RESEARCH IN RELIGION: CONTEXTS, SOURCES AND HISTORICAL-CRITICAL METHODS
Specialization Course, Organized in partnership by Tangaza University College and FSCIRE.
Introduction by Dr. Radoslaw Malinowski (HOD, Church History Department, Tangaza University College) and Dr. Ilaria Macconi (Director, FSCIRE).
The Specialization Course or Seminar “Research in Religion: Contexts, Sources and Historical-Critical Methods”, set to run from January to April 2022 through virtual meetings, began with an introductory lecture by the organisers, Dr. Malinowski and Dr. Macconi. They began by taking the students, logging in from Kenya, Italy and Poland, through the course outline.
The purpose of the course is to provide tools and research methods for the study of religion from a historical-critical perspective. In order to fulfil this purpose, the course aims to teach the students how:
- to identify the main tools and resources to write history of religion
- to identify and use online (digital) resources
- to know the main historiographical theories
The course consists of independent modules on a weekly basis, whereby a scholar in religious history will give a lecture based on their field of research. There will be an opportunity for the students to engage the lecturer with questions and summaries of the day’s insight will be presented in the next class. The virtual seminar is facilitated by Zoom meetings held at 2.30pm on Thursdays.
The following include some of the key modules to be covered by a variety of experts:
- Methodology of Historical Research on Religion
- Christian Historiography
- Methodology of African Traditional Religions
- Interreligious Dialogue in Africa
- Islamic Historiography
Having provided the course outline, the session took up the notion of ‘history of religion’, seeking to lay a foundation for the subject matter at hand. It was emphasised that “at the centre of religion, away from the layers of culture, politics and ethnic origins, one finds the concept of the sacred or the transcendent,” an idea that was the focus of Rudolf Otto’s book, The Idea of the Holy (1917). This sense of the transcendent is at the root of every religion and it should not escape the attention of the historian of religion. The historian is urged to avoid a skewed perspective, especially at the hands of regional, geographical, cultural or ethnic bias; to understand religion, one must investigate man’s preoccupation with the sacred.
It was also noted that it is important to avoid the bias of only researching the ‘Big Three’ religions, namely Christianity, Islam and Judaism. It is important to note the rich diversity in religious belief, especially in Africa, even while acknowledging the transcendent threads that tie them all together.
The discussion then went on to speak about the topic of sources. The historian must take great care to return again and again ad fontes, that is, to the sources. “History is the careful analysis of sources that convey their message and reveal their significance to the present.” Certainly, it is crucial to interrogate these sources, to ascertain their veracity and authenticity as well as the suitability of the sources to the particular research. In what mode do we find these sources? In general, it was explained that we find either oral or written sources. But within these genres, we find a variety of sources which in the course of research complement one another. They include documentary and written sources, archaeological data, visual sources, art history, oral history, ethnographic and anthropological sources. In order to make best use of these sources, we need an interdisciplinary and cross-cultural perspective.
Special attention was given to oral sources as they are often underutilized or disdained. They require sensitivity in their collation and interpretation. Orality involves testimonies and life histories and oral traditions. Oral sources “offer us the possibility of exploring the social production of memory, self and subjectivity,” as noted by Cooper in 2005. In order to best investigate Church History, we must focus away from the centre and towards the locality. This requires an ecumenical, holistic and dialogical methodology, which is supported by Vatican II’s insights.
In conclusion, it was affirmed that the course, being a joint endeavour of educational institutions in Europe and Africa, would strive to open up the student to a variety of methodological approaches and fields of knowledge that would allow them to more passionately and intelligently value religious contexts and experiences.
Decolonizing African History of Religion: The Dictionary of African Christian Biography by Dr. Edith Kayeli, University of Nairobi.
In this discussion, we explored the history and function of the Dictionary of African Christian Biography, an invaluable resource for any academic study of religion in Africa. Dr. Kayeli began with the definition of terms, referring to decolonization of the mind as the undoing, dismantling or decentering of the mind from the biases of European writers and ideas, in favour of constructing and delivering a curriculum that caters to Africa from a non-European perspective. The Dictionary of African Christian Biography or DACB is a resource that employs the concept of decoloniality, drawing primarily from African sources, and in particular, oral sources.
The DACB was founded by a group of scholars sponsored by the Research Enablement Program, who met in 1995 from August 31st to Sept 2nd. This meeting resulted in the launch of an online dictionary that covered the whole field of African Christianity from earliest times to the present, over the entire continent. “The Dictionary was envisioned to not only stimulate local data gathering and input, but also as a non-proprietary database to maintain, amend, expand, access and disseminate information vital to an understanding of African Christianity,” as stated by Dr. Kayeli. This means that the DACB seeks to afford access to all interested scholars, without bias or restriction, as well as to expand its field of knowledge as far as possible. “The aim is for the Dictionary to not only fill important gaps in the current scholarly corpus, but to inform, challenge and enrich both church and academy by virtue of its dynamic and internationally collaborative character.”
The DACB strives to take orality seriously, recognizing that narratives, orally handed down from generation to generation, contain a lot of valuable information that is often ignored or bypassed in written records. To decolonize our studies and our curricula, we must consider the oral narratives of the illiterate and elderly, which the researchers of the DACB often do by going out and conducting interviews as well as soliciting contributions from well-wishers all over the continent.
