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How Tutu’s spirituality incorporated Christian mysticism with the African notion of interdependency

Tutu’s worldview of Christian mysticism counteracts the system of apartheid. His Ubuntu incorporates the African Bantu perspective of personhood with a mystical image of God’s diversity in unity.

Anglican Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu waits to receive the 2013 Templeton Prize at the Guildhall in central London on May 21, 2013.  Photo by Paul Hackett/Reuters

(RNS) — Archbishop Desmond Tutu constantly faced the binaries of the Western world such as church or state, individual or community, and denomination or church. Ubuntu became Tutu’s clarion call to move beyond such binaries for the sake of a unified South Africa.

The meaning embodied in Ubuntu is too important to African culture to define it simply as just another communitarian model. Its ultimate meaning must stress that human means must be consistent with human ends. In other words, the freedoms of individuality and community are so strong in African culture that it should be difficult to tell them apart. In short, Ubuntu means human beings need each other in order to be human. This interdependence is just as true in the divine life of God.

However, on a political level, this does not mean that one should suffer at the expense of the other. A profound lesson of South African history is that the racial means used in pursuing political ends determined the nature of community in a way that was antithetical to the ideals of African culture. Where Ubuntu merges with Christian mysticism is through the African worldview of interdependency, which illumines Desmond Tutu’s life as confessor and Christian mystic. Ubuntu provides an African worldview in which human and divine identity may find mutuality in the concept of community.

Living in community creates a worldview to seek where God is acting in the world. Moving into communal awareness cleanses self-awareness to be able to contain the awareness of the other. This is why Jesus constantly taught a golden rule: love God with all of who you are and in so doing you cannot help but love your neighbor as yourself.

For Tutu, heaven is the environment of personal vulnerability, that is, a set of relationships in which persons are able to recognize that their personhood is bound up in the other’s humanity. Tutu imagines the kind of heaven that moves beyond racial distinctions as determinative of human identity. Through Tutu’s own experiences of learning to forgive, his imagination for reconciliation increased, allowing for a heavenly imagination in which human identity is elevated as persons find communion with others and God.

Ubuntu’s definition that “person is a person through other persons” makes sense of how South Africans should then proceed to operate on the basis of more than racial identity. People need not kill each other because they are black or white but should instead rejoice in how God has created persons differently, so that new meanings and identities are always possible.

“When you look at someone with eyes of love,” Tutu believes, “you see a reality differently from that of someone who looks at the same person without love, with hatred or even just indifference.” One’s gaze of the other without love is the opposite of Ubuntu.

“Desmond Tutu: A Spiritual Biography of South Africa’s Confessor” by Michael Battle. Courtesy image

“Desmond Tutu: A Spiritual Biography of South Africa’s Confessor” by Michael Battle. Courtesy image

Such a mystical image is in the Christian understanding of how the triune God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) is the persona of love itself spilling out to love creation into being. This is Christian mysticism in that no one person can claim control of life. Any claim of singular control or power is delusory and foolish. In the Bible, Jesus knew this as he continually taught his power-grabbing disciples to relinquish power and control to God. In characteristic humor, Tutu explains this in one of his sermons: “Jesus gave a new, a very important responsibility to Peter. He said, ‘Feed my sheep.’ It’s almost like asking a thief to become your treasurer.”

Reconciliation is a concept articulated in mystical terms. The Christian rite of reconciliation (contrition, confession, forgiveness, repentance, and reunion) mimics the threefold process of Christian mysticism (purgation, illumination, and union). How mysticism becomes relevant to our discussion here is through African concepts like Ubuntu, in which not only individuals but whole communities seek such immediacy. In short, the definition of Ubuntu is that personhood is always interdependent. A person is a person through other persons. For Christians this is congruent with how God is a Trinity of persons. Such a concept, that a community can be mystical, is strange to Western notions of self-contained spirituality.

Tutu’s African spirituality is radically different, for “religion is seen as inseparable from African culture.” Life and religious expression are one, since the invisible world of the sacred is so intimately linked with ordinary life. The universe is basically a religious universe. African spirituality is thus a daily affair, permeating every aspect of life: rising, getting water; cooking food; going to the farm, office, or school; attending a funeral or wedding; drinking beer with friends. Certain religious ritual surrounds specific life events in Western contexts, such as birth and death, but the African spiritual worldview is broader, since it encompasses all that is human and part of life. It is not enough to “do religious things” regularly, since their desire is for a spiritual worldview that will fill the world with meaning and be especially sustaining in times of fear and crisis.

African Christian spirituality offers a cosmology not just for the continent of Africa but for the whole world to participate in recovering spiritual sight for how we all relate to each other and to creation. In Tutu’s spirituality, the African person brings her or his desire that experience of God be found in every facet of life, without exception. Western spirituality, formed in the pattern of religion as one part of life, can be disconcerted by the wholistic view presented by Tutu’s spirituality, but the Western world has much to gain from Tutu’s African Christian spirituality.

(Excerpted from “Desmond Tutu: A Spiritual Biography of South Africa’s Confessor” by Michael Battle. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)