Thomas Oden in his book ‘How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind’ encourages readers to reconsider the foundations of Christian thought. He argues that much has been lost by the European ethnocentrism of Christian teaching. Neglecting the significant theological contributions of the early Christians based on the African continent negates the importance of their insights and encourages contemporary African Christians to defer to European thinkers instead of acknowledging the influence of their own ancestors on Christian thought.
In our current hyper-racial society the geographical term ‘Africa’ has connotations much broader than simply a continental land mass surrounded by the Mediterranean Sea, and the Atlantic, Indian and Southern oceans. Most conjure up images of dark skinned humanity or exotic animals. Some may consider the religious divide between the largely Muslim North and the Christian South. Yet, when we think of Christian patriarchs such as Origen, Tertullian, and Augustine
few probably imagine them as African. They are usually depicted as European which suggests a racial bias not unlike that found in our own time. Despite this, many have worked hard to point out the likely African nature of Augustine reconsidering his potential racial, ethnic and cultural heritage. (Check out this blog by Father Alexander Lucie-Smith http://catholicherald.co.uk/commentandblogs/2017/08/07/was-st-augustine-black/)
Having just completed an M Div at a moderately progressive seminary one may think that recognition of the cultural heritage of the early patriarchs would have been highlighted, particularly in the present racial climate of the US. However, this was never addressed and much to my own chagrin I never even questioned the inherent bias being presented. A consideration of Oden’s perspective may have done much to encourage and raise the stature of the African and African American students pursuing this seminary degree alongside me.
Oden works hard to point out that he is not arguing for a reassessment of the African contribution for racial reasons but rather to remind readers of the debt owed to early African Christians and the significant South to North intellectual movement that occurred during the first few hundred years of Christianity. This reassessment does much to mitigate the seeming inferiority of African Christians to their American and European trained brothers and sisters. It has the potential to foster a greater sense of humility in the minds of those ‘evangelizing’ Africa from the West and a recognition that Christianity was not brought to Africa by missionaries post William Carey but had been present on the continent from the beginning.
I particularly enjoyed the connection made between African Christian thought and practice and that found in Ireland. Again, it is easy to ignore the importance of the African contribution to Irish theology as well as monastic and evangelistic practices. Yet, when one considers the immense influence that the Irish communities have had on Christian thought it behooves us to recognize from whence much of this understanding derived.
I found this text fascinating and have since purchased several copies to present to my M Div friends in the hope that they will be encouraged to begin some of the work suggested by Oden to further this much needed understanding.