Nnaemeka Ali, O.M.I
The Power of Representing One’s Faith
Often when I write about the importance of contextualizing our religious expression, people think I’m asking for a revolution. Some even ask me whether I want the Church to start using palm wine instead of altar wine. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not as I’m yet to give that a thought. I would be lying if I say the contrary, but by the time I will express my thought on that, you will not have to guess it. So, no need to assume I’m saying what I do not yet say.
I happen to visit many churches, as every photographer would do. So, when I speak about the poverty in Nigerian church creativity, I often speak with other models of creative churches in mind.
Look at the first pictures in this series of photos. The first is taken in Maliotenam – a small village on the northern shore of Québec, Canada. They have neither academic theologians nor people with formal liturgical formations. Yet, they understand that, though faith is a supernatural gift, it manifests through how the people express it in their relationship with the divine. They understand that for their faith to be rooted, they ought to be able to express it in terms clear to their understanding. It has to be visually “contextualizable.”
This picture shows a classical image of the cross drawn inside a big moccasin – a shoe made of animal skin. For this semi-nomad nation, the message is clear – we walk with Christ in our territory. He is at the centre of our life and daily activities. We are with him always as we keep being indigenous and Christians at the same time.
Theirs is a clear profession of faith. We are nomads, our territory is sacred, within it, we met the missionaries, and since then, we have been walking with Christ in our territory.
There is no Latin inscription or Greek alphabet to show they are more Catholic than the pope. They pretend not to represent the entire biblical scene as if they have a monopoly of the entire Christian narrative. What interests them is how this encounter with Christ is translated into their today’s life activities.
Many of them might not come to Church every Sunday, but they know that this is their Church as it speaks about their relationship with God. There are other beautiful artworks, like the stations of the cross on the snowshoes.
Let’s move to the Southern Hemisphere. Today, we will be contented to take a brief look at the astonishing cathedral of Nsukka Catholic Diocese. The diocese has its third indigenous bishop as the shepherd, with more than 500 priests and uncountable religious men and women. Most of the priests are doctors in whatever branch of social science and humanities you can imagine. There are even those who pride themselves on being bi-doc. Bi-doc is when a person has achieved two doctorate degrees.
The recently concluded cathedral is one among its equals in the entire universe. For example, no one knows with exactitude the price of its tabernacle, as it was custom-made in Europe and transported safely down to Nsukka. From a source, the price is so high that no one dares to say it aloud.
In each corner of this beautiful cathedral are biblical scenes of all the miracles of Christ – natural, artificial, supernatural, and however they name them. The drawings are marvellously done that if one is brought into the church blindfolded, there is no way the person would know in which part of the world the Church is located. I admire it with awe every time I happen to go inside it.
However, no matter how beautiful Nsukka diocesan cathedral is, it’s without an imitable faith expression and poor in their faith experience of Nsukka people. Before you think this is about Igbo land, I would suggest you think twice as I wish to talk about other churches both within and outside Igbo land.
One would expect that with all our doctors and theologians, we would have understood better that there is no theology but contextual theologies. Why have we not known that there is no faith expression, but different faith expressions?
Where is the servant of God, Bishop Eneje, in that narrative of our experience of God? Where are Blessed Iwene Tansi and the other African Saints who met God in our land? How does the cathedral translate our God experience and tell the narrative of our journey with Christ?
In all the European cathedrals, at least those I know, we find either their saints or the enthronement of their kings and queens. And even when they decide to stick to the biblical narratives, they make sure they look close to themselves. You might think this is about the Nsukka diocese, but wait to see what I think about another diocese close to Nsukka.