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Following the footprints of God
KWAME BEDIAKO, 1945-2008
In a BBC interview broadcast in 1989, Iwan Russell Jones talked with Kwame Bediako about his Christian faith and the contribution of African theology to the world church.
Iwan Russell Jones: Despite the rapid growth of the church in many parts of Africa, still there are lots of Africans who say that Christianity is something foreign, it's culturally unacceptable. When you became a Christian, did you feel that you were, in a sense, betraying your African identity?

Kwame Bediako: No, certainly no – not at all. It never occurred to me at all that I was betraying my cultural heritage. Of course, in my own personal case I became a Christian in Europe. But that had very little to do with any European pressure to become Christian. I became a Christian in France. I was studying there for a masters and a doctoral degree in French literature. I had been brought up in a sort of a church family, though I had never, I would say, been actually evangelised, either by the family or even the church. When I became a Christian, I didn't even possess a Bible, let alone read it. In one sense, I see my conversion a little bit like St Paul's – a bit of a Damascus road experience, coming at the end of a period of several years in my life when I had made myself into a virtual atheist. For an African to say this, perhaps, may be rather unusual.

IRJ: Is that a sign of how Europeanised you'd become?

KB: Well, I must say that I had become deeply influenced by my studies in French literature. Certainly I was under the influence of French existentialist thought and philosophy. But there was no feeling at all of betrayal of cultural heritage. If anything, it was the European influence that had made me an atheist, and here I was discovering God and Christ and the reality of the divine.

IRJ: So in a sense, you feel more African through being a Christian?

KB: Precisely. If I may just bring in a bit of personal biography here: I became a Christian, and before the end of my doctoral studies in the University of Bordeaux, I felt that I might wish to devote myself to Christian work. I came to London to study theology, and only then I returned to Ghana.

Now of course, all this took my family back home by surprise, and it took them some time to reconcile themselves to it, especially my father. He was not particularly Christian, though I would say he is a religious man. In my childhood, it was quite common for him to link us with a particular shrine for the protection of the family, through various rituals that he would perform on our behalf. Apparently, he had been doing this in the seven years I was away from Africa.

On my return, my father, who was very much concerned for his children, inquired whether we might continue this link with his adopted shrine. Of course, I had become convinced that Christ was the ultimate power in my life, as indeed I believed in all life – and there I was caught between obeying my father, showing traditional African filial piety, and maintaining my Christian position in terms of my belief that Christ had become the supreme power in my life.

I remember telling my father: "Well, you know, Dada, what you seek for us through association with the shrine, Christ has already fulfilled for us."

I will never forget my father's reaction to that. One would have expected him to be up in arms and distressed that his son had gone away and become Western. Instead, what he said was: "Well, if Christ has achieved for you what I have been seeking, which is protection from evil spirits – you are my eldest son, after all, I need to protect you and see that you achieve your full potential in life – if Christ has done that for you, then we don't need the shrine, do we?"

We've never talked about that since. I thought it was significant that my father, who was certainly much closer to African religion than I ever was, to respond in that way to my conversion.

IRJ: If you feel this kind of affinity between Africanness and Christianity, surely the question arises: why be a Christian at all? Because if there are people in Africa who say to you: "Christianity is a foreign import – stay African!" then there are also people in the West who say, "Look, we're living in a pluralistic world. The important thing is to stay with your gods. Let's not go in for trying to convert people to something else. Stay with your culture, stay with your tradition, stay with your own gods." So why become a Christian?

KB: I think the simple answer to that is the discovery of Jesus Christ; who he is and who he can become in one's life. There is a great deal in African traditional culture, the religious heritage of the African past, which finds affirmation in one's Christian consciousness. I find this myself, but that is not to say it is the final word. This I would say with some insistence – and I believe I say it with conviction. The African tradition gives a sense of the numinous, a sense of the spiritual dimension of life. It gives all of that. But I don't believe it gives what Christ gives, which is the certainty and the conviction of salvation, the knowledge of the love of the Father, the sense of the nearness of God.

What has impressed itself more and more upon me, is the sense that in Christ one does truly achieve what I call a universal horizon, a sense of belonging within a truly universal community of love. It reminds me of a statement in one of the early church fathers, Clement of Alexandria. He says that since the incarnation if Christ, the whole universe has become flooded with light and human life has become different. The world itself has become a different place.

IRJ: Clement of Alexandria was trying to translate a religion which came from a Jewish context into a very new context, that of the ancient Greek world. Do you take inspiration from those early fathers? Would you model what you're trying to do in Africa today on the kind of thing they did then?

KB: I do. I wrote a doctoral thesis where I tried to link a number of authors from that era of Christian history and thought with a number of African writers of the 20th century. I have found the efforts of the early Gentile theologians, such as Clement and Justin, very inspiring.

