17, August 2023
Fr. Tatah Humphrey should most certainly be commended for his assiduous commitment to African scholarship. It is no small feat to have 25 books and counting under one’s belt. That is a number most scholars would envy. Though I am yet to get a copy of Studying the Faith of Our Ancestors: A New Approach to African Traditional Religion (it is not yet available on AMAZON), there are many statements that Fr. Tatah made in his August 12 Crux interview with Ngala Killian that faithful Catholic theologians would agree with. For example: Fr. Tatah asserts the historicity of the Incarnation of Jesus as the God-Man; he asserts the unicity and salvific universality of the Christ; he likewise asserts the mediatory place of the Church in the economy of the Christ-event. I very much appreciate the fact that Fr. Tatah highlights the necessity for inculturation rightly understood and implemented, which is mightily different from adaptation. Another strength of his interview is the case that he makes about Christianity not being a European religious expression. That Fr. Tatah decries what Engelbert Mveng famously characterized as Africa’s anthropological deficiency is also worth commending, for the African has much to offer global Catholicism, especially given the waning of Christian faith in large sectors of the Western world today.
In fact, I think the strongest part of Fr.Tatah’s interview could very well be these lines: “That God, historically, came into human history in the person of Jesus the Christ. We cannot deny that. That’s a historical fact. That Christ, at Caesarea Philippi, established the one holy Catholic and apostolic Church. That you can’t deny. That’s historical (…).” And in another paragraph, Fr.Tatah says, “Christ is God and that is the only direction we lead people to. There can be nothing else, no salvation except through God and Christ is God made man.” These lines capture the center of Christology, Ecclesiology, and Missiology, and one could build a profound reflection on Christian discipleship and evangelization on these positions for today’s African Church.
The above being said, it is equally the case that a close reading of Fr.Tatah’sCrux interview leaves one with a serious Christological problem, especially in terms of the logicality and inner coherence of his religious claims of the enduring value of (African Traditional Religion) ATR, vis-à-vis the figure of Jesus of Nazareth as the God-Man. It is one thing to say that Godentered history in the God-Man, Jesus of Nazareth, as Chalcedon taught. However, it is entirely another to, for all intents and purposes, to relativize the wholly otherness of the Christ-event so much so that it becomes a part of the evolutionary process of the history of religion, perhaps in the sense of Comte or Hegel.
To me, the central nexus of the difficulty a dogmatic theologian must have with Fr. Tatah appears to be this: what is the salvific significance of natural revelation as opposed to, or different from, supernatural revelation? In effect, there appears a blurring or obscuring of lines in terms of the good, the beautiful, and the true that we find in ATR, on the one hand, and the wholly otherness of the Christ-event, on the other hand. Fr. Tatah himself appears to indicate this dialectic when he says in his interview: “So, if you are looking for religion as it has evolved, it has evolved from our own reasoning of how God is to God himself coming into our midst and from there everything goes on.” Now, is there a distinction between religion evolving from our own reasoning and religion as God himself coming into our midst? I believe Fr. Tatah would say, certainly, there is a distinction between the former and the latter. But is this distinction just an evolutionary process as Fr.Tatah appears to characterize it, or is this distinction really the beef of the matter? Along this line of reasoning, one can readily see other problems that the claims in Fr. Tatah’s interview leaves unresolved:
- Is Biblical Christian monotheism African, or (or even European)?
- Is there an ontological and an existential difference between the first article of the Nicene Creed, I Believe in One God, and the concept of the Supreme Deity or Being that we find in ATR?
- How does Fr.Tatah understand the Trinitarian character of Christian monotheism if, as he claims, ATR already had the understanding of Christian monotheism?
- Is the Supreme Being of ATR identifiable with the God, the Father of Jesus Christ, or is this reality of the Supreme Being in ATR an opening that should lead us to a deeper understanding of this God whom Jesus of Nazareth alone called Father?
- How does Fr.Tatah understand the metaphor of the seed and tree that he employs to explain that Christianity is the tree that has blossomed from the seed of ATR, – a position any serious dogmatic theologian would find utterly problematic, – in the light of say, St. John Henry Newman’s teaching on the organic development of doctrine? If the Immanent Trinity was not present in the monotheism of ATR, would the Economic Trinity be present?
- In the TatahianWeltanschauung of ATR, is Christianity a qualitative or quantitative leap?
- Do the cultic rites/rituals of the stones, rivers, and mountains that Fr.Tatah alludes to in his interview have a salvific value from the Christian perspective? If they don’t, how does Fr.Tatah square these with this position that ATR is the seed for tree that is Christianity? And if they do, why burden Africans with Christianity?
- In addition, is there a difference between “seeds of the Gospel,” as used in inculturation theology in the understanding of the Second Vatican Council, and ATR as the “seed of Christianity” as espoused by Fr.Tatah?
- What are the limits to appropriating Rahner’s problematic concept of “anonymous Christianity” and applying that to ATR as Fr.Tatah does in his work? In effect, does this appropriation of Rahner serve the urgent task of evangelization in the vast continent of Africa today?
In all, Fr.Tatah leaves us with an inner tension between fidelity to the liberating truths of Christianity, on the one hand, and a somewhat nostalgic attachment to ATR, on the other hand. While such an attachment is understandable, particularly when viewed from the perspective of a world that in many ways has lost its religious roots, an embellished proclamation of ATR does not only leave us in an anachronistic no-man’s land, but even more, it could unintentionally impede the urgency and necessity of living out the Great Commission of Mathew 28, which is more urgent today than when Jesus first gave it, especially as we prepare for the second millennium of the Great Commission of Mathew coming up in 2033. I happened to have taught a course Christianity in Africa at Boston College for some years now. Often times students would ask me to account for the reasons for the growth of Christianity in Africa. Amongst others, I would point to the liberating experience that the Christian message brings to many an African. Achebe seems to think likewise in the figure of Nwoye in Things Fall Apart. I do not see this liberating impact of Christianity in Fr.Tatah’s presentation of the relationship between ATR and Christianity.
In the final analysis, faith begins, as Ratzinger taught, when we move, like Abraham, from the clan to the unknown territory directed by God (Genesis 12). Faith begins when we go out of the city to the hill of Calvary with the Crucified One. For the Christian, Christ called himself truth, not culture (Tertullian). This is not to downplay our culture, but a gentle reminder that anthropology is not theology, and faith is not sociology, important as these are to the human reality. Christianity has a name and a face, Jesus of Nazareth. Everything else is secondary, even ATR.
By Maurice Agbaw-Ebai