Musopole, Augustine Chingwala

1948-2021
Presbyterian
Malawi

Musopole

Augustine Musopole was a prolific Malawian theologian, known particularly for what he termed uMunthu theology. [1] He was born on August 12, 1948 in Chinongo Village, in the Misuku Hills of Chitipa District in northern Malawi, the fifth of the ten children of the Rev Yoram Musopole and Tupokiwe Nasilumbu. His father, a pastor serving with the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian (CCAP) Synod of Livingstonia, was a second generation Christian while his mother was first generation. He was named after Augustine of Hippo, the church father, about whom his father had learned as he embarked on his ministerial training at Livingstonia Theological School during the year when Augustine was born. It was a devout home in which the day never finished without singing at least one hymn from among the many indigenous compositions that distinguished the first generation of Livingstonia Christians. These hymns remained with Augustine throughout his life and his last book was a theological exposition of a wide selection of them, titled Singing and Dancing for God. [2] He belonged to the Ndali tribe, which in turn had historically been part of the Nyika ethnic group that had spanned northern Malawi and adjacent parts of Zambia and Tanzania. This was reflected in Augustine’s praise names: Rungwe, Munyika, Musango, Munkholongwa, Munkhondya, wa ku Mphachi and Hapumba ha bulezi. Chindali was his mother tongue, but he also became fluent in Chinkonde, Chitumbuka and Chinyanja while he was growing up.

He attended the nearby Ifumbo Primary School during the tumultuous time in Malawi’s history that followed the imposition of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland in 1953. Throughout the 1950s, opposition to the Federation grew and one of the most militant leaders was Augustine’s uncle, “General” Flax Musopole, who led a guerrilla campaign against British colonial rule in the Karonga-Chitipa area. Augustine’s father, while in sympathy with resistance to the Federation, took a much more moderate and pastoral approach. This led to considerable tension between the two brothers, exacerbated by the fact that Flax had declared himself to be an atheist, an unusual move in Malawi at that time. Nonetheless, they remained loyal to one another. After the political crisis was resolved by Malawi’s attainment of independence in 1964, despite their diametrically opposed worldviews, “they got along well through their kinship bond.” [3]

In 1963 Augustine proceeded to Likuni Boys Secondary School in Lilongwe District, a Roman Catholic institution run by the Marist Brothers. Here he associated with the recently formed Student Christian Organisation of Malawi (SCOM). It was at one of their national conferences, held at Chongoni in 1966, that he experienced a personal conversion to Christ after hearing the testimony of a fellow student. He always looked back on this as the definitive event of his life. Soon afterwards, together with his brother Willie, he attended the Keswick Convention that had been started in the city of Blantyre and this gave him a “grounding” in the faith. [4] He also became a member of St Columba’s, a Presbyterian congregation known for its connections with revival Christianity. At the same time, he was developing academically as he took his Bachelor of Social Science degree at the recently founded Chancellor College of the University of Malawi, graduating in 1971. He then left Malawi to embark on theological studies at Trinity Theological College in Bristol, in the United Kingdom, an Evangelical Anglican stronghold that offered the London University Bachelor of Divinity. Besides profiting from the curriculum offered at the College, the Bristol years were decisive theologically for Musopole as he navigated a crisis of identity. He was profoundly shocked by his encounter with permissive British culture and whiteness. This made him more appreciative of the value systems with which he had grown up in Malawi and he identified the Malawian understanding of uMunthu (human-ness) as the cornerstone of what he had come to cherish. [5] This became the foundation on which he would build his theology over the fifty years that lay ahead.