The lecture ended with a mention of similar projects initiated elsewhere in the world as inspired by the DACB, including the Centre for the Study of Christianity in Asia, based in Trinity College, Singapore, which is working to produce a biographical database on Asian Christianity as well as the Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Christianity (BDCC) which was launched in 2005. For more information, visit https://dacb.org/#
Medieval Historical Sources in Nubia Regarding the BAQT treaty between Christian Nubia and Muslim Egypt by Dr. Radoslaw Malinowski, Tangaza University College.
This lecture focused on the history of an often-neglected African kingdom that endured various challenges to its Christian heritage during the Middle Ages: Nubia. Nubia was a strong, independent state with a distinguished culture and contact with the Mediterranean World through the River Nile. It is notable that pagan religions, Christianity and Islam coexisted in Nubia. The Noba people formed three kingdoms: Nobatia, Makura and Alodia. During the reign of Justinian, Monophysite missionaries were sent to Nubia, spreading the faith.
Of particular interest in the history of Nubia is their unique achievement of defeating the invading Islamic armies as they sought to expand their territories during the late seventh century. The battle of Dongola in 652 is key because it led to the signing of the BAQT treaty, colloquially thought of as the longest running known treaty, lasting until the 14th century. The BAQT established a certain equilibrium between the Muslim Egyptians and the Christian Nubians, involving the trade of luxury goods from Egypt to Nubia in exchange for slaves from Nubia to Egypt as well as restrictions on settlement and political aggression. Dr. Malinowski sought to emphasise, however, the consequences of a lack of Nubian sources regarding the BAQT; we are limited in only having recourse to Islamic sources, meaning that any research into the matter must proceed carefully, taking note of possible bias. The Al Maqirizi perspective is declined in favour of older, more disparate sources. These sources allow for the possibility that there may have been several BAQTs; the BAQT as we know it may never have existed; the BAQT would have been based on a legal Greco-Roman tradition and thus crafted by the Christian Nubians and not the Muslim Egyptians; Egyptian Copts would have supervised the BAQT; the present understanding of the BAQT may be based on religious propaganda favoured by the Abbasid Revolution. In general, in Arabic historiography, there are two conflicting perspectives:
- Persian or Baghdad Tradition that states that the BAQT speaks of a tribute paid by vassal Nubia to the conqueror Muslim nation.
- Egyptian Tradition that states that the BAQT speaks of gifts given by both sides to maintain peace, whereby victorious Nubia dictated the conditions.
It is likely that it is indeed Nubia that defeated the Muslims because Monophysite refugees from Egypt would have allowed their armies to prepare for the threat of the Muslim army. Moreover, the slaves traded to Egypt were not Nubian citizens but prisoners of war from conflicts with neighbouring territories. In addition, the ideology behind slavery in these times were different from the way we understand slavery today. It was an economic system that staved off poverty; it did not feature many of the dehumanising, cruel and race-centric characteristics of slavery in the 18th century.
The Jungian Psychoanalytic Theory of Myths of Initiation/Individuation as Applied to Maltan Temples by Prof. Dr. hab. Piotr Plisiecki, Catholic Universtiy of Lublin.
In this lecture, Prof. Plisiecki, an archaeologist and researcher in religious history, spoke about the problem of artefacts. How are they to be interpreted or understood? In the absence of accompanying texts, how are we to decrypt these artefacts? He noted that many historians and archaeologists often dismiss such ‘uncategorized’ artefacts as tools of religion and leave it that. He insisted however that such an attitude may close the door to an entire realm of knowledge, which may begin with religion but goes further into history and the exploration of human nature.
His research thus approaches such artefacts with a new vision, whereby psychological theories can be used to help us understand how such ‘religious artefacts’ can enlighten us regarding the human communities that used them as well as the depths of human nature they had acquired and preserved.
Prof. Plisiecki began to elaborate on this hypothesis by recounting the Greek myth of Theseus, Ariadne and the Minotaur of Crete, in which we find a young male hero (Theseus), a symbol of Mother Nature (Theseus’ mother, Aphrodite), a sage old man (Theseus’ father, Poseidon), a feminine counterpart (Ariadne), a beast to be conquered (the Minotaur), a labyrinth (a mental challenge), the use of one’s wits to escape danger (the string that led Theseus out of the maze), the reward of a kingdom (maturity) and the importance of dance or choreography as a means to enlightenment (Daedalus the inventor). It was Jung’s hypothesis that such a myth shares similar traits with myths from all over the world, having different cultural histories and never having come into contact. This would happen because the communities telling these stories were trying to tell an archetypal story about psychological development: the story of initiation as a young person reaches adulthood. The myths were therefore passing on the secrets of psychological processes where one becomes a fully conscious person – individuation.
