‘E rile mo tshimologong Modimo wa tlhola legodimo le lefatshe.’

These are the opening words of a book given to me and my wife, Sharon, as a wedding present in September 1996 by my brother, David.

It is an object of great meaning, personal and otherwise – this particular volume, and the book itself.

Translated, the words above read: ‘In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.’

And, indeed, that 1996 wedding gift was a Bible – Baebele e e Boitshepo – originally translated into Setswana by the missionary Robert Moffat, and, by fitting coincidence, republished that year as a special Heritage Day edition.

The opening words of the Bible form the extraordinary, all-encompassing overture of a text judged by Time in 2007 as having ‘done more to shape literature, history, entertainment, and culture than any book ever written’, and with an ‘influence on world history [that] is unparalleled, and shows no signs of abating’. Total sales are estimated at over 5 billion copies, with some 100 million being sold annually since the 2000s.

Over the centuries, the Bible has been revered, disputed, abused and revised to the point of being a feature of human heritage that cannot be ignored, a text – and the same is true of all other founding religious texts (and the millions of words of contestation and interpretation they have spawned) – that has played a profound role in the accretion of ideas about what it means to be human.

It is for all these reasons that I valued fellow Daily Friend writer Ivo Vegter’s honest and unabashed contributions to what is really a debate about reason, inquiry and the limits of knowledge.

These are – much more than might be obvious to some – fundamental questions about the conduct of free and open societies.  

We might remind ourselves of poet John Milton’s monumental defence of free speech of 1644, the Areopagitica, in which he writes: ‘I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat.’

Testing focus

In the heat and dust of its southern African setting – the testing focus of Vegter’s piece – our 1996 wedding present is a not uncomplicated symbol, but a potent one.

As an archaeologist and a scholar, it was fitting that my brother David should have inserted a note in our congratulatory wedding day card which remains as rewarding and insightful today.

‘Missionaries,’ David wrote, ‘are often cast as agents of colonialism, yet they wrought a revolution in the interior which would undo the imperialist project. It is true that they seldom recognised the value of indigenous culture and religion; some even denied that such religion existed (there were a few notable exceptions). Elements of the religion have survived, often fused with Christian belief, despite them. But they brought a Gospel humanity that contradicted in their day the inhumanity of colonial penetration and subjugation. Above all they brought literacy, a dangerous venture in the eyes of some colonial administrators. The horizons of knowledge across the African interior were flung wide open; and reading and writing would in time prove to be instruments far mightier than the guns and edicts of conquest.

‘Moffat’s printing press, the cast iron contraption by which the Gospel was spread from Kuruman, the fount of literacy in the African interior, was recommissioned on Heritage Day 1996.’

It was on that ‘cast iron contraption’ – carted up from Natal in 1831 – that the complete Bible was first printed in Africa, Moffat having translated it into Setswana.

A few years ago, I had occasion to delve into the archives of the Cape Argus to find coverage of the visit of explorer – and son-in-law of Robert Moffat – David Livingstone. The clippings capture something of the colonial impulses that are so much maligned these days, as well as the Christianly ambitions of early proselytisers, and the doubts of detractors.

‘Fellow-men in bondage’

In an impassioned address at a farewell dinner on 23 April 1858 at Cape Town’s Commercial Exchange on the eve of his second expedition into the interior, Livingstone dwelled with perhaps unexpected candour on the larger context of his enterprise:

‘We know that a large portion of the race to which we belong – which I like to call not the Anglo-Saxon race, but the Anglo-American race – are guilty of holding a large portion of our fellow-men in bondage. The Americans are not alone guilty. We are guilty; for if we did not purchase their cotton, and give them increasing prices for it, they would, long ere this, have given it up.’

The English, he said, ‘are fond of liberty, and like to see other nations enjoy liberty, but we have got so entangled as to be the mainstay of slavery’. The ‘present opening of Africa’ was the key.

He went on:

We know that it is supposed that cotton and sugar, and other tropical products, cannot be obtained in sufficient quantity except by slave labour. England has been trying for a great many years to put down this slavery system; but at the very time we are making these efforts in one direction, we are upholding slavery in another. Now that we have the prospect of opening up the country, where there is abundance of labour for the production of these tropical products, I think there is a prospect of getting abundance of these things, and of getting rid of slavery in the world….

