John Mbiti – The Spontaneous Dialogue between African Religion and Christianity Through Evangelization and Bible Translation
Tangaza College, Nairobi, Kenya: Thursday, May 20, 2010
Following are my typed notes from Professor Mbiti’s lecture at nearby Tangaza College. The lecture was hosted by Prof. Jesse Mugambi (Wiki bio) and sponsored by the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies, University of Nairobi in honour of their 40th anniversary. [The lecture was moved to Tangaza College as the result of “student unrest” at the University of Nairobi.]
Everything on the left margin comes directly from his handout though I’ve reinserted words—eg. articles and verbs—he omitted in the handout to save space. I’m not a terribly fast typist, so I might have captured the general gist of one out of every four or five sentences. I’ve bolded a couple of especially memorable quotes.)
My summary of his basic points:
- Christianity in African has expanded at historically unprecedented extraordinary rates.
- The causes of this rapid expansion are missionaries, African Christians, Bible translation, and the nature of African Religion.
- African Religion was very receptive to Christianity, which was consistent with African religious values; Jesus Christ was the new element.
- There has been significant awareness of the dialogue between Christianity and African Religion.
- Bible translation was a significant facilitator of the encounter and dialogue between Christianity and African religion.
- Prayer and Christology are two of the areas of greatest interaction between African religion and Christianity.
[Mbiti believes that there is enough commonality among the different expressions of African religion to speak of it in the singular.]
There has been a silent statistical explosion of Christian expansion in Africa.
- 1900 Christians were 9.2% of the population (Mainly Egypt, Ethiopia, and Southern Africa.)
- 1984 45%,
- 2025 49% (cf. 40% Muslims, 11% African Religion, 0.2 other religions and atheists.)
[Projections by David Barrett—Encyclopaedia of Christianity; Encyclopaedia Britannica.]
This is a very big expansion of Christianity. Never in history has it expanded as rapidly anywhere. Naturally, one would raise the question: “what has brought about this expansion?”
B. CAUSES FOR RAPID EXPANSION AMONG OTHERS
1. Modern missionary work—through western countries, recently Korea and India
2. African converts—evangelists, priests, pastors, teachers, lay persons
African converts were much more mobile than missionaries. I remember how when I was growing up in a Christian home, we used to tell other people about the Bible—then only the NT in Kikamba. We used to tell them about prayer and heaven. We used to teach them church hymns. This spontaneous sharing of the gospel is at the core. Formal ways of doing evangelism—through employed catechists, etc. add support to evangelization which is still at work—explaining the faith and giving spiritual nourishment. The vast majority of churches and parishes today are being led by Africans.
Africans opened, not only their arms to welcome the missionaries, but they also opened their eyes and ears to the faith. Selecting elements that are acceptable and rejecting others. Conversion takes place at different levels.
3. Bible Translations into African languages—in full or in part:
- 113 translations in 1900, 500 by 1984, 718 in 2008
- Translations repeat Acts 2:6, 11 Pentecost: “In our own tongues”.
- Informal dialogue in local languages loaded with African Religion.
Translation was a high priority by early missionaries. We note that there were already ancient translations—Boharic and Sahidic Egypt.
Now, Bible translations have landed the Scriptures into more and more local languages. This enables the people to hear the word of God, to discuss, teach and dispatch it to the whole people. Inevitably, it enables formal dialogue to take place in the minds of those that experience it. Each translation is like a repeat of Pentecost (Acts 2:16)—Each one hears the terms in their own language–the mighty works of God. That sparks dialogue. We hear dialogue in our own tongues telling us the gospel. In may cases, the publication of a Bible is the first book in a given language. Through the translation of the Bible, the Christian message sings. It is a revolutionary event with powerful ripples throughout the ethnic groups. Christians go out with the Bible in their own language to nourish others. In many homes, the Bible and the hymnbook are the entire library, and many people know much of the Bible by heart.
[See additional thoughts on this section by A Bloke in Kenya.]
4. African Religion, evolved gradually, integrated into world-view.
Wide range of beliefs, central belief in God, monotheistic.
