Proceedings Of The First Annual Conference Towards A Global Congress Of World Religions - Edited by Warren Lewis - 1978
Warren Lewis: Honored colleagues, I greet and welcome you on behalf of the faculty, administration, and students of Unification Theological Seminary. We are gathered today to take another significant step towards the convocation -- we hope in 1981 -- of the first meeting of a Global Congress of the world's religions. We are reaching out to other groups and individuals interested in the cause of world-wide ecumenics, as we have reached out to you, seeking your help and dependent upon your wisdom. We know we do not know enough about Africa even to understand its plight and promise, much less to offer Africa advice or leadership in time of trouble. Therefore, we have asked you to come and teach us, as you confer with one another.
Similarly, we sense our limitations to convoke on our own strength and by ourselves the "U.N. of religions" which we envision. In the same way, then, we are calling for co-sponsors to step forward and join with us in full collegiality in the planning and structuring of a planetary forum where the most spiritual, inspired, critically insightful, and sensibly intellectual religious hearts and minds of our time can concentrate their moral power for the sake of humanity. The Global Congress we propose would have no military force to implement its decisions, could invoke no economic sanctions against its enemies, and would not exercise the power of excommunication against even its own dissident members. For, if a Global Congress is to be global, it needs to remain an open platform for the clarification of the deepest issues of human meaning from the pluralistic viewpoints of all the many religions. The rule of mutual toleration would mean in this case that anything goes and from anyone. No one could expect organizational union or ideological unity in such a circumstance; but the unification of hearts and humane intentions which might arise above this humble Babel would be the work that only a holy and pentecostal Spirit could accomplish.
This same rule of pluralism, I suggest, applies to our deliberations here today. We will deal with hot problems and concepts over which there is desperate disagreement. But we fear neither the variety nor the conflict of opinions; rather, we affirm our desire to create love while we struggle. We will take long, hard looks at the political, economic, cultural, racial and other implications of the issues which we discuss in religious language. Anyone is at liberty to say anything he feels the need to say, and can go ahead and say it knowing that we will all listen and accept the harshest statements of another's perspective on reality. However much I may disagree with that point of view, it is, nevertheless, accurate in that other person's eyes.
Thus far, our proposal for a Global Congress has met with overwhelming approval; and certainly no one has suggested that we are making our move to focus the global religious consciousness too soon! Your presence with us today is further evidence of the viability of the idea. We are also communicating with other groups with similar interests. We have heard from Pakistan and Iran in the Muslim world. Leading Hindu and Buddhist scholars have declared themselves solidly with us. And a variety of Jewish and Christian scholars and religious leaders have responded. The further we go, the more certain we become that we are on the right road.
There is, then, something particularly special about the mini-congress in which you are about to participate. This is not just another conference of dispassionate academics, but is a daring stride forward taken by passionately religious individuals towards martialing the powers of thought and word, of the symbolic, the meaningful, and the religious depths and heights of human experience for the sake of Africa and the globe. We are proposing today -- we of the Unification Seminary and you who are with us -- to hold a regional congress of the religions in Africa as a major stage in our passage towards 1981 and the Global Congress.
Each of you major participants and panelists will be discoursing on the subjects you have chosen according to your best insights. But as we hear you and as you hear one another, we shall all be listening for wisdom and guidance in our project to facilitate the calling of the religions to congress in Africa. Therefore, I invite you, indeed, I implore you, to talk with one another and with us as we apply our knowledge towards discovering the means which will best implement the Congress of Religions in Africa and, ultimately, the Global Congress. Who ought the co-sponsors to be? What issues and actions are appropriate for our attention? Who are the leading hearts to be engaged in this movement? What are the best strategies for success and impact of our concerted actions?
We are here, today, to greet the Bright Continent, looking forward to a day in the near future when we shall once again convene ourselves on that other shore. We do not propose to "help" Africa; we have no "advice" to offer; rather, we come, respectful of Africa's autochthonous and indigenized religions, seeking guidance towards the peace and prosperity of the wide world. We ask not what we can do for Africa, but what Africa can do for us all!
Hail, Bright Continent -- bright with your new future, your fresh energy, your untapped resources, and your young and vigorous daughters and sons; tell us how to have a world as healthy as a whole and happy tribal village.
Hail, Bright Continent -- bright with the light of your own spiritual traditions, your enlightened ones, and the unique revelations you have received from On High; help lead the way to a Global communion of all spirits.
Hail, Bright Continent -- unfortunately bright with the fires of warfare and the flare of probably necessary and certainly painful revolutions; we agonize with you in your re-birth pangs as you resurrect from the tombs of imperial and colonial domination, the grave inter-tribal hatreds from within, and the morbidity of racial bigotry imposed from without. May these evil spirits which have made you seem dark to the ignorant eyes of the outsider fall back before the dawn light that shines forth from Messiah's face.
Bright Continent, we pray for you:
Hail! Hail! Hail! Let happiness
Our stools and our brooms...
If we dig a well, may it be at a spot where water is.
If we take water to wash our shoulders, may we be refreshed.
Nyongmo give us blessing!
May the village be blest!
May the priests be blest!
May the mouthpieces of spirit-world be blest!
May we be filled, going and coming.
May we not drop our head-pads except at the big pot.
May our fruitful women be like gourds, and may they bring forth and sit down.
May misfortunes jump over us. If today anyone takes up a stick or a stone against this our blessing, do we bless him?
May his own curse overtake him, flog him on Wednesday, and kill him on Sunday.
Hail! Let happiness come! Is our voice one?
Hail! Let happiness come!
(Ga Tribe of Ghana)
Peace to the children!
Peace to the gardens!
Peace to Africa!
Peace to our world!
Peace to the children!
Peace to the gardens!
Peace to Africa!
Peace to our world!
(Kikuyu Tribe of Kenya)
It is now both my personal and professional pleasure to introduce a new friend of mine. Professor William Jones is director of African Studies at Florida State University where he is also professor of religion. I hold in my hand his most widely read literary document, Is God a White Racist? Now, if that doesn't raise the ante from the first bet, I don't know what would. Bill Jones is to the Black liberation community what Dick Rubenstein is to the Jewish community, the man who asks the hard questions. That is why we have asked him to chair the activities today. His own spiritual pilgrimage is indicative in and of itself. He started out a Baptist minister's son, but now he is a Unitarian-Universalist ordained minister. He bills himself as a humanist, and he is a man who talks about "functional ultimacy." Bill, the only advice I have for you today is to encourage you not to drop your head-pad before you get to the big pot!
William Jones (Conference Chairman): Before I introduce the speaker and panelists, I would just like to make a few observations about the conference. It is seldom that one finds a distinguished assembly of speakers and panelists like the one gathered here today. That is true for meetings in America as well as in Africa. I personally would like to applaud the sponsors for their insight in assembling this illustrious group. I would also applaud the sponsors for the understanding and sensitivity about African thought and culture reflected in their choice of the conference theme and the selection of panelists.
