Welcome to McGill! Could you offer a brief overview of your own intellectual, theological, and vocational journey and life?
My intellectual journey first began at home, in the classroom of my parents’ life and love. My father Obiora was and is still for me a great example of the intellectual life. He lives in a manner that made and makes the intellectual life a search for wisdom – wisdom for living life well, simply, and fully. In my studies, research, teaching, and writing, I always long to discover and to share wisdom. I describe wisdom as embodied truth, that is, truth with breath, beauty and benevolence.
Speaking of my theological journey, I would say in hindsight that it was my mother who first led me into the theological landscape. There I experienced theology as the art of celebrating and pondering the mysteries of the Kingdom of God, which are in themselves the stories of human existence. My mother also led me to appreciate the deepest nature and mission of theology by her sacrificial love. Hence theology becomes for me not so much about “faith seeking understanding” as much as it is about faith seeking love – love of God and love of fellow human beings.
I also had a formal introduction to theology at the Bigard Memorial Seminary Enugu, Nigeria, an affiliate of Pontifical Urbaniana University, Rome, Italy, and at the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies, Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium. In both institutions I became acquainted with the vast resources of theology and world religions. I had many professors and fellow students who inspired me to not only study theology, but to cultivate a love for it.
How have your African Igbo roots shaped this journey and your theological perspectives?
In so many ways. I can mention just a few. I like the fact that you speak of roots because it reminds me of my grandmothers, Chijioke and Udego, from whom I learnt a lot about my Igbo world. Though I was born and grew up in the city, I spent my long holidays in my teenage years in the village with my grandmothers. From them I learnt to appreciate the depth of my Igbo language, thought, and life, which have shaped enormously my theological and religious perspectives.
I could speak, for example, about the particular influence of my Igbo linguistic expressions on my theological reflections. Igbo sayings and proverbs are far more valuable to me in understanding the complexity of the world and of the divine mysteries, and in appreciating the wisdom of Christian faith. As the Igbos say, “proverbs are the palm oil with which words are eaten.” They evoke a particular experience, an interplay of thought and of aesthetics. More than that, they offer me the rational and relational scheme for my ongoing theological engagements.
What was the focus of your PhD research at Leuven?
My PhD research at Leuven entitled “Christ, the Image of Social Transformation: Towards a Transformative Christology in the African Context” focused on fleshing out some of the theological and practical aspects of the connection between faith in the two natures (divinity and humanity) of Christ and the Christian commitment for positive change in African societies. I did so through engaging the lived Christologies of ordinary Christians at the grassroots, the christological reflections of some African theologians, and in dialogue with the Christology of the Latin American theologian, Jon Sobrino.
The exploration was carried out in the light of three christological themes whose keywords are relationship, agency, and praxis. The three themes are: (1) the enhanced relationship of Christians with Christ and other human beings as correlates with Jesus’ relationship with the Father and other people, (2) the empowered agency of Christians as an outflow of this relationship, which correlates with the awakening of Jesus’ own human agency in his embodiment of, and directedness to the Kingdom of God, and (3) the representative practices of solidarity, both within and beyond ecclesial communities, as the form of Christian discipleship, which correlates with Jesus’ call to discipleship and the hope for a transformed human condition on the basis of his resurrection.
These three themes are united and grounded in the most fundamental Christian reality, which is the reality of the Incarnation – the event of the Eternal Word becoming human and consubstantial with humanity.
What are some of your current and future research trajectories?
My current research is on the theme of Christianity and social transformation. It continues along the line of my doctoral work as just described. We know that a many-sided debate about the role of religious beliefs in the public sphere is being carried out in our day. And in many societies, people still wrestle, for instance, with questions of the social relevance of faith in Jesus Christ – how to connect the belief in him with the longing for positive change in society. How could greater common human flourishing be inspired by the belief in, and understanding of, who Jesus Christ was/is and what he did/does? Are there ways in which belief in and understanding of Jesus Christ does – or does not do – justice to the range of social issues in today’s world, and how should we enhance the potential or counter the limitations therein? I am particularly interested in the question of how Catholicism contributed to human and societal development in the Global North, and what lessons could be learnt for the development of people and societies in the Global South. These are some of the issues I still grapple with in my teachings and in some of my publications. They are of great interest to me because I share the vision that contemporary global Christianity could actively contribute to societal renewal by planting seeds of hope, promoting the ethic of solidarity, and fostering genuine human encounters in a rapidly changing and increasingly networked world.
