Saturday, September 1, 2012

Theological Colonialism R Us

For those of us teaching African students in one of the rapidly expanding number of theological colleges on the continent, it's hard to get adequate resources.  But it is not just a matter of securing books at prices that our students can afford.

A friend of a friend who teaches at the diploma level in a small school in a neighboring country asked me for advice about textbooks for about six different theology courses.  For some reason, it pushed a button.  This is what I said:

Let me put my 'senior lecturer in theology at an African University' hat on and make an observation.  There are very few theology books that appropriately engage African (Ethiopian and Kenyan, in my experience) students.  Most are written from a Western perspective and are dealing with western intellectual issues that are remote from and irrelevant to the African churches.  Even those written by Africans are written by those who have been trained in Western contexts or with Western assumptions (as most of them have been trained in Western schools).  We missionaries are keen on passing on our faith, but we usually end up passing on a theological perspective that may actually impede genuine faith and engagement with the local context here.  That may be fine in a Nairobi mega church where everyone is assiduously trying to be Western.  But the shortcomings of the African churches across the spectrum can be traced to the mismatch of missionary/Western theology and the realities on the ground.

So the short answer is, there are presently no good theological resources for the African Church.  The closest one comes presently is late Kwame Bediako, and the conservative Western Christian response to Bediako gives one an indication of what we are up against here.  As long as Western theological traditions hold on to their myth that their theology and perspective is THE theology and perspective, we will simply continue the process of theological colonialism unabated.

What I do is use texts that I acknowledge are deficient for the task at hand (Grudem's Systematic Theology, for example) and then help students understand where Grudem's ideas fit in terms of historical theology and challenge them to grasp, frame and work through the issues from their own perspective.  This is terribly disorienting for students here, as they want desperately to be told what to believe and so will take a Very Reformed or Lutheran or Wesleyan or Liberal or Evangelical or Roman Catholic or Orthodox or Pentecostal perspective - whatever is proffered - and swallow it whole and uncritically.  But there is no uncontroverted position, and the extraordinarily messy state of theology and biblical studies should raise certain red flags concerning the status of the whole enterprise.

At the diploma level, and with students whose proficiency in English is marginal at best, this becomes nearly impossible.  The students struggle mightily to make it through even the simplest of reading assignments (if they read them at all).  And the resources translated into Kiswahili (or whatever language) tend to be the ones that some missionary thought were the most important for securing his/her perspective on the issues being covered.  We end up making disciples of our perspectives but not of Christ.  And the churches and their mission suffer mightily as a result.

So to sum up (in my opinion):
1. Adequate resources do not exist for what we are called to do.
2. Use the resources that do exist as a way to teach our students why they are not adequate.
3. Most of the courses on your list require that we treat what are normally used as texts as examples of historical theology (i.e. this is how Christians in the West as part of whatever particular tradition have dealt with this topic and for this reason), rather than as what should be transplanted into the soil of African churches today.
4. The West doesn't want to hear that what they are doing (and what is considered by them to be 'normative') is irrelevant to the rest of the Christian world.  We've already had to undo political colonialism.  It's time to call a spade a spade and begin to dismantle theological colonialism as well.

Apologies for being unhelpful, but this is the way it is as I see it.

I would love to have your input on this issue.  How do you see it?