African culture and thought are a whole. Africans do not make the distinctions we make between religion and culture, religion and philosophy. Our panelists reflect that kind of comprehensive and totalistic approach to today's subject matter.
Assembled here are representatives of African religion and philosophy. In addition, we recognize that African thought has continued outside the motherland, wherever her sons and daughters have been taken. I have reference to Afro-American thought, for instance, "the Diaspora." We have a representative of that point of view as well.
Let me introduce our panelists: The Rev. Victor Wan-Tatah, graduate student now at Harvard Divinity School. Mr. Wan-Tatah is a Presbyterian minister who has served in the communications department of mass media. He is from Loso in Cameroon.
Mr. Shawn Byrne is an organizer for the National Council of Church and Social Action. I had the pleasure of meeting him last December at a conference in Washington. I wish to welcome him to our proceedings.
Dr. Francis Botchway, from Ghana, is a professor of international law and political science and head of the Department of Afro-American Studies at the University of Cincinnati. He received his B.A. degree from Columbia University in public law and government. He has certificates in Russian, Eastern European and Chinese areas of study, as well as an M.A. and Ph.D. in international law and organization from the New School for Social Research.
Our speaker for the morning, Dr. Deotis Roberts, received his B.A. degree from Johnson C. Smith's, his B.D. from Shaw University. He received an M.S. degree in systematic theology from Hartford Theological Seminary, and his Ph.D. from Edinburgh, Scotland. Currently he is Professor of Religion at Howard University. He is the editor of the Journal of Religious Thought, and a visiting professor at Claremont Theological Seminary. Last year he engaged in intriguing and profitable dialogue with a number of European theologians and politicians, particularly in Germany. He is the author of numerous books; A Black Political Theology and Liberation and Reconciliation are his most famous ones.
Before I give him the podium, I would simply like to identify the point of view and attitude which I bring to this conference, and I hope that you will share with me. Albert Camus put it quite well when he said, "The world needs real dialogue;" and he goes on to say, "Falsehood is just as much the opposite of dialogue as a silence." He concludes, "The only possible and authentic dialogue is the kind that takes place between people who remain what they are and speak their minds." It is this spirit, I trust, that we bring to this conference. Thank you.
Deotis Roberts: Thank you, Bill, for the introduction. I am very pleased to have the association and fellowship with Bill Jones, who has been a colleague of mine for many years, having been a student at Howard a number of years back and also a member of the faculty of philosophy; and therefore, it is wonderful to have him here and to be associated with him. One of the contributions that Bill has made for which we do not give him as much credit as I think he deserves, is the criticisms that he has brought to bear upon other Black scholars, especially questions of methodology. I know personally that his sharp criticisms have been helpful to me, to keep me alert, and I hope that he continues to be hard on us and keep us moving.
Some of the things that I am about to say today are controversial, and certainly, having listened to my friends from Africa, I know that many of the things I say will be subject to vigorous criticism; but I am an exploratory thinker and I am open to this kind of dialogue.
Much has been written recently on the contextualization of theology in Africa by African theologians. A fruitful dialogue has been initiated between the Afro-American theologians and African theologians, and I have been a part of that dialogue for several years now. African theologians have been in dialogue with European theologians, and African theologians have participated in discussions with third-world theologians. What I have been asked to do is somewhat distinct from all of these previous efforts. It is, however, related to most of these discussions. My understanding is that I have been asked to look at the traditional African religions and lift out elements which might contribute to Christian theology in general, looking at it as one who has roots in Africa and of course being a Westerner also.
I am to do this as an Afro-American and as a theologian trained and functioning in the West. It should be clear from my title that I am dealing with traditional African religion. And I am going to use "religion" deliberately, not "religions," for I shall be concerned with the common characteristics of religious experience in so-called Black Africa, south of the Sahara.
My task is to explore elements in this body of religious experience which may prove useful in Christian theological discourse. We are dialoguing, as I understand it, with a living tradition. Those of us who have had some work in the history of religions know that there is very often a distinction made between religions that are still alive and those that no longer have a living presence. We are dealing here with a living tradition, and we should treat it in that way. But it is a tradition that has a long history that antedates, of course, the colonial period in Africa. The historical study of African religion is necessary if we are to understand contemporary developments. Our dialogue is to take place with a living tradition, a dynamic tradition, in which there are new areas of application as well as continuities with the past. African traditional religion was never wholly particularistic. Religious concepts, symbols and practices had a currency wider than other elements of our ethnically based culture. Religious movements, cults and objects were subject to historical diffusion. On the other hand, African traditional religion had an ethnic base in the sense that it was articulated through the socio-political institutions of the tribe. However much religious concepts and symbols transcended the horizons of traditional culture, the African could only experience his religion and give expression to it through the structures of the tribe.
Multiple adaptations in relative isolation to different environments and effects on small populations produced the fragmented, autonomous groupings that we call the tribes. It was in the tribes that African traditional religion received its visible expression. Authority was basically politico-religious, and professional priesthoods and other cultic officers or forms of religious dedication represented partial approaches to the specializations that went on within the religious systems as a whole. At the territorial level it was the hierarchy of family heads, clan leaders, elders and chiefs who presided over religious rituals, led the people in worship and took the lead or initiative in creating and manipulating the religious institutions, such as oracles or rites of initiation. Tribal loyalty is still important, but it has undergone a rapid and radical transformation. From being a more or less autonomous political unit, it has now developed into an ideology of unity or a symbol of cultural identity. African traditional religion, therefore, co-exists with the missionary religions -- Christianity, Islam and Judaism.
In addition, new, visible forms of African traditional religion are coming into existence. Communities of affliction would be one example. These are voluntary associations, more or less religious in character, which cater to sick people and people in need of status definition. These usually include a form of spirit mediumship and attach much importance to the freedom of experience, such as speaking in tongues. These movements have affinity with Pentecostalism and faith healing. African religious traditions also find a new lease on life in the so-called independent churches. These are listed as belonging to three main categories -- those that are designated as Christian, Hebraist, or neo-Traditional. In the Christian type, the differences with the parent mission churches are historical rather than theological. In the Hebraist type is found a form of neo-Judaism, with varied emphasis on aspects of the Old Testament tradition. In those designated as neo-Traditional, there is a conscious revival and development of African traditional religion. It is in the neo-Traditional type of churches that the most distinctive African religious roots are to be found. And finally, there is the presence of traditional African religious experience in historic churches and in Islam.1
The burden of my discussion will be on ways of thinking among African people. Some years ago I read a book by a Japanese professor, Prof. Nakamura of Tokyo University, on ways of thinking of Eastern peoples, where he dealt with the way Indians, Tibetans, Chinese and Japanese people think. This gave me an insight into the possibility that there are ways of thinking that are non-Western, as well as ways of believing that are non-Western. I want to deal here with the ways of thinking that are African. This has some affinity with what we are doing with Black religion and Black theology, so it is not alien to our interests in this country.
