The conversation with Anthony Atansi (hereafter AA), a Nigerian student in the Honors’ Program, was deemed the best way to capture the complexity of his background and the embodiment of his knowledge, especially when I became aware of his background as a chaplain in a federal prison in Nigeria. I was honored that he decided to share with me (and with all of us), his own search for meaning and knowledge. Brunilda Pali (hereafter BP)
BP- Anthony, can you tell me something about yourself and your background?
AA- I was born and raised in Nigeria, a country in West Africa, which has about 182 million inhabitants, more specifically in its South-Eastern part. I belong to the Ibo tribe, one of the three major ethnic tribes in Nigeria. I was raised up in a very Catholic Christian family and setting. It was also an environment that demanded and challenged one to the pursuit of excellence in life, becoming the best of what one can be. While my brothers and sisters have all studied in university and became respected professionals in different fields, I aspired and decided after high school to become a Roman Catholic priest. That aspiration and decision led me in 2002 after my high school education to enroll in the Seminary, where I studied for 10 years in a conjoint programme of philosophy and theology, meant to train one in and bring together rationality and faith. In 2012, I was ordained a priest, whose vocation in the service of the Church and humanity relies on four main pillars: human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral formation. After my ordination, I was assigned to a local parish to get a first-hand experience in living out these long years of my formation. The local parish happened to be in the same area where one of the Nigerian Prison Services, the Amawbia-Awka prison is situated, and where I had worked for about 2 years as a chaplain.
BP- And I am very interested in your experience as a prison chaplain as you know, but can you first tell me what brought you to Leuven?
AA: During the time I worked as a chaplain I was assigned to be the assistant secretary to the diocesan bishop. He was impressed with my work and decided that I should go to further my studies. Meanwhile his former secretary, Rev. Dr. Lawrence Nwankwo, who is an alumnus of KU Leuven, suggested that I should be sent to KU Leuven. Also the priest who was to replace him, Rev. Dr. Michael Muonwe had just returned from his studies in KU Leuven, so we have a long tradition of educational exchange with KU Leuven. We have always known of the great tradition of critical thinking in this University, critical in the sense of honest rational inquiry, not cynicism or the kind that is undermining or demeaning to truth and faith. One could see this properly translated in the efficient and profound style and perceptiveness of the ministry and services of her alumni wherever they are working, whether in the institutions of learning or administration. Following then the approval of my bishop, I applied to the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies for admission; and by the grace of God and thanks to the great generosity of the Faculty, I was accepted to do my post-graduate studies in theology and religious studies. It gave me a sense of honor and fulfillment that I was going to be part of and benefit from the long standing and excellent intellectual tradition of KU Leuven.
BP- How does it feel to be here now?
AA- It has been very rewarding though challenging, but with hard work and determination, which the University encourages and inspires in us, I have been able to keep pushing on. The atmosphere particularly at the faculty is simply wonderful, amazing and quite interesting. It is first marked by a feeling of serious mindedness. You immediately sense this in its gigantic and well maintained structures and facilities. For instance entering into our faculty library, one cannot but have a sense of having come for a serious business. The various activities and study programmes which are excellently packaged and organised gives one the same sense. Interestingly too, the atmosphere in spite of this seriousness, is very friendly and cordial with the many persons one has to stay, live and work with – the brilliant and very inspiring professors, dedicated and highly courteous staff and very lovely and socio-culturally diverse students. With the students also you feel you are in touch with the whole world at our faculty; for we are quite many and diverse but we all get along well in our common search for meaning and purpose.
However, the most challenging part for me was first of all to make sense of the Western tradition, categories and experiences in which the theology is taught. It really takes a lot of time and efforts to reach back to the very depth of that tradition and to understand the context that often inspires the theological conversation. The other challenging task is to discuss and think about my faith from a certain scientific and academic distance. The approach towards religion and some theological issues is sometimes metaphysical, abstract rather than embodied in a way that allows for our faith-based epistemology. You see, I have always experienced and lived my Catholic Christian faith as one that is reasonable and that makes sense to me. I have always held it as true and as a reality that opens the door to a correct understanding of my own life, of the world and of humanity. The vision of faith is and has remained for me, the primal and one of the true and most sublime ways of looking at and making sense of the journey of life and the so many experiences of the human person. So you could imagine that it will not be so easy for me to take such a distance from it even in my present academic endeavour. I would rather prefer that my further and ongoing search for its reasonableness and meaning be done not from a distance but with it and from within it. This also marks a difference in my path with some other students who rely mostly on books and similar academic materials to make sense of their own learning process, while I am grounded in and being inspired by my faith and experience. In anyways, the challenge has been interesting and I am gradually getting on well with it. The struggle continues!
