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Tillich and Popular Culture

Stanger Bedfellows: Tillich and African Communitarianism

In order to discuss African communitarianism as a sense of the world for African peoples, one must begin with the make-up of interactions between individuals and the communities they inhabit. This is because African social groups are, arguably, oriented towards communalism. The individual-community paradox is a fecund site for both debate and polemic between Western and African sociologists and philosophers, the result of which is highly apologist discourse from the African side and highly speculative but often skeptical rebuttals from their Western counterparts. However, I would argue that majority of the norms associated with the Afro-communitarian worldview might contain their own agents of socialization, but when well defined, are able to prove their own complexity and adequately connect themselves to foreign social formations.

Tillich's systematic theology [hereafter ST] on the other hand, maintains a robust view of communal interaction and the affiliation between individuals and the world. Tillichian theology therefore, complements the Afro-communitarian framework and provides a different lens through which the structure of communities (in general) and their internal and external interactions (in particular) can be considered. Tillich's commitment to community as the realization of New Being, underscores his perception of estrangement, implies interactions between self and world and adheres to the essence of communion as a form of new being under the conditions of existence. His discussion on potentialities also provides useful language to articulate the constant ebb and flow in communal relations within the Afro-communitarian framework and for my own work, offers flexibility in defining the moral imaginary. This essay explores a few ideas in Tillich's theology that can be used to augment Afro-communitarian discourse namely: 1) The shaping-grasping aspect of the self-world correlation 2) The function and role of myth 3) The idea of estrangement.

Afro-communitarianism, as discussed by principal scholars such as Achille Mbembe and Ali Mazrui, is the basis for many an African/a philosophy. Scholars like Frantz Fanon, John Mbiti, and Kwame Appiah, among others have used the communitarian logic as a premise for the constructions of African philosophical thought. These communitarianist foundations I speak of are dependent on three liable pillars namely: personhood, communal cohesion or optimal vital force and the person-community dialectic. [1] These three aspects as formulated in African philosophical thought are always and often in constant conversation and in flux. They work simultaneously to facilitate new formations within the person-community dynamic and facilitate social change overall.

First, it is important to note that Tillich's ST distinctly approaches the idea of community as being-in-relationship. All communal relations have their own rational structures, which shape the community towards organic interdependence. [2] Organic interdependence is not conflict-free however, but is suspended in dialectic tension one to another, where the individual is shaped by the community, while simultaneously shaping the community through participation. It is clear in Tillich's ST that every being participates in the overall structure of being, but only human beings are immediately aware of this structure. Ontologically, humanity is aware of the structure of being via living in the structures which make such cognition possible. Because the human individual lives in these structures and acts through them, they are immediately available and present to her and vice versa. [3] Kwame Gyekye speaks about self-awareness and community-awareness in a similar dialectic fashion, noting that “a person is born into a community and is immediately aware of being a part of something greater than herself.”[4] This meta-cognitive awareness of a web of interrelatedness in Afro-communitarianism is drawn from the Senghorian ideal that supposes that “negro-African society is collectivist or, more exactly communal, because it is rather a communion of souls than an aggregate of individuals.”[5]

