TEACHING TRADITIONAL RELIGION, CULTURE AND INCULTURATION

IN THE MAJOR SEMINARIES AND HIGHER EDUCATION INSTITUTES

OF THE CHURCH IN AFRICA: THE CONGO EXAMPLE

 

Hippolyte Ngimbi Nseka

 

 

Introduction

 

To use the language of grammarians, I would say that "teaching traditional religion, culture and inculturation" is not conjugated by us in the optative but in the present indicative. Thus my paper on the subject will consist essentially in my telling you what we do and how we do it. I shall speak of this laboratory, the Centre d’Etudes des Religions Africaines (Centre for the Study of African Religions), after giving some concrete examples and describing certain courses of the Catholic Faculties of Kinshasa study programme which, in global terms, is followed by the Major Seminaries of the Congo. But in the first place, I would like to set the background and give the reasons which led to promoting the teaching of traditional religion, culture and inculturation.

 

The state of the question

 

Without going further back (in other words to the Négritude movement and to Pan-Africanism), one can date the awareness of our problem to the debates on African philosophy and theology. Unless I am mistaken and as we know, these debates arose in the universities of the Congo. Placide Tempels’ Bantu philosophy and the discussions on African theology between teachers and students of the faculty of theology at the Catholic University of Lovanium (Léopoldville/Kinshasa) may be considered a point of reference.

 

In this respect, I would like to point out that the tabula rasa thesis on African culture should be seen in the light of all the efforts deployed by the first missionaries to our countries if only to translate the message they brought into our languages. The Tempels project which I mentioned above was among other things a study of the soul of a people to bring it the Gospel message in a palatable way, in harmony with its mind-set, its culture.

 

In any case, at a certain point, the period of scorn for, or misunderstanding of African culture gave way to a period in which it was recognised and positively valued. While this is not quite true of the culture, it certainly is of its principal and fruitful element: the religious phenomenon. Its complexity is such that in order to define it several terms were invented by ethnologists: superstition, fetishism, animism, totemism, manism, magic, paganism. All this terminology expresses not only the complexity of the phenomenon, but also the awkwardness which its inventors felt when faced with such "inferior" forms of religion.

 

The most important thing for us today is that it has been recognised that Africans have religions, or a religion. This is only possible to the exact extent that these Africans have not only a link with the cosmos and the group, but also and above all with God. All agree in giving the Supreme Being the first place, at the summit, in the structure of traditional religion in Africa. And if one considers it in its highest form – the mystical – one realises that it presents not only a sort of natural mysticism, a mysticism of insight, a mysticism of immanence, but also a mysticism of God’s depth, a yearning of the soul for irrevocable union of the individual with God. Indeed, in Africans, who experience intensely this vertical dimension of their spiritual life, there is a deeply felt sense of direct participation in the existence of God, inwardly perceived as unique, immense, hidden, rich, "burning", just and good. So that, as we have noted, African mysticism is like others, an authentic, fascinating, complex and beautiful form of mysticism, one of the springs where parched souls can quench their thirst and drink heaven.

 

This aspect of traditional religion in Africa should be stressed if we are to appreciate its correct value. Because in the overall study of this religion, one tends to make man the centre of the cosmos and thus the ultimate point of reference in the judgement on religious beliefs. Indeed numerous studies, some of the best ones, have shown that in Black Africa, man defines himself unanimously as "the most precious capital", even if we must not exclude in certain hierarchical societies, the exploitation of man by man. I shall do without numerous texts which emphasise the anthropocentrism of African culture to point out right away that African anthropocentrism is not an absolute assertion of man against a God whose presence in the universe might be incompatible with human autonomy. The black African is indeed open to a vision which goes beyond the purely human. We are dealing in fact with "a sort of humanism which, starting from man and returning to him, in its development apprehends what is not him and transcends him". A necessary transcendence, without which there would be no African religion, or any religion at all. At most there would just be superstition, that runt of the human spiritual drive which stops it in its tracks.

