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Engaging Christian Theology in the African Context

Written by: on June 8, 2017

The renown evangelical theologian and academic, Matthew Michael, has produced a quasi-systematic theology work which seeks to understand Christian theology through close dialogue with the Bible, especially in the context of African worldviews and traditions.  He sees the necessity of Christian theology engaging the worldviews of the African people in terms of their beliefs, values, and traditional orientations.  Additionally, Christian theology must be faithful to the Scriptures in seeking to understand the correlations between biblical issues with the conflicts and tension of contemporary life. Michael stresses that the responsibility rests with Christian theology to engage the religious, social, cultural, and political aspects of the African context.  In sum, the book addresses the significance of the interaction, engagement, and dialogue between Christian theology and African traditions with the objective in mind of transforming the African mind, worldviews, and traditions as a necessary condition for a biblical transformation of Africa.

Reflection

Michael’s thorough and compelling book has greatly enhanced my understanding of African belief systems and worldviews in three areas: worldview/identity; occult practices; and salvation perceptions.

Worldview/Identity

The author informs us that the way Africans look at the world is “often the force behind their existence, the architect of their identity and way of life.” [1] Despite the Westernization of the African people, in their thinking or worldview Africans have remained African. “African identity is not about the externalities of traditions such as tribal marks, language, unique tribal clothing, festivity or location,” [2] but about worldview.  Michael intimates that Christianity only impacted the African way of life superficially because of a failure to engage the African people at the level of their worldview.

Solution

The author believes that the Christian faith has not had a significant impact in Africa despite its longstanding interaction with the continent because of its failure to engage the African people at the level of their worldview which defines them.  “Since both the African and biblical worldviews acknowledge the existence of God, angels, demons or evil spirits, these shared worldviews can facilitate engaging and transforming the African worldview in light of biblical revelation.” [3] This transformation is necessary for the true meaning of the Christian faith to be known and experienced by the African people.

Occult Practices

Michael relates that in traditional African societies, African people have sought out witch doctors, herbalists, medicine men, and diviners for guidance and consultation, believing them to be clairvoyant and to have supernatural powers.  Many Christians in African churches continue to patronize them for spiritual guidance, viewing them as legitimate means of divine guidance.  Evangelical churches persistently denounced “these traditional institutions as a medium of guidance for Christians since it is syncretic and un-Christian.” [4] Michael states the problem could be averted if the discipleship programs of the African church address the issues of the traditional African worldview and teach the biblical worldview for Christian believers which entails relying on the Scriptures and the inward leading of the Holy Spirit.

Solution

He feels it is incumbent upon the African church to strive to discourage its members from seeking traditional avenues of spiritual guidance. Discipleship programs must inculcate the authority of divine guidance exemplified in the Bible and teach the availability of guidance for Christian believer through the believing community. Otherwise the “Christian converts become immature and nominal Christians because their pre-Christian worldview has not been transformed.” [5]

Salvation Perceptions

According to Michael, myths or “fall stories” abound throughout the continent of Africa which address the estrangement of God and creation, but they are not used for theological purposes to interpret, engage, or define its religious world.  He affirms that “There are no cult practices, festivities, ritual observances or ethical motivations in Africa that seriously use these “fall stories” as a framework to understand the past, present, or future.” [6] He observes that this complicates the communication of the biblical teaching of salvation relative to the fall for the vast majority of African people. From the African perspective, salvation is understood in physical, social, economic, and political dimensions without the dominant spiritual emphasis that we find in the Christian faith.

In the African religious worldview, salvation basically entails a good harvest, victory over an enemy, good health, security or protection from evil spirits. “This concept of salvation underscores a fundamentally ‘this world’ orientation of traditional African religion rather than ‘other world’ nature of salvation in heaven. This understanding of salvation is largely driven by the temporal and existential concerns of the world of now rather than later.” [7] After conversion, many African Christians continue to comprehend their new faith within the worldview of their pre-Christian understanding of salvation.  “The compulsion to explore the materialistic dimensions of salvation by African Christians is the result of ongoing poverty, disease, instability, famine, and other economic and social ills of the African continent. These problems often drive Africans to seek physical salvation more than pure spiritual salvation.” [8]

Solution

Michael explains that in the absence of the theological conception of “the fall,” Africans tend to blame the forces of evil for sabotaging their well-being.  African understanding of salvation in the here and now must be coupled with the spiritual dimension of salvation described in the Bible. The person and work of Jesus Christ, the Savior, is central in the Bible narrative. “The African materialistic and temporal quest for salvation in the here and now must be transformed to embrace the divine plan for salvation now in Christ which will have a dominant spiritual realization at the end of time.” [9]

Michael has helped me to reconcile how Africa can be the locus of so much non-Christian activity, as part of the global South which has been termed the “Next Christendom” due to its exponential growth in Christian converts.  In my research on child-headed households in Africa I discovered that Africa is the epicenter of HIV/AIDS in the world and HIV/AIDS is the major cause for the prevalence of orphans and the emergence of child-headed households in Africa.  Others causes are war, civil unrest, poverty, and abandonment. I now have a better understanding of some of the spiritual dynamics going on in Africa conceptualizations that inform my research and future interactions on the continent.

