Proceedings Of The First Annual Conference Towards A Global Congress Of World Religions - Edited by Warren Lewis - 1978

Sunday Morning Session -- May 28, 1978

Warren Lewis: I have put a poem on the board:

Axis Mundi
I am the center of the Cosmos
I command all the cosmic Forces
I am the Universal Pillar of the Cosmos
Africanus Universalis columna quasi sustinens omnia.

(Francis Africanus)

I read that poem through the perspective of the works on shamanism I have read -- Joseph Campbell, Mircea Eliade, I.W. Lewis and Stephen Larsen. I wrote a paper for the last meeting of the American Academy of Religion in San Francisco on the Rev. Moon as a shaman. I see him as directly, historically, umbilically influenced by North Korean shamanism. And as I read Francis' poem, I see the shaman's creed. "I am the center of the cosmos." -- Every shaman believes that he is the center of the cosmos, climbs up his tree to get to the spirit world. "I command all the cosmic forces." -- He visits the spirit world; he communicates in the spirit world with the angels, the demons, the dragons, the gods. "I am the Universal Pillar of the Cosmos." -- He understands himself to be the one on whom the social order turns; and if he fails in his mission or his role, society collapses. We can think in terms of the local tribal shaman, who is helping to cure somebody of the measles; if he does not shake the gourds just right, or beat the drums properly, the measles will not be overcome. Or, in a broader cultural perspective, in the case of Rev. Moon -- and I am speaking as a cultural anthropologist -- I am not a Unificationist -- he conceives of himself in this shamanic role; but, he's gone cosmic. He is no longer your local, North Korean tribal shaman but is now offering to perform that service for the entire world. And so is Francis Africanus; he is a messianic figure, too; he sees himself as Africanus Universalis columna quasi sustinens omnia. He speaks for Africa. He is the universal African, or he is the African who is the universal column, sustaining everything that is.

Deotis (Roberts) said the other day that at the basic level of human religiosity is where the commonplaces are. I agree with that. Approaching the subject sociologically and psychologically, whether you come at it from a Jungian perspective in terms of the archetypes, or from an analysis of the function of religion in society as Archie Bahm approaches it, religious patterns are universally the same, and this is the astonishing thing. These basic universals are one pole of what we have been talking about. At the other pole, religious pluralism manifests itself in its concrete forms. A Korean shaman is as different from an African shaman or an American-Indian shaman as those persons are different from each other personally, linguistically, and culturally. They are unique individuals and, as such, manifest the pluralistic side. We move back and forth between two poles, now marveling at the commonness and alikeness of being, now reverencing the variety, the distinctions, and those points at which we are not alike. Both aspects are real and will continue.

Our proposal is to focus the attention of the religious people of the world on Africa and to do it in Africa. One of our approaches will be, as Deotis suggested, to get the Orientals and the Africans together. It would be an educational experience for both sides of the conversation, for the Oriental shamans to find out how African they are and for the African shamans to find out how Oriental they are. What else do we want to do?

Phillip McCracken (Student, Unification Theological Seminary): There are a lot of people in our world today who are really suffering. I want us to see that somehow we have to alleviate the pain. Somehow we have to bring about healing. There has to be at some point a statement as to how we can create a healing process.

Warren Lewis: At what points are we hurting? [Dr. Lewis begins listing on the blackboard, as people mention problem areas: racial problems, economics, imperialism, politics, hunger, war, lack of salvation, self-identity, health care, education, literacy.]

Thomas Walsh (Student, Unification Theological Seminary): It seems like we are treating symptoms and not the larger issue of values.

Warren Lewis: How do we get to values?

Thomas Walsh: Maybe that is the purpose of the conference: to decide where we have common human values.

Warren Lewis: Earlier, we talked about some stages we might go through to discover African values. We talked about small groups of people going to the villages, going places where autochthonous African religions are being practiced, and communicating with the practitioners. It seems that, on the one hand, we are suggesting a long-term period of study, serious study under the control of highly sophisticated methods. We cannot, however, define our congress simply in terms of study teams; and yet, somehow our congress must address itself to gathering fresh information.