The elements of the myths reflect the ‘common sub-consciousness’, a phrase by which Carl Jung meant that the community taught its young people how to discover their identities, fight and defeat their ‘shadows’, their worst selves, engage with the opposite sex, and come to peace with their place in the world. To complete this process, one needed the intervention of one’s parents or the elders of the community, a physical or intellectual struggle that forced one to harness their strengths and confront their weaknesses, the transmission of secret knowledge regarding history or profession, an experience with nature and an exposure to the spirituality of the people. These challenges and experiences were often to be held within a labyrinth, a maze of varying directions, that demanded time and care to escape. At the end of the process, one would come to access their personality
To illustrate his point, Prof. Plisiecki gave the example of a Maltan temple that exhibits most, if not all of these elements, as do many other archaeological sites all over the world. The Hal Saflieni Hypogeum is a labyrinth, dating back at least 2,000 years BC, which shows evidence of the sculpture of a Great Mother at the front, drawings of masked individuals entering the temple, a sculpture of a ‘sleeping lady’ in need of rescue, a maze of rooms to proceed through, drawings of deer to lead the entrant into ‘another world’, pottery fragments of funnel cups to aid intoxication with poppy seeds, a test of water, a test of fire, spiral carvings representing watchful eyes, a room in which one would be trapped so as to face their ‘beast’, stairs to facilitate ascension once one has gained enlightenment and various openings likely to facilitate communication with the shaman outside. Such temples would have been used to initiate individuals seeking apprenticeship in difficult professions such as shamanism. There is thus archaeological evidence to illustrate that myths not only likely point to an actual historical story but go so far as to portray a deep communal lesson. At the very least, the Jungian psychoanalytic theory allows historians of religion a possible methodological tool in the study of myths and ancient artefacts related to religious practices and doctrines.
Memory and History: Oral History and Oral Tradition by Dr. Kenneth Ombongi, University of Nairobi
Dr. Ombongi structured his presentation as follows: He would give a preamble to introduce his understanding of orality. He would then define several key concepts that appear in his presentation. The core of the presentation would be constructed in a question-answer format, where two major questions would be discussed, and the synthesis – the answers – would be offered. He would then conclude his presentation.
Oral traditions are significant; so much so that when we shun them, we neglect our history and our identity. Dr. Ombongi affirmed that colonial pessimism regarding the utility of oral traditions very nearly convinced the African people to abandon their culture altogether, certainly making it easier for the coloniser to exercise control. In his opinion, oral history must be approached in an integral manner by taking oral history and oral traditions together with written sources.
Some of the key concepts defined include the following. Episteme refers to a knowledge system; historiography to the craft of historical scholarship; polemic to controversy; anachronism to the tendency to extrapolate the present into the past. Oral tradition consists in the testimonies transmitted verbally from one generation to another. It involves a message and the process by which that message is passed on. The spoken word is the essence of oral tradition. Primary to oral tradition is historical truth, while entertainment comes second. Oral tradition is thus a living museum, as understood by UNESCO. It helps preserve a society’s way of life and worldview.
Question 1: What are the key historiographical debates a student needs to understand to appreciate that oral traditions are an indispensable source material to African History?
- Dialectics of Denial and Imperial Neglect
It was argued by some European scholars in the late 19th century that as a predominantly oral continent, without written sources, it was impractical for Africa to write its history. Some went so far as to say that Africa, as the ‘dark continent’ had no history to teach because “darkness is not a subject of history.” This mentality was a product of the positivist ideology that drove the Industrial and Scientific Revolutions prior to the colonialist expansion. Thus, colonial African historiography ignored the rich deposits of oral tradition (stories of skills, love, life, death, nature and culture). Further, it was argued that everything civilised in Africa was foreign in origin. This viewpoint meant that the people’s collective memory, contained in their oral tradition, was ignored and external influence was seen as the prime mover of African history.
- Dialectics of Acceptance and Nationalist Epistemic Reactionary
This response was characterised by the reaction of the first native African historians who sought to argue against the dialectic of denial. Prof. Alan Ogot wrote the first PhD dissertation on African oral traditions, based on Luo narratives, known as The History of the Southern Luo. His work opened doors for the use of oral tradition in the reconstruction of Africa’s pre-colonial history, many of them by students of Ogot. These historians, however, fell into the trap of writing their histories as recapitulations of mere myths and legends. They lacked universal appeal or self-critique.
Question 2: What, in form and content, make oral tradition a useful source of African history?
- Dialectic of Utility and Functionality
Oral traditions are mostly functional; they are produced to fulfil a certain purpose. Historians began, therefore, to seek these purposes and reproduce them academically. Verbal traditions are fragile and liable to distortion. The historian therefore has to take great care in recording them, avoiding bias and the temptation of succumbing to popular trends. If that is ascertained, the oral history can be preserved and recorded and understood in the context of its creation.
- Dialectic of Anachronism and Historical Objectivity
It is important to avoid the temptation of anachronism, seeing the past through the lenses of the present. We must keep in mind that oral traditions are alive, even as the historian or researcher treats them. Oral history is built every day, through the simple act of conversation, especially in the various African vernaculars. It is important to preserve the nuance of meaning in words and phrases as they are translated as much as possible. For oral tradition to be safeguarded, we need an interdisciplinary approach, taking into consideration archaeology, sociology, linguistics, anthropology as well as orality.
Interpretation is the backbone of understanding oral traditions because many meanings in the stylistic use of language are hidden. Determining factors in the interpretation of oral traditions include social class, age, marital status, kinship, religious significance. One must always investigate the context and beware that oral history can be misused for propaganda. Scholars must therefore be careful to sift through oral traditions for the objective truth and strive to protect their loss through natural attrition. While oral traditions are fairly localized in form and content, they have universal messages which serve to outline the African mythos and identity. Should we endeavour to do this, to safeguard orality, we can prevent the continued Alienation, Domination, and Control of African peoples by forces urging the abandonment of oral history and oral traditions. We must remember.
Resources in History of Vatican II by Prof. Alberto Melloni, FSCIRE
Prof. Melloni began by defining religious experience as the free adoption of revelation coming from above. This revelation can be wisdom. Historein means ‘searching for’. History creates a tradition of curiosity and exploration that leads to differing opinions that may lead to ‘confessional controversy’ in the area of religion. This is where various schools of thought on the same topic come up and discuss with each other. For instance, the Lutheran tradition accuses the Catholic Church of a history of decadence while the Catholic Church accuses the other of lacking an unbroken tradition of transmission of faith.