Moral and ethical values.
Religious actions—ceremonies, rituals, festivals, prayers initiation, etc.
Sacred places and objects—groves, trees, mountains, etc.
Responsible persons—elders, priests, and priestesses, doctors, etc.
African Religion said “Yes to Christian Faith, simultaneously. Without African Religion, Christianity (Biblical religion) would not have made impact on religious landscape of Africa.
African religious systems are a complete system. There is no section of African life which is not touched by religion. People practice differently in different places, but there is enough commonality to call it singular.
African Religion said “Yes” to Christianity, and the Christian faith said “Yes” to African Religion.
C. BIBLICAL RELIGION MEETS AFRICAN RELIGION
African Religion dominated the religious scene from ancient times. No religious vacuum existed when Christianity (or Islam) arrived. Thus, African belief in God existed before the arrival of missionaries. Missionaries did not bring God to Africa, rather it is God who brought the missionaries here. African religiosity was very receptive to the Christian message and enabled the message to make sense, to sink into spiritual soil.
The new element was the naming of JESUS CHRIST as messenger of God in whom Africans believed already. Initially, missionaries and early converts rejected despised and condemned African religion.
Eventual appreciation or recognition of African religion by some western scholars and missionaries, e.g. Wilhelm Schmidt (1868-1954).
Edwin W. Smith (1878-1957)
Organized a symposium on African Ideas of God published as a book (c. 1960). It started the dialogue, but did not carry it through. Student Christian Movement (UK), developed re: other religions.
John V. Taylor (1914-2001)
Was a missionary in Zambia and later Uganda. 1963 published the Primal Vision. The value of the book is in advocating and pleading with Christians to recognize the value of African religion in its own right, to point out that African Religion is a partner in dialogue. Even before Taylor’s book, African scholars had already begun to research African Religion. One can mention 1944 ??? (Ghana); also Idowu, God in Yoruba belief.
D. PRACTICAL AWARENESS OF THE ENCOUNTER/DIALOGUE
i. The first conference of African Theologians, Ibadan 1966 on the theme of “biblical Revelation and African Beliefs” declared that African people knew God who revealed himself through Jesus Christ. There is continuity of this knowledge of God.
African Scholars: e.g. H. Sawyerr, E. B. Idown, V. Mulago (Zaire), etc [and [Mbiti from Kenya] were emerging, taking seriously revelation of God in the Bible/Christianity and in African Religion. Research and publications in universities with departments of religious studies: Sierra Leone, Ghana, Nigeria, Zaire (D. R. Congo), Uganda, and Kenya.
They developed a statement. …We have evidence that the African people know and worship God. Because of God’s revelation, we can discern what was really from God in our pre-Christian heritage.
These African theologians had been doing and continue to do… We saw no contradiction in carrying out this task….On the three main religions of Africa.
Journals were developed as well. By the turn of the century…one way or another.
Another area of academic growth was the area of Biblical studies with African religion as a backdrop.
ii. The Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians (EATWOT) Conference in Accra, 1977, affirmed African Religion as one of the ‘Sources of Theology in Africa”. Brought an on-going encounter and academic attention to the international level.
Present Trends in theology.
- A preparation for the gospel.
- 5 sources of doing theology (the 3rd was ATR).
Brought to the international platform the intersection of Biblical faith and African religion.
The World Council of Churches, Lutheran World Federation and Vatican (Roman Catholic Church) began to organize conferences and consultations on the theme of Encounter/Dialogue. E.g. the Catholic Church appointed Cardinal Francis Arinze as head Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue; 1994 Special Synod of Bishops for Africa paid much attention to dialogue.
WCC and Lutheran World Federation organized several consultations.
In 1973 there was a “Wholeness of Human Life: Dialogue between Christianity and Primal World Views.” The LWF also joined this dialogue movement by organized in Geneva’s ecumenical centre. It took up the issue of dialogue. Consultations were held in Nairobi, RSA, W. Africa, and Europe.
