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

Tuesday Morning Session -- September 5, 1978

Irving Hexham: It's time to wind things up. I'll hand it over to Warren who will tell you what we want to do.

Warren Lewis: As I indicated on our first evening together, we had a multiple purpose in inviting you here. We are projecting plans for Africa and a different, but related, set of plans for a Global Congress of World Religions. Some of us have already had to leave, but in taking their leave, have left me with several good words. Fred Welbourn for example, who left last night, said he is willing to help us get in touch with French Africanists, who unfortunately are not represented here this weekend. James Dickie has given me a ground list of the right people in Islam to get in touch with. This highly selective list is extremely appreciated.

James Dickie: The criterion is avoid governments like the plague. They would only recommend to you supine "yes men." So I have got in with private enterprise. (Laughter)

Warren Lewis: As we think towards our Global Congress, it now appears we will be moving along two tracks at the same time. The track that leads to Africa, and then a parallel track that runs by way of the various international groups involved in inter-religious dialogue, such as the World Congress of Faiths, which was represented yesterday among us by Marcus Braybrooke. Marcus has provided me with a list of people he will be happy to help us get in touch with. We are planning a "conference of the groups," which, he and I agreed yesterday, we might like to hold a year from now, in late September in New York. I brought you greetings from Terry Ranger the other evening. Now I'll put in the word from him that he would have uttered. When we were talking about these matters, Terry Ranger was concerned about the agenda of the Africa congress and who was going to set the agenda. Irving and I immediately offered to allow Terry to set the agenda, and he remembered in that moment never to criticize anybody lest you be invited to head the committee. (Laughter) But the agenda is a serious concern, and I'd like for us to talk about it for a while. One subject that has come up recurrently is the question of bibliography. Bibliographies do exist, but it seems that a more or less exhaustive or combined bibliography on religion and religions in Africa perhaps does not exist. Might it be a good idea to undertake a bibliography project? The other main topic is our Africa agenda: who shall be there, and how will it work, what might the stages be. Father Trabucchi will now tell us about a somewhat similar meeting that was held three or four years ago in Africa.

Sandro Trabucchi: Yes, it was in August '73. There had been a so-called pan-African meeting. It was organized by the Catholic Church with representatives from other churches; we gathered at Kaba, on the outskirts of Kampala on Lake Victoria. We were thirty-five people, and all the speakers were African, except Father Shorter, whom some of you know. It was quite interesting, because we tried to be very down to earth; the most impressive talk was given by a practitioner of an African religion. He must have been about 70 years of age, and he told us a lot of things, although he said, "I can't tell you everything." Our idea was to know exactly what was going on in the field. He was telling us what takes place at night on many occasions in the outside parts of Kampala. For instance, Christians who maybe in the morning have been to church here and there, in the evening go to other sessions. They have a double way of living. The proceedings were published; a quite extensive bibliography had been prepared already. I could get a copy of those proceedings and the bibliography, also.

Harold Turner: The same year, the same thing was done by the World Council of Churches, and their report has been published, and the second leg of that is happening in ten days' time in Aunde. There will be another report from that. The difficulty that emerges in this whole enterprise is whom to get as a spokesman? The WCC tended to rely on leaders from some of the new, African independent movements. But that is a very questionable procedure, I think. They did visit local shrines and talk with the practitioners and so on. Playing at it.

Warren Lewis: Is that tourism?

Harold Turner: It's tourism and it's playing at it. It's dangerous.

Warren Lewis: How can we not fall into that trap? Is it possible? Maybe it isn't possible to avoid that kind of thing.

Harold Turner: I think it is quite impossible in a little, neat, quick package you pick up in this conference procedure. It really is impossible and it is irresponsible to pretend otherwise. And also, we are doing the whole thing initially in a thoroughly Western framework. The conference procedure is a Western structure which we impose on the Western world. And it's questionable even in our own context. I think it is some kind of disease of solving problems by conferences. That is not where they get solved. It works the other way round: people who succeed at this get stuck into it in obscure places and stick with it for a long time-period, with very deep commitment. We gather here, rushing away from the things we're really committed to; and we talk, or pretend to, and then rush back to things we are really committed to, and that is where the real action occurs. This all tends to be a little phony. Not that one doesn't appreciate it. But I think we should be realistic about it, especially when we impose it on the particular field of African religion, which cannot be caught in this net. That sounds very negative, but, I admit, I'm still going to a conference in ten days' time. And so, one gets caught up in this both ways; but one feels uncomfortable about it. But I do think we should still keep talking about it.