 

In recognising that Africans have an authentic religion, one must go all the way. As elsewhere, this should be assessed by man’s capacity to reach the summit where he meets the single God, the only source of all created beings, of the visible and invisible universe. Africans, I repeat, have achieved this since in their tradition one finds many instances which express God’s sovereign domain and the total dependence of the created world and man in relation to God. In my own cultural context, God, Nzambi, is conceived of as not being "in the category of beings one represents, of which one has an experiential knowledge". Nzambi is unique, separate from all the rest, invisible yet alive, actively sovereign, independent, unreachable and unapproachable, and yet guiding men and things very closely and with absolute efficiency.

 

This conception of a God who is more distant (in appearance) than close can be ratified by all those who, today, emphasise the ontological difference between God and the creation. God is the Super-Being, they say, he is Unique; so that to encapsulate God and the created within the same ontological genre, as if God were the ultimate term of a continuing series, would be detrimental to his divine transcendence. The idea of the distance or the absence of a God, to whom there even seems to be a reluctance give worship, has a similar significance. However, this does not preclude God’s immanence, his active presence in the human universe. God guides men and things very closely and with absolute efficiency. But he remains out of man’s grasp, the only possible interaction with the "sacred" being performed through the ancestors and the forces of which fetishes are the support.

 

The discovery of the value of traditional religion in Africa has been the driving force in mobilising our intellectual energies in its proper study and teaching with a view to inculturating the Gospel message. Religion emerges as the prime factor in ordering human awareness and the world, the prime means by which to organise and to live the spiritual adventure as human beings. It is for this reason that for certain peoples, at a given moment of their history, it becomes their philosophy; it contains a vision of the world which cannot be ignored if one wishes to know the peoples who live by it. Here we have, therefore, one reason, more than one reason, for which traditional African religion features on the academic syllabus of the Major Seminaries and Catholic Universities in Africa.

 

The methods of the CFK

 

Located as they are in the heart of the continent, the Catholic Faculties of Kinshasa (CFK) consider that it is their specific vocation to contribute to Christian thought an practice with a mind to the spiritual experience of the African peoples. That is the context in which the Centre d’études des Religions africaines (CERA), about which I shall speak later, was created in 1966 and the Département de Théologie et Sciences humaines was opened for lay and religious students not destined for the priesthood. This Department’s initial objective was the inculturation of the Gospel by including human sciences relevant to the cultural milieu and traditions in the formation course. Since three years this department is being closed down because the Episcopal Conference considers that theological formation for the laity and the religious should be the same for the lay and the religious as for priests. Therefore, the Department’s initial objective has reverted to the Faculty of Theology in general. In any case, as from the first cycle, the course considers the scientific requirements for the inculturation of the Gospel message as well as studying the life of the faith in Africa. The Department of Canon Law, newly founded in this Faculty, also has the aim of "promoting thorough teaching and rigorous research in canonical science in harmony with Roman law, modern civil law and African customs". I shall come back to this later, after explaining the concern for inculturation in the philosophy cycle.

 

Before it became a Faculty (1987), the CFK Faculty of Philosophy was called the Department of African Philosophy and Religions. But its objectives have stayed the same. Indeed, the programme of philosophical formation seeks to give the students the breadth of vision and the vigour of mind that are indispensable for a philosophical and scientific understanding of African society, thought, wisdom and spirituality. According to its educational objectives, our Faculty of Philosophy seeks to initiate students in philosophical research with a view to elucidating the whole of human experience and more particularly African experience. The exploration of human experience follows four paths, including metaphysics (which itself includes courses in general metaphysics, philosophy of religion and philosophy of art) about which the following is expressly stated: "Metaphysical reflection which leads to a legitimisation of what is beyond the senses and even beyond words, ponders specifically the religious phenomenon in general, and in particular African religiosity, to understand them within the human drive insofar as it is destined to a primary self-fulfilment in the being that is revealed as foundation, founder and initiator of life and therefore deserves to be the end-purpose of human drive". And to the extent that it is a faculty of a Catholic university institution, the Faculty of Philosophy of the CFK, while fulfilling its mission of examining all cultures, seeks to provide specific theoretical and practical instruments for a theology that is faithful to God’s revealed mystery and which can be meaningful to Africans today.

