Engelbert Mveng S. J.—Theologian, artist, and a Father of African Theology
Another Baobab presented in African theology of Bénézet Bujo and Juvenal Ilunga Muya (ed.) is Engelbert Mveng S.J. It is a presentation of the thoughts and works of this multidisciplinary Cameroonian Jesuit whose field of interest surpasses a short text (p. 39). Born on 9 May 1930, he joined the Society of Jesus, and after a series of studies, he became a staunch defender of authentic African theology.
By the time he was finishing his studies in the ’60s, the quest for an African (alternative) voice(s) in theological discourses was still an arduous task but no longer a question to be quickly waved away. Vincent Mulago and other earlier theologians had opened the door for the discussion.
The Vatican II was already questioning the hegemony of Neo-Scholasticism with the precursors of Nouvelles Théologies already smuggled into the temple of the official theological pantheon. The rehabilitation of Congar, Chenu, Rahner, etc., has forced the change in theological methods of that moment. They have brought history, humanities, and other epistemological fields into the menu of theology.
Through this historical context, one can better appreciate his contributions to the development of the then not yet recognized African theology. He and others like Tharcisse Tshibangu underlined the futile debates on the existence of African theology. Those familiar with the early arguments on African philosophy/ethnology will quickly grasp the situation of the period. Their opponent would want us to believe that African theology can’t exist because theology is a universal science seeking to recover the original. On the contrary, it is divine purity of revealed truth to confront it with modern thought and the great currents of world philosophy (41).
According to Alfred Vanneste, theology is never regional or cultural cogitation but a universal quest. And though theology could speak the language of a people, he thinks it can’t be a regional discipline as we would have African physics or mathematics. Thus, according to Vanneste, “Christianity’s first duty, as a universal religion, is to present its divine doctrine everywhere with formulas valid for all cultures and races” (195).
E. Mveng would consecrate a large part of his career on proving that Africa has its theology and that what Vanneste calls universal theology is nothing but a western contextualization of God-experience. So, with many other African theologians, he devoted his time to reestablish the rights of Africans to do theology from their historical, cultural, and anthropological backgrounds.
Man of his time, Engelbert Mveng, will be among the pioneers who established many faith-based associations, schools of thought and even called on the Church to listen to the African needs to develop her Church and theology. He also supported the call of Fabian Eboussi Boulaga for an African Council of the Church (43). It was an audacious quest that didn’t please both the Roman authorities and Roman sympathizers in the continent.
But among all his great theological-artistic realizations, his Hekima Christus Christology stands out. Hekima (Wisdom) Christus Christology of Mveng is a lower (Jesus first, and Christ later) Christology based on Dan Cultural initiation rite. In Hekima Christus Christology, Christ becomes the master of initiation who introduces his brothers and sisters to a divine existence through his victory over death. A quick look at his beautiful depiction of Hekima Christology could bring much freshness to anyone interested in discovering the authenticity and uniqueness of Engelbert Mveng’s theology.
He also questioned the idea of benevolent colonial masters. He highlighted the missionary role in impoverishing Africa. “The mission and the colonization, seen from a philanthropic point of view, have been all in all agents of anthropological impoverishment for Africa. This means that they intended to protect the Africa, so as to [sic] keep him in a state of inferiority and absolute dependence… Assimilation itself, by abolishing our identity and our right to be different, was an extreme form of anthropological impoverishment.” (43.)
He was vocal against the government of his country. He stepped on both small and big toes in his research for African independence from neocolonialism. Unfortunately, and like many revolutionary masters, Engelbert Mveng was later assassinated in 1995 in his native land, Cameroon.