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Philosophy of Religion

Kuona, An African Perspective on Religions:
J.N.K. Mugambi's Contribution

Isaac M.T. Mwase
Ouachita Baptist University

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ABSTRACT: Kuona is a Shona (one of Zimbabwe’s major languages) verb meaning "to see." In poetic constructions, it is often used as an ocular metaphor meaning insight or understanding. This ocular metaphor can be used to describe Mugambi’s assessment of the exclusivistic claims one often encounters in the Abrahamic religions. Such claims often arise from a strongly held belief that the adherent is one of God’s chosen. Mugambi has emerged as one of the most articulate philosophical theologians in the African continent. His reflections, ubiquitous in classrooms on the continent, deserve a much broader audience. My paper seeks to introduce Mugambi’s perspective on religion. Part of Mugambi’s project has been to make an assessment of this notion of chosenness in the Abrahamic religions. He does so particularly with reference to the relationship between Christianity and the African religious heritage.

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Kuona is a Shona (one of Zimbabwe's major languages) verb meaning to see. In poetic constructions it is often used as an ocular metaphor meaning insight or understanding. This ocular metaphor, it seems to me, can be used to describe Mugambi's assessment of the exclusivistic claims one often encounters in the Abrahamic religions. "Only those who believe as we do have any hope of an eternity with God." "We are the ones destined or predestined for heaven." These and such claims often arise from a strongly held belief that the adherent is one of God's chosen ones. Part of Mugambi's project has been to make an assessment of this notion of chosenness in the Abrahamic religions. He does so particularly with reference to the relationship between Christianity and the African religious heritage. Mugambi's literary output includes several pieces that deserve a wider circulation. Among some of his main pieces are African Heritage and Contemporary Christianity (1989), African Christian Theology (1989) and his most recent From Liberation to Reconstruction: African Christian Theology After the Cold War (1995). In this paper I would like to focus on Mugambi's African perspective on those religions that embrace the notion of chosenness. His appraisal of the doctrine of election common to the three Abrahamic religions Christianity, Judaism, and Islam is particularly worth examining. Since his reflections proceed from a decidedly Christian self-understanding, I also seek to relate Mugambi's perspective with some assessments that are emerging from scholars who are associated with one of the other Abrahamic religions, Judaism. In my study of Mugambi's published works, I assessed Mugambi's philosophical theology as having strong affinities with Hickian pluralism.

John Hick has led a campaign to persuade Christians of Europe and North America to be more appreciative of other religious traditions. Hick argues that Christians ought to affirm that salvation is accessible through religious traditions other than Christianity. Although Christians can faithfully affirm Jesus Christ as the way to eternal salvation, such affirmation must not be in exclusivistic terms. Since "God is greater than all our theologies," in Hick's view, Christians have to reckon with "the big fact that the salvific process of the creating of human animals into children of God is not confined to the Christian section of mankind." Mugambi deems the Hickian "open-minded approach to religious traditions other than his own . . . " the best in dealing with the issue of human destiny. Such an approach, he feels, enhances more effective dialogue, which is especially useful in a religiously pluralistic world.

Even though Mugambi empathizes with Hick, he is careful though to point out that Hick's campaign is particularly for the benefit of Oriental religious traditions. He has not been aware of any specific effort by Hick to promote an appreciation of the African religious heritage. In a way Mugambi's writings are an effort to promote this heritage. When Mugambi makes reference to Hick in his works, his intention is to indicate that within the Anglo-Saxon heritage there are scholars who are aware of the short-comings of Eurocentric philosophies of religion and missiologies. Hick's pluralism argues for the coherence of five proposals. They may be summarized as follows:

  1. God (the Real, the Ultimate, the Noumenal) is the center of the religious world.
  2. Any view that makes Christ or Christianity the center and the test of religious truth is erroneous.
  3. Non-Christian religions are, in fact, theocentric. They have their center in the One reality which is common to them all.
  4. The truth of these religions is judged not by their distance from Christ, but from God.
  5. Christianity is only one of the many religions and the test of its truth is no different than the test of truth for others. Does it manifest the noumenal and is it effective in morally changing lives? Mugambi's view is neither that all religions are of equal validity, nor that one religion is as "good" as any other. He contends that no one is entitled to such a verdict. The possibility of such kinds of judgments is dependent on the existence of a set of objective criteria by which to evaluate all religions. Mugambi argues that humans are interested parties in all matters concerning religion. Wisdom then would dictate that such judgments be avoided or withheld in accordance with the principles of natural justice.

