Archbishop Tharcisse Tshibangu is best remembered by the able and courageous way he argued for a theology with an “African-color” as a student, in series of theological debates between him and the Dean of his Faculty of Theology, Belgian professor Alfred Vanneste, at the prestigious Lovanium University in Kinshasa in 1960. These debates took place as part of the famous Kinshasa Theology Faculty symposia (1960-1968) that centered on the “Possibility of an ‘African Theology.’” —
Adieu, Archbishop Tharcisse Tshibangu Tshishiku (1933 – 2021)
We just received the sad news of the call into the great beyond of His Excellency, Archbishop Tharcisse Tshibangu Tshishiku of the Democratic Republic of Congo. His call into the glory of the Risen Christ in heaven came just three days after the death of another global church leader, the South African Anglican Archbishop Desmond Mpilo Tutu.
The loss of these two great sons of African Christianity and pioneer theologians is a tremendous blow at a time like this. Their deaths mark the end of an era in the development and growth of African Christianity and theological thought in the continent. The baton is now with the younger African theologians and church leaders who must not allow the labors of these pioneers in African theology and growth of Christianity in the continent, to be in vain.
Tharcisse Tshibangu was born in Kipushi (Katanga, DRC) on April 24, 1933. After taking Greek and Latin in secondary school, he studied philosophy and theology at the Major Seminary of Moba (former Baudouinville). Thereafter, he pursued his studies in the Theology Faculty at the prestigious Lovanium University in Kinshasa from 1957-1961, graduating with a degree in theology. From 1961 to 1965 he pursued further studies at the Catholic University of Louvain, obtaining a PhD in Theology (1962) and a Habilitation in Higher Education (1965). In 1965, he returned to Lovanium (Kinshasa), where he secured an appointment as a full-time professor until 1966.
He was ordained to the priesthood for the Archdiocese of Lubumbashi in 1959 and was appointed to Vatican Council II by Pope John XXIII (1966) as a student in Louvain, Belgium. Thereafter he was appointed prelate by Pope Paul VI who consecrated him bishop (1970). He was appointed auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Kinshasa from 1991 to 1992. In 1992, Pope John-Paul II appointed him archbishop of the Diocese of Mbuji-Mayi. After August 1, 2009, he was Emeritus Archbishop of the Diocese of Mbuji-Mayi until his demise.
After the merging of the various universities of Zaire into the National University of Zaire (UNAZA) in 1971 under Mobutu’s regime, Tshibangu became rector until decentralizing policy restored autonomy to the various universities. From 1981 until his retirement from active service, he served as Chancellor and President of the Board of Directors of the Universities of the Congo.
Tshibangu received a doctorate honoris causa from the University of Human Sciences of Strasbourg in France in 1977 to honor him for as the first Congolese University rector and for his role in creating UCB.
More significantly, as a student at the Faculty of Catholic Theology at Lovanium University in Kinshasa, he took part in creating and organizing the Lovanium Theological Circle. Within that setting, the first debates regarding the possibility of an “African theology” took place. These debates eventually launched the scientific research that contributed a great deal to giving birth to what we know today as African theology. The influence of the Lovanium Theological Circle began to spread like wildfire to the rest of the continent beginning in 1960.
In other words, Tshibangu was, from day one, a central figure in giving an African direction to the celebrated symposia debates on “African Christianity and African theology” at the Faculty of the Catholic Theology, Kinshasa. In the debates of 1960 and 1968 with Dean Vanneste, Tshibangu did not mince words as he questioned the type of missionary theology of adaptation being used in the church’s missionary approach to Africa at the time:
Adaptation is not simply a matter of personnel, of having African Bishops and lay leaders; nor is it meant only to adapt the liturgy, and reform parish and pastoral structures. Rather it means giving prominent place to key factors in Africa’s worldview, culture, and religion…in particular, to African philosophy of life (principles of life-unity [la force vitale]), symbolism and intuition. (…) These are “latent theological seeds” which “adaptationism” could purify and use as “religious analogous” to illumine 14 theological problems confronting missionary activity in Africa.
