Proceedings Of The First Annual Conference Towards A Global Congress Of World Religions - Edited by Warren Lewis - 1978
William Jones: For the first of our afternoon sessions, we have an honored guest, Dr. Samuel Erivwo, of Nigeria, who is currently the visiting professor of African Religions at Union Theological Seminary here in New York. Dr. Erivwo received his B.A. and Ph.D. in Religious Studies at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria. He is also an Anglican priest, and will speak to us this afternoon on the topic, "God and Man in African Belief." I would like now to introduce the members of our panel.
Dr. Ekwueme Felix Okoli, from Nigeria, received his B.A. in Classics from Colorado University, his M.A. in Classics from Columbia; he has another M.A., in Public Law and Government, also from Columbia; and a Ph.D. in Political Science from the New School for Social Research in New York City. Currently, he is director of Afro-American Studies at the New York City Community College of City University.
Our next panelist is Dr. Kamuti Kiteme, from Kenya. He is Associate Professor of Education at City University of New York. He received his B.S. from Fairleigh Dickinson University, his M.S. from Bank Street College in New York, and a Ph.D. in Education from Yeshiva University, New York City. He is the author of some eighteen publications and has a book now at the publisher's on reshaping African education.
Our next panelist is Father Patrick Primeaux of the Society of Mary, the Marist Fathers. Currently, he is Professor of Systematic Theology and Sacramental Theology at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans, Louisiana. He indicates that he is a Cajun from south Louisiana. He has a B.A. in French from the University of Southwestern Louisiana, and an M.A. in Theology from St. Michael's College in Toronto. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D.
Finally, Dr. Kwame Gyekye, who received his B.A. from the University of Ghana, his M.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard University. He is a specialist in the area of Greco-Arabic philosophy, and currently he is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Ghana and visiting Professor of Philosophy at the University of Florida, Gainesville. He has done several articles on Islamic philosophy and is presently working on a manuscript on African philosophical ideas.
I'd like to present to you at this time Dr. Erivwo.
Having seen the African proverb on the board (proverb on the wall: "A single peg cannot stretch out a skin") I decided to mention one too, which you may want to add to that one. My people say: "A single finger cannot remove a louse from a head." Needless to say, a head infested with lice is sick. And if we can say that the religions of the world are supposed to give leadership, give direction to humanity, and yet are not able to do so, as within Christianity where there are unhappy divisions about which we in the church have been praying in vain for so many years, then we may say that the head is sick. For us to be able to restore the world to wholeness, we need unity.
The next thing I want to offer is a protest. I want to protest for not being asked to speak first. Dr. Deotis Roberts said almost everything that I wanted to say, so I really want to protest; but then I remembered that I am an African, and he is an elder, and I should give him the respect that is due him. (Laughter) In any case, the Yoruba people have another saying, a proverb: "Where the foreleg of an animal steps, that is where his hind leg follows." So I have taken the seat you have occupied, Deotis, and I am going to give you (the audience) what he has already given you; but I trust, as a friend of mine has already reminded me at lunch, since this time it will be coming from me, there may be something new also in the presentation.
Dr. Roberts mentioned Emil Ludwig's notorious comment to Edwin Smith, now so well known. In his conversation with Smith, in Khartoum, Ludwig said he could not believe that Africans, whom he described as savages, could conceive of God. As we were reminded this morning: he said, "How can the untutored African conceive God?... How can this be?... Deity is a philosophical concept which savages are incapable of framing." And yet I, an African, am being asked to come and comment and talk on God and man! Of course we know that Emil Ludwig was wrong; and to further show that he was wrong, let me begin, as we did in the morning session, with a prayer of the Yoruba people, which they usually address to God in the court of God -- 1 mean in a proper religious setting. It is not a prayer that is just said when somebody is confronted with a certain risk and then offers what Parrinder calls "partial prayers addressed to God."
This is a prayer that is detailed, rather like some of the ones we listened to before. One of the Yoruba words for God is "Osanobwa." And the prayer runs thus: "Osanobwa...We, your children, are gathered here to worship you. Give us peace. Give us unity. Give us health. Make our crops fruitful. Make our women fertile. Anyone here who is unhappy with this, our prayer, You, Osanobwa, know him. Give to him the portion you consider apt for him. Remove him from our midst. As many as you have created, so many should you save." That is a prayer which the people have been offering to God long, long before the advent of Westernism and Christianity.
So we are really in a position to talk about God and man in African belief. There is a sense in which anthropology is theology, and theology is anthropology. Every statement about God is, usually, also a statement about man. It is hardly possible to think and talk about the one without the other. The notion of authority in respect to God, namely that God's existence is not contingent on man's being, may well be a non sequitur. All God-talks are done by man. I therefore regard the theme of God and man as the most crucial one to reflect upon in a conference of this nature, organized by a theological institution.
On this particular occasion, the reflection on the theme is from the African perspective. But this is a difficult task. Any attempt to describe God accurately must be seen as futile, for each person's or people's description will reflect their dispositions and situations. God can hardly be described in the abstract, as Greek philosophers tried to do, calling Him the "Absolute," the "One," the "Ultimate," and so on. These concepts tell us very little about God. I think that the task I have before me is not easy.
I am reminded of a poem I read when I was a child about blind men who went to see an elephant. And how could blind men see an elephant? The first stumbled on his body and came rejoicing that he knew what an elephant was like. The elephant is very like a wall. Another one groped there and felt the floppy ear of the elephant and came back confident, declaring he knew what an elephant was like. The elephant is very like a fan. And yet another walked straight there and happened to embrace the elephant's hind leg and came back claiming all the others were wrong. The elephant is very like a trunk. And yet another who picked his way there, happened to grasp the elephant's dangling tail, and ran back proclaiming all others missed the elephant, for the elephant is very like a snake. And so on and so forth. Each of them, describing only the part of the elephant he felt, was partly right and partly wrong. Each person or peoples, who are religious, attempting to describe God, the indescribable one, must experience the same limitations as the blind men.
