BIA Benedict XVI Institute for Africa
Father Denis

Father Denis Tameh
Mamfre Diocese

The Christian God and Culture in Africa – Part 3

Is African culture radically opposed to Christianity? The definitive answer is NO. But are there certain aspects of African culture which are opposed to Christian principles? Definitely yes. But this is not unique to African culture; each culture has elements in need of purification. It will be unfair to look at these opposing aspects and conclude that it makes our culture opposed to or incompatible with Christianity.

Concerning these elements hostile to the Christian faith, what should be the Christian reaction? How should dialogue proceed regarding those elements? What should take precedence? His culture or his Christianity? Generally speaking those aspects of culture which are hostile to Christianity are not only hostile to Christianity but to humanity. There is just no way that human sacrifice can be a good thing for humanity, or the killing of twins, or polygamy a good thing for the dignity of women. The principle to be kept in mind while engaging in this dialogue is this maxim: ‘No culture encounters Christianity and remains the same.’ Christianity is like the purgatory of cultures; a purifier of cultures. It makes use of all the good things in each culture and in turn purifies and corrects those false elements of culture which dehumanize rather than humanize. This sounds so patronizing and arrogant. For how can the Christian worldview assume the role of judge of what is good or bad? Who makes it the arbiter in the battle for cultural supremacy? Is this not a form of cultural colonialism to say to the African, this aspect of your culture needs purgation? These are legitimate worries from those who may see this attempt at purification or dialogue from the Christian perspective as a kind of arrogant superimposition. But the answer is no. Christianity is not a culture, it transcends all cultures, it takes on the garb of different cultures while preserving intact the content of revelation. Christianity believes in the omnipresence, omniscience of God and this God whom the Christian considers the creator of all that is, makes use of the genius of his creation to reveal his message to mankind. His message is true and timeless, it is not the monopoly of any culture or any people but the great revelation of salvation for mankind. We do not disagree on the content of this revelation but we do dialogue with the media of transmission of this revelation. Each culture can present a medium for transmission which makes this great deposit of faith more concrete and accessible to the people.

Failure to that will result into the many fractured and half-baked Christians whose color of skin is Christian but whose blood and DNA are soaked and rooted deeply in the African worldview. That partly explains why many who observe this phenomenon conclude that Christianity and African culture are mutually exclusive.

It is this battered African soul that comes to church every day, receives the sacraments but when faced with the real and big problems of life, it is not the church he runs to but his African culture for solutions. I believe this also partially explains the exponential growth of healing and typically African evangelical assemblies. A close study of these assemblies reveal a striking semblance to the traditional African approach to problem resolutions. What happens when there is a bad harvest season? The gods have to be appeased. Personal misfortunes could be caused by curses or by neighbors or relatives through witchcraft; sickness is never natural, very often it is a punishment from a god, the failure to appease a spirit, a curse, witchcraft. To have riches, hard work is not enough, the spirits have to be appeased and one has to be favoured. Thus, the African priest is a typical healer, a psychologist, and the mouth piece of the spirits. This is the model on which most modern-day African evangelical assemblies are built. Because it is appealing and familiar to the African out look even though it is misleading and dangerous. God or Christ becomes that spirit to be appeased so that when misfortune comes, the question asked very often is “what did I do to deserve this?” Because in the African worldview, actions are paramount, misfortunes are results of what we DO. There is no concept of redemptive suffering in the African worldview and so too with these new assemblies who tap into this cultural psyche to breed a new type of African Christians who have no anchor or base; sickness and misfortune are curses which can be lifted by prayers and miracles as the traditional African priest does. This I believe is the other extreme of inculturation which fails to take into account the dynamics of Revelation and focus rather on a problem-solution model to Christianity. A model which is very much African in outlook as it is pragmatic. But is a disservice to the Christian message and salvation history.

On the other hand, to deny the existence of these pastoral issues only deepens the alienation of the African from the Christian experience. To dismiss for example his views on witchcraft as superstitious and not real pastoral issues which affect him profoundly is to make a mistake. How do we aid this African soul to understand that it is only the blood of Christ that saves and not the blood of goats and fowls?