BIA Benedict XVI Institute for Africa
Father Denis

Father Denis Tameh
Mamfre Diocese

The Christian God and Culture in Africa – Part 4

At the crux of this dialogue is a theme which I evoked earlier on, the transcultural nature of Christianity. Pope Benedict XVI in the encyclical Deus Caritas Est captures this uniqueness of the Christian expression when he says: Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction. What each embrace in Christianity is not another culture but a person. Once embraced this culture has to enculturate that person of Christ who is the same yesterday, today and forever. Palestine went through that process of inculturation, they had to accept this Christ and his new teachings; Europe went through the same enculturating process.

Africa, this is our time. Encountering Christianity in Africa is not a form of cultural syncretism but an encounter with the person of Christ who speaks to all cultures and these cultures should provide the listening tools so that those listening to him speak may understand his message. It is high time we stopped blaming the missionaries for handing on the faith to us in the only container they knew and understood, European culture. A culture which taught them the African was a lower form of a human being as Hegel’s dialectics reveal; a culture which magnified and enthroned the aryan race considering the Africans in the words of the London merchant John Lock  who came to Africa in 1561: ‘they are beasts who have no houses, they are people without heads having their eyes and mouths in their heads;’ or in the words of the poet Richard Kippling: ‘they are half devil, half child.’ How could they not see African culture as below par and in some instances demonic; they thought within the prism of their culture. But mind you, there were already exceptions as the earlier examination of Maximum Illud revealed. Many of these missionaries saw the potential in our culture, they valued the culture and actually studied and tried to understand it. They saw the African as truly human and rational. Fr Placide Temple is a good example of this endeavor with his attempt to chart an African philosophy in his book, La Philosophie Bantoue. They have their predecessors in Paul and the apostles who were exceptions in the early church’s resistance to the attempt to Judaize Christianity. It will be thus a mistake for us to throw out the child with the bathwater. To confuse the content with the container, or the message with the language in which it is delivered. Christianity is as true to the African culture as it is to any other culture in the world because truth transcends all cultures.

To illustrate the potential for understanding and rapprochement between our culture and Christianity, a great example will be the understanding of sacrifice. For generations human sacrifices have been common in our cultures and may be still common in some cultures. Very often performed in times of great calamities and misfortunes. The reason being that only human life could appease the angry gods and alleviate the great misfortunes befalling the tribe or village. In Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, we get a classic example when Okonkwo’s village has to sacrifice the ill-fated Ikemefuna as an appeasement to the god-Amadioha. Putting aside human dignity and looking just at the facts, a Christian will see in this something very similar to what Christ did. He died, sacrificed for us so that the calamity of sin may be overcome. But a more fundamental look shows how flawed it is to say that African culture is accommodating to Christianity because it understands sacrifice in the same way that Christianity does. This will be a false accommodation and a danger we should avoid or beware of as we engage in this dialogue. This is just one example. Many others could be sought. Africa has values, cherished values which are genuinely Christian. There are also aspects of this our African culture which we cannot accept wholesale into our dialogue.

We need inculturation but our inculturation so far as I can see and I stand to be corrected has been limited to the liturgy. Our inculturation has to go further than playing drums in church, singing and dancing with vernacular songs, doing lectionary processions, wearing chasubles or vestments with African symbolisms. Liturgy is just one aspect of Christian life, what about the sacraments, the manner of teaching or handing over the faith, the expression, living and understanding of morality, the approach to prayer, death and birth. With regard to the sacraments we may ask, how do we celebrate baptism in a way that is meaningful to an African who is familiar with initiation rites; how do we celebrate marriage and reconciliation in a way that draws us closer to God? How can the communal dimension of sin which is very African be of aid in the sacrament of reconciliation? How do we explain the beautiful doctrine of the Eucharist to an African mind? Europe went back into her philosophical culture and applied the metaphysical principle of matter and form and today we talk of transubstantiation. Not that we deny the reality of Christ’s presence in the host and wine but how do we transmit such a lofty fact in a language that makes sense to a typical African mind?