Has The Christian Faith Been Adequately Presented?

by Kofi Abrefa Busia

From the International Review of Missions, January 1961

Some missionaries who have served overseas have unhappy recollections of trusted converts reverting, on certain occasions, to 'pagan' beliefs and practices. The experience was all the more stunning when the converts concerned were not the more recent ones, but Christians of long standing, sometimes with fine records of conspicuous service and loyalty. The problem takes on a new dimension when it is presented as part of the general problem of the encounter between Christianity and indigenous cultures.

As part of the 'Rapid Social Change' study sponsored by the World Council of Churches, I organized a conference of Christian leaders, clergymen and laymen, in Accra two years ago. All the churches represented in the Ghana Christian Council sent delegates to the conference. After a long discussion and a frank exchange of views and experiences, the participants agreed with remarkable unanimity that certain practices which were contrary to Christian belief and teaching continued among Christians, and that in some instances there was a return to traditional observances, particularly at such critical moments of life as birth, illness, grave misfortune or death.

Some questions regarding traditional practices hardly raise any theological issues. For example, the question, 'Why do we not use our own music and rhythm and drums in worship?' is of a different order from the question, 'Why can we not as Christians pour libation, which is our traditional way of worship?* The latter question hides fundamental issues about the nature of the universe, about man, society and God; and to ask why libations are not assimilated into Christian worship is really to ask whether the beliefs implied are, or are not, in accord with Christian doctrine.

My own studies carried out in Ghana provide ample evidence of the persistence of, or the return to, old rites and beliefs such as pouring libations, the worship of ancestors or practices based on belief in witchcraft or in the power of gods and spirits, even in areas where the Christian Church has been established for over a hundred years.

A popular explanation is that the situation has been caused by the mistakes of the early missionaries. It is generally asserted that they condemned all traditional beliefs and customs as pagan and unchristian, without sufficient examination or understanding and that, with the spread of education and the rise of nationalism, the prohibitions imposed are being challenged. The accusation that the early missionaries rejected everything wholesale is, however, not altogether fair. Some of them based their conclusions, and the conduct they required of their converts, on such information of traditional beliefs as they possessed. A letter dated January, 1876, written for the guidance of ministers and church leaders by one of the early Wesleyan missionaries, contained the following:

Native customs are in-wrought in the social system of African tribes. We must be careful to oppose them by argument and persuasion; and in cases requiring the interference of the church and the exercise of discipline, we must take each case as it arises, on its own merits, and act accordingly. It will be seen by the converts that their time-honoured customs are inconsistent with the religion of Christ. We cannot drive people beyond their light, but must be content to lead them step by step until they see more clearly.

The full implications of such insights do not appear to have been realized; for the doctrinal teaching required does not seem to have been provided. However, it is to one specific aspect of the general problem of the encounter between Christianity and African cultures that I wish to draw attention. I shall do so by beginning rashly with the general statement that all religious systems (of thought, belief and practice) imply, implicitly or explicitly, concepts of man, nature, society and the supernatural; and that in Africa and, from what I have been told, in Asia also, there has not been a sufficient awareness of the encounter between Christianity and traditional beliefs and practices at this level.

There has in consequence been an all too facile acceptance of superficial conversions. One should not too readily accuse the converts of frailty or hypocrisy. It is rather the Christian Church which must ask whether converts from an alien culture, say African or Asian, have received adequate instruction as to what the Christian faith has to say about life as a whole—about nature, man, society and God; about the universe and the meaning of life. Converts are indeed not philosophers, and therefore this may appear far-fetched. But no culture leaves these fundamental questions alone. The converts come with such knowledge, beliefs or assumptions about man, nature, society and God as their culture offers them. These go to the root of life, as well as seeking to give meaning to the whole of life, in this world and hereafter. They therefore influence choices and conduct and actions, particularly during critical moments of life. My contention is that those who have been responsible for the propagation of the Christian gospel in other lands and cultures have not shown sufficient awareness of the need for an encounter between the Christian religion and the cosmology of peoples outside European culture and tradition. It is this which has made Christianity either alien or superficial, or both.

I would like to illustrate with reference to Africa. Africa is indeed a large continent of many tribes who until fairly recently lived in isolation; different ways of life were therefore developed. Nevertheless, from such sociological and anthropological studies as have been made already, it is possible to discern some concepts that are broadly applicable to many areas of the continent, and which may be used to illustrate the point I wish to emphasize.

In the sphere of cosmology, the following selection may be presented. There is the conception of a Supreme Being, the Creator, charged with power; a power that can be both beneficent and dangerous. Below him are lesser deities who are also charged with power. These deities may be associated with hills, trees, rivers, or with animals and other natural objects. They all derive their powers from the Supreme Being, but man has to take care to be on good terms with them separately. Natural objects may be useful, but they must be revered, for they have powers which are a part of their essential nature and which must be propitiated because they can do good as well as harm. This thought lies behind rituals relating to material objects practised in African religions. Though an African Christian may join in thanksgiving to God for His gifts, he may, without any sense of contradiction, give thanks to Mother Earth also for her bounty.

There is also a widespread belief among African peoples that man is both a biological and a spiritual being, and that there is a life beyond death. This is shown in the worship of ancestors and in funeral rites. Further, every man is a member of a family, a large group of kinsmen whose relationships persist beyond death. The dead have power over the living, and they, too, have to be propitiated. There is in fact a universe of spirits with powers over life—birth, growth, prosperity, adversity and death. They can give fulfilment and satisfaction or thwart human efforts and wishes. This cosmology raises many questions, theological as well as philosophical, waiting to be probed and answered.

As in other countries, some of the highest expressions of African culture are associated with religion: poetry, music, dance, art, picturesque ceremony, language, emotion; in the same way as the Christian religion in Europe has evoked some of the most beautiful and moving expressions of human skill, creativeness and thought. What is more, Christianity has continually to face and provide answers to life's most complex problems. A religion must give wholeness and meaning to life: Christian theology strives to fulfil this need within the context of Europe. It is a continuing task. The challenge is increasingly coming to the Church to extend this task to other countries, so that Christianity may reach new depths and heights in an encounter with other cultures and become truly universal, rooted in every soil and culture. In doing so, it may shed some of its cultural 'western' accretions, but its universal essence should grow clearer and stronger for all to hear a gospel, and to receive a faith through which God speaks to Everyman. It is, I think, because the need to provide doctrinal teaching that answers these fundamental questions has not been sufficiently appreciated that Christianity faces the danger of being superficial or alien in Africa and Asia.

K. A. Busia

Dr Kofi Abrefa Busia was then leader of the opposition United Party, living in exile because of the then one-party government in Ghana. He was a Professor of Sociology at the Institute of Social Studies at The Hague.

Busia portrait