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Inculturation in Africa: Challenges and Prospects

Marcel Uwineza, SJ - La Civiltà Cattolica - Fri, Jan 17th 2020

The theme of inculturation is not new among African theologians, especially in recent studies. Because of its importance, we carried out a brief investigation to observe how the process of inculturation has been at the center of the Church for centuries. We also looked at how it continues to be new, and how its implications have not yet fully penetrated the hearts of the African Catholic faithful. In this article we will suggest some “routes” that the process of inculturation could take today in Africa.

Why inculturation?

In his book Inculturation: Its Meaning and Urgency, John Mary Waliggo describes inculturation as “the honest and serious attempt to make Christ and his message of salvation evermore understood by peoples of every culture, locality and time, that is, the reformulation of Christian life and doctrine into the very thought-patterns of each people. It is the continuous endeavor to make Christianity truly ‘feel at home’ in the cultures of each people.”[1]

The refusal to inculturate the Gospel message slows down the process of the Church putting down roots in the African continent, making the Church and the faith remain like a “potted plant”, forever living in a foreign soil. This belittles the dignity and self-respect of Africans as children of God.[2]

Christianity has remained alive in some areas of Coptic-speaking Egypt, Ethiopia and the Sudan because it had been translated into the local languages, adapted to these cultures and propagated by local evangelizers.[3] However, it was unable to survive the invasion of Islam in North Africa.

There is no reason to doubt that what happened in the past could happen again to the flourishing and numerically strong Churches established in Africa. We could draw eloquent examples in this regard from the numerous religious wars in Nigeria, and worse still from what happened in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide, when almost a million Rwandans were exterminated because of their identity.

In West Africa it is said: “We eat everything they give us, but we digest it in our own way.”[4] This “digestion” also applies to the process of appropriation of the faith. Faith ceases to be external when it penetrates the very fabric of our being. This means that “the Christian faith cannot be digested by people of a given culture unless it is digested by that culture.”[5]

The fears, challenges or “allergies” that arise in people every time the word “inculturation” is mentioned can be summarized as follows: 1) inculturation wants to dismantle the central doctrines of our faith; 2) it wants to lower the Christian standards set at a high price by the missionaries; 3) it will stunt Christian growth by introducing “superstitions” that have long been condemned by the Church; 4) it will trivialize Christianity for the African people; 5) it could lead to divisions in the Church; 6) it could generate a gap between the local Church and the universal Church[6]; 7) the theologians of inculturation want to create their own Church in order to gain recognition.

Some of these fears may have a foundation, but it is only when we face them head on that we can present a truly effective Christian message that touches people’s lives. Inculturation wants to deepen new ways of living as Christians in Africa today, shaping Christian worldviews, creating new human relations and offering a new beginning for African values and customs to find their way in the context of the Christian faith. This is a call for a re-appropriation of the Paschal Mystery, which entails the need to die in order to rise again to a new Christian life in Africa.[7]

Saint John Paul II declared: “A faith that does not become culture is a faith that is not fully accepted, not entirely thought through, not faithfully lived.”[8] Christianity exists when people believe; and it becomes deeply rooted when it touches people and their lives where they are and how they are. Faith can only find its expression and life within cultures.[9] Saint Paul VI, who had a strong interest in inculturation, wrote: “Evangelization loses much of its strength and effectiveness if it does not take into account the actual people to whom it is addressed, if it does not use their language, their signs and their symbols, if it does not answer the questions they ask it, if it does not have an impact on their concrete life.”[10]

Inculturation in the history of the Church

Since its foundation in 1622, Propaganda Fide has insisted on the need for evangelizers to respect the cultures of the evangelized so that they might accept Christianity and regard it as their own. The missionaries were told again and again by those who commissioned them to take time to study the languages and cultures of the peoples they were to evangelize and to avoid as much as possible turning their converts into African or Asian Europeans. Instead, they were to make them African and Asian Christians. Propaganda Fide said: “Who could think of something more absurd than transporting France, Italy or Spain, or some other European country, to China? Bring them your faith, not your country.”[11]

In the last century Saint Paul VI, with regard to the Church’s commitment to inculturation, affirmed: “An adaptation of the Christian life in the pastoral, ritual, didactic and also spiritual fields is not only possible, it is even favored by the Church.”[12] He urged the African Church: “You can and must have an African Christianity. Indeed, you have human values and characteristic forms of culture that can […] find in Christianity and for Christianity a genuine and superior fullness.”[13] On the other hand, he expressed himself in favor of a wise caution: their desire to have an African Christianity, the natives of this Continent should remember the Tradition, because undermining the deposit of the apostolic tradition would mean taking a wrong path.

The desire for inculturation should find its expression within the essential patrimony of the teaching of Christ as professed by the tradition of the Church. The more we desire to make our faith truly African, the more we must be custodians and good stewards of the Catholic faith. This means that faith in Jesus Christ remains the cornerstone, but the expression, i.e. “the language, the way of manifesting this one Faith, may be manifold. It may be original, suited to the tongue, the style, the character, the genius and culture of the one who professes this one Faith.”[14] The challenge is twofold: a clear and systematic understanding of the faith, and a rooted understanding of our cultures.


