CAN CHRISTIANITY DIALOGUE WITH
AFRICAN TRADITIONAL RELIGION?
by Peter K. Sarpong
Many things surprise me. But nothing amazes me more than the debate on the question of inculturation. I just do not see how the need for inculturation can be questioned. But, of course, I am not immune to error in whatever form.
My conviction in this issue is, however, unshaken. God, in his goodness, has created us social beings. Before we knew of other societies, we had been immersed in our own.
It is true that all human beings are rational and free. We are all subject to the same
moods and aspirations. Joy and sadness, gaiety and melancholy, patience and anger,
extroversion and introversion are found everywhere on our planet. We all want to be loved.
We all dislike lies. Granted that physically there is little to choose between a Kikuyu
and a Thai, subject as both are to the laws of nature; it is also admitted that anywhere
in the world a human person can be cruel or kind, sinful or virtuous, selfish or generous,
hard-hearted or hospitable. In short, we all fall under the species homo sapiens we
are all human.
INFLUENCE OF SOCIETY
But this is only one side of the coin. On the other side is the fact of our being conditioned by our environment. We are the children of our surroundings. We speak different languages. We eat different foods. Our ideas are shaped by what we see around us. Our imagery and metaphors are meaningful only in the context of what we experience constantly. Our concepts of time, space and religion are all tinted by our ecological glasses. It is hardly possible, for example, for the land-locked Burkinabé to owe allegiance to a god of the sea.
It is this social conditioning that forms a people's culture. Culture comprises that
complex or sum-total of ideas, behaviour patterns linguistic tradition, legacy of
institutions and concepts of life, of the human person and of the world around that have
been learned and passed on from generation to generation in a given society.
The person is born into an existing culture. There is nothing he can do about it. The
culture is going to make him what he is: a Maori and not a Navaho. Christian thinking
would assert that it is the will of God the Creator that that person be part
of that culture.
Inculturation simply means making use of this God-given gift to praise and thank God. Culture determines my being. I am an Asante not a Croatian, not because of my colour or because the Asante and the Croatian are different brands of homo sapiens, but because of the way I behave, think, speak and generally relate; in other words, because of what my culture has made me.
In inculturation, I am giving back to God the most important gift he has given me. In any case I can really know and understand him only through the medium of that gift.
Hence the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar (SECAM) is right
in saying: " We recognise as well the challenge of inculturation of Christianity in
Africa, an evangelization in depth of the African Christian; which respects and affirms
his specific cultural identity and seeks to bridge the gap between faith and Culture. In
this important and delicate task, we are determined to proceed with courage, faith as well
as with due sense of pastoral responsibility". In sum then, inculturation deals with
contextualization. It makes relevant the Word of the Lord in a given milieu.
For Africa, the role of traditional religion in determining the modus vivendi has
been vital. African cultures are known for their religious orientation. In fact, African
cultures are religious cultures. It is not possible to study African culture in
isolation from religion. Religion permeates the ideal African from cradle to grave.
African traditional religion, therefore, comes into play in the shaping of the African's
future. We have to know the past in order to understand the present and be better equipped
to plan the future. We cannot know the past of the African if we neglect his religion.
Traditional religion is part of the African's ethos and an understanding of it should go
hand in hand with Christian evangelization.
Unfortunately, African traditional religion which should be employed for its potentially salutary effect has been misunderstood and is still misrepresented. The misconception is amply evident from the many wrong names by which traditional religion has been described. It is difficult to understand the tenacity with which African traditional religion has been termed a primal religion. Evidently the use of the term is to distinguish it from the so-called great or world religions. A primal religion is supposed to have no founders. It is without a literary source.
One cannot but wonder whether it is the written word and an identifiable founder that
make a religion a religion. In any case, it is an assumption of dubious validity that one
cannot at least point to a dominant historical figure in the past in relation to African
traditional religion. The Asante of Ghana can, without hesitation, indicate Okomfo
Anokye as the source of most of the religious injunctions of the ancient kingdom.
PILLARS OF RELIGION
Without trying to sound too simplistic, it can be argued that all religions are built on three major pillars: faith, morality and worship. Religion deals with belief in some higher power or being who is accepted as having some influence on devotees This conviction enables or even compels the adherents to comport themselves in their socio-cultural life in a manner they believe will please the object of their worship. Here we have moral or ethical behaviour. This, in turn, leads to the believers meeting from time to time to express in public their faith in, and dependence on, their spiritual overlord. This is worship or liturgy.
