In Summary
  • Prof Mbiti, born and raised in Africa south of the Sahara, viewed the traditional religious experiences of indigenous communities as preparation for the proclamation of the gospel of Christ.
  • Prof Mbiti was gifted in coining quotable quotes that are also thought-provoking.

The departed Prof John Samuel encyclopaedic comprehension of philosophy, theology, languages and literature was encyclopaedic. Little wonder that one of the tomes he has edited bears the title The Encyclopedia of Christianity.

While scholars regard St Augustine of Hippo, born of an African mother and Roman father, as one of the greatest theologians of all time, many dons count Rev Mbiti the Anglican canon among the leading global scholars of our century in philosophy and divinity.

The comparison between Augustine, known in Church circles as “the Doctor of Grace” and Mbiti, the expert of “African Traditional Religions as a preparation for the gospel of Christ”, has some merit. St Augustine, born in Tagaste, North Africa, used Platonic philosophy to explain the message of Jesus of Nazareth.

SUPREME BEING

Prof Mbiti, born and raised in Africa south of the Sahara, viewed the traditional religious experiences of indigenous communities as preparation for the proclamation of the gospel of Christ.

In many of his books, the worldview is of ethnic groups in a relationship with a caring supreme being, even though there are instances of mediation by spirits and visits by ghosts inhabiting the space between God and the people.

Human beings respond to a provident God through prayer and sacrifice. Thanks to Mbiti’s efforts, African traditional religions gained a measure of respect.

One of the best known and also most controversial aspects of Mbiti’s research is his account of the African concept of time. His detailed analysis of African languages leads him to the conclusion that time is basically a series of events comprising a two-dimensional long, macro past (Zamani), and a micro present (Sasa) with no future.

He reinforces this conclusion by asserting that Africans have a cyclic conception of time, in contrast to Western thinking that has a linear, cognitive structural outlook.

AFRICAN THINKING

Several scholars find his conclusion startling. While some strategists use Mbiti’s theory to explain why many socio-economic plans and projections do not succeed in Africa, other thinkers such as Prof Joseph Nyasani, the late philosopher at the University of Nairobi, disagree with Mbiti’s conclusion that “the future is practically foreign to African thinking”.

Other critics point out that the philosopher-theologian has reached such a general conclusion after analysing just two Bantu languages from Kenya. There are over 1,000 ethnic groups in Africa south of the Sahara. Mbiti, they object, has drawn too huge a conclusion from an incredibly small sample.

Prof Mbiti was gifted in coining quotable quotes that are also thought-provoking. The very opening sentence of his seminal work African Religions and Philosophy is unforgettable, even provocative: “Africans are notoriously religious.” This aphorism is oft-quoted in learning institutions across Africa from upper primary schools to colleges and universities.

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