Mbiti, John Samuel
Prof. John S. Mbiti (1931-2019) , in the introduction to his seminal book, African Religions and Philosophy, published in 1969, wrote:
Although many African languages do not have a word for religion as such, it nevertheless accompanies the individual from long before his birth to long after his physical death. (…) Chapters of African religions are written everywhere in the life of the community, and in traditional society there are no irreligious people. To be human is to belong to the whole community, and to do so involves participating in the beliefs, ceremonies, rituals and festivals of that community. A person cannot detach himself from the religion of his group, for to do so is to be severed from his roots, his foundation, his context of security, his kinships, and the entire group of those who make him aware of his own existence. 
The Kenyan theologian, philosopher and pastor, Professor John S. Mbiti, generally acclaimed as the father of the Christian theology of African Traditional Religion (ATR) and of indigenous efforts for the inculturation of the Gospel on the continent, has gone to meet his ancestors. The global community of African theologians and scholars mourn the loss of a leading African intellectual who breathed his last on Sunday, October 6, 2019, in Switzerland where he was hospitalized. That was the day Professor Mbiti—the greatest mind to shed intellectual light on the ancestral religious world and heritage of the African people—joined his ancestors.
Upon hearing of the demise of Prof. Mbiti, one of my former students in Rome, wrote, “We are today proud as Africans because of the dignity he gave to the African tradition up to where it is now. He has left a memorable legacy of cultural values of Africa. We are proud of him, and he will forever be quoted through all ATR related studies.”
Another admirer wrote, “Really sad news. Prof. Mbiti’s resonating academic works testify to his greatness.” To this another added, “We lost a gem! Not only deep in thought, but also warm as a person. I remember his visit to Bigard Seminary, Enugu. He challenged us students with his remarks: ‘If you don’t change change, change will change you.’” Yet another wrote, “It is sad news, a big loss for the academic world, especially for Africa. May God rest his good soul in peace. Amen.”
One other person eulogized him as follows, “The death of Prof. Mbiti is another heavy blow on Africa, happening within a short space of time after the demise of Prof. Lamin Sanneh of the Gambia.” Finally, an Italian young scholar who studied African theology and traditional religion under me, added her voice in the following words, “Che brutta notizia, uno studioso eccezionale che con i suoi libri ha aiutato tante persone a capire Africa” (What sad news, an exceptional scholar who, with his books, had helped many to better understand Africa).
John S. Mbiti was born on November 30, 1931 in Kenya. He studied, first in his native Kenya, and thereafter in Uganda before taking his doctorate in 1963 at the University of Cambridge, United Kingdom. Ordained a pastor in the Anglican Church, he taught theology and religion for many years at Makerere University in Uganda. Thereafter, he served as director of Ecumenical Institute Bossy, World Council of Churches (WCC), in Geneva, Switzerland. He was visiting professor at many universities in Europe, America, Canada, Australia, and Africa, and had travelled widely in many countries within and outside Africa.
Mbiti published over 400 articles, reviews, and books on theology, religion, philosophy, and literature. In all these, Africa remained the center and context of his academic scholarship. He retired a few years ago as part-time professor at the University of Bern, parish minister in Burgdorf, Switzerland. He was married to Verena and they had four children, Kyeni, Maria, Esther and Kavata.
As a junior lecturer at Makerere University, Mbiti challenged Christian inferences that traditional African religious ideas were “demonic and anti-Christian” in his first work, African Religions and Philosophy (published in 1969 by Heinemann Publishers). In the preface to the second edition of the book, Mbiti did not hide his feelings and frustration about the rejection the book went through before being accepted for publication. He wrote, inter-alia:
I also thank the publishers (Heinemann Press) very heartily, for promoting the book, for facilitating its translation into other languages and for asking to have a new edition of it published. It is amazing to think that the original manuscript was rejected by several other publishers before being accepted by the current publisher! 
Upon hearing of Mbiti’s demise, one commentator wrote in his condolence message, “His first book (African Religions and Philosophy) has been hailed as an enlightenment by many but it also earned him an equal share of criticism from those with contrary beliefs (and philosophy of life).” In the same context, Raila Odinga, former prime minister of Kenya in his condolences to Mbiti’s family, tweeted, “His book was an eye-opener and groundbreaking work.”
