EXPLAIN THE THREE STAGES THAT IS INVOLVE IN STUDYING OF AFRICAN TRADITIONAL RELIGION
The traditional beliefs and practices of African people include various traditional religions. Generally, these traditions are oral rather than scriptural, include belief in a supreme creator, belief in spirits, veneration of ancestors, use of magic, and traditional medicine.
The role of humanity is generally seen as one of harmonizing nature with the supernatural. The three stages involve in studying African traditional religion can be outline and explain below;
1. Belief in Impersonal (Mystical) Power(s)
What is the influence and impact of this dominant religious belief in impersonal and mystical powers upon the whole of traditional African life? The Bible and Christian theology have to address this foundational and dominant influence and impact upon the traditional African life.
The belief in the impersonal (mystical) power is dominant and pervasive in traditional African religious thought. The whole of creation, nature and all things and objects are consumed with this impersonal power. This impersonal power is what Edwin Smith called mysterium tremendum. This same power has been given various names, such as, mana, life force, vital force, life essence and dynamism.
In African beliefs, the source of this impersonal or (mystical) mysterious power is not always known, but it is usually attributed to the activities of higher “mysterious” powers, whether personal or impersonal that either generates or deposits such powers in things or objects. The potency, efficacy and the durability of such “inhabited” impersonal powers varies from object to object. Some objects are said to be inherently more power induced or “imputed” than others, that is, they are more naturally endowed with powers than others are.
The manifestation and the use of the impersonal powers are related to the practices of medicine men and women, diviners and seers who use natural objects, plants and animals for medicine, magic, charms and amulets. Some specialists belief that mysterious powers imbedded in things or objects can be extracted for specific uses. Mystical and mysterious powers can be transmitted through certain object media or by pure spiritual means. Mystical powers can be sent to specific destinations for an intended good or evil. Mystical powers can be contagious by contact with objects carrying or mediating such powers.
The impersonal powers can be used for both good and evil. The life of a traditional African with this belief in the impersonal powers is at the mercy of the benevolent or wicked users of the mystical powers at their disposal. This belief is very much reflected in the traditional religious practices and behaviour.
As stated earlier, the belief in the impersonal (mystical) powers is dominant and pervasive among traditional Africans. This belief has a theological basis. Christianity must recognise and study the theological basis of the traditional African belief in the existence of mystical and mysterious forces. The religious and social role and function of this belief must be thoroughly studied and understood. The application of the Bible and the Christian Gospel to this very religious belief must address it at its foundations and roots:
1) What do traditional Africans feel about the pervasive and dominant presence of the mystical and mysterious powers and forces? The Bible and the Gospel of Christ must address this traditional religious core value and its dominant influence upon man in traditional Africa. A Biblical and Christian theology has to be formulated and developed so as to address the traditional theology of mystical and impersonal powers.
2) What is the nature of this traditional belief in the mystical, mysterious powers and forces and its total influence and impact upon the total man in traditional Africa? How do we apply the Bible and the Gospel of Christ to the nature of this belief and to the nature of its impact or influence upon man in traditional Africa?
3) What are the religious practices and behaviour that do accompany, support and reinforce (a) this belief and (b) feelings generated by this belief? How do we study and apply the Bible and the Gospel of Christ to all the various practices, attitudes, rituals, rites and ceremonies that traditional Africa has fundamentally developed from this belief?
Our theological approach must go beyond matching Biblical texts with specific traditional beliefs to addressing the theological, philosophical, moral and ethical bases and foundations of these beliefs. We must lay the axe at the root. Religious beliefs, feelings, practice and behaviour have roots and bases. The traditional conception of mystical and mysterious powers has deep theological roots.
When Christian categories are introduced, such as: the power of the blood of Christ; the power of Christ; the power of the Holy Spirit; the power of God; the power of prayer in the name of Jesus, how are these powers understood theologically by man in traditional Africa? The traditional theology of power and forces is what should be addressed by the Bible. When a belief in the potency of mystical and mysterious powers and forces are condemned as demonic, man in traditional Africa needs to know why such things are demonic. They seem to work and he sees and experiences their power, potency and efficacy. A mere reference to a Bible verse may not be enough to dissuade and convince him to do and believe otherwise.
His religious beliefs and practices are structured within the framework of his traditional religious worldview. They must be addressed at the root, at their theological basis and worldview. What is that theological foundation of the belief in the mystical and mysterious powers and forces and its accompanied feelings, practices and behaviour? This is what a Christian theologian must find out. The African needs more than just a Bible verse, he needs a Christian worldview which contains such. He needs to know why he should believe differently. The “why” is contained within the Biblical and Christian foundations.
