School of Religion, Philosophy & Classics

Inaugural Lecture Looks at the Past and Projects the Future of Religion, Theology, Classics, Ethics and Philosophy Teaching at UKZN

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The inaugural lecture of UKZN’s Professor R Simangaliso Kumalo contextualised and traced the journey of the teaching of religion, theology, classics, ethics and philosophy across the ages and gave insights on the place and future of these disciplines at UKZN.

The significant occasion was made even sweeter for Kumalo by the announcement of his appointment as Dean and Head of UKZN’s School of Religion, Philosophy and Classics (SRPC). He is also Director of the Centre for Constructive Theology at UKZN, a centre dedicated to research on new religious movements in South Africa based at the School.

The presentation of an inaugural lecture is a significant milestone in an academic’s career, creating a space for their research and body of work to be showcased and shared with a broad audience.

Kumalo’s virtual presentation was titled: Instrument of Perpetual Indoctrination or Decolonisation? Discourses and Perceptions on Religion and Theology at UKZN.

He said Religion, Theology and Philosophy had once been described as the “Queen of Sciences” and heralded as the “Summit of Learning” but had been relegated to the periphery of academia in more recent times.

He reflected on the relevance and place of Theology and Religion at a secular university such as UKZN and what the study of theology in such an environment should look like?

Kumalo investigated how to decolonise the SRPC disciplines in order to free them from their colonial vestiges, highlighting the strides that had been made by the School to ensure the disciplines are relevant to their context. ‘Today, the School of Religion, Philosophy and Classics is fully engaged in real scholarship and intellectual projects at UKZN.’

His ambition is to legitimise the disciplines of the School at the University and focus on their transformative role in society by working to dispel the ivory tower status often associated with them.

He acknowledged that Theology was a product of the colonial empire and touched on its complicity within a colonial context but stated that although this may have been part of its past, it certainly did not define its future. Many pathways are being formed and created to carve out a very different experience for its current students.

 ‘In moving towards decolonisation, Religion and Theology taught at UKZN are an academic, non-sectarian discipline aimed at equipping students with knowledge and skills they can use for their own liberation and that of their society,’ said Kumalo. ‘In order to remain relevant, Theology needs to address issues in the local context. This is what the School of Religion, Philosophy and Classics has been doing extremely well. Theology engages with society, in addressing concerns. Theology at a university ensures critical thinking.’

Citing two examples of this collaboration with local communities, Kumalo identified the Ujamaa Centre for Biblical and Theological Community Development and Research, and the School’s Religion, Gender and Health Programme.

‘The Ujamaa Centre is an interface between biblical and theological scholars, intellectuals, and local working-class communities which are often marginalised. Together they use biblical and theological resources for individual and social transformation. The Centre supports capacity building, good governance on church and civil society levels through theological education to ensure rigorous participation of all citizens in social transformation,’ he said.

‘Against the background of the discrimination of the LGBTIQA+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer/questioning, asexual) community, gender-based violence and gender imbalances that still exist in the church and broader South African society, the School started the Religion, Gender and Health Programme, to equip students with the competence and literacy for gender justice and sexual diversity. Working with communities, the programme has transformed dangerous and retrogressive cultural practices and religious beliefs.’

Khumalo said the School had made deliberate efforts to source literature authored by Africans from an African point of view, and as more African theologians publish academic works, there has been an exponential growth in the text books the School uses for teaching allowing the African experience of the church and its theology to inform ministerial formation and training instead.

Kumalo concluded by saying that Theological and Religious Studies had for the moment secured their space in the secular university. However, there were challenges and opportunities for the discipline in the future.

Reflecting on his appointment as Dean of the School, Kumalo said the following:

‘I regard every position of authority granted to me as an opportunity to serve our country and its peoples. Coming from a religious background, I refuse to see these as opportunities of privilege and power for one. They are opportunities to serve and make a difference in people’s lives especially those who are on the margins of society, who cannot access Higher Education. My focus will be to consolidate the disciplines of the School into a formidable unit, engaged in excellence, research and teaching in order to transform society for the better.’

Included among the awards Kumalo has received during his illustrious academic career are Fellow of Wesley House College, University of Cambridge, 2017; UKZN Top 30 Researcher Award for 2010, the Mellon Foundation Award for Best Emerging Researcher 2009; and being listed by the Mail & Guardian in 2000 among its Top 100: People who have excelled in their fields.

His areas of research include Religion and Governance, the Social History of the Church, Christian Education, Church and the Environment and Pastoral Leadership.