Bisong@60: Religion, Critical Thinking and Nation-Building

Bisong@60: Religion, Critical Thinking and Nation-Building

Francis Damina

Rev. Fr. Prof. Kekong Bisong who clocked 60 on November 9, was my teacher back in the days at St. Joseph Major Seminary Ikot Ekpene. 

As we celebrate him, it is important, even at the risk of repeating myself, to make the point that in knowledge and in character, he is perhaps one of the finest wines that the Catholic Church has brewed. Like Bishop Kukah, “he is a man of God and of intellect. In him dwells the irreconcilable tension between detailed realism of logical reasoning and abstractions of divine beliefs” (Apologies to Damola Awoyokun). As I recently said  of him …” he is a good advertisement for the Church. He is not a scholar and a saint only, but also a controversialist.

 As a distinguished Philosophy Professor, he does not only fancy controversies; he creates them. On this, I can safely say that he is a brewery of controversies.”

Whenever he went up to the pulpit to preach, the atmosphere became mute so much so that you could hear the musings of ants. Mute because, we knew he will disagree with even what Jesus had said in the Scriptures. But only to agree later. He does not only disagree for disagreeing sake; he disagrees so he will have reasons for agreeing. It was he who taught us how not to follow the crowd, subscribe to groupthink, belief system, conventional wisdom, etcetera, until when there’s a justification or a raison d’etre.

No doubt, anytime Kekong is mentioned, you immediately know that he belongs to a generation of fine priests like George Ehusani, Matthew Kukah, Godfrey Onah, Cletus Gotan, Emmanuel Badejo, Kris Owan, Anthony Akinwale, John Uba Ofei, Peter Tanko, Joseph Mamman, John Odey, Philip Gaiya, etcetera. It is in this class of priests that we see the evidence in proving that scholarship is a property of the Catholic Church and that all others are merely involved in plagiarism. Though this may appear like an overstretched hyperbole, it is simply a case of not calling a spade by some other names.

One thing that is common among the likes of Kekong is that they are highly controversial. In other word, they subscribe so much to critical thinking  that you may think they are dissenters. Of them, master wordsmith, Dan Agbese, would say “I can think of no Public lectures or speeches delivered by them that left the accumulated dust of our placid sense of outrage undisturbed.”

At first, (in my infantile days) I thought Kekong and his likes were unnecessarily being critical and controversial until I recently met Archbishop Matthew Ndangoso of Kaduna Archdiocese who said: “Even heretics are important to the Church because they help the Her to be precise and unambiguous in exercising Her teaching authority.”

Without exaggeration, of all that we were taught back in the seminary, the one thing I mostly appreciate, which I think distinguishes us from all others as a special breed, is the ability to reason critically.  Deliberately, we disagree, disobey,  doubt, deny, and debunk ideas so that we can always get to the facts. And no doubt, Kekong Bisong was our chaplain in this apostolate of denial. And I still wonder why his name is not Thomas –  the very scientist who invented a machine called Methodic doubt or denial.

There is a litany of events that brought me face to face to him unveiling him as a critical thinker and I am tempted to mention a few. Though one had already been narrated elsewhere, I think it is harmless repeating it here for obvious reasons.

On one occasion, when he came to the class, he told us a story to validate his point on what he called ‘necessary disobedience’. He started by asking who discovered the mouth of river Niger. Of course, all of us said Mongo Park. He then went on to tell us of a boy who was preparing for a common entrance interview. Fortunately for him, his uncle is a member of the panel and had whispered to him that he will be asked ‘who discovered the mouth of river Niger.’ Of course, the conventional answer even among university Professors is that Mongo Park did.

The day came and the boy was again reminded of the name Mongo Park before he departed home to the venue. The interview had started and it was his turn to answer questions. His uncle’s eyes were all on him when a panelist asked: ‘Who discovered the mouth of river Niger?’  ‘My grandfather’, the boy answered.  The uncle was so disappointed as the boy keeps repeating ‘my grandfather.’ A member of the panel then went further to ask him why he thinks the answer is his grandfather. He replied: “My grandfather was a fisherman who lived around New Bussa long before Mongo Park arrived. He definitely knew about the mouth of the river before Park. Only that he was not literate enough to tell the story.”