Second, Tillich's ST speaks about cult, myth and imagination as crucial ingredients to constructing the reality suggested in the self-world dynamic. Tillich posits that “neither humankind as an organism nor a common cult as the function of a religious world community, can unite in itself law and communion.”[6] This means that the marriage between law and communion cannot be formalized without some kind of revelation. Hence, “cult includes myths on the basis of which it acts out the divine-human drama, and myth includes the cult of which it is the imaginary expression.” [7] In this way, revelation, acts as a mediator between law and communion and imagination sustains the dialectic. In the Afro-communitarian dynamic, cosmogonic myths may initiate conceptions of ontological origins that are then transmitted through the preservation of traditions from one generation to another in the form of a moral value system. Thus the relationship between person and community is primarily arbitrated by the role revelation plays in creating new myths and preserving the cult value system. Although they seem diametrically opposed, both work together and are in harmony with one another. Consequently, a person's idea of community and how to relate with other persons may be passed on to them at birth and sustained by their upbringing, but one's own position to the cosmos and within the greater moral schema is crucial to their self-location as a human being in the world bearing responsibility to share the traditions received. Tillich's notion of ‘shaping and grasping’ as the ontological structure of knowledge, here mirrors the interaction between these two elements and is useful in aiding its clarity. As “the subject grasps the object, [and] adapts it to itself, [it] simultaneously adapts itself to the object,” [8] in turn shaping the object. Where conflicts appear, new revelation must occur to ensure a continuity of the value system. Thus the two are held in tension but coexist compulsorily without destroying one another. Third is the idea of estrangement and how it plays a part in the system of being in Tillichian theology in relation to the individual person versus the community. An Akan proverb states: One person's path will intersect with another's before too long. [9] As discussed above, African Religious thought systems assume that a person once born into a community, is socialized into the communitarian way of being, coaching her to not only act in a communitarian way in the present, but also to participate in contributing to the community's wellbeing and the overall vital force once she is an adult. Her role as member of the community warrants that in being a whole person she can contribute to the wholeness of the community. Thus, “it sees the community not as a mere association of individuals, whose interests and ends are contingently congruent, but as a group of persons linked by interpersonal bonds, biological or non-biological, who consider themselves primarily as members of the group and who have common interests, goals and values.” [10] Similarly, Tillich proposes a similar configuration where “in contrast to the centered individual whom we call a “person,” the social group has no natural, deciding center.” This means that conflict is therefore, always potential or real, even if the outcome is the united action of the group as a whole. [11] While this complexity may not be feasible in Western conceptions outside of the unavoidable brouhaha of power dynamics, it suits the Afro-communitarian dynamic quite well. The collective act of moral decision-making, while complicated, precludes any individual exercising her own ends without the knowledge of the rest of the community. This does not mean that individually one could not make a poor moral choice, but holds an airtight accountability structure as a failsafe for reckless decisions, whether by those in power or those who are subordinate to community power structures. Instead of blame, there is a vigorous sense of communal responsibility that should overshadow the desire to selfishly pursue one's own ends. However, the problems of contemporary communitarianism are often laid at the gate of their perceived incommensurability with the ideality of ethnic pluralism. More specifically the complexity of any peaceful coexistence of multiple communities [organic or created] in cosmopolitan contexts that are constantly changing, continues to be a perplexing social feature. The main reason for this is that any peaceful coexistence between categories of difference and sameness inevitably produces more questions than answers. Within this greater epistemological configuration, African communitarianism and the Ubuntu philosophy continue to assist non-African scholars reconstruct previously undiscussed moral traditions and value systems. In African ethics, critical engagement with scholarship committed to traditional forms of communitarianism has often met with great opposition, disregarding Afro-communitarianism as an “ideal-type” and thus dismissing possibilities for harmonious living rooted within it.



[1] The terms used in this regard are borrowed or restructured in some way to mirror the major tenets of Afro-communitarianism and therefore might require more nuance as follows:

Personhood is used in contrast to the Western idea of the self and is used by scholars like Kwame Gyekye, Ifeanyi Menkiti and Kwesi Wiredu, who use the idea of person interchangeably with “communal individual” to mean the individual person, who is inherently homo communitatis in Adlerian terms.

Communal cohesion aka optimal vital force is borrowed from Laurenti Magesa's recrafting of the Tempels-ian idea of vital force, which holds that when the person and community are at par or in perfect harmony with all other cosmic forces in the world [namely: God, the ancestors and nature] the community is at its strongest.

The person-community dialectic speaks of the tensive relationship between the person and self, and the person and community. At its peak, the ability of the person to exercise free will leads to acceptance of moral responsibility to care for the community without coercion.

[2] Tillich, P. Systematic Theology. University of Chicago Press, 1973. pp. 77-8

[3] Ibid. p. 168-9

[4] Wiredu, K., and K. Gyekye. Person and Community: Ghanaian Philosophical Studies I. Council for Research in Values and Philosophy, 1992. p. 105

[5] Senghor, Léopold Sédar. On African Socialism [in English]. New York: Praeger, 1964. p.49

[6] Tillich, P. Systematic Theology. University of Chicago Press, 1973 p. 92

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid. p. 94

[9] (Obi Kwan nkye na asi obi de mu.) Akan proverb featured in Gyekye, Kwame. 1997. Tradition and modernity: philosophical reflections on the African experience. New York: Oxford University Press.

[10] Wiredu, K., and K. Gyekye. Person and Community: Ghanaian Philosophical Studies I. Council for Research in Values and Philosophy, 1992.: 104

[11] Tillich, P. Systematic Theology. University of Chicago Press, 1975 p. 59


Gyekye, Kwame. 1997. Tradition and modernity: philosophical reflections on the African experience. New York: Oxford University Press.

Senghor, Léopold Sédar. On African Socialism [in English]. New York: Praeger, 1964.

Tillich, P. Systematic Theology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973.

Tillich, P. Systematic Theology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975

Wiredu, K., and K. Gyekye. Person and Community: Ghanaian Philosophical Studies I. Council for Research in Values and Philosophy, UNESCO, Accra: 1992.

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