Interpreting African Christianity – Anthropology and Theology in Dialogue

The Faculties of Humanities and Theology | Lund University

Project description

Interpreting African Christianity: Anthropology and Theology in Dialogue

A century ago, Christianity was the white man’s religion that expanded as Christendom, i.e. as the geographical area where Christianity was the dominant religion and the governments were Christian-minded. As a result, Christian mission was usually interwoven into the colonial project. In Africa Christianity grew so fast that is was unprecedented in history, from totally insignificant numbers to hundreds of millions. According to estimates, the number of African Christians is exceeding at present that of European Christians, and in a quarter of a century Africa may even surpass Latin America as the continent of the greatest Christian population (Barrett et al. World Christian Encyclopaedia). In Africa, the result of Christian mission was not the expansion of Christendom and Western Christian cultures. Rather, African Christians interpreted the Bible in their socio-cultural contexts, resulting in new forms of Christianity. Through migration, these forms penetrate the West, too (Hanciles 2008).

African Christianity deserves to be studied for a good number of reasons. Considering both the demographic factors (low birth rate among Europeans, need of increasing immigration and higher birth rate among the immigrants) and the African instituted churches’ vigour to expand, one may expect that African Christianity will be a major dimension of religious life even in Europe. In spite of that, it has not gained nearly as much attention as Islam, even if the relationship between Islam and immigrant Christianity will play a major role in the future social stability in our countries. Furthermore, the weight of African input in international theological debates has increased, the Africans often representing positions not easily accepted by the majority of the people in the West – like being the most vociferous opponents of the ordination of an American  gay bishop in the Anglican communion. Additionally, churches are often among the strongest organizations in many areas of Africa, and any proper understanding of what takes place on that continent cannot ignore their role.

This project consists of four workshops which all contribute to the interpretation of African Christianity. The first workshop, “Antropological and Theological Interpretation of African Christianity: Methods and Theories” intends to bridge the gaps between cultural/social anthropologists and theologians for mutual benefit.  The second workshop “Understanding the Christianization of Africa” deals with the background of the spread of Christianity in Africa, as well as its social and theological impact.  The third workshop, “Understanding the Africanization of Christianity” focuses on the African initiative in Christian theology and practice. The last workshop ”African Christianity as a Global Network” deals with the global implications of African Christianity, especially through African diaspora.

Workshop I: Anthropological and Theological Interpretation of African Christianity: Methods and Theories

Anthropologists and theologians both attempt to interpret African Christianity with the tools of their disciplines.  However, they can enrich each others’ approaches to understand more deeply the contents and the socio-cultural influence of African Christian faith. Theologians are often tempted to interpret African forms of Christianity paying too little attention to the social, economic and cultural context. In that case, Christianity in Africa is in the danger of being treated as if it were sui generis, foundationally completely different from other religions and dimensions of African cultures. Anthropology is very useful help in this to place African Christianity in its larger social and cultural setting. Anthropologists, in turn, often tend to downplay the significance of the content of African Christian faith, paying attention predominantly to the ritual and social dimensions. However, a more precise understanding of the content and logic of the theological constructs steering the ritual and social behaviour, would significantly improve the analysis. Furthermore, especially a wide knowledge of the Bible, carefully studied by vast numbers of African Christians, will help to develop more insights in the phenomenon studied. In this, theologians can provide meaningful help to anthropology. A successful benchmarking from each other presupposes the possibility of learning from each others’ methodological and theoretical choices. At best, that kind of sharing would not only give rise to new interdisciplinary projects but also to hybrid methodologies and theories.

The relationship between anthropology and theology has usually not been close but has sometimes been overshadowed by prejudices (see, for example Robbins, Anthropology and Theology: An Awkward Relationship?, Anthropological Quarterly, 79.2, 285-294). Recently, however, anthropological study of Christianity has increased, and among theologians the interest in contextualization has made anthropology increasingly interesting. From the international perspective, cooperation across the divide between the disciplines has not yet become common. Nordic countries can provide a suitable breeding ground for this kind of crossing of borders because there already exist links between anthropologists and theologians especially in African studies. However, until now, this kind of cooperation has been limited to certain institutions or projects. This workshop provides the possibility of extending the links to other Nordic countries.

