Tag Archives: Harold Turner

The Turner School of African Theology

Regarding the study of African theology, Walls points out that African experiences “have produced a greater degree of theological development than has often been recognized.”[1] In particular African theologians have explored the themes of conversion and Christian identity, developing their own creative methodological approaches for the African context. Two important examples include Cyril Okorocha’s The Meaning of Religious Conversion in Africa and Kwame Bediako’s Theology and Identity, both of which grew out of PhD dissertations under Andrew Walls at the University of Aberdeen. Studies like these are a valuable source for intercultural theology because they give African perspectives on the kind of methodological approaches that are most appropriate for the study of African theology and highlight important methodological considerations. Both theologians stress the need for an explicitly theological approach; Okorocha underlines the importance of empirical research while Bediako emphasizes the need for historical theological perspectives for studying African theology. Interestingly, both draw heavily on Harold Turner’s article, “The Way Forward in the Religious Study of African Primal Religions.”[2]

Harold Turner on Methodology

Turner’s phenomenological approach in this article raises a number of important points. The first is that “the nature of the field of study must provide the major control over the methods employed.”[3] Therefore the study of religion requires wide variety of methods, from the physiology of religion on the one hand to the theology of religion on the other. Second, Turner argues that the religious dimension or sphere requires distinctively religious disciplines in order to avoid reductionism.[4] Consequently he urges the use of phenomenology and the history of religions. Third, he suggests that “there is a dialectical interaction between the various methods as well as a hierarchical arrangement among them. Thus, physiology of religion might come towards the bottom of the hierarchy and the phenomenology and history of religions towards the top, with theology perhaps as the crowning study.”[5] His choice of metaphor, however, raises the question the question of whether theology is merely icing on a phenomenology cake. Turner is positive about the possibility for intercultural studies of religion. He argues that “There is nothing new in the endeavor to study a religious tradition set within a culture quite different from one’s own; it is going on all the time and all over the world” and states that “men resemble one another more than their cultures do.” Importantly, Turner defends the appropriateness of explicitly theological approaches to African reality, but calls for the use of “the specialist contributions of phenomenology and history of religions” in order to achieve “interpretive depth.”[6]

Okorocha’s Phenomenological Approach

Following Turner, Cyril Okorocha[7] argues that African scholars need to work on combining disciplines in the right hierarchical order in their study of African religious experiences. In particular he insists that “the religious is a sui generis sphere of the human life” and that “to fail to take seriously the religious itself is to fall into a dangerous reductionism.”[8] He agrees with Turner’s hierarchy of methods with theology as “the crowning study,” followed by phenomenology and the history of religions, and social anthropological approaches. In his work, Okorocha takes a phenomenological approach involving empirical research, aiming to describe African religious experiences of conversion as they are,[9] but insists that “the encounter between Igbo religion and Christianity in Igboland, and the attendant questions surrounding conversion and religious behaviour of Igbo converts centre around deep-seated theological issues, not merely socio-cultural ones.”[10] Furthermore, he writes that the results of his study not only call for African theological reflection, “which must at once be Christocentric, biblical, and contextual,” but also for intercultural theological dialogue, “drawing from the rich experience of the Church Universal and making its unique contribution to the ongoing life of the Church.”[11]

Bediako’s Historical-Theological Approach

Kwame Bediako also follows Turner’s methodological lead, though not without some criticism. He wonders whether Turner’s call for the use of phenomenology and history of religions “might not be seen as yet another instance of the use of structures of Western thought applied to African religion,”[12] but approvingly cites Turner’s defence of the appropriateness of an explicitly theological approach.[13] He ultimately argues that “the choice must lie with African Theology as to the descriptive categories and the criteria of judgment that it brings to bear upon African reality.”[14] In his own study, Bediako takes Turner’s claim that “the nature of the field of study must provide the major control over the methods employed” as his starting point.[15] Since African Christianity is part of a historical movement in which the gospel has been contextualized in different cultures, he argues that historical theology can help shed light on issues in contemporary African theology. In comparing historical and contemporary examples of contextualization it is possible to learn something about both Christian self-understanding as a whole and what is unique about African self-understandings in particular.[16] The central claim of his study is that “The phase of the Christian history which offers the most instructive parallels to the modern African context is the beginning of Hellenistic Christianity in the early Roman Empire.”[17] Bediako’s marriage of intercultural and historical theology is a bold move with important implications. If Tatian, Tertullian, Justin and Clement can shed light on African Christian identity, then perhaps Augustine can shed light on African understandings of sacrificial atonement metaphors. Issues that are important in Western theological debate surrounding the atonement, such as the notion of spiritualization, may not be so important to African theologians. Perhaps a typological understanding of sacrifice maps better with African discourse on Jesus’ sacrifice. Bediako thus emphasizes the need for a wide-angle theoretical lens when examining African theology.

[1] Andrew F. Walls, The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission and Appropriation of Faith (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2004), 46.

[2] Harold W. Turner, “The Way Forward in the Religious Study of African Primal Religions,” Journal of Religion in Africa 12, no. 1 (1981): 1–15.

[3] Turner, “The Way Forward in the Religious Study of African Primal Religions,” 1.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 2.

[6] Ibid., 12.

[7] Cyril Okorocha is Bishop of the Anglican Diocese of Owerri, Nigeria.

[8] Cyril C. Okorọcha, The Meaning of Religious Conversion in Africa: The Case of the Igbo of Nigeria, Avebury Series in Philosophy (Aldershot: Avebury, 1987); Kwame Bediako, Theology and Identity: The Impact of Culture upon Christian Thought in the Second Century and in Modern Africa (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2011).

[9] Okorọcha, The Meaning of Religious Conversion in Africa, xi.

[10] Ibid., 35.

[11] Ibid., xii.

[12] Bediako, Theology and Identity, 11n16.

[13] Ibid., 11n18.

[14] Ibid., 5.

[15] Ibid., 6.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid., 7.

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Harold Turner: The Kiwi Walls

Harold Turner has been described by Paul Windsor as the “Kiwi Newbigin,”[1] but he could also be described as the “Kiwi Walls.” He was born in New Zealand in 1911 and after completing his studies in 1939 he worked for 15 years as a Presbyterian minister there. He went on to work as a missionary scholar in Sierra Leone and Nigeria where he met and formed a close partnership with Andrew Walls that continued for the rest of his life. It was during his time in West Africa that wrote his PhD dissertation, History of an African Independent Church in 1967, which as Andrew Walls writes is “Still the fullest account we have of the history of any body of African Christians.”[2] He later moved to the U.K., where he developed a new department at the University of Leicester based on his phenomenological approach to studying religion and also founded the Centre for New Religious Movements in Selly Oak Colleges, Birmingham. During his time there he met Lesslie Newbigin, who asked him to read and comment on a draft of his well-known work The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. Towards the end of his life he moved back to New Zealand, where he formed the Gospel and Cultures Trust (later called DeepSight Trust) with similar goals to those of Newbigin’s Gospel and Our Culture Network. He passed away in 2002.[3]

[1] http://gospel-culture.org.uk/harold_turner.htm

[2] Walls, The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History, 118.

[3] J. M. Hitchen, “Harold W. Turner Remembered,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 26 (2002): 112–17.

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