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.]

A. INTRODUCTION

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)

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