The assumptions underlying the world’s Christian religious historical worldview was challenged by the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 in which thousands of people needlessly died. “If God is good, unde malum?” The people asked about the origin of evil; if God exists, why do such tragedies occur? The conclusion among some scholarly circles was that there was no Grand Design, only the forces of nature and human responsibility. The focus shifted away from God as the centre of history to man. History now seeks other theories to explain the dark parts of human nature. Instead of calling for reformation of existing practices or fidelity to continuity, history sought to understand the complexity of Christianity.
To aid the quest for a human-centred notion of history, the 19th century saw the growth of many new fields and disciplines, such as philology, which helped expand the base of historical research. Focus shifted to authenticity of the sources, even for Biblical studies. This inspired the controversy between the Historical Jesus and the Jesus presented in the Scriptures.
As the sources are analysed, there is a conjecture or guess as to the what the sources portray, and behind this conjecture, there is darkness. That is, doubts remain. Behind the darknesss, however, there is hope. The Church delivers the sources to the Historian. The historian is a person who is privileged to live in a particular epoch and place; providence plays a part in the historian’s representation of history. History is not simply a fragment of a narrative but reflects the context of when it is written.
Before the Second Vatican Council, we had important moments in history when the controversies between theologians required meetings of bishops to resolve them, including the Council of Trent, the Council of Florence and the First Vatican Council. Yves Congar, a scholar of Vatican II, had a profound sense of history. Vatican II took note that in liturgy, cultural behaviour is part of religious experience and this informed its position on inculturation in liturgy. The external aspects of performance in faith may change depending on the cultural context, but the doctrines and understanding of what is essential remains binding. Thus Christianity lives in institutions while not actually being an institution. A Council is therefore recognised as a mechanism to produce a decision that will alter the face of the Church, while helping to better understand the unchangeable heart. It is important to remember that Vatican II was a pastoral council, in contrast to previous councils which were chiefly doctrinal. This helps us analyse its effects and history more objectively.
As a concluding remark, it was noted that it is important for episcopal conferences to consult each other and work together to solve regional problems, because sometimes, some issues cannot be solved by a single conference alone. For instance, Brazil could have benefited from the intervention of the global church as regards the explosion of evangelical Protestantism. A similar mistake might be happening where the European Church is failing to borrow from the treasury of the African Church in dealing with the phenomenon of empty churches. The legacy of Vatican II is the call to return to synodality; to awaken to the call of the universal call to mission.
The Role of Women in Religious History by Prof. Mary Getui
Prof. Mary Getui structured her presentation around 3 notable individuals in history; women who would help portray the religious landscape in pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial Kenya. Concurring with Mbiti, she sought to show how religion governs all areas of African life. This religion, while technically neutral or gender free, is male-dominated, meaning that instances of female religious figures is worth study.
In considering the role of the woman in the pre-colonial African set-up, she chose to present Mora’a, a headstrong voice among the Kisii people who sought to lead her people against the unjust practices of the colonial administration who forcefully took land that was considered sacred with the aim of building an administration centre. They also imposed a hut tax while stoking tensions between the Kisii and the Luo, so as to divide their attention. One of the Kisii leaders was accused of stealing money from the British administration and had his cattle driven away as ‘punishment’. Seeing all these injustices, Mora’a chose to object, standing up while many of the men cowered. Exploiting her reputation as diviner, she incited several young men to stand with her and defend the community, even to the point of taking up arms. Her boldness forced the colonial administration to extend the white flag and come to the negotiation table.
To set the scene for the colonial set-up, Prof. Getui recalled the literary masterpiece that is The River Between by Ngugi wa Thiong’o, in which the 3 Cs of the conflict between Religion and Colonialism may be easily viewed: Christianity, Commerce and Civilisation. The call to conversion that characterised the Christian mission that preceded colonialization created two categories of people among the African natives, who often came to loggerheads. These were those who embraced the new religion and those who remained in the indigenous religious set-up. An example of unquestioning and enthusiastic convert is given in the figure of Joshua, who did not have any qualms about giving up his Kikuyu culture. The women in his life represented the three perspectives many of the women in colonial times took up. Joshua’s wife superficially took up Christianity so as to maintain domestic peace and placate her fanatic husband. Nyambura, one of Joshua’s daughters, was supportive of his conversion and also welcomed the faith but mainly for the attendant benefits of education. Muthoni, the other daughter, rebelled against her father and his faith, choosing instead to pursue Kikuyu culture, in particular, female genital circumcision, which would allow her to marry according to culture. In a way, neither of these women really embraced Christianity, showing that during the colonial period, Western religion was too closely entangled with the unjust and oppressive practices of colonialization. What is certain is that the women of this time exhibited a distinct push and pull, a conflict of conscience as regards Christianity, far more it seems, than the men during the same period.
As regards the post-colonial period, Prof. Getui distinguished Christianised Independent Kenya from the Pluralistic Modern/Contemporary Kenya. In the initial part of this broad period, we have the notable organisation of African Instituted Churches, which developed from the African Initiated Churches of the pre-colonial period. These churches sprang up in response to various social, economic and political factors, such as the desire for maintain polygamy, the desire for African leadership within the churches and doubts about Biblical interpretation and tradition. The African Instituted Churches (AICs) added flavour to Christianity.