A story from Islamic tradition illustrates this same truth. Muhammad, we are told, was taken in a vision to the Heavenly Jerusalem to hear God's words. All he saw was a voluminous garment whose beginning he could not see. The time of day was neither morning nor evening, night nor day, not dusk nor twilight. An angel approached him and told him they were all expecting to hear what form of greeting he would use for God. This is to illustrate once more the mystery that surrounds God.
My third story: A thinker, a philosopher, set out to reflect, as we are trying to do, and contemplate the incontemplatable form of God. He said to himself, "Ah, the world has been created for so long a time, is so many billion years old; if God created the world, God must be very, very old. He would have hoary hair and a wrinkled face." This contemplator was having fantasies, creating images in his wide and vain imagination as he moved along the lonely path. He suddenly came to the bank of a mighty river, where he saw a figure digging a very tiny hole by the side of the river, and with a bowl was bringing water from the river to the hole. The contemplator was astonished at that strange behavior. He interrupted the man, questioning him as to what he was doing, to which the strange person replied that he was emptying the river into the hole. The thinker laughed and thought it was a foolish and futile attempt, and he told the man so. The strange man retorted, "You mind your business. You go on with what you were doing; before you finish your task, I will probably have finished with mine."
All of these stories serve to illustrate one point: the futility of attempting a clear and accurate description or concept of God. However, this is not to suggest that we are not to attempt to form an image, the conception of him or her. Be cautioned that the image we are forming is only an image and, for all we know, may be an imperfect image, touching only on one of many aspects of God. To know God cannot be fully known, that he is knowable and known only to the extent he chooses to disclose himself, that our knowledge of him will invariably reflect our own presuppositions, the projection of our own image -- that is the point which Ludwig Feuerbach so forcefully made when he said, and I quote him, "In religion, man has to view himself alone, the infinity of his own nature; or in regarding himself as the object of God, as the end of the divine activity, man is an object to himself, his own end, and aim. Man made God in his own image."
This same point was made by Aylward Shorter who says, and I quote him, "Man identifies as sacred the ultimate implied by his own experience; like the little fish's idea of heaven, man's idea of the ultimate, that is, of God, is an enlarged projection of his own world." And he quotes Robert Brooks' poem on the little fishes thus, "Somewhere beyond space and time is wetter water, slimier slime. And there, they trust, there swims that one, who swam when rivers were begun, immense of fishy form and mind, squamos, omnipotent, and kind. And under that almighty fin the littlest fish may enter in." As far as the fishes were concerned, that is heaven. It is this truth, fact that man can only think of God and conceive him in his own image, if he must meaningfully think of him at all, which provides the justification for the postulation of a Black God in Black theology.
Enough of preliminary remarks. Suffice it to say that the descriptions and conceptions of God which we will enumerate are a reflection of a particular people. When we have finished, it may well turn out to be that we have not really talked about God at all, but about the Africans. But we must still begin. First, God is creator. This is the conviction of the Africans as well as of the rest of the human race. Africans have various myths of creation and different names to designate God as creator. The names usually denote molding or fashioning. Thus the Yoruba of the Niger Delta called God "Umanomuhu," which literally means "the molder who molded the person." The Ibo, whose most popular and principal name for God is "Chuku," use another term "Chineke" (Chi-na-eke), the "Chi" or Spirit who created, when they wish to draw attention to God as creator. The Akan call him "Odomankoma"; the Yoruba, "Eleda"; the Jukun; "Aban"; the Ila; "Lubumba;" and so on. The Elawed, we are told by Miss Smith, "Bumba," which comes in "Lumbumba," is usually employed of woman forming or molding a pot with her hands.
Why are all the ethnic groups not able to give details of how God created the world and man? They all believe and state that God created everything. According to the Nupe of Nigeria, "Ibn-so-ko," which is their name for God, did not create, neither did the world create. And the Yoruba confess that whatever is not seen, perceived, or experienced, was never created by God. Certain ethnic groups have myths of creation. According to the Efik, in the plateau state of Nigeria, "Bene," their name for God, created this world out of the sun, or as others say, from a red substance which was very hot initially; as it fell and cooled off, the whole world came into existence. And yet others say that the world was created from the rainbow. It fell from the sky and broke into small pieces. As it burst and broke into pieces, human beings and other living creatures emerged from it.
The Yoruba people have a detailed myth of creation. According to it, "Olodumare," their name for God who as creator is known as "Eleda," decided to have the world created. He summoned one of his ministers, Orisanla by name, who is the archdivinity in the Yoruba's elaborate pantheon of divinities (there are as many as seventeen-hundred divinities), and commissioned him to create the earth. He then gave him the necessary tools for the task: a sack containing loose earth, five hens and a pigeon. Before this time, the earth was a watery, marshy waste, and was a haunting ground for the divinities. Orisanla went to the watery, marshy waste, put the loose earth on a convenient spot, and set to work. He then scattered the loose earth to cover a wide area. This done, Orisanla returned to report to Olodumare, who then dispatched an inspector general, the chameleon, to inspect the work. In his first report, the inspector general detected that, although the place was indeed wide enough, it was not dry enough. It was after a second visit before he could pass the work as both wide and dry enough for habitation.
