How does a society’s worldview and/or religious beliefs affect development?

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Cultural Metaphors and Development

Jim Harries (b. 1964) has engaged in detailed research into inter-cultural communication between the West and Africa since 1988. He has a PhD in Theology (University of Birmingham, UK). Jim’s home, located in a Kenyan village, functions in African languages, as does his practice of Bible teaching, which is his main local ministry. Jim has published seven books and numerous articles. He chairs the Alliance for Vulnerable Mission ( http://www.vulnerablemission.org ).

Jim Harries (b. 1964) has engaged in detailed research into inter-cultural communication between the West and Africa since 1988. He has a PhD in Theology (University of Birmingham, UK). Jim’s home, located in a Kenyan village, functions in African languages, as does his practice of Bible teaching, which is his main local ministry. Jim has published seven books and numerous articles. He chairs the Alliance for Vulnerable Mission (http://www.vulnerablemission.org).

WCIU Journal: Worldview Topic

February 22, 2018

by Jim Harries


The contemporary approach to development defines Africa’s needs almost entirely in terms of money and Westernization. What Africa needs, donors assume, is to be more like the West. The means used to attempt to reach this goal are outside money and Western-style education in Western languages (usually English).

This article questions these presuppositions. But if outside donor money is not the answer for development in Africa, where should we look for the answer? This article presents research showing that human thinking is rooted in metaphors that are themselves rooted (or embodied) in actual experiences. This, then, opens doors of understanding ways in which Christian / biblical teaching is central to the initiation and propagation of sustainable, transformative, and indigenously rooted socio-economic development. While focused on sub-Saharan Africa, the home of the author since 1988, the commentary in this article on the human condition is of much wider relevance. It puts the Word of God in its rightful central place in innovative human endeavor.

To achieve sustainable development in sub-Saharan Africa, there is a need for ploughing new ground and looking for new answers. There is a lot of work to be done that can only be done over a long period of time using local resources, languages, and indigenous thought patterns informed by Scripture.

This article is one of many on related themes by this author. (See a list of articles published in the WCIU Journal.) The author is a regular advocate for “vulnerable mission,” which advocates that some Western missionaries and development workers need to relate to the people they are reaching using local languages and local resources.

Donor-funded Projects Result in Dependency

Should not a foreign development worker say something if they are convinced that the prospect of sustainable development is constantly being undermined by poorly informed donor policies? If the wisdom and insights of outsiders were totally sufficient for development, if there were no impact of context (social, climatic, historical, cultural, linguistic etc.), then the role of the African might be to just do what he is told by the donor of funds and materials for various projects.

But this is far from the reality. Donors generally realize that what they are doing needs to be adapted to the local context for it to succeed. Thus donors must engage with local people. However, donors do not always realize ways in which their approach distorts their engagement, or can even make it impossible. Herein is just one of the many reasons why donor-funded projects in Africa are unlikely to be sustainable without high levels of outside dependency.

Speaking out on a concern that potentially threatens the supply of people’s daily bread is not to be taken lightly. Being honest to Western donors who are operating in Africa can be just such a “speaking out.” Donors may be desperately looking for evidence that confirms the validity of what they are doing. Neither they, nor recipients of donor funds, are usually in a hurry to be told of long-term negative consequences of what is enriching them. A whistle blower can make enemies on both sides.

As a Christian believer, I believe that it is nevertheless important to speak out. The long-term well-being of the intended recipients may be different from contemporary donor understanding. Recipients in Africa should not be relieved of the responsibility to think for themselves or to work hard for their future. The presence of powerful vested interests and long term dependencies can make forward movement difficult. In fact, there may be enough interest on both sides of the Atlantic to keep the existing system going. Hence a person who wants to work and minister in a way that builds local sustainable capacity must, it seems, maintain a distance with donors. With this distance should come gentle efforts at educating them, and continuation of a relationship of Christian love.

