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Prof Mbiti, the Anglican cleric who dared to  promote African religions

Saturday October 12 2019

Kenyan born author and theology professor John S Mbiti

Author and theology professor John Samuel Mbiti, who died in Switzerland on Sunday. He was one of the world's iconic theology and philosophy scholars. PHOTO | COURTESY 

AUSTIN BUKENYA
By AUSTIN BUKENYA
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“Mbiti” (hyena) is probably the first word that I learnt in Kiikamba. This was back in the late 1960s, long before I had a home in Ukambani. My interest in “Mbiti” was that it was the name of one of my most admired teachers and senior colleagues when I joined Makerere as a graduate student and tutorial fellow. This was the Reverend Canon Dr John S. Mbiti of the then-Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies.

CREATIVITY AND ACTIVISM

He was later internationally known as Prof John Samuel Mbiti, former Director of the Ecumenical Institute of the World Council of Churches in Regis-Bossey, who passed away in Geneva, Switzerland, at the beginning of this week. At Makerere, where he lectured for some 10 years, Mbiti was one of the small group of young academics, including David Rubadiri, Joseph Ouma Muga, Pio Zirimu, and Ali Mazrui, up to whom we wide-eyed aspiring “scholars” looked as mentors and role models.

They were the first generation of indigenous scholars to assume senior academic posts at Makerere, alma mater to most of them, to which they had returned after earning top qualifications overseas. Rubadiri and Mbiti had earned their postgraduate honours from Cambridge. Mbiti had emerged from his remote Kitui birthplace to make it through Kenya’s prestigious Alliance High School and Makerere. I realise now how lucky we were to be sitting at the feet of these colossi of East African scholarship, creativity and activism.

Our dear departed John S. Mbiti struck me as the quietest and gentlest of the group I have mentioned. Hence, probably, my surprise at the “Mbiti” name. Hyenas are not, in our lore and imagination, associated with gentility or suavity. I was to learn only later, as I got initiated into Kiikamba culture, that the name Mbiti signified misfortunes surrounding a person’s birth. Parents who have lost children in infancy may give their new-born a “scary” name, like “Mbiti”, to ward off the stalking death.

ELEGANT PRIDE

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Our Professor’s soft-spoken and kindly mien may, however, be due to his being a priest. John Mbiti was an ordained minister of the Anglican Communion and he almost always wore his clerical collar with elegant pride. Indeed, one of his last major publications was his direct translation of the New Testament from its original Greek into our Kiikamba.

This brings me to the three things I admired most about Prof John Mbiti, and which I think we can all learn from him. These are his deep but relaxed, ecumenical faith, his multidisciplinary interests and his thorough, meticulous and applied scholarship.

Regarding Mbiti’s faith, I had the impression that he was what I think a true believer should be: convinced, sincere, committed and tolerant. As I mentioned earlier, he was a lifelong and active member of the Anglican Evangelical faith into which he was born and raised.

This was not an easy matter in an age and an environment of waning spirituality, in which many so-called intellectuals, including the new African scholars, gloried in such slogans as “God is dead“, “religion is the opium of the people” and “I don’t believe in anything really”.

OPEN-MINDEDNESS

But Mbiti was not content with merely holding on to his faith. He showed his commitment by offering himself to its ministry, to actively promote, teach and preach the Christian faith. For Mbiti, church service was a vocation, a genuine calling to serve, not a job opportunity, as it is increasingly becoming these days. After all, with all his academic qualifications, he was highly employable and he did not need a church post.

Maybe one should also note that Mbiti’s submission to the ministry in a relatively conventional church was also an act of humility, as he inevitably had to serve under leaders who were considerably less qualified than he was, academically. His challenges in the church must have been even tougher because, as we see from a good deal of his writings, his view of Christianity did not conform to the prevailing views and attitudes in most conventional Christian denominations in the middle decades of the 20th century.

One crucial point was ecumenism, which seems to have been close to Mbiti’s heart. This is the conviction that while believers are expected to adhere to the beliefs, traditions and practices of their faiths, they should be open-minded, trying to understand and respect the faiths and practices of others. This might sound pretty obvious today, but that was not the case in those distant days. Different faiths, or even denominations within Christianity, were rigidly exclusivist and intolerant towards one another. In Uganda, which had a sorry history of inter-faith and inter-denominational armed conflicts, such intolerance was even more pronounced. The work of ecumenical-minded church leaders, like John Mbiti, deserves praise for the prevailing open-mindedness today.

MULTIDISCIPLINARY

Another serious battle that permeated all of John Mbiti’s work, not only in the church but also in his theological studies, was the reconciliation of Christianity with indigenous African spiritual beliefs and practices. From the beginning of contacts between Africans and outsiders, there always was, and still is in some quarters, the suspicion that all things African were pagan, satanic, demonic and unchristian.

Well-informed and well-intentioned Africans, especially scholars and believers like John Mbiti, made it their lifelong mission to disabuse Africans and other Christians of this misconception. Some diehards may accuse Mbiti and his colleagues of “syncretism”, trying to reconcile the irreconcilable in their faith. But most serious African Christians stand with Mbiti and his colleagues in the conviction that a conscientiously “acculturated” (culture-adapted) faith is the only tenable and productive one on our continent.

Turning to John Mbiti’s multidisciplinary approach to scholarship, I particularly admired him for his taking an active interest in every branch of knowledge available to him. Mbiti was professionally a philosopher and theologian. But, as we know, he was also a linguist, folklorist and poet, and very good in these fields. I am personally indebted to him because he was one of the few East Africans who enlightened me with their writings when I blindly embarked on my “study” of oral literature in the late 1960s. His well-commented Akamba Stories was a major reference for me.

TRULY EDIFYING

Mbiti’s verse collection, Poems of Nature and Faith, also dating from those days, is comparable to the best that has been published in this region. It contains such gems as the oft-anthologised piece “The Crucified Thief”, which I remember my friend Luka Wasambo-Were and I dramatising enjoyably at a teacher’s drama workshop in Sagana, back in the 1980s. Scholars like Mbiti did their work thoroughly, but they avoided the blinkers of narrow specialisations dominating today’s universities.

Finally, a word to our church leaders. Please do not despise study and scholarship. Some church workers are waging battles in several East African countries against the suggestion that they should be properly educated and trained for their ministry. Some claim that the Spirit’s “inspiration” and “revelation” are enough to make them pastors, prophets, apostles and bishops. I cannot make a judgement about that. But what I know for a fact is that it was truly edifying being pastured and ministered to by a learned and trained minister like the late Rev Canon Prof John S. Mbiti.

May he rest in peace.

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