My future research will be carried out under the proposed title “‘In the Beginning’: The Primal Testament of African Christianity.” This will deal with the question or subject of how Christian faith has been present in the African culture with its rich religious, spiritual, philosophical and social traditions. It will seek to explore the sense in which a christological interpretation of the indigenous religions in the African context can be justified. The research provides a new approach to African religious history by (re)telling the story of Christianity in Africa before and beyond the coming of the European missionaries.
Christianity has been witnessing a seismic demographic shift towards the southern hemisphere over the last few generations. How does this shape your own thinking about the future study of Christianity and future developments in Christian theology?
Permit me to say that Christianity did not shift toward the southern hemisphere. Christianity has been present in that hemisphere. And even here in the northern hemisphere, Christianity is still present but in new ways that we are yet to uncover or rediscover. I say this because my understanding of Christianity, which informs my view that Christianity has been present in the south and is still present in the north, is not based on a demographic assessment. Christianity is a life, and, if you like, a breath. I have often employed this in describing my own faith journey. The breath or life has been present in the soul and soil of my forebears, and is still present in the lives of people in the so-called secular contexts. The task of Christian theology would consist in discerning, interpreting and commending the longing for this breath and life by many people in our world today.
These initial insights shape my approach to the study of (World) Christianity. For one, they help me to rethink the development of Christianity not simply in terms of geographical mapping (of western vs. non-western), as is often the case, but in terms of a common human longing and experience of transcendence and spiritual energy. This is followed by the process of rediscovering or, if preferred, uncovering how the Christian faith is still lived in today’s world as a culture-shaping or culture-shattering tradition rather than simply as offering an interpretation of its histories and demographics.
What do you see that you might be bringing to McGill and School of Religious Studies and the McGill academic community more broadly?
I like this question because it allows me recall with gratitude of my rich experiences of having lived, studied, researched, taught, and ministered in three continents: Africa (Nigeria, Cameroon, South Africa), Europe (Belgium, United Kingdom, Germany), and North America (United States of America and Canada). With the experiences I have garnered from living and working in these places I have gained the needed appreciation of the diversity and richness of religious (Christian) traditions and its new and varied currents. They have offered me also the experience of cultural immersion in how to navigate multiple identities and on how to fruitfully engage with cultural pluralism in the world at large. So, I see myself as bringing the fruits of all these opportunities and encounters to the School of Religious Studies and the McGill academic community as a whole.
I also bring the richness of my Igbo African religious heritage. Like many other African religious-cultural traditions, this is currently shaping the texture of Christianity in Africa and in the African Diaspora in North America, Europe, and in the Caribbean. There is a 'diaspora impact' of the Igbo people. By the same token, I bring an experience from Africa that is unique in the way African Christians understand and express their faith even amidst situations of suffering and deprivation. This is a unique vantage position that keeps the discourse of Christian faith alive and continues to break open its untapped possibilities in today’s world.
I also belong to three theological networks (Newman Institute of Catholic Studies, International Association of Mission Studies, and Pan-African Catholic Theological and Pastoral Network) through which I have ongoing conversations with scholars and practitioners from various continents on all the major themes and issues in World Christianity. This is the kind of network which I hope to continue to build and to enlarge through the Catholic Studies Program at the School of Religious Studies.
Finally, and importantly, I bring to McGill and the School of Religious Studies the joys and graces of my years of fruitful ministerial engagement and encounters in the slightly over 20 countries that I have been blessed to live or visit on short or long terms. These engagements and encounters have offered me the tremendous privilege of sharing in the most intimate experiences of people, especially those who are marginalized and not recognized in our world. I am already bringing the fruits of those experiences to my academic work as a lecturer at McGill, wherein I integrate some of the experiences of life and humanity in my teaching. Many of my students, for instance, in the course on African Christianity, have commented on the impact my style of teaching has brought to their education at McGill, to the way they sense, see, and relate to the world, and to their personal, integral development. I feel humbled by their generous comments. Teaching is something I love doing. I see teaching students as an art of discovering and sharing wisdom, an opportunity for the simultaneous cultivation of minds and hearts. Thus, it is a site not simply for the transfer of knowledge but an arena for fostering impactful human, inter-personal and inter-cultural encounters. And I hope to keep up the good work.