On returning to Malawi in 1974 he served for three years as the General and Travelling Secretary of the Student Christian Organisation of Malawi (SCOM). Through its outreach to schools and colleges, numerous young people came to Christ and Musopole remained in touch with many of them for decades to come. In 1977 he became a secondary school teacher and quickly rose to become Headmaster of Robert Laws Secondary School where he introduced a newsletter called UMUNTHU in which he aimed to articulate an African philosophy of education. In 1982 he was appointed an Assistant Regional Education Officer for the Central Region. This gave him the opportunity to return to the University of Malawi as a part-time Masters student and he completed his dissertation on “The Chewa Concept of God and its Implication for Christian Faith” in 1984. [6]

In view of his Evangelical formation, it caused some surprise when Musopole’s next move was to enroll at Union Theological Seminary in New York, well known for its liberal theology. He always defended his decision, however, refusing to be drawn into any polarization between conservative and liberal, insisting that “it takes two wings for a bird to fly.” [7] He looked back on his time at Union as one that greatly expanded his understanding of “the relationship of the gospel to matters of liberation, justice and social engagement.” [8] He was also pondering theological method and returning time and again to the concept of uMunthuRiver at Princeton Theological Seminary. His doctoral thesis, supervised by Professor James Cone, was titled, “Being Human in Africa: A Critical Examination of the idea of Humanity in the Writings of John Mbiti.” [9] Further opportunity to test out his emerging ideas came with his appointment as Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Colgate University in New York, where he taught from 1992 to 1995. It was during this time, in 1994, that he was ordained as a minister of the Presbyterian Church (USA).

His theological direction was pointing him back towards Malawi and he duly returned to his homeland in 1995. He came back, however, without his wife who took the decision to remain in the USA as their marriage broke down. Augustine was appointed General Manager of the Christian Literature Association in Malawi (CLAIM), the country’s leading Christian publisher. After three years at the helm of CLAIM, he became General Secretary of the Malawi Council of Churches, a post he held from 1998 to 2003. It was a momentous time to be engaged in ecumenical leadership as Malawi had recently broken free from thirty years of Kamuzu Banda’s dictatorial rule and was seeking to build a democratic society. Musopole emerged as a major public intellectual during this period, drawing on his uMunthu theology to offer a distinctive theological critique. Particularly through his regular column in the Catholic magazine The Lamp he brought his theological vision to bear on such issues as corruption, political violence, poverty, civil society, gender, sexual promiscuity, the AIDS pandemic, sexuality, leadership style, constitutionalism, the separation of powers, participatory democracy, national development, education, work ethic and the integrity of the natural environment. The point to which he returned time and again is that such issues will not be resolved without a convincing philosophical and theological basis. He therefore consistently championed uMunthu as the basis not only of a viable Malawian theology but also of a just and harmonious national life. Whatever topic he was considering his premise was always that, “the focus has to be on the quality of our humanity (Umunthu) and life.” [10]

Both in his life and in his theology Musopole combined a profound cherishing of his Malawi roots with wide international exposure. Much of his theological formation had taken place in the UK and the USA. Now he turned his attention to Asia with the idea that Africans and Asians stood to benefit from interaction with one another, rather than being preoccupied with how to relate to their former colonial masters in the West. He therefore accepted an invitation to teach at Chang Jung Christian University in Taiwan, which was his base from 2003 until his retirement in 2014. On his travels he had met Kenyan journalist Dorothy Kweyu whom he married on August 1, 2004. His time was therefore divided between Taiwan and his new family home in Nairobi where he settled for his retirement years. He died there quite suddenly on December 29, 2021. While living a very international life he remained closely connected with Malawi both personally and theologically, as is evident in his seminal book, uMunthu Theology: An Introduction, published just a few months before his death.

Musopole’s uMunthu Theology

He took uMunthu as the core, organising principle for his theology and used this concept as a prism through which to view all of life and every dimension of the Christian faith. Since uMunthu is usually translated as “human-ness” or “personhood” it might first appear as if he were suggesting a view of reality that is entirely centred on human life with no place for God. Nothing could be further from what he was proposing, for in Musopole’s thinking, true humanity is found in our relationship with God. “It is uMunthu as seen in the face of Jesus Christ,” he wrote, “that forms the theological norm for reflecting on our relationship with God.” [11]