If we have a navigable pathway into the country beyond – then there is a prodigious extent of country, all well adapted for the cultivation of those products which we now get through slave-labour. And what I hope to effect is this: I don’t hope to send down cargoes of cotton and sugar … but I hope we shall make a beginning, and get in the thin end of the wedge, and by getting right into the centre have a speedy passage by an open pathway, working from the centre out towards the sides.

We go as ChristiansWe go to speak to the people about our Christianity, and to try and recommend our religion to those with whom we come in contact. I have received the greatest kindness from all classes of people in the interior … and I hope Christian merchants and Christian men will yet go into that country and form a standard for commencing operations amongst them.

‘British humanity’

Moffat himself was reported a few days later as having said: ‘Let us hope that the time is not far distant when British influence and British humanity will be extended to every tribe in the country, and when the British flag will float over every promontory and estuary on the eastern side of this continent; for until that is the case, I fear that slavery will not be abolished.’

(One discomforting irony in the annals is that, while Livingstone himself swore off as unduly hostile the convention of travelling with heavily armed retainers, he did end up accepting help and hospitality from two of Africa’s most notorious Arab slave traders, Mohamad Bogharib and Mohamad bin Saleh.)

Even in 1858, the civilising mission of Christianly torchbearers was not uncontested. A few days after Livingstone’s stirring address, a writer who signed himself with the initials ‘R.M.B’ delivered a sharp riposte:

Among other things that have lately come to pass in this land, is the arrival in Table Bay of a vessel called the Pearl. This ship, besides many others, brings a party of men, at the head of whom is a certain doctor, called David Livingstone, who, like Van Riebeek … is going to try and found another trading station upon the river Zambesi, where Christianity is to be taught the natives, and trading carried on; and it is supposed by some, who reason from what they know, that should this party be successful, they will, in the course of time, extend themselves, as did the trading station of Van Riebeek, and that the natives will be deprived of their lands in the same manner as it has been done in the colony of the Cape of Good Hope.

We know that with the Baebele came guns, telegraph lines, mirrors, blouses – horrors, conveniences, vanities, modernity, muddled morals, a message of humanity – but that, with the ordained Word, there came also a torrent of literacy, unstoppable, and all but ungovernable.

In his magisterial survey of the Bible in Africa, The Stolen Bible, scholar Gerald West writes of ‘an ambiguous Bible – a Bible that is itself a site of struggle – a tool of imperialism that has become an African icon’.

As a sum, then, the Bible can be seen as perhaps colonialism’s most ironic endowment, but a considerable and enduring endowment nonetheless.

Difficult relationship

I have always, to be perfectly honest, had a difficult relationship with the Bible, never having succeeded in shaking off the feeling that it is more an encumbrance than an aid to contemplating what you might call the cosmic condition, the great pressing question that confronts adherents of faith and adherents of science alike: what is life about?

Perhaps thinking of it as a deficiency is ungracious or even wrong, but if there is a deficiency perhaps it is that this text, like so many others on the fundamental questions of life, relies on accepting human predominance in nature – which boils down to the dubious (possibly even fatuous) conclusion that human lives matter more than the lives of weeds or cancer cells.

Much science tends to do the same thing and is infused with if not exactly informed by the same pitch of religiosity – the fierce conviction in what, from age to age, is deemed verifiably meaningful to humans.

Could the first error be that counting on facts – evidence – really is an aid in the human quest for ‘answers’, for meaning, for truth (that dread word that signals humans’ constant effort to persuade themselves not only that they possess an all-encompassing understanding, but that such understanding might be possible)?

I remember my father (a solid Anglican) often muttering that he’d sooner walk in the mountains to be nearer to God than go to 9 o’clock mass. I have a sense of exactly what he meant: the inescapable difficulty in confronting the immensity not so much of a familiar but elusive divinity as a vast unknowableness. Mountains can be humbling, succeeding at the very least in rendering the human figure puny against the scale of an immutable and un-answering nature.

Immersion in churchly (canonical or theological) questions, which are chiefly human and very often merely political preoccupations, does often seem – to borrow from the biblical register – akin to straying into the wilderness.

Brute earthly reality

The implausible leap from divine revelation to brute earthly reality is arguably no more evident than in the strenuous efforts invested in squaring ‘holy’ certainties with the undignified territorial squabbles that define much of the stubborn politics of the Middle East – and elsewhere.

