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(ii): The "Négritude" Movement and "African Philosophy" (2: Second Phase: "Incarnation)


2: Second Phase: "Incarnation"
The next phase of African theology sought a Christianity more deeply and authentically rooted in African soil. One of the ways this task was undertaken was to research the traditional African religions of the various ethnic groups from which the African theologians arose. Since many of them were second or third generation Christians by this time, it necessitated a considerable adjustment process and the pursuit of research methodologies more familiar to anthropologists than to theologians, but in contrast to anthropologists the African theologians had the advantage of knowledge of the indigenous languages as their own mother tongues.

In 1962 Bolaji Idowu's book Olódùmarè: God in Yoruba Belief appeared, challenging many assumptions then current about the uniqueness of Judaeo-Christian monotheism. In 1963 Harry Sawyerr wrote an article on the nature of theology in Africa which was one of the earliest articulations of the new mood. Throughout the 1960s it was clear that new winds were blowing. Acceptance of the agenda of the adaptation movement was to continue to grow, even into the 1970s. But by the end of the decade of the '60s it was already becoming apparent to many that mere "adaptation" was not going far enough: merely replacing a white  pastor with a black one who did exactly the same things in exactly the same ways as did the Euroamerican pastor helped very little, if at all. A few rather superficial changes in musical styles and dress still left the central core of the problem untouched. Furthermore, Africans were beginning to voice suspicions that much of the enthusiasm of the European missionaries for "adaptation" was conceived within a framework wherein European theology still set the parameters, outside which Africans must not go, thus retaining a certain theological control for Europeans (Fasholé-Luke 1981, 22).


One of the results of the new research carried out by African theologians on their own traditional religions has been the critique of western scientific anthropology. The earliest phase of anthropology had sought to put discourse concerning the societies which Europeans called "primitive" into a scientific framework. This was to be an improvement over previous discourse on such societies because it was to be systematic and "objective", unlike the observations of travellers and missionaries. Leading anthropological thinkers such as E.B. Tylor, J.G. Frazer and Lévy-Bruhl developed theories of the evolution of human consciousness which, in one way or another harkened back to Auguste Comte's "trois états" of humanity, a division which split the human condition itself into three rather unequal parts (Mudimbe 1988, 67). Given the coincidence of this categorization with the period of colonialism, an African reaction was inevitable, and when it came it was quite a sharp one. In a succession of scholarly conferences in the 1960s and '70s African theologians "broadened the scope of the critique of anthropology and the philosophy of mission activity" (Mudimbe 1988, 60-61). They criticized the ideological assumptions which underlay anthropological and missionary thought, even in the works of apparently sympathetic anthropologists such as Marcel Griaule and E. Evans-Pritchard, and missionary/anthropologists such as Placide Tempels.


African scholars in this period scrutinized and criticized the Euro-American definitions of Africanness more thoroughly. One facet of the myth of white superiority is the definition of the "otherness" of Africans in terms of their religion. In the 18th and 19th centuries, accounts  written by travellers commonly stated that Africans "had no religion". These attitudes have angered African theologians and they have been at pains to demonstrate that Africans traditionally did indeed have a religion, that it was not merely "magic", but that it had a creator God who provided for the needs of humanity. John Mbiti began his book African Religions and Philosophy with the words: "Africans are notoriously religious" (Mbiti 1969, 1). Bolaji Idowu of Nigeria wrote the words "Africans are in all things religious" (Idowu 1962, 1-10) and even "Africans are incurably religious" (Idowu 1973). Some recent scholarship has tended to qualify these statements somewhat by pointing out the secular and pragmatic motives and orientations which can often lie behind apparently religious practices in Africa. A theme issue of the Journal of Religion in Africa (1985, no. 3), devotes several articles to this insight (see Platvoet 1985, Chakanza, 1985). But these cautionary notes are a relatively minor footnote in a corpus which has overwhelmingly stressed the pervasive religiosity of Africans.


