Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Asymmetric Evangelism

Bilinda Straight writes about "Killing God" in the latest volume of Current Anthropology. In this case, the "god" was a Kenyan divinity named Nkai. In 1935, an Anglican missionary, Charles Scudder, fired his gun into the cave where Nkai was believed to reside. Nkai was thought to have been vanquished, and the worship of Nkai ended at that site.

Straight also recounts tales of John Williams, a British missionary to Tahiti and the Society Islands. Williams gathered the sacred relics and "gods" of different communities, then publicly humiliated them in his chapel. The "gods" were publicly exposed, hanged, burnt, and possibly shipped back to England as curiosities.

Straight points out that there was a double standard at work in these Christian missions. On one hand, they relied on brute force and sometimes science to demonstrate the invalidity of the religions they opposed. The native gods could not stand up to modern technology, and were therefore defeated. On the other hand, the missionaries simultaneously claimed that their Christian god was above scientific scrutiny.

Nkai was defeated by a rifle shot, but if someone were to physically attack a crucifix or other Christian artifact, Christians would respond that it means nothing; "God is in heaven." On the other hand, when fervent prayers appear to succeed in diverting threatening weather, that is the immanent hand of God. In Christian worship and sacraments, "God is with us." In short, Christian theologians have formulated a god who cannot be assailed by the arguments missionaries use against other divinities. Is this evidence of the superiority of the Christian god, or is the Christian theology of God instead driven by an evangelistic need for superiority?

This type of "asymmetric evangelism" shows up in other scenarios. Perhaps we'll hunt down some examples in the near future.