The Yoruba say that this place is "Ife," which in the Yoruba language means "wide." Ife-Ife is the ancestral home of the Yoruba people, and, they would claim, of the whole world. In spite of the fact that all ethnic groups concur that God created the world, not all of them have this type of interesting myth of creation. This myth, of course, raises some problems, as it does not, for example, account for the origin of the hen and pigeon, or the animals or the place the divinities haunted before the creation. But these questions do not bother the typical Yoruba or African who, when asked, will still say, "God created everything." As already noted, the so-called being did not create, neither did the world create it. Which implies that Africans believe that creation is ex nihilo. But it is important, I think, to realize that Africans do not actually account for the creation of all things, nor do they regard it a compelling necessity, before affirming that God created, that whatever was never seen in their experience was never created.
Of Yoruba people who do not have a clear myth of creation, there is a myth which speaks of the coming-into-being of the world in a way to suggest that the world was either self-existent or that it evolved from a storehouse of power which has its origin with God. The myth is, in fact, in relation to two creatures -- the chameleon, again, and the toucan. The two were involved in the dispute to ascertain the order. The chameleon argued that when he came into being, the earth had just evolved or been formed, and was therefore not firm which is why in treading on it he took his time, lest the earth give way under his feet. The toucan replied if that was so, then he, toucan, was older, because when he appeared in the world, neither the sky nor the earth had been formed; hence when his father died, he interred the body in his thigh, and when his mother died, he interred the body in his arm, which is why he has fat thighs and arms.
However, these stories are theological, that is, they explain why things are what they are. The point of this particular story is this: the toucan speaks of the forming or coming into being of what we call in Yoruba "a ka a ko mana," as if the world evolved on its own; but, as was earlier stated, in spite of this story, which tends to point to evolutionary theory, the Yoruba people still say that God created everything and everyone. Man is therefore a creature. If God is the creator, man is a creature of God. The Yoruba say that Orisanla, after creating the physical earth, was further commissioned by God to equip the earth, which he did by bringing sixteen persons to the world. But in addition, it is Orisanla who molds the physical form of the person, after which God adds that something which makes a person a living being.
The Yoruba word "ori" or "ori-nu" for the essential self is related to one of their ancient names for God, Orise. The Ibo name "Chi" for the personality-soul is the Ibo's principal name for God, "Chikwu." Chikwu means, as we already said, literally, Great Chief. The point here is that Africans believe that man created by God is vitally related to him or her, through the personality-soul. We could give other examples but we won't because of time. Man is thoroughly related to God through the personality-soul, which the Akan call "Kra," the Yoruba call "Ori," the Bini call "Ihe," the Lodagaa "Urindi," the Nupe call "Koosi," and so on. As a creature of God, who has something of God, man is responsible to and, therefore, addressable by God. This is why, as will be pointed out later, man will have to account for his actions in afterlife.
But before then, let us consider another conception of God which Africans hold. God is a father or mother. This is a view widely held by Africans, although some earlier investigators have felt that God was not construed by certain ethnic groups as a person, but merely as a force. However, not only is God seen as a person, but as a father or mother. The Barolong of the plateau state designate God "Dovu," which literally means, "Father-son." The Molvu, also from the same state, call him Gana, "Father-man," man being their normal word for God. The Angas call God Mat'nam; "Mat" means mother, "nam" means God. Although it is said that the prefix "Mat" was later dropped, presumably a consequence of male chauvinism. The Ejowed word, "Tomuno," God, is feminine, as the Ewe-Manu is feminine. Both the Edo of Nigeria and the Ewe of the Republic of Benin are matrilineal. The point here, however, is that many African peoples see the filial relationship between God and human beings, in spite of the fact that piacular sacrifices are not usually offered to him or her frequently. Such offerings are made more to the ancestors and divinities who are construed as his agents. Even so, the Supreme Being is the ultimate recipient of the offerings.
That God is father or mother obviously implies the brother hood or sisterhood of mankind. It is perhaps pertinent to mention at this point that, contrary to the viewpoint popularly held by earlier investigators, African traditional religion has been shown by research not to be polytheistic, because amongst each ethnic group there is always the concept of, and firm belief in, the Supreme Being, who is not of the same rank and file as the divinities. That he is not one of the divinities, and is superior to them will be expostulated on later. African traditional religion has been rightly described by Professor E. B. Idowu as either diffused or implicit monotheism. I have another one to add, bureaucratic monotheism, which I'll add later.
Because the divinities are ministers of the Supreme Being, who in his superlative greatness is far above them, the Taro of the plateau state in Nigeria, for example, regard the divinities and the ancestors as one and the same, and as offspring of the Supreme Being. To the extent that the divinities and ancestors are seen as offspring of the Supreme Being, the latter is consequently regarded as the Great Ancestor, a point which Joseph Danquah and Professor Harry Sawyerr have both so clearly made.
Man is therefore the child or progeny of God, whom he approaches occasionally directly but more often through the divinities and ancestors. The Akan of Ghana, the Yoruba of Nigeria, and the Kikuyu of Kenya, amongst others, have courts of the Supreme Being, where worship was accorded to him. The Ashanti, a subgroup of the Akan, actually have a priest dedicated to Onyame, God or life. In the pre-colonial period, the worship of Onyame was very prominent. A temple was built for him and a tree called the Onyame-dwe, tree of God, characterized his altar, where, on a Saturday, once every year, an elaborate offering was made to him. A sheep or lamb was killed and offered. The blood was allowed to pour onto the ground and pieces of meat were hung onto the branches of Onyame-dwe. So impressed was Rattray with the Ashanti's conception of God that he equated it with the Hebraic concept of YWHW, and I quote him: "In a sense, therefore, it is true that this great Supreme Being, the conception of whom has been innate in the minds of the Ashanti, is the Jehovah of the Israelites. It was He who of old left His own dwelling above the vaulted sky and entered the tent of meeting, where was His earthly abode."
