Neither economic strength nor political support will guarantee the future of Christianity in Africa. Its salvation lies in Africanising the faith, argues Dr John Wijngaards.

Africanising Christian Theology
Africa Events, Vol I No. 8, August 1985

When Pope John Paul II visited Zaire in 1982 he praised African culture on more than one occasion. But his deeds did not match his words. The characteristic rite of Zairean worship was barred from the Papal Mass in Kinshasa, presumably under pressure of the Vatican and the Papal Nunciature. Both theologians and Church leaders felt hurt.

The Zairean Bishops went to Rome that same year to meet the Pope again. Their spokesman, Kabanga Songasonga, Archbishop of Lubumbashi, raised the issue pointblank requesting support for a specifically African theology. “The search for an authentic African theology”, Pope John Paul replied, a theology adapted to the cultural and historical conditions of specific countries, is the expression of a legitimate pluriformity in matters of worship and Church discipline”. Such a theology, he contended, should safeguard the centrality of Christ, the hierarchical character of the Church and the sacramental power of ordained priests. By this response in a carefully prepared statement John Paul became the first Pope to mention and acknowledge the need of “African theology”. The implications are enormous.

In the year 2000 the African continent may well account for more than 350 million Christians. They will make upwards of 40% of its population. Indeed, if the Christian mission of the past hundred years is measured in numbers of baptisms and Church membership, as the viability of a new product by the number of copies sold, then it has been successful no doubt. Africa has’ bought Christianity and made it one of its chief religions. But such figures are deceptive. Church leaders such as John Paul know only too well that statistics of’ Church attendance can change dramatically even within one decade. In adverse conditions whole generations of Christians can be lost if their religious faith is not solidly rooted in personal conviction and cultural practice. What looks like a flourishing Christian community now may be wiped out in a number of years, much as an oasis with lush green vegetation can be obliterated by the sands of the Sahara.

The durability of Christian faith will not depend on its network of schools, parishes, hospitals and other institutions. Economic strength and even political support will not guarantee its future. The permanence of Christianity will stand or fall on the question whether it has become truly African: whether Africans have made Christian ideas part of their own thinking, whether Africans feel that the Christian vision of life fulfils their own needs, whether the Christian world view has become part of truly African aspirations.
For this is the. crucial question facing Christianity today: has it truly succeeded to strike roots in African soil, in spite of its numbers? Professor Busia of Ghana raised the alarm as far back as 1954 when he stated that many conversions to Christianity were in danger of remaining superficial. “If they want to survive, the Christian Churches have to integrate the traditional religious beliefs and practices and the underlying world view of Africa”. Since then much has happened, but the question he raised is still valid today. Is Africa succeeding in developing its own Christian theology?

To many people theology is a vague and rather obtuse notion. Even if they realise it has to do with the science of religion, they will relegate it to those quaint’ branches of knowledge no one really takes seriously: numismatology, palaeontology, ornithology and other -ologies! Little do they realise that theology is, in fact, anything but purely academic. The Shi’ite communities for instance are so militant because they follow a particular trend of Muslim theology that makes them so. Ayatullah Khumeini himself is a product of that theology. The Buddhist monks who immolated themselves in Saigon to protest against American occupation did so because the Buddhist theology they adhered to required such acts of total commitment. The official tenets of a religion are often one thing; the way it is understood and practised, its theology, quite another. And since theologies vary with time and place, they are an important factor which no one can afford to ignore.

Africa has suffered severely from defective Christian theologies. One such theology, remnants of which are still present, is White Theology. Under mainly Calvinistic influence certain white colonialists justified their oppression of African tribesmen with spurious biblical arguments. They would state, for example, that the present inhabitants of Africa are identical with: the Canaanites, the “children of; Cham” who were cursed by God in punishment of their ancestor’s crime. “A curse on Canaan! He will be a slave, to his brothers” (Genesis 9,25). Misreading a text in Paul’s letter to the Romans they would say that certain nations are created by God as the objects of his anger, doomed to destruction (Romans 9,22). Such reasonings, though diametrically opposed to the Christian doctrine of the equality of all God’s sons and daughters, justified their violent expropriation of tribal lands, their slave trade and the doctrine of Apartheid. Thanks be to God, few Christians today will defend this kind of theology, but its very existence in both past and present shows how seriously theology should be taken.

The missionaries who came to Africa during the past century were of a different mind altogether. They were filled with concern for the African “natives” whose souls they wanted to save. They left their homes and their possessions and undertook perilous journeys to preach God’s message of love. Many died during the first years of their stay in Africa through unknown tropical diseases. Many endured great hardships to establish missionary outposts in the middle of the bush. They were well-intentioned, but their misguided zeal brought a teology from Europe ill-suited to the African world.

True to the spirit of his age, the white missionary felt that Western civilization was far superior to anything he found in Africa. Africans were poor, illiterate, naive by his standards. He found their religious practices crude, their beliefs primitive riddled with superstition. As he felt called upon to import Western education, medicine and technology to improve the African’s condition, so he tended to introduce European forms of worship and religious practice wholesale. Western ways of praying, of thinking about God, of solving marriage problems were held out as only valid Christian models. In this Westernising Theology African catechumens were treated as grown-up children who could only become fully human and fully Christian by accepting European ideas and European customs. This misjudgement was not only unfair to the rich African traditions it also failed to produce integrated Christians.