Yet, for all their flaws and contradictions, and the missteps they have sponsored, religious texts like the Bible seem to me to have much less to do with what is provable or demonstrable than with holding before people the challenging reward of confronting doubt, of grappling with the unknowable. This is the creditable torment of science as much as of theology.

For some, doubting is the journey of faith, belief and submission; for others, a journey of questioning humility. These are personal, intimate preoccupations: Who am I? What is good? How should I live?

For me, it is a matter of cherishing questions more than answers. And I happen to think there’s a precious nexus, here, with science.

‘Limited imagination’

It could not have been put more plainly than by the great 20th century scientist and thinker Richard Feynman when he observed in his 1963 lecture titled The Uncertainty of Values: ‘We are not so smart. We are dumb. We are ignorant and we must maintain an open channel … The only way we will make a mistake is that in the impetuous youth of our humanity we will decide we know the answer. This is it. No one else can think of anything else. And we will jam … and confine man to the limited imagination of today’s human beings.’

The crux, perhaps, is not who is right, or who provably wins the argument, but how the scope of doubt and inquiry is sustained and expanded – an essentially solitary proposition and one which, critically, places the onus of integrity and agency on the individual.

This does not guarantee sound, moral or even useful outcomes, but – as the debate of recent days suggests – it does nourish the most important questions about what it means to be human.

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17 COMMENTS

  1. Beautiful, thoughtful and well written. Easily the best piece on this topic so far published on Daily Friend.

    Vegter I am afraid more than anything just reinforces the problem with libertarianism and its faith in human reason, progress and political utopia. Often you can simply substitute “liberalism” with religion in his two pieces and you will have many solid foundations for arguments against liberalism.

    This for me is the irony or is it hubris of libertarians – that they are right up their with religion when it comes to believe in their world view. (I happen to think they are mostly damaging to classic liberalism in South Africa and in general for that reason…often repeating libertarian verses with equal zeal to any problem and context). The whole rationalism argument equally overplayed in South African liberalism in general.

    My “liberalism” (increasingly I view it as conservative political science) centers around doubt, human fallibility and tolerance for human nature and our very unique quest to make sense / give meaning to our existence. If we often cannot even resolve values within ourselves – how can you possibly do it for communities and societies in big political systems? Hence my skepticism towards any great answer or theory – that claims it is the truth and it has figured it all out…These are the most dangerous and totalitarian systems – after all if it is universal truth at all times and places – politically why should anything else be tolerated.

  2. I enjoyed reading this thought-provoking article. I found it insightful and challenging. I wholeheartedly concur with the words:
    “For some, doubting is the journey of faith, belief and submission; for others, a journey of questioning humility. These are personal, intimate preoccupations: Who am I? What is good? How should I live?”

    And that I personally find that the Bible goes someway to guide me in those last three questions.

  3. Two facts that should never have included into one sentence.
    “He has written three books, the last being Apartheid, An Illustrated History, and has an MA in Creative Writing from UCT.”

  4. A very thoughtfully written article! The good done by colonial missionaries, like introducing literacy etc can not be denied and can be weighed against a variety of negatives as mentioned. Perhaps traditional tribal beliefs included the idea that human life in all its facets was created and supervised by some supernatural power or god and was influenced by human ancestors. In any case, the introduction of Christianity reinforced the idea that humans had no control over their day to day destiny and helped to guarantee their subservience to an imaginary god whose primary representatives on earth lived far away, with their colonial masters, in the Vatican or Royal palaces of Europe. It is questionable whether apartheid would have survived for as long as it did if the suppressed masses had not been conditioned to be subservient by Christianity. Indoctrination into the idea that an imaginary god is responsible for everything that happens to a human as opposed to the reality that all humans actually have to rely on themselves and other humans for their survival, is the basic deception of religion in general. The ease with which individuals are able to manipulate others with such ideas is quite astounding. Historically it was much easier because humans understood so little about the environmental and other factors that threatened their very existence that attributing those threats to a god or gods made sense. Nowadays it does not make sense anymore and articles such as that by Ivo Vegtor highlight the foolishness of clinging to outdated beliefs.

    • The first Kolver that settled in the Cape circa 1720 which I am a descendant of, established the Lutheran church in Strand Street in Cape Town. Sometimes I wish he should have gone to Australia or Canada or stayed at home.

