John S. Mbiti

The great Kenyan theologian John Mbiti died a couple of days ago. My research at UKZN is focused on Mbiti’s understanding of Christianity’s relationship to African Traditional Religions. It’s part of my book project on Anglican approaches to the theology of religions.  I just finished reading Mbiti’s article, “Christianity and Traditional Religions in Africa.” Here is a passage from the conclusion of Mbiti’s piece:

Christianity has spoken too long and too much; perhaps it has listened too little. For too long it has passed judgment on other cultures, other religions, other societies, while holding the attitude that it is itself above criticism. The time may have come now for western Christianity to be more humble in its approach to other religions and cultures, if it is to be effective here in Africa. Christianity has to approach this traditional background with an open mind, with a readiness to change it and be changed by it. In particular I would appeal to our brethren in and from Europe and America to allow us to make what in their judgment may be termed mistakes; allow us to make a mess of Christianity in our continent just as, if one may put it mildly, you have made a mess of it in Europe and America. When we speak or write on particular issues about Christianity or other academic matters, we should not be expected to use the vocabulary and approach used in Europe and America: please allow us to say certain things our own way, whether we are wrong or not. We sometimes reach a point of despair when what we say or do is so severely criticized and condemned by people in or from Europe and America — often because we have not said it to their satisfaction or according to their wishes. Are we not allowed to become what we wish to become? The Independent Churches as a movement, may in fact be doing a great deal more to deepen Christianity in Africa than are the strictly historical churches which are too stiff to be shaped within the African situation. I have no doubt that the historical churches have a better theology, but the Independent Churches (speaking broadly) are more realistic and practical when it comes to taking the African situation seriously.

We are faced here primarily with the question of how best to communicate the Gospel which, being an eternal message, does not change. But the means of containing and communicating it have to change. That is where experiments and mistakes come into the picture: experiments in that the Church has to feel its way at every given place and period; mistakes in that Christianity as a human way of life is not free from error. The beauty of it all is that in spite of the errors it makes, in spite of the criticisms which could rightly be leveled against it and against the Church, Christianity is the vehicle of communicating the Gospel, and the Church is the living Body of Christ. We should not use Christianity in such a way as to injure that Body of Christ, whether the Body is weak or strong, persecuted or peaceful, divided or united.

When Peter was called by God to go and take the Gospel to Cornelius and his household, Peter objected that he had “never eaten anything that is common or unclean”. To this God told him that “what God has cleansed, you must not call common” (Acts 10 :14-16). This happened three times, we are told. I wonder whether for too long (western) Christianity in Africa has taken Peter’s attitude towards the African background. My plea is that whether that background is common or clean, we should first of all understand it, experiment with it, and pray for God’s careful guidance. I know that there are those who are ready to shout “Syncretism! Syncretism!”, in order to dismiss this concern ; but who of us is free from syncretism, pride, prejudice and sheer obstinacy? Are we not prepared to let the Holy Spirit guide us into all truth — the truth which, in this case, will no doubt show us where we are or could be wrong in our approach to the question of religion in Africa?

John S. Mbiti (30 November 1931 – 6 October 2019). May he rest in peace and rise in glory.

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