Pluralism in a Christianized Nation: The Challenge of Occultism

[1]This week there was a report of occultism being practiced in Wesley Girls High School in Cape Coast. According to later reports it was not “occultism” but a certain book titled “The Ministry of Angels and how to activate them” that was circulating among students. The book was confiscated and students were searched for similar kinds of material and they were all warned against it. Since Wesley Girls is a flagship school it is alarming for many that such kind of practices had allegedly been found there. Most people, prominently worried parents, are calling for occultism to be flushed out of secondary and tertiary institutions. Obviously this is a perennial issue that rears its head from time to time. However, media coverage and public discussion has lacked nuance. There are several things going on we need to break down.

Now the terms cult and occult have been thrown around in the public square regarding this and other issues. However, no one has gone to the trouble to actually give proper definitions of what these things are. According to Dr Charles Branden,

[2]By the term cult I mean nothing derogatory to any group so classified. A cult, as I define it, is any religious group which differs significantly in one or more respects as to belief or practice from those religious groups which are regarded as the normative expressions of religion in our total culture.

[3]In modern sociology groups that deviate from the social norm are also considered as cults. A related term is the “sect.” A sect is basically another name for a denomination. They are groups that have not sufficiently deviated enough to be considered a cult, that is, a new faith on its own. Now the occult is a much trickier term to define. It comes from the Latin which means hidden. In the English language it is normally associated with paranormal and esoteric activities such as magic, divination, extra-sensory perception, spiritualism, astrology etc. The problem with these terms is knowing where one ends and the other begins. For instance what differentiates a sect enough to be considered a cult? Also occult practices are integral to many religious faiths. Religion is itself notoriously hard to define in comparative religion studies and sociology. Some even argue that occultism is the oldest religion in the world hence somethings we might call religion today arre an off shoot of occultism. (I personally have written on the Biblical view of the occult.) These distinctions and similarities in the definitions are not merely academic. They present some interesting challenges.

The culture wars in the United States are pretty pronounced. Here too I believe we are being faced with loosely similar tensions but in very different sociocultural setting. The tension I am talking about is between faith and secularism. Ghana is a secular state. Even though the overwhelming majority of Ghanaians are theists (believe in a god), the Republic has no official religion. We live in a pluralistic society where different ideas and ways of thinking abound and are protected by the laws of the land. Therefore, no matter a person’s faith or religion, that individual is free to practice it so far as it does not violate another citizen’s rights and freedoms. Though many are calling for the eradication of the occult do they have the constitutional right to do so?

In the milieu of Ghanaian society this is indeed a complex issue. On a constitutional level occultism cannot be banned. This is a fact we all need to acknowledge, even those of us who really dislike it. However, even the highest law of the land must be socially relevant. From the public outcry it is evident that occultism is not popular. With “sakawa” schemes and other ritualistic activity done with immoral intent, many feel occultism is a threat to the fabric of society. Yet, in our daily lives the presence of the occult is very strong.

The average Ghanaian holds there are supernatural forces out there some of which are used in the occult. Occult practices are common in our film and television. If art imitates life this may be a strong hint that the occult might not be as abhorrent as we habitually claim. What was unheard of years ago is common place where various occult practitioners freely advertise on billboards, radio and television and even on social media. Some are even wealthy celebrities. Clearly, it is not the case that every member of modern Ghanaian society thinks it is harmful. The practitioners themselves may not self-identify as occultists since the word often carries negative connotations and may even have good intentions.

Now the Ghana Educational Service (GES) is a governmental institution. Apart from it being unlawful for it to ban occultism as a governmental body, it is paradoxical. As I said we are in a pluralistic society and at certain key state functions Christian, Muslim and traditional religious prayers are offered. Most Christians (some Muslims as well) would consider traditional religions as occult at least in some aspects. I believe it is Christians, or cultural Christians at least, who wish to oppose occultism. but they do not express any discomfort with the open displays of traditional religions at the national level. The general Christian response in this country has been uninformed, contradictory at best and deeply problematic at worst.

