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JST Commencement Address
Agbonkhianmeghe Emmanuel Orobator, S.J.
Introduction of Agbonkhianmeghe Emmanuel Orobator, S.J.
"Agbonkhianmeghe Emmanuel Orobator, S.J. we honor you today for your outstanding service to the Church and the Society of Jesus. As a preeminent scholar of African theology, dedicated teacher, and pastoral leader, you have taught us to be "a Church with large ears," a listening Church nourished by African wisdom. We are honored, too, to count you among our most distinguished alumni, for upon completing your Bachelor's Degrees in Philosophy at the Institut Saint Pierre Canisius, in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, and in Theology at Hekima College in Nairobi, Kenya, both receiving highest honors, you received a summa cum laude for your Licentiate (S.T.L.) at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley in 1998. Your thesis would later be published as an acclaimed book, The Church as Family: African Ecclesiology in Its Social Context.
You received your Ph.D. in Theology and Religious Studies from the University of Leeds in 2004. Your doctoral dissertation formed the basis of another book, From Crisis to Kairos: A Critical Theology of the Mission of the Church in the Time of HIV/AIDS, Refugees and Poverty, a compelling contextual study of faith doing justice in Africa today. Other books, an edited volume on the Second African Synod, and many articles would follow, all recognized for their engaged scholarship and depth of insight. Like the psalmist, your recent book, Theology Brewed in an African Pot, invites us to "taste and see" the rich wisdom of African theology. Others have analyzed the ingredients of an inculturated African theology; but you have truly offered us not a recipe but a feast.
Your exceptional gifts of leadership marked your tenure as Rector at Hekima College, your work in coordinating the Catholic Theological Ethics in the World Church Conference in Trent, 2010 and your present service as Provincial of the Eastern African Province of the Society of Jesus. So too, your scholarship has been recognized with important honors, including the Edward Boyle Scholarship awarded by the University of Leeds, the Overseas Research Scholarship, awarded by the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals of the United Kingdom, and the Adrian Hastings Africa Scholarship, awarded by The Adrian Hastings Memorial Fund and Lecture.
In grateful recognition for brewing theology in an African pot — and for inviting us to the feast - the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University is thus proud to honor you with the degree of Doctor of Divinity, honoris causa, with all the rights and privileges thereunto appertaining on this day, the 19th of May, in the year of our Lord, 2012."
2012 Commencement Address
Saturday, May 19, 2012
"President Michael Engh, Dean Kevin Burke, faculty members, fellow honoree, Reverend Francis Sullivan; graduates and guests: I come from a continent where, in the words of the 19th century colonial historian, William Whitaker Shreeve, "Christianity has not penetrated, or where it progresses but slowly"; Africa, he lamented, "is doomed to the darkness of pagan superstition, or of idolatrous rites... polygamy, lust, licentiousness, and all the vices..." Only four decades ago, this Acting First Writer to Her Majesty's Britannic Commissioners – as Shreeve describes himself in his book, Sierra Leone: The Principal British Colony on the Western Coast of Africa – [Shreeve] would have found me, my two mothers, and my cousin and dear friend here present, the quintessential specimen of his caricature of Africa's religious traditions.
I am a convert to Catholic Christianity. The God whom I first knew as creator was not the God of Jesus Christ. From childhood, I invoked Sango, the awe-inspiring god of justice and power; I offered sacrifice at the shrine of Ogun, the terrifying god of iron and industry; I reveled in ritual celebrations at the sacred grove of Olokun, the graceful goddess of fertility and prosperity; I paid homage at the altar of Orunmila, the artful god of divination … and many more – numerous deities, spirit beings, and ancestors that inhabited my African universe. Above them all reigned Osanobua, Olodumare, or Chukwu, the sole creator of the earth and the universe. The Second Vatican Council described people like me as "those who in shadows and images seek the unknown God" (Lumen Gentium, no. 16). The African pantheon of gods and goddesses, or "shadows and images", was not unknown to me. These deities foregrounded my earliest experience of transcendence and sacramentality, in turn coalescing into beliefs and practices that, later, others would label as "traditional African religions". Like millions of African converts, these religions remain "the cultural and spiritual soil" from which I encountered the God of Jesus Christ and with which I "continue to have daily contact."
One hundred and sixty-five years after William Whitaker Shreeve, Pope Benedict XVI, has described Africa as "an immense spiritual lung for a humanity that appears to be in a crisis of faith and hope." Lest we dismiss the pope's epithet as religious flattery, scientific surveys indicate that Africa is now "clearly among the most religious places in the world." One-in-five of all the Christians in the world (21%) now lives in sub-Saharan Africa. Over a period of one hundred years, in sub-Saharan Africa, Christianity has recorded an astronomical seventy-fold increase in membership, from 7 million to 470 million.
Together with its Asian and Latin American continental counterparts, Africa occupies a strategic position on the axis of growth that not only defines "the next Christendom," but, more significantly, exemplifies Phillip Jenkins' idea of "global Christianity" and fulfills Karl Rahner's vision of a "world-Church" that welcomes "others" who come bearing gifts from the global South for the regeneration of the Body of Christ.
