Sunday, 21 October 2012

Journal of Theology for Southern Africa 40 years

Last week I was in South Africa and coincidentally I happened to be in Pietermaritzburg at the 40th Anniversary of the Journal of Theology for Southern Africa (JTSA). One of its former editors, James (Jim) Cochrane, gave a lecture as a tribute to the journal: Spiritual capacity, Spirituality and the Challenge of Freedom.

Before he started, the occasion was opened by Janet Trisk, current editor together with the general editor Gerald West. After a few words she gave over to the founder, John de Gruchy. He gave us a few glimpses from the early years of the publication and I was happy to hear that amongst names like Desmond Tutu and David Bosch he directly mentioned Axel-Ivar Berglund. Axel-Ivar was born by Swedish parents in South Africa not far from Pietermaritzburg. He studied theology in Sweden but returned to South Africa as a missionary. He worked with theological education in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Southern Africa at Umpumulo, where pastors were trained before the education moved to LTI in Pietermaritzburg. Axel-Ivar also worked at the SACC and he holds a PhD at the University of Cape Town (UCT). Axel-Ivar has been and is still a great inspiration to me.

Back to the lecture. John de Gruchy was the first editor, Jim Cochrane the second. The third editor was Steve de Gruchy, late son of John and Isobel de Gruchy. Isobel, who is a poet and painter, was also present at the lecture. Steve was Dean at the School of Religion and Theology at UKZN and died in his fifties. I never had the opportunity to meet him but have understood that he was an exceptional theologian.

John spoke about the time when the journal was launched as “one of the darkest periods in the history of South Africa”. In 1972 the Prime Minister was B J Vorster and his brother, J D Vorster was an influential Dutch Reformed Church clergyman. As far as apartheid was concerned church and state went hand in hand.

Echoes of our time

Much has happened since then but Jim Cochrane started his lecture by talking about the Marikana shootings, saying that many draw parallels to Sharpeville and he concluded:
We are not the society we promised to become …
He gave a number of examples like HIV and AIDS, the refusal by some privileged whites to reconcile, corruption, syndicates having come to SA, violence against women and children but also against men, crime, and most of all the growth of the gap between rich and poor.

But then he told the story about Dr C V Pillay trying to fight corruption at Madwaleni rural hospital in Eastern Cape. Prof Cochrane spoke about the need for another kind of spirituality and he asked if and how theology in South Africa today has taken up this responsibility.

The lecture was divided into three parts. “Echoes of our time” was the first. The next was:


He spoke about a capacity that human beings have: the capacity to imagine new possibilities and bring them into being. We are created in the image of God. In latin: Imago dei. The key insight being that this also is a spiritual capacity. We can imagine a just society and bring into being.

So he turned to the third part:

Freedom and responsibility

The task of theology today is to address the new possibilities. The society is in dire need of courage, passion, rigour, seriousness and hope. This could be a contribution by theology.

After the lecture we had the opportunity to ask questions. Two interesting comments came from Sue Rakoczy (at St Joseph’s Theological Institute in Pietermaritzburg) and Clint Le Bruin (at School of Religion, Philosophy and Classics at UKZN). Sue asked when the first woman had an article published in the JTSA. According to Cochrane probably in the beginning of the 1980s. Clint introduced himself as a rather young theologian and asked for forgiveness being rude, when he asked whether Cochrane wasn’t just an old professor saying that things were better before. Clint himself experiences that the theology of today is vibrant. So these two persons gave voice to two groups (women and youth) who haven’t always been taken serious in South Africa.

The answer from Cochrane was that things are worse now. And it is not only a South African phenomenon. All over the globe the credo of our time is: Me, me and mine, mine. But there is hope. There are possibilities. Cochrane saw as one possibility the shift of theological language and he actually gave an example from a charismatic church. (Although he is not a charismatic Christian in that sense of the word).

It is a great privilege to be able to join this context of responsible theologians early next year. Hopefully I can also make a contribution.

Janet Trisk

Isobel and John de Gruchy and to the right Gerald West

Jim Cochrane

No comments: