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The spiritual is political: Blurring boundaries and challenging assumptions in religion and development

Date:09 December 2015
Author:Religion Factor
A mother and her baby at one of the health clinics in Lupane ADP, Zimbabwe. Photo: Brenda Bartelink
A mother and her baby at one of the health clinics in Lupane ADP, Zimbabwe. Photo: Brenda Bartelink

Researchers at the CRCPD recently concluded a one-year NWO-funded pilot project exploring the entanglement of personal religious and spiritual transformation with broader processes of social transformation in developing contexts. The project was a collaboration with the Knowledge Centre Religion and Development and World Vision International and included field research amongst communities and World Vision staff in Zimbabwe, and a workshop with academics and practitioners in The Hague in June of this year. In this post, Erin Wilson and Brenda Bartelink provide a summary overview of the project and its preliminary findings.[1],[2]

Across academia, policy and practice there is growing interest in religion and its significance within the development sector and so-called developing communities.[3] Yet exactly how and why religion matters remains an underexplored issue in each of these different contexts. Often academics, policymakers and practitioners will focus on the influence of religious leaders on politics and public life, on the role of churches, mosques and temples as meeting places in the community, providing safe spaces for people to share ideas and learning, as networks of volunteers that provide support for development initiatives on healthcare, education, child protection, microfinance, to name a few.[4] Much of this interest in religion, however, is highly “secularized”, in the sense that it focuses on the material and instrumental influence and relevance of religious actors and perspectives.[5] There is almost no consideration of the impact of spirituality, belief, religious experience and practice on community transformation.[6] This is in part also reflective of a neglect of the interconnections between personal and communal transformation in development – social transformation does not just “happen”: it is a complex process, driven intentionally and unintentionally by decisions and actions of individuals and communities. Yet, religion, including personal experiences of religious and spiritual transformation, is often part of those processes and decisions.

The project

In our project, we sought to explore these themes further – how and why do religion and spirituality matter in development? What are the interconnections between individual and social transformation and what role does spirituality play in personal and social transformations? How can understandings of and reflections on individual, personal experiences of religious and spiritual transformation be incorporated in and contribute to the development of more religious-sensitive policymaking and practice within traditionally secular development institutions and approaches? To be clear, the project was not about  whether  spirituality matters or not. This is something that numerous faith-based agencies, actors and members of communities in developing contexts attest to, in varying degrees. Given the difficulties with “measuring” something as intangible as spirituality, and also as part of a broader effort to take seriously the worldviews and ontologies for people and communities for whom the spiritual, the divine, the religious, the sacred, constitute a real and significant plane of action and agency,[7] in this project we focused on how and why spirituality matters, developing and experimenting with different theoretical and methodological approaches to research this. We conducted small scale field research including semi-structured and biographical narrative interviews and some additional participant observation amongst communities in Southern and Eastern Africa who had participated in the World Vision International Channels of Hope (CoH) program to understand how they experience and narrate transformation.

The aim of CoH is: to mobilise and assist ‘faith communities’ to gain the knowledge, skills and attitudes that will lead to defeat of stigma and to respond to the care, support and prevention needs within their congregations and communities. CoH consists of various curricula related to critical issues in local communities: HIV/AIDS, gender, maternal and child health, child protection and ebola. For our research, we focused mainly on the gender, HIV and maternal new-born and child health programs.

The research project grew out of a discussion between World Vision International, the Knowledge Centre Religion and Development and the CRCPD regarding the reasons why CoH ‘works’, in terms of affecting personal transformation that contributes to broader social change on issues of gender equality, stigmatization on sensitive issues such as HIV/AIDS, sexual and reproductive health and rights. This grew into collaboration between the three organizations on a (successful) application to NWO, attempting to address two key issues that we identified from both a scholarly and a practitioner perspective:

  1. How change occurs.  While engagement with religion is a critical component of CoH’s effectiveness, little is known about how the shift in attitudes occurs. Faith leaders do not change their religion, yet their theological views towards these five issues (HIV/AIDS, Gender, Maternal Newborn and Child Health, Child protection and Ebola) alter dramatically as a result of the CoH workshop, shifting from judgment to compassion.
  2. The significance of religion.  Many scholars and practitioners recognize that faith is important in development, yet why and how it matters is still under-explored. By gathering insights from people who have first-hand experience of the program, we sought to gain more nuanced understanding from the grassroots community perspective of why religion matters.