Workshop II: Understanding the Christianization of Africa

The explosive growth of Christianity in Africa that has taken place place predominantly only after the independence, when many an observer expected Christianity to diminish, suffering from the loss of institutional support from the colonial system. This growth was a result of various factors like Biblical translations into vernaculars (Sanneh, Translating the Message), the Africanization of church leadership, churches’ social commitment and the adaptation of African interpretations of the Gospel. Behind this growth there was a two-dimensional process. On one hand, the churches being able to provide such social and institutional instruments that helped to improve life – schools, literacy, hospitals, ecclesiastic administrational structures, ideas of communion extending linguistic and cultural barriers, management of time etc. On the other hand, these instruments, together with the ideas behind them, were eventually interpreted and administered by Africans themselves, making them more acceptable to the people.

Workshop III: Understanding the Africanization of Christianity

African interpretations of Christianity have existed from the first missionary encounters like ancient Ethiopian version of Orthodoxy or the Congolese prophetic tradition that began more than three centuries ago, and has continued up to today.  A crucial element that has opened avenues for African interpretations of the Christian faith has been the translation of the Bible in vernaculars. As a result, the Africans were able to place themselves in a dialogue with that textual corpus, and to develop local Biblical interpretation with the use of religious terminology fixed through the translations. Eventually, the interplay between the African imagination and the imported religion has grown wider and deeper. The African interpretations become visible in various forms: in the plethora of African Instituted Churches, many of which are today Charismatic/Pentecostal, or in the local revival movements found in the churches previously established by missionaries from the West. In academic discussion, African theologies of inculturation and liberation (such as Black Theology), are expressions of African determination to interpret the Christian message independently. In many cases the African contribution is overtly open to the African traditional worldviews whereas in some other cases the influence takes place through negation (i.e. great vigour in combatting witchcraft actually means the admittance of the efficacy and the cultural significance of witchcraft).

Workshop IV: African Christianity as a Global Network

The expansion of Western Christianity was a show of power while African Christianity expands through migration caused by poverty and political instability (Hanciles 2008). Western mission was highly visible due to its linkage to power. African Christian presence does not usually attract great attention. This is due to the fact that African Christian immigrants neither represent power nor do they represent danger to the people of the West. It is only occasionally that the invisible is seen when it grows too big to be ignored – like the Ukranian Embassy of God-church launched by a Nigerian immigrant and gathering tens of thousands of worshipers every Sunday in Kiev alone. Churches established by Africans can be found in numerous countries, and they tend to grow even in such Western countries where the churches are in deep decline. Many of the African-instituted churches belong to denominations with their headquarters in Africa, and many African-instituted independent congregations or churches are in a close contact to Africa. In this way, African Christianity has open channels to a vast number of major cities around the world. These networks may be among the significant new developments in the global religious changes.

This series of workshops will open new avenues of cooperation in research and teaching, creating such contacts that will be useful in the construction of international research projects. The projects may concentrate on a better understanding of African Christianity, or they may be such that bank on anthropology-theology cooperation providing improved approaches to the anthropology of Christianity and the understanding of the contextual process in theology.

The invitees to the workshop have been selected on the basis of their research interest in the topic at hand. A mixture of representatives of different fields of anthropology and theology is created, as well as researchers from different stages of their careers.

On Methods and Theoretical Connections

The workshops are not intended to represent unified methodological and theoretical approaches. The presenters of the papers will pay special attention to presenting their methodological and theoretical approaches. This facilitates cross-fertilization of ideas. Both cultural/social anthropology and theology are fields which tend to be crossroads of different disciplines in the humanities. By creating an encounter on a wide basis, these workshops provide a large variety of approaches to compare and discuss.

Considering the content of research, cultural/social anthropologists and theologians can provide each other significant support in interpreting and analyzing the phenomenon of African Christianity. On the basis of their training and background, the theologians have expertise on the historical and intellectual background of Christianity. Cultural/social anthropologists, in turn, are specialized in analysing culture and cultural changes in societies. E.g. the growth of Christianity in Africa and Africanization of Christianity are such processes to be analyzed. Additionally, very many of the workshop participants have an extensive first-hand experience of African Christianity, a good number also being nationals of African countries which facilitates also first-hand post-colonial views.