John Mbiti: The Dialogue between African Religion and Christianity (lecture notes)

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:

  1. Christianity in African has expanded at historically unprecedented extraordinary rates.
  2. The causes of this rapid expansion are missionaries, African Christians, Bible translation, and the nature of African Religion.
  3. African Religion was very receptive to Christianity, which was consistent with African religious values; Jesus Christ was the new element.
  4. There has been significant awareness of the dialogue between Christianity and African Religion.
  5. Bible translation was a significant facilitator of the encounter and dialogue between Christianity and African religion.
  6. 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?”


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.


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 Continue reading

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.

My poisoned son and African reconciliation

Last week my two-year old son was poisoned. Christi had gotten stuck in traffic downtown, so I had come home early from the library (a long 30 second walk) to hold down the fort – sitting at home while the kids play with their friends outside in case someone needs some food or a Band-Aid.

Suddenly, I heard Liam (2) crying. There are nearly a hundred kids in our small apartment complex (maybe thirty of them are around Liam’s age), so there are always kid noises and someone is likely to be crying at any given moment. Still, I managed to recognized Liam’s cry and went outside to see what was happening.  As I turned the corner, one of the bigger girls was carrying him home, but she had trouble explaining what had happened. Then one of the women walked up and said she had been drying cornmeal “cakes” for killing cockroaches in the grass outside her apartment and caught some kids playing in them. Liam was still covered in the chalky dust. He had started to cry and run away when she tried to wash his hands off.

“Did you eat any of the cookies, Liam?” No.

“How did the cookies taste?” (Puzzled I have no clue; I didn’t eat any look.)

At that point I wasn’t really worried, but I took Liam upstairs, washed his hands and changed his shirt. Then we walked back over to the lady’s apartment to find out what the offending chemical was. By the time I got there, a crowd had already gathered in front of the apartment. Two of Liam’s other little friends had been seen with the chalk dust all over their mouths (a Kenyan girl and a Sudanese girl).

I asked to see the poison bottle. One of the mothers started to lash out. “How could you put poison out here when you see so many kids running around!!” (I confess the same thought had crossed my mind; she’s already safely raised three teenagers; what was she thinking?) Fortunately, one of those guys who oozes leadership was thinking the same thing I was. “Let’s focus on getting the name of the chemical,” he said. “After we treat the kids, we can address other issues.”

The poison label turned out to have a rather scary warning, so we

Continue reading

Pagan shrines in English high places

You can imagine the interest for my African colleagues when we came upon this pagan shrine in our hike up an English hill on Saturday. The picture does not do the shrine justice; there were ribbons all over the branches. Note also the presence of that great idol which nearly every western sitting room is centered around – bottom right behind Ramadan. “New Age” spot we were told.

[Regular readers will recall the examples of ancestor worship we have already noted on our visit to England. This is a little more serious.]

African sacrifices, justice, and the invocation of ancestors (Ancestors – part 2)

This is part 2 of a guest post by Andy Alo. Yesterday in part 1, Andy called the belief that Africans worshipped their ancestors a theological myth. Based on field research he conducted on his own Lugbara ethnic group, he showed that semantically, respect for ancestors is not that same thing as “worship.” He also explained how “offerings” of food to the ancestors were understood. Read the whole post: Did Africans really worship their ancestors?

PART 2: Sacrifices and the invocation of the ancestors

Calamities or unfortunate events in Lugbara beliefs happen as a result of bad or immoral conduct by a member of the group, a sub group, or the entire community. In the Lugbara traditional religious system, a sacrificial lamb had to be offered to appease the anger of ADROO ‘absolute spirit’ who was capable of punishing the community. Ancestors were implicated in the process as witnesses. Ancestors were the ones who transmitted to the living generations the body of knowledge that would guide these generations in the way of truth ‘EDYO ADA’ (literally ‘true matter’). The ancestors were invoked as a way of helping the community remember what the ancestors had said would happen if anyone acted contrary to their teachings.  For the Lugbara, it was not the ancestors who punished members of the community. Rather, punishment came directly from ADROO and was immediate.

