Nicolene L Joubert. Miracles: God, Science, and Psychology in the Paranormal. Editor: J Harold Ellens. Volume 3: Parapsychological Perspectives. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2008.
Mystical experiences are widespread, and they often involve an awareness of a divine presence. Several types of mystical experiences are distinguished including religious visions and dreams (Loewenthal 2004, 87-89). According to Oats (1981, 111), mysticism assumes that God and spiritual truth may be known instinctively. Romans 1:19 confirms this notion: “For that which is known about God is evident to them and made plain in their inner consciousness, because God [Himself] has shown it to them” (Amplied Version [AV]). Although intuitive knowledge is gained in a different way than scientific knowledge, it is just as valid.
Mystical experiences happen at the non-rational level of human functioning and viewing the world from a mystical perspective may influence one’s perception and interpretation of miracles (Oats 1981, 111-18).
A miracle is defined as “an extraordinary event manifesting divine intervention in human affairs” (www.Merriam-Webster.com). There is normally no scientific explanation for such an intervention, and the experience of a miracle may be categorized as a mystical experience. A miracle is also defined as “an extremely outstanding or unusual event, thing, or accomplishment” (www.Merriam-Webster.com ). The word miracle used in this sense refer to an event that is statistically unlikely to happen but is beneficial; for example, Japan’s economic success after the country was destroyed during World War II. Miracle may also refer to something good that happens regardless of its likelihood; for example, good rainfall after a drought. For the purpose of this chapter miracle is defined as a positive experience perceived as extraordinary and attributed to a supernatural or divine intervention.
In Africa, mystical experiences are part and parcel of the Africans’ traditional religious beliefs. They also form part of the Christian spirituality of a large number of Christian Africans. Africans view the spiritual world as more dominant than the physical world, which implies that life events are influenced by the spiritual world. Religious communities that firmly believe in miracles include the Orthodox Jews, Christians, and some Muslim groups. However, not all of these groups view and interpret miracles in a similar manner. The religious texts of the Orthodox Jews and the Christians describe supernatural acts by God that change the normal course of nature. All these accounts of miracles indicate God’s power over natural laws.
The question arises, does the African worldview affect the perception and interpretation of miracles? This chapter aims at exploring how the African worldview affects the perception and interpretation of miracles.
In order to do this investigation I will briefly discuss the concepts African and worldview and then describe the traditional African worldview. The effect of this worldview on the African’s perception and interpretation of miracles will then be explored. This exploration will be supported by qualitative research data from a research project, Project Crossroads, partially commissioned by the author for this purpose.
Project Crossroads is an explorative qualitative study conducted by a South African-based independent market research company, Qualitative Intelligence (Kotze and De Kock 2007). The purpose of this study was to explore miracles within the African worldview.
The study was limited to South Africans as a subset of Africans. The study was further limited to Christians as a subset of African religions. The Christian religion is the largest African major religion constituting of 48 percent of the African population (Johnstone and Mandryk 2001, 21).
In South Africa the study was geographically limited to Johannesburg, the largest South African metropolitan municipality which includes Soweto, the predominantly black South Western townships of Johannesburg. The study included white South Africans to investigate a probable contrasting view on miracles based on a Western worldview.
All quotations used to illustrate the view of Africans on the African world-view and miracles originate from this project.
The African Concept
The word African is derived from the name of the continent. African may be used to refer to different ethnic groups indigenous to the continent of Africa, to people of African origin, or to cultures and traditions specific to Africa (Kaphagawani and Malherbe 2003, 220). According to Van Wyk and Higgs (2007, 61-62), the views and ideas emanating from the traditional African world form the basis of a true African philosophy. In this case the concept African refers to the different ethnic groups as well as the cultures and traditions specific to Africa.
Meyer, Moore, and Viljoen (2003, 530-531) use the word African specific to the indigenous people of the sub-Saharan region of Africa and delineates the variety of different cultures, languages, and religions that form part of the African diversity. For the purpose of this chapter this definition of African will apply. According to Sow (1980, quoted in Meyer, Moore, and Viljoen 2003, 531), it is possible to talk of an overarching African perspective in spite of the diversity. There is a unity in the diversity, and Sow describes it as “a unity that is evident in the realm of spirituality as well as in that of representation and expression, from works of art to behaviors manifested in everyday life…. There is no doubt that, with a few variations, African thought has a distinctive character, deriving its principles from symbols and myths as well as from a collective ritual” (531).
