A bittersweet occasion in Zomba this past week was the launch of a new book by Augustine Musopole, an outstanding Malawian theologian. It was bitter because Augustine died suddenly at the end of last year, after he had finished writing the book but before he could come to Malawi to launch it. It was sweet because the book is a small masterpiece and will reward not only today’s readers but also those who pick it up in future. We felt that we had to honour both the author and the book so we held a memorial service that was immediately followed by the book launch.
“Munthu” in Malawian vernacular is just the word for a human person. It is a term in constant everyday use but Musopole was the first to make it the cornerstone of an entire theology – a theology centred on the question of what it means to be truly human.
Admittedly, he was open to misunderstanding, in much the same way as Kenneth Kaunda was when he spoke of “Zambian humanism.” It sounds as if it might be suggesting a view of reality that is entirely centred on human life with no place for God. Nothing could be further from what Musopole was proposing, nor from Kaunda for that matter. For in Musopole’s thinking, true humanity is found in our relationship with God. To be more precise, and let me quote, “It is uMunthu as seen in the face of Jesus Christ that forms the theological norm for reflecting on our relationship with God.”
It is worth keeping this in mind when you meet what might seem contradictory in Musopole’s theological project. How can you have a theology that is centred on humanity? Is theology not supposed to be, first and foremost, about God? This is a good question, but Musopole has an answer: “Theology,” he says, “is not done for God, but for humanity…. Since theology is done for humanity’s sake, it needs to be the best and most relevant theology for human existence if humanity is to be re-humanized by it, that is, realize its original goal of participating in and reflecting the glory of God, as made in God’s image.”
There is much more to be done to complete the theological project that Augustine Musopole began. As he wrote on the last page of his book: “There is no one who is going to write a theology for us, but ourselves.” It was a joy to see many young people attending the event and buying the book – Malawi’s future theologians.