Scholars’ Discourses on African Traditional Religion (2)

Scholars’ Discourses on African Traditional Religion (2)


Yusufu Turaki’s Tribal gods of Africa[10] 

Gives an insight into the African worldview. According to Turaki, the African worldview is the embodiment of Culture, religion, customs, values, and traditions. It forms the essential core of African reality, which manifests in their beliefs and values in response to the physical and spiritual realms. It affects how Africans understand and interpret Christianity or any foreign religion. 


Turaki traced African concepts of reality and destiny to the Spirit world. Turaki claimed the laws of spiritual mystery govern all social and spiritual phenomena. He divided the spirit world into two broad categories: (1) non-human spirits and (2) the spirits of the dead. Non-human spirits are regarded in hierarchical order in agreement with their kind and importance, depending on their power and role in the ontological order in nature[11]. 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. Turaki placed man between this array of spiritual hosts and nature. 


 Turaki summarized the items that constitute the spirit world as follows:

  1. The whole world is full of Spirits
  2. The abodes of Spirits are numerous such as the silk cotton tree, bamboo tree, sycamore tree, burial grounds, and other unidentified places.
  3. The Spirits are classified into bad and good ones.
  4. A firm belief in reincarnation
  5. A belief in and practice of exorcism or spirit possession.
  6. A belief in life after death, future reward and future punishment and
  7. Evil Spirits are always associated with Satan[12].

Turaki postulated that Africans’ belief in mystical powers and the human quest to control or influence them had produced a variety of specialists such as medicine men, rainmakers, mediums, diviners, sorcerers, magicians, and witches. He said superstitions, taboos, rituals, etc., grew out of such beliefs. Turaki restated that belief in the ancestors is the most fundamental religious creed and tenet at times called “ancestor’s worship.” Ancestors’ worship is private as it involves only family or household members. The ‘fatherhood’ of an ancestor is derived from the first progenitor of the lineage’ original seed,’ clan, or tribe.


An ancestor’s fatherhood is the most fundamental theological tenet and concept. A Father, dead or alive, blesses or curses out of obedience or disobedience to him. The potency of fatherhood increases at death. Turaki outlined the consequences of this religious system, which produces its kind of morals and ethics. Misfortune or evil suffered by individuals or households, or lineages was often interpreted as forms of punishment sent because of failure to fulfill duties and obligations to kinsfolk and blood relations. Forgiveness is only affected after restitution or reconciliation. Peacemaking and treaties were conducted under oaths and vows, usually sealed by blood sacrifices. This religion, according to Turaki, does not necessarily have public institutions or communal assemblies. These religious beliefs have helped in formulating concepts of right and wrong, morality, ethics, and justice.


Richard J. Gehman, in African traditional religion [13]:

In the light of the Bible, summarizes the belief in the Supreme Being and listed nine attributes (characteristics) of this Supreme Being (God) as follows:

  1. God knows all things. ATR believes you may deceive the ancestors, but you cannot deceive God.
  2. God is present everywhere: In a practical sense, the ATR believes that wherever a person may be, he may call upon God in times of trouble.
  3. God is Almighty; ATR believes that God has all power. When all other help fails, including mystical powers, ancestral spirits, and divinities, men seek God who can do everything.
  4. God is transcendent (high up and greatly removed); the transcendence of God is common and widely believed in ATR. God is significantly removed from and lifted above the creature, without limitations, and beyond human understanding. In the Time of trouble, the traditional response is not to complain but to submit and yield.
  5. God is everlasting; another attribute that sets God apart from all other gods is that He had no beginning. ATR believes that ancestral spirits, nature spirits, and divinities were all created and brought into being by God the Creator. God alone is eternal with the ground of His Being within Himself.
  6. God is Spirit; God is invisible without a body. Only one idol of the Supreme Being is known among all the African peoples (Parrinder 1961, 18). He is revered that no attempts have been made to make any image of God out of wood or stone.
  7. God is kind, merciful, and sound. Gehman said emphatically that traditional Africans believed God is full of mercy, kindness, and goodness. The giving of rain, the birth of children, and the body’s healing all remind the people that God is good. God is seldom charged with wrongdoing in Africa; whatever trouble people may have is blamed on witchcraft or the living dead. The gospel did not introduce a surprise or contradiction to the African Traditional beliefs.
  8. God is Holy; there is little direct traditional teaching concerning the holiness of God as understood in all of His holinesses as traditionally understood by Africans agrees with biblical revelation. But God’s Word provides a fuller and more complete understanding of God’s holiness.
  9. God is unique; no one can be compared to the Supreme Being in ATR. God is unique; no one can draw an image of God, for God cannot be seen, fully known, or understood.