The figure chosen to highlight this period was Mary Akatsa, a self-proclaimed prophetess, who founded the Jerusalem Church of Christ in 1987. This church would find its peak in the nineties and noughties. Mary Akatsa fulfilled the need of the people of her time who desired assurance in miracles, healing, spiritual power, exorcism and the supernatural omnipotence of God in the face of many hardships, whether emotional, financial or political. Mary Akatsa was characterised by a troubled childhood, in which she lost a loving guardian at a young age and faced abuse, leading to suicidal thoughts. Having experienced a profound near-death experience, she began a movement that attracted women and youth and did not insist on tithes or offerings in recognition of her followers’ poverty. She would preach about benevolence and used her pulpit to influence the lobbying for multi-party government.
With the approach of the new millennium, the religious scene in Africa witnessed more and more Emergent Ministries, which comprised of local adaptations of international neo-Pentecostal churches that favoured the Prosperity Gospel. An example of such an enterprise is the Jesus is Alive Ministries founded by Bishop Dr. Margaret Wanjiru, beginning in 2002. Jesus is Alive Ministries (JIAM) is associated with tele-evangelism, the use of modern media resources to propagate the Gospel. Margaret Wanjiru emphasised the delivery from poverty of the believer. It was a socially-conscious message, built on the realisation of Kenya as a Third World country, struggling to develop in an often-maltreated African continent. Wanjiru engaged actively in politics and encouraged fellow Christians to do the same, saying “Politics is a calling from God,” In contrast to the Jerusalem Church of Christ, tithing was crucial to JIAM. Women were very enthusiastic about Bishop Wanjiru’s authority and influence and helped disseminate her teaching.
The women discussed were agents of change in their society, and prime movers of the religious growth and development of an African centred Christianity.
African Traditional Religion by Prof. Evaristi Magoti
Prof. Magoti began by clarifying that his lecture would be about African Religion rather than African Traditional Religion. This is because African Religion is not ‘traditional’ in the sense that it is something belonging to the past. It is, in fact, a contemporary reality. Africans now live in an Americanized world. The post-modern and modern influences in Africa are superficial in so much as African religion still thrives. We must not be blind to the present and future of African religion. African religion is not a static or fixed experience. It will continue to evolve.
The session then proceeded to discuss the conceptual issues. The term ‘African’ may be said to refer to three possible notions.
- The racial conception of an African, that is, black people living south of the Sahara and in the Diaspora. Colour is therefore the defining characteristic.
- Geographical conception which includes everyone within the borders of the continent.
- Historical conception articulated by the late Ali Mazrui in which an African integrates in themselves three traditions: the African, Arabic and European civilizations. The African may move between these cultures without contradiction.
The term ‘Religion’, according to Magesa, refers to a way of life, or life itself. It is thus more than a set of beliefs guiding life. In Africa, religion is culture and vice versa. It is the real life of Africans. In the African worldview, the term ‘life’ has three connotations.
- The activities a person embarks on to sustain oneself
- Wholeness: this concept implies moral integrity.
African religion involves the study of the real lives of Africans. We find it in the hearts of living and breathing Africans. It must be studied holistically; without strict distinctions. African religion consists of community. In reflection of the philosophy present in Ubuntu and Ujamaa, the individual exists because of the community.
In the question and answer portion of the presentation, it was stressed that the communitarian aspect is present even in the hustle and bustle of Africans living in urban centres; salaries are surrendered to homemakers to provide not only for the nuclear family but for the extended family as well.
It was also clarified that witchcraft is not glorified in African religion; it reflects the negative aspects of life. Witchcraft is not life-affirming and is thus considered evil.
It was also pointed out that African students of Church history in particular, and all African university students in general, should spend more than one semester studying African Theology and Religion, and such disciplines as Egyptology.
The White Fathers and Christian-Islam Dialogue by Dr. Remi Caucanas.
At the start of his lecture, Dr. Caucanas asserted that worthwhile research is exciting, dangerous, difficult and personal, and these were some of the characteristics of his study of the White Fathers and Christian-Islam Dialogue in North Africa. His project would be presented in three major sections:
- Studying the Christian-Muslim Dialogue
- Research Context
- Research Chances and Challenges
In embarking on research, it is important to ask oneself why the research matters. Then, one must decide on the approach, of which there may be three types: narrative, biographical and analytical.
Research is never impersonal; impartiality, in the full sense of the term, is impossible. This is because we ask questions about what we care about; we research what interests us. To tend towards objectivity, we must be aware of our subjectivity.
His research focused on the White Fathers in general, founded by Cardinal Lavigerie in1868, but narrowed down to Henri Marchal, Jacques Lanfry and Etienne Renaud. Dr. Caucanas had the privilege of meeting Etienne Renaud, who impressed upon him the beauty of interreligious dialogue. Renaud (1936-2013) was an example of an individual who engaged with Islamic people rather than the Islamic system. He would often say. “The Islam I love, the Islam that worries me,” reflecting the complexity that comes with interreligious dialogue between Christianity and Islam.