The new Christian converts were split personalities. While becoming Europeanised in dress, housing, worship and other externals of life, they tenaciously held on to their own philosophical and spiritual beliefs. Reports from all over Africa confirmed “African tribal religion continues to live on in the Christian community. It is like basalt rock covered by a thin veneer of Christian ideas and practices” (Ghana). “The vast majority of African Christians keep holding the beliefs of religions. Christianity has barely touched the core of their lives” (Kenya). “A completely new God who has nothing to do with the past of Africa has been introduced to our people. No bridge has been built betweeen the old and the new” (Uganda). “In each of us two different persons live: African and the Westerner (Zaire).

In the 1060s both the newly emerging African clergy and many missionaries themselves began to become aware of the problem. The solution that was offered may be styled Adaptation Theology. It contended that the one, unchangeable Catholic doctrine should be adapted to African culture. While the truths of faith should be retained in their essential content, African customs and practices ought to be respected in religious art, Church building, liturgical worship, music and pastoral organisations. These were the views presented by the African delegates to the Second Vatican Council 1959-1964. They are reflected in the Council Documents which state that the beneficial customs of every nation “should not be destroyed, but healed, raised above themselves and fulfilled”; and that “the Catholic Church does not reject anything in ancient religions which is either true or holy”.

Limited in scope though this theology was, it could release enormous energies throughout the African Catholic communities by the status it had acquired through the Vatican Council. At first attention focussed almost exclusively on external changes: churches began to be constructed like communal huts; drums and dancing were admitted into eucharistic worship; bishops adopted insignia of tribal chiefs. For the first time Church personnel was set aside for the professional study of local culture. Interest in everything truly African mounted, and with it the awareness that Adaptation Theology is not enough.
The tool of all theology is thinking itself. And the Christian message has come to Africa clothed in twenty centuries of European thinking. To become truly African, the Gospel should be re-thought in African concepts. There is no question here of “adapting” European idea to make them understandable to Aricans; Africa has the right and the duty to develop its own theology as Europe has done in the past. The call for a genuinely African Theology needs a radical reassessment of Christianity In terms of authentic African experience.

“Yesterday foreign missionaries tried to christianise Africa; today the Christians of Africa are called upon to africanise Christianity” (Cardinal Malula of Kinshasa, Zaire). “We can only be truly Christian to the extent we are truly and fully African” (G M Setiloane, Tanzania). “Only now have we come to recognise that one cannot transfer the crown of one tree to the trunk and roots of another” (Archbishop Zoa of Douala, Cameroon).

Such prophetic statements herald the future; they do not yet reflect the majority view in the Catholic Church. Westernising Theology still determines the practice of many missionaries; and most African clergy have not risen above Adaptation Theology. But the signs are that African Theology is rapidly growing throughout the continent. Every year more studies appear as research doctorates. More articles are devoted to it in the 11 theological magazines published in Kenya (3), Zaire (3), South Africa (2), Burundi, Ivory Coast and Tanzania. Year after year seminars are organised on it by the theological faculties of Ibadan in Nigeria, Accra in Ghana, Fourah Bay in Sierra Leone, Kinshasa in Zaire, Makerere in Uganda, Tabora in Tanzania and Nairobi in Kenya. At their second international congress African biblical scholars founded the Journees Bibliques Africaines (Nigeria 1984). Theologians have grouped themselves in organizations such as the Ecumenical Association of African Theologians (Cameroon 1983). Since these theologians are the educators of the clergy, their thinking will not fail to affect the Church.’

An independent branch of theology in South Africa is known as Black Theology. Like its counterpart in the US it concerns itself mainly with fighting discrimination and racial oppression. Its centre is the Institute for Contextual Theology (Braamfontein, Johannesburg, founded. in 1981). It organizes conventions on themes such as “Polarization between Blacks and Whites” (Transvaal 1982); “Theologising in a divided Society” (Hammanskraal,May 1983); “Black Theology” (Welgerspruit, August 1983); “The Churches and Black Theology in South Africa” (Yaounde, Cameroon 1984). Bishop Desmond Tutu, the President of the South African Council of Churches, is understandably one of its prophetic leaders.
One question Africans will have to resolve among themselves is whether to give priority to the political situation or cultural tradition. An East African study concludes that “African society as a whole, even modern society, cannot be understood without an understanding of the traditional religions” (Mombasa 1980)”. The Black Theologian J Masala retorts that “the link between Christianity and traditional religion cannot be laid until the social context of religion has been uncovered” (Capetown 1983). Both forms of African theology, however, may well go further than Pope John Paul is thinking of. In his African speeches so far he has employed concepts of Adaptation Theology. Will he try to stem African Theology by the same mixture of support and censure by .which he seeks to contain Liberation Theology in Latin America?