The Worldview Construct
The worldview concept includes a philosophy of life, world hypotheses, value orientations, and unconscious systems of meaning (Koltko-Rivera 2004, 4). For the purpose of this chapter the conceptual definition provided by Koltko-Rivera is applied. According to this definition a worldview is “a way of describing the universe and life within it, both in terms of what is and what ought to be … Worldviews include assumptions that may be unproven, and even unprovable, but these assumptions are superordinate, in that they provide the epistemic and ontological foundations for other beliefs within a belief system” (Koltko-Rivera 2004, 4). Observations and mystical contemplations form part of a worldview. Worldview beliefs may include existential beliefs, evaluative beliefs, and prescriptive or proscriptive beliefs and focus largely on less concrete aspects of everyday life (for example, God) and on abstract concepts (for example, “Can people change?”) (Koltko-Rivera 2004, 5). The focus of a biblical worldview is upon understanding God and his relation to humans and the world. Worldview is a justifiable psychological construct that acts powerfully in shaping affect, cognition, or behavior (Koltko-Rivera 2004, 22-26). Support for this arguments lies in the evidence of cultural differences in cognition, ethnocultural differences in values, the worldview research findings, and research findings pertaining to the effects of religious belief and experience on people’s functioning (Koltko-Rivera 2004, 23-24). Based on these arguments it can be assumed that an African worldview shapes the beliefs, cognition, behavior, affect, and experiences of Africans regarding miracles.
The literature indicates that the traditional African worldview is embedded in traditional spiritual beliefs and metaphysical thinking (Teffo and Roux 2003, 163-64). Metaphysical thinking in Africa is characterized by beliefs that give it a specific way of conceptualizing reality. Teffo and Roux hold that people who believe in witchcraft or a supreme being have exacting conceptions and interpretations of reality (163-70). These conceptions include views and ideas on issues such as causality personality responsibility and the nature of matter, which play a role in how the people of Africa explain their reality and respond to their reality.
Ashforth (1996, 1183) described the spiritual insecurity of the Sowetans he witnessed while he lived in Soweto, for four years during the 1990s. He observed that the Sowetans were driven in their daily actions by their belief in unseen powers (1183-85). He further observed the uncertainty, ambiguity, mystery, ignorance, and secrecy that are part of that world. This experience forced him “to take seriously the commonplace dialogue between beings and forces seen and unseen” (1185).
Most of the Sowetans are nominal Christians, which leaves us with the impression that the traditional African worldview prevails amongst Christian and non-Christian Africans. It is clear that Africans grapple with existential realities through a mystical belief system emphasizing the existence of the spirit world and the interaction between the spirit world and the physical world. Phenomena such as religious ceremonies, ancestral veneration, witchcraft, magic, rites, and cultural ceremonies are part of the Africans’ attempt to understand and make meaning of existential realities.
Koltko-Rivera (2004, 27-36) proposed a comprehensive worldview model. This model comprises different groups of beliefs, namely, human nature, will, cognition, behavior, interpersonal, truth, and world and life (Koltko-Rivera 2004, 27-31). Each group includes two or more worldview dimensions. Each dimension deals with a particular topic of worldview beliefs, and in turn includes two or more options, that is, positions that a person may take on the topic that the dimension addresses.
Traditional African Worldview
The traditional African worldview includes two major aspects, namely, the interconnectedness of the phenomenal worlds and spiritualism. The interconnectedness of the phenomenal worlds implies an inseparable cosmic whole. This view holds that humans form an indivisible whole with the cosmos and therefore with God, other humans, and nature (Meyer, Moore, and Viljoen 2003, 532; Teffo and Roux 2003, 164). The spiritualism traditionally embraced by Africans includes the belief in impersonal (mystical) powers, the belief in spirit beings, the belief in divinities/gods, and the belief in the Supreme Being (Turaki 2000, 1).
In applying the Koltko-Rivera model to the traditional African worldview it is found that the first six groups of the worldview beliefs apply largely to the aspect of the interconnectedness of the phenomenal worlds and the last group applies largely to spiritualism. The probable relation between the different belief dimensions and the perception and interpretation of the supernatural or miracles will be highlighted.
The Human Nature Group
This group includes beliefs about the fundamental functioning of human nature. The three dimensions that are part of this group are the moral orientation dimension, referring to whether humans are basically good or evil; the mutability dimension, referring to whether humans can be changed; and the complexity dimension, referring to beliefs about whether human nature is complicated and in what ways (Koltko-Rivera 2004, 28-29).
The African perspective on human nature holds that humans are an interdependent and inseparable part of the microcosmos. The microcosmos refers to the terrain of everyday life. A person’s everyday life forms an inseparable part of the existence of others. Personhood and identity are embedded in the collective existence of the person (Coetzee 2003, 275-77; Meyer, Moore, and Viljoen 2003, 535-36; Van Niekerk and Prins 2001, 99). A human becomes a person through others. The person is not seen as basically good or evil but as capable of good or evil actions. The following quote from one of the participants from Project Crossroads illustrates the respondent’s view on human nature as sinful but also the interpretation of the experience of confession and forgiveness as a miracle. “I have witnessed people speaking out in tongues and then also I can say in terms of their sin, they voice out on their sins and they say what they did and go and admit all they have done so they can come clean and that is actually a miracle and then you will find people accepting their sins, which is a form of a miracle” (black Christian, charismatic church, 25-34 years old).
