A conversation on African Christianity and Gospel inculturation
By Sr. Titilayo Aduloju, SSMA
Africans have a strong belief in God as the giver and sustainer of life who watches over everything. This is why John Mbiti, a Kenyan-born Christian philosopher, said “Africa is notoriously religious”.
And Christianity is one of the most widely practiced religions in Africa and is the largest in Sub/Saharan Africa.
Reflecting on the essence of African Christianity and spirituality, Sister Nkechi Iwuoha, a Nigerian-born member of the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ, and Dr. Simon-Mary Aihiokhai, a Nigerian-born Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at the University of Portland, shared with Vatican News their insights and thoughts.
African Christianity as a way of life
In their conversation, Dr. Aihiokhai expressed his belief that the Church in Africa has accomplished a great deal on the continent, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa.
“There is something about Christianity that has captured the imagination of Africans in a way that makes it an African reality,” he said.
From her perspective, Sister Iwoaha said she believes that “as a woman religious with no formal theological study, other than being a theologian through my baptism, I would say that African Christianity is really the understanding of God that is brewed in an African pot.”
This also means looking at Africa's way of life, culture, and core values, and how the teaching of God's incarnation explores this junction of Christianity and daily life.
Essentially, “I think it must be the practice from the lens of a God who is always and has always been with us through the oppression of our people, enslavement, mental and material poverty that we experience today, that it must be shared from the perspective of a God who was among us before the coming of the European missionaries,” Sr. Iwoaha said.
African Christianity therefore lays its foundations in the understanding, acceptance, and belief of God among Africans, as well as in the morals, spirituality, and ways of living that are inspired by this knowledge of God and relationship.
What is new in the practice of African Christianity today
Looking at African Christianity about a hundred years ago, it would have been hard to find many Christians in Sub-Saharan Africa.
“We have the presence in Ethiopia, Eritrea, the Eastern region, and the two parts, some pockets of Christians that were present there that continued after the Portuguese left and continued their slave trade and stopped evangelizing subsurface in Africa,” Dr. Aihiokhai said.
Of course, that was more than a hundred years ago, he noted, adding that Africa is currently the global stronghold of Catholicism and Christianity, and it is a force to be reckoned with.
“A lot of things have been done by the Church in the continent, especially in sub-Saharan Africa,” he added.
Dr. Aihiokhai also said, there is something about Catholicism that has made it an African reality by capturing the imagination of Africans.
In like manner, Sr. Iwuoha pointed out that a lot of good things have happened in recent years which have led to positive growth for African Christianity. “We've been captivated by what Catholic missionaries have shared with us as Africans,” she affirmed.
Nevertheless, though she appreciates the past, Sr. Iwuoha said, “I will be honest to say that these missionaries did not quite evangelize and educate the people from that perspective of honouring our ancestral gifts and what they have to share with the world.”
Evangelization in Africa, in other words, could be said to lack the important element of inculturation.
According to Sr. Iwuoha, “The missionaries for the most part, preached a God that is foreign to the people, from the images of a white Holy Family that we see in our Churches being continued today by our pastors and bishops to the abolition of cultures and practices of our ancestors as paganism instead of finding ways to integrate what was good in the culture in this process of us becoming Christians.”
African Christianity is embodied in African cultures
African Christianity should be viewed as the cultural centre of a people that serves as the stage for God's exquisite dance of life and relational contact, according to Dr. Aihiokhai. This dance is made possible by the eternal gift of Creation.
However, he noted, “There are many Christians today, many African Christians, not missionaries, who are condemning the ancestral traditions.”
In salvation, God did not create something new, said Dr. Aihiokhai, but rather, “God walked with creation in bringing about salvation.” Thus, “the very place where God encounters us is the place where we are located, our context. And it is even our context that is the mediative place where revelation is mediated,” he added.
Sr. Iwuoha said she believes that, as Africans, we have been nourished and nurtured with the Scripture, and that grace builds on nature.
She affirmed that “there are very good cultures in the African community that can be integrated into Christianity.”
Christianity is a force for good in Africa
African Christianity has been a positive and liberating force in the continent, said Dr. Aihiokhai.
However, he noted that it has not been an unalloyed good since Christianity’s roots in Africa are closely associated with colonization. “Until Christianity in Africa has an African face in its totality, has an African mind in its totality, and has an African inspiration in its totality, it will continue to be a colonizing instrument,” he said, paraphrasing Fr. Jean-Marc Ela, a Cameroonian sociologist and theologian.
“Our African Christianity must be a Christianity that has an empty chair in the African room and an empty chair that is open for the stranger that demonstrates the authentic cultural African hospitality of openness to the other without judgment,” he added.
Dr. Aihiokhai said Christianity still needs to build a deeper sense of fellowship and friendship on the continent.
Hopes for authentic African Christianity and spirituality
Sr. Iwuoha expressed her belief that more should be done to study the philosophical concept of Ubuntu, which highlights the importance of people coming together as a community and resolving their issues.
“If Christianity was brewed in the African port, and sometimes I really wonder, I know the missionaries, they did what they could and what they knew at the time they came,” she said.
“So, through the Ubuntu process, and if priests, religious, bishops can commit themselves to the political processes going on in Africa, and we come together as a people to address our people on the political class who are corrupt, things might work better,” hoped Sr. Iwoaha.
She therefore, invited the Church in Africa to pay more attention to “the ways of their ancestors, that whole idea of coming together as people of communal living and come together to really engage the people who are suffering, engage our own people and find out, including of course the politicians who are also Christians.”
In this way, said Sr. Iwuoha, African Christianity and spirituality will find deep roots within us, if we embody the Kingdom of God and “give voice to the voiceless in the society.”
For this to become reality, noted Dr. Aihiokhai, African theologians must embody the “Pentecost Spirit” which is “the spirit of do not be afraid”.
In addition, theologians must be visionaries. “They are called to give voice to the insights of the spirit that stirs the hearts of the people. They are called to read the signs of the times in a manner that is prophetic, challenging, and also consoling and enjoyable,” he said.
He concluded that “African theologians are not called to be police officers of doctrines of the past.”