Words have meaning.  Some words have a different meaning in certain contexts.  If there is one place in the world where this is definitely true – it is South Africa.  Our country has eleven national languages and a lot is missed in translation.

Under apartheid masses of human beings with stories and shared sufferings were oppressed by words with a ‘spiritual’ foundation.  Apartheid was built on a specific theological word and symbol system.  And it had everything to do with words.

That’s why in certain contexts specific words have to be rehabilitated and be used with caution.  The word I think is very dangerous in white South African churches is “SPIRTUAL”. Allow me to explain.

Apartheid was built on a systemic dualism with some of its most potent roots in Platonism.  This found expression in a phrase I heard a lot growing up … “in your heart.”  One could be the biggest materialist and racist but have “Jesus in your heart”.  You could dehumanize others but still have a wonderful “spiritual life”. Spiritual became divorced from physical and this in turn leads to a reliving of some of the ancient heresies like Gnosticism on the one hand or Docetism on the other.

So whenever I hear people (myself included) talk about the “spiritual life”, “spiritual formation”, “spiritual people” and other words linking to spiritual, I wonder if we’re not perpetuating the dualism that got us in trouble under the apartheid era.  I recently attended a “spiritual formation” conference in the USA and it was during this time that it struck me how easily we (I once again include myself) can develop theories of formation that doesn’t include REAL Life.

Here I think we can learn from Africa.  So allow me to share some quotes from African people …

Christian theology has always tended to split man into body and soul, and to preach the salvation of the soul.  Africa could never accept this mutilation of the human being.  People in Africa experienced themselves as a unity, living in a network of living relationships with God and with nature. Much of what has been written about Africa’s ‘absent God’ must be considered mistaken.  God is not far from the African world.  All relationships, between person and person, living and dead, and between persons and nature, are rooted in God and point towards God and towards the end of all things in him.  They have a sacramental nature, proclaiming that every person’s future lies with God.  It must also be added that, for the African, God cannot be imagined without his creation, nor without his saving will for humankind.” African Theology p.30, Benezet Bujo

“I confess that the word ‘spirituality’ has always caused me a degree of uneasiness.  Perhaps this has to do with the idea I, and apparently many others as well, have always had about what spirituality seems to mean.  By and large, I would guess, most people identify it almost exclusively with what is also known as our ‘devotional life’. A spirituality for the road p.9, David Bosch

“ … in talking about the Body of Christ, Paul is not suggesting a metaphor for Christian life.  Neither is Paul talking of a spiritual or mystical body, but about a concrete, real body politic: a visible community.” A future for Africa p.111, Emmanuel Katangole