African Protestant writers have been quicker to interest themselves in the religious beliefs of the traditional African experiences than some Catholic writers. The reason seems to be that Roman Catholics need a philosophical foundation for theology. Protestants, on the other hand, can develop a theology based "on the biblical faith of Africans which speaks to the African soul."2 This implies using African categories of thought arising out of the experience of African people. This does not imply that African Protestant theologians are not cautious regarding what they are able to use from traditional African religions. Mbiti acknowledges that he is not fully certain how much he can use from African traditional religions. He asks, for example, "How far can we or should we regard African religiosity as a preparation for the gospel?"3 He concludes that he is sure that this background cannot be ignored. Idowu asserts that we should apprehend African spiritual values with the African mind, while possessing the pre requisite knowledge of the fundamental facts of the faith which are to be expressed and disseminated in these indigenous idioms.4
With their neo-scholastic training, Roman Catholic scholars assume that there could be no African theology without a prior discovery of an African philosophy, and this search has been a disappointment, mainly because of a limited view of philosophy held by these same Roman Catholics. If they had a broad view of philosophy, they could include African ways of thinking under the canopy of philosophical reflection; but because they have a limited understanding of the meaning of philosophy, which they have gained from their neo-scholastic backgrounds, they are unable to appreciate African ways of thinking, and therefore they have not been able to unearth an acceptable understanding of African philosophy as a prerequisite for African theology.
Protestants, on the other hand, have been less restricted in their attitude toward philosophy and have refused to be restricted by Western definitions of it. Mbiti asserts that behind the religious diversity in traditional Africa there is a single philosophy. He admits that the interpretation of African life through word and action may involve subjective judgment. African neo-scholastics would not be satisfied with the subjective approach to philosophy. Such a thinker would want to build a rational, conceptual system out of African traditional thought, comparable to the classical Western tradition in philosophy.
Kagame, an African neo-scholastic, illustrates this point of view. He admits that the question of an African philosophy has arisen because of the encounter with European philosophy. It is through the inspiration from European philosophy that the African thinks of trying to express the traditional thought of his people as a conceptual system. He accepts Aristotle, for example, as his guide because he believes that Aristotle has universal breadth and relevance.
At one point, Africans were flattered that Europeans had taken their original ideas seriously enough to build a rational conceptual system out of them. They saw this as a corrective to the attitudes of Levy-Bruh5 and Emil Ludwig, who asserted the incapacity of Africans to think conceptually. Edwin Smith reports that in a conversation with Ludwig, he explained that missionaries were teaching Africans about God. Ludwig was perplexed and responded in the following words, "How can the untutored Africans conceive God? Deity is a philosophical concept which savages are incapable of framing."6
Now this kind of mentality has operated in the West; Ludwig is not alone. He expressed it openly, but others have this in their minds. It is understood, then, why Tempels' work on Bantu philosophy generated considerable excitement. With Aristotle and Aquinas as guides, Tempels and his pupil, Kagame, explored the ideas of some of the Bantu language. They discovered African parallels to concepts such as being, existence, and causality. They developed an ontological and epistemological structure on the Bantu understanding of vital force. In this way they revealed fresh and typically African emphases and categories. But these philosophical constructs were based almost exclusively on the study of language: linguistic analysis, language structure, and on the range of meanings of particular words. The main literary source was the corpus of proverbs assumed to contain the wisdom of Africa and sometimes the names and attributes of the Supreme Being.7
In fact, proverbs are often cynical statements about life that may rest upon observation and experience only, while the etymology of names, minus other kinds of evidence, can incur all kinds of fantasies and misinterpretations. A part of the problem is a disdain by many philosophers of what I would call symbolic thought. Symbolic ways of thinking were not considered as meeting acceptable standards as far as the cogency of reason is concerned. It was felt that symbols could not be studied systematically as symbols. It was held that they had to be transformed into reasoned concepts, and that every people had to evolve in their thinking from a symbolic stage to a philosophical or scientific stage of thought.
The work of Levi-Strauss, and the methods he used in the materials he extracted from African experience, seemed to give a new direction to Western appreciation for symbolic thinking. Furthermore, it was asserted that one could remain within the scope of rational thought without doing away with concrete symbols, and at the same time articulate and render them more intelligible.
The interpretation of symbols is not limited to verbal symbols. Symbolic action is perhaps more important. Victor Turner's studies have complemented the work of Levi-Strauss at this point. African ritual, according to Turner, is a configuration of manufactured symbols with varied structures and different levels of meaning. Turner's concepts of the positional meaning of symbols, which are linked to other, related contexts in the whole range of culture, is a way of relating parts to the whole.8 So this perspective, that we can use symbolic thinking and, from our appreciation for that, move to a deeper understanding of the meaning of symbols in African thought and experience, I think, is very constructive.
Mbiti asserts that a linear concept of time moving from creation to consummation is foreign to African thinking. There is a past and a present but a virtual absence, he would say, of a concept of the future. The future is therefore either potential time or no time. Africans must experience time for it to make sense to them. Time moves backward rather than forward in African experience, according to Mbiti.
Now these are two dimensions -- past and present, or the dominant periods in the life of an individual and the community. Two Swahili words are used, "zamani" and "sasa," to designate time -- zamani (past) and sasa (present). The two time-periods are said to overlap and there is no necessary separation between them. Zamani is not just "time," it is the period in which people exist and in which they project themselves primarily into the past and, to a lesser extent, into the future. Sasa is a micro-time, but its future is almost actualized and nearly passed away by the time one recognizes it. So vague is the future as anticipation that East African languages, according to Mbiti, do not provide a word for the future in their vocabularies.