 

How are these educational objectives achieved in practice? We shall see this through the courses provided.

 

In the first cycle of philosophy we have a course explicitly entitled: Traditional African Religions. An analysis of its content reveals that in its final part there is particular stress on the positive and negative aspects in the moral legacy of the African cultural past, for the purpose of possibly integrating the positive values in the practice of new religions, and eliminating remnants of what prove to be anti-values or burdens which hinder the spiritual development of Africans converted to one or other of these religions, mainly to Christianity. But in addition to the subjects whose name reveals their content (History of African Philosophy, Texts of African Philosophy, Independent African Churches, African Ethics Seminar), disciplines such as: 1. Introduction to Philosophy, 2. General Moral Philosophy, 3. History of Religions, 4. Philosophy of Art, 5. Philosophy of Religion, 6. Theory of the Interpretation of Texts, 7. Philosophy of History, all deliberately include the study of one or other aspect or element of African culture.

 

It follows that this general approach has an even greater place in the programme of theology courses, and does so even in the Preparatory year (open to lay and religious students not destined for the priesthood). Thus a course like History of Patristic and Medieval Philosophy is concerned among other things with an epistemological and philosophical approach to inculturation in the light of the Post-Synodal Exhortation Ecclesia in Africa and the results of cultural sciences.

 

In the actual theological formation, the question of the relationship between faith and culture is posed in the course on Theology of the Faith. Similarly, African ecclesiology is included in the course on Ecclesiology. Other courses are explicit in their titles: Introduction to African Theology, the Religious Heritage of Africa, African Religious Art, Great Schools of Christian Spirituality and African Spirituality, Christian Initiation and African Initiation, Deeper Study of Traditional African Religions and the Deeper Study of African Theology.

 

Other examples come from the Department of Canon Law, whose educational objectives are clearly formulated as follows: "special attention is given to the study of traditional forms of social life and natural and customary law, so as to contribute to the inculturation of canon law in Africa". It is with this in mind that the programme includes courses such as: Customary Law in Africa, Study of African Institutions, Traditional African Jurisprudence, African Ecclesiastical Law. Other courses (Sacred or Clerical Ministries, Religious Institutes, Ecclesiastical Diplomacy) have practical sections dealing with problems that are specific to the African clergy (means of survival of the clergy, the role of the faithful in caring for the clergy, social security in the sacred ministries) or to religious life (traditional method of initiation, etc.).

 

Therefore, as can be seen from the content of these courses, tradition, culture and inculturation feature prominently in the education provided by the CFK.

 

Research

 

Teaching can give rise to deeper research, just as it can be the fruit of such research, which can in turn also develop to the point of providing tools or subjects to be used by others than the teachers themselves. So to complete the picture, without claiming to be exhaustive, I would like to show that our teaching is broadly and deeply supported by scientific research as is carried out in Centres created for this purpose. It will suffice for me to present the Centre d’Etudes des Religions Traditionnelles Africaines (CERA). Founded in 1966 within the Catholic Faculties of Kinshasa, this Centre (considered a department of the Faculty of Theology) has undertaken research with a view to gaining better scientific knowledge of beliefs, customs and traditional and modern religions. From the outset, the Centre built up a specialised library on African religions. One year after it was created, it offered the public the first two issues of Cahiers des Religions Africaines, its journal which a few years later reached its 31st issue and in 1997 published a double issue, 61-62. One of its future projects is to set up a museum of African religious art.

 

The Centre is considered the laboratory of inculturation. It is dedicated to inculturation. Since 1978, it has organised international symposiums, the latest of which was held from 20 to 25 November last year on the subject: parapsychology and social progress. By their titles and subjects these symposiums illustrate the Centre’s focus on the inculturation of the Christian message: African Religions and Christianity (4-14 January 1978); African Mediations of the Sacred (16-22 February 1986); Sects, Cultures and Societies: the Spiritual Challenges of Our Times (14-21 November 1992); Traditional African Religions and a Plan for Society (24-30 November 1996).