2. Belief in Spirit Beings
What is the influence and impact of this dominant religious belief in spirit beings upon the whole of traditional African life? The Bible and Christian theology have to address this dominant influence and impact upon the traditional African life.
Traditional African concepts of reality and destiny are deeply rooted in the spirit world. The activities and the actions of the spirit beings govern all social and spiritual phenomena. The spirit world can be divided into two broad categories: (1) non-human spirits and (2) the spirits of the dead. Non-human spirits are regarded in hierarchical order in accordance with their kind and importance, depending upon their power and the role they play in the ontological order in the spirit world (Oji, 1988:17).
First in the hierarchy is the Creator, then the deities, object-embodied spirits, ancestors’ spirits and other miscellaneous spirits that are non-human, comprising both good or harmless spirits and evil spirits. Man stands between this array of spiritual hosts in the spirit world and the world of nature (Ikenga-Metuh, 1987:125-144).
What Constitutes the Spirit World?
What constitutes the spirit world is summarised below in the words of Kato (1975:36-41):
1) The whole world is full of spirits;
2) the abode of spirits are numerous, such as the silk cotton tree, baobab tree, sycamore tree, burial grounds and other places;
3) the spirits are classified into two categories, the bad ones and the 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;
7) evil spirits are always associated with Satan (Kato, 1975:36-41);
8) spirit possession.
In defining the religious worldview of Africa, Mbiti stresses the fact that the spirit world of the African people is very densely populated with spirit beings, spirits and the living-dead or the spirits of the ancestors (Mbiti, 1969:75). The spirit world is the most pervasive worldview. Contained within it are the spirits, the ancestors and the Supreme Being or God (Ikenga-Metuh, 1987:103-179).
There is a very close relationship between the spirit beings and the mystical or impersonal powers and forces described in the previous section. This realm of the supernatural operates mystical power, magic, witchcraft, sorcery and many others. The spirit world or the realm of the supernatural is, in a sense, a battleground of spirits and powers that use their mystical powers to influence the course of human life. These mystical powers can be designated as positive or negative, good or evil, which may bring blessings or curses.
If man only knew how to master and control the realm of the supernatural, the world would be a much happier place. Belief in the mystical powers as described already, the spirit beings behind them and the human quest to control or influence them had produced a variety of specialists such as medicinemen, rainmakers, mediums, diviners, sorcerers, magicians and witches. Superstitions, totems, taboos and rituals grew out of such beliefs.
For safety and protection in a world dominated by the spirit beings and powers, one needs a spiritual compass for guidance and practical efforts for control, protection and security through religious rites, reverence to ancestors, symbolic totems and regulative taboos, rituals, superstitions, customs and specialists. For guidance and protection in life, one needs some, if not all, of these.
As we have already observed, in the African traditional religious thought, spirits are believed to dwell or inhabit certain trees, rocks or mountains, caves, rivers, lakes, forests, animals, human beings, the skies, the ground and other cites, carved or moulded objects, charms, amulets.
The spirit beings are usually divided into two categories: (1) the spirits of the dead elders (the ancestors) and (2) the non-human spirit beings. The ancestors are close to the humans and serve as their custodians. All spirit beings are endowed with certain powers and they apply these powers upon the humans for their good or for their harm. Because the spirit beings are malicious, capricious and sometimes benevolent, man must be wise in his dealings with the spirit beings. They can easily be angered, provoked or injured by the humans and so man requires tack and wisdom in dealing with them. In dealing with both the impersonal (mystical) powers and the spirit beings, man needs human specialists who have gained experience and access to these two types of mysteries to help them live a successful life and acquire good human well-being. These spirit beings can be “manipulated” to serve the humans or vice versa.
This belief, just as in the case of the previous one, has a theological basis. Christianity must recognise and study this very theological basis of the traditional African belief in the existence of spirit beings. The religious and social role and function of this belief in the spirits must be thoroughly studied and understood.
3. Belief in Many Divinities
What is the influence and impact of the dominant religious belief in the divinities upon the whole of traditional African life? The Bible and Christian theology have to address this dominant influence and impact upon the traditional African life.
African traditional religions in some parts of Africa, have had an elaborate pantheon of divinities. But there are exceptions to this general observation, especially in Southern Africa and some parts of West Africa. Some African ethnic groups do not seem to have divinities, while some were known to have no special shrines or worship places designated to the divinities or to the Supreme Being. However, the Yoruba of Nigeria are known for having several hundreds of divinities.