The zamani period is called macro-time, or big time. It is past, present and whatever future there is. It overlaps with sasa. Before events are absorbed into zamani, big time, they must first occur in little time, sasa. And then they move backward into zamani, in which everything finds its termination. According to Mbiti then, zamani is the storehouse of all phenomena and events -- a vast ocean of time where everything gets absorbed into reality. Thus, sasa and zamani have quantity and quality; for example, the good, long, short, bad, in relation to a particular phenomenon
Chronology, then, is reckoned in traditional societies in Africa by phenomenon calendars, or event calendars, rather than numerical calendars. Time is not measured for its own sake but according to the importance of the happenings that take place in one's experience. Lunar months have names in relation to harvest events and other events, like hunting. A year is complete, then, when the seasons and activities of a complete year have been realized. Africans expect the years to come and go in an endless rhythm, like that of day and night and the waxing and waning of the moon.9
Now we see that John Mbiti helps us to appreciate the place of myth in African traditional thought. History flows backward, as it were. There is no golden age in the sense of progressing forward into a golden period. No belief in progress, no end time. The center of gravity in African thought is zamani. Therefore, African thought is preoccupied with the myths of creation. There are many myths explaining creation, the first man, the fall of man, and the origins of history, the genesis of things; but there are no myths, according to Mbiti, for the end time, the eschaton. Humans look backward from whence they came and are certain that nothing shall bring this world to a conclusion. Mbiti writes, "Human life flows, follows a rhythm of nature which nothing can destroy -- birth, puberty, initiation, marriage, procreation, death, entering into the company of the departed and eventually into the company of the spirits. Another rhythm is also at work, that of days and nights, months, seasons and years. This two-fold rhythm of nature goes on forever."10
It will be necessary to return to John Mbiti again, but for the present, I wish to explore briefly the role of myth in African traditional thinking. We are not concerned with the content of African mythology at the present time, but with myth as a way of thinking. Charles Long, a Black scholar in the field of history of religions, provides some helpful reflections upon the value of mythical thinking. He rightly points out that we affirm in our world, the West, a rationalistic form of thinking, and usually consign myth to the fanciful, the fantasy of imagination, the unreal.11 We therefore consider peoples and cultures given to mythical thinking as unreal. Some theologians, Long recalls, abhor the use of myths because they think it refers to the fanciful and the unreal. He asserts that the study of people who live in myth-making cultures would be a corrective to this misinformed attitude of Western scholars. Myth, according to Long, is a true story, a story about reality. It is impossible to understand reality and peoples from a myth-making culture unless one understands their reality in relation to myth. I quote from Long: "When we speak of understanding their reality, we are speaking of their reality in the precise sense of their human presence, their specificity and qualitative meaning in time and space. We are not denying the possibility of understanding them on other levels (for example, as a biological being), but such an understanding tells us little, if anything, about their humaneness."12 Myths are not true, he goes on to say, in the literal sense, according to the way we understand literalness in the West; but literalness, he says, is not to be equated with truth. Mythic thinking is not to be identified with logic. On the other hand, it is not illogical or pre-logical. Myth is at the same time logical and illogical, logical and magical, rational and irrational. It represents man's initial confrontation with the powers in the world. Now, the beings referred to in myths are forms of power grasped existentially or in terms of experience; and in myths, expression is being given to man's reaction to life as a source of power and being. The word and content of myth, he understands to be revelations of power.13
The veneration of the earth, totemic animals, and ancestors in myth-making cultures makes it clear that the apprehension of life as power is the main concern of the mythic consciousness. But it is to be remembered, according to Long, that the coming of the rational in our experience does not mean the end of the mythic. The mythic and the rational co-exist. The mythic apprehension of reality is not a victim of evolution. Alongside the rational, it remains a mode of thought through which we have access to what is real and what is true. There are human experiences on the personal and the cultural level which can only be expressed in symbolic form. These meanings are in many cases the most profound meanings in our lives because they symbolize the specificity of our human situation. Myth is a symbolic ordering which makes clear how the world is present for man.14 In religious thought, the use of analogy may be an attempt to deal discursively with symbolic forms of human expression. And then in-depth psychology has made it clear that the most profound relationships of human existence cannot be rendered adequately on the level of consciousness and rational thought.
I quote from Long: "The most profound symbols of human reality seem to include as the necessary ingredient a dimension of reality which is more than human and more than natural."15 He tells us that the cosmogonic myths, the myths of creation, convey profound meanings. The creation myth is an expression of man's cosmic orientations. This involves one's apprehension of time and space, one's participation in the natural order, the relationship between humans as well as the ultimate powers which sustain human existence in the world.16
In this section we have looked briefly at method in African ways of thought. We have concluded that there are similarities and yet differences between African ways of thinking and Western ways of thinking. It is obvious to me that Africans have much in common with Asians as distinguished from Western modes of thought. Thus far, few African scholars have done the serious work that needs to be done in either the history of religion or comparative religion. This makes the work of Black scholars like Charles Long very important. We need to know that literalness and logic do not necessarily equal truth, that mythic or symbolic ways of thinking are up-to-date, and that they touch life at a profound level of meaning. This would unlock for us the context of much of African traditional religious experience and thought.
Next I want to look at some of the contents of African religious experience and, therefore, project some of these possible contributions that may come from that. Before I read the works by African religious scholars, I had concluded that the subject of African traditional religion was unmanageable, that I could not really get anything from it because it was like a forest. It appears that the diversity of tribal customs, religious systems, languages and many other factors were too vast for any Westerner, Black or White, to tackle. This appeared to be the case notwithstanding the fact that my study of non-Western religion had been extensive. Through reading men like Mbiti and others, the subject matter became more within the range of my vision, and I discovered that African religion at the core is similar across the continent, at least south of the Sahara Desert. The beliefs in a supreme God, lesser spirits and reverence for ancestors are held in common. These are the essence or vital core of beliefs of African traditional religion. Furthermore, I discovered that the African theologians interpreted these basic beliefs in such a manner as to relate to biblical faith. Studying African religion at the same time that I was discovering the Black religious heritage was a kind of reinforcing experience, for in some ways we are dealing with a continuous tradition in the African/Afro-American connection. Of course, there is much discontinuity as well as continuity when we enter into this subject matter.17 According to an African scholar from Nigeria, Osadolor Imasogie, monotheism is the only adequate description for African traditional religion. There are lesser spirits or divinities, but these are regarded as having been created at a point determined by the supreme reality. However, the place given these divinities is so conspicuous that monotheism must be qualified in such a way that this prominence is maintained while the underlying monotheistic motif is not obscured. Imasogie elects to use "bureaucratic monotheism" to describe African traditional religion. He sees this as appropriate because of the relationships between divinities and the socio-political patterns of African society. African society is highly organized. It is hierarchical in nature. Kings are at the top. Kings appoint ministers to see to the day-to-day activities of their subjects. Various languages in Africa have specific names for the Supreme Being as opposed to the names for the lesser spirits.
The divinities are mainly derived from the personification of various aspects of nature which symbolize God's continuing providential concern over creation.18 The God in traditional African religion is a creator and is also a God of providence. God to Africans was never a theistic god in the Western sense. The names and attributes of God reflect an understanding of God as good, merciful, just and caring. God is a father or mother, and Africans often say, "God has been merciful, He has been good to me." God can overrule the power of the ancestors and the spirits. There is often a childlike expression of faith toward the Supreme Being.