What are the current challenges of inculturation in Africa? What are the factors that prevent it being successful? There are those who say that it is not necessary, because some of our traditions are archaic, have lost their relevance and applicability. Therefore, any effort at inculturation is a futile exercise if it is based on massive borrowing from the indigenous African heritage of past eras. Some people dwell on the liturgy and believe that inculturation is not taking place because local proposals should have a greater weight in liturgical matters. Others renounce inculturation, because often there is a lack of dialogue and sharing between the laity and the clergy. Finally, the decline of moral values, especially in the area of sexuality, affects young people in particular. Of course, in Africa we are witnessing a crisis of collective identity, because people are slowly transforming from subjects to objects of the forces of globalization and postmodernism, where the “human being” has been supplanted by “material having.”

We must always remember that inculturation means both reading and living the Gospel in the light of the categories of a given society, and transforming society in the light of the Gospel, as Saint Paul did when he appropriated the Greek language and transformed its semantics in the light of the Gospel.

What perspectives, then, could favor the process of inculturation? How do we move from a Church inclined to think that by inculturation we mean only the drums, the songs in local languages, the dances with African rhythms, the replacement of white icons with black ones and so on? Which areas are in urgent need of inculturation? How can we actually move from a superficial meaning of inculturation to a deeper one?

Ten perspectives

Proposals can be drawn up to facilitate the debate on inculturation and its implementation.

1) An African adage says: “Build a school, chase out ignorance.” The first people to be trained for inculturation are clergy, catechists and other Church agents. Gone are the days when a priest was only trained in philosophy and theology: today preparation is also required in the human sciences. If we are to deepen the faith and make Christianity truly African, we need courses on African culture and values, on African theology and customs. In this process it is vital to develop an inculturated Catholic catechism. This will allow Catholics to be more aware of their faith.

2) We need to educate families today. The current crisis of Christian marriage leads to both family breakdown and cohabitation, and in general it is observed that the number of divorces today is very high: “At least 30 percent of marriages now end up in divorce after fewer than ten years.”[15] As a result there are many single parents looking for sexual partners, regardless of whether the latter are married or not.

Recent studies reveal that HIV/AIDS is spreading more in families than in any other sector of the population. Some seek a short-term marital relationship, saying, “Let’s try it out and see if we get along; and when we get tired of each other, each one will go his or her own way.”[16]

Today, what is lacking is a sense of value and respect for the family and the community that traditionally kept people together and motivated their commitment, even when faced with obstacles. In this sense, traditional African religion still teaches us many things, especially about community life as opposed to individualism.

3) Diseases have traditionally been considered as disharmonies within the individual. However, sickness is not just a problem for the individual but for the community, since health is one of the major concerns for all societies. To be healthy is to be in harmony with one’s body and society. And since the Church holistically cares for the sick, her ministry of healing will be more significant in Africa if she takes into account this conception of the human person. In many parishes, a number of Christians still believe that the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick should be conferred only on those who are about to die. Although this perspective has been altered by the new rite, many have not yet understood it. It would be much easier to help African Christians understand the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick while taking into account the traditional idea of sickness, healing and health.

4) Inculturation, like any development of life or thinking involving culture, usually does not occur according to plans or theories. It happens when the people involved feel free to live and express themselves in terms that best respond to their experience, and their true feelings This applies to liturgy, ecclesiology, marriage, religious life and social justice. Culture is a reality that has a life of its own, continuing to grow, adapt and respond to new situations and environmental changes. Inculturation is a way of living in the wider context of what makes human life human. Therefore, the encounter between culture and faith is realized continuously and with mutual influence.

5) Inculturation presupposes an intellectual and spiritual grasp of the Christian faith, that is, that the fundamental and profound principles of the faith are correctly understood for what they are. This in turn implies that divine revelation and revealed truths are appreciated for what they are, that is, as a gift from God, as self-revelation of God in the concrete person of Jesus Christ. Therefore, the prerequisite for undertaking the process of inculturation is that there be clarity regarding the sectors of culture that are useful for rooting the Christian faith in the lived experience of a given people. This gives an advantage when making the Gospel a people’s culture, and vice versa, without compromising the meaning of the Gospel itself.  If it is true that the Good News is superior to any culture, it can and must be destined to become the Christian culture of a given people.

6) The fact that the liturgy is the principal means of sanctification of the people of God, and therefore the highest act of worship rendered to God through the sacrifice of his Son Jesus Christ, implies that it must be directed to God and not to ourselves. Jesus is the measure of worship because he gave his life as an act of love of the Father in expiation of our sins and, at the same time, he opened to us the wellspring of mercy and forgiveness. So the liturgy, which is an act of worship in and through Jesus Christ, must be pleasing to God. What does this mean for inculturation? It means that correct inculturation consists in subjecting our cultural values to the scrutiny of the Gospel, so that they are in tune with the revealed truths, and the Gospel becomes our culture.