In my research, the attributes of ADROO were not clear, but a key concept for understanding justice and judgment/punishment in Lugbara culture is LEMI “truth, right and innocence.” Briefly stated, LEMI means “if any one did wrong, something wrong would happen to him; and in case he did not do any wrong, no calamity, sickness or death could touch him.” LEMI is the ultimate justice beyond the reach of humans and was administered by the ADROO (absolute spirit). After pleading guilty, anyone who did wrong could sacrifice an animal to cancel the effects of punishment. In this entire process, the ancestors were simply reminders of the right way of living.

In sum, the Lugbara view of ancestors is a conjectural statement re-opening ways for new considerations. African ancestors were not worshipped in the traditional milieu; they were simply being honored as members of the community. They are gone and yet “they are with us”; transcendental fellowship continues. The ancient Lugbara had their own ways of perpetuating that communion; but those ways were not worship.

© 2008 Andy A. Alo

[Andy, from north-eastern Congo, is currently writing his dissertation at NEGST on translating the metaphor of light.]

Did Africans really worship their ancestors? An African perspective

Guest post by Andy Alo

Many Africanists interested in African Traditional Religion have made the assertion that Africans worshipped (or are worshipping) their ancestors. However, field research that I conducted from 2002 to 2005, and completed in August 2008 in my own Lugbara ethnic group leads me to the conclusion that the worship of ancestors by Africans is a theological myth.

Simply Semantics

In the Lugbara language, the concept INZI conveys any attitude which externalizes consideration due to a person’s status. It means ‘respect’ when describing a person lacking respect for his superiors. Children’s respect for their parents (‘honor’) is expressed by the same concept INZI. Today, INZI is also applied to ‘worship’ or ‘adoration’ of God in Christian settings, but older native speakers of Lugbarati do not equate their previous ‘honor’ (INZI) towards ancestors with the present ‘worship” (INZI) of God. Ancestors were simply honored or given due respect.    

If the Lugbara did not worship ancestors, why then did they give ancestors food in some sacred places

Why give Food to Ancestors? 

Commensality [eating together] in Lugbara culture is the ultimate way of expressing communion and brotherhood. All the members of the community not only share their resources by helping each other, but they also eat together. Traditionally, the ancestors have been part of the community; they are “present” even though they were gone. The Lugbara people would say, “They are with us.”

Every member of the community (except children) knew very well that the ancestors did not literally eat the food offered to them. The servants or “priests” of the community took the food on behalf of the ancestors. Sharing the food symbolized the communion between the living members and the members of the community who had gone on to the other side of the world.

Thus, communion with the ancestors was not a form of “worship” or “adoration,” it simply remembered ancestors as part of the community. They were cherished and honored in the collective memory because they were metonymically representing the body of knowledge that guided the community in the different dimensions of community life: ethics, socio-economics, family matters, etc. Most references to ancestors occur in relation to the quest of truth, ethical decisions and other deliberations.

[To be continued: Part 2.]

© 2008 Andy A. Alo

Andy hails from north-eastern Congo and is currently writing his dissertation at NEGST on translating the metaphor of light.

A shrine to the ancestors at Durham Cathedral; an African perspective

In a recent post, we began to explore the phenomenon of Western ancestor worship from an African perspective. Last Saturday, as we were leaving the British New Testament Conference, we visited Durham Cathredral and found that it proudly features a shrine to an ancestor. Take a look at the header on the Durham Cathedral website which includes this paragraph:

The Cathedral houses the shrine of the seventh-century saint, Cuthbert of Lindisfarne. There are some objects on display in The Treasures which date back to Cuthbert himself – including his cross and his coffin. Other items tell the story of the Cathedral and the community associated with it right up to recent times. (emphasis mine)

This is not just any church; it is the home of the Rt Rev Dr Nicholas Thomas Wright (aka NT), someone who will surely be named among the revered ancestors of our time.

Lest we try want diminish the religious significance of the shrine, I (illegally) took a picture of the sign on the door. (I did otherwise respect their request – “No digital photography” – and resisted the temptation to photograph the tombs or statues of any of the ancestors housed in the church.)

Tomorrow I will post a special guest essay arguing against the myth that Africans worship (or have worshipped) their ancestors. Stay tuned!