African scholars for the past three decades, have changed certain perspectives and even the definition of African divinities (Idowu, 1962; Mbiti, 1975). Some African scholars no longer accept the term polytheism (worship of many gods). They prefer the term “divinities” or “deities” to “gods”. The debate on whether African “divinities” were worshipped as “gods” or whether they were only “intermediaries” or “mediators” is inconclusive. Some have argued that “Africans do not worship their divinities nor their ancestors, but God”. In this argument, a view is being held that sacrifices, offerings and prayers offered, are not directed to the divinities or the ancestors, as ends in themselves, but are directed ultimately to God. We have no intention of discussing this debate here, but simply to mention it in passing.
African divinities are many and each has its specific area of influence and control. Some of these divinities were originally mythological figures in some African legends and primordial histories and cosmologies, while some were tribal heroes or heroines. Divinities covering different aspects of life, society and community were usually established, such as divinities of the sea or the waters, rain, thunder, fertility, health or sickness, planting or harvest, tribal, clan or family deities. African divinities took the forms of mountains, rivers, forests, the mother earth, the sun, the moon, the stars, and ancestors. The plurality of the divinities with their varying powers, influence, hierarchy, territoriality, even within one ethnic group or community, says a lot about the African religions, worship, beliefs and practices. This leaves an open door for religious accommodation, tolerance, assimilation and adaptation within the traditional religious thought. The traditional African understanding and the interpretation of Christianity have deep roots in these fundamental beliefs of the African traditional religions. This belief, just as in the case of the previous one, has a theological basis – the plurality of divinities (polytheism).
With the introduction of Christianity or other religions, such as Islam, this belief with its worldview may have an added feature and it is henotheism, the worship of one god without denying the existence of other gods. There is a possibility that the Christian God who has been introduced, can be worshipped along with other gods. The theological basis of this traditional belief allows it to take place without creating any serious theological crisis in the traditional religion. Plurality of gods or divinities permits plurality of beliefs, practices, feelings and behaviour in one religion. This belief also gives room for accommodation, adaptation and domestication of new gods or divinities into the old religion. Other gods or divinities and divergent views and practices can be tolerated without confusion. All these are possible because of the theological foundation of this belief in many gods and also in the hierarchy of gods or divinities.
Foundational Religious Practices
Religious beliefs do beget corresponding religious practices and religious behaviour. The five inter-related and integrated religious beliefs examined in the previous sections have established the theological basis of the traditional religious system. These beliefs have in consequence influenced the development of the corresponding religious practices, which we are going to describe very briefly. The traditional religious system is informed and motivated by these religious beliefs and their corresponding practices, behaviour and feelings.
The foundational religious practices in the traditional religions are: (1) the practices of establishing links, relationship and close ties with the cosmic mysterious, mystical and spirit powers and forces; (2) the practices involving various religious and social rites, rituals (sacrifices and offerings) and ceremonies; (3) the practices of establishing various spiritual and mystical communications with the spirit world and spirit beings and (4) the religious and social practices of relating to the various activities of the traditional African specialists.
Discussions in this section will be very brief. Ideas in this section are culled from Steyne (1992) and Gehman (1989). Various religious practices are described covering a wide range of religious and social interests. Our primary goal for doing this is to enable us to identify and define the theological foundations of the traditional religious practices and behaviour. This establishes the theological foundations for defining and interpreting traditional religious practices and religious behaviour.
In this section and in other places, we are not going to differentiate between what is strictly religious from what is strictly social or what are prohibitions and abominations or taboos from what are acceptable social and religious norms, practices and behaviour. Both the good and evil are found in the traditional religious worldview.
The philosophical foundations as earlier stated do have a profound influence on the religious beliefs, practices and behaviour. As we have observed, the traditional African hardly distinguishes “between the spiritual and the physical modes of existence”. This very conception in the traditional worldview is very important to our understanding of the African traditional beliefs and teachings about the spirit world, especially the unity between the spiritual and the material. This social fact is very important to our understanding and interpretation of the traditional religions and cultures.
This study has revealed to us the nature and the heart of the African traditional religions, especially its religious beliefs and practices. The theological foundations of the belief in these gods, divinities and spirits have been made evident. From this background, a theology of Christian spirituality is required as means of addressing adequately the roots of this traditional religious belief in the spirit beings. The influence and impact of this traditional belief upon the religious practices and behaviour of traditional Africans must be carefully studied and addressed by a Christian theology. A Christian theology must address the significance of the spiritual beings, powers and forces that lie behind the traditional religions (Eph. 6).
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