The Role of Cognitive Science in Understanding a Society’s Development

If outside donor money is not the answer for development in Africa, where should we look for the answer? Having already made the case in numerous other articles for the use of indigenous languages in the interests of sustainability in Africa, I do not simply want to repeat myself here. Instead, I want to root my case in recent research in cognitive science, especially as practiced by George Lakoff at the University of California, Berkeley, in the United States. This research indicates that metaphors rooted in the lived experiences of a culture shape peoples’ thinking and values.

Lakoff and co-author Mark Johnson wrote Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought, a text that seeks to challenge Anglo-American tenets of philosophy. It looks back to Western philosophical origins in pre-Socratic Greek thinking for that purpose. The basis for the undermining of Anglo-American analytical philosophy is that the thinking mind uses basic metaphors derived from bodily experience. Or we could say that thought is “embodied.” The authors explain that “our bodies, brains, and interactions with our environment provide the mostly unconscious basis for our everyday … sense of what is real” (Lakoff and Johnson 1999, 17).

Thinking is Metaphorical, Based on Experience

Lakoff and Johnson (1999) illustrate the embodied nature of understanding by demonstrating how often in articulating even our supposedly more abstract thoughts we use metaphorical expressions like: “Look how far we’ve come. It’s been a long bumpy road. We can’t turn back now. We’re at a crossroads. We’re heading in different directions ... we’re spinning our wheels ... we have to bail out of this relationship,” etc. (italics original) (Lakoff and Johnson 1999, 64). Thought is not entirely abstract, but based on metaphors using experiences of moving through the physical world.

So instead of the traditional philosophical assumptions that reasoning is abstract, disembodied, and universal, cognitive science demonstrates that all human thinking, including “abstract concepts,” is largely metaphorical (Lakoff and Johnson 1999, 3). The metaphors that guide and categorize thought, themselves originate from bodily experiences in a material world. This observation regarding the embodied nature of thought breaks down the traditional dichotomy between objectivity and subjectivity that has been critical to much traditional philosophy. “Disembodied scientific realism creates an unbridgeable ontological chasm between ‘objects,’ which are ‘out there,’ and subjectivity, which is ‘in here.’” (Lakeoff and Johnson 1999, 93).

How does one determine what is “real”? “Folk theories” about reality offer intuitive explanations for what people experience in the world around them (Gelman and Legare 2011), such as how thinking occurs, what is considered to be evil (Lakeoff and Johnson 1999, 308), or how social change comes about (Kashima et al., 2009). While the authors do not acknowledge this, their undermining of the bastions of secular philosophy opens the door for the contributions of more “subjective” theology into philosophical discussions, which this article will discuss below.

Lakoff and Johnson’s suggestion that the foundations of Western philosophy arise from bodily metaphors is to say in absolute terms that Western philosophical assumptions are open to question and are, in a sense, arbitrary. This supports the idea that what is foundational to Western philosophy may not exist to people outside the West, such as “traditional Africans.” Because foundational metaphysical positions cannot be justified by reasoning, then, must they not be accepted on the basis of faith (Lakeoff and Johnson 1999, 356-57)?. In other words, people’s explanations as to why things happen as they do in their experience, are subjective. Different cultures will have different explanations.

The Metaphor of Life as a Purposeful Journey

In Western culture, Lakoff and Johnson tell us, “There is a profoundly influential folk model according to which people are supposed to have a purpose in life and ... there is something wrong /with you if you don’t” (Lakoff and Johnson 1999, 60-61). This folk model results in Western life being profoundly interpreted in terms of means to reach destinations, to achieve goals, to overcome obstacles, and so on. In addition, Lakoff and Johnson tell us that there are “cultures around the world in which this metaphor does not exist. In those cultures people just live their lives, and the very idea of being without direction or missing the boat, of being held back or getting bogged down [all metaphors related to purposeful travel] would make no sense” (Lakoff and Johnson 1999, 63). This understanding of the role of metaphor in how the members of a culture perceive their role in the world can help us understand why some people in some cultures have failed to meet their own basic needs, and why outside help seems to be necessary. More importantly, this philosophical insight can lead toward understanding what needs to happen so that such societies can to become self-sustaining.