 

From the very first symposium, the tone was set by Cardinal J.A. Malula, who said "a faculty of theology in Africa only has any sense if it is a faculty of African theology for an African Christianity". For the purposes of this paper, of the recommendations made during these symposiums, I shall quote only the ones regarding formation institutions:

 

"1. Since African religion is the recipient of the most varied elements of culture and civilisation (moral, spiritual, medical, etc.) the Commission recommends that all those who wish to build Africa today in its authenticity give due consideration to the African religious heritage in all its forms; 2. It recommends the inclusion of this heritage in educational programmes, in the schools at every level", etc. (First symposium).

 

The third Commission, which was called upon to discuss the sub-theme of the second symposium, ‘aesthetics and mysticism’, requested: that the formation programmes for Christian community animators give priority to African aesthetics of the divine and the sacred; that Faculties, Seminaries and religious formation houses assume this requirement in the form of: a) continuous formation and an epistemology of African aesthetics; b) an effective initiation in the production of art works through creative workshops; c) promotional activity to foster religious works of art". After noting the need for well trained and informed spiritual directors, the fourth Commission of the same symposium recommended: "that a course on traditional African religions be given in the seminaries and religious formation houses as a basic discipline; … that future priests and educators be introduced to the methods of religious sociology and anthropology".

 

Similarly, after having examined the "African paths to the sacred: mediations and mediators", the 3rd symposium, through its 2nd Commission "made an appeal for the formation of pastors and parish agents to include human sciences as fundamental discipline"; while its 3rd Commission constituted to discuss "Religious symbolism and liturgical creativity" " recommended that African culture be taught in Seminaries and other formation Institutes".

 

The 4th Symposium on sects, cultures and societies recommended that "the study of sects and new religious movements be included in the educational programmes of the teaching institutions".

 

Before the 4th Symposium the CERA had organised a Workshop-Seminar from 13-16 February 1991, on the occasion of the retirement of Prof. Vincent Mulago, the founder and first director of the CERA. One of the recommendations made was: "that a more systematic and compulsory course for all students of the Catholic Faculties be worked out on the basis of the important research data held in the archives of the CERA". Indeed there is a mine of as yet unused information in our Centre for the Study of African Religions.

 

Conclusion

 

In actual fact, it is African culture as a whole which is insufficiently known by academics and intellectuals. When they discuss the matter, most of them draw their knowledge from books. Few have any direct experience. Field investigations do not always provide the hoped-for results. Those who detain some knowledge in the religious sphere or traditional spirituality are frequently bound to secrecy. Those who themselves have an experience of the practice of traditional religion – especially those who convert to it after being Christian or Muslim – are so hostile that dialogue with them is rarely possible.

 

In addition, in certain regions that have been in contact with Europe since many centuries (since the 15th century in the case of the Kongo Kingdom, for instance), the cultural damage is such that a new culture emerges which is not African. This neo-culture is characteristic of contemporary Africa, so that traditional African religion is not a reference to a by-gone past, but constitutes the foundation or the matrix on which a new political, economic, social and cultural order must be built. This is what emerged from the 5th international CERA symposium on Traditional religions and social planning. This invites a selective conception of African tradition or culture which needs to shed the elements that do not enhance development so as to be able to include those that do foster this development in a new order.

 

I think that this is one of the aspects of inculturation: to help African Christians to overcome the religious rift between the traditional practices of local custom and the faith in Jesus Christ, and thus to accept the need to abandon beliefs and practices that are incompatible with the Gospel.

 

This presupposes that in the approach to traditional culture or religion, which is multi-disciplinary, there must be a greater use of a "method of discrimination" so as to judge what is there and determine the degree of validity and authenticity in relation to the spiritual drive which leads man to the absolute, to God and therefore to the fulfilment of the urge to freedom imprinted in his being.