Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Some thoughts on my year in africa

When I first sat down before the blank screen, it was with the prompt of “change” that I sat, pondered, tapped a word or two, and walked away. I have been quite hung up on this. How have you changed is a common question posed to me. The best answer I could give is that I am figuring it out. Slowly words began to come to me as I reflected over this year. In pulling it all together, however, I realized that I have experienced a revolution this year in my way of thinking and living. This may not be so evident in conversations with me, for in many respects, I am the same old Mike. Yet, to my great surprise, something quite momentous happened this year. The dots began to connect.
I set off in search of a phenomenon. I wanted to witness, observe, explore and participate in the living theology in “African” Christianity. Grasping at the literature available, I assembled my categories from the surface level aspects of liturgy to the seemingly burgeoning African Christology, which promises a more fundamental shift in Christianity. What began to happen over the year, however, is that the parts became a whole. Piece by piece, I began to understand the limits of my own categories, as inculturation, the subject of my research led me to medicine, education, justice, dialogue and prayer. These were not simply pieces of the puzzle, to be “Africanized”; they were intermeshed interdependent aspects of an experience that is betwixt and between identities. Moreover, as the year progressed, I found this same seamless fabric working in my life, often more in my failures than my successes, as the gap of objectivity that I placed between myself and my work instigated my own brokenness; a sign I took to be of a failure to integrate the parts into whole in my own life.
What has been left with me, however, has been an anatomical movement of my own theology. I came to know theology in my gut. That is not to say that suddenly my theology has become overruled by the passions, linking searches for the truth to inspirations of the intestine, but I began to perceive theology as dialoguing with a relevant meaningful reality from a place that struck deeper than a mere intellectual affirmation. I claim no revelations, nor visions, but only the beginning of understanding a theology that is deeply rooted in the reality of my life.
This has not been a process spent alone. There have been many individuals who were milestones to my research year. Their questions and reflections enlarged my own thinking, engaged my imagination, attuned my perception and in turned another revolution in this process of change. What I have been left with is only the beginnings of a blueprint.
In construction it is necessary at times to demolish a standing building so as to rebuild securely with a solid foundation. Uganda was the place where the deconstruction of my own conceptions began. Uganda was my first thorough encounter with the sub-Saharan African experience. I was gifted in Uganda with two crucial insights. Through conversations with a particular theologian named Fr. Waliggo, I began to develop the language to approach inculturation. Then, through further experiences with theologians across the country, I came to realize that my construct of religion was too small to address both the needs and the actuality of the experiences I was encountering.
My work this year is highly indebted to Fr. John Waliggo. One of the foremost theologians of inculturation in Uganda, he began by introducing me to the theological conversation that has been going on in Africa since just before Vatican II regarding this question of culture. More importantly, however, he introduced me to the concept of inculturation as liberation. Inculturation theology, a form of theology which previously defined a culture as the departure point for theology, and liberation theology, which identified a person’s socio-political context as the locus theology, seemed to be two distinct competing theological systems in the African context. Both proved inadequate. Inculturation theology was deemed naïve, while the black political theology of South Africa seemed to narrow in scope to identify the complexities in post-colonial Africa.
Fr. Waliggo confirmed and gave voice to a nebulous feeling within my own gut that the issue of inculturation is a justice issue. Through imbedding inculturation into liberation, the validity of either became dependent o the other. Inculturation theology must lead to liberation. Otherwise it proves to be a theology of the sacristy, irrelevant to life outside of church walls. It was only with this revelation that my true journey began. I had gained a new impetus for my research and so my intention changed. Inculturation theology no longer proved to be a religious curiosity, but a theological necessity.
Inculturation theology has as its base the theological principle of incarnation. God, according to the Christian tradition, became man in the person of Jesus. As the Christian scriptures read, God fully became human, thoroughly imbedded in a human culture, living human sufferings. While Jesus was fully formed by the Jewish tradition, his life also served as a challenge to the culture at the times. The notion is that the Christian church is called to do same, penetrating within every culture and engaging in mutual challenge. While I well understood this theological basis, only beginning to see the theological term through the lens of identity and culture in experiencing the fracturing of identity in post-colonial Africa did I begin to understand its true import.
The reconciling necessity of inculturation became painfully clear as I encountered in Uganda the historical fact of colonialism. By historical fact I do not mean an entry in an encyclopedia, but rather more importantly, and inerasable experience still embedded in the African context. Certainly colonialism is an event of the past, but anyone who would claim that is done and should be forgotten is either naïve or malicious. This total historical oppression has led to an inherited, institutionalized anthropological poverty across the African context. Simply put, the notion has become deeply embedded that somehow western culture has more value than African cultures. This is further exasperated through venues like the media, unilateral development work and an overall failure to engage the multiplicity of African cultures into dialogue with the west. It would not be out of place, thus, to find champions of modernity within the African context, lauding a westernization of Africa as an answer to the problems of Africa. After all, all the rhetoric would seem to indicate that this is what one needs in order to succeed in the world.
My experience in Uganda did far more than just confront me with the injustices leftover from colonialism. In committing to engage religion here in Africa, I soon found myself needing to confront my very own conceptions of what religion is. Simply put, my own idea of religion was just too small. How could it, a product of post-enlightenment compartmentalism, offer any comprehensive and effective response to the problems people were facing in their lives? My system of religion suited for my world, wasn’t able to handle the direct issues of illness, justice systems, and education that faced people in within the “traditional” African context found either in rural areas or urban centers. I met theologians who were doing just this work though. Traditional religion being a submerged religion, it touches on every aspect of life. I had to make sense of a religious framework within the Catholic Church that would do the same. I met theologians like Benedict Ssetuma taking seriously peoples conceptions of illness as an important starting point for his theological reflections. This even extended on to notions of education, as Fr. Peter Kayandaga, brought the African context into the classroom, using the experience of students of their own cultures as a starting point for their own notions of development.
The several figures I met doing this work, however, seemed to be exceptions to the rule, as the same post-colonial mentality that devalues the worth of the African context infects even theological thought. European history and theology remains the central focus of seminaries. The token efforts made in transforming the liturgy seem to fail to make it coherent even with an urban African context. I found myself wondering how it could be that there was such a greater initiative within my own American catholic context than there was here. With the many theologians I interviewed, I wondered how this theological idea of inculturation could ever become a movement.
As I moved to through Ethiopia and on to Western Africa, these same questions regarding inculturation began to touch me on a deeper level. Even as I intellectual was aware of this earlier, Contemplation and conversion became central touchstones for trying to understand this process of inculturation. In studying theology, it is easy to fall prey to the notion that is merely an activity of the intellect, synthesizing beliefs of reason, rationality, man’s capacities and god in this world. Yet the theology that I set out in pursuit of defied that notion, saying that our context, our very lives can serve as a departure point. Even still, however, I seemed to be practicing an intellectual task. In interviewing Emmanuel, a French missionary in Ethiopia, I was grounded as I became aware that his own effort to draw the Catholic Church into its Ethiopian orthodox context was founded on a spiritual sensitivity. I eventually came to hold the conviction that the act of inculturation inevitably must found itself on the principles of contemplation and conversion. While from an anthropological vantage, one may concern oneself with the appropriation of Christianity by Christians in sub-Saharan African, I was set forth on a different path. I came to know in my gut, perhaps that very place where Pascal states that the heart has reasons that even reason (the mind) does not know, this was about a dialogue not merely between “the west” and “Africa”, but between humanity and God. Even as I could set forth philosophical orations about incarnation as this principal, I touched something that seemed real as I engaged this question of contemplation.
This is certainly the point where many people might find my train of thought difficult to follow. No longer did my work section itself off by which country I was in or theologian was I speaking with, but instead it became an ongoing discussion that persisted, even as the interlocutors necessarily shifted. In this quest to uncover/discover inculturation, I suddenly found myself very personally tied to it. I do not mean solely on a professional level, as one takes an investment in any work that one does, but more meaning that this same conversation going on externally was reflecting an inner conversation going on. Part of the difficulty in sitting down to write this reflection is that it is a process that is still going on, and not necessarily one that I am doing well. As I confronted my own difficult situations: my encounter with consumer zed Pentecostal Christianity in Ghana or traditional religion in Burkina Faso, my experiences of two related extremes only further confirmed that my journey wasn’t about finding an African theology, per se, but true religion in Africa, which would inevitably engage culture and context into critical dialogue. I can recall a moment where, sitting in a religious guest house in Bobo-Doulassa, following my experience with the traditional sacrifice of the Bobo, I sat before a translation of the gospel of mark, made by a insightful priest I visited, and I was seemingly, unexplainably brought to tears. My own well had run dry, and in all my efforts to discover an African theology, I realized that I needed contemplation of my own to manage my way through this experience, to invite incarnation into my life.
The invitiation to this process grew as I ventured further into west Africa. It is perhaps fitting that I ended my year in Senegal. In this multi-religious context, I found the stepping-stone to engaging this type of theology outside of Africa. How is it that we can use our own pluralistic context as a source of theology? Is perhaps dialogue at the center of who we are? This own question of dialogue with god was well nurtured as I joined the monks of Keur Meussa in prayer and contemplation. The stillness I found there brought a certain peace that I have longed for recently in my life.
African theology is not without hope. I am certainly not without hope. While left somewhat broken from my African experience, I can only claim it as a true beginning, trudging forward as I grapple with only the beginnings of a blueprint. Even as I tore down my intellectual walls, I have felt a sense of system, currently incoherent, but beckoning me to discover it. Surely academia has more ahead for me, but what I feel called to, in this brokenness, is only further contemplation.

