African theology’s window of opportunity

Like the theology of the early church fathers, genuine African (Christian) theological reflection arises out of the dialog between cultural ways of thinking and the Biblical story. African theologians today have a unique opportunity to enrich Christian theology in many of the same ways that the early church fathers did by authentically engaging and translating the gospel into new cultural frameworks (Kwame Bediako—Theology and Identity: The Impact of Culture upon Christian Thought in the Second Century and in Modern Africa (Regnum, 1992). During the era of independence, there seemed to be an explosion of energy for African theologies, but current efforts seem not to be getting the attention they could be.

Unfortunately, this unique window of opportunity is rapidly closing.

The very old African Christians who understand and appreciate their traditional cultures are dying off. Many of of the youngsters today either don’t know or don’t appreciate their traditional cultures. In some parts of Africa, it is already almost too late. Where we find third and fourth generation Christians, believers tend to be more conservative and Western in their Christianity—they grew up in schools of older missionary thought that condemned almost every component of the traditional cultures. The younger generation, which could be more open to incorporating African cultural values into their theology, has become so thoroughly secularized or westernized that most of them never learned their own traditions—some don’t even speak the mother tongues of their parents. There are still some older Africans who are in touch with their traditional roots and we should take advantage of their presence while we can. Some of these elders have thought deeply about how the Gospel speaks—or could have spoken—in ways that resonated better with the African worldview. (Some of their analysis has been generated by watching Westerners do inculturation of the Gospel badly.)

The sobering conclusion is that we may have a narrow window of opportunity within which to take advantage of some of the rich African cultural heritages to enrich global theology before the chance slips away forever (in some places 20-30 years before this older generation dies with their rich cultural knowledge). African theologians will continue to gain prominence, and the legacy of older traditions will always endure is many respects, but maybe not with the richness with which they are lived, understood, and remembered today.

The realization that certain theological insights from African cultures were slipping away hit me two years ago when I was interviewing a seventy-year-old Christian couple on the shores of Lake Victoria about eschatology. This couple clearly loved Jesus, loved the church, and had some incredibly rich reflections on how the good news of Jesus’ resurrection and power over death could have meaningfully transformed Luo burial rituals (while maintaining some of the core elements). The church of Western modernity had tried to scrap every aspect of the cultural practices wholesale. As this elderly couple talked, their fifty-year-old son entered the room. He was already a generation too late, and wasn’t aware of half of the things they were telling me; these things simply weren’t a part of his world of experience. That day, I left with an fuller understanding of the hope of the resurrection. I also left with a sense of urgency—that our generation might be missing out on an incredibly wonderful ideas.

During a PhD seminar here, a recognized scholar of the Pentateuch was talking about Leviticus and casually asked for some experiences with sacrifice from the various African cultures represented in the room. As the stories started flowing, he had to ask for pen and paper so he could take notes. It was clear to him that these students had a lot more first-hand information about ritual and sacrifice generally than he had been able to uncover in his extensive library research.

When we finally grasp the potential contributions of African cultures to theological reflection, will it be too little too late?

Coming up:  Institutional barriers to doing genuine African theology and quotes from African theologians.

Note: I had been saving this topic for a time when I could give it some extra attention, but some of my friends have urged me to post it “as is” in hopes that others (from my very limited sphere of influence) might help encourage the conversation.

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6 thoughts on “African theology’s window of opportunity

  1. David Ker says:

    I was reading Samuel Ngewa’s excellent tidbit on 2 John in the African Bible Commentary. It’s a good example of joining African wisdom to Biblical wisdom. I only lamented that his 3 John article didn’t address the misinterpretation of v. 2 in the context of African prosperity theology.

    What your seeing is of course part of a wider trend in globalization.

    Thanks for listening to your friends and publishing this.

  2. Makanda says:

    See my face book post on your wall! African theology needs a definition first before we engage this important subject. African scholars need to shape Christian theology and faith, but we are stuck in branding their work as African theology- how different is it from Christian Theology??? Why are particularistic when it is from Africa and universalistic when it is from elsewhere (read the west)??????

  3. Ben says:

    Makanda, that’s my very point as you know. What is being passed off as “universal” theology actually arises out of particular cultural contexts (esp. from certain eras in Western history). Most people don’t recognize that. When scholars from various contexts around the world bring their own cultural richness to theological reflection, it highlights the fact that all Christian reflection is to some degree culturally contextual–and Western theology is no exception. That may be the first and most important lesson the West has to learn.

    I certainly don’t expect there to be any kind of uniform ‘African’ theology. I’m only highlighting the fact that the window to benefit from various traditional cultures in Africa may be limited.

    So maybe I should have titled my post differently. “A window of opportunity for theological reflection to benefit from the richness of African traditional cultures.”

  4. Steve says:

    I’d like to invite you to join the Missiological discussion forum to pursue the conversation.

    A blog post is like a paper read at a conference, and comments are like questions addressed to the speaker, but for real interaction among the audience, a more interactive format is needed. I’ll recommend your post to the forum, but I hope it will spark off some interesting discussion.

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