The microcosmos is furthermore totally influenced by the mesocosmos, the world of forces, spirits, ancestors, and sorcerers, and the macro-cosmos, the sphere where God is encountered (Meyer, Moore, and Viljoen 2003, 535-36). Social and moral considerations are guided by metaphysical thinking. The role of ancestors, for example, is to exercise moral leadership and guarantee moral consistency (Teffo and Roux 2003, 167). Moral and ethical questions and actions aim at restoring any expression of disharmony between different human beings and between the different cosmic levels (Turaki 2000, 1-6).
This holistic view implies that mankind is one with and stands face-to-face with the physical and spiritual dimensions of the world. All conflict, sickness, death, and disasters are explained in relation to the mesocosmic level of reality. The morally correct response to any situation is seen as spiritual. Therefore, Africans view the relationship between the human person and his or her world not as a simplistic but as a complex relationship. They moreover believe that meaning and ultimate reality should be found in this complex relationship (Teffo and Roux 2003, 167-68). The following three quotes harvested by Project Crossroads illustrate the awareness of the complex relationship between the microcosmic and mesocosmic levels.
- “Ancestor worship will help them, I think God does not want us to talk to the ancestors like they are God and that is what God does not want.” (black Christian, traditional church, 25-34 years old)
- “Whether you go there (the graves of the ancestors) to pray or go there to talk it is different.” (black Christian, traditional church, 25-34 years old)
- “Like when you have a child then you will go to the grave and show the child to your ancestors, and we will continue to do that even while we are Christians.” (black Christian, traditional church, 25-34 years old)
The Will Group
This group of beliefs reflects beliefs about motivation for behavior, destiny, purpose and meaning in life. The question of free will and choice of behavior versus determinism is addressed by the beliefs in this group, as are the rational and irrational origins of behavior. The traditional African worldview holds a deterministic view regarding human behavior. External agents emanating from the meso-cosmos in the form of ancestral spirits, forces, malignant spirits, sorcerers, and witches determine human behavior (Meyer, Moore and Viljoen 2003, 533-35). The law of the spirit that is upheld implies that mystical and spirit powers and forces cause events and affect people’s lives. Behavior is also determined by moral laws pertaining to interpersonal relationships. Religious practices, ceremonies, and rituals are performed to abide by these moral laws. African charismatic Christians express the view that people have a free will and the ability to choose how they want to behave. This view differs from the traditional view discussed above. The following view expresses a synthesis between the charismatic Christian beliefs and the traditional African beliefs. “I think Christianity is a matter of choosing. You choose what is right and wrong” (black Christian, charismatic church, 25-44 years old).
The Cognition Group
The beliefs included in this group pertain to knowledge and consciousness. Beliefs in this group express views on how knowledge is gained and whether the highest state of human consciousness occurs within the context of the ego or transcends the ego. The transcendence of ego cognition is described as peak or mystical experiences (Koltko-Rivera 2004, 32).
Africans rely on intuitive and emotional knowledge. According to Meyer, Moore, and Viljoen (2003, 538-539), African rationality relates to Pascal’s view on “logic of the heart.” This view states that the heart is the personal, spiritual center of man from which man forms relationships with other people. It further states that man also grasps reality in its wholeness from this personal inner center. Heart in this sense refers to the mind as an intuitively sensing aspect of the person. From the African perspective the application of an intuitive rationality is seen as a reliable way of gaining knowledge. The traditional African worldview holds the view of transcendent consciousness. When answers are needed to explain events or guide behavior, Africans will consult their religious experts to divine and provide satisfactory meanings to the events as well as advice. The following account of a personal miracle experienced by one of the participants of the research project illustrates the belief in transcendent consciousness and how it has directed and shaped the person’s actions and interpretation of the event.
I was pregnant and went to the hospital but it was too early and they sent me home. I was supposed to be getting back on Saturday, and something just happened and I felt like something was hitting me around my waist and couldn’t feel everything, and then I wanted to scream for someone to help me but all I could see was a black cloud and I could feel a weight on my chest and this old lady said to me she can see what is coming over me and I said it is heavy and she said it is death coming over me and I screamed I don’t want to die and then she said the only weapon was to pray and then I started to pray and then I could see a small light and then the more I prayed and the more light came through the more the cloud got smaller and at last I could breathe and I was wet, wet with sweat and I could not even stand up I was just tired and then I lost the baby but luckily I survived because I was pregnant at the time, it adds up like a dream but it was very real to me. (black Christian, traditional church, 35-49 years old)
The physical symptoms of the threatening miscarriage were interpreted as a spirit of death coming to take the woman’s life, and the action taken to find a solution for this threat was spiritual: prayer. The person made an appeal to a higher force to save her. According to Teffo and Roux (2003, 168), it is a possible misconception that life in traditional African culture is totally based in metaphysical thinking. Much of the African day-to-day life is based on empirically verifiable facts, independent of spiritual influences. African metaphysics also has a strong empirical basis, which indicates the implementation of a rational logical process in gaining knowledge.
