This week I heard a prominent Ghanaian preacher and motivational speaker railing against The Big Bang theory and evolution by natural selection as false and a figment of scientist’s imagination to deny God’s existence. Of course I wasn’t surprised by this, knowing the conservative nature of Ghanaian Christianity, which inevitably defaults to the view that science is against God. This preacher has also been known to be critical of African political leadership and governments (not just the current Ghanaian government) and seems to have dedicated himself and his church to the mission of equipping and encouraging an entrepreneurial spirit within the Ghanaian Christian community, so they can be rid of dependence on political leadership. This he intends to achieve via the medium of motivational speaking, constantly using the bible to teach people to discover their own personal potentials for success in life, and creating conferences and events to do same.
This style of preaching has appealed a lot to the young, middle to upper class Ghanaians, who fancy themselves on a path of upward mobility – of living the Ghanaian version of “the American dream”. In fact it has become a standard gauge by which large numbers of Ghanaian middle class people gauge preachers , and in certain circles of Christianity, that is virtually all that is preached – how one can be a personal success. Which is why I’m going to take a lot of flak for this post because I’m questioning someone who is almost revered in Ghanaian circles for his “wisdom”. But needs must.
Evolution By Natural Selection
So what is evolution by natural selection? Well, speaking from a lay man’s perspective, Charles Darwin proposed a theory in 1859 through his publication “On the Origin of Species” that living beings evolved different features of themselves by adapting to the environment in which they found themselves over thousands of years as a means of survival. In essence then, failure to adapt would lead to extinction. Someone described his theory as “the survival of the fittest”, and Darwin accepted it as a good description of his theory, and so the term stuck with us to this day. It is the foremost scientific theory today to explain how we all got here.
The Christian Response to Darwin
Of course this challenges the common Christian perception that all creation, including human beings were created through God calling them into being out of nothing, and not through a process of adaptation and evolution. Hence Darwin’s theory has not gone down well with many Christians and has been met with open hostility, including the perception that science is out to discredit the Bible. Whether that is the case and whether this hostility is warranted or not is not the point of this post.
What is more worrying however, is that the more I listen to motivational preachers (at least the Ghanaian ones), the more I find them in line with the principles of natural selection, despite the fact that they vehemently deny it scientifically. Unintentionally, they promote Social Darwinianism, an economic theory which posits that the strong should see their wealth increase whiles the weak should see theirs decrease. Let me explain.
Everybody for Themselves, God for Us All
At the heart of motivational teaching is the individual. Motivational teachers focus on inspiring the individual to attain their highest possible potential. Though they deny it, the attainment of such potential is inevitably measured in terms of attaining success in one’s chosen career, increasing one’s ABC’s (attendance, buildings and cash) if one is a preacher, being a successful entrepreneur, having a good marriage and well behaved children in good schools, being a leader in one’s field (work, politics) and a lot more.
As with everybody else who reads the bible with a filter, their filter is one of discovering “principles” that can be applied by the individual in pursuit of these goals (I once met a Christian who said that all one needs to do is read the book of Proverbs and one will be “successful” in life). Therefore proof-texting i.e. picking texts out of their historical and textual contexts is the order of the day.
Because their measures of success are not very different from the world’s own, it’s not surprising to find a lot of business ethics taught by secular business coaches being preached from the pulpits of such preachers in the name of motivational preaching. As a Ghanaian musical critic, Koda, mentioned in his song “Nsem Pii”, one wonders if one is in a business school or in a church when such secular business ethics are being taught as “keys to success” for Christians.
As a result of the above mentioned point then, there is a lot of appeal to secular heroes, especially in the world of business and politics, to drive home their point. Fused with a modernist desire to see more “progressive” society, there’s a constant appeal to societies that are considered to be “progressive” ones, and in the Ghanaian case, Europe and America is the constant benchmark. Our African context can produce very little good, and a gloomy picture is inadvertently painted about us as a failed people and the West as the best thing since sliced bread.
And when all of this is then fused with a teaching derived from the bible that one needs to “sow a seed” to make these kinds of “success” show up in one’s life, it forms a potent and explosive mixture whose appeal cannot be resisted, especially by the middle class who seek more than they already have, and who can afford to “sow” such seeds.