These three elements common to all religions, are not in any way linked to a written word. A religion is not a religion or a high religion because its tenets are written down. On the contrary, the tenets ate written down because it is already a religion. To, as it were, insist on the book as the evidence of religion or, worse still, classify religion as great or small on the basis of scripture would appear to be wrong.
Yet we have entered the paper culture. What is written down is glorified. Some take what they read in the newspapers as the Gospel-truth. We need certificates to prove our ability. We require tickets to board a plane. If at the last check-point we do not produce the boarding card, we cannot enter the plane. We insist on receipts.
These pieces of paper are needed for empirical reasons. They may serve as records for the future. They remind us of what has happened. They help to prevent mistakes. But, by and large, they indicate the decadence of the present age. In most cases they are meant to prevent fraud. We are in a world where one could, without any qualms of conscience, pose as a medical doctor when one does not know the first letter of the dictionary of anatomy. Without a ticket or a boarding pass, few would feel obliged to pay for their travels. So in a way, written evidence exhibits the worst in humanity.
Religions with scripture make sure that their teachings are not distorted, and that
they are obeyed. This does not make them, therefore, superior to others.
POWER OF THE WORD
In the hey-day of traditional religion in Africa, the word of mouth was considered much more sacred than the written word is now. Written wills are being constantly contested in Asante as elsewhere with a disgraceful frequency. A hundred years ago, there was no way in which the verbal last testament of a dying person would be subtracted from, added to or disputed. Only one person may have heard it, yet it would be honoured. It was certain that that one person would not put into the mouth of the dying person what he had not said.
The word was powerful. 1 suppose Jesus taught this power of the word clearly. He never wrote down a word of what he said; but he founded a religion. African traditional religion does not tamper with the spoken word. Ceremonies of vital importance such as enstoolment of a chief, the marriage rite, the initiation of a priest or a youth into a secret society, the commissioning of a warrior, are all performed with ritual and words; nothing is written down. To break a verbal oath is one of the greatest felonies in Asante.
In my own life-time, Asante has seen a time when one could take food items from another person's farm without the latter's knowledge or consent. It was sufficient for the one who took the plantain or pepper to inform the rightful owner afterwards that he took it for personal consumption. He was believed, and would not abuse the trust by selling what he had taken.
That is what religion is about. Religion is about fidelity and conviction, not about
interpretation and analysis of ideas. African traditional religion has a message for us
here. Its lack of scripture has not, in any way, meant lack of effectiveness. Religion is
to be practised not just to be talked about. This, of course, does not mean that doctrine
and ideology are useless. But doctrine need not be doctrine because it is written, and
doctrine devoid of practice is meaningless.
Besides the negative view of African traditional religion based on its lack of scripture, African traditional religion has suffered other injustices especially in the way it has been named.
It has been called pagan. That this is a misnomer is easily seen from the origin
of the word 'pagan'. The Latin root suggests that a pagan is originally a rugged, country
person. Later on, "paganism" was employed to refer to any religion that was not
Islam, Judaism or Christianity. It is an injustice to call West African traditional
religion, with a strong belief in a God who is unique, incomparable and a Creator,
The word heathenism too is a misnomer when applied to traditional African religion. A
heathen is somebody who is supposed not to know God, one steeped in the worship of idols.
Nobody with the least knowledge of Africa can honestly say that Africans do not know God.
In any case to designate a whole religion as heathenism is, to say the least,
Why the word fetishism has caught on as a description of African traditional religion is again one of those mysteries. The word derives from the Portuguese word feitico which means an object or an article. Discovering that the West Africans they met on the coast were wearing objects of religious value like charms, talismans and amulets, the Portuguese imagined that the religion of West Africans was a worship of such objects. One need not labour the point that this is a great injustice. What about the wonderful names given to the Supreme Being and the honorific appellations he enjoys among us?
The truth of the matter is that there is no religion in the world that can be called fetishism.
And if because sacred objects are found in African traditional religion the religion is
fetishistic, then we find ourselves in deep waters. There is no religion in which such
objects are not found. In Christianity we respect statues and crucifixes, medals and
rosaries. They, too, are objects. But we understand that these are a secondary aspect of
the Christian religion. Do they not also use prayer-beads? Do the Muslims not venerate the
The term animism too, appears to be the choice of many. Coined by the great Taylor of Britain, animism is derived from the Latin word anima. The thinking behind the use of that word to describe African traditional Religion is that Africans believe that objects and animals have souls or spirits-anima.