For most traditional believers, God is not a God who is so removed from experience that He is completely without function within experience. Though He is often felt to be unapproachable or transcendent, He is believed to be at work at the same time in and behind all that happens and exists. European Christians who find it extremely difficult to relate Sunday's worship to Monday's work could learn from African believers how to capture a consistent religious experience of life; this would be a real spiritual enrichment for them.19
Mbiti, in a study on the names of God, unearthed several important attributes of God held by traditional believers. Two of these are God's active and creative involvements in the world. The names of God speak about the work or activities of God. Africans conceive of God as an active Being, as personal, as one who manifests Himself through what He does. He observes that Africans are not given to much meditation in religious matters, but instead they celebrate their religious life. God is therefore sought in action rather than in pure contemplation. He is related to the created universe. His presence and power are manifest in and through natural objects and phenomena. God is intimately associated with the universe, as its creator and sustainer, but the universe itself is a manifestation of God.20 So the writer is struck by the similarities between the traditional names for God and those that are used for God in scripture.21
Shorter pulls together the content of Africa's tradition in religion and its contribution. He speaks of the following: 1) a sense of religious wholeness; 2) symbolism as a means of communication; 3) fecundity, physical generation, life and the sharing of life; 4) man in community; 5) the relation between human and spiritual beings.22 Africans affirm wholeness of thought as well as wholeness of life. Religious experience permeates the whole person and all relationships for this life and even beyond death. Basil Matthews from Trinidad, who was a colleague at Howard University for some time and is now back in Trinidad, lifts up in his writings this sense of whole thinking as crucial for peoples of African descent. He points to Senghor, the poet and philosopher of "Negritude," as a fitting example,23 for his description of "mythology as the symbolic articulation of objective truth, the incarnation of ideas."24 Senghor observes that it is through symbolic structures and operations of music and dance, literature, rhythm and color that Africans assimilate themselves with the "Other," and this is the best pathway to knowledge.25 The use of this concept of Negritude by French-speaking Africans is a good meeting point between Africans and all other peoples of African descent. The quest for African personality began in Paris with an encounter between these French-speaking Africans from the continent of Africa, the West Indies and many literary persons of Afro-American descent.
Mbiti is very negative, unfortunately, toward this search for Blackness in pan-African culture as a kind of useless passion.26 But in my judgment, there is a richness here that theologians need to mine, both Black and African theologians. In doing so, we may reach the taproots of our common religious experience and our common cultural roots.27 The thinking of Africans, according to Matthews, is holistic. At the same time, it is true that religious experience is also holistic.
Neither the dichotomy of thought ("either/or" ways of thinking) nor the dualism of sacred and secular are a part of this African worldview. There is an obvious affinity, then, with biblical faith which informs the whole person and all of life. African ways of thinking and believing may help us cut through the Greek dualism and the Germanic or Teutonic dialectical thought, and recover the gospel in its ancient setting. This has significance and important implications for ethics as well as faith. It is of some importance, then, to ponder that in African traditional religion the gods of creation and of redemption are the same. We have already mentioned two things -- namely, symbolism on one hand and fecundity on the other. I would like to mention two other aspects of African religion as well: communalism, the sense of oneness in community in African experience; and the idea of the relationship between the visible and the invisible.
The Swahili word "ujamaa," or "familyhood," is descriptive of African communalism. The extended family is at the heart of African community life. Julius Nyerere asserts that in traditional African society, individuals exist within a community. There is a vital communion of the life bond which creates solidarity between members of the same family or clan. The fact of having been born in a particular family, clan or tribe plunges one into a particular vital current. This modifies one's whole being and turns it in the direction of this community's way of life. The family, the clan, or the tribe is a whole of which the member is only a part.28 "The same blood, the same life, which is shared by all, which all receive from the first ancestor runs through the veins of all."29 "Because I am, we are," has been used as a way of describing the vital participation in traditional African communalism.
It has valuable insights to share in ethics as well as theology. Nyerere writes, "Both the rich and the poor individuals are completely secure in African society. Natural catastrophe brought famine, but it brought famine to everybody, poor or rich. Nobody starved either for food or for human dignity because he lacked personal wealth. He could depend on the wealth possessed by the community of which he was a member."30 While viewing society, then, as an extension of the basic family unit, Nyerere goes on to suggest that this concept needs now to be extended beyond the tribe, beyond the nation, to the continent and to the whole human race.31
Theologically we can see the immediate use of the concept and practice of "ujamaa" in developing a doctrine of church. The church as a family is present in the thought and life of the early Christian movement. Paul's letters are rich with reference to the church as the family of God and of the household of faith. I have written elsewhere in this vein and have found the family image a meaningful way to speak of the peoplehood of Blacks in the body of Christ.32 I have not been unaware of the African heritage as a background in doing this. Much serious work remains to be done on both continents. There has been some work done in Africa, comparing the corporate personality in Israel with that sense of communalism we have described in African religious thought and life.33 African communalism has special relevance when we bring the visible and invisible, empirical and super-empirical dimensions of life together. Vital participation in a living community is involved in sacred life, and all life is sacred. One participates in the life of the ancestors; in the life of one's forebears, one prepares for one's own life to be carried on in one's own descendants.
Mulago writes, "There is a continuation of family and individual life after death. The dead constitute the invisible part of the family, clan or tribe, and this invisible part is the most important.
At all ceremonies of any importance -- birth, marriage, death, burial, investiture -- it is the ancestors who preside, and their will is subordinate only to that of the Supreme Being."34 Mbiti is not uncritical of African traditional religion. He is distressed, for example, that African traditional religion has myths of creation and fall, but no myths of redemption and the eschaton. But he celebrates the easy manner in which Africans enter into the spiritual world and the fellowship which exists between the living and the dead. He suggests that there might be a renewal in theology and church if we could make creative use of these materials. The sacraments of baptism and eucharist present themselves as areas where the temporal and eternal meet. Africans in their traditional religious beliefs and practices penetrate into the spiritual world through offerings, libations and sacrifices, thus using the material as the bridge with the spiritual and the eternal. Another area where there could be a breakthrough is the doctrine of the communion of saints. Here African traditional thought and practices could easily bring a renewal into the church, the life of the church, with regard to the relationship between the departed and the living. Fashole-Luke of Sierra Leone makes it clear that there are some aspects of African ancestral beliefs which are incompatible with the Christian faith. We cannot baptize everything into the Christian faith, he would say. For example, the belief that no death can take place except by the will of the ancestors and, he would say, against that, the Lord of the church is the Lord of the living and the dead.
It is Luke's contention that veneration of ancestors in Africa and the desire to be linked with the dead can be satisfied by a sound doctrine of the communion of saints. In this statement, the living and the departed would be viewed as linked together in an indissoluble bond through participation in the sacraments so that earth and heaven meet together, and already in this life we taste the fruits of eternal life.35
I conclude by dealing briefly with what I call the misplaced debate between two Black scholars. In view of all that we have said, the urgency and importance of the task of exploring African traditional religion should be obvious. There is an abundance of material for all the disciplines of religious studies. The neglect of Africa in religious studies must come to an end. Much of the responsibility for providing adequate treatment of African religion in the West rests with Black scholars who have their roots in Africa, who will take a stand on this. For example, I have had some proposals for some books on world religions passed to me by publishers in this country who left out African religions; I turned down those proposals, and said, "I will not approve this unless the African religions are given equal space and time with all other religions of the world."
