David Chidester, formerly a Professor of Religion Studies at the University of Cape Town before his retirement, is a recognized authority in the field of religion and post-colonial theory (1). His work highlights the role that religion has had in power dynamics engendering challenges to social cohesion, especially across colonized peoples and cultures.
Understanding the relationship between colonialism and religion has, in Chidester’s view, significance for the academic study of religion as it enables scholars to better understand and communicate the cultural, social, and political history of their academic discipline.
Chidester’s book Savage Systems (1996) is an investigation of the entanglements of knowledge about religion with colonial military, political, and social forces, notably in the contact between these forces and the colonized cultures and peoples of Southern Africa. Chidester has explored similar ideas at length elsewhere over the duration of his career (2).
An interesting study is his analysis of the dreams of the Zulu people of South Africa living in “contact zones” (i.e. spaces in which cultures exist in the presence of intercultural engagements shaped by unequal power relations brought on by colonization and colonial administration). Chidester attempts to show that the religious dreams of the Zulus were “radically disrupted” by and under colonial conditions (3). Colonialism, says Chidester, became “an integral part of the stuff that indigenous dreams were made of.”
In Savage Systems and Empire of Religion (2014), Chidester critically examines religion has studied colonial history by interrogating its terminology such as “primitive” and “savage” used in the works of prominent historical theorists of religion in European imperial centers. In the Zulu dream analysis, anthropologist E. B. Tylor’s (1832-1917) animistic theory of religion is a primary target.
Triple mediation is a manner of articulating the process by which imperial theorists on religion derived indigenous data through colonial “middlemen” (4). Chidester has applied this formula to the Southern African context to elucidate the construction of indigenous religion. As implied, this theory identifies three phases or stages of mediation in the accumulation and construction of theories of religion.
The first phase refers to how Africans “on the colonized periphery were drawn into this process as informants—often as collaborators, sometimes as authors —as they reported on religious innovations, arguments, and contradictions in colonial contexts.” An example of the Zulu informant Mpengula Mbande is relevant because he reported arguments surrounding the “Great, Great One” called uNkulunkulu (the first ancestor or the supreme god who created all human beings) to the colonial middlemen.
The second phase of mediation refers to how local European “experts” on the colonized periphery synthesized these religious conflicts and contradictions into a “religious system”. Henry Callaway, a nineteenth-century Anglican missionary, became the leading authority on Zulu religion, as apparent in the publishing of his The Religious System of the Amazulu (1868-1870).
One of the most important theorists in the historical development of the academic study of religion, Friedrich Max Müller, relied upon colonial middlemen such as Callaway to provide data for the study. Callaway’s account of Zulu religion was crucial to Max Müller’s theory and contributed to his conceptualization of religion being the apprehension of “the Infinite” based upon data on uNkulunkulu.
In the third phase of mediation, the data provided to them were examined and dissected by metropolitan theorists who had an interest in demonstrating their own cultural, religious, and/or ideological superiority. This was mediation between the perceived “primitive” ancestors of humanity, “who could supposedly be viewed in the mirror of the Zulu and other “savages” on the colonized peripheries of empire, and the “civilized” European.”
What was construed as a religious system in the colony was taken apart and reassembled in London and manufactured into theory for an emerging academic study of religion. Such data were used to inform evolutionary progression from the primitive to the civilized, with Europeans placing themselves on the top of this ladder and therefore on the superior stage of development.
In some instances, colonizers claimed to know the colonized better than the colonized knew themselves, which suggests a self-perception as having a higher order of cognition. Much of this process, particularly in Southern Africa, was directed toward containment and drawing boundaries around religions, cultures, and populations.
Significance in the Study of Religion
Chidester maintains that this process of mediation raises important questions for scholars of religion. Scholars have increasingly realized that much of the theoretical knowledge about religion has come down through colonial incursions, imperial ambitions, and the financial support of governmental or quasi-governmental institutions; Chidester asks,
“What do we do with this information? How might historical inquiry into the colonial contexts of our “primitive” texts affect our understanding of the cultural, social, and political history of the study of religion?” (5)
Chidester maintains that answering these questions is not only crucial “for our understanding of the history of the study of religion, as history, but also for our work in the description, interpretation, explanation, and analysis of religion in the present” (6).
Chidester has offered suggestions for scholars of religion. In his article Worldview Analysis of African Indigenous Churches (1989), he claims that the study of religion should avoid unreflective generalizations. Broad generalizations about worldviews have served the “imperial project” of domination, which is a distinctly dehumanizing enterprise because it sustains an “us” versus “them” approach where the other is neglected, subjected, dominated, and excluded.
1. UCT Department of Religious Studies. Emeritus Professor David Chidester. Available.
2. Chidester, David. 2018. “David Chidester Publications (1982-2018).” Journal for the Study of Religion 31(2):280-293.
3. Chidester, David. 2008. “Dreaming in the Contact Zone: Zulu Dreams, Visions, and Religion in Nineteenth-Century South Africa.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 76(1):27-53.
4. Chidester, David. 2003. “Primitive Texts, Savage Contexts: Contextualizing the Study of Religion in Colonial Situations.” Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 15(3):272-283. p. 275-276.
5. Chidester, David. 2003. Ibid. p. 275.
6. Chidester, David. 2003. Ibid. p. 273.