While this may be true, it cannot be said that Africans believe that every object and
every creature has such a spirit The Asante do not believe that the cocoa tree, or the
plantain tree or for that matter the palm tree or the grasscutter has a spirit. Yet these
are all items of the animal and vegetable kingdoms that are of empirical interest to the
Asante. In any case, again, the idea that some objects have spirits is not peculiar to
Africa. It is simply incorrect to call African traditional religion animism.
Idolatry simply means the worship of idols. The ideas found in African traditional religion comprise the belief in a Supreme Being, the ancestors, the lesser gods and powers and potencies.
Why such a religion can be linked with the worship of statues, pictures or images
representing divinities which is how the Pan English Dictionary defines the word
"idol" - is another of those inexplicable stereotypes. Even if, for the sake of
the argument, it is admitted that lesser gods are idols one worshipped, then they form
only part of the religion and, therefore, cannot be made to represent the whole religion.
It is obnoxious to call African religion idolatry.
PRIMITIVE AND NATIVE
Primitive is a derogatory term. It may mean first in time or it may mean " backward or " savage". African religion is not backward nor does it precede any other religion. It evolved as human beings came to live in Africa. African religion should not be described as primitive. In the English language, the term native has come to connote uncivilized, somebody from Africa or one of the so-called "primitive" societies. This is an unfortunate understanding of the word native
The Italian is as native to Italy as the Maori is native to New Zealand. Every
religion, therefore, is native to where it is founded. African traditional religion cannot
be singled out and "honoured " with the word " native".
But probably the worst of the epithets used to describe African traditional religion is ancestor-worship. As has been mentioned, ancestors do form part of the religious thought of the African. But the existence and the veneration of saints too form part of the thinking of Christians, of whatever denomination.
No Christian would accept it if Christianity were termed "Saint worship". Christians would rightly protest. The reason would not simply be that there are much more important aspects to Christianity than the Saints. The protestation would be justified on the grounds that indeed Saints are not worshipped, Saints are not deified, Saints are not the ultimate object of our petition and praise or adoration. We honour Saints as having lived our lives and being worthy of emulation and we pass our petitions through them to the Almighty God. We impose their names on ourselves to remind us of their lives which we would then be urged to imitate.
This is exactly the same idea in the veneration of ancestors in African traditional
religion. Ancestors are not divinized. My father who dies and is regarded as an ancestor
remains my father and I refer to him as my father. I honour him and I respect him for what
he has done for me and others. By reason of the radical change of mode of existence, it is
believed ancestors have acquired a power that is higher than human. But neither they nor
the lesser gods can act independently from the will of God, the all-powerful, eternal,
all-knowing, superlatively great God. African traditional religion is no more ancestor
worship than Islam is Muhammad worship or Christianity is Saint-Worship.
What is going to follow about the concept of the Supreme Being should make it clear that the word Polytheism should not be used to describe African traditional religion.
Polytheism, in the classical sense, connotes a situation where two or more divinities
are believed to hold an equal status. In a polytheistic situation the pantheon of gods
comprises deities none of whom is thought to be greater than others, even though one may
be considered as primus inter pares. This is not the case with African traditional
religion where the Supreme Being is the creator of all other divinities and does not form
part of the pantheon of divinities but holds a position unique to himself.
Totemism is the belief that there is a relationship between human beings or groups of human beings on the one hand and creatures of the animal and vegetable kingdoms on the other.
Totemistic ideas are strong in the African traditional religion. But this does not
justify our labeling the whole religion totemistic. Indeed, totemism, in relation to the
other concepts, is only an insignificant aspect of African traditional religions.
GOD IS KNOWN
Unfortunately, the foregoing and other misconceptions regarding traditional religion have persisted and caused a lot of confusion. The religion is seen by the skeptics only in terms of what is visible and observable and of worship. Consequently, they come to describe it in the most uncomplimentary terms. They observe only the externals, the slaughtering of sheep and cows, the breaking of eggs, dancing and weird acrobatics, sometimes frightening and " savage display of sheer physical power. In its Constitution on the Church, even Vatican Council II speaks of " those who in shadows and images (emphasis mine) seek the unknown God ''. Apparently this is in reference to primal religions ". But God is known in these religions.