The necessity for these details about the Ashanti is to underscore the point that there are Africans who worship God. Granted the frequent association of God with either the sun or sky, and the many myths of the withdrawal of the sky from man, point to the alienation between man and God and indicate the transcendence of God. The mistake of earlier investigators, who saw and described God in Africa as Deus incautus et remotus or Deus otiosus, an uncertain, withdrawn and lazy God, ought to be avoided. Africans recognize a filial relationship between God and man and see him as Father and Ancestor, who accord worship to him, addressing prayers to him generally, but more particularly in times of trouble and disaster, like famine or epidemic. In this, they are like the rest of the human race in the conception of and the attitude toward God. To say this, is not to say that all ethnic groups have this same understanding of and attitude toward God and accord him equal amounts of worship.
God is unique. We have said that African traditional religion has been shown to be monotheistic on the ground that the Supreme Being is never, among Africans, regarded as just one of the divinities. As Idowu described it, the conception of God is reflected in his name Olodumare among the Yoruba. "God," I quote Idowu, "is supreme, superlatively great, incomparable and unsurpassable in majesty, excellent in attributes, stable, unchanging, constant, reliable." God is unique, and several myths of Africans demonstrate this. We mention three briefly. First, Orisanla, the Yoruba divinity, who was commissioned by the Supreme Being to mold human beings and was endowed with free will to mold them according to his taste, and who consequently gives the different peoples of the world their different pigmentation and complexions, which is why some of you are white, some of us are black, others are red. Orisanla was dissatisfied with the enormous freedom and responsibility which God gave to him. He therefore decided to spy on Olodumare so that he could gain secret knowledge of a power that was Olodumare's prerogative, that is, the power of imparting something in beings that Orisanla had molded so that they could become living beings. To do this, Orisanla hid inside the room where he had molded the beings, instead of leaving the place as he was expected to do, while Olodumare gives life to the beings Orisanla molded. The all-seeing and all-knowing Olodumare saw through the heart and knew the intentions of Orisanla. He therefore sent him into a deep slumber from which he awoke to discover the beings had already been given life.
Second, all the divinities contrived to take over the control of the universe from Olodumare... we've been experiencing so many coups! It was a coup they planned. They went to him and demanded that he should hand over power so that they could take over some control of the universe, at least for sixteen years. Olodumare saw their folly. He agreed to give them a trial, but suggested that they should first try it for sixteen days, and see how it worked out, to which they readily consented. Before any other takes over, the old should quit; accordingly, Olodumare switched off the machinery of the universe. All the seventeen hundred divinities were at a loss as to how to get the machinery re-started. Everything was at a standstill. Before eight days were over, the divinities found themselves in real trouble and utter confusion. Every means devised to keep the world going failed -- the heaven withheld its rains, the rivers ceased to flow, rivulets became clotted with dead leaves, yams sprouted but did not develop, the ears of corn filled but did not ripen. When divination, which is as famous as the oracle of Delphi, became dumb, the divinities now realized their folly, they ran back to the Supreme Being to confess their incompetence and admit his uniqueness and their dependence upon him.
Third, a myth of the Bini, which is very close to my area, tells of how Olokun, the archdivinity in the Bini pantheon, challenges Osanobwa, the Supreme Being, to a beauty contest. The Supreme Being agrees, and asks the archdivinity to go and get ready, and afterwards sends word to him. Olokun then went and dressed gorgeously. He marched confidently to Osanobwa's palace, to send word to him. On coming to the gate, however, he saw Osanobwa's messenger at the gate, putting on exactly the same dress as Olokun had. The archdivinity then decided to go and change. He came back with a new set, but to his amazement, he found Osanobwa's messenger in the same attire. He did this for seven times, and each time he was disappointed to find that the messenger was always wearing the same dress. He then came to the obvious conclusion that if he could not surpass Osanobwa's messenger in dressing, then there was no hope of matching Osanobwa, let alone surpassing him. As it turned out, Osanobwa's messenger is, once more, the chameleon. These three stories illustrate very clearly African conviction that God is unique and incomparably great. God is good is our next point.
This conviction is expressed in various African names of God, in personal names and in sayings. The Yoruba call God, as we have said, "Osanobwa," which means, "he who calls and asks blessings too," "he who blesses as he sustains the world." The Ibo, "Osibuluwe", or the Bini, "Osanobwa", have similar meanings, in fact they come from a common root. The Yoruba also say only the cloth cut for a person by Ogun, who is their other name for God, is adequate to clothe him, testifying to the fact that God is our sufficiency. They also call God "Obutak Boduwuwu," the plantain leaf, which can adequately shelter the entire world, an indication that God is able to protect all. Such personal names as "Oguna Okuku," "God is helper," "Oguna Okudawa," "God makes one great," "Ogun Obrume," "God bless me," are expressive of the people's conviction about God's goodness and love. Many other ethnic groups have similar names and expressions which point to God's goodness and kindness. The Taro of the plateau state call a baby girl born after a long period of expectation, "Nyambien," meaning "God is good." The Junkun have such names as "Magai," meaning "the greatest gift," "Mataketswain," "the Creator of the world," and so on. Africans are convinced that God is pre-eminently good and kind, and man is the object of God's goodness. The creation, preservation and guidance which God gives to man sometimes directly, and at other times through his ministers, are expressions of God's goodness and of his love.
