Tell me what kind of God you worship and I will tell you who you are! Such a maxim means that the notion of God impacts the perception of the nature of the African people because religion plays a crucial role in people's identity. Misconceptions abound on the African vision of God. The question regarding the African vision of God arises as a problem in the context of globalization, especially the encounter with modernity, the encounter between Africa and the outside world—namely, the West with its secularism, atheism, and Christianity, and the Arab world and Islam. This encounter occurred in a context of unequal power relationships. Dominated militarily, politically, and economically, Africa came to be dominated also culturally, epistemologically, and, most important, religiously. Its languages were demoted to meaningless dialects, its healers to witch doctors, its religion to fetishism, and its spiritual beings to idols.
In this context, several questions arose that have puzzled outside observers of African traditional religion. Do Africans have an adequate knowledge of God? Is the African God the same as the God of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, or Hinduism? Is the African God a true God? Is he a personal being, an impersonal spirit, a sort of creative energy, or an abstract idea? Is the African God a loving God or a malevolent trickster? Is African traditional religion pantheistic, polytheistic, monotheistic, or henotheistic? Is the “chief god” indifferent to or actively involved in human affairs? Do Africans communicate with God or only with the ancestors and spirits? For Africans, especially those steeped in traditional culture, the reality of God is grounded in the reality of people's religious experience, and God is as real as the existence of the world or the African people. It is well established among scholars that an African cannot be understood apart from the categories of homo religiosus and homo symbolicus. In John Mbiti's memorable expression, “Africans are notoriously religious.” This religiosity begins with the belief in a world beyond the physical and mundane existence on Earth, the belief in a spiritual order of ancestors, gods, and goddesses. Thus, the concept of God stands at the heart of African cosmology and the conception of life. But what is meant by God in Africa? This entry begins by contrasting the perspectives of Westerners and Africans on African religion. Then, after a discussion of whether the African God is knowable, it describes several attributes of God and asserts the usefulness of the African vision in today's world.
- 1 The Outsider's View
- 2 African Assessments
- 3 Can God be Known?
- 4 God's Attributes
- 5 God as “Adro-Adroa”
- 6 God as “Sha-Bantu-Ne-Bintu”
- 7 God as Mother
- 8 Vidye Kadi Katonye
- 9 God as Omnipotent, Omnipresent, and Omniscient
- 10 God and Names
- 11 The African Vision
- 12 World Peace and Interreligious Dialogue
- 13 Universal Brotherhood in the Global Village
- 14 God as Mother
- 15 God as Creator
- 16 No Exclusivity
- 17 References
The Outsider's View
Theologians and scholars of world religions have grouped religions in three major categories. Two of them are those that believe in no God (Theravada Buddhism and Jainism) and those that believe in one single God (monotheism: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). The majority of world religions, African traditional religion included, are viewed as polytheistic. This third category refers to religions that believe in many gods, which are often regarded as idols or false gods by the monotheistic religions.
What this simplified typology indicates is that African traditional religion and Africans' vision of the nature of God have been defined overwhelmingly by outsiders. Almost five centuries of colonial and Eurocentric scholarship have sanctified concepts and paradigms that have largely contributed to the distortion of the African vision of God. Categories forged or promoted by Emile Durkheim, Mircea Eliade, Evans-Pritchard, Edward Burnett Tylor, and many others led to the definition of African traditional religion as animism, fetishism, magic, witchcraft, polytheism, shamanism, idolatry, paganism, primitive religion, and ancestor worship. Needless to say, these epistemologica! constructs have no existence in the lexicon of most African languages. They are clearly invented by outsiders for the benefit of an outside consciousness. What these 10 “epistemologica! plagues” have generated is the sense of meaninglessness. The African God has been defined first as a fictitious idol manufactured by the imagination of an ignorant primitive mind addicted to superstitious absurdity. Later, he was viewed as a demon, and, finally, more liberal scholars settled on “Deus Otiosus.”
But whatever the case, this distorted view of God led to the perception of all forms of African traditional religion as essentially a religion of error, horror, and terror. Most important, despite all the rhetoric about postcolonialism, colonial categories still govern the understanding of African vision of God among many people and scholars. As the American Academy of Religion observed in 1993, in its “Spotlight on Teaching African Religions in American Universities,” within the field of religious studies, African religion still remains a residual category, variously characterized as traditional, primal, primitive, oral, and nonliterate. African religions are defined as antithetical to world religions and are viewed as less complex, less reflective, less theoretical, and, most important, less moral and less spiritual.