This is where the mistake lies. Religion is essentially something imperceptible,
spiritual. It touches the human person inwardly. It helps to answer fundamental questions
in life. This applies to all religions.
In African traditional religion, there are certain abiding principles which promote
human values and good living. They defy time. These are the values upon which the Creator
designed things in such a way that the African could survive. These are principles and
values which have seen the African through difficult, sometimes seemingly impossible times
in the past. These values do not die. They last forever and they are sublime.
IS DIALOGUE POSSIBLE?
Some have questioned the wisdom or even feasibility of the Catholic Church having a dialogue with African traditional religion Some have even contended that it is impossible for such a dialogue to take place. They argue that there are no structures, no personalities to deal with. In any case, African traditional religion is a passing phase. Social change will soon sweep it into total oblivion. The religion is simply disappearing, dying. People must be converted to Christianity and not be left in delusion. Some who favour dialogue, however nebulously they perceive it, only think in terms of conversion. African traditional religion must not be pushed aside because it is a friendly religion. Most converts from Africa are from it: for the rest it has not much to offer. When they talk about philosophical and religious principles, they do not think of African traditional religion.
The fact is that African traditional religion is not dying. Many of the values it enshrines are lasting values. They are not ephemeral, to be dismissed lightly. Christianity has been the worse for not taking this into account when it first made its appearance on the Black African scene in the 15th century.
African traditional religion still influences people's thinking. Many highly educated
men and women in all walks of life, Christians and Muslims, are affected by it, though
sometimes unconsciously. It can be said that traditional religion is present in many
places in Africa, if at times it is to be found only in a different, sometimes subtle
form. This being the case the need for the Church to " dialogue with African
traditional religion becomes imperative.
Dialogue need not be the same for every religion. In one case like, say, Islam or Buddhism, it may take the form of encountering people, especially religious leaders, organising seminars and conferences, writing letters and books, exchanging visits. In the case of African traditional religion, the form it can and must take should challenge Christians to live our Christianity better. Knowledge and the use of African traditional religion, far from distorting the message of Christ, should enrich it.
If, as holy scripture says, everything was created in, through, and for Christ, then in traditional religion, Christ must be found in some form, no matter how embryonic or seminal. One is tempted to submit that Christ is found in African culture and religion in an overt way. It is inconceivable that God would allow millions of Africans of the past and of the present who did not and do not know the Christian way to perish for such ignorance. There must be a way in which Christ is present in African traditional religion.
It has been suggested by Dulles, for example, that Christ is there in the symbolic
form. This is not the place to go into the in-depth analysis of the notion of symbolism.
But such a proposition is, to say the least, interesting. We shall take up this issue of
symbolism later when we consider it in relation to this discussion of dialogue with
African traditional religion.
An examination of African traditional religion reveals certain concepts of God that stand out clearly as, indeed, Christian. We begin with the very concept of God. In Judaism, we are told that there is no God apart from Yahweh. So unique is Yahweh that no other God is called Yahweh. It is an impossibility to have a lesser Yahweh or a minor Yahweh. Yahweh is Yahweh and that is that.
He is unique, incomparable, superlatively high, almighty, and so on. Deutero-lsaiah would say unhesitatingly that there is no god whatsoever apart from Yahweh. All idols are the work of human beings and those who follow them are foolish. They are as useless as their idols. This is also the thinking of Muslims. In their case, the concept of God is clearly expressed in the first pillar of their religion. " There is no god but God".
In any African language, we find exactly the same situation. God has a name and there is no question of qualifying that name to apply to another being. The writer's own people call God Oyankopon. It is totally inconceivable and ridiculous to have a lesser or minor Oyankopon. The other spirits whom in English we would refer to as lesser gods, have their generic name: obosom (singular), abosom (plural), and specific ones. Mmieh, Kyenekye etc. The Ewe have one name for God, Mawu. They have a totally different name for the so-called lesser deities (Vudu). It will be unthinkable for a Yoruba to have more than one Olodumare or Olorun or for an Igbo to have a Chineke of any description other than their one and only Chineke.
The Supreme Being in Africa enjoys a status immeasurably higher than any other
being's. He is the Creator of all other beings. He is designated by his own name or names.
All others have their own names.
The confusion created by so-called modern languages like English, therefore, is a linguistic problem which is totally not of the African's making.