Other major published works of Mbiti include Concepts of God in Africa (1970); New Testament Eschatology in an African Background (1971), which was a revised edition of his PhD thesis at Cambridge; Love and Marriage in Africa (1973); Introduction to African Religion (1975); and Bible and Theology in African Christianity (1986). Other titles of his published books and articles are too numerous to mention.
He became the first African to translate the Bible into his native Kamba language. Mbiti was indeed a tireless and groundbreaking theologian. A towering figure in the world of academia, he was a mentor to many younger African theologians and scholars of all times and places.
Mbiti left Makerere University in 1974 after he was appointed director of the WCC Ecumenical Institute in Bogis-Bossy, Switzerland. Thanks to him, the presence of Christians from Africa, Asia, and Latin America started to be felt in the WCC as their participation increased. He became vocal on matters of contextualized theological education as he traversed in various universities worldwide.
In this tribute, the main focus will be on two aspects of his contribution to African theology: a) His theology of African religion, and b) his perspective on the new southward shift in the Christian landscape.
Mbiti’s Theology of African Religion
Mbiti, is highly appreciated as Africa’s greatest scholar in ATR. In his work on African Christianity, he expressed his conviction that the God revealed in the Bible is the same God worshipped as “Creator and Omnipotent God” in the Traditional African Communities before the advent of Christianity and Islam on the continent.
In his writings, one finds an honest attempt by an African scholar to correct the prevalent Afro-pessimism pervading Western scholarship on African people, culture, and religious heritage. Mbiti addressed and corrected the age-old prejudice and scorn often directed against African religious values, culture, and traditions in Western scholarship. In addition, his theology focused on reasons why, Africa, in spite of it all, has emerged as the fastest-growing center of Christianity in the contemporary history of evangelization and in the New southward shift in Christian landscape.
Thus, Mbiti, ab initio, set out to rehabilitate the wounded African dignity by striving through his writings, to link African cultural and religious heritage with Christianity by promoting theological dialogue between Judeo-Christian religion and African religious values and traditions.
However, in all his writings, Mbiti never equated the two different religious traditions (Christianity and ATR) as being exactly, the same. No. Rather, he was always conscious of their basic differences just as he was of their commonalities in the logic of the theology of inculturation and praeparatio evangelica.
The generic concept of God as “Creator and Omnipotent” in ATR does not mean identical with the God revealed in the Bible. The Judeo-Christian theme of the covenant in the Old and New Testaments, and especially, the special revelation of God in the New Testament as Trinity through Christ (and the Holy Spirit), as well as the inner-life of the Trinitarian God Himself are new to the African adept of traditional religion. The same thing applies to the themes of the Holy Spirit, the Blessed Virgin, and so forth that are completely new to the religious consciousness of the African traditional religionist.
This shows that the two religions, Christianity and ATR, are not the same. But as we say in traditional Christian theology, ATR was a way God in His divine wisdom had prepared the forbears of Africa for the reception of the Christian message through proclamation. This is the fact Mbiti tried to explain to us all in his writings on the meeting between the Gospel and ATR. In the new order, ATR, as the religious background from which the African forbears come, has an important pedagogical role to play in the introduction and inculturation of the Christian message on the continent and among Africans anywhere in the world.
Again, in his theology of African religion, Mbiti began with the question of whether we should use the term “African Traditional Religion” or “ATR” in the plural or in the singular. He followed this up with his treatise on the African sense of time to establish African metaphysical knowledge and sense of eschatology vis-à-vis Christian beliefs.
In the first edition of his African Religions and Philosophy, Mbiti had favored the use of ATR in the plural. He reasoned that there is no evidence of a common origin or rather of a historic movement in the development of African religion. “Every member grows assimilating whatever ideas and practices that are held in his/her family and community. Besides, African religions have no founders or reformers, so that the beliefs among the different communities would differ greatly especially as each group would incorporate its national heroes.” 
However, Mbiti later modified his position in preface to the second edition of African Religions and Philosophy. Thus, he writes:
In the first edition I spoke of “African religions” in the plural to keep alive the diversity of African religiosity. Since then I have felt the need to emphasize also the commonalities and potential unity (not uniformity) within this diversity. Consequently, in lectures and other publications, I now use the singular, “African religion,” more than the plural expression.