The next point I want to make, rather briefly, is: God is King. That the good God is King, is very obvious in African thinking. The Yoruba call him "Obaorun," "King of heaven." The Ibo, "Eze-elu," "King above." The Mende call God the Chief, he is King of kings and Lord of lords. He rules over all; earthly kings and rulers are his instruments and derive authority from him, because they are human beings and endowed with freedom; they are responsible and are accountable to him, here and especially in afterlife, because justice and righteousness characterize the rule of God.
Which takes us to the next and last point we wish to make: God is judge. Africans believe that God is judge. He is the righteous judge. True, they also believe that he is very patient, which is why they sometimes run to the agents and the ministers. They believe that he is very patient, but his justice finally prevails. For this reason, the African who feels oppressed and feels that he is unable to obtain justice here on earth refers the matter to God and leaves it with him, who is the righteous judge. The Yoruba call him "the King who judges in silence." The Yoruba describe his court as the last court of appeal. Often God, as judge, manifests his judgment and wrath through divinities of wrath, solar and thunder divinities: Sango or Jakuta in Yoruba, Amadioha in Ibo, Sokogba in Nupe, Xeviosa in Ewe, and so on. These divinities are a concretization of the wrath of God. Anyone killed by lightning is believed to have been killed by God for his notoriety. Every person who, as was previously pointed out, was endowed with freedom by God, has a link with God through the personality-soul, which is called kra, ori, uri-nu or chi or so on, and is finally responsible and accountable to God. It is therefore incumbent on him to order this life in accordance with the will of God, as expressed in his society. True, he has a destiny, and is predestined to fulfill that destiny, but his character, as the Yoruba say, can mar and ruin his destiny. He must therefore properly relate both to God, to the divinities, and ancestors on the vertical dimension, and also to his fellow man, particularly to his family, community, town, clan, and society, on the horizontal dimension. In after-life, he will have to give account of his life here on earth before the ancestors and divinities and also before God, and will be rewarded or retributed according to his desserts. According to some ethnic groups, whether or not a person is reincarnated and the form of reincarnation that happens to him is dependent on the manner of life he lives now on earth.
To conclude, then, according to African belief, God is the Creator; man, a creature. God, the Father or Mother; man, the child, which already implies brotherhood and sisterhood for mankind. God is the ancestor; man, the progeny. God is unique, infinite, and good; man is not unique, is finite, and object of God's goodness. God is king; man, a subject in God's kingdom. God is the final judge; man, the one standing under judgment in God's court. Whether or not man is discharged and acquitted in God's court finally depends ultimately on his relationship to God as expressed in his relationship with his fellow man. Perhaps this thought, logically pursued, can lead to Ritschl's conception of the Kingdom of God as, and I quote, "the moral unification of the human race through action prompted by universal love of our neighbor." However, what we have described represents, in our judgment, the understanding of God and man in African belief before we are judged. Thank you.
Ekwueme F. Okoli: I think Dr. Erivwo did a very good job of portraying the various nuances in African philosophy of God. I think we can see that Africa has a philosophy, which should be studied not only by Africans but by every person who feels that he can bring to it that detached, scholarly attitude that enables somebody to view things as they are presented. Dr. Erivwo's statement is a rebuttal, to a certain extent, of Mbiti's idea that Africans do not have a concept of the future, and I'm very happy with that. However, there is a point at which I would like him to clarify for the audience the issue of a personal soul. What, then, is judged, or what suffers; what comes back in reincarnation -- is it another aspect of the soul of man? Is this personal soul the only aspect of spirit that exists in man?
Samuel Erivwo: Ina recent lecture, I went into detail about the soul. There are so many souls. The Akan speak not only of the "sumsum," which means "the shadow," but also of the "akra," which means the personality-soul. The "sumsum" is the one which leaves the body and engages in activities when you dream.
The question of reincarnation is a difficult one. It's not the whole of the personal soul that comes back. There are several souls, and only some of them are reincarnated; in fact, Africans believe that one person can be reincarnated simultaneously in different persons, yet the personal soul of that original person is still in the vicinity of God, "Aniacum."
Ekwueme F. Okoli: The personality-soul, is it a part of the divine in man, or is it one of the souls that goes and comes? What is divine essence in man and how does it relate to the cosmic force or being?
Samuel Erivwo: Let us recognize that Africa, as everybody knows, is a vast continent, and that there are so many different languages, cultures, and ways of thinking. However, to say this, is not to suggest that one cannot find unanimity in African thought. Let's take the Ibo people. "Chukwu" is the word for God, and significantly, the personality-soul is called, "Chi," which is "something of God." One can conclude from that alone that there's something of God in man, the divine element in man; it is that which adds the double, the guardian angel; the Yoruba people, as I've said, call it "ori," and when somebody has a narrow escape, he says "Erimess Sme," that is, my soul has delivered me, saved me. But he can also say, "God has delivered me." He is saying the same thing, which means that the personality-soul is that which connects man to God. That's how I understand it.
Kamuti Kiteme: I have no quarrels with Professor Erivwo. I'd like to point out that not only is he a theologian but, if you listen carefully to him, he has taught us another aspect which is very, very important in traditional African culture and society, and that is teaching by oral literature, which is extremely rich all over the continent. His stories, his riddles, and his proverbs, all are replete with a message. We usually do this in traditional societies to stimulate our listeners, the children, when we are telling stories. But, there is no telling a story just for the sake of it. The brother is not only a theologian, but also a true African in many ways.
Just for the record: I come from the same area as Professor Mbiti. As I sat here listening about the time concept and how it was challenged -- I told Mbiti this last summer, so he is aware of this weakness in his concept of time. He got into trouble by trying to translate an element in African religions into Swahili, instead of our language, which is the language I share with him, known as Kikamba. This is not to say, by the way, that Mbiti studied just one group, the Akamba (that is my group), and Kikuyus; that is not true. Mbiti really does stand out as a giant in terms of making generalizations, as Professor Erivwo said. He picks up this group and that, and arrives at a point where he makes a generalization. Some of the comments towards Mbiti were just a little unfair.
