The “Forgotten” of our Dialogues in Africa

Fr. Luis Bira, SX, Xaverian Missionary in Sierra Leone, West Africa

The Cameroonian Dominican Eloi Messi Metogo passed away on October 15, 2017. One of his merits has been to make us aware of the existence of unbelief in Africa. In his book – “Can God die in Africa? Essay on religious indifference and unbelief in black Africa “, he invited the Catholic Churches of Africa not to forget associating the unbelievers, the non-affiliated and the indifferent in the dialogue started with the Muslims, Christians of other faiths and members of the African traditional religions. But in order to do so, first he urged to get rid of the myth of the “incurably religious” African.

1. Is an African incurably religious?

We find the thesis of Negro-African as incurably religious in many books of African anthropology and ethnology. Begun during the colonial period, thanks above all to the work of the Belgian missionary Placide Tempels, in his book Bantou Philosophy, this thesis stood out as a truth of faith. It was then entertained by a certain African theology concerned with finding the cornerstones of Christianity in the traditional religions. Today, the resurgence of beliefs, cults and traditional practices, the proliferation of sects, the expansion of Christianity and Islam, on African soil, are often mentioned in support of this thesis. If mention is made of the existence of unbelief in Africa, it is considered to be the effect and product of Western influence. Thus to the question if an African is incurably religious, the answer is quite often Yes.

False, retorts the Cameroonian theologian with well-informed arguments. By analyzing certain Negro-African myths, Brother Messi Metogo perceives the signs of a certain unbelief. For instance: the idea of ​​the distanciation of the divine which is found in African myths has often been interpreted as a Negro-African recognition of the transcendence of the divine. To think so unequivocally is to keep silence on the Negro-African concern for independence from the divine; or even the total rejection of any idea of ​​the divine which would order the life of humans on earth that these myths convey.

In traditional societies, the belief in the afterlife is not as obvious as it is often said. In Masai myths, for example, the existence of the afterlife is simply denied. Because human life and the happiness it requires are played out and end here on earth. Furthermore, the study of myths proves that the search for practical efficiency and material well-being places man at the center of religion. In traditional societies, prayers are often contracted, and gods or spirits that have become ineffective are abandoned. Here are all the arguments which allow the Cameroonian theologian to reject the massive accusation made against the West as having imported unbelief in Africa. If the West has contributed to it through secularization and different kinds of atheism, it is far, in Messi Metogo’s judgment, from having sown it in African societies because it already existed there. 

In modern African societies, unbelief takes mainly the form of religious indifference. This signifies the progressive, more or less deliberate withdrawal from religion due to a lack of interest. Religious indifference includes all stages of unbelief, from carelessness and laziness to atheism, total absence of practice and religious faith.According to Messi Metogo, taking into account the fact of unbelief in Africa is only possible if African studies in all areas: religious, economic, sociological, philosophical … are renewed, tracking the illusion of the specific African characteristics spread by the doctrines of negritude and authenticity. We know today that these doctrines served as the ideological basis for the theology of inculturation. Thus, the inculturation of faith in Africa has to be more critical if it does not want be an ally of this ideology. 

2. A diffused sacred that hides God

Supporting the thesis of religious unbelief in Africa, as Messi Metogo did, comes up against a diffused sacred, especially Christian, effervescence which is observed today in African societies. It is expressed by a massive religious adhesion which results in an exponential growth in the number of African believers, all religions combined, – and here Christianity breaks the record with the advent of neo-Pentecostalism – a multiplication of places of worship, of religious attitudes like the religious writings on the clothes, the houses, the means of transport, the sermons on the crossroads, in the public transport… In brief, there is a sort of diffused sacred that corroborates the thesis of the African is incurably religious.

