On Audacity and the African God – The Challenge of Charles Nyamiti

When I first met Prof Nyamiti (1931-2020), it was a time of lockdown, too. We could not leave the Catholic University of Eastern Africa campus due to violence in the streets of Nairobi related to the re-election of the then Kenyan president Daniel arap Moi. Father Nyamiti took me almost directly to his room where he played with his keyboard Bach by heart. Just like the circumstances of our first meeting were confusing, Charles Nyamiti was intellectually a confusing (but not confused!) figure. His strong insistence on obedience to the Catholic hierarchy and sticking to the traditional doctrines made him look like a rather conservative and thereby uninteresting theologian. We, the wazungu (whites) hanging around African theology, are constantly on the lookout for anything exotic and exciting. Such theological orientalism does not appreciate concealed audacity like that of Nyamiti.

The White Christ in Africa

The Christ introduced to Africa by Western missionaries is a white man. I don’t say this primarily as critique because we are who we are and we tend to create ourselves a Christ that resembles us. Another question, though, was that only some of the early missionaries were open towards contextualization.

A glow-in-the-dark superwhite Jesus, made in South Africa

Christ as the African Ancestor

Charles Nyamiti is best known for his book Christ as our Ancestor (1984) which was also the first of his texts I read as an exchange student in Tanzania, as a Makumira course book. In that book, he argues that Christ should be counted as every human being’s brother-ancestor through His death. This ancestorship is based on the Trinity: the Father is the Ancestor in the Trinity, the Son is the Descendant and the Holy Spirit is the Oblation (sacred gift or sacrifice) between the Son and the Father. All the three are logically required for both ancestorship and the Trinity because if there is no relationship between the descendant and the ancestor, the ancestor is no longer an ancestor but just a forgotten dead person. Thus, Nyamiti argues that his main contribution is actually not about Christology but about the Trinity where the ancestral approach proves the logical necessity of the existence of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is therefore not just an addition to the incarnated Son and the Father who sent him.

Image: Mika Vähäkangas

African Theological Audacity

Where does this rather technical sounding theologizing take us?

First, the African ancestral cults, usually condemned by missionaries (and today’s Christians) as pagan and superstitious, are a reflection of God’s very self. We can learn of God through studying African pre-Christian traditions! This bridges the chasm between Christianity and the rest of genuine spirituality.

Second, in Nyamiti, we see a fusion of African and Augustinian (St. Augustine of Hippo) elements, which functions as a reaffirmation of African cultures in relation to the Roman one. Note: in the Roman Catholic Church, the Roman culture has often served as the measuring stick for the rest, as the name of the denomination suggests.

Third, and the most radical, is Nyamiti’s insistence that this finding of his should be adopted as an official doctrine (of the Catholic Church). In practice, he suggests that African ancestral cults contain a universal value that believers from any culture should embrace. He suggests that African cultures are at par with the Hellenic and Roman ones. Just like Graeco-Roman philosophical thought has served Christian theologising in formulating Christian doctrines, African cultures are to do the same. African cultures contain, according to him, universal and eternal truth.

In spite of his seemingly conventional theological style with traditional modes of argumentation basing on Catholic doctrines and scholastic theological heritage, Nyamiti is for me the most radical African academic theologian. This makes him is so confusing to me: how can such a meek personality, and constantly obedient son of the Roman Catholic Church, rock the boat of doctrinal traditionalism that hard?

Mika Vähäkangas

The views presented in this post represent only the author’s and are not Lund University or GCIR seminar official positions

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