Theology, Identity and the Pre-Christian Past

By Wagenaar, Hinne | International Review of Mission, October 1999 | Go to article overview

Theology, Identity and the Pre-Christian Past


Wagenaar, Hinne, International Review of Mission


HINNE WAGENAAR [*]

A CRITICAL ANALYSIS OF DR. K. BEDIAKO'S THEOLOGY FROM A FRISIAN PERSPECTIVE

Introduction

One of the central themes in the theological work of Dr. K. Bediako, director of the Akrofi-Christaller Memorial Centre for Mission and Applied Theology in Akropong, Ghana, is the relationship between African Christianity and the pre-Christian heritage, i.e. the African Traditional Religions. In all his books and articles, Bediako basically struggles with this same subject. In several places he expresses this by quoting E. Fashole-Luke from Sierra Leone: "The main thrust of African Christian scholarship has been the argument that 'conversion' to Christianity must be coupled with cultural continuity." [1] For Bediako, this interaction between Christianity and the cultures of Africa marks a new creative stage in Christian theology. Reflecting on his own theological development he writes:

My own studies in the formative stages of modern African theology brought me to the conclusion that the issue of identity lies at the heart of the process by which the Christian theological enterprise is actually carried forward. As it emerged in the post-missionary context of African Christianity in the 1950s and 1960s, the question of identity entailed (...) confronting constantly the problem of how 'old' and 'new' in African religious consciousness could become integrated in a unified vision of what it meant to be Christian and African (...) African theology, therefore, by becoming something of a dialogue between the African Christian scholar and the perennial religions and spiritualities of Africa was thereby a struggle for an appropriate Christian discourse which would account for and hold together the total religious experience of Africans in a coherent and meaningful pattern. Identity itself thus became a theological concern and the formulation of theological questions were linked as the inevitable by- product of a process of Christian self-definition. [2]

In this article I want to analyse how Bediako develops such a 'unified vision.' I will try to understand Bediako's theological paradigm in which African Christians 'can be authentic Africans and true Christians'. Important then is, of course, Bediako's appraisal of the pre-Christian past.

In the second part of this article, I will apply Bediako's African theological attitude to the European history of mission. And even more specifically, I want to raise some basic questions related to my own Frisian identity and culture.

Reading about the encounter of Western Christianity with African cultures, many questions rise to the surface concerning the first centuries of Christianity in Western Europe, particularly about the attitude to the indigenous cultures and traditional religions of the Germanic tribes and so to the traditions of my own Frisian people! In this way, I will try to meet Bediako's challenge, for he suggests that it may be worth exploring whether African Christian thinking may have some relevance to the present task of theology in the West. Several times Bediako compares his own findings with the European history of mission and suggests, for example, how important it may be to study Bede's History of the English Church and People from a missiological point of view. I will engage in the discussion by raising some basic questions as to the theological attitude in Western Europe to the European pre-Christian past.

I. African and Christian

1. European Ethnocentrism

African theology emerged in the post-missionary context of the 1950s and 1960s when African theologians started to reflect on their own context of being Christian and being African. The basic emotion behind this movement was the outrage about the negative attitude of the missionaries towards African cultures and religions.

It became necessary for African theologians to study African religions, African traditions and African cultures. …

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