In his response entitled, D’abord une Vraie Théologie (First, a True Theology), Dean Vanneste said that adaptation means rising to a higher level, not descending to a lower one. In this way, African theology and Christianity would be part of the worldwide theological endeavor.
As Emmanuel Ntakarutimana, Tshibangu’s biographer, rightly said, By an “African-colored” theology, Tharcisse Tshibangu and his group meant to go beyond Africanizing the hierarchy, the lay leaders, the parish and pastoral structures and also the liturgical and para-liturgical rites. In their eyes, it was a question of going back to the “very spirit of Christianity.” This concern also differs from the problem of giving a soul to and informing the African’s life, mentality, way of seeing things and all his cultures by means of the Christian spirit. One ought to go beyond the authors of the Des Prêtres Noirs s’interrogent (1956) (Paris: Présence Africaine, 1963), whose concern was to proclaim the need of Christianizing the African mentality and culture.
Today’s theology of inculturation has tried to correct some of the inadequacies in the theology of adaptation of old. However, at the time Tshibangu was making this argument in an African context in particular, it was a novel and courageous attempt by a young African theologian of his age. Who would had thought that a people once considered to be culturally a “tabula rasa” (without culture and civilization) were now spoken of as having not only admirable culture and civilization but also an African ontology, to the point of discussing the metaphysical realities of the law of God? Such was the courage of the young Kinshasa theologian Tshibangu at the time.
Tshibangu’s primary concern was to formulate a theology with an “African-color” that was supposed to develop into a work aiming at the meeting between authentic African tradition and the original and specific elements of Judeo-Christian revelation. In this endeavor, in the tradition of authors of the Bantu philosophy of “life-giving force” that came before him, especially, the trio Placide Tempels, Vincent Mulago, and Alexis Kagame, Tshibangu (like Mulago), emphasized the principle of unity of life as an epistemological principle marking African cultures in their internal coherence.
It would seem that the adaptation theology of the past that negated the existence of authentic African culture and ontology previously blocked the acknowledgment of this dynamic union of past, present, and future in African philosophy and worldview. The African philosophy of the principle of unity of life affected the life of a single human, of a community, and of nature and the world. It was commonly known as a holistic vision of life. But with the coming of colonialism and Western philosophy and theology, another epistemology burst onto the scene.
The anthropological consequences of Western epistemology have, unfortunately, developed the individual by promoting his or her freedom. They have not however, equally promoted the community-humanity (life-giving force) dimension of individual freedom in line with African thought-patterns, meaning, and ultimate reality. In Western epistemology, the purpose of life is to master the laws of nature in view of dominating it and it has substituted the African sense of cooperation with competition and struggle for survival. That is, struggle for a harmonious insertion into a community or into nature.
Tshibangu argues that the result of such a “fatal” encounter between African philosophy and worldview and Western thought patterns and philosophy has been an ever-increasing distancing from the principle of unity of life, of the living world, of the visible and invisible universe. It has deeply transformed everything, including cultural, political, economic, and religious structures. As a result, according to Tshibangu, African theological thought is torn between inculturation through which one recovers the holistic process of life and knowledge—as demonstrated in various African traditions—and liberation from the contradictions and denials of the human being that flow from inserting oneself into a Western epistemology of being.
The Obligations of African Theologians
Tshibangu points out that political and cultural approaches must be interwoven if Christian theology is to deal adequately with the problems confronting it. This task, Tshibangu argues, imposes certain conditions on African theologians, who must now channel their theological effort and commitment in a sound and organized way.
Tshibangu developed what he termed “Obligations of African theologians,” as follows: First, African theologians must be fully aware of the fact that their Catholic work calls for real spiritual commitment. There can be no theological effort without commitment. One must raise questions about one’s own life and about the spiritual destiny of the people with whom one is associated. This presumes a real ability to ask fundamental questions. The theologian must be a person of deep faith and a solidly metaphysical life: “The theologian cannot do any useful, worthwhile or relevant work unless he or she accepts personal involvement in the theory and practice of life, while making every effort to maintain intellectual and moral sincerity and scientific objectivity.”