The Behavior Group
The beliefs in this group pertain to the focus of or the guidelines for behavior. Different dimensions are included, as follows.
- Time orientation refers to the temporal focus of behavior. The focus may be on the past (tradition and stability are valued), the present, or the future (rewards and planning are emphasized; Koltko-Rivera 2004, 32).
- Activity direction refers to directional focus of behavior. Either an inward focus (such as emotion, personality traits, mental processes, or spiritually) or an outward focus (on external qualities such as achievement and possession) is taken.
- Activity satisfaction refers to whether the behavior aims at movement or stasis.
- Moral source refers to whether the moral source of behavior lies in a human source, for example, society, or a transcendent source, such as a divine being or force.
- Moral standard reflects beliefs about the relativity of moral guidelines: Are they absolute or relative to time, culture, or situation?
- Moral relevance reflects beliefs about society’s moral guidelines in terms of the relevance it has for a particular person.
- Control location includes beliefs about the factors that determine the outcomes in one’s life. The options are action (one’s own actions upon the world determine the outcomes), luck (personal magic), chance (randomness), fate (personal destiny), society (bias, favoritism), and divinity.
- The traditional African belief system emphasizes external sources such as divinity, spirit beings, magic, sorcery, and the jealousy of other people, as the determinants of the outcomes of one’s life.
- Control disposition describes the stance that the determinants of one’s outcomes take in relation to oneself. The options are either a positive, negative, or neutral position. The African worldview provides for both positive and negative control dispositions and the belief in supernatural forces that are effective in changing the world.
- Action efficacy refers to beliefs about the types of actions that effectively may change the world. These beliefs fall into three categories, namely, the belief that direct personal or group action creates change, the belief that a supernatural force, through magic, ritual, sacrament, or prayer, creates change, and the belief that there is no way to create change.
The Interpersonal Group
Beliefs about the proper or natural characteristics of interpersonal relationships are included in this group. The dimensions are otherness, relation to authority, relation to group, relation to humanity, relation to biosphere, sexuality, connection, interpersonal justness, sociopolitical justness, interaction, and correction. As previously mentioned, the African view on the interpersonal dimension is collectivistic, that is, the self would not exist without the community. The emphasis is on the role of the community and on interdependence rather than independence (Teffo and Roux 2003, 170-71).
The Truth Group
The beliefs in this group describe the stance that people take toward the “truth.” This stance is represented in an overarching body of doctrine such as social or cultural myth, a philosophical approach, a specific religious teaching, or a political dogma. The dimensions of this group are scope (the degree to which the truth is valid across different situations), possession (the degree to which one’s reference group is in possession of an accurate account of truth about the universe), and availability (the degree to which the truth belongs exclusively to the reference group or whether other groups also have the truth).
The stance to truth taken in the traditional African worldview is represented in the concept of ubuntu (Ramose 2003, 230-31). Ubuntu, meaning a person exists through the existence of those around him, refers to three levels of human existence, that is, those that are alive, the living-dead (ancestors) and the future generations (Ramose 2003, 235-36). From this perspective truth is based in a social and cultural context.
Truth is furthermore seen as the convergence of perception and action (Ramose 2003, 235-36). Instead of being made or live by truth human beings are making and living truth. Human beings perceive truth and at the same time partake in making truth. This stance to truth is decidedly relativistic rather absolute (Ramose 2003, 235-36).
The World and Life Group
The beliefs in this group concerns life, the world, natural reality, and the universe, and include dimensions such as ontology, cosmos, unity, deity, nature-consciousness, humanity-nature, world-justice, well-being, explanation, worth of life, and purpose of life. In relation to this group of dimensions the African worldview is characterized by spiritualism (the spiritual dimension to reality is ontologically real), theism (God[s] exist as personal being[s]), nature-consciousness (a force is part of all objects), harmony (people are part of nature and should work with it), transcendent source for well-being, contextualism (explanation for the different causes for events is related to the context), worth of life (optimism, i.e., social progress is possible), and purpose in life.
Traditional African concepts of reality and destiny are entrenched in their view of the spirit world, which is viewed as ontologically real. The actions of the spirit beings preside over social and spiritual phenomena. Even mundane changes of social power are matched in the spirit world (Ash-forth 1996, 1190-94; Turaki 2000, 1-6). Reality is seen as a closed system, which means that everything is interrelated and affected by any change in the system. The system consists of different vital forces that exist between the different subsystems of reality and that are hierarchically placed. A vital force exists between God, the creator and source of all vital forces and at the top of the hierarchy, and human beings. Vital forces also exist between humans and animals as well as between humans and the material world. God is seen as the creator and source of all vital forces (Deacon 2003, 105-6; Teffo and Roux 2003, 168). In terms of the hierarchy, the ancestors are next in line, followed by humankind, then the lower forces: animals, plants, and matter. When one part of the system gains in force, another has to lose in force. If a person is ill, for example, it means that the person loses vital force, which implies that somebody or something is taking it away. Disasters and death are thus explained ontologically.
