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The Essence of African Traditional Religion

One scholar who has written extensively on African Traditional Religion is John Mbiti, a Kenyan whom many consider the dean of living African theologians. An important preoccupation of Mbiti’s work has been to show that knowledge of God and the worship of God have been staples of African life from the earliest times on the continent. In other words, he shows that the sense of the divine was not something introduced to Africa by missionaries or by anyone else; that the knowledge of God in African religion was not much different from the idea of God that Christian missionaries preached in Africa; and, more specifically to our purpose here, that belief in God engendered a moral response that for centuries before Christian arrival in Africa directed moral life and interaction on the continent and among its peoples. According to Mbiti, Africans came to believe in God by reflecting on their experience and through observation of the created universe. Specifically, by reflecting on the wonder and magnitude of the universe, they came to the conclusion that God must exist: they posited the existence of God to explain the existence and sustenance of the universe. Rooted in the belief in God as the Creator, Africans believe in various dimensions of the created universe, such as visible and invisible (the spiritual realm), heavenly (skyward) and earthly (and in some ethnic groups there is a belief in the underworld). Commonly, God is believed to dwell in the skies. In most cases, the earth is conceived as a living thing, a goddess, “Mother Earth.” According to Mbiti, the earth is symbolically viewed as the mother of the universe, while the heavens/sky are seen as its male counterpart. While the universe has a beginning, many Africans believe that it does not have an end—either spatially or temporally.

The ordering of the universe and its continuance depends on God. Mbiti emphasizes that Africans view the universe religiously. Since God is seen as the Creator, various aspects of the universe are permeated by the sense of the sacred—the religious mentality affects the way people see the universe. Therefore, the universe has dimensions of order and power as follows: first of all, there is order in the laws of nature. This order, established by God, guides the functioning of the universe, preventing it from falling into chaos; and it ensures the continuance of life and the universe itself. Thus, everything is not completely unpredictable and chaotic because of this order. This is the function of God’s providence and sustenance of the universe. These laws are controlled by God directly or indirectly through God’s intermediaries. Secondly, there is moral and religious order. According to Mbiti, Africans believe that God has ordained a moral order for humans, through which they came to understand what is good and what is evil, so that they might live in harmony with one another and safeguard the life of the people. This order, according to Mbiti, is knowable to humans, by nature.

Thus, it is because of the existence of this order that different communities have worked out a code of conduct. This happened in the past, and these codes were stipulated, considered sacred and binding, by the community leaders:

Moral order helps men to work out and know among themselves what is good and what is evil, right and wrong, truthful and false, and beautiful and ugly, and what people’s rights and duties are. Each society is able to formulate its values because there is moral order in the universe. These values deal with relationships among people, and between people and God and other spiritual beings; and man’s relationship with the world of nature.

Mbiti further adds,

The morals and the institutions of the society are thought to have been given by God, or to be sanctioned ultimately by him. Therefore, any breach of such morals is an offense against the departed members of the family, and against God or the spirits, even if it is the people themselves who may suffer from such a breach and who may take action to punish the offender.

The moral and religious order in the universe is articulated and expressed in a variety of taboos and customs that prohibit specific actions contravening such order. Taboos and customs cover all aspects of human life: words, foods, dress, relations among people, marriage, burial, work, and so forth:

Breaking a taboo entails a punishment in the form of social ostracism, misfortune and even death. If people do not punish the offender, then the invisible world will punish him. This view arises from the belief in the religious order of the universe, in which God and other invisible beings are thought to be actively engaged in the world of men.

A part of this belief in the moral and religious order is belief in the invisible universe, which consists of divinities, spirits, and the ancestors (the living dead). These act as God’s associates, assistants, and mediators, and they are directly involved in human affairs. Human beings maintain active and real relationships with the spiritual world, especially with the living dead, through offerings, sacrifices, and prayers. These act as a link between God and the human community.

There is also a mystical order of the universe. Africans believe in the existence of a mystical, invisible, hidden, spiritual power in the universe. This power originates from God but is possessed hierarchically by divinities, spirits, and the living dead, and it is available to some people, in various degrees. This is a universal belief among Africans. Those to whom this power is accessible can use it for good, such as healing, rainmaking, or divination, while others can use it for harm, through magic, witchcraft, and sorcery. This power is not accessible to everyone, and in most cases it is inborn, but the person has to learn how to use it. Mbiti says that:

Access to this power is hierarchical in the sense that God has most and absolute control over it; the spirits and the living dead have portions of it; and some human beings know how to tap, manipulate and use some of it. Each community experiences this force or power as useful and therefore acceptable, neutral or harmful and therefore evil.