I want to mention another aspect of this dialogue which is not often talked about…
iii. Dialogue between Jews and African Christians (scholars).
Significant academic level of encounter. Consultations on e.g. Biblical wisdom (ancient) African wisdom, creation in the Bible and African Religion (Nairobi), Family Life (Joberg), etc. These were very fruitful.
iv. African Research in the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible)
Old Testament is an area of intensive research by African scholars. Doctoral dissertations: 3 from 1960-1970; 28 from 1981-1990; 43 in 1991-2000. over 230 publications in the last decades of the 20th Century.
There is a lot of commonality between OT and African worlds. It is a book very appreciated by Africans.
E. BIBLE TRANSLATIONS AS FACILITATORS OF ENCOUNTER AND DIALOGUE
Enormous translation achievement into 718 African languages by 2008.
Use of religious vocabulary in translation, making Bible an African Bible an African book. The Bible found a home in Africa and Africa found a home in the Bible. Using God’s name in translations is immediate declaration of dialogue between Biblical (Christian) world and African Religion.
People identify themselves in the Bible. Further they see the same God that they have been worshipping all along.
My collection of some 1700 names of God in African languages: to use them in translating and Christian teaching signals and endorses spontaneous dialogue. This means, inter alia, the God in whom Africans believe from ancient times, is the same God described in the Bible.
These include names that describe God as creator, rain giver, Father, Mother, parent, everlasting, Holy, etc. This means that the use of God’s name in the Bible is an immediate declaration of dialogue.
You cannot get away from that religious “entanglement” if we can call it that. I can attest to this from my own recent translation from the Greek NT into the Kikamba language. Bible translation is an interreligious dialogue. To use those terms in the Bible signals and endorses the dialogue. It becomes public when individuals read and discuss the Bible texts (hymns and looooong sermons they preach, in the baptismal names they take.)
Each translations have used the local word for God. It is probably the use of these African names. This has made people know and believe that the Bible message is the message from the God that they have known and worshipped from ancient times—before they became Christians.
Furthermore, this same God now speaks to us through Jesus Christ. The people pay attention to Jesus as the Messenger and Son of the same God. So they can claim Jesus Christ to be on their side since he reveals the God they already knew. Jesus is the radical person or element that merges Biblical revelation with insights from African Religion.
Jesus Christ introduces a radical new dimension. African can claim Jesus to be on their side, since he reveals a God that they knew all along.
It is with that knowledge from African religion that people can appropriate, sing, and dance a Christian message. Even though he is not mentioned in ATR, he is known and embraced. Jesus Christ finds a home among them because he is a messenger of the same God their forefathers and mothers agreed it.
F. ONGOING PROCESS OF DIALOGUE THROUGH THE BIBLE IN THE AFRICAN WORLD
The process is going on from the very first proclamation of Gospel in African languages through Bible translation. The Gospel found receptive and fertile spiritual soil in Africa: germinated, grew, and began to bear fruit.
Through Bible translations, the African world entered the biblical world and vice-versa.
All this happened in spite of all the human weakness of missionaries and even colonialism. So it settled here, germinated and bore fruit…some places 100fold, some 60.
The African world interprets the Biblical world through its own terms, values, and needs.
i. Prayer as an Area of Spiritual Encounter.
Christian spirituality is deeply shaped by spirituality of African Religion. Praying merges the two worlds at a spiritual level, with African Religion asserting the strongest impact on Christianity.
Maasai (Kenya and Tanzania)
Prayer to the creator God recognizing the gift of rain, milking cows and cows that give us meat. Your love is visible…it is great…it has filled the land. We say, “Thank you God, you have given us our Mothers and friends…cows, grass, and water. We have nothing apart from what you have given us. You are our shield and guard. You are our father and mother. Therefore we say, “Thank you.” We worship you with everything we have because only you have given us everything.
All days, we do not tire in giving thanks to you.
This prayer is based on the concept of God as Creator. It has many elements of Christian spirituality. A new Maasai convert would not feel strange.
Second Prayer: Pygmy (DR Congo), with elements of adoration, praise, thanksgiving, dedication, confession of faith.