Likewise, as recently as 1998, Robert B. Fisher observed that African religion continues to be excluded from “world religions.” Rather, it is viewed as a primal religion devoid of divine revelation, philosophic speculations, high spirituality, and decent ethical standards. In a postcolonial world that still divides civilization and spirituality between East and West, African religion remains a noncategory. This means that a better understanding of the African vision of God requires a Herculean effort to overcome the misunderstanding disseminated by almost five centuries of Western and Westernized scholarship and the scientific prestige of its colonial library. The process of the decolonization of knowledge that gained pace after World War II has raised an increasing awareness of the pitfalls of anthropological and missionary studies of African traditional religion, and, in both Africa and the West, an increasing effort toward a better understanding of the African vision of God is underway.
Most African Christian theologians now acknowledge that African traditional religion is not merely a praeparatio evangelica for conversion to Christianity, but rather a proper locus of God's revelation to African ancestors and therefore a sufficient means of salvation or meaning for the African people. According to this line of thought, God not only tolerated the religion of African ancestors, but was active in its creation. Ancestors are to be respected as the normal divinely given means for salvation, put by God in his will for the salvation of all the peoples, for God truly has spoken to our ancestors in that sense expressed in the letter to Hebrews. African traditional religion contains “not only the seeds but also the fruit” of the word of God.
Thus, Christian theologians now regard the African ancestral religious heritage as the result of God's activity, rather than a merely “man-made superstition.” African traditional religion has been defined by the Ecumenical Association of African theologians as one of the indispensable sources (locus théologiens) for the articulation of an authentically African Christian theology. This growing respect for African traditional religions does not mean that the African conception of God can merely be reduced to Christian or Islamic categories. It simply means that traditional religions constitute a valid spiritual experience whose vision of God is awe-inspiring, love-sustaining, and a foundation for justice, equality, and human dignity.
This vision of God has been articulated in countless comparative studies accumulated by scholars over the last two centuries. But an accurate vision of ancestral theology can be gleaned from the numerous creation myths, from the wisdom of African proverbs and from the insight provided by African languages, religious songs, art and music, prayers, names of God, names of the African people, royal investiture speeches, religious taboos, and various customs. But before analyzing the African understanding of the nature of God, it is worth addressing first the question of God's existence and whether the knowledge of God is accessible to mortals.
Can God be Known?
The answer to that question depends on the nature of God. Both monotheism and polytheism are foreign concepts that cannot fully render the richness of the African vision of God. In Africa, God is rather conceived of in terms of a family. More specifically, the African vision of God is cosmotheandric. There is Vidye Mukulu translated as the Great Spirit, Supreme Being, or High God. Then there are various spirits, especially spirits of nature, dwelling in sacred waters, sacred mountains, and so on. Finally, the ancestors are people who were famous for their virtues and goodness and who become divine after death. The spirits and ancestors are regarded as lesser gods because they are created by Vidye Mukulu, they depend on him, and they often act on his behalf. The question of whether humans can know God is therefore raised with regard to the Supreme Being (Vidye Mukulu, Shakapanga).
One of the most striking aspects of African traditional religions is the absence of dogmatic definitions of God and, most important, the absence of sculpture or icons representing the Supreme Being. In most rituals, even prayers and sacrifices are often offered to the ancestors and the spirits. God is even called “the unknown” (by the Massai People), “the God of the Unknown” (by the Lunda people), “the Un explainable” (by the Ngombe people), and “the Marvel of the marvels” (by the Bakongo people). Numerous proverbs also point to the mysterious nature of God. A Luba proverb warns whiners that God is not “our brother”: “Vidye ukuha bibidi I mwanenu?” (God cannot give you twice, he is not your brother).
This fact led many outsiders to conclude that Africans lack the knowledge of the Supreme Being. However, such a conclusion stems from a superficial perception of African religions. From time immemorial, atheism has not yielded support in African imagination. Contemplating the majesty of mountains such as Kilimanjaro and Nyiragongo and mighty rivers (Nile, Congo, and Niger), the beauty of the blue sky and the majesty of the stars, and experiencing the power of various spirits and interacting with the Dead through dreams, visions, or mediumship, Africans have firmly regarded the existence of God as a self-evident truth.