According to Mbiti, human beings have a privileged position in the universe. Everything is said to center on them. Human beings are the link between the heavens and the earth, between the visible and the invisible universe. This view influences the way humans relate to the universe: on the one hand, they strive to maintain harmony between themselves and the invisible universe by observing the moral and religious order; at the same time, humans see the universe in a utilitarian way, from the point of view of what is beneficial or harmful to them.

Some of the ideas from Mbiti’s works are pertinent to our discussion here: Africans believe in a hierarchy of beings, from the ultimate being, God, to lesser ones, divinities, spirits, the living dead, human beings, animals, plants, and inanimate beings. Mystical power is found in all of them, in diminishing degrees. This hierarchy is also evident in human society, where there are chiefs, clan heads, family heads, older siblings, and so on. Second, Africans believe in a moral order given by God, stipulated by the ancestors in the past. Observing this moral order ensures harmony and peace within the community. “Many laws, customs, set forms of behavior, regulations, rules, observances and taboos, constituting the moral code and ethics of a given community, are held sacred, and are believed to have been instituted by God.” Furthermore, a person acts in ways that are good when he or she conforms to the customs and regulations of the community, or bad when he or she does not.

Mbiti makes a very controversial point when he claims that in African societies there are no acts that would be considered wrong in themselves. Acts are wrong if they hurt or damage relationships or if they are discovered to constitute “a breach of custom or regulation.” To buttress his point Mbiti states that in certain African societies “to sleep with someone else’s wife is not considered ‘evil’ if these two are not found out by the society which forbids it, and in other societies is in fact an expression of friendship and hospitality to let a guest spend the night with one’s wife or daughter or sister.” Mbiti’s assertions must be read as a limited reference to some African societies and in some limited settings. As I have discussed elsewhere in Morality Truly Christian, Truly African, for example, some African societies are so conscious of the implications of crossing the line on some ethical matters, like adultery, incest, and murder, that anyone who engages in these acts is considered automatically to be putting the very survival of the community in danger. Thus, to assert as Mbiti does that there are “no secret sins” or that “something or someone is ‘bad’ or ‘good’” only according to “outward conduct” is too careless a statement to make. With regard to the issue of offering one’s wife in generosity, this practice, as Laurenti Magesa has shown, applied to a very limited number of African ethnic groups, such as the Masai, and in very tightly controlled situations among friends within the same age group fraternity and on very limited occasions. This practice, no matter how limited it is, again shows how untenable the blanket assertion is that African moral traditions are those of abundant life. No matter how one looks at it, to “offer” the female members of one’s family as a mark of “hospitality” to a stranger is morally wrong, not just from the point of view of Christian morality but from a purely natural law point of view as well. Inculturation, as we will argue later in Morality Truly Christian, Truly African, sheds the light of the gospel on cultural practices like this one to reveal what is sinful in them and to show that human beings, especially women, in this case, deserve better treatment than this.

Ronald M. Green of Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, a non-African scholar of African religion, has also written about African Traditional Religion and about religion and morality in Africa. He has useful insights to add to our discussion and in many ways corroborates the statements other scholars like Mbiti have made about African religion. Green points out that there is a rational basis to African Traditional Religion that shows, in Kantian terms, that there is a “deep structure of universal moral and religious reason to it.” The three requirements of reason at the heart of this structure are: “first, a basic rule or procedure of moral choice; second, a metaphysic grounding the possibility of strict moral retribution; and third, . . . ‘a trans-moral’ suspension of retribution in the face of self-confessed and inescapable human wrongdoing.” Green notes a similarity between this “deep structure” and that which has developed in Christian theology over centuries of effort at “grounding human moral striving in the face of the experiential difficulties that assault moral idealism.” In this Christian theological system, the idea of God as creator and sovereign expresses the moral requirements of impartial regard for all. As judge, God is understood to uphold this standard by ultimately punishing its violations and by rewarding the righteous (usually in some eschatological domain). In the face of persistent human iniquity, God is believed to furnish means of atonement and forgiveness, “thereby tempering justice with mercy.”

