Placide Tempels

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Placide Tempels (1906–1977) was a Belgian Roman Catholic missionary who helped Europeans understand that a traditional African worldview is both systematic and philosophical. Born near Hasselt, Belgium, on Feb. 18, 1906, Frans Tempels entered the order of the Franciscan Friars Minor in Tielt in 1924, taking the name Placide. He was ordained a priest in August 1930 and in 1933 went to what was then the Belgian Congo (later, the Democratic Republic of the Congo).

For the next ten years Tempels worked with the Baluba in the Lake Mweru region, service he regarded as unfruitful. He then began to interpret elements of the official catechism in terms of indigenous Baluba beliefs and practices. This process grew into the charismatic Jamaa (“family”) movement, which stresses personal encounter between people and exuberant responses to religious rituals. The Jamaa also encouraged a member’s rejecting attitudes of personal superiority on the part of priests and converted laity. Tempels’s church superiors eventually regarded his work as undermining church authority, and, after his regular one-year leave in Belgium during 1945, they prohibited his returning to the Congo for three years.

Based on fieldwork conducted in 1966–1967, the respected cultural anthropologist Johannes Fabian reported that “almost all practicing Catholics [in Katanga and Kasai provinces during the 1950s] were either members of, or somehow in contact with, the Jamaa.” Tempels’s superiors as well as his confreres appreciated his service in inspiring authentic charity and religious deepening. Many lay Jamists, however, continued to challenge the authority of priests. In addition, some Jamist “deviants” began to hold services in private, sometimes involving sexual responses to the liturgy. Tempels was trying to distance himself from the intellectual and cultural leadership of the Jamaa and had already begun to plan his return to Europe when he learned in 1962 that he required surgery in Belgium. Following the surgery he was permanently assigned to the Hasselt monastery, the leadership of which forbade his publishing or speaking publicly about the Jamaa. In 1964 he was charged with heterodoxy and improper conduct before the Holy Office but was not condemned. He died in Hasselt on Oct. 9, 1977.

For Westerners Tempels’s primary significance results from his exposition of Bantu beliefs in La Philosophie bantoue (1945; Bantu Philosophy, 1959). Along with Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic among the Azande, by E. E. Evans-Pritchard (1937) and Dieu d’eau: Entretiens avec Ogotemmêli, by Marcel Griaule (1948; Conversation with Ogotemmêli, 1965), Tempels’s short monograph helped Europeans begin to appreciate traditional African thought. (See Evans-Pritchard, Edward Evan.) Tempels wrote, “[We] were concerned with a sample of humanity, adult, aware of its own brand of wisdom and molded by its own philosophy of life. … The disinherited stand before us as equals.”

According to Tempels, Bantu regard perceived objects and people as merely appearances of a more fundamental and independent reality which is itself unperceivable. This suggests that they hold a representative realist theory of perception, unlike that of Westerners such as John Locke, however, in that it identifies entities of the unperceivable reality in personalistic, anthropocentric terms. (See Locke, John.) They are “life forces” or “vital forces” that sometimes interact with one another in ways that cannot be physically explained, as when a poisonous snake strikes one but not the other of two villagers who simultaneously walk the same path. God, the supreme life force, made subordinate life forces in this manner as a mechanism for supporting the most worthy of living humans. Bantu conceive the two villagers as having life forces that, by virtue of their previous behavior, deserve different treatment by the snake’s life force. When a person dies, her life force endures as one of many ancestors who guard the prosperity of their families and village, ultimate values for Bantu.

Like many later Africanists, Tempels observes that this view comes naturally to people enculturated by certain songs, myths, and ceremonies taken for granted by their families and villages. Indeed, they find it confirmed when a given remedy sometimes but not always cures a disease such as malaria. Like many later Africanists, Tempels also observes that this view provides unusual authority for those people regarded as having unusually intimate communications with life forces: chiefs, diviners, and elders, especially. This view thus encourages political stability as well as critical discussion. Africanists such as Leopold Senghor argue that this view of life force helps to explain why Africans are generally more responsive to their environments than are Westerners. The awe felt by an African pondering a waterfall, for example, might well be enhanced by her believing herself to be a life force subject to nonphysical strengthening by the waterfall’s life force. This sort of belief is unavailable to Westerners viewing the world with “pitiless factual analysis.” (See Senghor, Leopold Sedar.)

Although he had publicly criticized the sort of colonialism then practiced in the Congo, Tempels presented La Philosophie bantoue as a tool with which “colonials of goodwill” could advance their “civilizing mission.” Following many years of praise, then, the work received widespread criticism. Two points deserve mention in its defense. First, although La Philosophie bantoue presents European scholarship as necessary for explaining the Bantu’s “inmost concept of being” to the Bantu, Tempels maintains, three years later, in Catéchèse bantoue (“Bantu Catechism”), “They themselves must make the discovery.” Therefore contemporary observers often judge that many of Tempels’s critics exaggerate his praise of European influences in Africa. Second, Tempels emphasized the “compact logic of their system,” saying, “It is unsound to divide primitive man into two” and “to dub him inscrutable, illogical, or mysterious.”

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