Just to add to what the brother (Dr. Erivwo) is saying about the African concept of God, I would like to bring out one or two points: When the brother says that the African concept of God is both creator as well as a father-mother, that might create some confusion. In my ethnic group, when we say that God is a creator as well as a father and mother, the difference between this and the Judeo-Christian God is this: the Judeo-Christian God is a creator in the sense that an engineer or architect or a mechanic creates. Remember how he created Adam and Eve from clay and was separate from them; and he breathed a breath of life into the pieces of clay, and they started running around as human beings. He created by looking at it; or He would say, "Let there be light," and He looked at light from a distance and said, "It is beautiful, it is good." If you have a son, in a way you created him, but not as an engineer created a building or a car. A child coming from you is some kind of creation, but he is a part of you. When an engineer creates a car, that car is not part of the engineer; they are separate and they live separately. But in the concept of God in the African sense, that child is yours; you are God, you are creator, you are father, you are begetter, rather than an architect.
There is a long chain of communal relationships between the unborn, the living, the dead, the living dead. The only people who can tell us how tall George Washington was, whether he was temperamental, whether he was a kind man, are the ones who lived with him. Two hundred years later we absolutely cannot reproduce the physical characteristics of George Washington. But we can see him in a spiritual form, in a spiritual conceptualization. If we go back to our ancestors (and all of us here must have ancestors), if we go back, say, 100 years ago, 200 years, 300 years, 4,000 years, 5,000 years, and now they're talking about 4 million years on the African continent, those people are so far away that they lose their human characteristics; they become spiritual divinities. And if you go all the way back, according to the mythologies of different ethnic groups, then the first person is our father or our mother, and it is this first person from whom we all descended. There is a chain of relationships from the first person to us, as well as to our children who are unborn, running in our veins, perhaps in the form of chromosomes; so that, when we sacrifice, we pour libation on the ground, not because we are worshipping the ancestors, but because we are sharing with the ancestors who are buried in the ground. You would be greedy to eat and forget that your grandfather is buried in that ground; so, you pour something there to share with him. When you are eating, you are sharing with the living and those unborn kids in your body, and what you are pouring on the ground is an extension of communal survival, communal sharing, between the living and the departed and the spirit of the divinity, and God himself.
Samuel Erivwo: I agree entirely with my brother (Dr. Kiteme). God is creator and father and ancestor in Africa. God begets. However, I do not quite agree with his representation of the Judeo-Christian concept of God creating man; clearly there is evidence in the Bible that there is something of God in man. He said, "Let us create man in our image," (Gen. 1:26). When God breathed into man, he was putting something of himself into man. Paul, quoting a Greek poet, with approval, said: "In him we live and move and have our being," (Acts 17:28) in fact stating the same truth which is found in African religion.
Father Patrick Primeaux: In one of his lesser known, shorter articles, Richard Niebuhr distinguishes between the language of theology and the concrete language of faith. He claims that the concrete language of faith is primary; by that he means prayer, liturgy, creedal formulations, and sacraments. The Roman and Anglican traditions would tend to stress sacraments, as opposed to the Reformed tradition, which would stress Word; it is at that point that Roman Catholicism, Roman Christianity has something to offer to this deliberation. Especially since Vatican II, there has been a movement towards the establishment of liturgy, the ritual, the liturgical life of the community as normative. Among some there is still a determined effort to express the new movement within the categories of neo-scholasticism; others are trying to discover this expression in socio-political categories of life in American theology. What both groups are trying to say is how man meets God and man meets and experiences his brothers and sisters in the world.
We have moved from the point at which we actually experience ourselves experiencing God and one another to a theological expression of that experience. I'm referring to a direct coordination and consistency between ritual itself and conceptualization. Today both of our speakers spoke of God as creator, implying a sense of hierarchy, which Dr. Roberts said arises within the community itself, within the tribe; it is part of the function of living. It would seem that the sense of hierarchy would be related within the actual worship, the actual ritual of the community, similar to the way we as Catholics do -- the priest stands before the worshipping community as a leader; he is set apart to perform cultic functions; he is a corporate personality representing the totality of the community. There are other ministers under him: readers, acolytes, ministers of communion. The priest with his co-ministers exercises a definite function within the community itself, not simply a liturgical or ritual function, but a very real one. To observe the relationship between an experience of life and an experience of God related in worship in African religious traditions may help us to realize the significance of the African religious traditions.
Francis Botchway: It appears, from Samuel's (Erivwo) lecture, that while there may be certain features common among African concepts of God, there may also be diverse features. This would suggest to me the need for a colloquium prior to the Global Congress of World Religions. Scholars -- both African and nonAfrican -- need to work on various areas of African thought to bring together the results of their researches and reflections. I think it would be a good idea for someone to come up with profound analyses of the concept of God as held by the Kikuyus, the Yorubas, the Akans of Ghana, the Ibos, and others. Then we can better talk in terms of the African concept of God, the African concept of time, and so on and so forth. At this stage of scholarship on African religion and philosophy, it seems to me the approach should be what I call vertical, rather than horizontal -- that is to say, one should just take up deep, profound analysis of the concepts of God held by various peoples of Africa; later we can pull these things together.