Gehman also listed the works of the Supreme Being as:

  1. God created the world. Africans’ names given to God showed the belief that God created the heavens and the earth. He is known as the Excavator, Hewer, Carver, Creator, Originator, Inventor, and Architect.
  2. God protects and saves. Unlike the Deist, traditional Africans believe God is also involved in the world. God is the one who provides food, sunshine, rain, children, health, and protection. The laws of gravity were unknown, for they believed that God sustained the stars in space, so they did not fall. God is known as a King, Lord, and Judge. The powers of a witch doctor, ancestral spirits, and divinities hindered Africans from worshiping God as He deserved through Jesus Christ. People were more closely related to the witch doctor’s spirits and powers than the Creator.


Joseph Omoregbe took Christianity and other world religions in dialogue in his book Comparative Religion[14]

Chapter two of this book deals with ‘the Christian religion, Jesus of Nazareth, the spread of Christianity, and basic Christian doctrines such as God, Jesus Christ, Angels and Devils, Man, Sin, Redemption and Grace; Ethics, and Individual Salvation. Omoregbe justified the distinction between the historical Jesus and the “Christ of Faith.” He said ‘the historical Jesus is Jesus of Nazareth as he lived a normal human life like any other person. On the other hand, the ‘Christ of Faith is Jesus Christ, conceived not as a human being but as a divine being that lived a Superhuman or Spiritual life on earth. Omoregbe explained that the name “Jesus” means “Saviour,” while the word “Christ” means “the anointed one,” that is somebody specially consecrated by God and destined for a special function. He said ‘Anoint’ means consecrating; thus, the name of Jesus Christ means “the Saviour, the anointed one.” Omoregbe re-affirmed that Jesus of Nazareth is the founder of Christianity, the most popular and universal religion today. He explained that December 25 was the day the Romans celebrated the feast of the Sun god. Still, when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, it was abolished and replaced with the celebration of the birth of Christ. 


Omoregbe restated that the Christian religion is Christo-centric, which means that Jesus Christ is its focal point. Jesus Christ is believed to be more than a prophet, more than a messenger of God; He is God himself who became a man. The doctrine of the Incarnation is a cardinal doctrine of the Christian religion. Jesus Christ is the second divine person of the Trinity, the Son who became a man. Omoregbe stated that Christianity teaches there are spiritual beings called angels. God created these beings, and they serve him as Messengers. On the other hand, there are also Satan and the demons that are believed to roam about, doing havoc among God’s Creation, possessing some people, and tempting others. 

Omoregbe referred to the Scripture where Jesus is said to have cast out devils from those possessed by them on several occasions.


Christianity teaches that man is very dear to God and that God created man in His image and likeness. Christianity also teaches that man is morally weak and corrupt by nature. Christianity teaches through the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis that man initially was very close to God; enjoyed God’s friendship and cordial relationship. But man eventually alienated himself from God when he committed the “Original Sin.” Man strayed away from God and needed a redeemer to bring him back to God and restore his intimate and cordial relationship with him. The “Original Sin” made man incapable of doing any good by his power, corrupt, weak, prone to evil, and incapable of returning to God by himself and restoring the lost friendship and cordial relationship with God. Man needs a Saviour, a Redeemer, to bring him back to God. And God so loves the world, so loves humankind, that He sent His only-begotten Son into the world in the person of Jesus Christ to save humankind and redeem man. Omoregbe highlighted the core of Christian ethics in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5, 6 & 7). 