Warren Lewis: Surely there is a way to do it right.

Harold Turner: I think being very well aware of our limitations and the dangers at the same time; at least, if we keep that in mind, it's some saving grace. I hope that isn't too negative.

Warren Lewis: No, I'm glad you said that. I could tell from our conversation at breakfast that you were either going to have to say what you said or get indigestion, and I'd much rather have you say it.

Harold Turner: But there are other things which might be said, more positive. African traditional religion, as we have heard, is so varied, so extensive; it's not articulated to itself, it doesn't understand itself, much less have spokesmen who can talk in our terms to the rest of the world. How do you get hold of it? So much of it is gone forever; so much of it is corrupted and already accommodated, carrying on in bits and pieces; so much of it will go on forever, as the ongoing worldview which we all inherit -- the primal religious heritage, as I call it. If only we could identify it! It might go on forever as our legacy; but as public, viable, religious systems, so much of it is already lost. It might be an idea to try to identify, for a start, some of the more lasting, public, still viable religious systems which do yet occur in Africa. These show that African religions have a history, because they are having a history visible at the moment, a history of change, accommodation, and so on. Some places do still have them. Dave was mentioning Dahomey earlier.

David Shank: You mean the Fon divining cult? It is still a very going concern at the present time in Dahomey.

Harold Turner: Dealing with the contemporary problems of the people, but in traditional terms, is authentic work. That can be identified! Peter McKenzie might have been here, but he couldn't be, because this summer he is studying the ongoing traditional shrines among the Yoruba in Nigeria, on the basis of his having worked and having lived in Nigeria for five years. Dr. Daneel has had the unique entry, which the white man has never before had nor will have again, to the Mwali cult, or Great Shona cult, in Rhodesia. He has had Mwali speak to him through the oracle. There are certain places which could be identified; and this is primal religion in its living form, as authentic as you would get it, and showing the toughness of it all. We tend to think of it all eroding; and in the long run, I think it is all archaic. It has no long-term future as a public system. No modern African nation could conceivably take it as the public, spiritual process of religion. Modern life simply cannot deal with tribal religion; no nation has really tried, though one or two politicians have made some use of it. But there are spots, perhaps, where we can learn something and it would still be identifiable; nor would we be just talking about Africa. That is the only concrete thing I might recommend.

Sandro Trabucchi: If I may add one word: A meeting of this type could take place on African soil and should make extensive use of men who are on the spot, rather than bringing in people from outside so much. I have attended many of these meetings of foreigners in Uganda; it is nice to listen to the speakers, but they go away and you remain with your problems; or they come in and don't know the situation. They talk just about the clouds..! If we are going to have a meeting in a specific area of Africa, let us try to find out some people more or less competent, perhaps less competent from a scholarly point of view, but who are more down-to-earth there. Let us use them and, if necessary, give them some guidance and perhaps (this is more practical) some financial support. Let them go their own way, without imposing our own structure or our own proceedings. For instance, in Nairobi in '75, the World Council of Churches, according to my own understanding, has been a tremendous flop. Such a huge organization, and the poverty of the people around, but thousands were spent, and for what? What has come out? It is nice that the people can understand it in London or in Paris or New York, but no good thing came out of it for Africa.

John Sonneborn (Doctoral Student, Union Theological Seminary, New York, New York): Is it not a primary topic for a Congress of Religions how religions interact with each other, rather than simply to classify and study each of them or all at once in the abstract? Wouldn't it be feasible for the participants in an African Congress to ask how they are relating to each other, how the religions and theologies which have come in from other countries relate to Africa, the new governments, and the newly-formed nations composed of many tribes? Then it would be legitimate to have leading practitioners of the local religions speak in this context, without having to be probed deeply into their own religion or using an academic, sociological language they might not be comfortable with. That might be something that hasn't been done.

Stanley Mogoba: Yes, I was going to say that this area is multitiered. There is the tier of African traditional religion, then there is one of African theology, then one of Black theology. They are all distinct tiers; they are all related, so that you have to involve them all in a discussion. Of these three tiers, African traditional religion is the most urgent concern, because it is disappearing. Time is important here. Something must be done quickly, because most of the people who have the knowledge are going. However, most of the people who can give the best information in this area are people who may not be very articulate, and therefore may not want to come to a conference; or if they were to come, they would not be very useful at the conference.