This is still so much the case, that the western visitor to Africa may at first be taken aback by the quite different undertones which the term "religion" has there. Whereas "religion" or "religious" is most often used in a derogatory manner in Euroamerican contexts, the word has  positive connotations to Africans. The phrase "It is good for a man (or a woman) to have a religion" is often said with proverb-like resonances. Signs of religious belief are everywhere in such countries as Nigeria. Even the taxis, and minibuses (called "matatus" in East Africa) usually have religious mottos or names on their windshields. In Nigeria, for example, the most common names are names such as "God is Great", or "Allah Ya Kiyaye Hanya", (Hausa for "God guard the road") or "Halin mutum sai Allah" meaning "the character of man only God knows." Even the small "food hotels" or roadside diners in Nigeria often have names like "God's Glory" or "God Provides Food Hotel".


This approval of religion may partially account for the typically negative African reaction to Karl Barth's theology, which rejects all religions as false, and this is not mitigated by Barth's assertion that even Christianity is also false.


In the introductory chapter of virtually every book on ATR written by an African scholar of religion, one can find a list of the words used by European travellers, anthropologists and missionaries to define African religion: "fetishism, animism, ancestor worship, naturism, tribalism, paganism, primitive religion" etc. The African theologians have shown how each term is inadequate to describe African religion and is derogatory in its intent. "Fetishism" was a common definition in the first half of the nineteenth century. The word derived from the first Portuguese visitors to Africa, who saw a similarity between the charms used by Africans and their own amulets, and so called these objects feitiço, or "charm". In the 18th century European scholars began using the word as a general descriptive term, and then it gained currency through Auguste Comte's use of it to denote a general theory of primitive religion in which all material objects are thought to be animated with life. African theologians object to this definition, for it had come to be used in a derogatory manner, intended to emphasize difference between Africans and Europeans: when an African performs a certain action, it is called "fetishism" or "fetish-worship", while when a European does exactly the same thing, it is called "owning an amulet."


Pioneering anthropologist E.B. Tylor in his 1871 work Primitive Culture had laid out his theory of primitive religion as "animism", by which he meant that "primitive" cultures believed all things are animated with "spirit" or "breath, life". African scholars object that ATR's adherents did not hold that all material things are animated with spirit, only that certain objects are, and furthermore, that one cannot define all of African religion by this one aspect of it.


The term "naturism" or "nature worship" had been put forward by Sigmund Freud and by Willoughby, who said that "primitive" religion developed out of feelings of awe in the face of the powerful forces of nature. However, no evidence of this development was ever gathered in the field. As Evans-Pritchard pointed out:


none of the anthropologists whose theories about primitive religion have been most influential had ever been near a primitive people. It is as though a chemist had never thought it necessary to enter a laboratory (Evans-Pritchard 1965, 6).


The other definitions of African religion have each been exposed as inadequate because they are freighted with ethnocentric over-generalization, based upon misunderstanding or mere speculation (see Mbiti 1969, 6-15 and Idowu 1973). Idowu's 1973 work African Traditional Religion: Towards a Definition was very critical in this regard. In the mid 1970s criticism of the old Eurocentric definitions of Africans and African religion reached a crescendo, sometimes marked by harsh polemics.


Another aspect of the ideological myth of white superiority was the so-called "curse of Ham". Research has shown that even after thirty years of independence, deep-seated feelings of racial inferiority still persist in Africa and people of African descent. This is, in large measure, a legacy of the colonial system, which indoctrinated Africans with the myth of racial inferiority, and the consequent psychological effects have been devastating. I explore this in more depth in chapter two.


The African theologians are critical of the development of categories of thought based on evolutionary models which always placed Africans at the bottom layer of humanity, as if they were not quite human. The work then, of African theologians in this second phase has been to rehumanize Africans by changing the modes of discourse about them, through a positive reassessment and revaluation of ATR. This led to a large research effort focused upon the traditional religions of the ancestors of the African scholars, a focus which was to become the major preoccupation of most African theologians in the period from 1966 to 1983 approximately. Before 1960 there were only a few significant published books by Africans on their own traditional religions. Those most commonly noted are Jomo Kenyatta's Facing Mount Kenya (1938), J.B. Danquah's The Akan Doctrine of God (1944), Olumide Lucas' The Religion of the Yorubas (1948), and Alexis Kagamé's La Philosophie bantu-rwandaise de l'être  (1956). The new wave of interest in ATR in the 1960s was initiated by Idowu's 1962 work, Olódùmarè: God in Yoruba Belief. It was followed by John Mbiti's 1969 work African Religions and Philosophy and his 1970 Concepts of God in Africa which, together with his The Prayers of African Religion (1975a) form a "trilogy" which constitutes a mountain at the centre of African theology. Since then a flood of new works have come out by African scholars of religion. I cite the work of Idowu African Traditional Religion: A Definition (1973) as representative of generalizing studies in this period, and the work of Edmund Ilogu (1974) Christianity and Ibo Culture as a representative of works on one specific ethnic group.