This global, southern expansion of Christianity has fundamentally and irreversibly transformed the face of theology. In ways that could only be described as divine providence, Christianity has taken roots in cultures and contexts previously unknown and unthinkable, by those who could hardly imagine a valid theology emerging anywhere else outside of Europe. Today, we readily concede the importance of paying attention to the context where we do theology. As so eloquently articulated by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, contextualization engenders "a plurality of theologies, because we do not all apprehend or respond to the transcendent in exactly the same way, nor can we be expected to express our experience in the same way. And this is ... a reason for rejoicing because it makes mandatory our need for one another because our partial theologies will of necessity require to be corrected by other more or less partial theologies."
The pertinence of a contextualized theology only became apparent to me in the lecture halls of the Jesuit School of Theology, then in Berkeley, now of Santa Clara University. In this place, I learnt from my professor of ecclesiology, Hal Sanks, that "theology is always related to the context in which it is done." And so, here, I could explore the tenets of my Christian faith and embrace the promise of the community called church without dishonoring my African religious heritage. Like the Matthean scribe, doing theology at JST granted me warrant to bring out treasures old and new of my religious traditions in light of my newfound faith in the God of Jesus Christ (see Matthew 13:52) – treasures such as the sense of community that transcends exclusion, appreciation for ecclesial leadership that prizes dialogue, inclusivity, and consensus; joy in worship, reverence for creation, and a sacred responsibility of care for the earth. The variety of my fellow students, who hailed from the four winds of the earth, confirmed the insight that celebration of diversity and respect for plurality are constitutive of an authentic theological enterprise, one that is capable of generating a richly textured patchwork of different genders, races, generations, orientations, ministries, and faith traditions, that answer to the name "catholic".
In the midst of a rampant globalization, I remain convinced that "theology does not float above culture and context. Doing theology is not an exercise in conceptual weightlessness. [Theology] develops within the particular culture and context of the [ecclesial] community that attempts to utter a word or two on the reality of God and the demands of faith for daily living." As Liberation Theology has demonstrated beyond doubt, for this enterprise to be credible, theology must honor its commitment and do justice to the "the joys and the hopes, the grief and anguish of the women and men of our time, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted," of which there are plentiful in churches and societies of the global South (Gaudium et spes, no. 1).
My friends, graduates: when I survey the current theological landscape, I believe that the Chinese curse, "may you live in interesting times," is being fulfilled in our age. I can hardly imagine a more interesting and perilous time in history to be engaged in the exhilarating venture of "reverent and critical service of the faith that does justice" (from 'Mission & Vision' of JST-SCU). I say exhilarating because our turbo-charged world of information communication technology stirs up endless questions of theological import in fields and disciplines as far flung as business ethics, medical and bio-ethics, developmental economics, war, migration, technology, terrorism, ecology, family, sexuality, cosmology…. Myriad contentious questions, claims and counterclaims, stretch the boundaries and test the relevance of traditional theological dogmas and assertions. I say perilous because for those of you who will seek the path of ministry within communities subject to magisterial and hierarchical oversight, this path will expand or contract depending on where you stand on a number of neuralgic issues. Perilous, too, because increasingly religion has taken a turn for the worse, becoming, in many instances, a lethal weapon of mass destruction. You step out of the doors of this splendid academy into a vortex of theological questions and ethical complexities. Dear friends: graduates, I wish you the compassion of the risen Christ, the integrity of God our creator, and the audacity of their Spirit for the journey that lies ahead of you.
President Engh, Dean Burke, faculty members: I thank you for the honor conferred on me and my distinguished elder brother in the trade, Father Sullivan. You confirm what has become glaring to me: that "I am a bearer of a double religious heritage – African and Christian." A tension exists between them, as it should; happily, my studies at JST have equipped me to live that tension in a creative manner. Today, I am at home as an African Christian. And I am a proud vintage of JST's scholarly theological enterprise that applies a 21st century approach to a 2000-year-old faith! I humbly accept this award in the name of my fellow converts – seekers of the face of the living God "in shadows and images."
Thank you and God bless you all!"
Agbonkhianmeghe E. Orobator, SJ
 William Whitaker Shreeve, Sierra Leone: the principal British Colony on the Western Coast of Africa, 1847, pp. 2-3).
 Benedict XVI, Africae Munus (Post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation), 19 November 2011, no. 92.
 Pew Forum, "Tolerance and Tension."
 Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (Oxford University Press, 2002).
 Karl Rahner, Concern for the Church: Theological Investigations XX, trans. Edward Quinn (NY: Crossroad, 1981), 'Basic Theological Interpretation of the Second Vatican Council', p. 80.
Tutu, "Whither African Theology?", 367-368.
 T. Howland Sanks, "The Changing Face of Theology" America (Oct. 24, 2011), 14.
 Agbonkhianmeghe E. Orobator, Theology Brewed in an African Pot (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis, 2008), 153.
 Orobator, Theology Brewed in an African Pot, 140.