However, although Christianity and African Traditional Religion share some striking similarities, closer examination of African traditional beliefs reveals that the contrasts are far more striking than the similarities. An important area Green points to has to do with the role of God in these two systems of thought. He contends that although African Traditional Religion generally refers to God as creator and sustainer of the universe, morally good, omniscient, and caring toward humans, “yet even where this is held to be true, the high god in Africa is very often regarded as distanced from human affairs.” And even when he is considered benign, “the high God is morally otiose, having little direct retributive relationship with humankind.” In some situations, the high God is cast in unfavorable terms as one who creates and who kills. However, in African religious thought God is distanced from the task of moral affairs because the task of moral retribution and maintenance of effective moral norms is usually performed by spiritual agents of much lower standing—that is, “by spirits of various sorts, by ghosts and even by human practitioners of spiritual arts.” Other characteristics that show the contrast between (Western) Christian thought and African Traditional Religion, according to Green, are the nonexistence of concepts of heaven and hell in African Traditional Religion, the lack of messianic expectations and hope, and the absence of eschatological thought with God “stepping in to right all wrongs or to punish wickedness.” And although African Traditional Religion affirms the continuation of life after death, where the person is believed to join the spirit world of the ancestors to continue life in some ways similar to the life before death, this belief does not constitute a hope for improved existence or for ultimate reward and punishment since a person’s moral depravity or moral rectitude “[does] not count in the beyond and whatever penalties or rewards those may bring have no bearing on life after death.”

Mbiti makes this point too when he stresses that “the majority of African peoples believe that God punishes in this life.” Although God is concerned with humanity’s moral life and upholds the moral law, “there is no belief that a person is punished in the hereafter” for his or her wrongdoing in this life. “When punishment comes, it comes in the present life.” Whatever the difference in the deep structures that undergird the moral life in the Christian conception or in Africa Traditional Religion, Green, like Mbiti, concludes that Africans believe in a morally saturated universe:

Theirs is a world in which all really significant interpersonal relationships, including important relationships between humans and spiritual beings, have moral content and are governed by moral considerations. If it is approached at the right level, African traditional religion can be seen to be powerfully shaped by moral concerns.

The role of intermediary agents and spirits in maintaining moral order in African Traditional Religion is quite remarkable, as we have already seen from the work of Mbiti. These intermediary agents include the ancestors, members of the community who at death become idealized. “Devoid of essential personal characteristics they represent the essence of what might be called structural personality. Their significance lies in the genealogical positions and the rights and duties which derive from them.” Ancestors uphold right conduct by punishing moral violations, demanding respect and attention, and getting angry when not given due respect. Belief in the ancestors presents the idea of reciprocity in the African traditional moral world. Dependence here functions like a two-way street, with the dead needing continued respect from and support by the living, and the living needing at least benign neutrality on the part of the dead.

Green opines that although superficially regarded, this may seem to be a minimal moral relationship—more like a kind of egoism on one side and fearful propitiation on the other—it also shows, however, the profound role that respect for age and for the fulfillment of lineage and familial duties play in this traditional setting. Other spirits with a significant role in maintaining the African traditional moral world include ancestors and lineage spirits “who operate in specific social contexts where their will is expressed through misfortunes,” and some other spirits “who do not act directly but who rely on human agents to effect their will.” These spirits underlie the power of spirit mediums who, as mediators between space and the human world and by virtue of the moral authority this confers, are able to arbitrate between living human beings. The spirit medium is required to possess moral probity and integrity. “The Spirit medium is in many ways a subordinate agency within the layer of retributive order.” The voice and action of the spirit medium “connect the community with these moral and spiritual entities who help shape human destiny. The spiritual medium is the physical embodiment of the religious retributive order in which Africans know themselves to stand.”

The final aspect of this deep structure of moral reason in African Traditional Religion Green refers to as “morally intentional” trans-moral “safety valves” such as are found in the doctrine of grace or atonement in Weston religions (Christianity) or of liberation from the world of moral causation in Eastern religions. In short, the question is whether the notion of “mercy” exists in the moral order of African Traditional Religion and whether the sacrifices of African religion amount to an expiatory understanding in African religious thought. Furthermore, the issue is whether a strict order of retribution cannot be tolerated if human ambition gets in the way of realizing enduring moral virtue and well-being. At stake here is nothing less than the question of human culpability and ultimate redemption, which has to do with the traditional Christian topic of sin and grace. We will return to these issues later in Morality Truly Christian, Truly African, but for now it is enough to ask whether the similarities in the deep structure between the two religions are indeed as similar as Green suggests. By Green’s own admission, and as we shall see later, there are as many divergences on the architectonic hinge of these deep structures—God, the human person, and the material world—as there are similarities. These differences, I will argue, have significant impact not just on the way people conceive of the moral world or with regard to moral intentions, but also on moral practices.