He consciously embraced an anthropocentric African worldview, considering everything from the perspective of being human, including the over-arching reality of God who encircles humanity and all creation in cosmic relationality. [12] We begin with our humanity, in Musopole’s methodology, but it is a humanity that can only properly be understood in relation to our Creator God and that can only find its true destiny in the renewal that comes with Jesus Christ. So it is not just humanity in a general sense that he had in mind. For him, uMunthu is ultimately defined by the incarnation of Jesus Christ. His understanding of uMunthu is also framed by a Christian understanding of sin and redemption. Sin, in his view, is about the loss of true humanity while redemption is the action of God to regain true humanity. “Salvation,” he explained, “is renewal of umunthu by the Holy Spirit by receiving the authentic umunthu of Jesus Christ as the Namkungwi [initiation-master] of eternal life. This is what the gospel is all about.” [13]

Having grounded his understanding of uMunthu in the incarnation and redemption of Christ, Musopole also traces its roots to a Malawian cultural understanding. He argued that what is found in Malawi is a view of the world that privileges and cherishes humanity. This is not to say that it privileges humanity instead of God, but rather that it privileges humanity in relationship with God. It is also a deeply relational understanding of humanity. He loved to quote the Tumbuka saying: “Munthu ndi munthu chifukwa cha banyake” – a person is human on account of others. This led him to take love as a major theme in his theology.

He was inspired and challenged by the pioneering theological work of his compatriot Yesaya Zerenji Mwasi, with his appeal during the 1930s for a “Christianity of the soil.” [14] For Musopole this sparked a vision of, “a Christianity in which God is present in a true and genuine way to the people of Africa and is not seen as a religious import. The critical question is the way in which the God of the Bible would be at home among African peoples.” [15] Musopole was appalled that in his own time, towards the end of the 20th century, Mwasi’s call had still not been convincingly answered. So he took on himself the mantle of inculturation theologian and imagined, “a development from no theology to some theology, from foreign theologies to local ones, from uncritical to critical questioning, from knowledge to wisdom.” [16] He could see a pathway, which he attempted to follow himself and which he pointed out to others.

One very significant resource for theological work, on which he drew heavily, is Malawi’s vernacular languages. Here he could deploy his own extensive linguistic range, demonstrating that there are important theological insights that can be gained only through vernacular language. He also set much store by wisdom in the construction of theology, contrasting this with the Western privileging of rationality. He appealed to the Chitumbuka saying uryarya ukugota, meaning craftiness, or rationality, has its limits. Theology, in his view, needs to draw on wisdom more than rational argument and needs to result in wisdom rather than simply being an academic exercise. It needs to be lived truth, not just rational argument. In a similar vein he sought to work theologically with the song and dance through which life and community find expression in Malawi. So far as he was concerned, singing and dancing are vital to the theological task since it is through the engagement of our whole being that we arrive at authentic theological knowledge.

This led Musopole to an emphasis on discipleship as a critical component in the making of theology. In his view, faith, obedience, following Christ, are necessary components in the theological task. Above all, he stressed the centrality of love in the theological enterprise: “Epistemologically, love is what joins the heart and the head, the heart is the source of all thoughts, desires, and the centre of being.” [17] This is uMunthu, the discovery that we are “made in the image of God in love, with love, through love and for love.” [18] Since he was possibly the first to attempt to construct a fully comprehensive Malawian Christian theology, Musopole’s theological legacy can be expected to remain a standard point of reference for the foreseeable future.

Kenneth R. Ross


Notes:

  1. See Augustine Chingwala Musopole, uMunthu Theology: An Introduction (Mzuzu: Mzuni Press, 2021).
  2. See Augustine Chingwala Musopole, Singing and Dancing for God (Mzuzu: Luviri Press, 2022).
  3. Augustine Chingwala Musopole, “Christianity and Nationalism in Karonga Hills: The Tale of Two Brothers during the Late Colonial Period 1954-1960,” in Politics, Christianity and Society in Malawi: Essays in Honour of John McCracken, ed. Kenneth R. Ross and Wapulumuka O. Mulwafu (Mzuzu: Mzuni Press, 2020, 243-65).
  4. Musopole, uMunthu Theology, 81.
  5. Musopole, uMunthu Theology, 86.
  6. Augustine Chingwala Musopole, “The Chewa Concept of God and its Implication for Christian Faith,” MA diss., Chancellor College, University of Malawi, 1984.
  7. Musopole, uMunthu Theology, 93.
  8. Musopole, uMunthu Theology, 96.
  9. Augustine Chingwala Musopole, “Being Human in Africa: A Critical Examination of the idea of Humanity in the Writings of John Mbiti,” PhD diss., Union Theological Seminary, 1991. The thesis was later published in book form as Being Human in Africa: Towards an African Christian Anthropology (New York: Peter Lang, 1994).
  10. Augustine Musopole, “Jubilee 2000: The Christian Message,” The Lamp 21 (January-February 2000): 1.
  11. Musopole, uMunthu Theology, 28-29.
  12. Musopole, uMunthu Theology, 31.
  13. Augustine Musopole, “Inculturation and the Gospel in Africa,” The Lamp 15 (January-February 1999): 14-15.
  14. Musopole, uMunthu Theology, 13; see further Yesaya Zerenji Mwasi, Essential and Paramount Reasons for Working Independently (Blantyre: CLAIM, 1998) [1933].
  15. Musopole, uMunthu Theology, 14-15.
  16. Augustine C. Musopole, “A Theological Vision for Malawi,” Religion in Malawi 6 (1996), 3-11, at 6.
  17. Augustine Chingwala Musopole, “Decolonising the Theological Curriculum in an Online Age,” Annual Conference of the Theological Society of Malawi, Ekwendeni, September 2021, 7.
  18. Musopole, “Decolonising the Theological Curriculum,” 11.

Bibliography:

Musopole, Augustine Chingwala. “A Theological Vision for Malawi.” Religion in Malawi 6 (1996), 3-11.

——–. “Being Human in Africa: A Critical Examination of the idea of Humanity in the Writings of John Mbiti.” PhD diss., Union Theological Seminary, 1991.

——–. Being Human in Africa: Towards an African Christian Anthropology, New York: Peter Lang, 1994.

——–. “The Chewa Concept of God and its Implication for Christian Faith.” MA diss., Chancellor College, University of Malawi, 1984.

——–. “Christianity and Nationalism in Karonga Hills: The Tale of Two Brothers during the Late Colonial Period 1954-1960.” In Politics, Christianity and Society in Malawi: Essays in Honour of John McCracken, ed. Kenneth R. Ross and Wapulumuka O. Mulwafu, 243-65. Mzuzu: Mzuni Press, 2020.

——–. Discovering the Joy of Living. Nairobi: Evangel Publishing House, 2009.

——–. “Needed: A Theology Cooked in an African Pot.” In Theology Cooked in an African Pot, ed. Klaus Fiedler, Paul Gundani and Hilary Mijoga, 7-47. ATISCA Bulletin No 5/6 (1996–97).

——–. “Religion, Spirituality, and Umunthu: A Perspective from Malawi. ” In The Agitated Mind of God: The Theology of Kosuke Koyama, ed. Dale Irvin and Akintunde Akinade, 39-56. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1995.

——–. Singing and Dancing for God. Mzuzu: Luviri Press, 2022.

——–. Spirituality and Sexuality: Theological Strategies for Behaviour Change. Blantyre: CLAIM, 2006.

——–. “Umunthu Theology and a Paradigm Shift in Theological Education.” In Theology in Malawi: Prospects for the 2020s, ed. Kenneth R. Ross and Mzee Hermann Y. Mvula, 32-51. Zomba: Kachere, 2021.

——–. uMunthu Theology: An Introduction. Mzuzu: Mzuni Press, 2021.


This article, submitted in May 2022, was researched and written by Kenneth R. Ross, Professor of Theology and Dean of Postgraduate Studies at Zomba Theological College in Malawi.