The project was designed to be a pilot project to explore these issues and determine whether there is sufficient justification to explore them across additional cases.

The results

In general the accounts of people who had participated in the CoH workshops and/or subsequent community activities were highly appreciative of the various elements in the methodology; in particular about the (evidence-based) information about maternal and child health, gender roles and relationships, transmission of disease and health and safety information, and about the consultation of the Bible regarding these same issues. What is important to note here is that practical, evidence-based information about each of the issues that CoH addresses is combined with religious teaching. This represents a “both/and” approach to these societal issues – combining mainstream “secular” scientific evidence-based information and training with religious scripture and doctrine.

The frequent references to scripture by our interlocutors and the appreciation of CoH participants for the use of scriptures appear first and foremost as building people’s trust and convincing them to review their understanding of maternal and new-born child health and gender issues and alter their behaviours on these issues. Religion and spirituality therefore appeared to be a key component in achieving development goals in these communities. The question is how to understand and acknowledge what religion and spirituality meant in the process of development. First of all, we suggest that references to faith and the scriptures are a ‘language’ or ‘narrative’ that people in faith communities use that is meaningful to them and has authority. Further, for our informants, religion is not simply a tool to be used in the achievement of secular development goals but is significant in its own right. It is this aspect of religion’s significance that, we suggest, needs to be more fully appreciated by secular governments and development agencies. Religion should not simply be “instrumentalized” or “operationalized” for the achievement of development goals or foreign policy goals, but the nuances, practices, experiences and perspectives of people on the ground need to be taken seriously.

By way of an example, a woman from Lupane ADP in Zimbabwe told us that the CoH programme had brought ‘spiritual growth and change of behaviour in the community’. The element of spiritual growth appears to have been important enough for her to mention it alongside behaviour change, indicating that religion is not merely instrumental but indeed central in the change this woman and her community experienced. A male participant in a group interview in Lupane ADP referred to Joseph, the fiancée of Mary when she was told she was pregnant with the son of God by the archangel Gabriel. The story of Joseph according to Luke 2:1-7 as it is discussed in CoH, highlights that Joseph initially refused to accept Mary once she was pregnant because he could not be the father. Yet our interlocutor explained:

‘the Holy Spirit touched him, he was able to support Mary. (…) Joseph was there, he was there through the birth processes and even accompanied them to Egypt (…) If Joseph can do it, why can’t we?’

For this interlocutor, the Biblical role model was an important source of inspiration.

Referring to the same Bible story, a man in a single interview in Lupane emphasized that  ‘it really touched me’… the pregnancy of Mary, the birth of Jesus, the situation in which the Saviour was born (…) it’s really something that touched my heart’.

This is not to suggest that the narratives of religious and spiritual transformation were the most significant or more important than societal changes. Indeed, most of our interviewees stressed the changes in the community and the importance of the practical knowledge they had gained. Nonetheless, the narratives of spiritual transformation were a significant component of the interview responses and bound up with their understanding and appreciation of social development.

Gender binaries and religious leadership

In addition we suggest that in order to understand what spiritual transformation means in the context of development, understandings of (religious) leadership and its gender dimensions need to be further explored. As mentioned in the introduction renewed interest in religion in the context of international development over the past decade has tended to focus on the role of religious leaders in promoting development and the values associated with it. While religious leaders have been championed for their leadership on social justice and climate change issues, the roles religious leaders and institutions play in relation to more sensitive ethical issues around gender, sexuality and reproductive health have been seen as much more ambiguous. This has influenced policymakers to assert the ‘otherness’ of religious thought and leadership alongside stressing the necessity for dialogue and exchange in international fora, but it has also influenced Christian agencies such as World Vision to empower religious leaders to address sensitive issues around gender, maternal and new-born child health in religious communities.

All interlocutors –those who participated in the CoH workshops and those who did not- emphasized the authority of faith leaders in the community. Some emphasized this authority alongside other authorities, for example government leaders, traditional leaders and village heads, while others would argue that religious leaders were most important.