So I suggest that between now and the time of the conference the right people be asked in various parts of Africa to contribute reports from research that is being done and to encourage as many people as possible to do local research, to interview, to live with, to document the actual religions of Africa. That is something a person could bring to a conference like this. Some independent church leaders would also be useful, if they were interviewed, or asked to come and speak. Many of them would appreciate a chance to speak. Most of them, of course, would have to speak through an interpreter. We would want to arrange for competent interpreters, so the people could use their original language.

An example of such a person is the very interesting Rev. Modisi, leader of a new, independent church now thriving in Soweto. He has made an impact amongst the higher, educated levels, which in the past has not been possible. Most of the people at those levels who were associated with independent churches were not proud enough to admit it in public. But now this man has made a breakthrough, and people come out and associate with him quite openly. I think a man like that is the sort of person we would want to invite to the conference and one who could participate effectively in it.

David Shank: This trend was reported to us in Aberdeen last week: "Celestial Christianity" in Nigeria is making this kind of breakthrough, as well as Independent Christianity, which was always despised; it is now reaching a new social class. Isn't that the message you got, too, Harold?

Harold Turner: Yes, the deputy vice-chancellor of the university has joined.

David Shank and Harold Turner: But "independent churches" are not traditional African religion.

Stanley Mogoba: May I say about such meetings, these are areas in which you would have to be very careful. The government is very unsympathetic towards certain political movements, but with the African religions, African theology, and independent churches, they are quite happy. Anybody can organize them. But I wouldn't be the right person to organize this, because the government reads certain things into what we do. It is possible to do this sort of thing, but you have got to be careful who does it. It's a problem, but one that can be solved.

Myrtle Langley: We've got somebody like Bethel Okot in Nairobi, who would be very good, if we could get him to find time to do it. I support everything Stanley has said, and possibly go one step further. Perhaps the people who have been doing this work could take one person just before or just after the conference to the area where they have been doing their work. Just one person, not a group, might go out with one researcher, and this would be a way for a person to get in and see something of what actually happens. Then there is a question of the different seasons. For certain things happening, I've found, for example, the August season wouldn't be any good in certain parts of East Africa; it's December in which a lot of the rites happen, depending on the rains, and all that. It would be different in West Africa, I think, altogether.

Warren Lewis: Harold, how would you respond to this: If really good people, who know what they are doing, were to take one or two persons from Europe or America or some other place, and introduce them to an authentic situation, would that work? There would not be a busload of tourists who get out and watch a medicine man do his thing for an afternoon and then get in the bus again and move on to the next stop. Would a congress that met one person at a time all over Africa, so to speak, be a step towards healing the conference disease?

Myrtle Langley: I wasn't quite thinking of one person only. If you have it in a good area and you select your people from different parts of the surrounding area, say within a few hundred miles, and then a person goes out either before or after the conference with people who are prepared so that it is all integrated into a proper program, that might be very profitable. I have no problem taking one or two visitors with me, when I already have the confidence of the people in my area. Sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt.

Warren Lewis: Not at all! Thank you; that is even better. Irving, Myrtle's suggestion seems to go along with your idea of structures, times, and seasons in terms of a multiple congress with an East, a West, a South, and perhaps a North focus.

Irving Hexham: Yes, I think that is the obvious way to do it.

Warren Lewis: Especially since the geography of religion, the climate of religion, the rain season of religion is different in East Africa from West Africa, we wouldn't expect there to be a uniformity of religious practice.

Eileen Barker: Warren, may I come back to being difficult again? I'm just sitting here wondering, still, what you are trying to do, what your basic question is. Are we discussing how do we find out about African religion? Is that really what you want to do? I mean, there are anthropologists, specialists who are doing this over a long period of time, and in methodologically more sophisticated ways than you could possibly hope to do it. If you want to produce odd flavors at the conference, there are films made by African societies for television which would probably provide a far better picture than somebody coming back from tramping through the bush watching the Bonga-wonga doing something or other. There are a whole lot of books and other available material, though the material isn't being used. I think you have been saying that you want the use of this knowledge, and you seem to be looking at how we can achieve this knowledge. Would I be right in saying that what you really want to do is use the knowledge if you can get it? Therefore, the problem for the conference is not production of the knowledge from primary sources so much as just getting hold of it.