To thee the creator and powerful, I offer this new fruit. To Thee the creator, the powerful…
This prayer uses symbols featuring that natural environment. The people see themselves as God’s children.
Prayer is an encounter, a dialogue. At that level, any religious identities: Christians, Moslems…any differences become superfluous in prayer. People are simply standing before God.
ii. Jesus Christ as the Focus of Dialogue and Encounter.
Jesus is a unique and crucial element that has landed on the African world through Christian Faith. He is not named as such in African Religion, but some of his teachings and activities are present in African life. Jesus of the Gospels is very “visible and tangible”: walking in the countryside, healing, exorcising, using parables drawn from daily life (family, sowing, sheep, etc.). Jesus is not a stranger. Africans respond to him with a hearty welcome, endearment, respect, and love.
Christianity in Africa is built upon Persons and Work of Jesus Christ. It is very Christological. African Christianity has put Jesus at both the centre and the peripherals. It has embraced classical and traditional Christology; but has added its own understanding of who Jesus Christ is.
I have collected list of 166 Christological contextual titles in Africa to date, e.g. Advisor, Big Tree, Bulldozer, Friend, Liberator, Master of Initiation, Physician, Torch, etc. found everywhere—buses, homes, radios, books, songs, etc. These point to the clear situation: African Christians have fallen in love with Jesus Christ.
These contextual titles are strongly coloured by African traditional religion. So Africans embrace a Christian faith because of Jesus Christ, who is a new element which has captured their attention. The message of Jesus Christ won their allegiance. Many African believers have suffered and died for the sake of Jesus Christ and not for “God” as such.
It is inevitable that most of the dialogue takes place around Jesus. Evangelization is an exercise in dialogue. This happens both privately within the individual and publicly. It is in that way that Jesus Christ becomes a living reality. Jesus Christ is subject, African religiosity is the verb, and the Gospel is the object. Most of it is expressed orally and is not written down. It takes place in prayer. Some African theologians publish on Christology—now one of the most popular subjects.
Originally, I had collected a list of 165, but when coming here, I saw one more title on a matatu [public transportation van]. Not every Christian uses these titles, but they attempt to contextualize.
Some of these are even raw. These Christological titles, as people use them, they are spiritual and mental aids for identifying with Jesus Christ employed in songs, counselling, slogans, sermons, in their homes and workplaces and in mass media. Also monographs, articles, and the internet.
Many of these Christological symbols are symbolic and figurative…they reflect our oral traditions. For the most part, lay people articulate these titles as they talk about the faith. They produce oral theology. Thus this can be considered as public Christology: transport names, songs. Sometimes the people dance it.
It is a Christology of where people are…buses, mother’s unions, walking, farming or dreaming at night. It is a Christology of the people, by the people, and for the people who encounter Jesus in different circumstance of their life. They name him in ways that are meaningful for them. And in so naming, they establish a personal and living relationship with him.
They are the fruit of quite and meaningful dialogue between Christianity and African religion.
- The big tree
- Expeller of Evil
- Python not overcome
- Raiser of the downfallen
- Word of life
- Water of life
- [many more]
These titles place Jesus squarely on the African soil. These are titles of endearment and of loving attachment to Jesus. They can rightly claim him as belonging to him.
Traveling to Nairobi in March, I saw this sign on a bus: “It’s no secret; I love Jesus.” That is an appropriate motto for Africans. These titles do not discriminate against anyone. So you see these throughout all places in Africa—wherever Africans are, they take their religiosity with them.
“Africans are notoriously religious.” That is neither an exaggeration… regardless to whatever religion people convert to.
One thing is clear: African Christians have fallen in love with Christ. Christologically, Christ fell in love with Africans first.
Two examples—“Bulldozer” and Big Boat that cannot be sunk.