With regards to the religious context, it is worth noting that despite Vatican II’s teaching regards dialogue with other religions, since the turn of the millennium, interreligious dialogue has not been a popular concept given such socio-political issues as the war on terror and the Arab Spring. It is important for the researcher to be aware of and overcome the possible distrust. The researcher must also draw a line between the history of religion and the sermon; one must approach others with respect and not seek to impose one’s ideas or faith on the other. This was a sentiment that was affirmed in Les Journees Romaines, a series of conferences held in Marseille in the summer to educate missionaries in the Arab World. It was coordinated for a significant period by Jacques Lanfry (1910-2000)
Jacques Lanfry and Etienne Renaud were both members of the Missionaries of Africa, a congregation founded by Cardinal Lavigerie (1825-1892) in 1868, with their colleagues, the White Sisters founded a year later. Lavigerie sought to facilitate mission via adaptation and charity and dialogue; he encouraged a cordial relationship with the Islamic natives of North Africa. His legacy was built upon by Henri Marchal who worked in French North Africa during colonial times. He contributed to the change of approach towards Islam that marked Vatican II. Jacques Lanfry, meanwhile, was a Berber language specialist who helped deepen the understanding of the link between Islamology and missiology in his work in the Journess Romaines and helped Kabylian migrants from the countryside settle into urban life. Some of his insight is recorded in the archives of the PISAI, the Pontifical Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies.
With regards to research chances and challenges, Dr. Caucanas sought to emphasize the centrality of living memories, or orality, which provides a crucial source of knowledge. To tap into living memories, Dr. Caucanas interviewed the nieces and nephews of Jacques Lanfry, who were able to provide some information regarding his personal life, especially his motivations. His family raised him to be aware of the evils of colonialism and his childhood brought him into contact with African immigrants living in France. He would therefore develop a welcoming attitude towards other cultures and religions. In his conversations with Renaud, Dr. Caucanas was able to learn about Renaud’s time as a French soldier as well as his experiences working in Yemen.
Beyond the centrality of oral sources, his research experience taught Dr. Caucanas the importance of planning in a research project, taking into consideration the limitation of finances, temporal scope, the audience of the work and geographical location. He also took note of the need to paint a total portrait of the Missionaries of Africa by speaking of the contribution of the White Sisters, as well as the spiritual dimensions of the subjects of the study whose prayer lives would have propelled them to make the decisions they did. Moreover, dialogue must be studied in the Islamological and ethnological context, as the Islamic culture in North Africa and Southern France is different from that found in Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Singapore or India.
Despite these various challenges, the research undertaken has borne much fruit. The White Fathers’ approach to Christian-Islamic dialogue can inspire us. There is unity between culture, nation and civilisation, where the missionaries endeavour to share their lives with their Islamic neighbours and go to the periphery to take care of those who share a common humanity, regardless of religious differences. There is no aggressive attitude towards conversion. Rather, there is pastoral concern, as seen in Marchal, Lanfry and Renaud, who were men of God, responding to God’s will. Christian-Muslim dialogue can be seen as a tool of reconstruction or resistance against tyranny. We do this by meeting the members of the other religion, seeking to understand how they pray and how they understand their faith, while being clear about our own religious principles. An example of this approach is seen in the White Fathers who learnt Arabic and shared festivals, such as that of the Immaculate Conception, since Mary is an actor in both Christian and Muslim traditions. In conclusion, while there is much to be learnt in the study of historical actors in course of Christian-Muslim dialogue, it is important to remember the preferred strategy of respect and discourse.
Interreligious Dialogue by Prof. Innocent Maganya
Prof. Maganya, of IRDIS and Tangaza University College, began his lecture by asserting that we live in a pluralistic world. In this religious pluralistic world, it is important to ask what the mission of the Church is. Similarly, one may ask about the attitude of the Church towards people of other religions. What is the relationship between dialogue and proclamation? To begin to answer this question, Prof. Maganya indicated that the first step is to consider Vatican II and the actors and documents relevant to it.
With Vatican II, the Church understood herself as ‘the universal sacrament of salvation’. As we see in Dialogue and Mission, paragraph 1: Vatican II marked a new landmark in the relations of the Church with the followers of other religions. Paul VI asserted that the origin of dialogue is in the mind of God Himself, alluding to God as a community of love, and our call to imitate God’s openness to relationship. We also see this quality in prayer as a dialogue in the religious sphere. Revelation can also be understood as dialogue, a communication from God about God to man. Salvation history, therefore, is one long, varied dialogue.
Interreligious Dialogue is overseen by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (previously the Secretariat for Non-Christians) and to some extent by the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity, in which we have the Office that relates with the Jews. These curial offices are the fruits of Paul VI’s efforts to promote interreligious dialogue, about which he speaks in Ecclesiam Suam, promulgated in 1964.
Prof. Maganya spoke about interreligious dialogue understood in the form of concentric circles.
- In the outermost circle, we have mankind, where we recognise that we all share a common nature, life with attendant highs and lows, and destiny.
- In the next circle, we consider the great Afro-Asiatic religions, such as Hinduism and Confucianism and African Religion, which promote and defend common ideals with Christianity such as religious liberty, human brotherhood, education, culture, social welfare and civic order.
- The next inner circle comprises those who worship the One Supreme God, the Abrahamic religions – Islam, Judaism and Christianity. We may admire in one another the vestiges of the good, true and beautiful in the various written traditions.
- The next inner circle comprises those who take their name from Christ. Here we may speak about ecumenical dialogue, especially between the Catholic Church and Protestant churches.
- The innermost circle is about dialogue inside the Catholic Church, such as that between the Orthodox and Latin Churches.
Ecclesiam Suam may be considered the Magna Carta of interreligious dialogue, a blueprint for preparing and carrying out the dialogue. In it, we are presented with three ways of understanding dialogue.
