When I first drank coffee, let’s be honest: I hated the taste. The only way I could enjoy it was if I doctored it with copious amounts of sugar and cream. Then, over time, I wanted more coffee and fewer additives. What happened? The taste grew on me.
As with coffee, so with theology. Having read Agbonkhianmeghe E. Orobator’s Theology Brewed in an African Pot (Orbis: 2008, Kindle edition), I really wanted to like it. After all, he is doing what I want my own Kenyan students to do, not to parrot theology seen through a Western lens but to contextualize theology for their own setting. But at least on a first read-through, I’m reminded of coffee. I may need some time for the taste to grow on me.
Let’s consider a positive aspect of Theology Brewed in an African Pot, namely, the strong chapter on ecclesiology. As a Wesleyan, I am closer in some ways to Orobator’s Roman Catholicism than a Baptist or Presbyterian would be. Both Wesleyans and Catholics emphasize the importance of holiness. Moreover, this holiness is never meant to be a solitary pursuit. John Wesley (1703-91) refused to advocate a kind of faith that was individualistic. Instead, he organized his followers into small groups for encouragement and accountability. In the same way, Orobator develops the nexus between the corporate emphasis of Catholicism as the people of God and the solidarity of African cultures, where “I am because we are.” Church is not just a loose organization of individuals; rather, Church is family. He clarifies (locations 1465-1470):
In many parts of Africa, family is an important value and dimension of religious, socio-cultural, political, and economic life. Social systems in Africa pivot on the family. When Vatican II declares that the church is the people of God and a communion, we understand this to mean that within the context of the African Christian community, the church is family. Therefore, the corresponding and appropriate model of the local church in Africa is Church as Family of God.
In the Nazarene congregation where I grew up, our pastor had a time in the service where we would sing the Gaither standby, “I’m so glad I’m a part of the family of God.” While we sang it, we’d shake hands with others around us. Indeed, as I’ve traveled the world, the church as my extended family has been a comfort, an anchor when my life has been mostly sail. So when Orobator speaks of the church in this way, it resonates with my own heart, a reminder that the metaphor of the Church as family is not reserved just for African Christians. It’s an idea that resonates with many cultures on diverse continents.
While I appreciate Orobator’s ecclesiology, I cannot say the same about his view of the ancestors. Chapter 9 – “Our Fathers and Mothers Who Art in Heaven” – presents the conception of African Traditonal Religion (ATR) re. the ancestors as compatible with Christian faith, but is it? Some of what he claims is innocuous enough, such as the value of recounting the stories of those who have gone before us, what he calls the “communion of saints” (location 1865). Where he veers into dubious territory is when speaking of the “living dead” (ancestors) as protecting us (location 1889, emphasis added):
…Through the active presence of the living dead, the community grows qualitatively, because, as ancestors, they have only one duty: to protect the lives of their progeny. In many different ways we celebrate them. We rejoice in their presence.
Likewise, an ancestor is for Orobator an “intercessor,” taking petitions to a “Supreme Being” (location 1899). Roman Catholicism – through its cult of Mary and the other saints – is amenable to those like Orobator who want to maintain a place for the ancestors that goes beyond verbal honor to believing that ancestors are active in our daily lives.
Yet is the idea of ancestors as protectors and intercessors biblical? When Paul was caught in a storm, he did not ask an ancestor to intercede with God for their protection. Rather, God sent an angel to Paul who re-assured him that he and the others in the ship would be spared. “Be encouraged, men! I have faith in God that it will be exactly as he told me” (Acts 27:25 CEB). It is an angel in this instance (not an ancestor) who acts as a messenger of God, as a go-between, assuring him of God’s protection. Yet even here, we must be careful not to be distracted by the angel. Prayer is never directed to angels by Paul in any of his letters; rather, his prayers are addressed directly to God. (Ephesians 3:14-21 is one example). Intercession is the role neither of ancestors nor of angels. Rather, intercession is lodged squarely in the heart of the Trinity. Jesus is our High Priest and intercedes for us (Hebrews 7:25). Likewise, the Holy Spirit interecedes with the Father, even groaning on our behalf (Romans 8:26), a sure sign of his loving concern.
By attempting to reconcile Christian faith and the cult of the ancestors, Orobator has arguably opened a door to syncretism, an amalgam of religious worldviews that cannot mix and remain consistent with biblical faith. His may be a theology brewed in an African pot, but can the brew be healthy when it has been compromised in this way?
Orobator should be commended for wrestling with his own religious heritage passed down to him from his ancestors and the variety of Christian faith that as a young man he chose to follow. Indeed, we all must hammer out our own faith and do our best to see where our own culture of origin has made us blind to important aspects of the Bible. Theology, after all, is not only brewed in African pots. It has also historically been brewed in German, British, and American pots, among others. The challenge for any of us is to accept the critique of those who stand outside our culture. They can sometimes help us discern in the theological brew that we serve up distasteful elements to which we are oblivious.
By reading Orobator’s Theology Brewed in an African Pot, the reader discovers how theological contextualization can be an effective, positive impetus for evangelization. On the other hand, the book is simultaneously a cautionary tale of the doctrinal compromise that can be the unwitting result of the desire to make the Gospel more appealing in any given setting. May God continue to give us wisdom as we walk together as brothers and sisters in Christ, engaging this essential but delicate task.