Christianity and African Culture

By Oduyoye, Mercy Amba | International Review of Mission, January-April 1995 | Go to article overview

Christianity and African Culture


Oduyoye, Mercy Amba, International Review of Mission


As we African Christian intellectuals continue to meet to discuss Christianity and African culture, other African Christians are in the process daily of shaping a Christianity that will be at home in Africa and in which Africans will be at home. Very few African Christian theologians have found a way of being part of what I would like to name "the making of an African Christianity." One African Christian scholar, the late Prof. Bolaji Idowu, began such a process in the Methodist Church of Nigeria (see his Selfhood in the Church). In spite of the problems created by his personal style, the fact remains that the move he made to try to make Nigerian Methodists at home in their Christian life by an intensification of the element of celebration and popular participation in liturgy had overwhelming positive approval. It was seen as reviving the process that resulted in the creation of Christian versions of the rites of naming, marriage and burial. While we discuss methodology of Christian theology in Africa and how to name what is happening or should happen to Christianity in Africa, others are instituting forms of Christian churches in which the religious find a sustenance for their spirituality. Very early in the Christian enterprise those in Africa who instituted churches parallel to the western churches and missions reckoned that attempts to Africanize western Christianity would be futile. It was better to start afresh, letting the gospel speak in and to Africa and to create space for Africa to shape moulds to hold the essentials of the "Religion of Jesus Christ." We have no name for this two-way process.(1)

Meanwhile, it seems to me that for some Africans both Christianity and African culture are irrelevant to the contemporary challenges that Africans face. The University of Ibadan was once in the late '70s the venue for an epoch-making conference on "Women and Development." Papers were solicited on every aspect of life except religion. Is religion irrelevant in the discussion of "Women and Development" in Africa? In a pre-meeting of the 1977 Festival of African Arts and Culture, a symposium was held to highlight the intellectual heritage. I offered a paper on "The Value of African Beliefs and Practices for Christianity in Africa." I had no response from the organizers. Was Christianity the stumbling block or was the problem deeper, because Prof. E. Mveng gave a paper on "Black African Art as Cosmic Liturgy and Religious Language"? Was the mention "African Beliefs and Practices" itself an offence, or was it my suggestion that there is something that these can offer to make Christianity a truly African religion? I decided to test the hypothesis on a group of African Christians.

The opportunity came with the meeting of Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians (EATWOT) in Ghana. Extracts summarizing the thesis were published in African Theology en Route.(2) I had no idea that this was going to earn me the image of the woman who advocates syncretism. In 1986 I was invited to speak at an American college on "The Role of African Traditional Religion in the Development of Christian Theology." The paper bore that title, but when later the speech found its way into the International Christian Digest, it bore the title "Ways to Confront Africa's Primal Religions." I wrote a protest, which was published, suggesting that it was clarifying my position. For me it was clear enough, but then it continued my fear, that whereas it was acceptable to have Christianity transform Africa and Africans, it was difficult to allow the possibility of Africans having something to offer to transform Christianity in Africa, not to speak of world Christianity.

To make this presentation I read carefully 472 pages containing forty-seven contributions by Africans and beating the title "Culture, Religion and Liberation."(3) The focus of these papers was the liberation-domination parameter. The contributors argued the use and misuse of religion and culture in the struggle for human liberation. …

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