Notes

  1. Matthew Michael, Christian Theology and African Traditions (Eugene, OR.: Resource Publications, 2013), 11.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid., 12.
  4. Ibid., 44.
  5. Ibid., 51.
  6. Ibid., 168.
  7. Ibid., 169.
  8. Ibid.
  9. ibid., 187.

 

 

 

 

 

 

About the Author

Claire Appiah

9 responses to “Engaging Christian Theology in the African Context”

  1. mm Marc Andresen says:

    Claire,

    In order to accomplish the goals of your dissertation are you aware of any specific traditions or points of worldview in Rwanda that you will need to address? In other words, have you seen worldview or traditions that stand in the way of your goals?

    • Claire Appiah says:

      Marc,
      Those are good questions; I had to think about them before I responded. I am not presently aware of any worldview or traditions in Rwanda that would hamper my ability to accomplish my dissertation goals. However, I do see a common character flaw that needs to be addressed—that is the rejection and ostracism of the population group I am studying.

  2. Pablo Morales says:

    Claire, I’m glad to see how this book connects with your research, giving you better understanding of the worldview that may be behind some of the issues you are investigating in Rwanda. I also learned a lot from this book. It was very insightful, not only in describing the African worldview, but also in giving us a framework of what cultural contextualization of theology looks like. As you said, it is a quasi-systematic theology work. In previous experiences, I used to be concerned about syncretism whenever I would hear people talk about theological contextualization. Now I can see the connection with worldview. The one question I have about the book is related to generalizations. Since Africa is a large continent, is there really an African worldview or are there different worldviews that may not necessarily match the description of the book? I’m just wondering. Thank you for your reflections on the book.
    Pablo

    • Claire Appiah says:

      Pablo,
      I agree with you about the generalizations that he makes in the book. In fact, it kind of bothered me when he constantly prefaced his arguments with such phrases as, “the African . . .” I feel that this is unacceptable for a man of his academic stature to use a broad stroke to paint all of Africa in one color, as diverse as it is culturally, linguistically, religiously, politically, economically, ethnically, historically, nationally, and geographically. That is, seeing the whole continent of Africa as consisting of one homogeneous people group that share a common worldview and origin. THERE IS NO SUCH ANIMAL. Just as I do not believe there is an “Asian worldview,” a “European worldview,” a “South American worldview,” a “North American worldview,” an “Australian worldview” or an “Antarctic worldview.” Normally when someone speaks to me in general terms about Africa, the first thing I try to do is clarify what region or nation they are talking about, and the next thing is what time-period they are alluding to.

  3. mm Garfield Harvey says:

    Claire,
    You stated, “The author believes that the Christian faith has not had a significant impact in Africa despite its longstanding interaction with the continent because of its failure to engage the African people at the level of their worldview which defines them.” This to me is a fair and accurate statement because we have the tendencies to believe that Africa is far removed from an understanding or acceptance of the christian faith. We should always remember that faith and culture goes hand in hand. Therefore, it’s important for us to have cultural Intelligence when engaging cultures outside our own or we won’t see Africa or any other country accepting our christian faith.

    Garfield

  4. Claire Appiah says:

    Garfield,
    Thanks for replying to my blog. You are correct. Remember Stephen Bevans in, Models of Contextual Theology: Faith and Culture, contends there is no such thing as “theology” in a vacuum; There is only “contextual theology.” He asserts, “The contextualization of theology—the attempt to understand Christian faith in terms of a particular context—is really a theological imperative. “(p.3) With this in mind, he explains that, “Theology today, we can conclude, must be a contextual theology. Several important movements and currents of our times point out aspects in Christianity that make imperative a theology that takes seriously human experience, social location, particular cultures, and social change in these cultures.” (p.15).

  5. mm Phil Goldsberry says:

    Claire:
    Thank you for your analysis and keen insight into the atrocities of African Christianity. You mentioned the imbalance within the salvation process with African Christians, in your estimation how can it be corrected?

    Do you feel that the West has been detrimental to the evangelization process of Africa?

    Phil

  6. Claire Appiah says:

    Phil,
    I think this imbalance can be corrected when “the whole counsel of God” is taught to and understood by Africans through evangelistic efforts in conjunction with substantial discipleship. The error is basically one of not knowing or understanding, not defiance or refusal. That’s the value, duty, and significance of contextualized theology.

    The West has brought a mixed bag of blessings and curses in the evangelization process of Africa. The blessings are that some of the ancient occult and cultic practices that were antithetic to biblical orthodoxy and orthopraxy have been abolished or lost its force. It has been detrimental in the sense that it brought about confusion and disruption of cultural heritage and belief systems without an attendant spiritual transformation, regeneration or genuine conversion to Christianity.

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