Becoming fully human in community: a critical theology of Ubuntu

Hess, Paul (2020). Becoming fully human in community: a critical theology of Ubuntu. University of Birmingham. Ph.D.

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This thesis argues that it is time for a critical theology of Ubuntu. The basic contours of the theology of Ubuntu represent a now well-worn path in Black and African theologies. It starts with a critique of the western conception of the human being, which is held to be fundamentally flawed, because of its emphasis on an individualism premised on Cartesian dualism and rationalism. A more authentic understanding of the human being is to be found in the African world-view, which stresses that persons are constituted through community. This is given particular expression through Ubuntu, which – according to the definition popularised by Desmond Tutu – means ‘a person is a person through other persons’. The contention of this thesis is that – while many elements of this analysis remain valid and are substantially true - Ubuntu has up to now been placed beyond critical gaze, with potentially damaging consequences.

In particular, when reflecting on it theologically, we need to be cognisant of the following dangers within Ubuntu, as it has traditionally been defined: 1) Ubuntu equates community with moral virtue, 2) Ubuntu is premised on idealised notions of community and consensus, 3) the problem of personhood is unresolved in Ubuntu, and 4) Ubuntu can legitimise patriarchy and homophobia in the name of African culture.

Furthermore, this thesis argues that it is neither epistemologically possible, nor theologically desirable, to attempt to construct an ‘essentially’ African conception of the human being. Moreover, claiming an idea as ‘African’ does not in and of itself constitute theological or moral legitimacy, any more than labelling it as ‘western’ makes it illegitimate per se. We must also recognise that western theological and philosophical anthropologies are far more complex and nuanced than the Cartesian straw man which is often deployed to represent them. For example, there are many voices within the western canon which converge in important respects with the theology of Ubuntu’s critique of Descartes. Other western traditions – and the thesis pays particular attention to existentialism in this regard – provide a necessary critique of Ubuntu in their emphasis on the freedom and agency of the human subject.

Thus, our argument is that if it is understood as ‘a person is a person through other persons’, Ubuntu becomes open to the distortion of collectivism. Instead, it is better defined as ‘becoming fully human in community’, a definition which will enable us to develop a theology of Ubuntu that retains the relationality at its core, while giving expression to the agency and freedom at the heart of personhood. This will facilitate a theology of Ubuntu which is in continuity with the best traditions of African humanism. Such a theology of Ubuntu expresses the truth that personhood is characterised by subjectivity, as well as a way of being that is developed and fulfilled in community; it allows for a vision of communities characterised and indeed strengthened by difference, dissent, protest and challenge, rather than Community characterised by conformity and homogeneity. Such a reformulated theology of Ubuntu has much to offer Africa, and indeed the wider world.

Type of Work: Thesis (Doctorates > Ph.D.)
Award Type: Doctorates > Ph.D.
Licence: All rights reserved
College/Faculty: Colleges (2008 onwards) > College of Arts & Law
School or Department: School of Philosophy, Theology and Religion
Funders: None/not applicable
Subjects: B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BR Christianity


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