BP- This is very interesting Anthony. Would you see the required scientific or academic distance as detrimental to your faith?
AA: No. Not at all! I don’t think so. I am approaching this more in a framework of the search for a balance. Within my faith I have to be able to make sense to everyone. I think it will help me in the long run to think of my faith in more intelligible terms, and also communicate it as such in common terms. Thus, the content of the faith does not change, just the context for the thinking, speaking and trying to understand its content is what has changed for me. Hence, I am challenged to find and maintain a balance between the identity of my faith and its relevance. I feel I am being trained ahead of the situation that we shall still face in Nigeria and Africa, if not already facing. On returning to Nigeria after my studies, I feel I will be better equipped to speak and translate more intelligibly the content of the Christian faith in terms that it will make greater sense to the people.
BP- What steered your interest in the Honors’ Program on “Evil, Retribution and Forgiveness”?
AA- Several things at once. The very framing of the program struck a chord. I have always considered these themes in deeply “religious” terms. So a formalised, systematic, and interdisciplinary inquiry beyond the religious appeared to me very appealing. God in my context is always brought in first when dealing with issues of evil, forgiveness and retribution. What do I mean by this? Often in the face of evil, which calls for a more constructive and engaging attention, or even in situations that might eventually lead to forgiveness and reconciliation, the immediate response you will find is one that is dominated by the God-factor of love and mercy. As such, people in the name of God often shrink from taking responsibility for and becoming proactive in handling issues that might be considered evil or ones that are related to retribution, forgiveness and possibly, reconciliation. This kind of response stifles the concern and demand for justice and responsibility. To give you an example, in the prison where I had worked as a chaplain, there was a case about a young man who had raped a very young girl. The discourse and framing of the aftermath was immediately one of sacramental confession, forgiveness and reconciliation between the family members, while I was convinced and thought that shouldn’t be the starting point in dealing with issues such as that. I thought the young man needs to be called to book and that the needs of the young girl and the impact this had on her life has to be taken into account first. So we must begin with something like justice and end up with mercy. Justice alone until the end can be too crushing, but also mercy alone might risk becoming cheap and abused.
Another reason for which I enrolled for the program was its interdisciplinarity. I was curious to know about the other disciplines, their contributions to the conversation. In similar vein, I wanted to really learn what a theologian can bring to issues that will involve other disciplines and how these other disciplines, in turn, would appreciate the voice of a theologian. And I must say that I am not disappointed or intimidated in the program. A theologian can still be part of a broad and interdisciplinary conversation and still make sense to others from other disciplines. This raised my confidence as a theologian and religious scientist. It is also interesting that I could listen to and understand quite clearly the insights from other sciences.
BP- Can you tell me something about your experience as a chaplain and also relate that to the interview you conducted some time ago with the Catholic chaplain in the prison of Wortel (Province of Antwerp) Marc Van Laere?
AA- The role of a chaplain in prison is extremely important, both in the Nigerian context and as I gathered from the interview with Marc, also in the Belgian context. Faith and loving presence cum encounter of course is what makes the difference for a chaplain’s vocation. The role of a chaplain extends beyond offering of sacrament; it goes right into the personal lives, issues and experiences of the prisoners. Regardless of their religious belief, the chaplain represents for most of them a father, brother and friend figure. Somebody they can always turn to, somebody that listens to them, somebody present, somebody that calls them by their names, not by numbers or deeds. It is also an important figure that inspires a hopeful sense of future in the lives of these people, that gives some sense to the existence and experience of the prison as a place of transformation and renewal. Beyond all this, often the role of the chaplain extends towards real lifeworld support, including legal, material and emotional assistance. It can even be considered a disruptive actor within the prison system precisely because it extends the borders of an ‘imagined’ sacramental provision.
BP- We attended the course together, and there were many insights gained and perspectives learned. Although it would be difficult for me personally to come up with one in particular, can you think of one thing that has really stayed with you?
AA- Oh yes, I have been particularly affected by the class on forgiveness. There two things made a strong impression on me: the first was that forgiveness, whether the need to forgive or to be forgiven, is a journey. One is gradually led to it. It is not just an automatic imposition or obligation that follows in the face of evil. Secondly, that forgiveness and reconciliation are two different things. The latter does not just follow from the former. That one forgives does not immediately demand that one should be reconciled to the other. They might sound common sense, but they are not common insights from a religious or even theologian’s perspective. Often, forgiveness and reconciliation are thought together, and especially in my local context, the image of forgiveness is a hug, which means that one cannot claim to have forgiven unless one also gets reconciled with the other. So one can imagine what a relief it is to think of them separate. And again from a faith-based perspective, forgiveness is conceived often as an obligation, as a one-time deed, so thinking it as a journey instead gives it a lifeworld meaning, it becomes a real process for real people.