Nnaemeka Ali, O.M.I
The Role of Theology in the African Society
Bernard Lonergan started his significant theological corpus Method in Theology (1979) with this provoking statement: “A THEOLOGY mediates between a cultural matrix and the significance and role of a religion in that matrix” (11). It took me almost ages to wrap my finger around this prophetic utterance. I grew up in a young Church that was more inexperienced compared to the other Churches around her. But the greatest challenge of our Church is not her age but her quasi-inability to value her own God experience. She was made to believe that her experience was not as necessary as that of the other Churches.
She was also convinced that her story was not vital because she believed in the single story sold to her by the older Churches. This single story has been passed over to her in the name of the Universal narrative. They made her give up her own meta-narratives when they presented her with a well-orchestrated pseudo-universal narrative built within a given cultural matrix. It was this innocent Church that formed my early beliefs.
In a well-celebrated article, Contextual Theology (2010), Steve Bevans introduced his text with this fantastic affirmation:
“All theology is contextual. One can even say that there is no such thing as ‘theology,’ because there is only contextual theology: African American, Latino/a, Asian, Liberal Protestant, Neo-orthodox, Congolese, feminist or womanist, Thomist, White U.S. American or European. Theology has always been contextual, whether Elohist or Priestly in the Old Testament or Matthean, Johannine or Pauline in the New Testament. Ephrem, the Syrian in the fourth century, did theology in a distinctly West Asian way; Augustine theologized in the context of controversies that raised key questions for Christianity: the validity of Baptism, the necessity of grace, the instability of the present world. Aquinas’s context was the new culture of thirteenth-century Europe and the recent re-discovery of Aristotle; Luther’s context was widespread corruption in the Church and emerging individuality in Western thought; Teresa of Ávila’s was the Catholic Reformation. De las Casas did theology as he argued for the rights of indigenous Americans; Schleiermacher theologized in dialogue with the Enlightenment’s ‘turn to the subjective’; Karl Rahner tried to make sense of a world torn apart by war, and Rosemary Radford Reuther theologizes with the conviction that Christianity must include women’s flourishing.”
It is in line with this affirmation that the beauty of Lonergan’s statement makes sense. When he says that a theology mediates between a cultural matrix, he wants us to understand that every speculation or cogitation on God is always in a dialogue between a people, language, culture, spirituality, political and historical situation, and God. Theology is never outside a cultural matrix (a context) but within and with it. It’s also a mediation, a conciliation, a dialogue between the meaning of the people ascribe to religion and spirituality and the role these play in their society, context, or cultural matrix.
The danger, however, is to take the social context not as a matrix but as the standard of theological reflection. It is here that theological hermeneutics becomes vital. Claude Geffré maintains that theological hermeneutics is the standard in every effort to theologize a social, political, and religious experience. In his book, Croire et Interpreter (2001), he explains that the role of the theologian is to consider the relationship between the experience of the first Christian community, the experience of today’s Christians community and their respective historical contexts (20). Steven Bevans (Models of Contextual Theology, 1992) will even go further to suggest that no theology should be judged authentic until it is filtered of its imported cultural packages and then incarnated in the context of the receiving community (5).
Unfortunately, but few Africans go the extra mile to bring theology to mediate with our cultural matrix. Many import the cultural matrix of Western society and impose it on our people. This practice is what Robert Schreiter (Constructing Local Theologies, 1986) calls a translational model of theology. It’s a model of theology that adopts foreign theological narratives to a new context (7). It is crucial to make a few distinctions here because often, we see it from the wrong dimension. I have heard people cite gender and sexual orientation theories and family models as imported cultural matrices. Those are false arguments. And to be truthful, it’s even the arguments they advance that are unfortunately borrowed from the West.
The cultural matrix of Africa is expressed in her spirituality, political situations, and anthropology. The historical praxis of Gutierrez is an excellent example of such theology. It’s a theology that starts not at the pulpit but on the street. Gutierrez explains in Théologie de la Libération (1974) that theology must be inspired not by simple speculations [on perfect and non-existing] principles but by an engagement and an attitude that promotes life and involves itself in the betterment of the society (20). African theologians ought to rethink their theology. Many have made a significant shift in their theological quests by adapting their language to the African situation. Yet, the truth is that an authentic African theology should not be a theology simply done by an African but done with an African cultural matrix—which is the point of departure—and African societal betterment should be its destination.
This does not mean that Africans have always been silent in this theological conversation. On the contrary, a strong presence of that desire to bring theology to the African palaver abounds already. James H. Cone and many other black Africans and Americans have done a great job on that. Also, the courageous action of the martyrs of the Igbo landing is a robust theological act of self-liberation. On arriving at the Dunbar Cree, Georgia, in 1803, a band of Igbo slaves took control of their ship and decided to take control of the narrative of their own earthly life journey. They posed a decisive liberation theological question when they refused to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land (Psalm 137, 4). Today again, through the multiplication of sects and churches, many keep on working for an African theology of liberation, says the Jesuit theologian Engelbert Mveng, S.J. (F.-X. Akono, Explorer la théologie d’Engelbert Mveng, 2011, 49–50). Though perpetuating a translational theological model, these local initiatives are how young Africans wish the streamline theologies to mediate with and within the African cultural matrix.
Finally, an authentic African theology must work to realize the kingdom of God in the African land. It should respond to the prayer of Christ, “Thy will be done on earth (on the African soil) as it is in heaven” because when the will of God is done, the daily bread of Africans will be assured. But we know that hunger is still killing millions on our continent. It is then either that the African theologians are yet to do theology from our cultural matrix, or their voices are not yet strong enough as those of the profits they are called to be. In her book Jesus of Africa (2004), Diane B. Stinton presents Jesus as the liberator in the works of Jean-Marc Ela. She states that African theology must stand firm against every form of oppression “because the Gospel of Jesus Christ demands our participation in the struggle to free people from all forms of dehumanization” (216).