Do we send people to make a religious visitation of Africa, preferably during some festival period of the year; and then, at the end of that time, all gather at some central location to talk over what we have come up with? How might that work?

William Jones: Before we can really do that, though, I feel that one way of attacking this problem is to determine what written materials are already available. We recognize that some of the available material is inadequate or biased; but if a group of African scholars in religion could pull together a working bibliography, this could be a prelude to the type of field study or field visit we are talking about. It might identify other areas on which the field study could focus. I would very much appreciate having an annotated bibliography from the standpoint of African scholars who know the materials and can make some suggestion about their value and quality from the African perspective for us in the West who do not have that kind of expertise.

Warren Lewis: For example, in our discussion yesterday, there were two points of theoretical disagreement: Mbiti's view of time, and whether or not the Africans believe in the afterlife. That's the kind of thing you could get some information on from an annotated bibliography. Does such a bibliography already exist?

Francis Botchway: No, it doesn't.

James Deotis Roberts: Who would supply that? [More brainstorming to compile a list of names of African scholars: Asare Opoku; Christian Gaba; Idowu; Arinze; Rohio (Nairobi); Sodipo; Kudajie; Quarco; Sawyerr (Nairobi); Shorter (Uganda); Amon D'Abi; Okot p'Bitek; Mveng; Kagama; Stanislav Adotevi (Senegal); Amouzou; Dzobo (Colombia); Carr (Liberia); Buthelezi (South Africa); Igure; Kwesi Dickson; Desmond Tutu; Assimeng (Sociologist); Diop; Mathias (University Bhutalizi); Montillus (Wayne State University of Detroit); Fonlon; I.F.A.N. Institute Senegal; Institute of African Studies; Lagon; Ife; Ibadan; Lagos; Nsukka; Nairobi; Mbiti (Geneva); Ilogu; Department of African Studies (Howard University); Christian Institute of South Africa (Capetown).]

Warren Lewis: Realistically speaking, how do we keep the field visit from becoming a kind of elitist tourism? How do we get something valuable to happen? What can we do and where to do it? How long should it take? How shall we go about setting it up so that the maximum good result would come about?

J. Deotis Roberts: I think it would make a lot of sense if, before we fanned out to the various places, there were a preliminary workshop centering on Africa, pooling our information, not just on religion, but also on certain aspects of culture, language, history, geography, etc. It is always desirable to have a general knowledge of the country, not just religion, before moving out into an African country.

William Jones: I think this preliminary work should be carried on exclusively by African scholars. The workshop could be a time for clarifying a methodology for the field visit.

Warren Lewis: I agree with that. We need African scholars, such as yourselves, to communicate with the people who will respond to our invitation and who want to meet Africa religiously. You would instruct these folk methodologically, so that they could benefit from the exercise. It seems to me that in terms of overall effectiveness, however, we do want to bring representatives from every kind of religious point of view face to face with religious Africa.

William Jones: I am talking about two different events. The field visit would be designed as an instrument to identify, record and report the current state of religious ideas of traditional Africa. You can call it a cultural-anthropological enterprise. Beyond this, we could also have a second field visit for the members of the larger conference which would not be an anthropological exercise but simply would widen the perspective of that group so that they can better understand the product of the earlier cultural-anthropological work. The first piece of work is a sensitive job and has to be done with a great deal of concern about precise methodology.

Francis (Botchway) indicated a helpful methodological point. We need to identify intermediary people who were raised in a traditional religious framework and who still retain some connection or understanding but who also speak our language. These intermediaries would help us during the field visits.