Harold is absolutely right; it is absolutely ridiculous for us to think we can go out, even in a year, and do something original. It's a very difficult job, finding out about other peoples' lives and religions, and understanding what they are doing. But there are people already doing this, though a lot of the stuff they produce just isn't being used. What I think you want to do, is use it, plug into it; so the best thing for you to do is find out how this knowledge can best be communicated to people who might want to use it.

But the first question I think you want to get at -- and perhaps you have said it a thousand times, and I know I have asked it a thousand times -- is, why do you want to know? What do you want to do with it? Then you can find out what it is you want to know, and how you can get it. I've stopped.

Harold Turner: I'm glad you started.

Warren Lewis: I agree with everything you have said. If I can answer your question, it would be to say that a main thing about being human is that we talk to one another. I'm attempting to expand and intensify the conversation. I want Africa to talk to us theologically and I want to tune the world's ears to what the Africans are saying.

Eileen Barker: Does that mean the whole conversation you want to produce is to discuss what African religions have to offer? In that case, the question is how do you find out what African religions have to offer; and in that case, I would think asking people like Myrtle to give papers on specific topics, which she has worked at for years, or looking at some of these films, which are excellent, perhaps just having a film show, would show far more than somebody standing up and talking about all the different aids of first-year undergraduate textbooks. (I'm sure Angela would give you a long list of those; I remember ploughing through them all.) There is an absolutely fascinating wealth of stuff available. I used to go to a seminar every Friday at University College on African Religion; each week, all these experts were sitting there, producing more and more, an enormous horde of stuff. It's there, but it seems daft to try to say how we can get at it. You do have to get it, but not by going into the bush with a tape recorder.

Warren Lewis: No, I am not recommending that we do that, but that we depend upon those who have gone to the bush with a tape recorder. But beyond that, I want to arrange actual conversations: Africans, in Africa, on their own turf and in their own terms, talking to and teaching one another and others about their own experience of religion. It's more than reading an undergraduate text; and great as those movies must be -- and let's show some -- people meeting people is better than people watching people in a film.

Eileen Barker: Then in selecting the right people and places, you have got to be terribly clear of what it is you want to do. There is so much good there you could pick up, and an awful lot of rubbish. You have got to keep asking what the question is, in order to find out what is the answer.

Warren Lewis: You are siding with Terry Ranger, aren't you? Would you like to be on the agenda committee? (Laughter)

Myrtle Langley: I think that preparation is the crucial thing.

Irving Hexham: I would like to say something. I'd like the tape recorder off, please.


(He speaks intensely, making reference to specific individuals and events, on the value of conferences as the place where people do sometimes change their minds about important issues.)

Kurt Johnson: I think you are trying to do something fresh and new in an area in which it is hard to do anything fresh and new, in an area that is really notorious now for building cynicism about relevance both to scholars and to other living people. It is going to take the kind of homework where you study everything that has been done, decide why it wasn't so good as it might have been, and discover as well the things done that were worthwhile. I think the question you have to ask -- again from our experience in doing minority-poverty things in the U.S., where we can never stop asking the question of literally everything we do -- is this: "Is this worthwhile?" What services can you perform, not only in the sense of what service can the organized follow-up from the conference perform. I would suggest a spectrum of things: further academic research, information dissemination, information gathering, and one thing which hasn't been brought up but which I think would be relevant to people like Bill Jones and Deotis Roberts: how does a conference like this germinate the idea of getting seminaries to meet the need of teaching African religions? That is where Eileen's concern for source materials comes in again, and the question of how to teach African religions. The conference could provide a beginning of a more universal teaching of African religions in seminaries and in graduate schools.

Harold Turner: I'll have to follow on from that, because I have already been thinking on those lines, and didn't know whether this was the place to talk about it. I have just been involved in working out a scheme for something of this kind for a very large American seminary. So it occurred to me, why shouldn't the Unification Seminary be the first in North America, and probably in the Western world, to introduce work in this area in its normal training program?

A bibliographical undertaking of this kind would be a major operation; since that sort of thing is my main activity at the moment in a parallel field, I know only too well the problems in mechanics, the labor of it; it is not to be undertaken lightly. But it seems to me that there would be a very good argument from the Unification Church point of view, indeed, from all our points of view, for something like this to be worked out, in a modest way to start with, perhaps, at the Unification Seminary.

