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From the Abundance of Life Comes Hope: Laurenti Magesa Reminds Africans of their Cultural Heritage

“No sane society chooses to build its future on foreign cultures, values or systems.”[1]

Introduction

The discourse on African theology has tended to be inordinately characterised by the thinking that it is antithetical to Christian theology. Thankfully, however, there has been a school of thought that has tried to argue the contrary and one of the eponymous figures, to pioneer, and even lead this movement, was Rev. Prof. Laurenti Magesa.

Sadly, on the 11th of August 2022, news of his death reached and shook the entire African Christian scholarly community. Whiles many tributes were written and shared across the globe, especially among African theologians, the one thing that stood out prominently was the abundant life, lived by Baba Magesa, as he was affectionately referred to, through the outstanding scholarly works, and that gives hope for the future.

Magesa focused his theological works on liberation. It seems with Magesa, liberation was an umbrella term for any process that serves to free humanity and the universe from alienations – destructions, chaos, poverty, violence, and dismemberment of the human family in general.[2]  To this end, Magesa did theology in ways that elucidate the core values in the African indigenous religious knowledge of and expression of relations with God as not inconsistent with the Christian message. From this backdrop, we can say that the point of departure of Magesa’s theology was his difference in interpreting the Christian message through a foreign lens. He understands the Christian message as a message of service of love. Consequently, Magesa, navigating through the contours of history (a scholar of two centuries, the twentieth century and the twenty-first century who lived through the aftermath of the violence of World War II) deliberately advanced a paradigm shift from a neocolonial scholarly focus to posit the African Traditional religion as a pivotal point of reference for young African scholars.  Magesa cautioned against a blind adaptation of foreign cultures as an indication of faith in Christ. Magesa’s approach to doing theology and advancing religious scholarship with an African cultural lens offers some major lessons for young scholars on the Continent.

African Spirituality as an Ethical Code of Moral Life

Magesa teaches that the African ideas about God and the role of the ancestors seek to establish a Moral Universe, which in effect would ensure the abundance of life for the Africans.[3] This is because, in the indigenous African worldviews, God is seen as transcendent, where his authority and will is reflected in the ancestors, who are active in the lives of every African.[4] Keeping ancestral consciousness in a cordial relationship is an integral element in the making of progress in the community. Here, progress is “measured by the improvement of actual human life, the full realisation of the Ubuntu.”[5] In other words, the structure of African Religion was based on a morality of responsibility expressed in Ubuntu – ‘I am because we are’. Ubuntu is used to describe the anthropological philosophy that drives African indigenous communities to live in a web of relationships where individuals are tasked with living responsible lives to promote a social order of wellbeing. In this sense, the African society as an organic entity progresses together or crumbles together since each member is simply a part of the whole.

From this background, Magesa points out that the structure of the African Religion is based on morality that has to be life-giving and thus supports the Christian teaching of liberation to a new life.[6] Following this understanding, Magesa points to three important things for the church and Christian scholars in Africa: Firstly, African Christian theologians must engage the gospel from their own perspective bearing in mind the primordial presence of God in Africa. Secondly, for such theology to be truly African, it must be life-giving – confront the ills that engulf the continent. Thirdly, such a theology must stir up a vital Church in the continent that will not only speak truth to power, but will strategically align herself with life-giving works.

His admonitions are in themselves life-giving – not only expressed in the great scholarly engagements of several authors who have responded to most of his works but also evident among many African youth who will constitute the next generation of African Christian theologians.

Hearteningly I present below the thoughts, greatly influenced by Baba Magesa, of a few such potentials from the Kwame Nkrumah, University of Science and Technology. They do so as a tribute to Baba Magesa and a token of gratitude:

1. Joseph Peprah Boateng, Former Teaching Assistant to Dr. Nora K. Nonterah (African Christian Theologies), Mphil Candidate, KNUST:

Laurenti Magesa in his work, What is not Sacred? African Spirituality, opines that “Vital power requires and demands the active ‘skill’ inherent in created order so as to negotiate relationships between the visible and invisible elements of the universe. Vital power implies that nothing is what seems to be on the surface. To realize this is to begin to know the meaning of life and to start living it well and fully.” With this, Magesa explains the vital force as ‘primordial’- an element that has been in existence from the beginning, a force that helps the universe and all its make-up to exist in harmony. For Magesa, the well-being of the African can be fully appreciated, when he or she relates with the “Other” very well. The well-being of the African cannot be achieved when one is alienated from his or her culture. Inspired by this, the task of African theologians must therefore be the quest to postulate the Christian faith in the African cultural tenets in order to achieve one’s fullness of being. In addition, the resistance of many Africans to conversion to Christianity is one of the most enduring legacies of the lack of inculturation.  African Religion and Culture, therefore, becomes a major source of African theology.