Francis Botchway: The identification of these intermediary people who still maintain ties with the practitioners of the religion is the work of the African scholars. There are people like Dr. Idowu and Dr. Gaba, who have been going back to the field, and Dr. Opoku, who has ties with the practitioners of the religions. I think people from Europe, from Asia, from the United States could go into the field with the Africans who have had the auto-ethnographic experience and who might be able to interpret the experience for the visitors as they visit the practitioners actually involved in their practices. I think we would gain much more than if we just go in, sit down and listen to the practitioner tell us what his world view is.

Warren Lewis: At what point would we bring in the outsiders? Educating the rest of the world is a main concern of us all. Certainly, we share the concern for uncovering Africa's religious wealth, exploiting the resources, so to speak; but, an equal or greater interest turns upon the point at which Africa meets the rest of the world and the rest of the world meets Africa. At what point do we bring the foreigners together with Africa?

Francis Botchway: At the larger African congress itself, after the workshop and field visits, we might have representatives from Asia, Europe and the United States as observers who would go to the field and experience some of these religious practices and have the interpretations and the analysis of them by the African scholars and intermediaries on the spot.

Warren Lewis: The people who will be leading the preliminary workshop are people who are already expert in the method they will be teaching. They shall receive critiques during the workshop, and we will thus be developing methodological improvements. In addition to acknowledged African scholars, others might emerge who, in your opinion as African scholars, might get to come along on the field visit. I'm going to work awfully hard between now and then to qualify myself to go with you. I want to be there, if I may, I have a right to be there. After the methodological workshop and the field visits, we come together in the congress. Are there some spots in the field where we could send members of the congress on a type of field visit, where we know ahead of time it is going to be a profitable exercise? After this stage of the congressional field visits, then we would hold the plenary council. Is this the direction of the movement we are proposing? Does the congress have to go to the field, or can you bring the field to the congress?

Francis Botchway: The congress has to go to the field. We have a saying that, "You can't cross the ocean with your cosmic powers." We have one priestess in Ghana who was alleged to be very powerful. Then a group of Americans came to Ghana and were initiated. They invited her to come to New York City; but when she did come, and she has been coming almost every year, she lost almost all of her powers. She crossed the ocean.

Warren Lewis: Jesus had a similar problem. It is said he couldn't do many wonderful works in his own home town because of the disbelief of the people. Perhaps he should have crossed the ocean.

Francis Botchway: I think that in order really to appreciate the essence, importance and the meaning of the religious practices, the congress should visit the field. If you bring the authentic practitioners to the congress, to some university or metropolitan center, you will really be uprooting them from their milieu.

Warren Lewis: Just for the sake of helping me to fantasize and imagine, can you describe a couple of situations where we could send members of the congress? Suppose you have a thousand people coming to this conference. They will go to different places -- to shrines, to famous trees, the sacred groves, to wherever it happens. And what might I see there if I were to be with that group?

Francis Botchway: You won't see anything! (Laughter)

Warren Lewis: That's what I'm afraid of! How many people can be a witness to an African religious happening?

Francis Botchway: You'll be a witness to the outward appearances, the rituals.

Victor Wan-Tatah: True; but within the context of festivals, we would see much more.

Warren Lewis: If I have an African scholar standing right next to me who is helping me to understand, who is explaining, teaching, who is interpreting, that's good.

Ekwueme Felix Okoli: I know a place where scholars have tried to enter but could not; they couldn't get into the place. Every person who gets into that place gets trapped by some forces somehow; and eight days later they come out somewhere else.

Francis Botchway: You have to pour out a libation to the gods before you enter.

Warren Lewis: We'll have to include a special category in our budget for libations.

Victor Wan-Tatah: Not only for libations, but for initiation too. The rite of passage has to be accomplished before you ever have equal status of a worshipper. And that does not occur in a short while; it takes some time; there are lots of conditions to meet.