These opportunities do come and we must take advantage of them. We have a double form of experience, as DuBois said in Souls of Black Folk, "We live in America and we are Westerners in this sense, but we have roots in Africa." We must perform, therefore, a task similar to what Andrew Young is trying to perform in diplomacy in the United Nations. We have not got off to a good start thus far in religious studies. In dialogues with Black and African scholars, it would appear that, for example, Charles Long, a historian of religion, and James Cone, a theologian, have mainly aired their own differences in the company of African religious scholars. They could do that at home rather than in Africa. Theology and history of religions were contrasted, for example, in Ghana in a meeting they had there. Long, who sits loose to revelation, presses the study of religious experience as phenomena. Cone, on the other hand, insists upon the normative character of Jesus Christ as a revelation from God. Now if Cone could view the study of religious experience as valid for his experience, Long could open up many doors, it seems to me, in traditional African religion for Cone to explore and walk through. And if, on the other hand, Long could understand the importance of revelation to believers, this could be useful in his work on African religions. This would be even more useful if Cone could expand his understanding of revelation to include God's self-disclosure in all of creation and all of history as well as in Jesus Christ, the incarnate Lord. The dogmatic stand between these two Black scholars indicates that they are not likely to facilitate this important dialogue unless they are able to open up their hermeneutical structures.36
While African religious scholars are aware of a distinction between a theology developed with a traditional religious system behind them, and Christian theology in the church, most of these scholars desire to involve the traditional religious experience in their discussions. It is clear from this paper that I believe that this is the right direction to go. It is also clear that I believe that Black religious scholars have a stake in what happens. If we are only able to disagree among ourselves, then we should step aside and let it happen without us. But since we do live in two worlds, we have the need and responsibility to help make it happen. This in essence is what I have attempted to say. My desire is to see Blacks represented in the various disciplines of religious thought, working as a team with African religious scholars to excavate and interpret this rich religious heritage for the benefit of the whole human race.
1 Aylward Shorter, African Christian Theology (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1977), pp. 11-14.
2 A Statement by the All-Africa Conference of Churches, "Engagement" (Nairobi, 1969.)
3 John Mbiti, New Testament Eschatology in an African Background (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971), pp. 189-90.
4 E.B. Idowu, African Traditional Religion, A Definition (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1973), p. xi.
5 Shorter, ibid., pp. 24-25.
6 Kwesi Dickson and Paul Ellingworth, Biblical Revelation and African Beliefs (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1969), p. 10; quoted by E.B. Idowu.
7 Shorter, ibid., p. 25.
8 Ibid, p. 26
9 '"Eschatology" in Dickson, op. cit., pp. 159-62.
10 Ibid., p. 163. My estimate of Mbiti's contribution is not uncritical. Most African religious scholars are severe critics of Mbiti's proposal. Few, if any, have been able to provide a constructive alternative. I encourage and welcome their contribution to this subject.
11 Charles H. Long, Alpha, the Myths of Creation (New York: George Braziller, 1963), p. 11.
12 Ibid., p. 12.
14 Ibid, pp. 13-14.
15 Ibid., p. 18.
16 Ibid. pp. 18-19.
17 See, C. H. Long, "Structural Similarities and Dissimilarities in Black and African Theologies," Journal of Religious Thought (Vol. XXII, No. 2, 1975), pp. 9-24.
18 "African Traditional Religion and Christian Faith," in Review and Expositor (Vol. LXX, No. 3, Summer, 1973), pp. 189-90.
19 "God in Traditional African Religion," Journal of Theology for Southern Africa (December 1975, No. 5), pp. 27-28.
20 John Mbiti, "African Names of God," Orita (VI/I, June, 1972), p. 5.
21 Ibid., p. 14. Cf. E. B. Idowu, "God," in Dickson and Ellingworth, op. cit., pp. 9-28.
22 Shorter, op. cit.. pp. 34-36.
23 See Matthews, "Whole-Making: Tagore and Thurman," The Journal of Religious Thought (Vol. XXXIV, No. 2, Fall-Winter, 1977-78), pp. 38-39.
24 "From "Modern Pedagogy," an address to the Senegal National Scholarships Convention, July 7, 1971.
25 Senghor, "Spirit of Civilization or the Laws of African Negro Culture," First Conference of Negro Writers and Artists, Paris, 1956.
26 John Mbiti, African Religions and Philosophies (Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday 1970), pp. 351-53.
27 See Edward A. Jones, Voices of Negritude (Valley Forge, Pa.: Judson Press, 1971), pp. 13-17.
28 J. K. Nyerere, Ujamaa: Essays on Socialism (Nairobi: Oxford University Press 1968), p. 7.
29 "Vital Participation," in Biblical Revelation and African Beliefs, p. 139.
30 Nyerere, op. cit.. pp. 3-4.
31 Ibid. p. 12.
32 See my, "A Black Ecclesiology of Involvement," in The Journal of Religious Thought (Vol. XXXII, No. 1, 1975), pp. 36-47.
33 Bonganjalo Goba, "Corporate Personality: Ancient Israel and Africa," in The Challenge of Black Theology in South Africa, ed. Basil Moore (Atlanta: John Knox, 1974), pp. 65-75.'
34 Biblical Revelation and African Beliefs, p. 139.
35 Edward W. Fashole-Luke, "Ancestor Veneration and the Communion of Saints," in New Testament Christianity for Africa and the World (London: SPCK, 1974), p. 220.
36 Cf. James H. Cone, "Report -- Black and African Theologies: A Consultation," Christianity and Crisis (March 3, 1975), pp. 50-52. Cone's essay, "Black Theology and the Black Church," Cross Currents (Vol. XXVII, No. 2, Summer 1977), pp. 147-56. C. H. Long, "Perspectives For a Study of Afro-American Religion in the United States," History of Religions (Vol. II, No. 1, August 1971), pp. 54-66. Charles H. Long, "Structural Similarities and Dissimilarities in Black and African Theologies," Journal of Religious Thought (Vol. XXII, No. 2, Fall-Winter, 1975), pp. 9-24.
Victor Wan-Tatah: When we talk about African religion and its contribution to Christianity, we are talking about a religion that has come from the West, whose influence has altered and changed the ways of thinking and living of the people in Africa. It is a contemporary religion dealing with a contemporary culture and religion which informs the former culture. Christianity, in a paradoxical way, has been the carrier of a mixed gospel to Africa. Some people say that Christianity, which carried technology and Western culture to Africa, is neutral. It is not neutral. Christianity has taken concepts to Africa, philosophical concepts, technological concepts of the West, which have influenced the philosophical way of thinking of the people. Approaching African thought with our own philosophical preconceptions does not facilitate understanding of the holistic way of African thinking, which is a major contribution of African religions to Christianity. African religion is a religion which is lived. It is not a conceptual system which people have revised because they want to respond to the vagaries of nature and the vicissitudes of life. There is no single, completely acceptable way of looking at African religion, its worth, its values and its contribution to Christianity; but we should not miss the fact that African religion is one which is primarily lived. We should be cautious when we enter into African religion through the philosophical door.