I will conclude with two examples. One from Nigeria, “Bulldozer” noted by A.E. Orobato – one time rector of Hekima College:
Once he went to celebrate mass in a prison in Nigeria. The prisoners were charismatic Catholics. For the processional, they sang a song that has never ceased to intrigue me. “Jesus is my Bulldozer. Amen.… Bulldoze my case, O Lord… Bulldoze the lawyer. Amen. He is my bulldozer, Amen! Bulldoze the Judge!! Amen! Jesus is my Bulldozer! Amen.
I hope the lawyers and judges who hear this title will not be threatened.
Ghanaian woman, Afua Kuma. Farmer, never went to school. She prayed and sang in Twi. “Jesus of the deep Forrest.”(published by Asempa Publishers, Accra, 1981) In her natural environment, she sets out to praise the name of Jesus Christ with many titles. The deeds of Jesus are marvelous. She likens his power to the python, which is the strongest snake in the forest. He is like the big boat that cannot be sunk.
In a situation of poor people, Jesus is their savior. They rely on him as their hope. Just as the tongue relies on the mouth. The Big Tree that cares for and provides food for the traveler.
Kuma is not an exception. People sing and proclaim Jesus—Oral theology. Christology becomes the most intensely creative encounter between Christianity and African Religion.
Now I will read 4 stanzas from Afua Kuma.
We are going to praise the name of Jesus Christ. We are going to announce his many tiles. Almighty Jesus. Hero. Kataki. He is the master, the python not overcome …the big boat which cannot be sunk…The clever one…we rely on you as the tongue relies on the mouth. The great rock. The big tree, which lifts its vine to peep at the heavens. Dripping leaves encouraged the growth below. Wonder worker. Gives the travelers drink. You use the cono basket to carry the water into the desert, and you use your net to fill it with fish…
[End of lecture: Questions and Answers]
Kawibe Wambua: In the first part of the presentation, you talked about the spread of the Gospel. What was the role orality then and now in the spread of the Gospel?
Saul Mulamu, student NEGST: To what extent has the dialogue between Christianity and African traditional religion been successful in countering secularism and other religions like Islam in Africa?
Diane Stinton, NEGST: If you could comment briefly on the meaning and place of Biblical authority in relation to Christologies. Reason being when I did my research, I found some people who though we should stick only to Biblical titles. Others said that they didn’t have concept of “Lord” in their local languages.
[Note: Diane Stinton is the author of Jesus of Africa: Voices of Contemporary African Christology. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 2004.]
Dr. Lauber?: 2 Questions [not clear]. If we consider translations into native languages. We need to take the translation into any language—ex. From Congo. French Bibles. In terms of religious studies, how can we go beyond scholarly syncretism? There is no systematic study of a given religion.
Dr. Henry Mutua, NEGST: I’ve enjoyed championing your books as I teach ATR. As I listened to the lecture today, I was hoping you could comment on what would be the place of sin. Africans tend to have more of a concept of “evil” rather than sin.
The place of orality in spreading the Gospel: This is in fact what is happening more than what is written down. Most of our people will not buy a book and start reading and get converted. Most people will get converted from talking to friends and family and listening to sermons. Sometimes it’s on the radio or even on the TV. It’s still a major form of communication among us.
Dialogue with secularism has not been examined…at least not academically that I have seen. I can’t really say anything to that. Professors like Mugambi would be better placed to respond to that since they live here. I would also like to hear what they have to say.
Biblical Authority and Oral Christology: These are people whose Christian lives are shaped by biblical message as they see and hear it. This is the fruit of that biblical shaping. They act out of what their faith needs and their faith is shaped by biblical authority. And sometimes they take that Bible message in a very literal way. They are trying to express their understanding of that verse in Christological ways. But you have done a lot of research, and your book is excellent, and you may even want to tell us more about the question which you put out.
I’m not happy about the use of the term syncretism. It is a one-sided term used by certain Christians who think their version of Christianity is more faithful. If someone says they are a Christian, I’m satisfied with that. I’m not concerned whether it is syncretism, or Anglicanism, or African Independentaism…I’m just happy that Jesus is being proclaimed. I’m not going to take part in discussions about syncretism.
