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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2563

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Article abstract: Collecting and synthesizing indigenous concepts of God, myths and stories, prayers, and proverbs into a religiously oriented “African worldview,” Mbiti has explored the complex relationship between African and Christian ontology, theology, and ethics.

Early Life

John Samuel Mbiti, one of six children born to Samuel Mutuvi Ngaangi and Valesi Mbandi Kiimba, was the first to survive; thus, John Samuel was surnamed “Mbiti” (literally “hyena,” symbolically “a child vowed unto God”), the name being in effect a prayer in thanksgiving and for survival. His strongly Christian family saw to his religious Westernized academic education, through the African Inland Church; Alliance High School near Nairobi, Kenya; and University College of Makerere, Kampala, Uganda, an “external college” of the University of London. Influenced by a combination of his name, an early personal religious experience, and his undergraduate studies and teachers, Mbiti was moving toward the priesthood when he graduated from Makerere in 1953. He received another bachelor of arts degree and a bachelor of theology degree from Barrington College in Rhode Island in 1956 and 1957, lectured on religion in Kenya and in England in the late 1950’s, and earned a Ph.D. in theology at Cambridge University in 1963. His doctoral dissertation, “Christian Eschatology in Relation to the Evangelisation of Tribal Africa,” was of seminal importance for his subsequent theological and philosophical writing. His ordination in the Church of England followed his graduation from Cambridge.

Mbiti’s development as a promising young Christian academic is, however, only half the story. He is a member of the Akamba people, who occupy Ukambani, an area in eastern and south-central Kenya. As a boy and a young man, Mbiti was systematically and deeply immersed in Christian life and doctrine. His education was Christian and Western; it was not traditional and African. There was, however, another, informal education for young Mbiti—Akamba stories and the art of storytelling. Evidently, Mbiti was fascinated by the entire process—the stories themselves, the dramatic and poetic narration, the moral and practical lessons they taught, and broadly, the entire vision of the Akamba world they presented. He wrote and published a novel, Mutunga na Ngewa Yake (1954), numerous poems and short stories, and an English-Kamba Vocabulary (1959). Beyond these, he sought out and recorded about fifteen hundred traditional stories, publishing a representative selection as Akamba Stories (1966).

By the age of about thirty, Mbiti was both a budding Christian theologian and a collector and student of materials illuminating portions of traditional African life. At the root of his activities was a profound sense of the needs of a changing Africa, especially its young people. Both Christianity (including Western technological civilization) and African traditionalism were necessary; neither alone was sufficient. Mbiti saw that a conjoining of these elements, a syncretism, must occur, and he would make a major contribution.

Life’s Work

Mbiti’s approach to the problem of syncretism has always been religious, but initially it was specifically theological. His 1963 Cambridge dissertation, published in 1971 as New Testament Eschatology in an African Background, inquires into the deepest psycho-spiritual grounds whereupon Africans and Christians might meet. These grounds are eschatological; that is, they draw on a concern, shared in traditional Akamba society and in Christianity, with the ultimate destiny of human beings. For each, as Mbiti reads the Akamba and the New Testament, this destiny is both otherworldly and corporate. After a relatively brief period of several generations as “living-dead,” the Akamba lose individual personhood to a generalized spiritual status in the endlessly receding past, the Tene. Christians, too, understand their being spiritually, but not in the distant past—nor, Mbiti argues, in the future. Instead, they see their spirituality in the present/presence of Christ, whereby individuals become a “many-in-one.”

New Testament Eschatology in an African Background is a learned, brilliant, spiritually infused work of comparative theology, much more than a work in “African religions.” By 1964, Mbiti had been in the West for most of ten years, in a rarefied intellectual atmosphere. That year, he returned to Africa to teach in the Department of Religious Studies and Philosophy at Makerere University. As he studied, researched, and taught, he moved beyond Akamba to Africa, seeking to understand the worldview of sub-Saharan African peoples as a whole.

Mbiti’s movement from theology to religion had parallels in his ecclesiastical and personal life. As a clergyman at Makerere, he had the duty of pastoral counseling, often on marriage problems. This counseling reflected and developed Mbiti’s abiding concern with practical ethical issues. This concern, and its relation to broader philosophical questions, is manifest in his writings, especially Love and Marriage in Africa (1973).

He did not lack firsthand experience with married and family life. On May 15, 1965, Mbiti married Verena Siegenthaler, a teacher of languages and social worker. Verena and John had three daughters (Maria Mwende, Esther Mwende, and Anna Kavata) and a son (Kyeni Samuel). Mbiti became a devoted family man, drawing on this practical experience to help him formulate a well-developed philosophy of marriage incorporating traditional African, Christian, and modern liberal elements.