Having said that, I have three questions to put to Dr. Erivwo, if only to ask him to clarify for us these things. The first one is about the idea of God as a judge. I don't know whether he is taking his concept of God as a judge in the eschatological sense. Africans believe that God, the judge, punishes the evil-doer, but I think this activity is limited to this world. I'm not sure whether in African theology reincarnation is similar to resurrection. Certainly, it doesn't appear so. Reincarnation does not seem to imply bodily identity, whereas resurrection does. Reincarnation, rather, implies identity of the soul of the person who has passed away. It seems to me that African eschatology is silent on such questions as resurrection, judgment after death, heaven and hell. Therefore, it's not clear to me whether God in the African conception is going to punish and reward people after death.
The other question is about pantheism. Quite a number of scholars think in terms of pantheism when they talk about God, meaning that God is the totality of all things, and the totality of all things is God, so that God and the world are one. This idea also appears in some Western philosophies, such as Stoicism and Spinozaism. Kindly clarify that, particularly because Africans do believe in the reality of matter, and that matter is active. Matter is not inert or inactive or passive, so that one might think God is not inert or inactive or passive, as in Cartesian physics; matter has within itself an activating principle, so that one might think God is therefore in matter. God is in the universe, and that might be taken to imply pantheism; but, in fact, I'd suggest, it is not so.
My third question relates to the relationship between the Supreme Being "Onyame," "Olodumare," and the deities, which you call the divinities, and then the ancestors. Parrinder, for instance, is woefully wrong in his characterization of the relationships between God, the Supreme Being, and the nature spirits. I think this needs some clarification. These, I agree, are big questions; but if you can touch on them briefly. Thank you.
Samuel Erivwo: I suppose we have to keep on repeating that Africa is vast, and therefore there are differences; but, we are able to discern certain elements that are common. For the first question -- God is judge -- I would say Africans primarily believe that judgment happens now; it begins here and now. But there are some ethnic groups who also believe there is judgment in afterlife. The Yoruba specifically say that in afterlife, the person-soul, the Oli, will give an account of his own life before Olodumare. The Akan believe that the personality-soul, the Akra, when it goes back to the city of God, from whence it came, if it did not complete its task, or if it committed sins, should come back and perfect itself. That's a kind of judgment. The Yoruba people believe there is what is called "the enemy." The enemy is the underworld; and the enemy is very real, too. There is the "enemy of the potsherd," which is the place where the wicked go. Another is the "proper enemy," where the ancestors go.
On the whole, Africans tend to believe that the state of the person after death is determined by the kind of burial that is given to him or her. If somebody is given an adequate and elaborate burial, that more or less shows that he is going to "the good enemy." Not to every person is a good burial given, because somebody who died a certain kind of death is believed to have already gone wrong, and therefore is denied a good burial. The denial of burial itself is part of the punishment, and he or she will not go to "the good enemy." The Ankas also believe that there is a place in afterlife which they describe as a huge mountain, divided into two parts. One part is for dogs, the bad people go there; the other part is full of meat, the good people go there. According to the Ankas, it is only the good people who will reincarnate. If you were bad, you are denied reincarnation. So, there is a form of judgment, but you don't find it everywhere. Basically, judgment begins here and continues into afterlife.
The second question -- pantheism: I agree with you that the basic view is that God is in matter or there is something of God in matter, insofar as Africans believe that there is spirit in matter. But that is different from saying that matter is spirit. I would not use the word "pantheism"; rather, I would say panentheism; the spirit of God is in matter, but we don't equate the two. God is far above matter. If we accept pantheism, then we are saying, "Matter is God," and stop. That is the distinction I would make.
The third question: the relationship between the Supreme Being and ancestors and divinities. I, too, think Parrinder was very wrong, and I criticized him in my thesis. I met him in Lancaster and called him aside and said, "Now, how did you come about this and that?" He said, "Oh, I'm prepared to accept what you have further discovered." He compared it to a triangle: the initial God is at the apex, and the ancestors are on either side, and then magic and medicine are at the base. Among certain ethnic groups, ancestors are regarded as more important than others, whereas in other ethnic groups, divinities are more important than ancestors. Among my own people, and, I guess, the Ashanti, the ancestors are more important; but, in Yorubaland, the divinities are most important. In relationship to the Supreme Being, we already said that in so far as things were created by him, human beings were specifically made by him and humanity made from him; ancestors and spirits also emanate from him, were created by him.
Francis Botchway: Parrinder also mentions that the Supreme Being is sometimes regarded as "co-equal."
Unidentified Speaker: We are confusing Western religion and African religion by saying that we Africans believe in the life after death. There is no such thing in African ideology or African religion. What they do believe is that after death the dead spirit comes to torment the wrongdoers. If I'm not generalizing, the people of Africa believe that God judges wrongdoers now and here, not then. For instance, if someone is killed by a car accident or lightning, Africans believe it is because he did something wrong -- that is why God now punishes him.
Ekwueme F. Okoli: I think this question of punishment and crime deserves comment. We believe that a crime itself has two aspects. In addition to the individual's guilt for the crime -- any crime -- we have to sacrifice in order to restore balance within the community. We have certain sacrifices which are made when someone has committed a crime. There are also certain taboos which affect the whole community. The punishment is exacted by the community and by the land. In my own area, the land has an influence in punishing an individual for a crime. The community also punishes; and God, through the ancestors, sets certain types of punishment on anybody who commits a crime. But I don't think that we can say that God sits as a judge on every crime; there are agents through which God judges individuals within the community.
Samuel Erivwo: If what I heard was what the person who commented actually meant, then we cannot allow it to pass, namely that Africans do not believe in afterlife. Unless you are thinking of a particular ethnic group, for instance I have heard that the Maasai do not believe in afterlife, but that still has to be investigated, because I don't know whether the person who told me that in fact carried out detailed research. All the ethnic groups I have dealt with believe in afterlife very firmly, very, very firmly; that has nothing to do with Christianity or Western beliefs at all.
