Hearing and Knowing: Theological Reflections on Christianity in Africa is written by Mercy Oduyoye, arguably Africa’s foremost female theologian. A Ghanian, her perspective is shaped by a different context from the one we find ourselves in. Nevertheless, she brings some strikingly relevant questions, in particular, what does Christianity offer to the African that traditional religions (or Islam for that matter) do not? Unfortunately, the answer to that question was yet to be plumbed in African theology at the time of writing (nearly 30 years ago) for reasons that quickly become apparent.
Part One: Christianity in Africa
It took quite some time to work out Oduyoye’s agenda and tone in this section. She scorns the attitudes of missionaries to Africa as well as the Christianity they brought. At times this sounds like a rejection of Christianity, as though she believes that traditional African religion is enough to reveal the One God. However, this can not be her conclusion because she consistently pursues the question of how Christ might be best known in the African context. Her objection is rather that the Christ brought by missionaries was a Christ answering western needs and questions and communicating in western terms.
One simple example is that she asks why missionaries felt the need to bring schools and literacy with their Christianity. These were western ways of communicating. A more subtle question is one of rites and symbols. For example, Lenten candles, like Christmas trees, are British pagan symbols, appropriated to speak of Christ. ֵThough the association has long been forgotten in western minds, they remain foreign in an African ritual. Oduyoye asks what the analogous African customs are, not because she wants to bastardise Christianity with African traditional religion but because she wants to see Christianity make sense in African terms.
One question that remains for me is what ‘African theology’ looks like for the modern African. Oduyoye draws on traditional categories and myths as the terms in which to couch her theology. She sees Africans who accept the categories of western theology as having internalised the thought patterns of the oppressors, betraying their own Africanness. I can’t help but feel here that she is searching for a primitive or pure African identity that no longer exists in the same way and that in doing so, she invalidates the experience of the modern African. However, at the same time, I’m aware of how pitifully limited and shallow my own understanding even of this one African country is. I’d be keen to hear from 21st century East African scholars on this.
Part Two: African theology
Oduyoye’s theological reflections on African experience are suffused with a holism that refuses to see the spiritual, material, political or social as distinct categories. It is this perspective that leads her away from spiritualising salvation. She highlights themes often overlooked in western theology such as Yahweh’s role as Warrior-Saviour in the Hebrew scriptures. I feel that I have much to learn from her holism and that it would help me as a westerner to read the Bible better.
While Oduyoye favours liberation theology, she maintains a strong theology of sin, even including a long list of evils particularly apparent in African cultures (including pluralism, elitism, neglect, corruption, racism, etc.) In fact, she argues that because this is both personal and corporate, Africans are well placed to see their need for a saviour.
One question I had left at the end of this section was about how to speak of Christianity as the continuation of a Jewish story. When missionaries first came, Africans saw simply a ‘white man’s God’ but of course, Jesus wasn’t a western saviour – he was a Jew and the fulfilment of a Jewish story. While Jesus wasn’t white, he also wasn’t African! Oduyoye agrees that we can not completely replace the Jewish Old Testament with African traditional religion but she offers no suggestions on how to invite Africans to participate in another people’s story in a compelling way.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.