Why, why, why?

In his excellent book about Ghanaian culture entitled Ghana in Retrospect, Peter Sarpong dedicates a chapter to Ghanaians’ belief in the supernatural. He tells an imaginary story of two schoolboys killed by a falling tree while walking to school. He notes that scientific Westerners would explain the event by noting that recent heavy rains had loosened the tree’s roots. He says that Ghanaians might accept that explanation all while seeking a supernatural explanation beyond it. They do that by repeatedly asking why. Why were the boys walking by the tree at the moment it fell? Why didn’t the tree fall earlier, or later? Why did the boys take that route to their school? Why were the boys walking together? Why didn’t they see it starting to fall and run away? Why did the heavy rains come? And so on.

If you keep asking why about an event, you will eventually come to the end of scientific explanations, at least the obvious ones. At that point, many Ghanaians will insert a supernatural explanation, says Sarpong. Perhaps a witch cast a spell at the behest of an enemy of the family.

The thing is, this is not as strange as it seems to Westerners. Let me illustrate.

On November 2, 2001 America Airlines flight 587 crashed in New York after encountering wake turbulence from the airplane in front of it. Crash investigators asked why. Early in the investigation, the vertical stabilizer (tail fin) was found some distance before the crash site, indicating that it broke off first and that caused the crash. So the investigators asked why it broke off. An examination showed that the attachments had broken. So the investigators asked why they broke. Further examination showed they were not corroded or weakened nor was the wake turbulence strong enough to shear them off. So they asked why there was such great force applied to the stabilizer. The black box revealed that the pilot had moved the rudder all the way back and forth quickly while the plane was at speed, resulting in stresses that far exceeded design limits, causing the attachments to fail and the vertical stabilizer to break off crashing the plane. But the investigators still asked why. Why did the pilot move the rudder so violently? They found that he learned it in his training, where instructors recommended it to counter wake turbulence. And so the investigation ended with changes in the training.

Even in as rigorous an endeavor as air crash investigation, it is important to keep asking why – to not settle for the first second or third explanation. It seems that the Ghanaian approach of asking why beyond the first natural explanation has good precedence. By the way, the crash investigators did not ask why the training was as it was. I wonder.

Also, if many pilots received the same training, why wasn’t there a crash sooner? Or why wasn’t there a non-fatal incident that revealed the flawed training? One that bent the attachments rather than shearing them off, for example. The crash investigation neither asked nor answered any of these why questions.

In light of these observations, I think that it is a mistake to simply write off Ghanaian beliefs by labeling them superstition. By admitting that their why questions have some rational basis, we keep ourselves from smug superiority and condescension; things that would severely limit the impact of our ministry. Besides, admitting that there is some rational basis does not imply that the beliefs are right, aligned with the Bible or helpful. On the other hand, it does admit that there are some questions beyond science, and that is an open door to the message of the Bible.