According to the African worldview, two broad categories of spirits exist: the nonhuman spirits and the spirits of the dead elders (ancestors). Nonhuman spirits are placed in a hierarchical order depending upon their type, power and function in the spirit world (Turaki 2000, 2). As previously discussed, God as the Creator is first in the hierarchy, followed by the deities, object-embodied spirits, ancestral spirits, and various other spirits. These spirits comprise both good and evil spirits. The spirits of the ancestors are close to the humans and function as protectors and mediators between humans and God. The following quote from one of the respondents of Project Crossroads illustrates this belief. “My ancestors are my angels. Sometimes when I want to talk to God I talk through them” (black Christian, traditional church, 35-49 years old).
Belief in Many Divinities
In some parts of Africa a variety of divinities is worshipped, while in other parts, such as, southern Africa, it is not the case. Some African scholars debate polytheism and prefer to speak about divinities and deities rather than gods. According to this view, the divinities or deities are seen as intermediaries between the Supreme Being and human beings, and they are venerated rather than worshipped. Sacrifices, offerings, and prayers are not offered to the divinities and ancestors as a goal in themselves, but through them to God (Taruki 2000, 3). African divinities take different forms from nature, such as mountains, rivers, forests, the earth, the sun, the moon, stars, and people such as ancestors.
Belief in a Supreme Being (God)
Although Africans have a concept of a universal God and the Creator, most Africans view God as part of the world and not outside of this world (Teffo and Roux 2003, 165-66). The implication of this is that in general the traditional African has an awareness of and belief in God as the Supreme Being, but the Supreme Being is not exclusively worshipped (Turaki 2000, 4). In some Africa regions, the Supreme Being may be mentioned in prayers and songs in some religious ceremonies. The Supreme Being is believed to be higher than the lesser divinities in the hierarchy of beings, but is not seen as personally involved with the human world. Consequently humans turn to the nonhuman spirits and the ancestors for help. God is only periodically acknowledged by the traditional African.
According to the findings of Project Crossroads (Kotze and De Kock 2007) the beliefs of the black Christians differ in some aspects from the traditional African beliefs as discussed above. The following spiritual beliefs are expressed by African Christians from the traditional and charismatic churches:
- A belief in the existence of God as the Creator, Jesus Christ as the Savior, and the Holy Spirit. “There is a God out there who made us and created us and he is the reason we eat and sleep and wake up; and in the world around us you see people living around us just doing their own thing but when you are a Christian then you know which way that God is directing you” (black Christian, charismatic church, 25-34 years old).
- A belief in the existence of Angels, Satan, and demons.
- A belief in heaven and hell. “If you read the Bible, there is heaven and hell and I think that is what there is and you will need to go where you belong and if you live your life according to the ways that Jesus wants you then you will go to heaven and if you don’t then hell will wait for you” (black Christian, charismatic church, 25-34 years old).
- A belief in ancestors.
- “Some people pray for help from the grandmother and ask for help for rent and a job and everything” (black Christian, traditional church, 35-49 years old).
- “When Jesus died, after three days something happened, the whole world shook and the graves opened, the holy spirits then started and that is how I read my Bible. That is where the holy spirits started and those were people that were dead and they grew alive and Jesus told them to go and show themselves to the people and they did but no one saw them” (black Christian, traditional church, 35-49 years old).
- “I don’t know if white people worship [ancestors] but I know they go to the graveyard and go and talk to their parents and things like that so it means they do worship” (black Christian, traditional church, 35-49 years old).
- “The Bible came after our culture so I think there is still a blend, because we cannot just throw our culture away” (black Christian, traditional church, 25-34 years old).
- “There needs to be new churches where people understand God and their ancestors” (black Christian, traditional church, 25-34 years old).
Nature-consciousness and the belief in mystical powers furthermore dominates traditional African religious thought. According to this belief the whole of creation, nature, and all objects are filled with a mystical power that has been given various names such as mana, life force, chi, and life essence (Turaki 2000, 1). Traditional Africans normally attribute the source of the force to the activities of higher mysterious powers or the Supreme Being. Objects are viewed as endowed with this power. Some objects have inherently more power than other objects. Traditional healers, diviners, and seers use natural objects, such as plants and animals, filled with this mysterious power, for medicine, magic, charms, and amulets. Some people believe that the power can be extracted from these objects and transmitted to a person or another object for good or evil purposes (Turaki 2000, 1-7). The traditional African believes he or she is left at the mercy of the benevolent or wicked users of these powers and may get involved in religious practices influenced by these powers (Ashforth 1996, 1184).