Paradoxically, it is in an African context of social decay and dehumanization that these religious beliefs flourish. At the end, there is a reason to wonder if it is not a religious who prospers at the expense of humans. Because these religious beliefs that swarm are far from being an ally in improving the quality of life and living together on the African continent. In the Christian tradition, the glory of God is man fully alive, according to Saint Irenaeus of Lyons. Therefore, religious practices which do not promote life are nothing but unbelief. It is a “sacred that hides God”. Because starvation, social injustice, marginalization are incompatible with God’s plan for human being and the world. This is what we are witnessing today, in a country like Sierra Leone where there are more mosques and churches than schools, hospitals, factories… 

According to Messi Metogo, this is not a question of indiscriminately discrediting religious beliefs; as is the case with a certain African anti-religious discourse which often falls into narrow scientism or a gross caricature of religion. It is rather an invitation to a critical approach to dialogue between believers. The ecumenical and interreligious dialogue so cherished today should not only be seen as an antidote to terrorism and the war of religions. It is accurate that it also helps African followers of religions to distinguish between religions that “make asleep and those that wake up”, quoting the Cameroonian Jesuit Ludovic Lado. 

3. “Common Ground” as a possible project

In its current form, the dialogue undertaken by the Catholic Churches of Africa is directed only towards Christians of other denominations, Muslims and to a lesser extent the followers of African traditional religions. The unbelievers, the people without religious affiliations and the indifferent are thus forgotten, if not ignored. The reason behind this oversight is the non-recognition by Catholics of the existence of this category of unbelievers. Because all Africans are a priori labeled religious. It is true that updated statistics which indicate how many are the African unbelievers are lacking. But who would dare to deny the existence of unbelievers, people without religious affiliation, indifferent people, and relativists…in our societies? They are found in all strata of society, ranging from political and economic decision makers, academics…to modest people disillusioned by religions of noise, swindling and indifference to people’s misery.

As long as this category of people exists in our societies, in the logic of “the Church on a missionary exit” (Evangelii Gaudium, n ° 20-24), it would be beneficial to initiate a dialogue with them. Especially when we know that many of them end up or will end up in high places of decision in our societies. In this perspective, the experience of the Xaverian missionaries from the United States and the United Kingdom can inspire a new missionary insight. Indeed, since 2012, they have initiated a project called “Common Ground”, “Common base”. Its aim is to forge links between secular and religious voices, particularly in the Northern Hemisphere (Europe and the USA), a kind of new form of the Missio Ad Gentes. At first glance, this initiative may seem bizarre to some religious believers. Because many are convinced that atheists, humanists, agnostics, skeptics and people without any affiliation are against religion or anticlerical. Indeed, thanks to the dialogue, one can see that this twisted conviction is not true, says Father Carl Chudy, one of the initiators of the project. A dialogue is therefore possible between men and women of religions and those who find no meaning in the religious fact as evidenced by the experience of the Xaverians working in a secularized missionary context.

A “Common Ground” type project can also be envisaged in Africa, even if the modalities of its concrete implementation remain to be defined. University chaplains, where they exist could serve as a framework for such an initiative, given that universities and colleges or professional colleges offer themselves as the fertile ground for unbelief in Africa. One could imagine meetings between young believers and non-believers around a theme of public utility such as the education of new generations. Failure to do so would leave the young generations who are trained there at the mercy of powerful esoteric groups such as Freemasonry and the Rose Cross which continue to ‘fish’ abundantly in the troubled waters of our spiritually disoriented societies.Contrary to the objectives of ecumenical or interreligious dialogue whose sometimes unspoken objectives are to rally the interlocutors to the truth of their faith, the “Common Ground” project, bringing together believers and non-believers, aims to bring about “a little more humanity” in African societies where it is eroding more and more. By doing so, we would perpetuate the legacy of Brother Messi Metogo who never ceased to invite Catholics in Africa to think of mission not as an effort to convert the other and to “add” to the Catholic Church the maximum of new baptized. But as a witness to the Gospel with respect for those who belong to other religions or who are without religion. Because respect for people and their dignity, he said, are part of the requirements of a true evangelical love. 

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