Dr. Roberts mentioned Senghor's "Negritude" concept, the intuitive method of understanding, grasping reality through symbolism. There is also the contribution of Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, the president of Ghana, on "conscientism" based on traditional African humanism and communalism. It is difficult to articulate a purely African religion without looking at the impact of colonialism and its technology on Africa. The mentality of the people has, in effect, been colonized. The "conscientism" of Dr. Nkrumah addresses this within the context of wholeness.
There is also the "communal crisis" of Sekou Toure, who addresses the wholeness attitude, the wholeness concept, in terms of communism and capitalism. Toure's "African communalism" links capitalism and communism and leaves room for the human being. The human being is the center of all activities. Man is not a means to an end; he is a means and an end. Tom Boyar stresses African socialism and the dignity of man. The individual exists for others in the community, and the community cares for the individual. When the two coexist with corresponding responsibilities, the community becomes wholesome.
Lastly, Dr. Obote, the former president of Uganda, talks of the "common man's character," which is identifiable in African religion and the African way of life. The common man's character is a leftist approach to the concept of wholesomeness, whereby political power is put into the hands of the majority of the people. This is reflected in the institution of kingship and the installation of kings in African society. The king-makers represent the people, and the commoners usually have a say in the choice of the person who is to rule the rest of the community or tribe. Most decisive in the decision-making process for the commoners and the king-makers is whether a candidate would be able to represent the people well and be their agent in all circumstances. The reverence given to the king is the kind of reverence one would give to one's fellow man in that structure, but the method of approaching the king is the method by which one would approach God. This social structure reflects the nature and structure of religion, of theology, in Africa. Where divinity is served, the people act as agents of God.
Shawn Byrne: I want to make some general observations about the value of the encounter of Western-style Christianity and African religions. As I see it, the advantage of Western-style Christianity encountering what, to it, is an alien religious system, is that it makes Christianity aware of its own preconceptions, things that it has supposed to be eternal and permanent truths. The encounter between two such religious systems can help to raise basic questions which have not been raised because so many things have been taken for granted. After a religious system has existed for a couple of thousand years, it takes many things for granted. So it is healthy for it to be challenged by a different way of life, of thinking and of experience.
In support of what Mr. Wan-Tatah said, when we (Western Christians) approach African religions with our categories and systems of thought and philosophy, we are already imposing on them. We are requiring the African experience to conform to ours. We are requesting that it be measured by the standard which we have decided to apply to it. We need to be careful about this, and sensitive; ours is not the only way of experiencing the universe or experiencing ourselves or experiencing God.
The encounter between Christianity and African traditional religion, or any other great religion, requires that we be willing to learn. My only and very brief experience directly of Africa and African religions was during a trip to Kenya a few years back. I toured Irish Catholic missions. Where else? (Laughter) I strayed into some Italian Catholic missions, too, though we tried to avoid them! (Laughter) I saw a lot of very good services being provided by the Europeans: churches, schools, hospitals; but what I also felt was that this kind of Christianity was being imported as a prefabricated, European invention and structure. It was being imported into a very different culture and, with slight modifications, was being suggested to the people as the thing they should accept.
I felt that there was fundamental error there. Christianity was not entering in the spirit in which alone it has the right to enter, that is, in the spirit of the servant. Christianity thought of itself as coming as a servant to provide services for the people and to provide salvation to the people; but it lacked the understanding that the Africans have lived as long as the Christians have lived. Africans have experienced God in their way, have experienced creation in their way, and have experienced themselves in their way. They have every bit as much right to their experience as we Western Christians have to ours; therefore, theirs is as valid as ours. I felt there was a failure to recognize the validity of the African experience.
I think hospitality is one characteristic of the African way of life. This might seem to be a homely quality; but, to me, it is a very important one because it expresses one's attitude toward his fellow man. Hospitality is expressed to the stranger, the one who is not us Therefore, I think it expresses something very deep in our evaluation of people. My experience of the Western world is (and the more West I go, the more this experience deepens) that we do not have a sense of reverence for person as person. Our attitude tends to be a bit exploitative. But I was very moved one day while visiting some of the outstations of the missionary with whom I was staying in Kenya. In the jungle, in a little clearing just large enough to eke out a living, the woman of the house there welcomed us. Before I left, she wanted to catch one of her chickens and give it to me. Now, by her standards, my way of life must have been the life of a king. I must have seemed very wealthy to her. That expressed something deep and valuable that was not particular to her, but is, I think, general there: hospitality.
Another point I admired is the African respect for forbears; it is an awareness of our indebtedness to our forebears, a sense of gratitude, an attitude that is non-exploitative. What good are the ancestors, really? We respect them for what they have been, what they have endured, for what they have bequeathed, whether they are still living or whether they are passed on.
I perceived a sense of the spirituality of creation; all that is, ha the element of spirit about it. I guess most religions have somehow enshrined that idea; but I think the more denominational we become, the less we appreciate it. All of creation is religious in the sense of being related to God and in the deeper sense of having that quality of spirit, of ultimates, of what is eternal. Out of Africa comes that sense of the oneness of all things, of the universe, of man with all creation, and of man and creation with the divine, with God. We Westerners could learn a great deal from this.
What we may learn from the encounter between African religions and the Christian religion is not chiefly nor merely a system of creeds, but, more fundamentally, an attitude by which we express relationships, relationships of all beings to one another, whether animate or inanimate, divine or human.
Francis Botchway: I would like to comment on just one aspect of the presentation made by Dr. Roberts. But first, I want to distinguish between Euro-Christianity and Christianity itself. What we experience in Africa is not simply Christianity; it is a Europeanized Christianity. It is not the simple life of the Nazarene, but the simple life of the Nazarene in an institutionalized paraphernalia with dogmas superimposed on the teachings of Christ. We need to make this distinction between Euro-Christianity and Christianity. If we fail to do that, then this encounter, this Socratic dialogue which we are proposing, would be an exercise in futility; because, in essence, we would be dealing with European culture and European value systems which are superimposed on Christianity, rather than dealing with Christianity itself as a system of thought or as a religion.
Dr. Roberts quoted Mbiti in his presentation, but it seems to me that the emphasis on Mbiti was a bit unfortunate. What I want to address myself to is Mbiti's concept of time. If we accept Professor Mbiti's conceptualized postulate, it seems he is saying that the African as African is incapable of perceiving the future, or that the future which he is capable of perceiving is only that which is immediately perceivable; therefore, the African is incapable of affirming history. He cannot look into the future. If we accept that as the key to understanding African philosophy and African religions, then the African is thought to be incapable of developing a philosophic system of thought; therefore, he could not develop a theology. That is very hard for me to accept as a social theorist and a humanist. If we accept the theory that the African is holistic, if the African is homo-religiosus, if the African is homo-economicus and homo-politicus, then the African is also a philosophical being. We cannot deny that. To suggest that the African is capable of conceptualizing time only in the past is to say that the African is at the primitive level of evolution.