This means, on one hand, that “ATRs” (plural) may be used since there are no officially accepted common doctrines as there are in religions with historic founders and dogmas. On the other hand, there is the common denominator of beliefs and practices among Africans that would warrant the use of ATR in the singular.
The latter opinion is the position of the African Catholic Bishops at the Synod of Bishops for Africa, which took place in Rome in 1994. The Instrumentum Laboris (Working Document of the African Synod), states that there are sufficient common features in the practice of the religion to justify its usage in the singular.
In addition, Mbiti agreed with most of his contemporaries such as Bolaji Idowu and Stephen Ezeanya, among others, who had argued strongly in the favor of the use of African names for God in the biblical translation of the name of God into African languages.
Idowu had argued alongside Mbiti, that the concept of God and the names given to Him, for example, are not only common across the entire continent, but one finds that He goes with the same or similar names over wide areas of Africa. Idowu added that many translations of the African’s names for God suggest that God is the Creator, the Almighty in heaven. Since the real cohesive factor of religion in Africa is the living God, and without this factor, all things would fall to pieces, “it is on this identical factor that we can speak of African Traditional Religion in the singular.”
In the same vein, Stephen Ezeanya argues from the perspective of African (Igbo) attributes to God which are often expressed in the names which they give to their children. We therefore have these examples: “Chukwunwendu” (God owns life), “Chukwuma” (God knows), “Chukwukodinaka” (everything is in God’s hands), “Chukwubundum” (God is my life), “Ifeanyichukwu” (nothing is impossible to God), “Chukwukelu” (God created), “Chukwubuike” (God is strength), etc. Underneath these names with “Chukwu” as the substantive noun, is the predicate and desire for life rooted in the benevolence of the same “Chukwu.”
Furthermore, there is Mbiti’s treatise on the African concept of time. His phenomenological interpretation of the African concept of time is one aspect of his theology to have received the most severe criticisms not only from outsiders, but especially from African scholars. Mbiti was seen by most of his critics of misrepresenting the concept of the future in African time. While highlighting the past and the present that are concrete concepts in African time, Mbiti described the future in the African sense of time as something virtual since the event had not yet taken place.
Be that as it may, the fact remains that none of the critics had produced anything concrete that was comparable to the pioneering work of Mbiti on the subject. Moreover, Mbiti himself was a storyteller. In Africa, it is often said that “a story tells us about the past, supports us in the present, and prepares us for the future.” Mbiti’s interpretation of African time with the Swahili word Zamani was another way he could describe the African concept of time as the memory of the past and the memory of the future, happening in the present.
More significantly, Mbiti’s African concept of time was a big warning to all those who, like Hegel, denied that Africans had the capacity for the metaphysical and eschatological realm of human knowledge and philosophical thought. The African sense of time involves a promise and tells us we should not move forward without looking back. Moreover, “since African memory is future-oriented, we look back to the past, to the myth of our ancestors for the sake of the future and future generations.”
Mbiti’s Perspective on the New Southward Shift in the Global Christian Landscape
Mbiti is a seminal voice on the new southward shift in the global Christian landscape. On this most important topic, Mbiti’s greatest contribution was his call for “North-South mutual theological dialogue through ‘theological pilgrimage.’”
Speaking always from his African perspective, Mbiti proposed what he called “theological pilgrimage” on the part of European theologians into the African wells of theological scholarship and people’s daily struggle for survival. Rhetorically, he asked Western colleagues and theologians, the following questions:
We have eaten with you your theology. Are you prepared to eat with us our theology? … The question is, do you know us theologically? Would you like to know us theologically? Can you know us theologically? And how can there be true theological reciprocity and mutuality, if only one side knows the other fairly well, while the other side either does not know or does not want to know the first side?
Continuing, Mbiti said:
You have become a major subconscious part of our theologizing, and we are privileged to be so involved in you through the fellowship we share in Christ. When will you make us part of your subconscious process of theologizing? How can the rich theological heritage of Europe and America become the heritage of the universal church on the basis of mutuality and reciprocity?