Warren Lewis: I just have to say a word to us white Christians in the room: You know what we are letting ourselves in for? These Black Africans are about to convert us! What is this! African spiritual imperialism? (Laughter)

William Jones: We're fattening you up. (Laughter)

Kwame Gyekye: Have you read the book entitled Jui-Jui in my Life? It's a book by a British engineer who lived in Ghana for ten years and really experienced these things. Like every European, he had some doubt about these things; but he came out really believing.

Francis Botchway: He was sent to Ghana as an investigator for the government to help build a university. Things were often found to be missing -- a few cement bags, iron rods, etc. The government was losing quite a lot; so they brought him in as an investigator; and he visited the university while it was being built. The workers were trying to remove a huge tree; they put a cable around it, and the caterpillar pulled, but the tree wouldn't budge. Then one of the workmen suggested that they go to the people across the street who might have their god in that tree; and, if there were a god in the tree, you couldn't move it unless a libation be poured and the gods be pacified. You have to move the gods first, and then you can move the tree. That was African nonsense in the opinion of the Europeans -- African superstition. So they attempted to again pull the tree down, and the government man jumped onto the caterpillar himself; but the tree would not move. Then the Africans became afraid and said, "We won't do it again; the gods will bring all sorts of wrath on us." Instead, they went to the village and brought the priest. He poured a libation, asking the gods to move to another tree because this place was going to be used for a university for the god's own children and their children's children. When he was finished, they started putting the cables back around the tree, and the priest said, "No, just push the tree." They pushed, and the tree fell.

The government man documents all of this very graphically and says, "I tried to ask the Africans to explain it to me. I saw it, but I don't believe it."

Kwame Gyekye: But in the end, he comes away believing. And he ends up by saying that there are some things in Africa that one really should take quite seriously, and if he can, scientifically.

Francis Botchway: I will tell you a story about this school I went to in Accra -- Kiro Boys' School. There was a tree there which was supposed to have been a fetish tree. When the school was built by the government, they decided to cut down that tree, but without pacifying the gods. The school was built, and the tree started to grow back. Each year at the university, because the gods were never pacified, one boy from the boys' school and one girl from the girls' school would die. Every year! When I was in my last year, we were all scared: who was going to go this year? "Not me! I'm not going!" we said; but one of us went, yes, every year. And it is still going on. They don't know anymore the rites they must perform to pacify the gods. But I think if they had done it back in the '20's when the school was built, all of these things would not be occurring. Nobody knows what to do.

Warren Lewis: My Unification colleagues are not telling you their stories, but let me suggest that the reason it's right for the Unification people to be involved in this is because they agree with you, and they know what you are talking about. They know that these things happen. Their grasp of the reality of the spirit world is remarkably similar to your own.

Ekwueme Felix Okoli: I think if we use the term "god," we mislead people. Rather, we should use "cosmic force." There is a belief in the balance in nature within the community, and there are certain things you do that will upset that balance; until you sacrifice certain things or perform certain rites to re-establish the balance, something wrong is going to happen in that community. It is a "force," really; not "gods." We have been trained to look at the Supreme Being as a being; that is tautological, no doubt, because of our training. When you begin to conceive of God or the Creator as a force, then you begin to see that everything has that divine spark, or force, in it. Thus, when you upset the cosmic balance, you upset that force so that you have to re-establish the equilibrium in order for the community to continue.

Phillip McCracken: I am thinking one issue we might want to deal with is the definition of evil. It is evil that moves men against their will, the kind of force that really gets us to do the things we don't want to do. We might well talk about racism in these terms, whenever that question becomes appropriate.

Francis Botchway: I agree. The African scholars should deal with that question. Dr. Okoli raised the question about "god;" I know, for instance, that my people do not use the terminology "god." Even though they refer to "Mau," in essence they are referring to a cosmic creative will. We all have that will, but the priests have more of the cosmic creative will than the average person. And those dead ancestors who have been deified can be invoked; and by them through the cosmic creative will. But if people go into the field to carry on this investigation, I'm sure we will get a lot of information.

