by Bruce Demarest
The church has expanded so rapidly in recent decades that the center of gravity of Christianity has shifted from Europe and America to the Third World.
Under the blessing of God modern missionary efforts have prospered to the point where the church is planted in virtually every nation of earth. Indeed, the church has expanded so rapidly in recent decades that the center of gravity of Christianity has shifted from Europe and America to the Third World. Developments have been so rapid and explosive among the young churches overseas that the Western Christian needs to be more fully appraised of current trends.
The churches of the developing world struggle with the issue of what kind of shape the gospel should take in their particular cultural situation. A host of voices from distant lands today question whether hymnody, worship, yea, whether theology itself, should remain structured along Western lines. Must the fabric of the Christian faith always bear the imprint "Made in Europe" or "Made in America"? Third World leaders impatiently plead.
Many Third World churchmen are convinced that the theology bequeathed them by Western missionary efforts needs reshaping if it would speak relevantly to the needs of the developing world. Somehow the pure essence of religion must be separated from the bulk of Western cultural baggage. In short, theologies must be developed which uniquely reflect the African, Asian, and Latin American social, political, and religious contexts. In other words, the claim is made that religion must be indigenized or made to conform to local customs and practices.
Mainline churchmen and theologians are deeply concerned to rid the church in Africa of alien colonial elements and to bring it to full indigenous status. They see the church as a kind of marionette whose strings are being manipulated by foreign exploiters. As a first matter of business the church in Africa must cast off its European complexion and strive to realize its uniquely African personality and destiny.
African leaders thus call for the development of African Bible translations, styles of worship, and language of evangelism. Such efforts toward indigenization are both necessary and good. But some African spokesmen add that if the church would truly become the people of God in Africa the theology willed to it by Western missions must be supplemented by traditional beliefs, namely, by the age-old wisdom of native tribal faith.
E. Bolaji Idowu, a leading Methodist theologian, in his book African Tribal Religion (1975) typifies the new African quest for God. The African scholar claims that people everywhere enjoy a profound living experience of the majestic and transcendent God. Through a universe that is transparent to the Sacred, man unavoidably engages Ultimate Reality in an experience which evokes feelings of awe, eeriness, and irresistibly attractive power. Via the universal self-revelation of God to the soul every human being finds himself overwhelmed by the sheer presence of God. In other words, the claim is made that the tribal African encounters God while participating in the traditional African forms of worship.
The African scholar quickly adds that the conceptual expressions of man’s fundamental experience of the divine reality vary from culture to culture. Hence the tribal African’s description of the experience of the Holy will be cast in quite different forms of creed and worship than that of the European. In his primitive setting the African may create a picture of God that is blurred or incomplete. But the chief point is that African traditional religion constitutes a valid expression of the tribesman’s experience of God. Ancient African spirituality represents the sweet fruit of divine revelation to the African people. The African traditional religionist, so it is argued, is covered by God’s redeeming grace.
If the foregoing be true Western misconceptions of African spirituality must be swept aside. For example, material objects (idols) are said to serve the useful purpose of aiding the worshipper’s perception of the divine Presence. In addition, the animistic flavor of African religion purportedly reflects the belief that worship of the Divine Spirit is facilitated by appeal to lesser ministering spirits. And the old practices of fetishism and juju, where material objects are invested with magical powers, are but symbolic expressions of the tribal African’s finely tuned sensitivity to the spiritual realm.
The thesis of many contemporary African churchmen, then, is that spiritualism, ancestor worship, magic, and ritual medicine are all appropriate responses of the African soul on African soil to the universally experienced mystery of Transcendence. Since the African comes to know God savingly through traditional forms of worship, he is under no obligation to exchange his ancestral faith for an imported religion.
African churchmen justly oppose those who ignorantly or perhaps arrogantly depreciate African culture as barbarous, base, or worse. They correctly expose the fallacy that the "Dark Continent" is devoid of significant cultural and moral values. But while defending the merits of African culture, the new African churchmen err in uncritically exalting natural religion as a means to saving knowledge of God. It is true that through effable intuition (Rom. 1: 32 – 2:15) and rational reflection on the created order (Psa. 19:1-6; Rom. 1:19-21) all people possess a natural knowledge of God. But this rudimentary universal knowledge of God as Creator and judge falls far short of that specific cognitive and relational knowledge which saves the soul. The radical thesis that the pagan African religionist comes to God redemptively through his bare experience of Transcendence flies in the face of the clear biblical claim that God is known as Savior solely through faith in the crucified, risen Jesus Christ.
The church in Africa today is besieged by a subtle spirit of syncretism and universalism. The new gospel being preached is syncretistic in that it promotes a religion that is a synthesis of biblical faith and pagan beliefs and practices. And it is universalistic in its claim that on the basis of everyday religious experience all people are being saved. Scripture speaks to the traditional African practices of libations, incantations, taboos, omens, blood sacrifices, and human sacrifices when it urges adherents of indigenous religion to "turn from these worthless things to the living God" (Acts 14-15). In that the gospel of Christ speaks of God’s stupendous act of condescension to save a rebellious race, Christianity must be sharply differentiated from African traditional religion both in its beliefs and in its spiritual benefits.
Reacting against adventuristic Western foreign policies, many African leaders have abandoned Western theology in favor of new forms of African theology. However, the urgent need of the hour is not an African theology as such, but a biblical theology clothed in African dress for the African soul. One must pursue the quest for God in a manner which is both Christian and African. The proposals of many churchmen on the continent may be African, but they can hardly be called Christian in the historic sense of the term.
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