Summary of the African Worldview
Based on our discussion of the traditional African world view it emerges that this worldview is embedded in the belief that the world is essentially spiritual and that the physical and the spiritual worlds are totally integrated. Western based concepts like normal and paranormal are not quite relevant in this context. Even normal daily events are interpreted as being determined by spiritual beings, ancestors and impersonal forces. Human beings are at the mercy of the spirit beings and need power outside of themselves to control their environment. The performance of rites and ceremonies to appease the spirit beings is of extreme importance and part of everyday life.
These beliefs might set the stage for Africans to believe in and expect miracles (extraordinary events caused by a deity or spiritual force). The synthesis between the traditional African worldview and the Christian worldview expressed by the participants of Project Crossroads supports this notion.
Traditional African Worldview and Miracles
The following discussion serves to elucidate the probable relation between the African worldview and the perception and interpretation of miracles. The question arises whether the Africans’ perspective on miracles is fostered by their traditional belief system. Does the hope and expectation for miracles influence their experiences and interpretation of miracles? Do social factors like poverty, internal wars, high illiteracy rates, and the high prevalence of terminal diseases play a role in their perspective on miracles? Poverty in Africa is extreme and widespread, sanitation is poor, the prevalence of terminal diseases is high, and medical and educational systems are poor. Within this context the innate hope for miracles to transform social distresses and to cure diseases is exceptionally high. Akosah-Sarpong (2004, 1) is of the opinion that it borders on the fanatical. In West Africa people attend spiritualist churches daily with the hope of visions and miracles (Akosah-Sarpong 2004, 1). Aside from spiritualist churches they also seek help from other spiritual sources such as juju and marabou mediums and witch doctors. More traditional and uneducated societies express a more profound hope in miracles through their belief systems and religious actions than modernized countries (Akosah-Sarpong, 2004, 1).
It seems that the Africans’ belief in miracles is embedded in their mystical worldview and driven by the sociopolitical challenges they are faced with. According to various authors (Akosah-Sarpong 2004, 1; Ashforth 1996 1183-84), a constant interaction between Africans and the spiritual world takes place through rites, ceremonies, sacrifices, and consultations with people viewed as spiritual experts, such as witches, sangomas, diviners, traditional healers, and mediums. The purpose of this interaction is to make meaning of their reality and to get guidance for their behavior.
In terms of the discussion so far, it seems clear that Africans would explain their own existence and experience of reality, poverty, illness, war, natural disasters, violence, disappointments, failures, successes, social changes, prosperity, and achievements in terms of their interconnectedness with other people and the activities of the different spirits, according to their positions in the hierarchy of spirits. This implies that miracles would be defined and interpreted in accordance with this view.
How Do Black Christian South Africans View and Interpret Miracles?
The concept of miracles within a Christian African worldview was explored within the South African context and by means of an exploratory qualitative research project (as explained in the introduction). The focus groups used for the collection of the data included individuals from both charismatic (nondenominational charismatic churches and Baptist churches) and traditional Christian churches (Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian, Catholic, Reformed, and Dutch Reformed) who had firsthand or secondhand experience of miracles. The groups were of mixed gender representing different race and language groups in South Africa.
Black Charismatic Christian Churches
The participants from the black charismatic Churches defined a miracle as something that is above human power, as a spiritual intervention, and they were unanimous in the belief that miracles happen. Most of them relayed personal experiences.
The following example indicates the belief in a spiritual intervention as an explanation for a phenomenon related to a serious illness. “I think for me it was a friend of mine whose husband tested HIV positive and then she tested negative the whole time and for me that is like something that you can’t explain and they wanted to test the immune system and they have a child and it is the husband’s child so at the end of the day it is not the doctor’s and, WOW, even the doctors cannot explain it” (black Christian, charismatic church, 25-34 years old).
The belief that any spiritual source, even an evil source, can bring about a change in the physical world is illustrated by the next quote. “I knew this lady who was sick and when she was there the devil spoke to her and said he will heal her and then he said when he has healed her there are a few things that she must do for him” (black Christian, charismatic church, 18-24 years old). The belief that an intervention from an evil power source will turn negative versus an intervention from God is also expressed. God-given miracles will be confirmed by an increase in faith.
According to the traditional African belief in a spiritual hierarchy, God is seen as the Supreme Being and the source of all vital forces but not directly involved with people. Miracles, in this case are seen as the work of God, not of human beings, and are thus not related to a particular country and do not depend on the pastor. This view deviates from the traditional African belief regarding God as an impersonal force. “There was a faithful lady at church and she could not walk properly, she had a problem with her feet and then I saw with my own eyes that God had perform a miracle for her” (black Christian, charismatic church, 18-24 years old). Other accounts of miracles include the experience of speaking in tongues, forgiveness of sins, supernatural protection against hijackers, healings of illnesses like HIV/AIDS and breast cancer, and a healing of a serious injury. These accounts imply that harmony is restored between the person and the various cosmic levels.