Wesley Girls is under the Ghana Education Service. I acknowledge that the school does have a deep and rich Methodist tradition. The headmistress’s response to this issue raises a lot of questions. On a legal level does she have the right? I have a little sister who is a candidate for the school. According to the school selection system nothing prevents any Basic Education Certificate Examination candidate from selecting the school. Therefore all girls no matter their religious orientation are viable candidates. This means in spite of the unabashedly Methodist influence, they cannot prevent anyone from practicing their religious beliefs so long as it does not contravene school and GES rules. I do not see how reading a book which may or may not contain occult material violates any regulation. Now later on according to the school, the problem was not that the book in question contained occult material but that it had sectarian material. That is it had certain views on Christianity they disagreed with.

As far as I can tell the book is probably from the Word of Faith movement (WOFM.) (There is a lot on “using” angels in  WOFM circles from several prominent figures.) WOFM is brand of Charismatic Christianity pioneered by E.W. Kenyon and espoused and popularized by Kenneth E. Hagin. It can be loosely called a sect or even a denomination. One of its most well-known contemporary faces is Benny Hinn. Chris Oyakhilome (aka Pastor Chris) is it’s best known African proponent. By these names one can tell it has a popular following in mainstream Christianity especially in Pentecostal/Charismatic churches. As a Methodist she might have disagreed with the book on a theological basis. Personally, I strongly disagree with WOFM theology but for probably very different reasons. Theologically and morally she does not need to show support for it in anyway. However, is it right for her to use her authority to ban things she does not doctrinally accept much more in a secular institution?

Some might argue that the school is a Methodist institution but it is ultimately subject to the GES and not the Methodist Church Ghana. Of course this is one of many cases in schools where I believe religious freedom and freedom of association is being potentially hampered. Having been through various church schools I realise the relationship between the Church and the State is often poorly defined.  The Church has been instrumental in education in this country and I am not advocating for her to leave it solely to the state. My problem is that the Christian public, even though it is very vocal, has not carefully thought through these issues. We might have the majority vote now but when these matters one day undoubtedly surface in the courtroom we might be left flat footed. The Church in Ghana is yet to fully grasp what it means to live in a secular state and we need better ways of addressing such issues.

In the United States it seems the Church was unprepared to meet the ramifications of a pluralised secular society. Of course the Christian worldview gave birth to American society and ideas like rights and freedoms can only be guaranteed in that worldview. Now the Church there has been shocked by its quickly devaluing cultural currency. This is pushing the American people towards a dangerous future as they zealously saw the Christian branch on which they sit. The Church there is battling valiantly but they were caught by surprise. We must learn from what has happened in Western societies and provide better answers and more importantly ask the right questions. We need to act pre-emptively.

From the headmistress’s reaction it demonstrates a deeper problem regarding Christian unity. The Church does not know the right way to disagree. Christian unity does not necessarily mean uniformity. She dismissed something she disagreed with theologically and invariably imposed her view on others. I am not saying for the sake of unity we should compromise on doctrine. That kind of unity is a farce. However we must recognize Christianity has never been monolithic. People who have differing views are often demonized however many of them are legitimate members of the body of Christ. Differences should not always be seen as challenges to unity or authority. We need to see them as opportunities to engage with, clarify and even learn by debating with contrary ideologies. We need not alienate one another because we see things differently. We need to commit to the truth and dialogue until we arrive at the former.

The Christian worldview does not impose itself on others in any way. We need to recognize Christianity permits others to disagree and even have internal differences so long as it does not compromise on unity, holiness or the truth. The moment we do not allow others to be different we undermine our own values since the Gospel is such a counter intuitive message itself. We duly recognize that ideas and ways of thinking have consequences. We need to be wary of this and find a more nuanced response, informed by the Gospel, culturally relevant, and respects the law, to address occultism and every other differing ideology or worldview.

[1] http://tv3network.com/all-news/education/ges-denies-occultism-at-wesley-girls.html

[2] Martin W., The Kingdom of the Cults (Revised), pp 17, Bethany House Publishers, 1997.

[3] Stark R., The Rise of Christianity, pp 33-34, Harper Collins, 1997.

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