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Monday, April 18, 2011

2. The Essential Features of African Traditional Religion

 I would like to group the essential features of ATR under three headings, which may be regarded as the three principal dimensions of religion: belief, worship and morality.[2]

a) Belief
Considering Africa as a whole, the main objects of traditional religious belief are: God, the divinities, spirits and the ancestors. Belief in God, conceived as one Supreme Personal Being seems to be shared by the
majority of African cultures. Nevertheless, there are a few cultures where the situation is not very clear. Whereas in monarchical cultures, like among the Yoruba of Nigeria, the Zulu of South Africa and the Ashanti of Ghana, Deity is clearly conceived as one and supreme, in some republican cultures, like among the Igbo of Nigeria and the San of Botswana, language and practice have left some scholars in doubt about whether the people traditionally believe in one Supreme Being, or whether there are several Supreme Beings one of which emerges as the primus inter pares. I hasten to add, however, that in the case of the Igbo, only a handful of scholars doubt the belief in God as one Supreme Being in the traditional religion. The Supreme Being in ATR is personal, not an impersonal absolute principle. God has a will, emotions and, of course intelligence. Among the major divine attributes in ATR are omnipotence, omniscience, goodness and justice, although these attributes are not expressed in mere abstract concepts. Sometimes he is thought of in masculine terms and even as a Father, at other times she is conceived in feminine terms and as a Mother. But in most cases African languages do not specify and gender categories are totally absent. Each local community has its name for God, but the people believe that it is the one and same God who is given different names and who is the ultimate source of all the other spiritual beings, the universe and all that it contains. One can say that in ATR God is the creator and sustainer of all that is, provided one allows that creation can have other meanings in religion than the one that Scholastic theology has given to it. God is manifested in some way in everything that exists and in every event in life.  There is, however, no risk of pantheism since the Supreme Being is thought of and approached as a Person. Most traditional Africans are so overwhelmed by the uniqueness, majesty and supremacy of God that they lack images for the Source-Being. Daily prayers are addressed to God in most parts of Africa and some peoples (like the Wachaga, the Lugbara, the Gogo, the Dinka) have direct cult of the Supreme Being. In ATR God is at the same time transcendent and immanent, but definitely neither absent nor even too distant.

            Next to God are what one may call divinities, for lack of a better expression. These are spiritual beings who owe their origin to and are dependent on God. Some of them are personified attributes of the Supreme Being, like the thunder divinity, which usually represents God’s wrath. Others are God’s manifestation in some natural phenomena like the sun (regarded in many African cultures as the God’s son), and the earth (which also represents the maternal aspects of Deity), mountains, seas, and so on. Among the divinities one also sometimes finds a few heroes and outstanding ancestors. It would be improper to call the divinities “gods,” thus giving the false impression of polytheism. The divinities are messengers or ministers of God and some of them may be very prominent in some localities but totally unknown in others. While God, as we have already mentioned, is believed to be known by all, albeit by different local names. The divinities, although usually dreaded for their uncompromising stance in some moral issues, are, nevertheless, in themselves good and just. As God’s messengers and intermediaries between God and humans, they are the targets of numerous cults and prayers.

            There is yet another class of spiritual beings who are not always good. Some of them are good, some are, to say the least, mischievous, while others are outright evil. And they are innumerable! Some of these are human, like the wandering spirits of some dead persons who due to some lack did not make it to the home of the ancestors and also the spirits of witches and wizards who, though still alive, are believed to be able to leave their bodies and inhabit lower animals in order to harm other persons.

            Perhaps the most dearly loved spiritual beings in ATR are the ancestors, those “living-dead” (to borrow the expression of John Mbiti), who are effectively members of the family and clan, now living in a state that permits them to enjoy some special relationship with God, the divinities and the good spirits. They are also believed to have some power over the evil spirits and are therefore able to protect the living members of their respective families from harm. To qualify to be an ancestor, it is not enough just to be dead. An ancestor is one who died after having lived a life judged to be fully realized and morally upright, an integral life. The ancestors are so dear to the heart of Africans and so central in their traditional religious practices that some outsiders have mistakenly described ATR simply as “ancestor-worship.”

