‘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.’
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 Christians … We 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.’
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.
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.
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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