Mugambi understands the first principle of natural justice to hold: That every party deserves a fair hearing before judgment is delivered on a case affecting such a party in any way. He is persuaded that non-Caucasian cultures have not had a fair hearing throughout the history of Christianity since Constantine. He deplores the situation in which Christians of these cultures have been expected always to do the listening, while the theological interpretations are forged out in Rome, Geneva, Wittenberg, Canterbury, Edinburgh, Dallas, Nashville, and so on.

The second principle of natural justice that Mugambi deems pertinent to a fair philosophy of religion is: That no one should participate as a judge in a case of which one is an interested party. In light of this principle only God has such a prerogative because God is, according to Mugambi, just by definition. Christians, however, have had the audacious tendency to act as judges in their own cases, expecting everyone else to accept their verdict. Since Mugambi enjoins Christians and other adherents of various religions to withhold judgments about competing truth claims, the question that he has to answer is that of the relationship between the various religious heritages.

Mugambi's view is that each religious community is entitled to explain to others what it understands religion to be. Each community should also articulate the impact of religious experience on the lives of its members, their history, and their environment. Those who listen may be moved to respond positively, negatively, or even apathetically. One truth claim made not only by Christianity, but also by the other Mosaic religions, Judaism and Islam, that elicits Mugambi's unfavorable assessment is that of election. The closely related doctrine of the remnant is likewise found suspect. These doctrines, in Mugambi's view, do not seem at all consistent with the notion of a benevolent deity. They may make their proponents feel "good" by virtue of being the chosen ones, the Remnant, the Elect. But what if one discovers that one is out of the fold? Such doctrines are bound to bring upon one a terrible case of the upsets, especially if one finds oneself out of the fold through no fault of ones own. One should appreciate that all who desire to see (kuona) clearly whether one religion has a better account than another are always doing so through lenses colored by their own religion. Kuona also occurs within the limited space marked out by one's own religious particular context. Such limitation mandates an epistemological humility on the part of those who might be tempted to be too self-assured about being a special chosen group by God.

Mugambi charges the Mosaic religions — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — with a grievous shortcoming whenever they affirm the doctrines of the election and the remnant. Inasmuch as these doctrines credit God with the prerogative to choose, it seems commonsensical for any group to consider the very live possibility that they themselves may not be the chosen ones. In Mugambi's estimate, the doctrine of grace should be considered as a counterpoise to the doctrines of election and remnant. Such considerations lead him to the conclusion that "God could choose anyone else other than the Hebrews, Christians, and the Muslims as a means to achieve divine objectives in history." Mugambi's acute discomfort with election is shared by many others.

Mugambi's negative assessment of the doctrine of election and the notion that any one group is God's chosen people is one that some adherents of Judaism have come to endorse independently. Chaim Potok's novel The Chosen is a fascinating study in-part about how the more conservative adherents to Judaism want to maintain the belief that the Jews are THE chosen people. I mention this novel in passing to commend it for your enjoyment.

Discomfort with the key concept of chosenness has been expressed in critical pieces by some who identify themselves with Judaism. The feminist perspective of Judith Plaskow and the post-Auschwitz reflections of Richard Rubenstein are worth our examination. In her piece "Transforming the Nature of Community: Toward a Feminist People of Israel,"Plaskow explores the far-reaching changes in Jewish self-understanding. She argues for a rewriting of Jewish history to include the history of women. In such a process she observes, however, "One cannot hope to create a feminist Jewish people . . . without also considering certain theological questions — the significance and spiritual dimensions of community, the conceptualization of difference in Jewish life, and the key concept of chosenness."