Languages…people come with those ideas so that we may teach them as to the right Christian way. They will tend to abandon what they feel is false about their own background. But I don’t feel like it is our duty to tell them what is good and bad…Well, we look at the life of Jesus. He embraced people as they were. Some people—who were very religious—rejected Jesus.
SIN: I don’t like sin. In doing translation work, that word is very difficult to put into an African language. In translating into Kikamba, I almost had to put a related word in brackets. There a few other words which are difficult to translate into an African language.
Kabiro?…St. Paul’s Limuru: My worry is that when we get into this dialogue of African ethnic groups. Do we go outside of our ethnic groups? Especially given the negative ethnicity that we experience.
Anya, St. Pauls: 2 questions. 1. Biblical Christianity found a place in African religion. Is there a place in where we will start using African fruits instead of bread and wine? 2. Practical awareness: ATR and conflicts between Christians and Moslems. Will ATR bring them together?
C.B. Peter St. Paul’s University. There is need for dialogue for descriptive Christology (oral) vs. moral Christology (biblical.) There is always a moral dimension of incarnation. It’s one thing to write a message on my matatu. It’s quite another to change our lives.
Ethnicity in Rwanda and Kenya…we needed Christology to transform lives.
You are touching on very serious issues which we cannot resolve in a conference. The whole question of ethnicity (and not just about dialogue) but ethnicity in the face of the Christianity. It is very regrettable that the upheavals which hit our country really turned that into a very dirty area of experience…Christians killing one another, or through ethnicity churches being burned—not just buildings, but people. So this is a very serious challenge …the whole question of ethnicity and what it means to say we are brothers in Christ: Gikuyu and Lou and Buganda and Somali. What happens when we get to Dec. 27 [elections].
Liturgy. The Catholic church is already doing work in that area of doing certain aspects of African traditional religiosity in the liturgy and church services. Again some of you here are doing more in that area and can say more.
Christianity and Islam dialogue. We have not had much dialogue with Islam and African Religion. We have had conversions into Islam from African religions, but I am not aware of any dialogue (the Qu’ran does not get translated). At present, that may not be possible, but the issue is there, especially in countries like Nigeria.
The Bible is written and the transformation through the written word is not so easily done in African societies. We are still far from using the books to digest into our daily lives. But us, even university graduates. Many do not often read a full book. Whether fiction or a serious academic book. Maybe newspapers, but not many will go and buy a 2,000 shilling book and discuss it with another. We are still far from being a culture of serious reading [Mugambi nods his head in agreement]. We may send SMSs, but reading?? My Swiss wife read at least a book once a week, and she has organized reading groups, and then she reads more books than that. She recommended a book for the plane which she read last year—in German by a Polish author. This urge to read…that we have yet to cultivate.
Note: at the end of the lecture, Professor Mugambi noted questions that remained (due to time restraints) could be e-mailed to him and his department would address them.
BOOKS BY JOHN MBITI (by date)
- Akamba Stories. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1966.
- Poems of Nature and Faith. Nairobi: East African Pub. House, 1969.
- African Religions & Philosophy. London: Heinemann, 1969.
- Concepts of God in Africa. London: S.P.C.K, 1970.
- The Crisis of Mission in Africa. Mukono: Uganda Church Press, 1971.
- New Testament Eschatology in an African Background: A Study of the Encounter Between New Testament Theology and African Traditional Concepts. London: Oxford University Press, 1971.
- The Voice of Nine Bible Trees. Mukono: Uganda Church Press, 1972.
- Love and Marriage in Africa. London: Longman, 1973.
- The Prayers of African Religion. Maryknoll, N.Y: Orbis Books, 1975.
- Bible and Theology in African Christianity. Nairobi: Oxford University Press, 1986.
- Introduction to African Religion. 2nd ed. Oxford [England]: Heinemann Educational Books, 1991.
(Google Books preview)
- African Religions & Philosophy. 2nd ed. Nairobi: Heinemann, 1992.
(Google Books preview)
Religious Plurality in Africa: Essays in Honour of John S. Mbiti (Religion and Society) ~ Jacob K. Olupona, ed.
(Google Books preview)