- Firstly, at the purely human level, it means reciprocal communication, leading to a common goal or, at a deeper level, to interpersonal communion.
- Secondly, dialogue can be taken as an attitude of respect and friendship, which permeates or shall permeate evangelical activity.
- Thirdly, in the context of religious plurality, dialogue means positive and constructive interreligious relations with individuals and communities of other faiths which are directed at mutual understanding and enrichment, in obedience to truth and respect for freedom.
For dialogue to be successful or moderately fruitful, it should have the following characteristics: clarity of expression and language, meekness, confidence in one’s own faith, assurance in the good will of both parties and prudence in acknowledging the psychological and moral circumstances of the hearer.
Prof. Maganya then went on to elucidate the forms of dialogue, as follows:
- The Dialogue of Life: this occurs where people in a religious pluralistic society live in an open and neighbourly spirit, sharing in joys and sorrows, in problems and preoccupations.
- The Dialogue of Action: this involves collaboration between religions for the integral development and liberation of people.
- The Dialogue of Theological Exchange: specialists seek to deepen their understanding of their respective religious heritages, and to appreciate each other’s spiritual values
- The Dialogue of Religious Experience: here, persons rooted in their religious traditions share their spiritual and mystical riches with regard to prayer and contemplation, expressions of faith and methods of searching for God or the Absolute.
- The Dialogue for Integral Human Development: this involves coming together to assist in social action and welfare, such as the care of refugees, the poor, immigrants and the abused.
- The Dialogue of Culture: this is where individuals of various religious backgrounds meet to celebrate a common culture or ethnic origin, such as during community events or national holidays.
Obstacles to dialogue are many and include the following:
- Insufficient grounding in one’s own faith.
- Insufficient knowledge and understanding of the beliefs and practices of other religions, leading to a lack of appreciation or misrepresentation.
- Socio-political factors or burdens of the past, such as the Crusades between Christians and Muslims, or the persecution of Jews during World War II.
- Wrong understanding of the meaning of terms such as ‘conversion’, ‘baptism’, ‘dialogue’.
- Self-sufficiency, fostering defensive or aggressive attitudes towards adherents of another religion.
- A lack of conviction with regard to the value of interreligious dialogue, which some may see as a task reserved to specialists and others as a sign of weakness or even betrayal of the faith.
- Suspicion about the others’ motives in dialogue.
- A polemical spirit when expressing religious convictions.
- Intolerance which may be aggravated by political, economic, racial and ethnic factors.
- The present religious climate which obscures unbiased discussion, given the competition of ideologies such as materialism, religious indifference, relativism, scientism, religious fanaticism, the perversion of sexual freedom and the multiplication of religious sects.
Prof. Maganya concluded his discussion with a brief presentation on Nostra Aetate, one of the Vatican II documents, in which some principles regarding the Church’s relationship with other religions were put down. Some of these principles include:
- All men and women have a common humanity, origin and destiny, regardless of religious affiliation.
- The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions.
- The Church regards with esteem the Muslim faith.
- The Church remembers the bond that spiritually ties the people of the New Covenant to the stock of Abraham, the people of Israel.
- We cannot truly call on God, the Father of all, if we refuse to treat in a brotherly way any man, created as he is in the image of God.
Prof. Maganya directed the students to refer to certain texts for additional information, such as Lumen Gentium 13-17, 22, Redemptoris Missio 55-57, Dignitatis Humanae 2, the New Directory of Catechesis 2020 and Jacques Dupuis’ Christianity and the Religions: From Confrontation to Dialogue. In these works, and the presentation provided, we see that dialogue is a constitutive part of the evangelizing mission of the Catholic Church and a tool for peace-building, in which the true, good and beautiful is proposed but not imposed.
African Instituted Churches by Prof. Philomena Mwaura
Prof. Mwaura of Kenyatta University, a distinguished scholar in the fields of African Instituted Churches, Christianity in Africa and Gender in Religion, began her lecture by asking three important baseline questions: What are African Instituted Churches, otherwise known as AICs? What are the types of AICs? Where are these AICs based?
As a preliminary to answering these questions, Prof. Mwaura gave us an historical overview of African-led Christian churches from the 18th century to modern times. African responses to Christianity have been dynamic. We find African Initiated Churches in colonial Congo and South Africa which reflected the need to have African leadership among Christian converts. From the late 19th century to the mid-20th century, the focus of these Christian movements became Independence from colonial powers, hence African Independent Churches, that did not rely on Western support or direction. The most recent AICs are the neo-Pentecostal churches which focus on inculturation and African expressions of the Christian message. A simple definition, therefore, might be that African Initiated/Independent/Instituted Churches are autonomous church groups with all-African leadership and mostly all-African membership. These AICs form at least a quarter of the Christian adherents in any one African country with a significant Christian presence.
Affirming her preference for the term ‘African Instituted Churches’, Prof. Mwaura went on to explain in more detail the historical evolution of AICs, giving three broad categories: Ethiopian, Zionist and Neo-Pentecostal/Charismatic Churches.
- Ethiopian Churches are Africa’s oldest expressions of African Christianity (in the modern age of mission, thus discounting the ancient and medieval Christian churches of Egypt, North Africa, Nubia and Ethiopia) and they first proliferated in South Africa and Nigeria. Founders of these churches were inspired by Psalm 68:31 “They come with red cloth from Egypt, Ethiopia voluntarily offers tribute to God!”. Between the 1920s and 1940s, these churches in Kenya came to be known as Nationalist churches due to their association with independence movements.
