Kenyan Christian Theologian and Anglican Priest John Mbiti Dies at 87

John Samuel Mbiti at Stellenbosch University in South Africa in 2016. Video screengrab via Dion Forster

John Mbiti, a prominent Christian theologian from Kenya who helped debunk entrenched ideas that traditional African religions were primitive, giving them equal weight with major world faiths, died on Oct. 5 at a nursing home in Burgdorf, Switzerland. He was 87.

His daughter Maria Mbiti confirmed the death but did not give the cause.

In his writings, Mr. Mbiti described a landscape of tribal and national religions in Africa that might have lacked sacred texts like the Bible but that nonetheless lived deeply in people’s hearts and minds, in rituals and oral histories, and through priests, elders and kings.

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“Everyone is a religious carrier,” he wrote in his influential book “African Religions and Philosophy” (1969), a result of his field work in Africa.

“Wherever the African is,” he added, “there is his religion.”

He disputed characterizations of African religions as anti-Christian at best and practiced by savages at worst — labels that had been used to justify imperialism and slavery.

African religions, he said, were as deeply rooted, and as legitimate, as Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism.

“The God described in the Bible is none other than the God who is already known in the framework of our traditional African religiosity,” Mr. Mbiti wrote in The Christian Century magazine in 1980. “The missionaries who introduced the gospel to Africa in the past 200 years did not bring God to our continent. Instead, God brought them.”

Jacob K. Olupona, a professor of African religious traditions at the Harvard Divinity School who helped edit a book of essays about Mr. Mbiti’s legacy, said by phone: “He opened the field and got people talking about traditional African religions in a different context. For African scholars like me, he was the very model of scholarship.”

Devaka Premawardhana, a professor of religion at Emory University in Atlanta, praised Mr. Mbiti for challenging perceptions of Africa as a continent without history, civilization or religion, and for “uncovering and undercutting the very foundations of Western supremacy.”

But, he said, Mr. Mbiti was criticized, most famously by the Ugandan writer Okot p’Bitek, for casting his arguments in intellectual terms that had been established by the West. Mr. Mbiti insisted, for example, that African cosmologies ultimately align with Christian views of God as omnipotent, omnipresent and eternal.

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Source: The New York Times

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