I believe that Lakoff and Johnson are correct to point out that “a purposeful life is a journey” is indeed a distinctive foundational metaphor for American and Western cultures. This notion is supported by Indian social reformer and Christian philosopher, Vishal Mangalwadi in his book, The Book that Made Your World: How the Bible Created the Soul of Western Civilization (Mangalwadi 2011, 186).

Based on my personal experience, I suggest that the metaphor of a purposeful journey is largely absent in traditional sub-Saharan Africa. Imagine living in a society in which people do not understand life as being a purposeful journey. The absence of that metaphor must reflect the society’s own experience, as Lakoff and Johnson have demonstrated. Mangalwadi points out that “purposeful journeys” do not arise when a society’s conception of the world they are in is an enchanted and magical place, or when they seek, as their ultimate objective, the annihilation of self, as do some Indian traditions (Mangalwadi 2011, 64). Such people, then, do not set out to achieve or accomplish things, or to overcome obstacles in their lives as do Westerners. It is possible that as a result such societies will be economically and in other ways materially “poor.”

Is Development Determined by Metaphors?

Looking carefully at the metaphor of life as a purposeful journey, one can’t help but be struck by how pertinent it may be for socio-economic development. To pick on one metaphor is probably an over simplification. Surely it is likely that a set of metaphors and accompanying structures of thought may be essential prerequisites to certain kinds of socio-economic development? Could it be said that the absence of such metaphors is hindering “development” in Africa? Could the metaphors Africans do live by, be hindering them from progressing in ways envisaged for them by the West?

Lakoff and Johnson claim that people without a cultural metaphor of journey and progress “just live their lives” (Lakoff and Johnson 1999, 63). Perhaps this is misleading. Perhaps Africans do not “just live their lives,” as if the absence of a purposeful journey must be substituted by a blank space. Perhaps instead they live by other metaphors, for example metaphors that identify misfortune with antagonistic human agents. This would be my observation for many African people, who concentrate their energies on curtailing the activities of otherwise heinous forces that are seeking to interfere with their prosperity. The need to identify such forces, then engage in intense and even and sometimes physical conflict with them, drains time and energy that might have been used for other activities.

If we use an analogy of development being equivalent to reaching the top of a hill, then outside intervention that is meant to facilitate development would be similar to giving someone who is trying to reach the top of that hill a push. We can see that helping a person get to the top of a hill by giving a push is going to be much more helpful if the person one is pushing is already walking up the hill. Pushing someone for whom the thought of going to the top of the hill has never crossed their mind is less likely to achieve the desired aim! It seems the latter is often the position of development intervention from the West into Africa today. People might not object to being carried to the top of a hill, yet their own life orientation would be unlikely to get them there.

As an anthropologist who has explored the intersection between religion and development, David Bronkema (2015) points out that increasingly, people in the majority world are being pushed and carried to the top. This unfortunately means that development built on outside “push” is likely to come to an ignoble end once outside inputs are withdrawn. That is; this kind of development is not sustainable.” For it to be sustainable, the right metaphors (i.e. life orientation) must first be in place.

How Can a Society Gain a Metaphor Helpful for Development?