Warren Lewis: How soon can we do this? We have to get a working bibliography gathered together, and communicate with the individuals, as well as a number of institutions. We have to identify the right people to conduct the preliminary workshop. The African scholars have to set up the field visits. Then, the field visits have to take place, and nobody yet has suggested how long that might last. Once the field visits have been accomplished, the congress participants can be divided into small units to make the congressional field visits. Then, at last, we can all come together.

William Jones: What is the date for the Global Congress? We can work back from that.

Warren Lewis: According to my personal timetable, it's 1981.

Phillip McCracken: It seems that if we want to have the properly rich experience during the congressional field visits, we should tie them in with the religious festivals. We have to be aware of what is happening in Africa and at what times.

Warren Lewis: Africa is on a cyclical, natural calendar; there are festivals at each important turning of the seasons.

Francis Botchway: In terms of time, if you want to get these academic people to the congress, the best time would be sometime when they are not in school.

Kwame Gyekye: Where will the preliminary workshop be held?

Warren Lewis: Shouldn't it be in Africa? Where are the people located who will take the major part at this level? Is the majority of the people in the United States and Europe and only a few in Africa, or is the majority in Africa?

Kwame Gyekye: The majority will come from Africa. The majority for the workshop will be African scholars, intermediaries, and a few Europeans and Americans and perhaps some Orientals. They will attend the workshop, acquaint themselves with the questions non-African scholars are asking, and then, armed with a common method, they will go to the field.

Francis Botchway: It would be much cheaper to hold the preliminary workshop in Africa.

Warren Lewis: Where shall we hold it in Africa?

Ekwueme Felix Okoli: It depends upon the situation in that country at that time. There are a number of factors. We might have to change the place even after we set it.

Kwame Gyekye: We can suggest a number of sites, a country in West Africa, one in East Africa, one in South Africa; later, on the basis of contingent factors, we could make one final choice.

Francis Botchway: I would suggest three cities: Nairobi, Dar-es-Salaam, and Nsukka. (Not Lagos! In Lagos, it would take you three hours to go ten minutes.) (Laughter)

Warren Lewis: Could we do it in South Africa?

Several: Some of us could not go. Our passports do not allow us to enter.

Warren Lewis: This is really a university activity, isn't it? Some universities can handle this kind of exercise, whereas others cannot. So we have to think not only about the country, but also about the particular university.

Kwame Gyekye: Contacts are very important. Let us think in terms of university campuses where some of us or some of the African scholars work.

E.M. Uka (Graduate Student, Drew University): The University of Nigeria has a Department of African Studies as well as a Department of Religious Studies, and they publish a journal. There are scholars there who would be interested.

Francis Botchway: But there's a problem of getting a visa to Nigeria. But almost everywhere in Africa is difficult. Guinea is impossible.

Warren Lewis: How about Nairobi? My impression is that Nairobi is the place everybody goes to in Africa. From that point of view, I hesitate: we're not tourists.

Ekwueme Felix Okoli: The problem I have with Nairobi is this: Nairobi as a crossroads suffers from so much imperial influence. I don't know if you could hold a conference there unhampered by curious people asking, "What are you people doing here?" or fearing that we will discuss the situation in Zaire or Zimbabwe, etc. We want to go somewhere where it will be clearly seen that we are looking for values.

Warren Lewis: I would rather meet under a fetish tree than meet in a Westernized city where the spiritual atmosphere is wrong.

J. Deotis Roberts: My personal feeling is that Nigeria would be the place to go. That is the heartland, if you speak of traditional African religion; and they have far more independent churches as well. It is worth the effort.

Warren Lewis: Where does Islam fit into this? We speak only of sub-Saharan Africa. We must think more about Islam. Let's ask the question of co-sponsorship. Deotis, can we get the Temple of Understanding to do this with us?

J. Deotis Roberts: I hope so. They need to go to Africa.

Warren Lewis: Who else besides the Tern pie of Understanding?