Throughout the 1960’s and early 1970’s, Mbiti engaged in extensive research into the beliefs and practices of literally hundreds of African peoples. Always a collector, he amassed roughly three hundred African concepts of God and more than three hundred African prayers, which he published as Concepts of God in Africa (1970) and The Prayers of African Religion (1975). He also collected roughly twelve thousand traditional African proverbs as a portion of the data for African Religions and Philosophy (1969) and Introduction to African Religion (1975).

As his research and writing proceeded, Mbiti became convinced of the truth of three fundamental propositions. First, there does exist a traditional African religion, generally held in common by most sub-Saharan peoples. One of the vital parts of this religion is the belief in a single supreme being. Second, African religion implies a philosophical worldview, an ontology, but this ontology is religious rather than more generally metaphysical. Third, African religion is both practical and pervasive throughout all areas of traditional African life, meaning that African religion and philosophy are inseparable from African practice.

None of these propositions implies that Africans are (necessarily) Christians, though Mbiti remained convinced that Christianity is the true religion, solving fundamental religious problems that elude traditional African religion. These religions are joined together, or syncretized, in this respect: Each involves a complete way of life, wherein ontology and spirituality are implicit in daily practice. They are thus set off against any modern Western ontological understanding, in which religion is merely one among a number of discrete areas of activity. Simply put, for the traditional African and the Christian, life is a religious whole, rather than a collection of unrelated or discordant parts.

As Mbiti studied traditional African peoples, he was aware that their ways of life were being changed rapidly by the process of modernization. In his understanding, these ways of life were not primarily secular and material: They were the expression of a people’s deepest beliefs and their understanding of ultimate things. To change or lose African practices was tantamount to losing African religion.

While deeply sensitive to the magnitude of this loss, Mbiti remained aware of the power and appeal of the modern West. This helps to explain why, in 1974, he left Africa to join the Ecumenical Institute of the World Council of churches at Bossey (near Geneva), Switzerland, serving as director from 1976 until 1980. Traditional African religion is as vulnerable to change as traditional Africa, and both are subject to a modernization that has become worldwide. Ecumenism cannot simply or purely preserve the African religious worldview; however, it might enable Africa to make its contributions to a world religion that recognizes both the spiritual unity and diversity of human beings.

Naturally, Mbiti brought a heightened awareness of African religion to the Ecumenical Institute at Bossey. His first task was to keep the institute in existence; it faced major financial problems. He was able to do this, in the process demonstrating not merely his commitment but also his practical administrative and fund-raising skills. This accomplished, Mbiti turned his hand to making the institute more fully ecumenical. He promoted increased participation by Christian scholars and practitioners from Asia, Latin America, the Pacific Islands, and Africa. Titles of the institute’s publications that he edited suggest the breadth of Mbiti’s understanding of the Church: African and Asian Contributions to Contemporary Theology (1977), Confessing Christ in Different Cultures (1977), Indigenous Theology and the Universal Church (1979), and Christian and Jewish Dialogue on Man (1980).

Mbiti left the institute at Bossey in 1980. He became parish minister at the Reformed Church at Burgdorf, Switzerland, the next year. In 1983, he began concurrent service as a part-time professor at the University of Bern. He also served as a visiting professor at a number of European and American universities. His research and writing focused on the content of Christianity present in the daily lives of ordinary Africans, with special attention to oral theology, and he collected and studied sermons preached in marketplaces and extemporaneous occasional prayers. This is in keeping with both his very early interest in Akamba storytelling and his conviction that, for Africans, traditional and Christian religion are integral parts of everyday living.

Influence

Mbiti’s work is that of a philosophical mediator. He engaged in the process of showing the connections between, and thus brought together, traditional African religions and Christianity, Africa and the West, religion and philosophy, and, most fundamentally, belief and practice. Although this project has much in it of political philosophy, its specifically spiritual dimension makes it practical theology.

The leading thesis of Mbiti’s practical theology is this: What remains of traditional Africa provides the fullest possible view of human beings as homo religiosus. The tendency of Western critical philosophy has been to understand human beings politically, economically, scientifically, or historically. Each of these human types exists secularly—in the world and in time. Understood ontologically, human beings existing in time are subject to ultimate dissolution and destruction. Only if understood religiously and spiritually may human beings escape this temporal fate.

These ontological reflections explain Mbiti’s preoccupation with time. His critics have charged that his linguistic analyses showing that Africans are oriented toward the past rather than the future are both overgeneralized and demeaning. These critics are eager to discover that some African peoples have a well-developed notion of the future. This critical activity, however, misses Mbiti’s main point: African religion and philosophy are ontologically superior insofar as they avoid thinking in temporal terms. His chief ontological comparison has always been between African religions and Christianity, to the advantage of the latter because Christian spirituality does not fade into a dimly remembered past. Mbiti retained no doubt, however, that African ontology is more sound than any of the varieties of Western secularism.