b) Worship
            Religion for the Africans embraces life as a whole and worship touches every aspect of their lives. Strictly speaking, only God and the divinities are worshipped and this is done through sacrifices, offerings, prayers, invocation, praises, music and dance. In many localities in Africa there is no direct cult of the Supreme Being, yet God is the ultimate object of worship whom the people approach through intermediaries: religious functionaries, the ancestors and the divinities. There is no clear separation between the spiritual and the material, the sacred and the profane. Nevertheless, there is an abundance of temples, shrines, groves and altars used for public and private worship in most parts of Africa. Some special trees, some rivers, forests, mountains, considered manifestations of the sacred, often serve as places of worship. This has led some scholars to imagine that it is these natural objects that are being worshipped – to the amusement of the traditional religionists.
            Some of the good spirits and all the ancestors are venerated and constantly implored to intervene on behalf of humans. The evil spirits are never worshipped, even though some evil persons are believed to align themselves with the evil spirits in order to tap their evil powers and use them to harm others. The veneration of the ancestors, which usually takes the form of libations, offerings and prayers, sometimes also becomes more elaborate and intense leading to the blurring of the line which usually separates worship and veneration. But this is not peculiar to ATR, as Christians who also have the cult of the saints can testify to.[3]

(The story is told of a lady who went everyday to her parish church to pray. Each time she entered the church she would go straight to where there was the statue of the Our Lady, light a candle, kneel in prayer for a very long time and at the end would leave, without even as much as a bow in the direction of the Blessed Sacrament. The sacristan, who had watched this go on for several months and felt irritated by this misplacement of emphasis, one day decided to play a trick on the lady. He hid behind the altar and just as she began her usual prayers he started saying in a voice meant to rouse awe: “I am Jesus! I am Jesus! I am Jesus!” The lady, unable to bear this any longer burst out: “Shut up! I am talking to your Mum!”)

c) Morality
            The practical aspect of belief in ATR is not only worship but also human conduct. Belief in God and in the other spiritual beings implies a certain type of conduct, conduct that respects the order established by God and watched over by the divinities and the ancestors. At the centre of traditional African morality is human life. Africans have a sacred reverence for life, for it is believed to be the greatest of God’s gifts to humans. To protect and nurture their lives, all human beings are inserted within a given community and it is within this community that one works out one’s destiny and every aspect of individual life. The promotion of life is therefore the determinant principle of African traditional morality and this promotion is guaranteed only in the community. Living harmoniously within a community is therefore a moral obligation ordained by God for the promotion of life. Religion provides the basic infra-structure on which this life-centred, community-oriented morality is based. John Mbiti’s famous phrase “I am because we are; and since we are, therefore I am,”[4] captures this ethical principle well. The implication is that one has an obligation to maintain harmonious relationships with all the members of the community and to do what is necessary to repair every breach of harmony and to strengthen the community bonds, especially through justice and sharing.[5] And this is not simply a social need but a religious obligation since God, the divinities and the ancestors, the guarantors of this order of things, are quick to punish defaulters. Any person who infringes a moral norm in traditional African societies has not only the members of the community to fear for reprisals but also God and the spiritual beings. “In order to aid man in ethical living, God has put in him the ‘oracle of the heart’… the ‘inner oracle’… This ‘oracle of the heart’ is a person’s conscience, the law of God written in him. A person is at peace when he obeys his conscience.”[6] On the contrary, when he disobeys this ‘inner oracle,’ he lives in constant fear, especially in fear of all natural manifestations of divine power. The Igbo express this in a proverb: “Ọbụ onye ñụlụ iyi asị ka egbe igwe na-atụ egwu” (It is only one who has committed perjury that is afraid of the thunder). It has been noted earlier that thunder is believed by many Africans to be a manifestation of divine power and is even sometimes regarded as a divinity. People often swear by this divinity, asking him to visit his wrath on them if what they say is not the truth.

Perhaps because of their strong attachment to the community, Africans have a very strong sense of justice. Without justice, life in the community would be impossible; there would be no harmony. A victim of injustice often makes a direct appeal to God. Africans believe that God, who is just and who sees and knows everything, hates injustice as is illustrated by the following Akan proverb: “Nyame mpe kwaseabuo nti ena wama obiara edin” (It is because God hates injustice that he has given each one a name).[7] Traditional African morality has cosmic dimensions which will emerge from our brief look at the world-view implicit in ATR.


angisok said...

Well written. I agree religion and morality go hand in hand in the African culture. However punishment seems to be emphasized within this context, but with recent culture borrowed from the western countries we can see more liberty in terms of individualism and freedom. I think creates a balance that the African culture needs to begin to evoke changes in the structural and political aspects of our nations.

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