Black Traditional Christian Churches
The participants from the black traditional Christian churches view every supernatural phenomenon as a miracle. They believe that their ancestors are a channel between them and God, interceding and asking God for miracles for them, even if it is winning the national lottery. This view relates to the traditional African worldview that God, as the Supreme Being, is not intimately involved with man’s world. Spirit beings positioned lower in the spiritual hierarchy are consulted to intervene and provide solutions to life’s problems. Ancestors are the custodians of human beings and are often sought out to meet the needs of men. God is only occasionally remembered. Any existential reality challenge may be brought to the ancestors or other spirit beings for a solution.
- “I remember there was this lady from Potchefstroom who spoke to her mother’s grave and said she was broke and she couldn’t find a job and then two weeks later she won the lotto, and then she said her mother answered her prayers so it depends, and maybe she went to the grave at the right time.”
- “I was traveling with the public transport [taxi] and I was right by the door and no one could open the door and then I saw that my grandmother opened the door and that was a miracle for me.”
White English Charismatic Churches
White South Africans generally have a worldview that differs from the traditional African worldview and that relates more to a traditional Western worldview. The following views and accounts of miracles illustrate the different approaches.
The participants from the white English charismatic Churches distinguished between miracles and God’s blessings. They defined miracles as life-changing things and view smaller happenings that are good as God blessing a person. They expressed a firm belief in miracles, and according to them, miracles come true because of people’s faith and because it is part of God’s plan for humankind. Their accounts of miracles included mainly healing experiences and events in which they experienced supernatural protection.
- “When my child was born, my little monster, they did fertility tests and gave me medication and then when I got to the second trimester it was awesome, and then my son was born with a heart problem and a spastic colon and he was in ICU for 32 days and I prayed every day and he had an allergic reaction to his heart medication and the doctor said he will never make it, my son is a miracle and he is my miracle” (white English Christian, charismatic church, 25-34 years old).
- “My mom was driving on the highway and she has night blindness. Then there was a truck, and the lights of the truck, and she felt the car go under the truck and then she felt this sensation of being lifted and held and nothing happened to her” (white English Christian, charismatic church, 25-34 years old).
- “Those people that survived the Tsunami, that is a miracle” (white English Christian, charismatic church, 25-34 years old).
This group assigned God’s intervention to the same type of experiences as the previous two groups but were more conservative in their terminology and their definition of a miracle. Not every good thing that happens to them is interpreted as a miracle, but only those that are huge and life-changing.
White English Traditional Churches
The participants from the English traditional churches were more skeptical toward, and less eager to call interesting events, miracles. One participant expressed the view that he doesn’t believe in miracles. Miracles were defined as something impossible that happens that cannot be explained by human logic. Participants are, however, aware of large and inexplicable miracles, such as cancer disappearing or legs growing. Most participants in this group view the media and the hype regarding miracles negatively; and they also state that there is too little scientific and medical authentication of claimed miracles. They have very indistinct knowledge of and little interest in miracles coming from suspect sources (Kotze and De Kock 2007). Some of the participants in this group view sightings of Christ and angels as suspect and media exploitation while others hold different views. Catholic stigmata made a huge impression on the Catholic and Anglican participants and made them aware of the supernatural.
Some expressed the view that there are special purposes for people who experience miracles. “A friend of mine, when he was very much younger, was into drugs, and then one day he stole his dad’s car and punched his dad out and he crashed into a car and the minister gave him a choice to go to jail, which would be his second time, or to go to church the next day with him and stay there. He didn’t know what to do, and then he went to church, also stoned, and then his whole life was turned around with that minister and in that congregation” (white English, traditional church, 35-49 years old).
In this group an account of a near-death experience was also shared. “I know of someone who died and saw Christ and came back and I believe him, he can look at you and tell you stuff about yourself that no one else knows” (white English, traditional church, 35-49 years old).
White Afrikaans Traditional Churches
The participants in this group expressed a belief in miracles and acknowledged that Satan can instigate supernatural happenings to mislead people. They further believe that miracles must lead one closer to God to know whether the miracles are from God. All the participants expressed knowledge of miracles. Miracles were defined as anything supernatural, and the events viewed as miraculous ranged from smaller good events, such as getting some extra money or a parking space, to more serious happenings, such as cancers disappearing. “What made me believe is that a friend of mine had a photo in her Bible and the clouds make the shape, and it is unbelievable it is a road and the clouds form this most beautiful form of Jesus” (white Afrikaans, traditional church, 18-24 years old).