It is the English language that calls some creatures lesser gods or minor gods or divinities. A thing like that is unheard of in African traditional religion. The idea of the uniqueness of God is so central to Christianity that one would have thought that the African's linguistic sensitivity to it should have been adopted long ago and made use of to explain the nature and attributes of the Christian God. Apart from the names given to the Supreme Being of the African which he shares with none other, there are certain attributes which all African peoples assign to this Supreme Being as his sole prerogative. I cannot think of any other being in the world being called Toturobonsu (the fullest of completion). Tetekwaframoa (Eternal), Daaseens (The Gracious One), Birskyirehunuade (Omniscience), and so on, by my people, the Asante. What is more, these names and attributes speak more about what God actually does for us rather than what God is. They bring God into our life. God is of practical importance to the African.
This is where religion touches the African. God is the "Leaf" that covers the
whole world ", God is the " Fountain of water that never dries up "; God is
the " Source of full satisfaction " and so on. This is concrete and a little
different from just saying God is good, God is powerful.
Encounter with traditional religion, therefore, means Christianity permeating the
culture and allowing itself, thereby, to be enriched in its attempt to evangelize it. This
enrichment can take on many forms. African traditional religion challenges Christianity to
re-appraise itself with regard to the many concepts which once were its pillars, but now
are disappearing or becoming irrelevant.
Wholeness is an idea that is highly theological. Jesus Christ was man and God at the same time. That one person had the nature of God and the nature of man, He was God made visible and he was man, the victim of our sin. Yet he did not draw a rigid dichotomy between his God-head and his humanity, He was at the same time both. He was whole, not truncated. This concept of wholeness is found very clearly in African traditional religion. To the African the rigid dichotomy between the sacred and the profane, the secular and the religious, the material and the immaterial, is artificial. A human person is a composite of spirit and body and must be treated as such. If he were body alone, he would be a brute animal. Were he only spirit, he would be an angel. He is a human being precisely because of the inseparable combination of body and spirit. Hence disease does not affect the body alone, it has to do with the spirit also.
Politics is not divorced from ordinary life. Whatever a person is doing in the ideal traditional set-up, he is involved in religion. Religion is part of life. It permeates a person's life from cradle to grave. A person is born into a religious atmosphere and from his conception to his death, there are major religious rituals to mark the major turning points of his existence.
There is little doubt that many of the problems of the world today stem from the artificial barrier we have placed between the religious and the profane. We no longer see human beings and phenomena in holistic terms, as undivided unity.
We speak of and deal piecemeal with, economic problems, political problems,
moral problems, instead of thinking in terms of human problems. In the last
analysis, every problem is a human issue not easily amenable to dissection. This is a
theme that African traditional religion could enrich universal Christianity with.
Following on the idea of unity in phenomena, is the very important concept of symbolism. Symbols are indispensable in any religion. Jesus Christ himself can be said to be the Sacrament of God. He symbolised the Father's love for humanity but he also symbolised human being's response to that immense love of the Father.
Some clever scholar has shrewdly described Jesus as the first audiovisual aid! The point is that coming in contact with Deity is not in the normal course of things. Deity has to be reached by means of a kind of bridge between humanity and Deity. The bridge may be words, gesticulations, objects, postures, signs, etc. These are not the reality itself. They are symbols which give us an idea of the reality. The are the connecting links between the seen and the unseen. Every religion has them. Indeed, it would appear that without symbols, religion would be impossible. The sacraments are very concrete examples of symbols and their use. In the sacraments, we use objects and words to stand for a spiritual reality and to cause it. We are proud to use flags, college blazers and crests and insignia of office.
Flags stand for patriotism and in a way cause it: we salute flags, fly them half-mast
to show grief and on ships to indicate country of origin. College blazers and crests
indicate and sustain loyalty to the alma-rnater. In all African cultures, symbol
play a vital role in the life of the people. Our culture is a symbolic culture. We find
symbols in our dances, in our language, in our art and craft, in our institutions such as
marriage and chieftaincy - everywhere. There was a time when the Church rightly emphasized
the importance of symbols; but the present Western world has inherited a host of symbols
that appear to he meaningless to it. Having lost the true meaning of symbols, it is no
wonder that the Western world is also gradually losing the sense of religion itself. The
Church itself is a sacrament of the risen Lord. The Church symbolizes Christ and his
salvific activity among us, and at the same time makes Christ present to us. Here again,
traditional religion could be a challenge to orthodox Christianity and could enrich the
SACREDNESS OF LIFE
One other concept vital to African traditional religion is that of respect for sacredness of life. Life is held to be sacred. To give birth to a child is on the part of both the man and the woman, the greatest thing that can happen to a human being. Life must be given, life must be lived, life is to be enjoyed, life is to be whole, life is to be honourable, life is to be long and peaceful. Therefore, in the true setting of the African, willful abortion or even contraception was a rarity, if not an impossibility.
