Systemic challenges facing African theologians

Following are some of my own observations about some of the systemic challenges my colleagues face in trying to do genuine African theology—dialogue between African cultures and the world of the Bible. (My experience has been largely with evangelical institutions, but many of the principles might apply more broadly.) Please feel free to add some of your own observations.

[no particular order; numbered to facilitate comments]

  1. Almost all formal theological training is done in the West or by Western-trained African theologians who have been indoctrinated to Western priorities and methodologies. (All of us are shaped by our mentors, and our mentors are shaped by their environments.)
  2. Many theological schools in Africa tend to depend on resources are being doled out by Western institutions with Western interests.
  3. African thinkers are forced to write for Western audiences in order to gain academic credibility and get published.
  4. Whereas Western theologians have the luxury of being able to be essentially mono-cultural, successful African theologians (who wish to be published) have to have a sophisticated mastery both Western and African thought patterns and ways of communicating.
  5. Many of the best and brightest African academic pioneers have been snatched up by western institutions where they are forced to spend most of their time catering to white American audiences and explaining Africa to them (e.g. Sanneh, Tienou, Katongole).
  6. In any theological institution there are already strong, established feelings about “how theology should be done.”
  7. Evangelicals, especially, are very nervous about any new ways of doing theology.
  8. Specific denominational dogmas are so sacrosanct that all we can do is regurgitate acceptable “truth” (from the teaching vessel to the recipient student and hope it doesn’t experience any corruption in the process.)
  9. Seminary and Bible school programs and curriculums in Africa are almost exactly the same as their Western counterparts. (Accreditation is a factor, but not the only factor.)
  10. Africa is often perceived by and portrayed to outsiders as a dark, poverty-stricken, crisis-ridden continent. (What could it possibly have to offer?)
  11. The fear of syncretism—Christo-paganism. (While this might be a genuine concern in a few, rare cases, the fear of this extreme should not prevail.)
  12. Many of the most successful African academics are not in touch with their own traditional cultural heritage; they may not even speak their own mother tongues, which could help shape their theological thinking.
  13. Creative African theology is not given very much institutional priority in terms of grants and infrastructure support that frees African thinkers with the resources, freedom, and focused time to pursue research and writing African theology.
  14. The sheer number and diversity of different African cultures can be overwhelming.
  15. Genuine African theology requires cross-disciplinary expertise. In addition to the biblical studies expertise needed to understand the Bible in its original cultural context, ethnographic research along with anthropological and sociological analysis are needed to help immerse the theologian in different African cultural worldviews. (Doubles and triples the fields of academic expertise required.)
  16. We don’t have access to that many models of how African theology can be done. In some ways we keep going back to the same few pioneers who laid the groundwork; new creative efforts need to be encouraged.
  17. The younger, brilliant African theologians I know here are too busy addressing pressing community needs—pastoring churches, running NGOs, doing administration, working to change political leadership, etc. The ones that do teach in academic institutions tend to be teaching course overloads and are buried in administration—in addition to all the normal community pressures.

I recognize that this portrait risks severe caricature, but perhaps it will stir some of your ideas. Catholics seem to have done a far better job of supporting African scholarship (most of the books on my shelf related to African theology—written by both Protestants and Catholics—are published by Catholic presses), but in practice, they seem to have institutional and hierarchical challenges that many Protestant churches wouldn’t.

Cf. bibliography for African Christianity or (by date) or the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians (e.g. Musa Dube, Nyambura Njoroge, Mercy Ouyoye, Isabel Phiri, etc.) for more African theologizing.

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8 thoughts on “Systemic challenges facing African theologians

  1. Tony Siew says:

    Dear Ben, thanks for this very insightful post. I can relate to most of your points and they apply equally well to Asian Theology or indigenous Asian biblical scholars and theologians. I think one way to encourage indigenous (African or Asian) is to form a kind of a local grouping as a forum for fellowship, encouragement, exchange of ideas and promotion of indigenous scholarship and publication. Or else we are forever looking to the West for ideas and leadership.

    • Ben says:

      Thanks, Tony. I suspected there might be some similarities, but I haven’t had any direct experience in Asia (or Central and South America), so thanks for your input. Some associations are starting to form here, but developing the infrastructure takes time–especially on limited resources.

  2. Willie Nyendwa says:

    I am impressed with your presentation. I do agree with the need for Africans to develop their own Theology. But I always tend to think that developing an African theology without reference to our western counterparts would be a recipe for a serious theological accident. African has its history of theology but not sufficiently supported by documents and lacks team consultations. We need more enlightened African theologians with bachelor degreesto be sent for specialities in the west to cross pollinate African theology with western to produce pure and balanced theology to fulfil God’s vision for the whole world.
    Willie Nyendwa, Zambia, Africa.

    • Ben says:

      Thanks for your comment, Nyendwa. I too am a firm believer in the importance of cross pollination. That is why I felt it was important to live and study in the African context, where I can be shaped by African cultures, priorities, and customs. As one who believes that theology is working out understandings of God in various cultural contexts, I’m curious what you see as “pure and balanced” theology. Usually I hear it spoken by people describing a particular Western theology, and we often fail to see how culturally shaped it is.

      This quote by Bill Black-Theological Education in Africa sums up some of my concerns:

      Christianity in Kenya is not being given the same chance to engage with the culture that the West has had over many hundreds of years. Christianity in Africa has, instead, been hijacked by an alien culture with an alien world view and an alien perspective responding to alien questions with alien answers,…

      I think some of the writings of Kwame Bediako and his professor Andrew Walls are particularly helpful in seeing the cultural dimensions of doing theology going back to the earliest Greek and Latin church fathers. Their contention is that our understanding of the Gospel of Jesus Christ can benefit from allowing that same process to take place in dialog with African cultures without having to necessarily follow the streams that some of the culturally European theologians have taken.

      • ELIJAH OBUTU MAINA says:

        mr Ben I think we Africans have totally lossed directions ,imagin we cant sit down and write about our continents religion ,to my side ,soon as I finish finish my degree in theology I shall write alot for the benefit of our generation .thanks alot brother

  3. Arthur says:

    I appreciate your comments and perspective. As I approach theology I have always seen the priority to establish a biblical theology first. Having established what the Bible says, my next task is to apply it in an African context. I am uncomfortable therefore speaking about Western theology, African theology, or Asian theology. I would be interested in your thoughts on this.

  4. Ben says:

    Thanks for commenting, Arthur. Could you tell me a little more about your background. What kinds of questions and assumptions do you bring to the table when developing a biblical theology? What principles of interpretation do you apply? How do you decide which passages get emphasis?

    • ELIJAH OBUTU MAINA says:

      I base my illustration on African context especially Kenyan peoples berief,deities,cultureand occupation.with this I generalise my observations and draws soundy conclusions.

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