One might start with a basic course, an introduction to our common, primal religious heritage around the world. We've all got it one way or the other; all the major religions contain elements of the primal religion. It is now operating very visibly in some ways at the folk-religion level, whether it is village India, or village Pakistan, or village Europe. Course-work like this could be introduced as a very basic approach to religious equipment; it would include the African concerns, might focus on Africa; you cannot cover the entire field of primal religion all at once. Take up the African focus, but keep it in a wider, systematic framework.

Then, you want to get a bibliography going. Bibliographies have to have a specific purpose and be addressed to a clear audience. The world is full, at the moment, of all sorts of people overlapping with bibliographies; there are few areas where there is more money and time being wasted at the present than in overlapping bibliographies. Yet, I know it to be one of the most obvious things to start with, and a necessary starting point, or I wouldn't be making such a personal investment of my own at the moment. But it occurs to me that the Unification Seminary, because of the basic concerns of the Unification Church, and its concern to relate to all the world religions, might be the place to make a breakthrough in seminary education.

When I taught in American seminaries, I thought the gap there was simply colossal between the inward-looking, domestic conventionality of their professional rat race, one seminary against another to get some smarter program that might sell better, and the world terms on which I saw a number of students eager to work. It strikes me that the Unification Church is operating in world terms, that this is your basic agenda; so maybe your seminary has the chance of making a breakthrough, at least on the seminary scene, that might have wider implications for the things we are talking about here.

Warren Lewis: Know, Harold, that I'll be playing at least this section of the tape at our next faculty meeting in Barrytown!

Kurt Johnson: I want to add something. With the Unification Movement, one has some unique resources not usually available: you've got free labor and a worldwide work force. The great thing about the Movement is that you don't have to pay people to work, and they're all over the world; they're in Africa, they're in New York.

Harold Turner: And, they've got motivation, if I may put it at a somewhat higher level. I believe you've got a motivation, a dynamic, that one doesn't have in every seminary.

Kurt Johnson: Another point, too, is that the Movement can publish cheaply. A combination of efforts between the manpower of our Interfaith project and the Seminary should enable us to undertake something quite substantial.

Warren Lewis: It had occurred to me to offer the good services of my students, who are bucking for an A, in the production of this kind of a bibliography; but since I, too, Harold, have done bibliographical work (on Latin Averroism), and know the pains involved, I hesitated to pop off with an unpremeditated suggestion. But it is clear, a composite bibliography would be the right thing to do. Several of you have told us of all the bibliographical riches; yet, as I listen to each one of you, each one tells me about a deposit different from what the previous speakers told about.

Shall we plan a bibliographical project to draw on the resources available in this room and elsewhere? Unification Seminary can be Grand Central Station for the activity; we'll pay for the paper and the postage; we'll communicate with you and with others, receive your bibliographies, film lists, and so forth; and, following your suggestions, we'll put the thing together. Don't expect us, once again, to do original research; we're not trained for that, but we're pretty good at unifying what other people have already done.

Myrtle Langley: Might I further suggest that those of us who know other people contact those whose specialized job is to do this kind of thing. Take, for example, the office of David Barrett; he would probably have lists of bibliographies there already.

Warren Lewis: Our first stage would be to gather existing bibliographies, unify them into a composite bibliography, send each of you a working copy of it, let you amend and annotate it, add whatever has been overlooked, and send back your expanded copy to us; we'll put it together again, and then we'll have it.

Kurt Johnson: Even though the Seminary would take full responsibility for the work, along with help we can throw in, still the product remains the common property of the ongoing conference. This project must be set up with the clear idea of serving the whole; the Unification movement maintains a serving position, and thus legitimates what it wants to be done and the direction it wants things to go.

Warren Lewis: There you have heard in a nutshell from a member of the Unification Church the theory of how the Church functions in the world of religion. It understands itself to be serving everybody else. They're really quite serious about that; so this kind of project fits in with their self-understanding.

We have come to a good spot to stop for a cup of coffee. Let's stand officially adjourned with heartfelt thanks to every one of you, especially Irving Hexham, who ran the risk of being abrasive enough to invite you here to confer with an unknown quantity. Thank you so much for coming. We will be in touch; and we will continue, as we have begun, in full collegiality. Does anyone else have anything they would like to say?

Stanley Mogoba: Just to say "thank you" to you and to all those who organized the conference, for having invited us. We enjoyed every moment of our being here. As we are aware that there is a lot to be done, we could not expect this conference to do everything; but this and other conferences should be ways of stimulating us to go on. 

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