I argue that Mbiti is totally wrong, that his emphasis on the concept of time as the key element in understanding the religiosity of the African is a total distortion of the philosophical and religious tradition of African peoples. In essence, it relegates the African to an inferior level; and I think we ought to be able to move beyond that.
What really troubles me when people talk about the African conception of God is that they are not looking at a systematic study of various ethnic groups in Africa and their conceptions of God. For Mbiti to have studied a small group of people in the Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania area and then to draw up his general theory about African values, African philosophies, African normative systems, to me is a very dangerous approach to the study of African religion and African values.
There is a need for a systematic study and clarification of the conceptions that African people have of the ultimate deity. Once we have all the systematic studies, we can then sit down and draw upon the generality of the evidence and come up with a standardized paradigm to agree upon which enables us to have a meaningful understanding of the religiosity of the African. Thank you.
Deotis Roberts: I will make a brief response. I am open to insights which have come out in the comments of the panelists. For the most part, I agree with them. There is one point which was brought out by the first two speakers to which I should respond -- that is, the audacity of attempting to deal with the subject matter in view of the fact that any attempt to do so from a Western orientation would be a distortion of the material. We have had that kind of problem as Black scholars who have had to make a place for ourselves as scholars within and be certified in the academic world by those who had real appreciation neither for some of the presuppositions of our thought nor the fact that we represent a different dimension of experience and thought. So it is not a new battle. Whether I am talking to German scholars or American white scholars or anyone in the West, I am constantly involved with the problem of how to deal with the Black religious experience and yet maintain integrity within a community of scholars who have no real appreciation for the kind of experience we are trying to interpret. That same kind of thing is involved here. If we are going to have some communication, not only internal communication but communication with people who have different experiences and different presuppositions, then we are going to have to do the kind of thing that I attempted to do. It does not mean that it is the best way, or the only way, but it is one of those ways that we will have to explore in order to make communication move in both directions. Our work here is exploratory, only the beginning. As we have dialogues like this, when Africans themselves can open the doors for us, we will be able to go forward.
I certainly share Dr. Botchway's criticism of Mbiti. Mbiti is one of the persons who has been acclaimed as a churchman and as a scholar primarily because of his visibility in the West; the literature he has produced is widely read over against others who have other points of view who have not been exposed in the West as much as he has. Hopefully the time has come when others' works can become known to those of us who do not have the privilege of an in-depth encounter with African culture and religion; then we can compare critically what others say about African culture, thought, and belief with what Mbiti has been saying. We need to know more and more about what others think.
William Jones: I would like to introduce some African communalism at this point as a change in our previous directions and open the conversation to members of the audience.
Andrew Wilson (Student, Unification Theological Seminary): I am interested in communalism. In Christianity, you get the concept that all people are brothers, children of God; and I wonder if, in African religions, they also have this kind of universalism. This could be helpful in breaking down some of the tribal barriers which are causing conflict in Africa. Is universalism one of the Christian imports? Is the family or communal idea limited only to the tribe, or is it universal?
Deotis Roberts: One of the strong points of African traditional religion is its emphasis on communalism in a concrete and particular form. The weakness in the Christian emphasis on brotherhood is that it is universalized and abstract. Black theologians have certainly emphasized the need for a breakthrough in terms of concretizing and particularizing brotherhood. If we begin with a meaningful extended-family model, where kinship and concrete personal relations really have some currency, then we could move from the particular to the universal and retain some meaning. I met a man at a meeting on world religions who said, "I love everybody," and then he told me his neighbor was Marian Anderson. You know, she is not difficult to love, because she is a woman who is an unusual person by any human standard. But that does not mean he could love someone who is unlovable by his standards. What the Christian faith says is that we have to love the unlovable. "Who is my neighbor?" is not an easy question to deal with, because it implies that we might have to love someone who is not a Marian Anderson but just an ordinary human being, a concrete person in the flesh. If we can begin with that kind of understanding of communalism, as Christians, and then move to universalism, we can have some real meaning. African traditional religions have something vital to say in terms of kinship that is important for our understanding of the church and its mission in the world.
Victor Wan-Tatah: Communalism in Africa has several stages. It begins with the family, the extended family, moves to the tribe, the clan, and the people in the province; it is not limited. As long as we are thinking in terms of the contribution of African religions to Christianity, we can see the universal concept, which we have borrowed from Christianity, to be a kind of fortification of our original idea to widen the embrace of the communal aspect to all of African life. We have to say the clan sets the limit; the Christian concept would help to broaden that. On the other hand, African religion on its own can speak about the universe. Everybody living in the world created by God is a spiritual creature and has to look at other creatures in the same way that God looks at us. This is presupposed in African society. The ways the people respond to each other, up to the elders in the hierarchy, are, in effect, a reflection of the kind of relationship which God has with us and his creation. Another thing which helps to further the notion of the extended family in society is hospitality. If you are hospitable to a stranger, then you accept that stranger as somebody, one of you.
Shawn Byrne: The family structure in Africa is an element which could be very valuable to Christianity. As Dr. Roberts said, Christianity is too ethereal, too abstract, too generalized. But the African family is a very concrete physical thing. And yet the idea needs to be expanded. Here we have two complementary elements which could enrich one another. I see the relevance of the Christ-event, the One who has overcome family limitations, tribal limitations, and the limits of nationalism, who is the Man for all men, for all beings, the One for others, the Servant of all. The problem with Christianity is that, while it would criticize tribalism, its house has fallen into denominationalism, a kind of spiritual tribalism.
Kwame Gyekye: The African is immediately involved in his religion. There is no dichotomy between belief and commitment. The African participates in life and thus brings about religion. The contribution is there in living. Religion is not a tissue of theologies and well-laundered concepts. Religion is life and life is religion. This is where traditional African background has immediate significance for people who have accepted the Christian religion.
My other point is about Black Americans and, for that matter, any non-African scholar not being quite able to understand Africa. I do not go along with that. I think any scholar, non-African or not, who is very serious about his work and has gone to live among Africans, can make a good, original contribution to theories of African culture. One's method influences his analysis, that is true; but I believe an African is not necessarily more objective than a foreign scholar on African culture. It depends upon how responsible the scholar wants to be. It depends upon how thorough he is. It depends upon his own awareness of the possibilities within foreign ideas and concepts. It will be a big job for him.
William Jones: Shall we terminate for lunch? Warren, will you express our thanks for the food?
Warren Lewis: The prayer of gratitude for our food today is the prayer of a hungry man. There are many people in Africa who will not eat in a week what you are about to consume in one meal. Remember them as you pray and eat.
God of our fathers, I lie down without food; I lie down hungry, although others have eaten and lie down full. Even if it be but a polecat or a little rock-rabbit, give me and I shall be grateful! I cry to God, Father of my ancestors.
(Barolong Tribe of South Africa)