BIA Benedict XVI Institute for Africa
Father Denis

Father Denis Tameh
Mamfre Diocese

Father Denis: The Christian God and Culture in Africa, Part 1

Man does not just fall from sky. He is a product of his environment. This includes his culture, religion, worldview. In other words, each man comes from a particular community, with its own unique history, unique worldview and its own unique approach to the supernatural. All the above constitute what we call a culture. Thus, there is no man without a culture just as there is no man without a soul. In a sense culture is what makes a man. John Paul II observed when addressing Cameroon’s intellectuals in 1985 that “It is man who is the subject, the object and the aim of culture…man always lives according to a culture which is proper to him.”

To understand man and his deepest needs, yearnings and difficulties requires that we understand where he comes from, how he sees the world, how he relates to that world, what are his priorities. In other words, one has to understand his culture. He carries it with him wherever he goes, his cultural baggage, his social etiquette, his religious worldview. To reach the depth of man’s soul, the road of culture must be taken.

For the African, his culture is deeply religious. His worldview is shrouded in a spiritual mantle. Whether it is marriage, farming, conflict resolution, misfortunes, music, storytelling, there is an all-pervasive religiosity in the background. This validates the observation of the African cleric John Mbiti who said the African is deeply religious. He encounters others as an African with an already almost full cultural baggage. Just as there is cultural transference at every level of human interaction, the African too is bound to engage with other cultures and worldviews. What happens when he comes into contact with these new worldviews? How does the African mind analyze, dissect and appreciate these worldviews? What does he look for as a point of departure? History and observation reveals that the African is very culture friendly and very good at interacting with other cultures, assimilating, adapting and enculturating. His spirit is very tolerant. However, when it comes to her (culture) encounter with the worldview of Christianity which is nothing like other cultures, more than just cultural syncretism has to take place. This is because Christianity comes as a complete truth, proclaiming a way of life which it believes is the only truth and when it encounters an African culture which believes in the principle that no culture has the monopoly of truth, a seeming conflict emerges. In the process of evangelization if these considerations are not taken into account, success will be highly limited and very shallow.

This is one of the fundamental difficulties the early missionaries who came to Africa had. For some of them made the categorical mistake of evangelizing the African without the medium of his culture. The result was evident. Just as a little eagle raised with chicks never ceases to be an eagle so were these early African converts who though thought to behave like chicks never lost their eagleness. And so, in many cases a hybrid Christian was created, one who was neither truly Christian or truly African. Lost, confused, with a soul in spiritual turmoil, the African Christian neither understood Jesus and his unique message of salvation nor the reason why his culture was called the work of the devil. So, he was not really Christian because the prism through which he received the message was foreign to his worldview. He was not African anymore so he thought because he refused to identify with his culture by rejecting everything in it as base.

Caught in this dilemma, many early Christians ended up living double lives; feeding from the table of the Christian God and from the altars of their ancestral gods. This spiritual inertia was a call for concern. How can an African be truly African and Christian at the same time? Isolating him as some of the missionaries tried to do from his culture was an exercise in folly. It was like taking a fish out of water and expecting it to swim and breath with ease. During the day, these converts had the protection, security of the missionaries but back in their homes, faced with the crucial day to day problems of life and society, problems which the missionaries could not solve where did they go to? It was this problem which in part made Pope Benedict XV to write the letter on missionary work, Maximum Illud which was aimed at redefining missionary work, charting a new path which would move away from the Eurocentric approach and begin a process of inculturation.

The Church had to look for a way to deal with this. She had to ask herself this question: ‘Do we want to assimilate the African soul to relate to God the way the European soul relates with God or do we want an authentically African experience of this Christian God not clothed in the garments of European piety?” Attempting the first option was bound to produce a ‘robot’ of a Christian, programmed to sing the beautiful Gregorian chants in the mud hut church while the village centre and shrines danced to the beats of the drums and the gongs. What Africa needed was a truly and authentic African way of being Christian. Not the type of Christian typified by the catechist in Kengjoh Jumbam’s novel, The Whiteman of God who leads prayers in church in the morning and dons the kibarankoh in the afternoon.

In redressing this situation, the Church hit the nail on the head when it emphasized that missionaries should study the culture of the people they intend to evangelize, understand it, make use of what is good in them. Maximum Illud was the magna carta in this approach to missionary work. Many are the missionaries who did an excellent job in this regard. For as the saying goes good anthropologists make good missionaries. Some of the early sociologists and anthropologists in Africa were these missionaries. We can think of Edwin Smith, one of the founders of the international Institutes of African languages and Cultures, D. Westermann, J. H. Dubois, Fr Nebel missionary to the Dinkas in Sudan. In most cases these were the men and women who made the first attempt at alphabetizing local languages or documenting the first anthropological studies of these people.

The question which preoccupies the 21st century African Christian who reflects about his faith is this: After more than a hundred years of the advent of Christianity into Africa have we done enough to deepen that African experience of being Christian? My own answer to that question is “NO”. The dialogue between our faith and our culture is still at its initial phase, taking baby steps and until this dialogue is deepened, nourished, and taken seriously, the superficial African Christian of today will still remain. This does not mean however, that we have no exceptional or giant luminaries who have truly lived an authentically Christian and African existence. These are the men and women we look up to because their example is the ideal, we strive for. Majority are still caught up in the diatribe. Hillaire Belloc said of Europe, “The faith is Europe and Europe is the faith.” This statement made in the 19th century reveals the reality of Europe’s long and tortuous journey towards the inculturation of Christianity imported from the Middle East with the intellectual light of European culture, its Greek and Roman cultures, the barbarian and Germanic laws, the Anglo-Saxon and Celt religious flavors made of Christianity their religion, their umbilical cord of unity to the extent that one cannot conceive of Europe today without its Christian past even if today she is losing that identity or denies it. We Africans cannot make that statement unless we too go through that tortuous journey of dialogue with our culture as Europe did.

(To be continued)