Everything then boils down to the individual and their ability to appropriate these “principles” to make these things happen in their lives (coupled with exercising the right amount of positive-mindedness, appropriately labeled “faith”, and of course to tip God’s hand with a “seed” or two). In the grand scheme of things then, this is a more polished version of “Everybody for himself, God for us all”. They simply are giving people the tools to do the “Everybody for himself” part of that statement.
Why Motivational Teaching is Dangerous
Here are just a few of the reasons why motivational teaching in church is so dangerous.
At the core of motivational teaching is the individual and their own self-fulfillment. At the core of the Gospel is Jesus and his church. Therefore although motivational teaching may appeal to Jesus or the bible, it’s fundamentally flawed orientation means Jesus only becomes a means to an end – each individual’s own ambitions are glorified as what God desires for them aka “success”.
Motivational teaching has very little impact on systemic evil. Protestant Christianity in general has had a very poor self-understanding of the church community as God’s means of standing up against evil, primarily because the Gospel has been posed as a means of individual salvation for centuries upon centuries. This has led to its participation in violence, racism, slavery, sexism, segregation etc without even thinking twice, because “it’s all about how one gets one’s personal ticket to heaven”. Caught in this historic trap, simply teaching individuals to live up to their own personal potentials means their scope of vision is limited to what they can do as individuals about any situation, not how they can lay down their personal ambitions to work with each other for God’s ambition he has defined for his church.
Because one’s personal ambitions become synonymous with what God wants, motivational teaching leads to a greater pursuit of independence, not dependence (despite the 58 “one anothers” in the New Testament). Even when one feels the need for dependence, it unwittingly drives its adherents towards seeking relationships that will only enable them to achieve their personal ambitions – which means the rich will seek relationships with the rich, ignoring to be with those for whom there’s no obvious benefit being in a relationship with aka the poor, uneducated etc as modeled by Jesus. In the end, motivational teaching furthers segregation.
Motivational teaching assumes homogeneity. Even though it’s teachers claim that we are all not the same and must each fulfill our own destinies, it still works with the assumption that we all begin with the same set of opportunities. Therefore it assumes that once a person does “enough” – where “enough” can be “enough hard work”, “enough smart thinking” or “enough positive thinking” etc, one can “be a success”. It fails to recognize privilege – that some people are more predisposed to “success” than others simply by virtue of where they come from, what education they’ve received, the social connections that their parents have that they can tap into, the environment created for them during their childhood to flourish in, the abuse that one may have suffered growing up which may have created some handicaps etc.
Because of the assumption of homogeneity, its individualism and confusion over the task of the church, motivational teaching and its adherents take very little practical steps to work at elevating those who are less privileged, in contrast to Paul’s statements in the New Testament that “the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty” (1 Cor 12:23). Despite all the “wisdom” coming from the pulpits of our leading “motivationalists”, have they wondered why the poor, uneducated Ghanaian doesn’t come to their church to receive such “wisdom”, and yet go to those they claim are “charlatans” to be deceived and abused? Have they wondered if perhaps their message and their practice actually only works for those who are already on the upward drive, and not for “the least of these” that Jesus spent the most of his time with in 1st Century Galilee and Judaea?
Motivational teaching makes heroes of secular people, whiles leaving Jesus’s own example of self-sacrifice for the other behind. The problem of finding our examples and way of life from elsewhere instead of from Jesus is a long-standing problem in the church, but in motivational teaching this is magnified to gargantuan proportions. It is so bad that it swallows bare-faced capitalism hook, line and sinker without any form of discernment. I don’t need to be detailed on this one. Just listen to most motivational speakers and you’ll see no difference between their view of life and that of notable capitalist business moguls. And yet when Mary was told she was to give birth to the Messiah, she sang “He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty” (Lk 1:53). That’s some pretty strong stuff.
For me there is some dissonance between the loud protestations against Darwinian evolution and the modern day “motivational preaching” movement. Because at the end of the day, no matter the protestations of this movement, their teaching is all about the survival of the fittest – about how one’s personal “potential” is king and one’s survival, along with one’s family is paramount. And what could be a more apt description of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection than this?
And maybe the reason why most of us middle to upper class Ghanaians have bought into it wholeheartedly is that we’ve fallen into the trap that prevents us from reading Genesis 1-4 not as a statement against evolution, but rather as a reminder never to get to the place where we respond to God, as Cain did, “Am I my brother’s keeper”?