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Current issue: Vol.1, No. 3 July 2001

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African Conversion

By Brendan Carmody

What forces, one may ask, led to Africans' conversion to Christianity? A book recently published asks this interesting and relevant topical question (African Conversion, Ndola Mission Press, P. O. Box 71581, Ndola, Zambia).

The set of essays of this volume present the well-known paradigm of Robin Horton on conversion. Horton's articles first appeared in Africa in the 1970s, but remain perhaps one of, if not, the main source of academic reflection on this important topic. For this reason, it was considered useful to put Horton's articles in book form together with a selection of critiques by Humphrey fisher, Richard Gray, Caroline Ifeka-Moller, Lewis Rambo, Wimp Van Binsbergen, and Brendan Carmody. The collection also contains an article by Robert Strayer which helps to contextualize the Horton debate historically.

This gathering of quality articles from diverse sources is one of the major values of the production. It is to be hoped that the more ready accessibility of these articles will, among other things, stimulate African scholars to enter what so far has unfortunately been a largely non-African discourse.

As we know, conversion has been and remains central to the missionary endeavour. What does it mean? It has many meanings which shift over time. Perhaps one of the weaknesses of Horton's discussion is that he fails to adequately define conversion. This becomes evident in the critiques especially in that of fisher who speaks of three main stages in the conversion process - quarantine, mixing and reform. Rambo further develops and refines the notion of stages, though in a more global context.

The central question which originally prompted Horton's hypothesis is why so many Africans have become Christians and Moslems in the twentieth century. In fact almost half of the 700 million people on the continent today is Christian while at the beginning of the century it was about one million. Essentially, Horton's mode of explaining this phenomenal growth of the Christian faith in Africa follows what might be labelled a modernization pattern.

Forces of conversion

As Horton saw it, traditional life could be divided into two main spheres - the microcosm and the macrocosm. The microcosm included the village where religious life focused on the ancestral spirits, though the high god was recognized but remained distant from everyday concerns. When major social change took place, the boundaries of the microcosm began to disintegrate and macrocosmic religious forces came into operation.

This meant that veneration of the ancestors began to be replaced with the presence of the high god. For Horton, the progression is almost linear. The more modern a group became, the more it was to focus on the high god. The less developed were thus also likely to be centered on the ancestors.

Since many of the missionary groups arrived in Africa as the microcosms were falling apart because of colonialism, they found that people were open to the idea of a high God. In a sense, Christianity or Islam had nothing new for Africans on that level. However, it was a good contact point. People could easily accept the Christian high god because he/she was not all that different to what they had come to believe traditionally, especially if they had moved into a macrocosmic situation.

On the whole, this seems true because missionaries tended to take the traditional word for god and used it for translating the new Christian understanding of god. In this way, Horton speaks of Christianity or Islam simply as catalysts to what was already under way.

As is to be expected. Horton's thesis has not been totally accepted. It has many critics, some of whose thoughts are included in the reader. Fisher, for instance, wonders why Africans bothered to become Christians if the new belief system was so similar to the traditional one. In a word, he contends that Horton has overstressed the importance of tradition and did not do justice to the novelty of the Christian component.

Most missionaries would go along with that. Yet, despite this and many other criticisms, one can still ask if we have anything better than Horton's thesis for the study of conversion in Africa? I have used it in undergraduate programs at the university of Zambia for over a decade and i have found that it never fails to generate insightful discussion and leads oftentimes to existential questioning.

Place of tradition

One important implication of Horton's paradigm that is of special relevance to the inculturation debate is what place does tradition have in present-day Christianity? Is traditional cosmology predominant in people's consciousness or subconsciousness or is Christianity? The fact that people say that they are Christians or Muslims does not in itself mean that traditions are inoperative. It may simply mean that tradition now assumes a Christian or Muslim face.

Thus, it might not be too difficult for a convert to go to mass in the morning and accuse his neighbour of witchcraft on the way. Of course it could also mean -- and I think it often does -- that a new cosmology has taken over but which may still need to be inculturated. This may be particularly true in times of intense stress as at the moment with the HIV/aids crisis. In the face of such a life threatening illness, it is possible that a Christian or Muslim convert may find more spiritual resources in the tradition to cope than he/she can find in Christianity or Islam.

Evidently, this is an area that is far from clear and should be the subject of much reflection for years to come. Some valuable material is already emerging indirectly from studies on aids/aids. Much more is needed for as yet there is far too little focus on the religious dimensions of the tragedy. Brendan Carmody S.J., is professor of religious education at the University of Zambia, Lusaka.

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