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Friday, February 18, 2011

Why Study African Traditional Religions (ATR)?

Why should missionaries whose aim is to bring the Good News be concerned with ATR?
Is it not there duty to convince the people to give up religious practices which are full of superstition, fear and witchcraft?
Indeed, in the beginning of missionary activity, due to many misconceptions and ignorance, ATR was considered as the direct opposite of Christianity, which needed to be eradicated. This was at a time when human societies from a Western perspective - which was the yardstick of normality - were divided in two types:
Western - Non-Western
Civilized - Primitive
Logical - Prelogical
Healthy - Sick, Evil, Savage.

Africans, therefore, were widely considered as people with inferior forms of religion and logic. The alleged cultural superiority of Europe led many missionaries not only to bring the Christian faith, but also Western culture, at the expense of local cultures and religious traditions.
ATR, on the other hand, is inseparably linked to African cultures and worldviews. That is why, due to the emphasis on inculturation of the Christian faith, the importance of ATR has been rediscovered. Even if, especially in East Africa, ATR practices are not very visible, it remains a fact, that the thinking of the people, especially in times of crises, especially death, is very much linked to ethnic culture and religious traditions. Without their knowledge a missionary is unable to understand their thinking.
ATR should not only be seen as "stepping stones" to Christianity, but should be appreciated as genuine experiences of the Divine. Only then should they be evaluated in the light of the Gospel.
It is my experience of the last five years that for many students of ATR a critical but positive approach to ATR is a liberating experience that serves as an indispensable tool for inculturation that strengthens African identity. The students also understand such an approach as recognition of their past history.
The traditional religions of Africa are human in the deepest sense, because they focus on people and their everyday problems. Earlier researchers and missionaries portrayed them often as primitive and barbaric and ridiculed them [I give many examples in my book: White Fathers in Colonial Central Africa - a Critical Examination of V.Y. Mudimbe's Theories on Missionary Discourse in Africa].
I, therefore, consider a positive approach to ATR also as an expression to say sorry for former insensitivities and to acknowledge earlier mistakes and misconceptions.
By Fritz Stenger, M.Afr.

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