African Conversational Theology: A New Way of Doing Theology (Talk at Boston College)

“Africa Matters” Book Discussion on two books:

The Church We Want: African Catholics Look to Vatican III

HIV & AIDS in Africa: Christian Reflection, Public Health, Social Transformation

310 Higgins Hall

Boston College

Boston, Massachusetts, USA

20 September, 2016


African Conversational Theology: A New Way of Doing Theology


By Joseph G. Healey, MM



I am delighted to be here at Boston College this afternoon. I bring warm African greetings from Emmanuel Orobator in Nairobi, Kenya who likes to be called “Bator” and Jacquineau Azetsop in Rome, Italy. They are deeply with us in spirit.

I teach a course on "Small Christian Communities (SCCs) as a New Model of Church in Africa Today" at three theological schools in Nairobi. When I am at Hekima University College, the Jesuit School of Theology for English-speaking Africa, I call myself three quarters Maryknoll and one quarter Jesuit.

I am 78 years old. In our first class the students who are in their 20s started calling me Mzee, the Swahili word for "elder," as a title of respect. But I said, "No. Not yet. Not yet. Please give me another name." So the next day they started calling me "a youth from a long ago." I like that a lot better.

For many years African theologians have searched for a genuine, authentic African method of theology. At the Padua Conference on Theological Ethics in Padua, Italy in July, 2006 the Ugandan theologian and historian John Waliggo emphasized the importance of African narrative theology and said:

Africans can now stimulate theological development. We refuse to leave our cultures and traditions behind. We have much to say about inculturation, offering new models for theological reflection. Our theological style is very concerned with narrative, expressing teachings in story. Our people listen better when you give them a story. This means using local expressions and rituals, linking the Gospel to their story.

Ugandan theologian Emmanuel Katongole emphasizes that African theologians listen to the real life stories of the African people. Stories are not just anecdotal. African Storytelling is a way of living, a way of listening, a way of being theologian.

African theologians are developing African Conversation Theology, or more specifically African Christian Conversation Theology, as a “New Way of Doing Theology.” In Africa we prefer the term AfricanPalaver Theology, but we realize that the word palaver carries a lot of negative baggage in the Western world. For us it is both the name of a method or process of theology and the name of a type of content of theology (much like Liberation Theology).  Method heavily influences and determines content and vice versa. It is a two-way process that illuminates and enriches African values and Christian values. It is similar to Mango Tree Theology and Storytelling Theology.

Bator describes this method or process very clearly in the “Preface” in our new book. This is African Theology as Conversation, Active Dialog, Intensive Listening and Learning from Each Other (described as “listening in conversation”) and Consensus. This new way of doing African Christian Theology is participatory, collaborative, cross-disciplinary and multigenerational. It includes oral theological conversation.

The starting point of this kind of African Christian Theology is both context and experience. Many of the essays in this book draw on grassroots experiences and practical “on the ground” research. In the spirit of Pope Francis African theologians try to listen to the cries of the poor, the marginated and those on the peripheries of society.  This method draws on the ideas and writings of Bénézet Bujo, Jean Marc Ela, Emmanuel Katongole, Teresa Okure and Elochukwu Uzukwu – the last three having essays in this book. Local, contextual theologies can be constructed in Africa with the local communities as “theologian.”

Bator developed this distinct method or process in convening the three international Theological Colloquia on Church, Religion and Society in Africa (TCCRSA, for short) from which the essays of this new book are taken. This “Three-year Theological Research Project in the Currents of the 50th Anniversary of Vatican II” took place in Nairobi in 2013 to 2015. These conversation-style theological research seminars used palaver sessions, baraza sessions and informal, interactive roundtables on African theology to provoke conversation, discussion and dialog.

I would like to illustrate this method by using my own essay called “Beyond Vatican II: Imagining the Catholic Church of Nairobi I.” Bator first invited writers to draft papers on specific themes. I invited many African pastoral workers including members of grassroots Small Christian Communities and theologians such as Laurenti Magesa into the “conversation” on my paper and incorporated their comments and insights. At the colloquium itself I presented a summary of my paper in a plenary session. Here is the opening paragraph under the heading “Be Bold and Creative” taken from No. 33 of Pope Francis’ The Joy of the Gospel. I quote from page 189:

The editor of this volume, Bator, Jim Keane, the Acquiring Editor of Orbis Books, and I met to discuss a book that could evolve out of TCCRSA.  In brainstorming about a possible title and cover we tried to think outside the conventual box. We drew a line through the words “Vatican III, Rome” on the cover and wrote “Nairobi I.” We could have as easily written “Kinshasa I” or “Lagos I.” Going further afield we could have written “Manila I” or “Sao Paulo I.” The idea was to challenge the natural assumption that the next ecumenical council has to take place in Rome. If the center of gravity of the Catholic Church is moving from the West to the Global South, why not have the successor to Vatican II meet in one of the great cities of the Southern Hemisphere?

My co-presenter was Nontando Hadebe, a lay woman theologian from

South Africa, that in itself shows the rich diversity of the participants. Afterwards a half hour plenary session combined comments from the floor and questions and answers on our papers. Bator, a man of many talents, simultaneously recorded this “conversation” on my paper in his computer and “miraculously” handed me a half page summary at the end of the session. During the coffee breaks and meals I dialogued further with participants on my paper. In the spirit and practice of this colloquium using the method or process of African Christian Conversation Theology, I incorporated the comments and insights of the participants in the final draft of my essay for this book.

A final take away. In the spirit of the pastoral challenges of Pope Francis,

and the theme of this new book, the final section of my essay proposes pastoral solutions to the “Two Meanings of the Eucharistic Famine in Africa:”

Ordination of Married Community Elders or Locally Ordained Ministers (Married Priesthood).

African Stages of Marriage.

In the spirit of the collaborative, collegial and synodal style of our African

Conversational Theology let us follow the well-known African Proverb that is also very popular in Western countries: If you want to walk fast, walk alone. If you want to walk far, walk together.

Rev. Joseph G. Healey, MM
Maryknoll Society
P.O. Box 43058
00100 Nairobi, Kenya

0723-362-993 (Safaricom, Kenya)

973-216-4997 (AT&T, USA)

Skype: joseph-healey