A third scholar of interest to us here is Laurenti Magesa, the central thesis of whose book on African religion is captured quite succinctly in the subtitle: African religion constitutes a tradition of abundant life. Like Ronald Green, Magesa argues that African Traditional Religion is in the background of all African religiosity, both in Christianity and Islam, and supplies the basic attitude or worldview of most African Christians. So, basically, to speak of African tradition is to talk about African Traditional Religion. To understand African tradition, one needs to understand the position of African Traditional Religion on God, the human person, and creation. Magesa discusses the African tradition in its various manifestations: its understanding of the human person and of life in general; aesthetics, politics, ethics, and of course religion, which he shows to be the architectonic basis of these other expressions or manifestations of African tradition. Like Mbiti and Green, Magesa notes that the world of African Traditional Religion is a hierarchically ordered place where,

God is seen as the Great ancestor, the first Founder and the Progenitor, the Giver of Life behind everything that exists. God is the first Initiator of a people’s way of Life, its tradition. However, the ancestors, the revered dead human progenitors of the clan or tribe, both remote and recent, are the custodians of this tradition. They are its immediate reason for existence and they are its ultimate purpose.

On the lowest rung of the ladder are spirits, who are active beings distinct from humans and reside in nature and phenomena such as trees, rivers, rocks, or lakes. God, the ancestors, and the spirits are all moral powers whose actions affect human life in various ways and to various degrees. They are thus “moral agents.” It is the ancestors, however, the custodians of tradition, who determine the way these agents act, and it is tradition that “supplies the moral code and indicates what the people must do to live ethically.” African traditions carry out their role as ethical guides in many ways, including myths and rituals. Some of these myths explain the origin of the universe, the nature of the relationship between creation (including humanity) and God, and the source and cause of the human predicament and of evil in general; they also provide “a synopsis of the forces comprising the African moral conception of the universe.” Religious rituals provide a means by which the community seeks redress and repairs wrongs that have been committed and that call down calamities and afflictions from spiritual beings—all this to restore the status quo ante or even “to maintain the existing good status quo that society or an individual may be enjoying.”

In the hierarchically ordered world of African Traditional Religion, God is the ancestor, par excellence. All life, power, and existence flow from God, and by “right of their primogeniture and proximity to God by death God has granted the ancestors a qualitatively more powerful life force over their descendants.” Who constitutes the world of the ancestors? These are “the pristine” men and women, the originators of the lineage or clan or ethnic group. They can also be “the dead of the tribe, following the order of primogeniture. They form a chain through the links of which the forces of the elders [now with the community] exercise their vitalizing influence on the living generation.” For Magesa, the ancestors are primarily authority figures whose being implies “moral activity” in that they are the maintainers and enforcers of “norms of social action.” Although they are entrusted with these roles in their relationship with humans, “any capriciousness of the ancestors is not taken kindly by the living, just as it would not be acceptable from any elder in society.” The ancestors are beyond reproach. “People may complain to God and the ancestors, but they will never accuse them of any moral wrongdoing. Moral culpability is always on the shoulders of humanity.” The same hierarchy evident in the relationship between God, the ancestors, and humanity is also present in the relationship between the animate and the inanimate world, the former being superior to the latter. It is also present in relationships between persons, based on age and function. Thus, for example, older persons not only possess a more powerful vital force but a greater responsibility in society and more intense mystical powers. African religion’s behavior is centered mainly on the human person and his or her life in this world, “with the consequence that religion is clearly functional, or a means to serve people to acquire earthly goods (life, health, fecundity, wealth, power and the like) and to maintain social cohesion and order.”

This should make it clear why some African intellectuals would question the relevance of Christianity on the continent. African Traditional Religion appears to be a self-sufficient system, both from a theological point of view, in that it provides answers to questions of ultimate reality and meaning, at least to its adherents; and from the point of view of morality, in that it provides the moral rules, norms, and instruction in virtues by which human beings can live upright moral lives. The vibrancy of African Traditional Religion in these two aspects—theological and moral—creates a unique opportunity for Christianity in Africa, one that, as Bediako points out has been lost to Christian theology in the West, “for a serious and creative theological encounter between the Christian and primal traditions.” It is therefore very important for African theology to ascertain the meaning of African Traditional Religion, both because of the service this tradition renders to Christian theology as “a dialogue partner,” and because the very self-awareness of the African theologian and of African theology itself to a large extent hinges on a proper articulation and appreciation of Africa’s pre-Christian past.

Editorial Statement: This essay is a slightly modified excerpt from the section “Evaluating African Traditional Religion: The Descriptive Task” (98-107) in Fr. Odozor’s Morality Truly Christian, Truly African published by the University of Notre Dame Press. All rights reserved.

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Featured Image: Edo people, Queen Mother Pendant mask, circa 16th c.; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC0 1.0.