All the panelists were amazed and clapped for the boy. This is what Kekong Bisong called necessary disobedience. For him, the work of the teacher is not to produce conventional ideas and then expect the students to reproduce same at examinations. It is rather to train the mind in challenging beliefs and conventions so as to ascertain what is true and real.

Second was after lunch on a Saturday in the seminary. I was strolling to the Canteen when we met. He then said: “I was told about 3 of you from Kafanchan weren’t ordained Deacons. Whatever you may have done, I saw you the other time going to confession. I am sure God Has forgiven you. Why then is the Bishop or whoever is responsible angry with you by proxy and on behalf of God?” He immediately went away.  The meeting, like a miniature scene of the annunciation, left a feeling in me as to why we should have been thought something like the theology of vocations, and the troubles of vocations akin to mostly Africa.

Night came and morning too. It was another Sunday and Kekong was to preach at Mass. In the gospel, Jesus had asked His disciples to love one another. When he mounted the pulpit, he said: “Jesus asked us to love one another as Christians. But for me, loving one another is not a virtue. It is rather an instinct because I have seen  the Monkeys in Boki loving and defending one another. If we want to be true Christians, then our love most transcend the boundaries of our communities, tribe, region, religion to even our enemies. Yes, we should show love to even our enemies by praying for them as Christ admonished us to do.”

With the death of Father Nicholas Ncha Obi of Ogoja Catholic Diocese who was billed to speak at a National Eucharistic Congress,  Fr. Kekong told us how he was asked to fill in the vacuum. Of course, it was a gathering of who is who in the Nigerian Catholic Church.

Kekong, not unaware that  the Eucharist, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us, “is the source and summit (fons et culmen) of the whole Christian life”, and that, “the other sacraments, and indeed all ecclesiastical ministries and works of the apostolate, are bound up with the Eucharist and are oriented towards it” (n. 1324), started his presentation by repeatedly saying: “Jesus didn’t say I am the bread of life. Yes He didn’t say He is the bread of life.” At this point, the late Archbishop Joseph Ukpo was jittering for the heresy his priest was about to brew. Then he continued: “What Jesus rather said is that I am the bread of life broken for you.” Immediately, the Bishop eased up like someone who had just received a pain reliever. On this, Fr. Kekong’s conviction is that, it is in the word ‘broken’ that we find the meaning of sacrifice and koinonia.

Again, contrary to our knowledge that there are  persons  Priests cannot preside over their funerals because they didn’t die in “the state of Grace”, this could mean, among other things, that they died not being baptized or having their “marriages” blessed in the Church, Kekong sent us on a thinking task by asking: “If the Priest can preside over the blessing of a cassava farm for instance, why not the funeral of a human being created in the image and likeness of God?”  He rhetorically continued: “Is the cassava farm more important than the alleged sinner?  By the way, the purple worn by the priest at funeral symbolizes penitence. Therefore, burial is a penitential rite and not a triumphant celebration of sainthood.”

The debate about the role of religion  in post- colonial Africa, particularly Nigeria, has now become more intense than ever. Scholars now appear angry and more serious in asking questions about the role of religion in Nation-building. Already, some literati like Prof. Wole Soyinka, had already concluded that religion is an enemy of nationhood.The Nobel laureate in a lecture titled “Nationspace and Nationhood” to mark the 100 birthday anniversary of the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo, argued that religion is an enemy of nationhood and for Nigeria to forge ahead, it must be able to place it on suspension.

Of course, this has been the frustration of the first generation of African writers culminating in the writing of  “The Trials of Brother Jero”  by Wole Soyinka,  “Devil on the Cross”, by Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, and “Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achebe showcasing the fears of the master story-tellers with not religion per say, but its  potentiality to erode African cherished values when interpreted or practiced erroneously.

