Scholars’ Discourses on African Traditional Religion (1)

Scholars’ Discourses on African Traditional Religion (1):

 As an African America, I grew up in Nigeria, an African Country that celebrates the African Traditional (Indigenous) Religion (ATR). I am also a Yoruba from the Yoruba kingdom of Western Nigeria. The five fundamental beliefs of Yoruba Traditionalists are Belief in Olodumare/Olorun (God), Belief in Divinities; Belief in Spirits; Belief in Ancestors, and Belief in Mysterious Powers. Yoruba Mythology refers to Ifa/Orunmila as the Son of God. He faced death on behalf of humanity, just as Christians believe that Jesus is the only ‘Son of God that died for the sins of humanity. In Yoruba land, there is a cross-pollution of faith.

 I deem it a great intellectual discussion to review some notable scholars on African Traditional Religion. African Traditional Religion took its roots from the foundations of ethnic/racial/tribal/cultural principles. These principles form the fundamental core of African reality, manifesting in their beliefs and values in response to the physical and spiritual realms. The principles also affect how Africans understand and interpret any religion, and the laws of Spiritual mystery govern all social and religious phenomena of an African man. 

 To an African Traditionalist, the Spirit world can be divided into two broad categories; 

  1. Non-human spirits and
  2.  Human spirits (the spirits of the dead). 

 Non-human spirits are regarded in a hierarchical order by kind and importance, depending on their power and role in the ontological order in nature. First in the hierarchy is the Creator, then the deities, object-embodied spirits, ancestors’ spirits, and other miscellaneous spirits that are non-human, comprising ‘good,’ harmless and evil spirits. To an ATR, Man is between this array of spiritual hosts and nature. Africans’ belief in mystical powers and the human quest to control or influence them produced a variety of specialists such as medicine men, mediums, diviners, sorcerers, magicians, witches, superstitions, taboos, rituals, etc.

A study of the beliefs and practices of the African peoples leads to the theological observation that African traditional religion is a religion of Salvation and wholeness[1]. A careful analysis emphasizes this-worldly Salvation and wholeness as the “raison d’etre” of African traditional religion. Africans believe that life is a complex web of relationships that may either enhance and preserve life or diminish and destroy it. The goal of religion is to maintain those relationships that protect and preserve life[2]. The harmony and stability provided by these relationships, both spiritual and material, create the conditions for well-being and wholeness for an ATR adherent. The threat to life, both physical and spiritual, is the premise of the quest for Salvation. The threat is so near and actual because, for the Africans, life is constantly threatened by evil forces. 

 African religion is related to the geopolitical and cultural view of Africa in the 19th-century classification based on the so-called evolutionary theory of Culture and religion. This classification of religions based on belief systems puts African religion and Culture on the lowest level of the evolutionary ladder because it was believed that primitive African Culture could only produce the most elementary and primitive belief systems. Recently, the treatment of African religions in the Western intellectual tradition makes it impossible for African traditional religion to speak for itself except regarding 19th-century evolutionism. Or the Western anthropological theories of primitive religions and cultures. God in Africa is a relational being known for various levels of relationship with creation. With humanity, God is the great ancestor of the human race. 

 Therefore, God is portrayed more as a parent than a sovereign all over Africa, just like the Hebrew ‘Abba’. With the earth, God is a husband who stands behind the creative fecundity of the earth that sustains human life. God, with creation, is the Creator from whom life flows and is sustained. About the divinities, God is their father who requires them to care for the cosmic processes. One can then describe African religion as this-worldly religion of Salvation that promises well-being and wholeness here and now. It is a religion that affirms life and celebrates life in its fullness; this accounts for the lively and celebratory mood that characterizes African worship in all its manifestations. The essence of ATR is seen in the works of some celebrated scholars like Daniel I. Block, Byang H. Kato, Tite Tienou, Yusufu Turaki, Richard J. Gehman, and Joseph Omoregbe. Reviewing these scholars’ works on different areas of ATR is worthwhile. 

 Daniel I. Block, in his book, the gods of the nations:[3]

There are two perceptions of the origin of ties between the deities and the countries; the first is the land and the divinity directly, making the people that occupied the land secondary; the people of the land come to the knowledge of the gods of the land they are occupying. The second is the deity and the people making the land secondary; wherever the people migrate, they go with their gods. There could also be the third possibility, a primary association between a people and its territory, with a resulting secondary involvement of the deity. No ancient Semitic text that describes how specific gods came to be associated with particular lands has surfaced.

 Block indicates that deities were primarily attached to specific geographical territories and only secondarily concerned with the inhabitants of those areas. Block claims[4] that this egocentricity in national theology mirrors political perceptions. Orthodox Yahwists acknowledged the God of Israel as a Deity who had called a people via a theophany or revealed himself to be his people. Idowu says a priest is an Olorisa (owner of God); that gods revealed themselves to humankind. Block re-establishes the Orthodox sayings that Yahweh was not merely a divinity that had acquired a plot of real estate and then accepted as his own whatever population inhabited his land. To Daniel Block, this is a shift in the interpretation of the origin. And by inference, the association between deity and the people. In Block’s conclusion, divinities or gods are not the creations of men but God.

Byang H. Kato, in his book Theological Pitfalls in Africa:

He unmasks some of the practical ramifications promoted by liberal ecumenism in Africa today, and he, therefore, presented his book with concrete proposals for the survival of Biblical Christianity in Africa. Kato treated ‘Rising Universalism in Africa’; the challenge in Universalism, according to Kato, is a belief that all men will eventually be saved whether they believe in Christ now or not. He gave the factors that promote this challenge as[5]:

  • Prevailing wind of Universalism in the homeland of the missionaries working in Africa.
  • The universal search for the solidarity of the human race.
  • The relatively new political awareness in Africa.
  • The quest for political unity.
  • The search for personal identity makes the Continent fertile soil for Syncretism. 
  • The emotional touch out of genuine love for the ancestors who died without knowing the way of Salvation.
  • The reformation of African religions as practiced today.
  • The new garb that African Traditional religions are putting on.
  • Biblical Ignorance in the Churches in Africa today and inadequate emphasis on theological education on the part of missionaries.
  • The gregarious nature of the African. 

Kato sounds an alarm and warns Christians of the dangers of Universalism. He also clarifies specific terms regarding African Tradition Religions. These include[6]:

  • Animism, which is derived from ‘anima’ meaning breath. It stands for any doctrine with Soul or Spirit and, later, with Souls or Spirits.
  • Idolatry (according to Webster, is “a representation or symbol of deity used as an object of worship”).
  • Paganism and Heathenism are used for believers in other religions or none.
  • Fetishism, Witchcraft, and Magic are defined as positive acts performed to manipulate supernatural power or supernatural beings.
  • Juju; Primitive Religion and African traditional religions, which is a full title for the religions of Africa.

Kato, as one of the Jaba people, captures the ‘ATR Case Study of the “Hahm” or “Jaba” people. [7]‘ From Dr. Kato’s investigation, Jaba called the Supreme Being’ Nom,’ a name also used for the Sun. Jaba people claim that the united voice of rebuke by the religious leaders is the voice of ‘Nom’ (God). Jaba’s concept of Salvation is what one is saved from determines the nature of the Salvation; Jaba describes sin regarding big and minor sins with their respective degrees of punishment. Kato, therefore, focuses on ATR about Theological Systems. To him, theology is polarized according to geographical and ideological descriptions though not all people in a given geographic area accept the so-called theology of the particular region. He cited examples like:

  • Black theology is found in the United States and Southern Africa.
  • Ethiopic theology based on Psalm 68:31
  • Theology of Decolonization; a synthesis of Ethiopian theology in Africa and Black Theology in the USA.