Unidentified Speaker: If I'm not mistaken, this belief in after life is from Europe, brought to Africa by white men. Africans in my area believe that after death, there is no life except in the case of a spirit of the dead person who comes back to torment wrongdoers, but not the man himself.
Samuel Erivwo: O.K., taking your own people...But even the spirit comes back to torment wrongdoers, already implying belief in afterlife.
Tadaaki Shimmyo (Graduate Student, Drew University): If African religion is free from Greek metaphysical influence and the European theories of immutability, then there is much more room for natural theology than in traditional Christian theology. My question is whether or not Africans in their native religions believe that God is acted upon or affected by what's going on in the universe. If something wrong happens in the world, does God suffer?
Samuel Erivwo: Does He suffer? I would say He is concerned about what happens in the world. He's concerned to set it right; beyond that, I won't say more.
E.M. Uka (Graduate Student, Drew University): The first speaker today (Warren Lewis) read a poem about Africa being bright, and as he said, unfortunately bright. When I listen to all this talk going on here today, I begin to wonder how this all relates to the actual situation in contemporary Africa! How does this address the situation in the Horn of Africa? The only contribution I feel that Africa is making is in terms of its generosities -- cheap labor and the market it provides. All the tributes you have been listing for Africa do not appear to me to provide any means of relating my idea of God to what is actually happening. How does what you are talking about relate God to Africa's political and social realities?
Kamuti Kiteme: Man is like a plant, like a seed; the moment you uproot man from that earth where he is growing, you completely kill that man. You can deal with that dead man in any way you want. You (E.M. Uka) are asking us not to forget the political realities in Africa, not to forget the exploitation that African peoples have undergone as colonies or as slaves. We all agree with you, brother. What we are talking about is what these cultural roots are, from whence we were removed, leaving us in a cultural vacuum. Without roots we would be manipulated culturally, as we have for centuries, by others. Without roots we will never be able to stand on our own and either defend our minerals or defend our rights as human beings.
Samuel Erivwo: As my brother (Dr. Kiteme) just said, it is important that we know our roots. Once we know them, then we can address ourselves to the present situation. If we know that God is father of all, and mother of all, we can then begin to talk about brotherhood and sisterhood of all mankind; and if some people do not behave like brothers and sisters, then we can question them. There is no doubt that so much harm has been done to Africa from the 14th century to now. We have to face it.
William Jones: Could I just interject a point here? As a brother from the Diaspora, the issue I see being raised is this: it is one enterprise for us and you to articulate in a descriptive and accurate way the content of traditional African religion, but that is only part of the problem. I hear the gentleman raising the next question that immediately emerges. Given the content of traditional African religion, whatever it is, how does it square with the contemporary situation of Africa? If traditional African religion says that God is good, that God is just, how do you square that with the situation in South Africa? I think that's part of the question that is being raised. I resonate with your point as one who has attempted to raise similar questions from a different point of view. The question is in the back of the minds of many of us; our immediate concern is to focus on that first level of discussion, trying to articulate what contemporary African religion is.
Let us take two more questions.
Victor Wan-Tatah: I'd like to say something about the last comment and the response just made. The time has come when we can explore the liberative content of African religions. In the Yoruba myth of creation, Orisanla, when he was asked to execute God's work and run the errand for God, got drunk, and he couldn't accomplish it. So Oduduwa came over and supplanted him. Because of that, Oduduwa has taken over; not that he has replaced Orisanla, but he has been deified. People know that Orisanla is the deity, but Oduduwa is now the main person, the chief ancestor and more recognizable on the human level as the archetype of the Yoruba people. The folly of Orisanla shows that God is also one who, although he is potent in the sense that he does not do wrong, he is not all-powerful; sometimes he delegates his work to other people.
The moral, ethical demands of the babalowu ask them to be sympathetic to the people who are unable because of Orisanla's mistake. When he got drunk, he created some mistakes and that is the reason why you find people who are crippled. The one who is responsible for making man in the shape of man is also one who failed in executing his duties. Since the cripples and disabled are not responsible for their fate, Orisanla's worshippers and priests have consideration for those people. The disabled and crippled have a place in the whole concept of the worship of Olodumare, because it is not their fault.
Samuel Erivwo: Let me just point out that Orisanla is not the Supreme Being, Olodumare. Apart from that, you are in order. I want to endorse what the other gentleman (E.M. Uka) said; we are not unmindful of it. I'm preparing a paper which I hope to read in a conference on missiology in New York, in August, on "God and Man, the Doctrine of God in African Christian Theology." In that paper, the question of what to do in South Africa will surely be raised.
Ekwueme F. Okoli: The causal link between European domination of Africa and the destruction of indigenous African religions was the work of the missionaries. When the Europeans first came, they emphasized missionary work; and once you destroy the common basis of cohesion which religion provides, then you destroy the basis of that very community. African religion is the link, is the point of reference, for all societal activities. The disruption of traditional religion by a European translation of Christianity, in the way the Europeans brought it and attached it to economic imperialism, destroyed our own religious base. Once you have destroyed that connecting link between people, you set one against the other, you can dominate them. The best way to restore that primeval sense of belonging is to look through indigenous African religions to find out what is going on between us, to develop that sense of community, that sense of belonging. After Japan was destroyed during the war, the belief in the emperor and the worship of the Sun God still united all of them. You always find a point where people go back to, to resurrect themselves as a community; and that is essentially in their religious beliefs. Unless we go back to religion, it will be very difficult for us to find a basis for community or an ideology that can hold all of us together.
William Jones: We will pause at this point for a coffee break.