1 comment:

welovetea said...

Hi Mike,

It is so good to hear your thoughts on your experience in Africa and, as it turns out, your thoughts on how you have developed as a person in understanding and feeling even beyond that. I am preparing to go to the UK to study the interaction of religion and culture, and I feel like the journey you've been taking is reflected--in a very different way--in many of my experiences over the last few years, too.

I've been looking at the conflict created by cultures of community and cultures of the individual...The West, as you say, has claimed that its modernity and focus on the self takes priority over the 'traditional' and the community of many other parts of the world. We see it in our media, our attitudes, and our priorities. When I applied for the Fulbright, I said I was excited to learn about the immigrant community in the UK and their experiences, but deep down I'm terrified that I am too far removed from their experience to be able to do them justice. Is it fair for me, coming from the dominant White and Western context as I am, to try and enter that world?

In the end, I decided to focus on the way we listen and what listening means in the context of intercultural and interreligious conversations. I think I have to begin with listening, and understand that in listening something fundamental inside myself shifts so that I'm able to be open to the Other, to recognize that the Other is within me, too, and that the historical violence we have done in marginalizing people--Africans, and many others--is calling us to take action in a very real and spiritual way because our very identity is challenged by it. And that attention to the spirit is tied deeply with social justice. It's powerful, bigger than any one person, and hard to feel that we can make an impact. I don't know what I'm going to do about it, but I'm trying to take it one step at a time. It's hugely challenging...