- The Zionist churches emerged after the First World War. They arose due to impatience with the progress of mission and were centred around prophets and prophetic healing. They embraced African religion and a more welcoming gender ideology. They emphasized healing, leadership and the place of music in liturgy. They were particularly vibrant in Ghana, Nigeria and the Ivory Coast. These spiritual/Zionist churches emphasized the work of the Holy Spirit while the Ethiopian churches emphasized the ‘African’ or ‘Native’ origins. Since 1985, both spiritual and Ethiopian churches have been known as classical AICs because they were overtaken as the fastest growing AICs by neo-Pentecostal churches. The classical AICs now attract an older and largely illiterate clientele.
- The Neo-Pentecostal churches, first emerging in the 1970s, focus on revival or recovery of the theology of the Holy Spirit. They benefited from the lethargy of the mainline churches in terms of execution of mission, as well as the political upheaval in Africa in the first years of independence. These churches avoid bureaucratization and benefit from sources and support in North America. They are known as ‘Born Again’, ‘Health and Wealth’, ‘Charismatic’, ‘Pentecostal’, ‘Revival’, ‘Deliverance’ churches. Many of these churches propagate what is colloquially known as the Prosperity Gospel, in which God favours his blessed with favour in this life as well as the next. In some of the older neo-Pentecostal churches, the focus is more on God’s will. In all, there is agitation for commitment of one’s life to Christ and emphasise deliverance.
AICs have various characteristics, including:
- Prominent role for women
- Intercessory tradition
- Aggressive Use of Media for Evangelism and Crusades
- Concentration in Urban Areas
- Relaxed Dress Code in Liturgy
- Use of English as the Premier Code of Communication
- Emphasis on American-origin Prosperity Gospel
- Appeal to Youth
- Vibrant Adaptation of Music to Liturgy
- Emphasis on Prophetic or Spiritual Gifts
In addressing some of the causes of the origin and proliferation of AICs, Prof. Mwaura noted that modernity, with the onset of colonialization, undermined traditional cultures. The resulting psychological and institutional tension sought a release valve. Alienation among the African population thus created the need for local expressions of faith. The African Initiated Church was thus a reaction to colonialization and missionary efforts. The AIC tried to address the frustrations regarding loss of land, oppression, alienation from culture, ethnic discord and political enlightenment. They recognised the good aspects of African religion as well as the treasure of the Christian faith and sought a harmony. The crises of the early 19th century created the environment that favoured the institution of AICs. Of note was the translation of Scripture into vernacular languages, with the Bible at the centre of the Zionist and Neo-Pentecostal approach. The founders of many AICs were also scandalised by the schism and disharmony evident in the denominations of mainline Christian churches and sought to create their own communities. Ironically, in doing so, they contributed to the fragmentation of the People of God. Many individuals were inspired to begin their AICs by personal trauma, supposed extrasensory experiences, the desire to combat insecurity and crime or the hope of reducing ethnic conflict. While there may be unique factors precipitating the rise of AICs, there are important core elements shared.
- Pneumatological Emphasis: The Holy Spirit is responsible for healing, prophecy, words of wisdom, miracles, and discernment. This focus resonated with the African worldview that emphasised the wholeness of life and affinity with the world of spirits or ancestors.
- Healing: after the Second World War, the leadership of many mainline missions was left to Africans who added the emphasis on healing. Leaders became known as the anointed ones. Prayer was central to healing and healing was executed in the name of Jesus Christ with the power of the Holy Spirit, acting through the anointed one.
- The Church as Community: the church is a corporate entity, an assembly of believers. In fact, many AICs started as house churches, expressing African kinship ties, especially in neighbourhoods populated by immigrants.
- Liturgy: liturgy must be vibrant and engaging. It is notable that many members of AICs, including leadership, are prominent composers and musicians, many of whom perform in the vernacular and invent hymns to be used in worship and community events.
- Emphasis on Women: AICs had few qualms of including women as evangelists, leaders, healers and other officials. Many of the more prominent AICs were founded by women.
- Social and Economic Awareness: Ethiopian and Zionist churches were involved in the struggle for independent and later AICs participate in efforts aimed at social healing, such as climate change, agitation for the poor, improvement of infrastructure and the accountability of politicians.
In order to carry out an effective and thorough research of AICs, one needs to consider the following.
- Inquiry into their emergence and growth.
- Case histories of growth of religions in different histories and contexts, including the examination of biographies and demographic data.
- Cultures, traditions, worldviews and the innovation introduced by AICs.
- Rituals, lifestyles and practical aspects of liturgy and ceremony.
- Multidisciplinary approach, with attention on psychology, sociology and politics.
- Motivations inspiring the founders and leaders and members.
During the question and answer session, it was noted that some AICs exhibit excessive tendencies in its demands to adherents, and these may be known as fringe AICs. They are not the norm. It was also noted that the lifespan of many AICs would depend on the need in society that they sought to address; should this need be met, they would gradually fade away. Many of those that have noticed a fading relevancy have endeavoured to adopt more Pentecostal trends. In all AICs, discernment is important to ascertain the suitability of the doctrines presented.
Some of the texts suggested for further reading include David Barret’s Kenya Churches Handbook: The Development of Kenyan Christianity, 1498-1973, Adrian Hastings’ The Church in Africa 1940-1950, published in 1996, Ogbu Kalu’s African Christianity: An African History (2007) and Bengt Sundkler’s A History of the Church in Africa (2008).