IRJ: One of the things those early theologians said was that the Greek philosophers stood in the same relation to Christianity as did the Old Testament; that in a way, philosophers like Plato and Socrates were a kind of preparation for the coming of Christ, just like the Old Testament prophets were in a Jewish context. Do you feel that African traditional religion stands in the same relationship to Christianity? Is it a kind of schoolmaster, a preparation for the coming of Christ?

KB: You will realise that whilst these Hellenistic Christian theologians were saying this, there were other voices in their world saying the contrary, that, no, you cannot take this tradition away from us. You've got the classic case of the very bitter opponent of the Christians, Celsus, who wrote a whole book against the Christians precisely to deny that they could claim Plato and Socrates and the whole philosophical tradition for themselves in the way that Justin and Clement did.

Now, in Africa, of course, the same effort has been made. When you consider the writings of the Kenyan Anglican theologian, John Mbiti, this is precisely what he says, that African traditional religion in all its illuminating insights (and therefore admitting that there are other elements in it which might best be left to one side) is indeed
preparatio evangelica – he uses use the ancient technical term – it's preparation for the gospel. I believe this can be said for much in the African religious heritage of the past. Yes, I will say this. But to say "preparation" precisely means you are saying you need to go beyond that, you're saying it prepares for something.

IRJ: So does it have that revelatory content for Africans that the Old Testament has, then?

KB: Well, no, I would not say that it replaces the Old Testament, any more than Justin and Clement said that. Justin and Clement were very positive on the philosophical tradition, incidentally, as against the specifically religious tradition in Greek culture, which was the mythologies, the stories and myths of the gods and goddesses of ancient Rome and Greece. They stood against those.

But however positive they were on the philosophical tradition, they never argued that one could, as it were, substitute the Old Testament by simply invoking the Greek philosophical tradition. That solution was left to someone else, to Marcion, who completely obliterated the Old Testament because he said it was barbarian. I think the remarkable thing is that Justin and Clement were just as Greek as Marcion was, and must have felt similar pressures to jettison everything that was, as it were, foreign to Greek culture. And yet they stood firm and, I think, turned a corner.

They came to understand that the Old Testament, in a profound sense, is more than Jewish history, more than Jewish religion, more than the history of the religion of Israel. The Old Testament, in one sense, becomes a control experiment to understand all pre-Christian traditions. So they affirmed it. Justin claimed Abraham and Socrates, in the same category, as belonging to him, as being his spiritual ancestors.

So yes, I think we can be positive about the religious traditions of one's past, without thereby conferring upon it the same revelatory quality that one would, as a Christian, give to the Old Testament. No. I would not go as far as that. But all that we can say – and I think it is a lot – is that the tradition does give evidence of... well, how else shall we put it? ... the footsteps of God. The footprints of God in the lives of the particular community we're thinking of.

IRJ: Can you give some examples of how an African Christian theology gives a new perspective on things for the world church? Latin American theology has an emphasis on justice and liberation. What would you say is the distinctive contribution African theology has made?

KB: I think the great contribution from the African side is a renewed emphasis on the human, on wholeness of life, on spiritual values. I think Latin American liberation theology is having to get back to spirituality. African theology, by virtue of its context in Africa, its openness to what constitutes the African worldview, with its openness to the realm of the unseen, the notions of community, solidarity in human community, in clan, in family... I think African theology is giving new directions in the understanding, for instance, of the doctrine of the church, church as community. I think African independent churches, in particular, are making this contribution: community, as against the rather extreme individualism of much Western society, which has entered the Western churches in many ways – the privatisation of religion.

I think African theology, if it remains faithful to its cultural insights, will present an image of Jesus which may well be new and startling. For instance, I have been developing the notion of Jesus as Ancestor, and therefore one who participates in the whole range of the human experience of his community, his people, the church. The church being Jesus among his people, in his community. I think these are ideas which suggest themselves to an African theologian who is alive to his African background and positive towards it without losing the firmness of his or her grasp on Christ himself, who in the end is the goal of all theology, just as he is the beginning.

IRJ: Now these are insights that you obviously feel are not just for Africa, but from Africa in a sense to the world church, and particularly to the West. How do you think these things can be heard in the West?

KB: Well... It sounds easy, but I think it's rather difficult. One would wish that the Western church would perhaps learn to listen, if I could put it that way! I believe there are many Westerners who are listening, who are open. And you are right. I don't hold these insights to be merely for Africa, any more than the insights of Western theology belong simply to the West. I believe that if African theology remains centred on Christ and projecting him, that will not fail to communicate to the rest of the church, because in the end it's not cultural insights that we are called upon to share, but Christ himself.

This edition of All Things Considered was broadcast on BBC Radio Wales on 29 January 1989.
kwame bediako
Kwame Bediako.
Two of Kwame Bediako's most important writings are: Theology and Identity: the impact of culture upon Christian thought in the second century and modern Africa (Oxford, 1992); and Christianity in Africa: the renewal of a non-Western religion (Edinburgh, 1995).
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