Informants emphasised the importance of CoH’s spiritual elements in two ways. Firstly, the direct relations between maternal and new-born child health issues and Biblical scriptures enabled pastors to link concerns with the health of women and children to their ministries as preachers. A male faith leader in the rural community of Lupane, Zimbabwe explained:

‘In the workshop there were so many scriptures, but the ones that touched me was the pregnancy of Mary, the birth of Jesus, the situation in which the saviour was born. I use the scripture now to stress some points with regard to MNCH, for example the importance of the father’s involvement when his wife is pregnant. I tell them: ‘you need to assist, help in whatever.’’

Secondly, faith leaders stressed that the Scriptures referred to in CoH convinced them to put their faith into practice. Upon our question what their reception of the spiritual and scriptural elements of the CoH workshop was, a male pastor in the semi-urban community of Robert Sinyoka in Zimbabwe said: ‘I very much appreciate it. It taught me that `God wants people to have a new life or to heal, because Jesus healed as well. The hospital is thus a place where God works’. He also added that this information was: ‘Not new as such, but one thing that is unique is the practicality, how to contextualize faith into real situations.’ A faith leader in Lupane ADP emphasized that the most important lesson learned during the CoH workshop was:

‘…in spiritual terms? That you cannot preach unless you put it into practice! It is more appreciated when you practice than when you just preach. Now to me, it’s really something that touched my heart, it’s something that is clear, that cannot be argued about.’

An interesting feature of this attention is that male church leaders, in particular, stressed this quite early in the interviews. The spiritual elements in the programmes seemed to convince them to change their views and behaviours, motivating them to take up a more practical role in promoting women’s and children’s health. Yet in all communities we have met women who developed their leadership on gender and maternal and child health issues in a practical way. For them CoH offered a possibility of linking to spiritual and scriptural issues as well as the necessary recognition of their crucial roles in the community. This may be related to another observation, that some of the male interviewees were clergy or had more formal church leadership roles such as preacher and pastor. Our female informants were more often lay leaders at church groups.

These observations raise further questions on how leadership is understood in relation to religion and gender by secular and faith-based development actors, and point at a need for critical reflection on how gender binaries may be reinforced or strengthened (or altered and changed for that matter) in efforts to cooperate with religious leaders around issues of gender and maternal and child health. Pursuing such a research programme should necessarily include a deep understanding of how spiritual transformation is linked to social transformation of gender relations.

Although the research remains a pilot project, our findings provide useful points of departure for our own future research and we hope for others interested in these questions as well.

Erin Wilson is the Director of the Centre for Religion, Conflict and the Public Domain, Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies, University of Groningen  

Brenda Bartelink is Programme Officer, Knowledge Center Religion and Development, Stichting Oikos, and Fellow of the CRCPD.

[1] This blog post is a summary of the main findings of the report  Spirituality as a Conduit for Social Transformation? Rethinking Secular and Religious Assumptions in Development Practice . The executive summary of this report is available at with the full report to be published soon. You can find out more information about the project methodology, data and findings via this report.

[2] We would like to thank Renee Wagenvoorde for helpful comments on earlier versions of this post

[3] B. Jones and M. Juul Petersen. 2011. “Instrumental, Narrow, Normative? Reviewing recent work on religion and development”  Third World Quarterly  32(7), p1292

[4]  Ibid,  pp1296-1300

[5] Karam, Azza. 2012.  Religion, Development and the United Nations . Social Science Research Council Report. New York: Social Science Research Council. Available at Accessed 13 August 2015, pp10-11, 20

[6] Ager, Alastair and Joey Ager. 2011. ‘Faith and the Discourse of Secular Humanitarianism’  Journal of Refugee Studies  24(3): 456-472

[7] M. Blaser. 2013. “Ontological Conflicts and the Stories of Peoples in Spite of Europe: Toward a Conversation on Political Ontology”  Current Anthropology  54(5): 547-568; Conway, Janet M. 2013.  Edges of Global Justice: The World Social Forum and Its ‘Others’ . London and New York: Routledge; Daulatzai, Anila. 2004. ‘A leap of faith: thoughts on secularistic practices and progressive politics’  International Social Science Journal  182: 565-76; Santos, Boaventura De Sousa. 2005. ‘General Introduction: Reinventing Social Emancipation: Toward New Manifestos’ in De Sousa Santos, Boaventura (ed).  Democratizing Democracy: Beyond the Liberal Democratic Canon . London: Verso, pp xvii-xxxiii; Santos, Boaventura De Sousa. 2014.  Epistemologies of the South: Justice Against Epistemicide . Boulder, Colorado, USA: Paradigm Publishers


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