The literature of this movement is directed primarily to the African church, both clergy and laity, and as such is not in the same mode as academic theology in Europe. It is intended to make the masses more aware of their religio-cultural roots, and in this it has been very successful: Mbiti's African Religions and Philosophy (1969) can be found in every secondary school and college library in English-speaking Africa and has deeply affected most African students today. Since the 1970s ATR is a course on the post-primary school core curriculum in Nigerian secondary schools and teachers' colleges, and many African students have taken at least one course in it by the end of secondary school.


By 1974 it was emerging that the primary impetus of African theology was no longer merely adaptation of Christianity to an African environment, but the "Incarnation" of a Christianity with truly African roots. By 1974 the Roman Catholic church in Africa had come to the point of making the choice: the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar (SECAM) conference officially rejected the theology of "Adaptation" in 1974, and chose the theology of "Incarnation" in its place. The distinction was brought to a sharp focus in the title of Aylward Shorter's 1975 work African Christian Theology - Adaptation or Incarnation?


What African theologians were now in search of was a church with African leadership, with truly African mind and spirit, and where Africans could feel free to explore the meaning of a truly African Christianity, without restrictions imposed from outside mission agencies, without Euroamerican Christians constantly looking over their shoulders. They wanted the freedom to innovate in their attempts to Africanise Christianity in a manner analogous to the founders of the African independent church movements. By the mid-seventies the trickle of African theologians studying and writing on the traditional religions of their ancestors had grown into a mighty river.


During this period there was an increased sense of confidence in the African identity and African national pride, leading to a call in 1974 from the AACC for a moratorium on missions from the west, an extension of the widespread reaction against western imperialism in all its varied forms. The stimulus was what the African participants at the first Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians (EATWOT) meeting in Dar es Salaam identified as the  "anthropological oppression" of the African. In this, the African representatives differed with their Latin American colleagues who were pioneering Liberation theology at that time. The Africans stressed that the major category to them was not economic oppression, but an "anthropological oppression", which manifests itself in the derogation of all African people and African cultural attributes. The sum of discourses by African theologians in this period was marked by exposition of cultural conflict, the devastating impact of western imperialism in its anthropological and cultural manifestations.


The decade of the 1970s was a crucial one in the development of African theology. At its beginning, the work of exploring ATR was only just beginning; by its end, the movement was so strongly developed that many scholars who had gained their higher education through the church were showing greater interest in ATR than in Christianity, at least as an academic pursuit. One can see such a development in the career of Joseph Omosade Awolalu, who acquired Bachelor of Divinity, Sacred Theology Major (STM) and Ph.D. degrees through his church, and at the doctoral level shifted his attention to the study of Yoruba traditional religion. This field was much in need of scholarly adjudication at the time. Bolaji Idowu was no longer involved in scholarly writing by 1979, the year in which Awolalu's major study, Yoruba Beliefs and Sacrificial Rites was published. By that time Awolalu had become Senior Lecturer in African Traditional Religion at the University of Ibadan. In the late 1960s most African universities transformed their schools of "Divinity" into "Religious Studies Departments." Through the 1970s courses in ATR were developed as a vital part of the curriculum in these departments, lending a new status to ATR as an academic study, and giving it more autonomy as a scholarly endeavour in its own right, apart from any connection with church agendas of any kind. In addition to the many Christian theologians whose pursuit of ATR studies eventually led them into academic careers exclusively in that department, there is also now at least one active practitioner of ATR involved in teaching at the university level: Wande Abimbola is an Ifa priest and Professor of Yoruba culture at Obafemi Awolowo University in Ile Ife, Nigeria.

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