MESSAGE FROM DR JOEL CARPENTER, DIRECTOR OF THE NAGEL INSTITUTE
Warm greetings, everyone, to this project site for “Christianity and Social Change in Contemporary Africa.”
This project is built upon a number of partnerships. The two grant-making programs, one in social science and one in theology are being directed by eminent scholars: Professor Francis Nyamnjoh, an anthropologist at the University of Cape Town; and Professor Tite Tiénou, a theologian and former dean at Trinity International University in Illinois, USA. Day-to-day project management comes from the Nagel Institute for the Study of World Christianity at Calvin College in Michigan, USA. Nellie Kooistra is the project’s manager, and Donna Romanowski, the Institute’s administrative manager, is on call to help as needed. Funding for this project comes via a generous grant from the John Templeton Foundation (JTF) of Pennsylvania, USA.
This initiative had its start in 2012 when JTF officers contacted us at the Nagel Institute and asked for assistance in developing their grant making in Africa. We started with a consultation between JTF officers and two dozen African scholars, intellectuals and church leaders from across the continent and working in fields ranging from geography to theology, physics, philosophy, psychology, and others. Out of that meeting came some areas of possible convergence in interest and an ensuing study, Engaging Africa (2014), which surveyed the recent history of academic and intellectual life in sub-Saharan Africa and made recommendations for Templeton’s grant making.
The first two recommendations from that study are now the two research grants programs now operating within this project. The process of designing and planning them, however, took another year, including the work of an advisory group of African scholars that met in Nairobi in January of 2015 to review the grant programs’ designs. Funding commitments came from JTF in July of 2015. Then Nagel staff, along with Profs. Nyamnjoh and Tiénou, put the word out to scholars across the continent. We received an outpouring of interest, including some 188 initial inquiries, and eventually 56 applicants were invited to present full proposals. Two panels of African experts reviewed these proposals at a meeting in Accra in December 2015, and the result is the 23 exciting projects you will view on this site.
African Realities, African Hope: Our grants program in theology is premised on the Interest in African values that percolates across the African academy. On a continent hamstrung by corruption, how might African values be seen as part of the solution rather than as the problem? Might theologians identify some core values that are grounded in African tradition as well as in Christian thought thatcan enhance human flourishing in contemporary Africa? This project also looks at African spirituality, which suffuses human experience, animates the natural world, and richly populates all planes of existence. How have these traditional spiritual traits survived on the contemporary scene and been modulated within Christianity? How has this spirituality accommodated itself to urbanization and to rapidsocial and economic change? How do African Christians engage a spiritual life? What can the church gain from both a deeper knowledge of African values and spirituality in order to fruitfully engage contemporary life? For this kind of research to flourish, our project presupposes, theologians need renewed cross-fertilization with African social scientists, religious studies experts and philosophers.
Religious Innovation and Competition: Religions constitute some of the most dynamic social forces in Africa today, and social scientists are trying to catch up with their numerical growth and changing cultural influence. Christianity in particular is amazingly innovative, diverse and competitive. Christian theologians often view religious innovation and competition with dismay, but diversity and competition are often vehicles, if not drivers, of social change. There are fresh opportunities for social scientists tohelp us develop a new understanding religion’s role in African contemporary life. Is religious competition a destructive force, or does it enable innovation and foster creativity? And might these new religious developments, which reflect African agency, resilience and creativity, suggest a more positive approach to contemporary studies? Might a new focus on African agency, resilience and creativity, what Prof. Nyamnjoh calls “nimble-footedness,”provide an alternative to the more common focus on African problems, pathologies and victimization? The social science projects herein are addressing such intriguing questions.
So please, take a good look around this website, and feel free to consult it often.