Jean-Bertrand Madragule Badi OP

“Community thinking” is an essential and important topic for Dominican theology. Community is one of the pillars of the Order of Preachers and the place where the Dominican vocation is realised. What might be the key element in conceptualising of a specifically African-Dominican theology1

One of the most important and decisive elements in African thinking is the principle of the life force (force vitale), as Placide Tempels, a Belgian Franciscan missionary in the Belgian Congo, has pointed out.2 The missionary links the life force with the Gospel of John in which Christ calls himself the life. In the African context, life or life force is the “highest principle of ethical action”. In this sense, life has to be understood in terms of community interconnectedness.

Community, in African tradition, is “that place which makes the self-realization of the person possible” (B/ED, 25). This is not about the connection between individual and individual but “rather about the relationship of the individual to the community and vice versa” (B/WU, 19). If Africans want to pursue an African-Dominican theology, Dominican theology must thus be done in an African culture. It is necessary, therefore, to adapt the Cartesian formula “cogito ergo sum [sumus] – I think therefore I am” to an African understanding of the human which is both existential and relational: “Cognatus sum [sumus], ergo sumus – I am [we are] related, therefore we are” (see B/WU, 18-19). As Bénézet Bujo writes: “According to this principle [‘cognatus sum – sumus’], a person can become a person only in community with others. […] The underlying conviction is that human beings act all the more effectively the more they maintain solidarity with their own kind” (B/WU, 20).

In contrast to the Western-Christian system of thought, in Africa, community does not limit itself to “the concrete, visible community” but “rather also includes the deceased; and even the not-yet-born constitute an important dimension” (B/WU, 20).

In his important book “Gott der Menschen”, Ulrich Engel OP, following Jürgen Habermas’ theory of communicative action and Karl-Otto Apel’s discourse ethics, interprets the “Dominican Order as a practically constituted communication community”.3 I am particularly interested in Habermas’ theory of communicative action: Does this Western system of thought correspond to the concern of an African-Dominican theology? And can an African model enter into dialogue with Western discourse?

Rationality is an important term in Habermas’ discourse ethics. Indeed, “every subject with the competence to speak and act is allowed to take part in a discourse.”4 U. Engel commented on the rules of discourse as follows: “The practical discourse is thus characterised by the fact that potentially all concerned are factually included in the argumentation and the discourse. According to Habermas, only this so-defined principle of universalization constitutes the formal-procedural precondition according to which an intersubjectively secured consensus can be achieved.”5 For a discourse to result in a rational consensus for communicative action, each participating subject with the competence to speak and act must argue rationally. It follows that those who do not argue according to the given rules of discourse do not belong to the communication community.

In contrast to the discourse procedure, the African palaver model includes not only those subjects with the competence to speak and act but every human being (see B/WU, 89). The deepest sense of the palaver is that “the word” has an enormous power. Bénézet Bujo stresses that in this Africans feel very close to the biblical text because the word actually generates that for which it was sent. This means that the word can either create or destroy community; it brings life or death (see B/WU, 71, 209). This is because “the palaver model is existential and sapiential at the same time. It is actively in contact with all tiers of society so that it [society] in no way incapacitates itself through the ‘sapientes’” (B/ED, 33). For the palaver, not only the “competence and experience” of all participants counts in the “ideal communication community” or rather “clan community” but the dead are also considered. In this, one reaches consensus by arguing in a non-dominant way and by seeking only the good of the clan community.

The first kind of palaver applies to the so called “marriage in stages”. In sub-Saharan Africa, a wedding is performed in three stages and is not only a consensus between bridegroom and bride but also a consensus between the two families, a consensus of society. The three steps of the marriage ceremony are: traditional marriage according to African customs (in the presence of the two families), civil marriage (at the registry office) and religious marriage (in the church). Bénézet Bujo writes about this: “Concerning the Christian understanding of marriage, it has to be pointed out that, for example, not only bride and bridegroom are ministers of the sacrament, as Catholic theology teaches, but that this function is also essentially attributed to the families of the married couple and to their communities.”6 From the Christian African perspective, a man or a woman is only married after the three stages have been completed. The number of stages, however, depends on the particular ethnic group. B. Bujo advocates that “the Church should recognise the traditional marriage in stages by accompanying it from the outset” (B/ZG, 94).

Since the evangelization of sub-Saharan Africa, marriage and family are among the most burning pastoral issues. Missionaries were confronted with this from the very beginning. Without knowledge of African anthropology, it is difficult to understand the African idea of marriage and family. The African bishops write: “The understanding of marriage and family in African traditions comes from the African cosmology that defines the main role human beings play in the continuation of life. Marriage in African traditions is altogether a social, community, religious and cosmic event.”7

Based on the African understanding of life, community is the most important element of the African worldview. In this sense, the African family consists of a three-dimensional community, i.e. those currently in this world, the deceased and the not-yet-born. Each category is only a partial community and each is dependent on the others. The living have a chance of survival only if they give due honour to their dead. Equally, the dead can only be happy if they live on in the memory and in the reverence of the living. The not-yet-born represent an instance of hope for the living and the dead. The family will live on through the not-yet-born. There is an ongoing mutual interrelatedness between these three parts of the African family.

With regards to the initial question of whether there is a specific African community thinking vis-à-vis Western-Dominican theology, one can, without doubt, give a positive answer. If one wants to do Dominican theology, however, one has to put the human person, regardless of abilities, at the centre of theological discourse. Only in this way can the African model of palaver enter into dialogue with the Western-Dominican system of thought, based on the “Dominican discourses on truth”.

From the German by Eileen O’Connell OP and Sabine Schratz OP, both Dublin (Ireland)

1 I draw in particular on the Congolese theologian B. Bujo, Wider den Universalanspruch westlicher Moral. Grundlagen afrikanischer Ethik, Freiburg/Br., 2000 (= B/WU); idem, Die ethische Dimension der Gemeinschaft. Das afrikanische Modell im Nord-Süd-Dialog, Freiburg/Br., 1993 (= B/ED).

2 See B/WU, 17; idem, Afrikanische Theologie in ihrem gesellschaftlichen Kontext, Düsseldorf, 1986, 61-63.

3 See U. Engel, Gott der Menschen. Wegmarken dominikanischer Theologie, Ostfildern, 2010, 14-40.

4 J. Habermas, Moralbewußtsein und kommunikatives Handeln, Frankfurt/M., 1984, 99.

5 See U. Engel, Gott der Menschen, l.c., 14-40.

6 B. Bujo, “Im Zentrum steht die Gemeinschaft. Wie man in Afrika Ehe und Familie versteht,” in: Herder Korrespondenz 69,2 (2015), 92-96, 93 (= B/ZG).

7 SECAM. THE FAMILY, OUR FUTURE. Contribution to the 3rd Extraordinary Synod of Bishops. Roma, 4.-19.10.2014, Accra, 2014, no. 3 ( [6 May 2016]).


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