7) For the theologian and for the Church in various parts of Africa the challenge is to identify which cultural values can be useful for the service of the Gospel and for bringing salvation to African cultures. Here there is a demon to be exorcised: tribalism. It has the capacity to defeat the efforts that African Christians make to find themselves increasingly at home with the Christian faith. Moreover, with the demon of tribalism are associated those rituals associated with initiation, marriage and death, which tend to take over the minds of Christians in Africa because they have a strong cultural significance. Consequently, there is a tension between Christian truth and the cultural values linked to these dimensions of life. The Church must promote dialogue in order to find a solution to these questions.

8) The use of liturgical music and dance should be seen within the task of transforming – or possibly strengthening – human cultural values so that they may be at the service of the Gospel. Obviously, disciplinary questions must always be distinguished from doctrine, so that the two levels are not confused, which, moreover, must be part of the wider context of faith.

Liturgical dances can easily lapse into religious entertainment or simply banal shows that do not contribute in any way to the understanding and penetration of faith in the lives of the faithful. On the one hand, there is no need to “manipulate” the liturgy by inserting gestures that have no real relevance to the comprehensive meaning of worship. On the other hand, dances, drumming and so on can be transformed into authentic and deeper ways in which our body becomes an expression of worship, as in the episode of David narrated in the Second Book of Samuel (cf. 2 Sam 6).

In short, inculturation should concern the practical insertion or “incarnation” of real Gospel values that give Christian meaning to human life within a specific culture. It should go beyond appearance, toward meaning. If, however, it is reduced to or stops at liturgical performance, which is the fruitful encounter between the Gospel and culture, its very purpose is betrayed It is a meeting that aims to become not a competition, but a vital union, the realization of which may take a long time.

9) The role played so far by African theologians, who continue to seek to make the Christian faith truly African, should be better appreciated. For theology in Africa their intellectual contribution will continue to be a pillar for many years to come. One thing African theologians are accused of is that they write little. African theologians of the caliber of Laurenti Magesa, John M. Waliggo, Teresa Okure, Charles Nyamiti, Bénézet Bujo and Jean-Marc Ela give concrete proof of the fact that, in order to have a well-founded African Christian faith, people are needed who ultimately give their lives so that Christianity may be established in Africa. These theologians are truly giants, and we rest on their shoulders.

Another area that African theologians should explore is the use of the media in promoting inculturation.

10) We are aware that syncretism continues to exist in Africa. People go back and forth between the Church and their traditional religions. The real question to ask is: does syncretism occur because people have not internalized and adopted the principles of the Christian faith? We firmly believe that inculturation can be a solution to the problem of syncretism.

* * *

Inculturation is a twofold process: first, it presupposes an understanding of faith and doctrine; second, it requires a shift from the traditional spiritual paradigm of faith to a practice of faith through the use of cultural values lived in the light of the Gospel. The expected result is the transformation of life in the service of the Gospel and the salvation of people within their respective cultures.

DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 4, no. 01 art. 6, 0120: 10.32009/22072446.0120.6

[1]. J. M. Waliggo et al., Inculturation: Its Meaning and Urgency, Kampala, St Paul Publications, 1986, 12.

[2]. Cf. Laurenti Magesa, Anatomy of Inculturation: Transforming the Church in Africa, New York, Orbis Books, 2004, 10.

[3]. J.M. Waliggo et al. Inculturation…, op. cit., 12.

[4]. Laurenti Magesa, Anatomy of Inculturation…, op. cit., 6.

[5].  Ibid., 7.

[6].  Cf. J.M. Waliggo et al. Inculturation…, op. cit., 14.

[7] . Cf. E. D. A. Goussikindy, The Christic Model of Eboussi Boulaga, a Critical Exposition and Evaluation of an African Recapture of Christianity, Toronto, National Library of Canada, 1997, 17f.

[8] . John Paul II, Letter of Foundation of the Pontifical Council for Culture, May 20, 1982.

[9] . Cf. C. McGarry, “Preface” in J. M. Waliggo et al, Inculturation…, op. cit.

[10]. Paul VI, Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii nuntiandi (1975), No. 63.

[11]. S. Neill, A History of Christian Missions, New York, Penguin Books, 1977, 170.

[12]. Paul VI, Eucharistic Celebration at the Conclusion of the Symposium of Bishops of Africa, July 31, 1969.

[13]. Ibid.. Cf. T. Okure – P. van Theil et al., 32 Articles evaluating Inculturation of Christianity in Africa, Eldoret, Amecea Gaba Publications, 1990, 16.

[14]. Ibid., 39.

[15]. Laurenti Magesa, Anatomy of Inculturation…, op. cit., 28.

[16]. Ibid., 73.

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