    • “It is questionable whether apartheid would have survived for as long as it did if the suppressed masses had not been conditioned to be subservient by Christianity.”
      It is questionable if apartheid would have been instituted if it were not for the havoc colonialism caused to the inter-relations between the various nations that the were forced to live in a centrally controlled unitary State.
      Mr Baker, you write as if apartheid sprang out of nowhere in 1948 and was used to suppress the masses, whereas apartheid was actually an attempt to undo the subjugation and suppression that was brought about by the colonialization of the southern Africa by the British Empire.
      Pre-colonialization whites did not rule over the indigenous natives, which in South Africa’s case consist of ten different black nations, each with its own Royal House. Not one of these were subjugated by the Dutch or the Voortrekkers. Apartheid is the bastard child of British colonialism.

  5. A brilliant intellectual masterpiece, with some interesting history of British imperialism mixed in with missionary zeal, but did it bring us in any way closer to the truth?

    On the other hand, there are millions of people for whom the Bible has become the source of truth, with a statement of fact in the Gospel of John 1:1-4 that is of greater impact than even the first words in Genesis 1:1 about the creation of heaven and earth: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him nothing was made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.” This statement is not a piece of human philosophy, but one which contains the weight of One who has power and authority over all creation, who doesn’t have to surmise and argue and reason, but who can hand down to men a profound utterance of eternal wisdom: This is the origin of everything seen and unseen.

    Follow this up with the apostle Paul’s inspired wisdom in 2 Corinthians 4:6: “For it is God who commanded light to shine out of darkness who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ”.

    It is clear from these two Biblical quotes that spiritual knowledge is not for the human mind to probe, but has to be acquired through spiritual enlightenment, which is revelation knowledge, not knowledge human intellect can acquire by reasoning. Light here is equated with spiritual insight, knowledge, which emanates from the life of God himself. Darkness is lack of light, or insight.

    In 1 Corinthians 2:14 the apostle Paul gives us some further explanation about how this is to be understood: “…the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, for they are spiritually discerned.”

    I conclude my biblical quotes with Matthew 11:25 (Jesus speaking): “I thank you Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and prudent and have revealed them to babes.” Clearly here the emphasis is on the words “hidden” and “revealed”.

    The Bible is full of hidden knowledge, parables, metaphorical prophecies, which remain mysteries unless they are interpreted by the Holy Spirit. Only those that open their hearts to truth with a childlike attitude, will receive the revelation of the mysteries of God’s truth contained in the Bible. Then the dead letter becomes alive.

    • ‘a childlike attitude to the truth and the need for a Holy Spirit to act as the interpreter’. No wonder we have so many diverse, contradictory belief systems.

    • This is an unfortunate departure from the clear and honest thinking in the relevant articles and most of the contributers. The general tone and standard is simply lowered by the attempt at preaching.

  6. I agree that British colonialism treated indigenous population as inferior. What I am suggesting is that the introduction of religion propagated the idea that humans had no control over their own lives because their lives were controlled by a god, (whose representives on earth were ironically the royalty of the colonial leaders themselves.) As a result, Black people put up with treatment by their white masters that they would have resisted more forcefully, possibly to their detriment, if they had instead believed that their destiny was in their own hands. Religion gives people false hope for a better future and encourages them to be patient when in fact they gain absolutely nothing by being patient.

    • Agree 100%. /when in fact they gain absolutely nothing by being patient. Patient for what? To have their desires answered by talking to an unseen figment of their imagination and waiting patiently for ‘it’ to happen? The first sign of madness is talking to an imaginary thing. The second is hearing the imaginary thing answering you….

  7. Ok EGO Vegter got what he wanted as a leftist. Yes, he is no Liberal he is a LEFTIST!

    I think using the criteria that Dennis Prager is using in the below article most IRR’s “opinion writers” are leftist hiding behind Liberalism.

    “What is the difference between a leftist and a liberal?
    Answering this question is vital to understanding the crisis facing America and the West today. Yet few seem able to do it. I offer the following as a guide.

    Here’s the first thing to know: The two have almost nothing in common.

    On the contrary, liberalism has far more in common with conservatism than it does with leftism. The left has appropriated the word “liberal” so effectively that almost everyone — liberals, leftists and conservatives — thinks they are synonymous.
    But they aren’t. Let’s look at some important examples.

