanent state of tension often spilling over into outright spiritual warfare. Christian conversion involves recognition of a greater power, whose identity is revealed in the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. To what extent that greater power dominates or obliterates the constellation of lesser forces depends on the various denominations through which the Church operates across the continent and their teaching, especially on the topic of spiritual warfare.


This awareness of the spiritual realm and its proximity is a feature of traditional cultures around the world. But does faith in Jesus compel converts to reject that awareness or, at least, the former ways in which they inter-acted with that realm? Religious conversion changes us all but the leader of the early church, James, brother of the Lord, issued a judgment at the Council of Jerusalem (c. 50AD) which opened the door for cultural diversity when he decreed "... we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God". What that means will have to be endlessly negotiated, as it represents the interface between the identity of a person before and after conversion and the world and its inhabitants and communities are constantly changing.


Lest we fall into the conceit of believing that Western society is more advanced, events in Ukraine remind us that our so-called progress has increased exponentially our capacity to destroy each other and everything around us by way of fellow creatures and the environment. To my mind anyway that amounts to regression! The incident of the Tower of Babel, narrated in Genesis 11, takes a similar view. Though it may have seemed like the technical progress which united everyone in such a grand endeavour marked a big step forward for humanity at the time, the fact that it was in defiance of God's command to "fill the earth" rendered it a mis-step. And although God's response, which was to sow confusion through the introduction of different languages and therefore cultural diversity, may have stymied humankind's ability to work collaboratively, the Bible presents it as what was required to get us back on track, in terms of obedience to God, which is surely the beating heart of faithfulness - whichever culture and time we inhabit?

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