The participants in this group believe demons are real, as are angels, but had no personal experiences to share. Although a strong belief in guardian angels was expressed, nobody had seen an angel. Sightings of angels depend on the situation, such as protection against a car accident. “There are times you swing out and just miss a head-on collision where you could have been dead and I believe that an angel then protected you” (white Afrikaans, traditional church, 18-24 years old). The participants expressed the view that people who experience miracles are not different from other people and that miracles happen entirely because of the divine will of God. Although they believe that miracles are still happening today, they do not believe it is to the same extent as in biblical times.
Other accounts pertain to medical situations, such as a person becoming pregnant, legs growing, and recovery after a car accident.
- “My friend’s brother was in a horrific car accident and he was in a lot of pain and he had surgery and then they saw that there was a tear on his pancreas. They saw on the scan that it was torn and they would try to operate, but it was only a 50 percent chance, and then there could still be more complications. He was already a diabetic so the risks were more and then they opened him up and then it was only a bruise and I think that is a miracle. They said they will see how it goes but gave him no guarantees so I think that is a miracle” (white Afrikaans, traditional church, 18-24 years old).
- “Look, sometimes I think God can choose people on earth to give messages to others I think” (white Afrikaans, traditional church, 18-24 years old).
This group emphasized that the purpose for miracles is to deepen one’s relationship with God. The Christian worldview shared by all participants included existential and evaluative beliefs and values.
The different views of the groups regarding the miracles will now be discussed in order to clarify findings and their implications. The findings will be classified according to definition and acceptance of miracles, source and purpose of miracles as well as the contrasting comparison between the black and white South Africans. The implications of the limitations of the study will also be discussed.
- The definitions of what constitutes a miracle include the notion of a spiritual or supernatural intervention but the groups differ with respect to the range of events described as miracles.
- The participants of the black charismatic and traditional churches described a wide range of events as miracles including normal good events like finding a job and phenomena like speaking in tongues and forgiveness of sins in their definitions.
- The contrasting comparison to the white participants from the Afrikaans traditional churches indicate a similar view to miracles including smaller daily events like finding a parking space as well as more serious events such as healings.
- In contrast to these views the participants from the English charismatic churches limit miracles to life-changing events and distinguish these from daily positive events that are referred to as blessings.
- In contrast to the consistent belief in miracles from the black participants the participants from the white English traditional churches limited their definition of miracles to happenings of the impossible and a more skeptical view as well as a disbelief in miracles was expressed.
- Regarding the source and purpose of miracles the participants from the black charismatic churches expressed the belief that any spiritual source, even an evil source, can be responsible for a miracle although such a miracle will have a negative result. The purpose of a miracle is to increase faith.
- The participants from the black traditional churches relate miracles to the intervention of their ancestors and thus ancestors are seen as the source of the miracles. This view concurs with the traditional African worldview stating that ancestors act as protectors and mediators between humans and God or the Supreme Being.
- The contrasting comparison with the white South African Christians indicates that the participants from the Afrikaans traditional churches endorse a similar view as the black Christians from the charismatic churches. They believe that both God and Satan can be the source of miracles and that the purpose of God-given miracles is to lead the person closer to God.
- Despite the fact that the sample for the research was drawn from one African country, South Africa, the findings may hold for other sub-Saharan countries which is defined as “African” by Meyer, Moore and Viljoen (2003, 533-31) as both the overarching traditional African worldview and the Christian worldview prevail in the largest part of this region of Africa (Johnstone and Mandryk 2001, 19).
- All the black Christians indicate a strong belief in miracles where miracles are defined as positive experiences perceived as extraordinary and attributed to a supernatural or divine intervention. They also believe in miracles as defined as something good that happens regardless of its likelihood. As a group they have attributed miracles to supernatural interventions whether it was from God or another spirit. The belief in the role of the ancestors was expressed indicating a clear synthesis between the traditional African worldview and the Christian worldview.
- In contrast to the views expressed by the black Christians as a group the white Christian group as a whole didn’t endorse the belief in miracles either as positive experiences perceived as extraordinary and attributed to a supernatural intervention or as something good that happens regardless of its likelihood. Although the Christian worldview allows for the belief in miracles as divine interventions, skepticism and unbelief was expressed by the English Christians from the traditional churches.
In this chapter the traditional African worldview and its affect on the perception and interpretation of miracles by Africans have been explored. This investigation is supported by an exploratory qualitative study done in South Africa including black and white Christians. The results of this study indicated that the traditional African worldview, seen as a mystical world-view, serves a paradigm for Africans in their perception and experience of miracles. This worldview sets the stage for Africans to believe in and expect miracles to happen. The differences between the black and white Christian groups support this notion.
Although miracles are also acknowledged and experienced by white Christian South Africans, skepticism is more prevalent in this group than in the black group. No references to ancestors or other deities were made. Miracles are seen as purposeful interventions from God to bring a message to people, producing spiritual growth. The different perspectives on miracles expressed by the black South African Christians and the white South African Christians do indicate that one’s worldview directs the perception and interpretation of miracles.