The Nagel Institute, with generous support from the Templeton Religion Trust, invited project proposals for the African Theological Advance initiative. Its aim is to support African Christian scholars, in theology and other disciplines, to engage in fresh research, thinking and teaching about Christianity’s engagement with contemporary African society.

This initiative made 16 grants between $35,000 and $50,000 USD for two-year research and curricular development projects. These grants are to postgraduate African theological seminaries or universities with postgraduate theology programs. The awards will be for research and curricular development projects that address gospel and culture issues in Africa by drawing on interdisciplinary methods and insights to address one of four topical areas:

  • African spirituality and values
  • Science and religion—particularly health and healing
  • Religious innovation and competition
  • Forgiveness, peacemaking and reconciliation

Winning projects will feature both fresh research into contemporary African realities and the incorporation of this new knowledge into Christian thought and curricular renewal.

Project Focus

The focus of this project is to encourage African scholars to a fresh understanding of how Christianity engages contemporary African realities in these four topical areas. The project also focuses on African theological institutions and programs. It aims to help them employ and develop their capacities as conveners of research and scholarship and to embed the fresh insights they gain from research within their programs of teaching and community service. Interdisciplinary teams would conduct research and develop Christian thought that would be infused throughout these institutions’ theological and ministerial education.

This project also aims to recognize and enlist the multiple sources of talent and insight for accomplishing such tasks. Theological schools and programs are invited to propose projects that draw on the deep insights into Gospel and culture that African scholars across the continent are developing. They are also encouraged to enlist the unique talents and perspectives of African-diaspora scholars now serving on other continents. They are also welcome to draw on the Interest in African Christian thought and mission among non-Africans as well. Grant funding thus would be used to convene research teams that draw on local, regional and international talent. These teams would focus first on new research projects and then on developing teaching modules, courses, publications, media pieces and continuing education events that would disseminate the new discoveries and embed them into the ongoing program of education.

Project Topical Areas and Key Questions

African Christian scholars and church leaders, in conversation with Templeton officers, have identified four topical areas of high interest and relevance.  Successful proposals will address questions within one or more of these four areas:

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Interest in African values percolates across the African church academy.

  • On a continent hamstrung by corruption and conflicts, how might African values be understood as part of the solution rather than a source of the problem?
  • Might theologians and other scholars probe the nature of values that are grounded in African tradition but also enhance human flourishing in a rapidly urbanizing and globalizing Africa?
  • One cannot separate African values from African spirituality, which suffuses human experience, animates the natural world, and richly populates all planes of existence.
  • How have these traditional spiritual traits survived in the contemporary scene and modulated within Christianity?
  • How has this spirituality accommodated itself to urbanization and technological and economic change?
  • Are cardinal African values and virtues substantially different from those of other cultures or from those that have been identified as well-nigh universal values?
  • If African values are different, what difference do they make? Do they in fact contribute to flourishing?
  • How do the changing circumstances of African life affect traditional African values and spiritual proclivities? When these traditional values and spiritual traits have been adopted into an introduced religion, such as Christianity or Islam, has the result been positive or negative?
  • What can the church gain by way of missional teaching and pastoral guidance from a deeper knowledge of African values and spirituality and their interaction with contemporary life?

For this kind of research to flourish, theologians need renewed cross-fertilization with African social scientists, religious studies experts and philosophers.

At the intersection of science and faith, some of the most urgent questions that African Christians ask are about health and healing. Contemporary African Christians hear what appear to be competing claims from traditional healers, Christian faith healers, and medical professionals.

  • How are they to reconcile these claims in a way that honors both the Great Physician and these varying bodies of knowledge about healing?
  • How do the natural and the supernatural realms interact in health and healing?

African theological leaders need to step up their research, reflection and teaching on these issues. Over the past 15 years, dozens of theological schools in Africa have adopted courses on HIV/AIDS. These were welcome and necessary, but other health crises erupt, and the issues of health and healing in the context of faith and science are far broader and deeper than a focus on one malady can handle. Therefore, we encourage researchers to investigate the relationships between spirituality and health.

  • Do certain spiritual beliefs and practices promote or detract from health?
  • How do African Christians and other African religious believers view medicine and various medical practices?
  • How do their beliefs affect their mental or physical health, or their willingness to seek medical or other healing interventions?
  • How do they reconcile competing claims of healing?
  • How do the religious beliefs of medical practitioners affect the way they practice medicine?
  • What is the role of pastoral counseling and prayer in healing?

African theological schools could benefit immensely from new research and curricular development in this field.

Religions constitute some of the most dynamic forces in Africa today, and researchers are trying to catch up with their numerical growth, proliferating forms and cultural influence. Christianity in Africa is amazingly innovative, diverse and competitive. Christian theologians often view religious innovation and competition with dismay because of the potential for heresy, fragmentation and strife. Even so, diversity and competition are often vehicles, if not drivers, of creative change. The proliferation of evangelical and Pentecostal movements in Latin America, for example, has resulted in renewal and reform in that region’s Roman Catholic churches. A similar renewal has occurred in Ghana’s older Protestant churches as the charismatic and Pentecostal movements have competed with them.

  • Is religious competition a destructive force?
  • Does it enable innovation and foster creativity?
  • What happens to secularity in the context of religious innovation and competition?
  • What is the relationship between religious innovation and commercial entrepreneurship?
  • How do new religious forms and patterns relate to broader social and institutional changes in contemporary Africa?
  • How do local religious initiatives relate to global trends and movements, as in the worldwide rise of Pentecostalism?
  • What is the “balance of trade” in Africa in importing and exporting religious trends and movements?
  • Might these new religious developments, which reflect African agency, resilience and creativity, suggest a more positive approach to the study of contemporary Africa?

A remarkable new chapter is being written in the history of Christianity in Africa and the continent’s theological educators need to give the rising generation of pastors and theologians, in Africa and beyond, a better understanding of what it all means and how to teach and minister in this context.

As a major site for civil violence in recent decades, Africa has much at stake and much to offer for those who want to learn more about the barriers and pathways to forgiveness, peacemaking, and reconciliation. Political scientists, anthropologists and psychologists are studying these issues in Africa, but what might theologians learn from them—and teach them—about the complex interactions of justice and mercy, restitution of wrongs, and reconciliation, forgiveness and accountability? Across the continent, Christian people and agencies are often leading in post-trauma counseling, community based reconciliation initiatives, and peace education.

  • What are the interventions or conditions that enhance reconciliation, rebuilding and new flourishing?
  • Are there lessons that can be applied more broadly, in other places and circumstances?

How might the insights that peacemaking agents are gaining be examined more systematically, consolidated, and incorporated into theological and university education?