    Race: This is perhaps the most obvious of the many moral differences between liberalism and leftism. The essence of the liberal position on race was that the color of one’s skin is insignificant. To liberals of a generation ago, only racists believed that race is intrinsically significant. However, to the left, the notion that race is insignificant is itself racist. Thus, the University of California officially regards the statement “There is only one race, the human race” as racist. For that reason, liberals were passionately committed to racial integration. Liberals should be sickened by theexistence of black dormitories and separate black graduations on university campuses.

    Capitalism: Liberals have always been pro-capitalism, recognizing it for what it is: the only economic means of lifting great numbers out of poverty. Liberals did often view government as able to play a bigger role in lifting people out of poverty than conservatives, but they were never opposed to capitalism, and they were never for socialism. Opposition to capitalism and advocacy of socialism are leftist values.

    Nationalism: Liberals deeply believed in the nation-state, whether their nation was the United States, Great Britain or France. The left has always opposed nationalism because leftism is rooted in class solidarity, not national solidarity. The left has contempt for nationalism, seeing in it intellectual and moral primitivism at best, and the road to fascism at worst. Liberals always wanted to protect American sovereignty and borders. The notion of open borders would have struck a liberal as just as objectionable as it does a conservative.

    It is emblematic of our time that the left-wing writers of Superman comics had Superman announce a few years ago, “I intend to speak before the United Nations tomorrow and inform them that I am renouncing my American citizenship.” When the writers of Superman were liberal, Superman was not only an American but one who fought for “Truth, justice, and the American way.” But in his announcement, he explained that motto is “not enough anymore.”

    View of America: Liberals venerated America. Watch American films from the 1930s through the 1950s and you will be watching overtly patriotic, America-celebrating films — virtually all produced, directed and acted in by liberals. Liberals well understand that America is imperfect, but they agree with a liberal icon named Abraham Lincoln that America is “the last best hope of earth.”

    To the left, America is essentially a racist, sexist, violent, homophobic, xenophobic and Islamophobic country. The left around the world loathe America, and it is hard to imagine why the American left would differ in this one way from fellow leftists around the world. Leftists often take offense at having their love of America doubted. But those left-wing descriptions of America are not the only reason to assume that the left has more contempt than love for America. The left’s view of America was encapsulated in then-presidential candidate Barack Obama’s statement in 2008. “We are five days away from fundamentally transforming the United States of America,” he said.

    Now, if you were to meet a man who said that he wanted to fundamentally transform his wife, or a woman who said that about her husband, would you assume that either loved their spouse? Of course not.

    Free speech: The difference between the left and liberals regarding free speech is as dramatic as the difference regarding race. No one was more committed than American liberals to the famous statement “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

    Liberals still are. But the left is leading the first nationwide suppression of free speech in American history — from the universities to Google to almost every other institution and place of work. It claims to only oppose hate speech. But protecting the right of person A to say what person B deems objectionable is the entire point of free speech.

    Western civilization: Liberals have a deep love of Western civilization. They taught it at virtually every university and celebrated its unique moral, ethical, philosophical, artistic, musical and literary achievements. No liberal would have joined the leftist Rev. Jesse Jackson in chanting at Stanford University: “Hey, hey. Ho, ho. Western civ has got to go.”

    The most revered liberal in American history is probably former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who frequently cited the need to protect not just Western civilization but Christian civilization. Yet leftists unanimously denounced President Donald Trump for his speech in Warsaw, Poland, in which he spoke of protecting Western civilization. They argued not only that Western civilization is not superior to any other civilization but also that it is no more than a euphemism for white supremacy.

    Judaism and Christianity: Liberals knew and appreciated the Judeo-Christian roots of American civilization. They themselves went to church or synagogue, or at the very least appreciated that most of their fellow Americans did. The contempt that the left has — and has always had — for religion (except for Islam today) is not something with which a liberal would ever have identified.

    If the left is not defeated, American and Western civilization will not survive. But the left will not be defeated until good liberals understand this and join the fight.

    Dear liberals: Conservatives are not your enemy. The left is.” – DENNIS PRAGER 09/12/17

    Replace America with South Africa where necessary!

  8. I want to revise my comment about EGO Vegter and include the IRR, who is nothing but a mouthpiece of the Council on Foreign Relations, don’t believe me go and look at the Annual Reports and look at who the American Friends of the IRR is, Good Luck and good bye IRR

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