Like most other African and Third World theologians, Mbiti saw this new southward shift as a sign that Christianity was really becoming the world religion that it was meant to be. But Mbiti was quick to add that the southward shift in the Christian landscape presented us with two realities that were in sharp contrast, almost in contradiction. 
While, on the one hand, the church has become universal in a literal, geographical sense, thanks to the great missionary movement of the last 200 years, on the other, theological outreach has not matched this expansion. For Mbiti, this was a serious dilemma, and if we do not resolve it, it will destroy our foundation as the Church in the world.
Thus, he suggested that as the Church becomes global, as it affirms the universality for which God’s dispersal of history has destined it, theology must strain its neck to see beyond the horizon of our traditional structures, beyond the comforts of our ready-made methodologies of theologizing. For Mbiti, this meant that, “Our theology should be with the church where it is, rubbing shoulders with human beings whose conditions, concerns, and worldviews are not those with which we are familiar.”
Furthermore. Mbiti suggested that the dichotomy between older and younger churches, between Western Christianity and the Christianity of the southern continents, was a real one, but it was also a false dichotomy. We can overcome this false dichotomy if we really want to. The background for overcoming it, according to Mbiti, lies in our preparedness to embark on theological pilgrimages.
Theologians from the new (young) churches have made their pilgrimages to the theological learning of older churches. They had no alternative. But it has been, in a sense, one-sided theology. Therefore, the new southward shift in Christianity challenges us to embark on a pilgrimage of true theological reciprocity and mutuality. Because, as it is now, it is only one side that knows the other side fairly well, while the other side either does not know or does not want to know the first side.
Mbiti concludes, thus:
There cannot be theological conversation or dialogue between North and South, East and West, until we can embrace each other’s concerns and stretch to each other’s horizons. Theologians from the southern continents believe that they know about most of the constantly changing concerns of older Christendom. They would also like their counterparts from the older Christendom to come to know about their concerns of human survival.
Mbiti left us with this legacy of “theological pilgrimage” as a viable step towards confronting the dichotomy between the older and younger churches, between the “West and the Rest of Us.”
Mbiti’s theory of “theological pilgrimage and mutual reciprocity” is a gem. It challenges the emerging new emphasis on “interculturality” as a new missiological language in Western theology. In the first place, “interculturality” and “inculturation” are not the same thing, and ultimately, they don’t have the same theological origins and goal in the missiological sciences. Therefore, for someone to suggest that interculturality should replace the theology of inculturation in Western missiology portrays a great betrayal of the basic differences between the two terms.
In the first place, inculturation has the mystery of the incarnation of Jesus Christ in human flesh and cultures as its theological basis. Inculturation theology is therefore about the meeting between the Gospel and the culture of a people in a determined context. It is a theological reflection on the “mystery”—a symbiosis that occurs whenever the Gospel meets any human culture through proclamation and the Church’s missionary activities. Inculturation, therefore, will always remain valid as an important aspect of evangelization.
Interculturality, on the other hand, does not concern itself with the same encounter between the Gospel and cultures as such. Rather, it privileges a dialogue between two or more cultures – that is, among different groups and races, in a divisive manner – a replica of the era of theologies of “Multi-racialism” or “Multi-culturalism,” with their hidden seeds of preserving racial classification of humanity.
This is why one must be wary about the emerging concept of interculturality because it “assumes in the first instance, that people are going to be arranged in different compartments based on colors (or cultures) – Europeans in one compartment, Asians and colored in second compartments, and Africans in another compartment.”
The fact is that as soon as we accept interculturality as a new missiological language, basically we are accepting as a starting-point that cultures are not only different but that some cultures are classical and scientific, while others are demonic, primitive, or at best underdeveloped, and that these differences must be recognized. This is what happened with the old theories of multi-racialism or multi-culturalism.
This error is, actually, what Mbiti’s proposed “theological pilgrimage, mutuality and reciprocity,” intended to correct in our theological languages and ways of relating one to another as peoples of diverse cultures. His view was that our theological approach should be such that we should regard an individual as an individual. Everybody must be accorded his or her full rights, theologically, religiously, culturally, politically, economically, etc. This is regardless of whether one is European, African, Asian, Latin American, rich or poor or whether one is educated or not.