A critical question for development then could be: how can one impart a metaphor such as “a purposeful life is a journey” to a people who do not have it? We next need to ask, How did the West get this metaphor? The Bible begins by saying, “In the beginning,” (Gen. 1:1). In this phrase is a hint that if there is a beginning, there will be an end. The days of creation show a purposeful sequence. Abraham was called onto a journey (Gen. 12:1). Jesus spoke of himself as “the way,” to come to the Father (John 14:6). Paul and Barnabas were sent on a journey (Acts 13:3). Many biblical accounts describe life as a purposeful journey. Unlike other books, the Bible is not only to be read and enjoyed, it is also to be taken to heart, followed, obeyed, believed, lived by faith etc. The metaphor of life as a purposeful journey has been strongly implanted into Western cultures by the Western church that has been preaching from the Bible. If the church has done this before, then God could use the church to do this again. The key to sustainable development then is faith in Christ and living according to the Word of God. Alleviation of poverty in a way that would be truly empowering could be achieved by introducing such metaphor into the lives of a critical mass within a society.

But in thinking about introducing a metaphor into a society’s way of life, we must recall that people are not blank slates simply waiting to be written on. Africans do not have empty lives waiting to be filled by Europeans. They do not “just live their lives” as Lakoff and Johnson suggest (Lakoff and Johnson 1999, 63). On the contrary, African people live their lives according to their own, and different, metaphors. In the crowded space of existing cultural metaphors that have explained African life to Africans for centuries, space needs to be made for new inputs to take their place (Steiner 1998, 314). Whatever is new must engage with what is already there so as to challenge and transform it. What is new will in turn itself be transformed by it in turn. There is no silver bullet of understanding that penetrates unchanged into an unfamiliar way of life (Gutt 2008, 16). Engaging with people on their own terms, in the light of the underlying presuppositions that they already live by, is a necessary prior step to the introduction of intelligent change.

Language Is Key to Authentic Metaphors and Sustainable Development

In engaging with people on their own terms, a key question is the language to be used. I suggest that as European ways of life have been transformed through European people’s exposure to the Bible in their own languages, the same exposure to Africa of biblical writings in their own languages is more likely to result in sustainable transformation in Africa than is blanket adoption of European languages.

European languages are widely used in education in Africa. They have helped African people to acquire an understanding of “what makes Western people tick.” While centuries of Christian influence on Europe have profoundly affected European languages and educational systems (Mangalwadi 2011, 207), one wonders whether the use of these languages will itself be able to impart the same to African communities? How can learning a language itself transform anything? The adoption of Western languages enables people in Africa, as long as or in so far as they learn the languages by rote, to engage to a limited extent as if they have acquired a “life as a journey” metaphor. But learning a language does not radically transform foundational beliefs.

There are many reasons why the use of European languages is an obstacle to sustainable African development. I can only touch on a few of them here:

1. It forces African people to use categories that are unfamiliar to them and that do not make sense to them. They do this under the ongoing supervision of European people who do not have a profound understanding of the African context.

2. Using the language of foreigners for education and development allows the culture’s own thought categories to become fossilized by lack of reflection and challenge in the light of new conditions.

3. African people end up being presented with information on pre-digested states of living from Westerners in Western languages. These do not speak to the hearts and minds of Africans in a way that would stimulate life change.

Overcoming obstacles to sustainability requires preaching and teaching that uses indigenous languages, starting with the pre-existing contours of the people’s’ own thought patterns and understandings, that need to be transformed.


Bringing sustainable change requires a transformation of and not merely a bypassing of a society’s language(s). Hence development intervention into Africa that is to be sustainable must be administered using African languages. As European thinking has been transformed by the adoption of the metaphor of “life as a journey,” and other metaphors arising from long and deep exposure to the Christian Scriptures, the best thing we can do to encourage sustainable socioeconomic development in Africa is to promote faith in the same Scriptures in their languages in their communities.

Since all thought is metaphorical, then there is no universal/objective/standard alternative standing in the way of encouraging societies to follow God’s Word and adopt its metaphors as their own. Instead of objectivity, cognitive science finds that humans are subjectively malleable in their ways of understanding. This means people and societies are open to and need guidance from the Creator God himself. When such is received through engagement with the Christian Scriptures in local languages, without domination by overseas donor funds, then sustainable development might be enabled.


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