Plaskow judges the notion of chosenness as the chief expression of repugnant hierarchical distinctions. She sees in the notion a close association with claims to superiority. Positively viewed chosenness has been a source of sustenance and survival for Jews. Negatively though, as Reconstructionists are wont to point out, the notion affirms a hierarchical difference that entails privilege and superiority. Plaskow rejects chosenness on two grounds. With most other reinterpretations of election she sees the notion as passe in a world were Jews have to relate to the wider society. It would be most difficult to reconcile chosenness with equality and participation in a pluralistic world. A related reason for rejecting chosenness is the desirability to rid society of hierarchical dualisms. Mugambi would concur. It is dualisms that are partly responsible for Africa's treatment as inconsequential. Recognition that Africa has much to offer mandates a renewal of efforts to appropriate the positive elements of its multifarious religious heritage.

Rubenstein, in "Person and Myth in the Judeo-Christian Encounter," subjects the notion of chosenness to an even more scathing rejection. He declares: "After the experience of our times, we can neither affirm the myth of the omnipotent God of History nor can we maintain its corollary, the election of Israel." Why such an unapologetic rejection of chosenness? Part of Rubenstein's rejection is on the grounds that the notion destroys the Jews' most precious attribute, their simple humanity. He argues that because of this myth of chosenness all kinds of pernicious acts have been perpetrated against the Jew. If, as Rubenstein proposes, the process of demythologization touches even this most precious of Judaeo-Christian beliefs, then Jews are no longer condemned to dwell in the domain of the sacred, a dwelling that has frequently destined them to die as sacrificial offerings. Jews can thus engage the other peoples of this pluralistic world in true dialogue. Mugambi shares a similar assessment. His call for the African voice to be heard in universal deliberations moves beyond the religious to social, economic, and political matters that require urgent attention. This he does in his latest book From Liberation to Reconstruction. A brief excursus focusing on Mugambi's key reflections helps us appreciate his project in winning a hearing for Africa's pressing needs.

In the fourteen chapters of From Liberation five themes emerge as key considerations for a reconstructionist African Christian Theology in a post-world war period:

  1. The theology should preserve, not deprecate, the African heritage.
  2. It should critique the missionary enterprise so that the message delivered to the African is truly "Good News."
  3. Ecumenical analyses and solutions ought to supersede scandalous and competitive denominational posturing.
  4. Assessments of Africa's place in the New World Order make evident the need for a rethinking of Pan-Africanism and the role of the Organization of African Unity.
  5. Reconstructive visions should highlight agricultural policies that stress production of consumables rather than the growing of cash crops.

It is readily evident that Mugambi's concern seems to have moved beyond reflection on who are the chosen ones. His ecumenical orientation declares that African perspectives be given a fair hearing in deliberations and reflections about the plight of Africa's poor.

For Mugambi it is not enough simply to reject any doctrine of chosenness. What Mugambi finds troubling about the three Mosaic religions is why each of them basks in the claim to be the exclusively chosen channel of divine revelation. He asks, "What if none of them have won God's favor?" In light of the religious wars which have plagued the North Atlantic world since the early centuries of Christianity to this day, the what if question is, for Mugambi, unavoidable. The same goes for Islam. Because all the Mosaic religions have been ensnared by possessive authoritarianism, they find themselves constantly subject to intra- and inter-religious traditional tension; Palestine, Bosnia, Iran, the Southern Baptist Convention. Such a state of affairs brings Mugambi to pose two inescapable questions. The first question is "Why should these faiths be perpetually at war with each other?" The second question is a probing one, "Could it be that God may no even be in their midst?"

Having placed a question mark on the Mosaic religions, Mugambi proceeds to suggest that other religious traditions may be propounding perspectives closer to the divine ideal. He assesses he religions of the Orient — especially Buddhism — as being immensely tolerant and respectful of the humanity and integrity of others. The African religious heritage, he finds to be also inclusive rather than exclusive. Realizing that his challenge is bound to evoke a charge of Universalism on the part of many evangelical Christians in the North Atlantic areas, Mugambi contends that his insights are not such as to bring shame on those who accept them. He declares that when Christians of non-EuroAmerican cultures seek a synthesis of the Christian faith with their own heritage, a charge of universalism may after all turn out to be a virtue rather than a vice. In the final analysis God is the final arbiter.

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