Rainbow spirituality

2009-06-23 00:00

“RELIGION and spirituality are closely woven into the fabric of South African public and private life,” observes Duncan Brown in his introduction to Religion and Spirituality in South Africa — New Perspectives, adding the rider: “although not always seamlessly or in matching thread”.

Brown is dean of the arts faculty of the University of the Western Cape and a fellow of the University of KwaZulu-Natal. As editor of Religion and Spirituality in South Africa he has assembled an array of academics from different fields with the aim of investigating new critical approaches to religion and spirituality, particularly within a post-colonial context. The book is part of a project that will include a series of publications. The project began in 2007 and is funded by the National Research Foundation until 2010.

Duncan says the terms “religion” and “spirituality” are not used uncritically in the book. “The terms are used in a sliding way in the book,” he says. “We deliberately used both.”

One way of defining the terms could be that “religion” is seen as bein­g organised with principles of faith, set rituals of worship, while “spirituality” is a looser affair without structure and ritual. But the use of the terms by religious groups themselves subverts such neat definitions. “Evangelical or charismatic Christians criticise Catholicism and Anglicanism for emphasising the ‘religious’ over a properly ‘spiritual’ relationship with God,” says Brown.

“Hindu beliefs and practices are almost uniformly and approvingly referred to as ‘spiritual’ in contrast with more structured and ‘worldly’ religions such as Christianity and Islam. In turn, the term ‘spiritual’ can convey contempt in the language of orthodox churches or religions for belief systems that lack the requisite history and organisation to qualify them as serious ‘religions’.”

That South Africa is a religious country is without doubt. “The 2001 census statistics show that South Africa is an overwhelmingly religious society,” says Brown. “The largest denomination is Christianity, followed by Islam and Hinduism.” (See box.) Such statistics contrast with the increasing secularisation of Europe, the West and even the United States (despite a right-wing Christian resurgence, latest statistics show a drop in religious affiliation) whereas “religion and spirituality in Africa, Asia and South America remain integral to individual and collective life”.

Could this be due to the standard of education, even the availability of education, in these parts of the world? “I would argue against that,” says Brown. “There are many reasons why religion is strong and it is a fallacious assumption that in an educated society there would be an inevitable move beyond religion to rationality. There are contrary examples of that in the developed world.”

“Overly simplified and hyperbolic” is Brown’s view of Richard Dawkins The God Delusion and cites Marxist-materialist Terry Eagleton’s much-quoted criticism of the book. “Eagleton is not a Christian but in his writing he acknowledges and allows for the power of religious belief without endorsing it. His approach is a useful model for Christians writing about other beliefs.”

To some extent it is a model for Religion and Spirituality in South Africa. “The book includes new and more complex ways of talking about religious identity,” says Brown. “The book brings together writers from a whole range of disciplines — law, literature, philosophy, politics and media studies — and they look at what it means from their perspective to approach matters of religion and spirituality. Much of what is in this book is how people handle day-to-day issues in relation to their faith.”

Addressing such issues also enables the book to confront the “shuffling embarrassment” that scholars, particularly in post-colonial studies, exhibit when it comes to matters religious and spiritual, seeing them as products of a premodern consciousness. Duncan says this is evidence of a “lack of fit” between the academic world and the society in which we live and is open about his personal investment in the project. “I’m a Christian and have had to work through issues of faith and being an academic. I’m also committed to analysis and debate and think those things can be held in balance.”

• Religion and Spirituality in South Africa - New Perspectives edited by Duncan Brown is published by the University of KwaZulu-Natal Press

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