 Kato highlights African theology as ‘Described and Rejected.’ He refers to the three major books of Dr. John Mbiti: African religions and philosophy, Concepts of God in Africa, and New Testament Eschatology in an African Background. He concludes that Mbiti’s Universalism threatens Biblical Christianity in Africa. That Mbiti’s great enthusiasm in “Africanizing” Christianity, while done in good faith, raises a threat to “the faith, which was once for all delivered to the Saints” (Jude 3). In the Philosophy of Time, Kato says future Time is valuable in the Bible in contrast to Mbiti’s primary concern of Time as past and present. Kato looked at “Concepts of God in Africa: Problems of Interpretation. He went into a severe dialogue with Mbiti and, at times, Idowu in arriving at his convictions and belief. 

J. S. Mbiti captures this relational metaphysics succinctly in the proclamation: “I am because we are and because we are; therefore I am.[8]” To Mbiti, African ancestors are much more than the dead parents of the living; they are the embodiment of what it means to live the whole life that is contained in one’s destiny. Kato makes it clear that; the death of Christ potentially makes Salvation possible for all men. But to benefit from it, in reality, the sinner must actively partake of it by faith through Jesus Christ. The actual Heaven is the eternal destiny of believers, and the absolute hell awaits the unpenitent (unrepentant) as their eternal destiny. Kato also affirms that the monotheists cannot be sustained in the biblical sense. The only monotheism Christians recognized in the NT is the one described by Apostle Paul in 1 Cor.8:4-6. Kato then advanced a Ten Point Proposal to safeguard Biblical Christianity in Africa. They are:

  1. Adherence to the basic presuppositions of historic Christianity.
  2. Expression of Christianity in a truly African Context by allowing it to judge the African Culture and never allow the Culture to take precedence over Christianity.
  3. Concentrating effort in training men in the Scriptures and employing the original languages to facilitate their ability to exegete the Word of God.
  4. Studying ATR carefully as well as other religions but only secondarily to the inductive study of God’s word.
  5. Launching an aggressive evangelism program and missions to prevent a fall into the error of the doctrinal strife of 3rd-Century Christianity in North Africa. 
  6. The Consolidating Organizational Structures based on doctrinal agreements. 
  7. Carefully and accurately delineate and concisely express terms of theology as a necessary safeguard against Syncretism and Universalism.
  8. Carefully present apologetics towards unbiblical systems creeping into the Church.
  9. Showing concern in social action but bear in mind at all times that the primary goal of the Church is the presentation of personal Salvation.
  10. Following the steps of the New Testament Church (Philippians 1:21).

At times, Kato’s line of thought could be termed argumentative, but he seems to be grounded in the opinion that he desires to push forward. Kato aims to place a guide to the essential facts he sets to present at the reader’s disposal. The theological and critical perspective is evangelical and orthodox. 

 Tite Tienou’s Theological task of the Church in Africa[9] 

He deals extensively with the issues and threats to the theological task in Africa. I borrow from his thoughts on Christianity, Africa Culture, and Africa Religion. Tienou highlights three main issues, and they are:

  1. The relationship between Christianity and Africa Culture.
  2. The relationship between Christianity and African Tradition Religion. 
  3. The Concepts of Africa Theology and Contextualization.

Tienou believes whatever the definition of Culture must be on account of its integrative function and cannot be separated from philosophy, religion, and other spiritual values. Tienou said all African Christians must contend with modern or so-called Western Culture and the traditional. The result is “unwitting syncretism’ and ‘practical syncretism.’ While the former is in the aftermath of the inadequate teaching of Christian truth, the latter is the patronage of the traditional cults while professing Christianity.

To develop the right attitude towards African Culture, Tienou suggests creating awareness in our religious training institutional, theological seminary to make the students aware of the cultural conditioning of all theologies. Tienou re-echoes Byang H. Kato’s warning that “theological anemia and indifference” are the two significant problems facing Christianity in Africa and affects the African perspective on Salvation.


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