Secondly, Tshibangu observed that the African theologian must be equally conscious of the intellectual demands imposed by theological work. As in any other scientific discipline, the theologian must possess theological knowledge in the strict and formal sense. It also means that the theologian must strive to possess the deepest and most accurate scientific knowledge of humanity and the factors that condition it. Theologians must be able to propose matters in a valid and convincing way to other human minds.
The third obligation imposed on African theologians, according to Tshibangu, is that of their own social commitment. They cannot live as isolated beings because they must bear responsibility for their own personal destiny and that of others. They must be involved in their community and their social participation must be as active as possible. This participation puts them in a position to gain a deeper grasp of the cultural issues posed by their community and the living conditions of their contemporaries. It helps them to pay due attention to the questions raised by the appearance of new values in a given society, by the characteristic perception and conception of things (that is, its typical epistemological viewpoint), and by the facts and events related to its sociocultural evolution and development.
Fourthly, and closely associated with this overall commitment, is the obligation of ecclesial involvement. African theologians must live in fidelity to ecclesial truth. They must of course possess discernment so that they can know exactly what is defined as certain truth by the Church. But they must equally cultivate courage and take risks exploring, pondering, and expressing the theological conclusions that derive from their authentic research.
The Churches of which African theologians are members also have a role to play:
They must have confidence in their theologians unless there is a good reason to feel otherwise. They must support them on the intellectual level of religious practice, encouraging their research, avoiding hasty condemnations, and being careful not to voice fears and reservations for purely a priori reasons.
Tshibangu believed that if these conditions are met, African theologians can undertake research that offers a real chance of success. He concluded by saying that there are many tasks African theologians must undertake, some of them urgent.
For Tshibangu, African theologians must also help to clarify and eventually resolve the theological questions that the churches have not yet solved. In some instances, an African approach may reveal that the questions are false or badly framed. In other instances, it will have to offer a contribution towards the ultimate solution. Tshibangu recognized that the projected research program is a vast one.
Apart from his stewardship as bishop and theologian, it suffices to mention, at least in passing, that Tshibangu, as bishop and theologian, together with other members of the Congolese Catholic Bishops’ Conference, and the entire body of Christ in Congo, weathered the storm during the trying period of the dictatorial regime of Mobutu in his country, formerly called Zaïre.
Tshibangu’s qualities as a solid Christian, a well-balanced African bishop-theologian, and a social reformer are his greatest legacy to the church in Africa and the world. The combination of these three qualities in the exercise of his ministry will remain forever the greatest epitaph in honor of an exceptional African church leader and theologian.
Adieu, Archbishop Tharcisse Tshibangu. May the Angels of God welcome you at the gate of heaven! Amen.
Francis Dr. Anekwe Oborji
- T. Tshibangu, “Vers une théologie de couleur africain” in Revue du Clergé Africain, 5 (1960), 333-352. NB. For more about these debates, also see T. Tshibangu, La théologie africaine. Manifeste et programme pour le développement des activités théologiques en Afrique, St. Paul, Kinshasa, 1987.
- See A. Vanneste, “D’abord une vraie théologie” in Revue du Clergé Africain, 5 (1960), 346-352 and “Théologie universelle et Théologie Africaine” in Revue du Clergé Africain (RCA), 24 (1969), 324-336.
- E. Ntakarutimana, “Msgr Tharcisse Tshibangu: Champion of an ‘African-coloured’ Theology” in B. Bujo & J. Ilunga-Muya (eds.), African Theology: The Contribution of the Pioneers Vol. 1 (Nairobi: Paulines Publications-Africa, 2003), 49.
- T. Tshibangu , “The Task and Method of Theology in Africa” in J. Parratt (ed.), A Reader in African Christian Theology (SPCK, London 1987), 38ff.
- T. Tshibangu “The Task and Method of Theology in Africa,” 40.
This article is by Francis Anekwe Oborji, Professor Ordinarius (Full Professor and Chair) of Contextual Theology, Pontifical Urbaniana University, Rome and a regular contributor to the Journal of African Christian Biography.