The modern world plays around with life. The modern world, placing the cart before the horse, equates good life with productivity and ingenuity. It has lost the sense of the true humanity of the person. It has allowed itself to be dominated by crude technocracy. We are in the civilization of science and technology. While nobody can deny the importance of these in our lives, it must be obvious that science and technology without humanity are simply tyrannical. Wrongly handled, they are capable of destroying the whole of humanity. But, of course, life without the use of science and technology nowadays would be, in some ways, impotent.
A better knowledge of African traditional religion could bring a corrective to the
anti-life mentality which is developing in some parts of the world. It could provide a
reminder of God's original intention in creating the human being to his own image and
likeness. Contrary to the opinion of many non-Africans, it is a fact that even in the
past, the life of human beings was not just got rid of without reason. Among the Asante, a
person could be killed only by the highest authority and a person was killed when he had
committed a crime that demanded the death penalty. The second occasion was when a chief or
a king died. It was thought proper for the king to be accompanied by subjects since the
belief was that he was going to be a ruler in the next world. These two occasions apart,
the taking away of human life met with capital punishment. The earth was believed to abhor
bloodshed. Even when one killed an enemy in war, one had to undergo ritual ablutions to
purify oneself. These practices were religiously-based, and it is, indeed, a sign of
present-day loss of a deep sense of religion that human life can be taken with impunity.
Closely following on the concept of the sacredness of life is the concept of the immortality of the soul. These concepts are all interlinked. The person is a knit unit. He is body and soul at the same time. His dignity and his immortality are symbolized in the great respect that is held for his life. Death is not considered to be the end of man. It is believed to be a change of state. Death is a journey into a better world where a person lives for ever. In that world, the person is not just indifferent to what happens among the living. He is so alive that he is interested, and actually takes part, in the affairs of the living.
Flowing from this idea of the immortality of the soul is the notion of retribution. A person will be judged after his death in accordance with his deeds on earth. God, the judge, is just and will not look at persons but will mete out to each and everyone what he deserves. African traditional religion " told" the African all this long before Christianity reached the various regions of Africa.
The corollary to the concept of the immortality of the soul and the interest of the dead in the affairs of the living is the belief in the Communion of Saints. True, African traditional religion does not use the terminology "Communion of Saints". However, an analysis of the relationship between the living and the dead shows clearly that there is an affinity with Christian belief in this respect.
The living are stilt struggling. They have to meet the ups and downs of life. They have to overcome temptations and obstacles in order to be able to enter the world of the dead. The dead, on their part, are doing everything possible to assist the living to observe faithfully the injunctions that they have left them as a lasting legacy. There is, therefore, constant interaction between the dead and the living. It is for this reason that one African scholar has called the ancestors " the living-dead". The ancestors are approached in a human pragmatic way with problems. The African knows the answer can ultimately only come from the Supreme Being himself. But it is believed that the Supreme Being has left certain things in the hands of his lieutenants to deal with. It is his right to delegate.
Again, a close and objective analysis of the situation shows that there is a parallel
between the Christian concept of the Church Triumphant and the Church Militant on the one
hand, and the ancestors and the living on the other. It looks as if God, in his ineffable
providence, has provided in the African soil a providential preparation for the seed of
This brings us to the concept of community in Africa. This was made a special topic of discussion to African Bishops by Pope Paul VI of blessed memory.
The African lives in community. It has been said that Descartes wrote: Cogito ergo sum (I think; therefore I am). The African would say: Cognatus sum ergo sum (I am related; therefore I am). The African lives in community. His father is not just the person biologically responsible for his conception. His mother is not necessarily the woman who physically gave him birth. He may have as many as fifteen " fathers" and ten "mothers,,. In the ideal situation, each one of these would treat him as his biological father or mother would. Since he has several " mothers" and " fathers ", obviously he has many more brothers and sisters, nephews and nieces. In fact, in some African languages, the words " cousin," aunt,'' "uncle," do not exist. One's father's brother is one's father and one's mother's sister is one's mother. Therefore, the African family is very much extended. This is what Christianity is supposed to effect - extended families.