The concept of “theological pilgrimage,” in my estimation, is one of Mbiti’s greatest legacies to contemporary global theology and the world.
The news of Prof. Mbiti’s death at this critical time in the history of African Christian theology is received with mixed-feelings of gratitude and sadness. Yes, gratitude to God who blessed Africa with such an intellectual giant, a groundbreaking theologian. Gratitude also to Mbiti for allowing himself to be used by God to restore the wounded dignity of the African people through his intellectual work and publications.
Sadness, however, because, in the last few years alone, Africa has bid a final farewell to the finest minds in Mbiti’s generation of pioneers in African theology and African philosophy. The present generation of young Africans do not appear as interested in upholding the veritable intellectual tradition and treasure left behind by these pioneer African theologians. The majority among the emerging new crop of young Africans love robotic and artificial knowledge more than intellectual scholarship – due to the influence of social media. This is too sad a development!
This is why we mourn, with hearts full of sorrow, the disappearance of the greatest of pioneer African theologians, John S. Mbiti. That today we can speak with dignity and a sense of pride of the African ancestral religious heritage as Christians without fear of contradiction, is thanks to the pioneering works of Mbiti and his contemporaries. Mbiti baptized and Christianized the ancestral religion of African people. He rehabilitated African Traditional Religion and made it come alive, years after the colonial onslaught against the African religion.
Dear Prof. Mbiti, now that you have gone on to the World Beyond, and are now in communion with the saints in heaven, please greet all our other great ancestors of African theology and philosophy. Tell them we need their prayers, ancestral spiritual inspiration, and guidance, so that we may be true witnesses to their legacy, and be alive to the challenges of our time as Africans and as theologians.
Adieu, Great Teacher of African religious heritage and theology, Prof. John S. Mbiti. May the Angels of God welcome you into a better home in heaven! Amen!
Francis Anekwe Oborji
- This tribute is reprinted with permission from the author. Email to M. Sigg, dated 10/11/2019.
- John S. Mbiti, African Religions and Philosophy (Nairobi: Heinemann, 1969), 2.
- Mbiti, African Religions and Philosophy, 2nd rev. & enlarged edition (Oxford: Heinemann, 1989), xiii.
- Mbiti, African Religions and Philosophy (1969), 1-2.
- Mbiti, African Religions and Philosophy (1989), xiii.
- Instrumentum Laboris, Synod of Bishops for Africa, nos. 101-102 (Rome, 1994).
- E. Bolaji Idowu, African Traditional Religion: A Definition (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1973).
- S. N. Ezeanya, A Handbook of Igbo Christian Names, 2nd ed. (Onitsha, Nigeria: Trinitas Publications, 1994).
- Mbiti, “Theological Impotence and Universality of the Church” in G. Anderson & T. Stransky (eds.), Mission Trends No. 3: Third World Theologies, (1976), 17.
- Mbiti, “Theological Impotence and Universality of the Church” 6-18.
- Mbiti, “Theological Impotence and Universality of the Church” 17.
- Apologies to Chinwuizu.
Ezeanya, S. N. A Handbook of Igbo Christian Names. 2nd ed. Onitsha, Nigeria: Trinitas Publications, 1994.
Idowu, E. Bolaji. African Traditional Religion: A Definition. Maryknoll, N.Y: Orbis Books, 1973.
Mbiti, John S. African Religions and Philosophy. Nairobi: Heinemann, 1969.
———. African Religions and Philosophy. 2nd rev. & enlarged edition. Oxford: Heinemann, 1989.
———. Bible and Theology in African Christianity. Nairobi: Oxford University Press, 1986.
———. Concepts of God in Africa. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1970.
———. Introduction to African Religion. London: Heinemann Educational, 1975.
———. Love and Marriage in Africa. London: Longman, 1973.
———. New Testament Eschatology in an African Background: A Study of the Encounter Between New Testament Theology and African Traditional Concepts, by John S. Mbiti. London: Oxford University Press, 1971.
This article, received in 2019, was written by Francis Anekwe Oborji, a Roman Catholic Priest who lives in Rome where he is professor of Missiology at the Pontifical Urbaniana University.