In October 2015, the controversial Malam Nasir Ahmed El-rufai, as the country’s most syndicated columnist Malam Mohammed Haruna called him, sent a bill to the State House of Assembly seeking the amendment of a somewhat sleeping 1984 law which, under the then military governor of the State Air-Commodore Usman Mu’azu, and in view of violent religious clashes in the state, sought to regulate preaching.

The law which banned the playing of religious cassettes in public places, preaching without license, use of loudspeakers outside mosques or churches and their surrounding areas, abuses of religious books, carrying of weapons in places of worship or preaching, and use of the terms “infidel.” “non-Islamic” or “Pagans,” authorized the Jama’atu Nasril Islam (JNI) and the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) as the only bodies to approve preachers in the state.

I reason that the attempt in recent time to legislate religious practices, nay the El-rufai’s case, is only emblematic of the frustration of society over the  bastardization, monetization and magification of religion by charlatans. We must accept that there are a lot of anomalies in religious practices that are inimical to peace and development today. I am ashamed each time I tune to the television by the number of babalawos, magicians and business tycoons who carry out their magic and trade in the name of Christ and Christianity. I am sure if Christ should come back, he might deny founding the brand of Christianity we see today. And this is part of the frustrations of some academics including highly placed members of the theocratic class to whom religion is a primary constituency.

In a not-so-recent piece, the brilliant and equally controversial Bishop Matthew Kukah, the Catholic Bishop of Sokoto Diocese, said: “… in these trying times, the name of God and religion have been dragged by fly-by- night pastors who have equally spawned an industry of prayer warriors who are daily stalking the corridors of power. Men with equally suspicious intentions, with stolen mandates of legitimacy, seeking escape from justice daily employ these charlatans.” Hence, the need “to liberate theology rather than talk about liberation theology from these venal men who practice criminality masquerading as religion”.

Damola Awoyokun, a former managing editor of Farafina Online could not hide his frustration on the role of religion in contemporary time. For him. “There is no instrument more cogent, more effective in enslaving Nigerians than religion and God-talk”. While arguing that it is the arena of victims, he concluded that “the more we are entangled in God-talk, the more we proscribe real thought and intelligent action; the more we strengthen the religious industry and their naira-based theology.”

Apart from the many killings in the name of God or religion, Deborah’s case in Sokoto not excepted, it is my opinion that members of the theocratic class need to critically look into the idea about one man; one wife, in the face of the challenges of a political system that places premium on numbers.  What is clear is that the 2023 presidential election was seen my most people as a religious referendum or what Bishop Kukah called “the tyranny of numbers.”

Again, aside the unfortunate emphasis on money during liturgical celebrations, I have seen so many young widows in my village who cannot endure. And unless we will want to exercise what Sam Omatseye calls “civilized pretence,” (methinks is academic pretence) we all know that we need to think of a more  comprehensive and robust pastoral prescription that will attend to their predicament. We can no longer pretend on this matter. Yet, all these can be achieved when we allow and imbibe Kekong’s critical method in our study and practice of religion. Hence, I suggest that this method be introduced in our Secondary and tertiary schools to enable Nigerians, using their common senses, distinguish between evil and good, thereby eliminating the harmful beliefs and practices that have over the years affected our coexistence, otherwise the peace and progress of our Nation. But this can only be achieved through the formation of a Theological Union constituting both Christian and Muslim theologians as an arm of the Nigerian Interreligious Council (NIREC) whose sole responsibility, apart from debating on theological matters, shall also be to create  an acceptable moral catechism for our co-existence.

Finally, amidst the challenges and doubts of the possibility of creating a society that is equitable, just and fair to all citizens and believers, Kekong’s method of critical thinking remains the way out. Here’s wishing him many more years in good health. God bless Nigeria.

Damina, a student of religion and society, wrote from Kaduna and can be reached via

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