Baptism incorporates us into the family of Christ which has no racial or national or even continental boundaries. St. Paul would say: In Christ there is no slave or free man, no Greek or Roman; we are all members of his Mystical Body. Moreover, the African family comprises also the dead and the unborn. Therefore, it can never decrease; it can only increase all the time. Through marriage, other relationships are contracted which widen one's circle of intimate contact.
Besides, the African values friendship greatly. In some cases, friendships are institutionalised to an extent where the bond between one and one's friend becomes even stronger than the bond between one and one's own blood sister or brother.
In the African social structure, therefore, we have all the ingredients that could go
into the preparation of the Christian family soup. The pity is that this has not been
fully recognized or exploited. I submit that the advantages and values of the nuclear
family do not outweigh the benefits to the individual of the extended family - and this is
There is no doubt that African traditional religion promotes humanity. It deals in a pragmatic way with human existence. In that religion, we are each other's keeper. What you do concerns me and what you refuse to do is my affair. I can ask you, as a member of my society, to keep the religious injunctions of that society because I know that your refusal to comply with the religious rules of the society has effects that involve me.
African traditional religion pervades life. It is not a fashion. Neither is it like
clothes that you wear today and change or discard tomorrow. Religion is like your skin.
You take it wherever you go. Hence religion is not taught or learned as a classroom
subject. Religion is picked up imperceptibly through imitation, observation, participation
in religious rites and just being an African. African religion promotes human values such
as hospitality, kindness, love, unity, gratitude, hard work and, above all, self-help. It
promotes fidelity in human relationships. It moulds and shapes the characters of human
One of the most serious charges that can be leveled against a human being is that he is a traitor. In " advanced " so-called civilized nations, treason carries with it the severest of penalties, including death, even where capital punishment is otherwise abolished. One has to be faithful to one's pledge or obligations. African traditional religion lays the emphasis on fidelity. It stresses the horizontal dimensions of life. Once that is in order, it is believed that the vertical relationship of man to God will then be regularized. One is reminded here of what St. John says: How can you say you love God whom you do not see, if you do not love your neighbour whom you see? African religion insists on love of the neighbour whom we see as a prelude to, a sign and, indeed, a proof of, the love of God whom we do not see.
African traditional religion insists on faithfulness as a concrete indication of love: faithfulness to one's religious duties, authority, relations, civic obligations, etc. One who fails to be faithful and therefore does not love is described as not being a human being. He only wears the skin of a human being. A person who constantly and persistently causes havoc in society, thus betraying his people by exposing them to suffering, ridicule and disdain, is simply a beast, Many an African language has such a highly uncomplimentary expression to describe people whose behaviour is tantamount to treachery of the highest ideals of the society.
As these and others are the principles underlying African traditional religion, it is surprising that people should be speaking of the death or irrelevance of African traditional religion.
If this "death" or "irrelevance" were possible, it would be a tragedy to the whole of humanity. It would spell the final doom of the African already precariously hanging onto life under the stranglehold of oppression, domination, material poverty, hunger and disease.
The interaction or dialogue between Christianity and African traditional religion, therefore, should be centred on the areas where the enrichment of Christianity itself can take place. When this encounter takes place then the African culture itself will be further elevated to a plane higher than where it has reached. The exercise amounts to helping one's helper. For African traditional religion cannot attain to certain heights in religion. It was, for example, impossible for African traditional religion to have discovered the Trinity by itself. African traditional religion could not have attained the knowledge of the Incarnation. Suffering, for African traditional religion, is an evil. It is the cause of personal sin or some other people's wickedness. The love of the neighbour is entirely acceptable to African traditional religion. The love of the enemy preached by Christ is an entirely different proposition. These and others are beyond the grasp of African traditional religion, as, I suppose, they are beyond the grasp of many other religions, so-called world or great religions not excepted. The contention, therefore, is that African traditional religion should be allowed to be explored to assist in the process of the propagation of the Message of Christ.
In the process it will shed its ' objectionable' aspects, and will be able to help Africans to come to a level of finesse which can only be attained through the influence of Christ. Our submission is that it is when we make judicious use of African traditional religion that we can realize in Africa one of the noble visions of the great Pope Paul VI: "The building of a civilization of love."