To Omoregbe, Jesus improved on the values of Judaism. Omoregbe referred to Mat 7:21; 25: 31-46; Lk 10: 25-37 on individual Salvation. Jesus gave him the condition for individual Salvation, a state different from St John, St Paul, and many other Christians. Omoregbe said individual Salvation is predicated on doing the will of God irrespective of one’s religious belief. To Omoregbe, the emphasis is on the action, not belief. He said Jesus in Mat 25: 31-46 also gave the condition for Salvation, which makes the previous one (doing the will of God) more explicit. Jesus tells us that all those who feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, show hospitality to strangers, clothe the naked, and visit prisoners and sick people will be saved. Omoregbe also referred to Lk 10: 25-37, where a lawyer asked Jesus what to do to be saved.


That Jesus, through the beautiful parable of the Good Samaritan, gives a practical illustration of what doing God’s Will or loving one’s neighbor means in practice. In reply to The Lawyer’s question, Jesus, in turn, asked him what the Bible says about the matter. The lawyer answered correctly by quoting the Bible to the effect that we must love God and our neighbor to be saved. Omoregbe concluded that anybody of whatever religion who loves God and his neighbor would be saved. He went further to say that Jesus did not teach the doctrine stipulating that only by believing in Jesus can a person be saved. Omoregbe said when Jesus was asked by the lawyer, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus did not say, “to inherit eternal life, you must believe that I am the son of God”; he then concluded that Jesus did not predicate individual Salvation on belief in him. Instead, Jesus assured us that Salvation is open to men of all religions who do the will of God by doing good to their fellow men and will be saved irrespective of their religious beliefs. 


Omoregbe criticized the doctrine that only by believing in Jesus can a person be saved. To him, this is not the teaching of Jesus Christ. He said Jesus was too humane, realistic, practical, and broadminded to teach such a doctrine. The doctrine of “except you believe that Jesus is the son of God, you can not be saved,” according to Omoregbe, arose from the theologies of St. John, the author of the 4th Gospel (John 3:18) and St. Paul (Letters to the Romans & the Galatians). This doctrine was taken up and emphasized by Luther in the 16th Century by insisting that Salvation was by faith alone. Omoregbe stated that Salvation, according to the teaching of Jesus, does not depend on faith or belief in him. It does not depend on the Creed one professes or the religion one practices, but on leading a good life by doing good to one’s fellow men – feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirst, helping the needy, etc. Jesus considers all these as done to himself. 


Omoregbe further cited the answer Jesus gave to the young man who asked him what to do to inherit eternal life (Matt 19: 16-19) to collaborate his conclusion; when Jesus told this young man to keep the commandments (the moral laws). Omoregbe thereby claimed that according to the teaching of Jesus, Salvation is open to all men of all races, all cultures, and all religions who live good lives by keeping the moral laws and loving their fellow neighbors as themselves.

  • [10] Yusufu Turaki, Tribal gods of Africa, Jos: Crossroads Communication, 1997, 39 to 45
  • [11] Turaki in reflection of Orji 1988, 17
  • [12] Kato 1975, 36-41
  • [13] Richard J. Gehman, African traditional religion: in the light of the Bible. First Edition, Kaduna: Africa Christian Textbooks (ACTS), 2001, 145-152
  • [14] Joseph, Omoregbe, Comparative religion Christianity and other world religions in dialogue: Christianity, Judaism, Islam, African Traditional Religion, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Confucianism, Taoism & Shintoism, Reprint of 1999, Lagos: Joja Educational Research and Publishers Limited, 2002, chapter 2

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