Victor Wan- Tatah: The All African Council of Churches (AACC). Their headquarters is in Nairobi. By the way, Canon Carr is secretary. Time has distorted everything going on in Nairobi around him. Meeting him personally will show you how badly they have misrepresented him.

Warren Lewis: It sounds like Canon Carr has problems similar to the ones Rev. Moon has. If the African Council of Churches were to collaborate with us, would that create problems for some people?

Francis Botchway: You see, Carr was taking a very active role about the question of Zimbabwe and South African racism. This did not sit very well with some of the members in the hierarchy of the Association.

Victor Wan-Tatah: He was very vocal on these issues. He was never reticent, not even on issues which affected the Kenyan government; that is where he really got in trouble.

Warren Lewis: What about the World Council of Churches; it will surely be interested in this. What about Muslim institutions?

Francis Botchway: There is an important Muslim institution in Saudi Arabia, the World Congress of Islam. Headquarters is in Jidda. I suggest we get a list of the various Islamic associations in Africa and then contact them individually to see if they be interested in taking part in the conference. I think they should be included. Islam is part of African religion.

Warren Lewis: What about the Egyptians? They seem to be something completely different to me. Am I wrong about that? What about the Coptic Christians? It seems to me that the Copts and the Muslims and the African Jews and the Ethiopian church ought to all be included.

Phillip McCracken: Dr. Roberts talked about Africa south of the Sahara. Do you think we might want to split the conference and deal with the Mediterranean separately?

Francis Botchway: Even south of the Sahara there are so many areas which are heavily Islamized: Mauritania, Somalia, Senegal, Mali, Upper Volta, Northern Nigeria, Guinea, Chad, and so on.

Warren Lewis: I think it serves our common purpose to have Islam at the table with us. We are as interested in indigenized religions as we are autochthonous ones. Besides, Islam, where it has syncretized with traditional African religions, is bound to be different from Islam in other parts of the world. Where are we going to get the money for all this?

William Jones: Cake sale. (Laughter)

Kwame Gyekye: I think the focus of the conference should be African religions. After all, much is already known about Islam, its doctrines, the Quran. But what we want is to produce a religious testament of Africa. We want to know the body of doctrine of African traditional religion.

Warren Lewis: We are envisioning a two-stage process; the first stage is what you just said, Kwame. After the first stage, these other people become involved so that we all can teach and be taught.

Ekwueme Felix Okoli: There are a lot of African influences in some of the Islamic sects. When you take Nigeria, for example, the type of Islamic script you find there, the Hausa language written in Ijama script, is indigenous to that area and has had an influence on the development of Islam, as such. We can see the influence of African culture on Islam in those areas.

Warren Lewis: That's got to be true; Islam is no more innocent of cultural synthesis than Christianity or any other religion in history.

Ekwueme Felix Okoli: Especially not in Nigeria. The indigenous language has been used to conceptualize Islamic values. But language is a bearer of cultural values and concepts. The result in Nigeria would be considered a synthesis of Islamic value and Nigerian value.

Warren Lewis: There is a sense in which an Arabian Muslim would be the first person to recognize that, what with the insistence that the Quran must be read in Arabic.

Francis Botchway: The Quran is read in Arabic all over the East and in Arabia; but Islam in sub-Saharan Africa, to some extent, is different from Islam in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, and all over the Punjabi area. Islam in West Africa seems to be much more mystical than Islam in Saudi Arabia. And the mystical aspect of Islam in West Africa -- in Senegal and northern Nigeria -- takes on a lot of the attributes of traditional African religion, which you don't find in Saudi Arabia.

Warren Lewis: The big question for discussion at table is this: are there corporations, are there interest groups, is there oil money? Where are we going to get the funds? Unification Seminary is willing to prime the pump. We're already quite extended into this cause financially. But we must consider that we are discussing millions, in the final analysis. Where will we find co-sponsorship both in terms of wisdom and money?

Let's go eat! 

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