A Response to Jim Harries Regarding Western Hegemony in Africa
WCIU Journal: Cross-Cultural Communications Topic
August 16, 2017
by May Nor Clara Cheng
I would like paraphrase and summarize the article first to see if I understand the article correctly. Then I would like to briefly respond to it. As it is said in a Chinese proverb, “Presenting a block of brick, hope for a block of jade in return.” I would like to invite the author, Dr. Harries, and the readers of this article to respond to my understanding of this article and to my inquiries.
If I understand it correctly, the author expounds that the Western worldview tends to regard the material world as the only world, nothing else. The concept of a spiritual world is not in their mind; neither is it their concern. It seems to suggest the way to progress is to be able to master the material world.
Meanwhile, the African worldview sees life as a complex dynamic of personalities, involvement of the invisible world with spiritual and ancestor’s interventions in life, and personal pursuit of the invisible world. The author claims that in the African worldview, there are two foundational forces that are responsible for the disruption of life’s sanctity: envy and shame. It seems to me, therefore, the author is saying that in the African worldview, envy and shame are not only human emotions, but are felt as spiritual forces residing in the human spirit.
In summary, we see two categories of peoples in the world: materially oriented people (Westerners) and relationally oriented people (Africans). And it seems that the author sees these worldviews as exclusive of each other. It is impossible for them to share any commonality.
What happens when the two worlds meet? It seems to me that the author is saying that peoples in both worlds want to prosper. Since their orientations of worldview are different, their priorities for how to achieve prosperity vary from each other as well. Each one’s priority relates to their worldview orientation.
In the discussion of re-examining intercultural intervention, it seems that the author uses the reality of the globalization of western education to emphasize the same theme—the two worlds are simply different. They cannot communicate with each other simply, especially if we try to use English as a media for conceptualization among the relationally oriented people.
In the discussion of Christian communication, the author points out that the spiritual dimension in today’s Western education has diminished. Christ and the Kingdom of God are concealed. The same phenomenon happens in international development. The author contends that the existence of multiple languages and multiple cultures is the wisdom and design of God as seen in Genesis 11.
In conclusion, the author points out that European languages should not be imposed on non-English speaking peoples, as it is today in many African countries. Such use of European languages assumes non-Western people have same worldview as the Western materialistic one. It leads to the consequence of negligence of the “African wisdom” in the relationally oriented people, particularly to the two disruptive forces in life, shame and envy. It also leaves out “God’s unique role as cross-cultural arbiter between societies.”
Comments and Inquiries
I appreciate the enthusiasm of the author in pointing out that the Western hegemony neglects the relational and spiritual dimensions of life. However, I may not agree totally that Western cultures per se do not understand the importance of human relationships and preserving face and avoidance of shame.
Since the title of the article is called, “Resolving Western Hegemony in Africa: Distinguishing the Material from the Spiritual/ Relational,” I would like to learn more about what the author would regard as the resolution to such a problem. Is “distinguishing the material from the spiritual/ relational” the resolution? Instead of assuming that it is impossible for the materially oriented peoples to be ignorant and unteachable regarding other worldviews, could there be a way to train Westerners to be bi-cultural and to achieve cultural sensitivity? Might we even promote the wisdom of a relational worldview to materially-oriented people? And should the relationally-oriented people be encouraged do the same—be willing to discern what wisdom they should derive from their counterpart? Instead of saying let us leave each other alone, can we take on the role to promote humility so that we can learn from each other and make a wise integration?
Moreover, it is not clear to me what role the author is taking on as he writes this article. Is he writing it from the perspective of an intercultural communicator, as an anthropologist? Is he writing it from the perspective as an international educator? Or is he writing as a missionary whose goal is to spread the kingdom of God? I would recommend cultural anthropologists continue to expand their efforts to be involved in systematic education in societies globally (for example: exposing children to other cultures) and in international development (for example: encouragement to develop communities to discern the wisdoms and downfalls of various cultures). And who would be a better person to even play the role of a mediator in integrating both the two worldviews and apply such integration than a spokesperson for the kingdom of God?
I would like to learn more what the author regards as “God’s unique role as cross-cultural arbiter between societies,” as he mentions in the concluding sentence of this article.
I agree with the author we must learn from history of Western hegemony in Africa that it obstructs and even damages, the flourishing of the wisdom of indigenous relationally and spiritually oriented cultures. No one should perceive one’s culture as the sole valuable worldview. And cultures are ingrained in languages. Global diversity of cultures should be guarded. There are valuable perspectives in life (what we call worldview) that are unique in various cultures.
I find that as a Chinese, who grew up with Chinese as my mother tongue but yet having been educated much in English, I am blessed to be given a chance to integrate a biblical worldview that is composed of both collectivistic and individualistic cultures. Having received a master’s degree in my own Chinese setting (with many American professors), then another master’s degree and a Ph.D. from two seminaries in the States, and having served in three countries in Asia and currently serving in the US, has been a very enriching experience for me. I would contend that isolation of cultures is not the way to develop the human race. Humility is needed by the people of differently oriented cultures along with discernment of what we can learn from each other’s worldviews.
Figuratively speaking, we do not want to be a frog at the bottom of a well, seeing one tiny piece of sky. Nor, should we make others to do the same, no matter which piece of sky it is in perspective. Ultimately, the kingdom of God would compose of various peoples who can communicate well with each other in heaven!