Thus, with no particular effort except his own philosophical instincts, Mbiti has placed himself in a “postmodern” mode in two important respects. First, he has engaged in ethnic studies of indigenous peoples at the subnational level for nearly a half century. The foundation of these studies has been a respect for the philosophical awareness, religiously expressed, of these peoples. This approach has been labeled ethnophilosophy, to contrast it with the specialized and professionalized (and supposedly superior) variety. Mention of ethnophilosophy introduces the second postmodern aspect. If Mbiti is an ethnophilosopher, he is one whose religious ontology calls into question both the progressive, futuristic and the analyzing, differentiating tendencies of modern thinking. The view he urges people to take is of existence as a religious whole. This deep traditionalism is also a characteristic positive postmodern position.

Categorizing Mbiti as a postmodern, however, is as pointless as pinning the ethnophilosopher label on him. Mbiti does not reject modernity in favor of ethnic wisdom; both are part of contemporary Africa. If his work has emphasized the latter over the former, it is because he found it relatively neglected. Moreover, Africa is part of the world, and the world, for Mbiti, is part of a cosmic order in which the temporal is intelligible finally only in the light of the eschatological. In plainer terms, reflection on the human condition intimates a destiny beyond time and space, or beyond the natural to the supernatural. Mbiti has shown, in his life and through his writing, that African peoples share and practice this religious understanding.

Additional Reading

Evans-Pritchard, E. E. Nuer Religion. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1956. The classic study of a particular African religion. The work is demanding, but at least the concluding “Reflections” should be read.

Gyekye, Kwame. An Essay on African Philosophical Thought: The Akan Conceptual Scheme. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1986. Gyekye engages in a sustained critique of Mbiti’s views, contrasting Akan (Ghana) notions of time with those of East Africans. Despite this, there is much agreement both on the value of studying indigenous philosophy and on its content.

Hountondji, Paulin J. African Philosophy: Myth and Reality. Translated by Henri Evans. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983. Hountondji understands Mbiti as one of a number of “church ethnophilosophers” who, in emphasizing indigenous African spirituality, deflect attention from political and economic interests. An influential, controversial book.

King, Noel Q. African Cosmos: An Introduction to Religion in Africa. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 1986. A useful treatment by Mbiti’s former colleague at Makerere University, with considerable attention to the religious rituals practiced by a number of African peoples. Contains some illustrations, a glossary of African religious terms, and an extensive annotated bibliography.

Munro, J. Forbes. Colonial Rule and the Kamba. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975. Discussing the period 1889-1939, Munro provides insight into the social circumstances in which Mbiti grew up. His exceptional educational achievements become especially evident.

Olupona, Jacob K., ed. African Traditional Religions in Contemporary Society. New York: Paragon House, 1991. A series of papers by African scholars intended to study African religion sympathetically, from the “inside.” Mbiti’s contribution, on women in African religion, attempts to counterbalance the disparaging patriarchal view.

Olupona, Jacob K., and Sulayman S. Nyang, eds. Religious Plurality in Africa: Essays in Honour of John S. Mbiti. Berlin: Mouton De Gruyten, 1993. A wide-ranging, occasionally uneven collection of essays in recognition of Mbiti as scholar and minister. Mercy A. Oduyoye’s critique of his views on marriage is noteworthy, given Mbiti’s recent defense of women. Contains biographical material and a complete Mbiti bibliography through 1987.

Oruka, H. Odera, ed. Sage Philosophy: Indigenous Thinkers and Modern Debate on African Philosophy. Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1990. An interesting, engaging work in which Odera interviews a dozen “sages” and contrasts their indigenous but individual views with the holistic approach attributed to Mbiti. Critical essays by other African philosophers are included.

Parrinder, Geoffrey. African Traditional Religion. Reprint. Rev. ed. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1970. A fine, widely available introduction to the subject. Parrinder communicates, briefly and clearly, his understanding (shared with Mbiti) that Africans traditionally live in a spiritual universe.

Serequeberhan, Tsenay, ed. African Philosophy: The Essential Readings. New York: Paragon House, 1991. Various viewpoints on the debate over the nature of African philosophy. Kwasi Wiredu’s contribution, providing a critical but reasonably balanced assessment of Mbiti’s work, is especially relevant.

Tempels, Placide. Bantu Philosophy. Translated by Margaret Read. Paris: Presence Africaine, 1959. Originally written in Dutch and first published in a French translation in 1945. In the book that triggered the debate on African philosophy, Tempels argues that, in Bantu ontology, force is being, and being force. It is paired with Mbiti’s work as “ethnophilosophy.”