2. Ernest Jnr. Frimpong, MPhil candidate, KNUST:

“How can the African Church be authentically self-governing and self-propagating, if it is not economically self-sufficient?” (Laurenti Magesa, “African Theology and the Local Church: Positive Tensions,” New People (2002), 18.)

In these words of Magesa, one finds an important lesson about the Church in Africa. That is, there cannot exist true liberation and independence without economic independence. He teaches that liberation theology goes beyond spirituality, and ecclesiology, Christology and cultural issues to include the economic liberation of individuals and institutions, including the church, in the continent. As a committed and engaging African theologian, though Baba Magesa has returned to God, he inspires me, and I am sure many others, to take up the challenge of situating Christology (the Word) in the African Context.

3. Kenneth Oppong, Mphil Candidate, KNUST:

“I have grown more and more to accept that although we may all see the same reality, we may, and do, at the same time, see different things in reality.” (Magesa, Laurenti. “A Theological Journey.” Exchange 32, no. 1 (2002), 44).

What a conviction! As an African Christian scholar, Magesa became convinced that there are varied conceptions of theology. His premise was that the African conceptions of theology could differ from that of the West, even if the core message remains. Thus, Magesa called for the recognition of African spirituality and culture in Christian theology. A careful look at his writings depicts that he deserves the title “Giant of African Christian Theology”. For four decades, Magesa upheld African Christian Theology in high esteem. As an upcoming African scholar, Magesa inspires me a lot. Just like Nazareth, something good can come from Africa. Indeed, a giant in the African Christian fraternity has fallen. Professor Magesa, sleep well! We hope to meet again on the resurrection morning. My joy is that your works shall continue to shape African spirituality. Blessings.

4. Collins Boafo, Mphil Candidate, KNUST:

In 2002, Laurenti Magesa asked a very intriguing question, that is, “If men claim dignity because they are children of God, how can they be ambivalent about the same claim by women.” (Laurenti Magesa, “African Theology and the Local Church: Positive Tensions,” New People (2002), 19).

Issues concerning the emancipation of women in Africa, both within and without the faith communities, are far from being addressed. What excites me most about this legendary question is Magesa’s courage to go places that are often deemed contested and sensitive. Also, it is his quest to do theology to touch on the concerns of all human persons in our communities in Africa, without exception to gender. Though I never met Megasa in person, his quest to theologize to suit the African context, most especially, inculturation and liberation, has won my affection towards the struggle for liberation theology as a contribution toward the liberation of all people who are marginalized in our societies, especially women.

Fare Thee well Baba Magesa

A sign that you had made a good journey ‘back’, in the “direction towards the beginning, closer to the life-giving and caring God”[7] is in your critical and firm demand to unearth the pristine value in the African worldview as a pointer for the Church in Africa in its effort to be vital and in causing progress in human’s society. Fare Thee Well!

Conclusion

Laurenti Magesa is an African cultural expert par excellence who sought to awaken in Africa the need to embrace the indigenous worldview and philosophy of life which teaches a communal ideal made up of God, the ancestors, and other human beings for the well-being of the community. African morality, which is embedded in African Religion is characterized by the good of all individuals and not a single individual. Thus there cannot exist a true African theology that is not concerned with human relationships and the collective well-being of all people on the continent. Resulting from Magesa’s life, there is hope that future African scholars will continue the quest to remain true to the African worldview in doing theology.

[1] Laurenti Magesa, African Religion: The Moral Traditions of Abundant Life, (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1997), xi.

[2] Laurenti Magesa, “Am I not a Human Being and a Brother/Sister?” AFER 34, no. 2 (1992), 113-114.

[3] Magesa. African Religion: The Moral Traditions of Abundant Life, 35.

[4] Magesa. African Religion: The Moral Traditions of Abundant Life, 45.

[5] See: Jean Luc Enyegue, “To Make the Church in Africa Really African”: A perspective of a Church Historian on the Endless Quest of Laurenti Magesa,” in African Theology in the 21st Century: A Call to Baraza, eds. Elias O. Opongo and Paul Bere, 19-46 (Nairobi, Paulines, 2021), 39.

[6] Magesa. African Religion: The Moral Traditions of Abundant Life, 35.

[7] Enyegue, “To Make the Church in Africa Really African,” 39.