The difficulty of translating the unlimited God into a limited human language, however, has raised the question of whether mortals can acquire an accurate knowledge of God. Some religions claim to have received a clear revelation from God and thus to possess a clear, accurate, and unimpeachable knowledge of the Supreme Being. Yet even in these monotheistic religions, mystics and theologians have constantly warned against idolatry (i.e., man's penchant to create God in his own image). Thus, apophatic theology reminds those who busy themselves in defining God that silence may be the best speech about God because every human discourse merely reflects the limited knowledge of their authors.
Such wisdom was well perceived by those African elders and artists who abstained from carving sculptures of the High God. Such gesture was a product of a long and sophisticated theological reflection that understood well that, although humans speak of God in anthropological and even anthropomorphic terms, ultimately God transcends all the categories of human understanding and language. A Luba proverb reminds people that “no one can put his hand in another person's heart even when sharing the same bed” (munda mwamukwenu kemwelwa kuboko nansba mulele butanda bumo). This notion that every human heart is a mystery is even truer for God. No human can fully grasp God's heart. In other words, although humans can describe God's action toward humans, and some of God's manifestations, God is unknowable.
Thus, God is praised as the “unknown,” the mysterious one, as a Kikongo saying puts it explicitly: Ku tombi Nzambi ko, kadi ka kena ye nitu ko (Don't look for God, He does not have a body). The Baluba and other people liken God to the wind or to the word of the mouth. A traditional Twa hymn conveying the vision of many Africans explicitly states that it is impossible to make an image of God:
- In the beginning was God
- Today is God,
- Tomorrow will be God
- Who can make an image of God?
- He has no body
- He is as a word which comes out of your mouth
- That word! It is no more,
- It is past, and still it lives!
- So is God.
What is expressed in this metaphorical language is the fact that African traditional religion is fully aware of the transcendence of God. God is conceived of as the one who is at once close to humans and yet utterly other and mysterious. It is this awareness of the limitation of human knowledge of God that explains, in part, the amazingly tolerant nature of African traditional religion and the absence of excommunications and persecution of heretics in the religious history of Africa. By rela-tivizing human knowledge of God, Africans allowed for various religious expressions and claims; however, in a world of strong belief in “spirit possessions,” people did not totally deny the possibility of knowing God. What is rejected is the absolutization of one's knowledge of God. Thus, praise songs, invocations, creation myths, and other forms of expression for a litany of the qualities of God can help believers grasp the African vision of the nature of God and his attributes.
God as “Adro-Adroa”
One of the fundamental questions of African theology is that of the relationship between God and humans. The abundant literature produced by Mircea Eliade and some influential anthropologists, theologians, and sociologists of religion has popularized the mythical hypothesis of an African “Deus Otiosus,” claiming that for African peoples God is “too remote” and virtually excluded from human affairs. The African God, they claim, is a lazy, indifferent, and absentee God who, after creation, withdrew far away and no longer intervenes in human affairs, neither to accept prayers nor to come to the rescue of those who invoke him.
Thus, it is assumed that African traditional religion lacks the sense of providence, that Africans worship a useless God. This view is not supported only by Westerners. Some African scholars too have made ambiguous statements, which lent credibility to a hypothesis that is nothing else than a colonial invention aimed at finding evidence for the superiority of the religion of the conquerors. Assertions of this kind are misleading, and the notion that Africans conceive God as “Deus otiosus” is false. Even authors who promoted the Deus Otiosus mythology acknowledge that the Igbo may make their sacrifices to various deities, but they envision a high God who ends up getting their message. Moreover, the Igbo and many other people appeal to the “High God” in their distress, believing that he is not completely separated from the affairs of men and that He is still the great father, the source of all good, who intervenes in favor of the living.
Africans, like many other people, consider God to be at once “near” and “far away.” In the poetic Lugbara expression, the African God is “Adro-Adroa.” The Lugbara people speak of God as being near to people (Adro) and at the same time “far away” (Adroa). This same notion is found among the Baluba, who express the transcendence and immanence of God in a beautiful proverb: Vidye kadi kula, umwite ukwitaba, umulonde bukwidila (God is not far away, if you call him he will answer you, but if you try to walk you will never meet him).
What is critical here is that God is not merely Adroa, but also Adro. Because he comes close to humans in his benevolence, God is knowable to some degree and has qualities that can be described as mother, father, judge, and so on. Chief among these is the notion of creator.
God as “Sha-Bantu-Ne-Bintu”
There are in Africa more than 2,000 creation myths. Indeed, the most fundamental African attribute of God is summarized in the Mashi expression, Isbe w'abantu n'ebintu. God is the father (Ishe) of human beings (abantu) and things (ebintu) because God is the universal creator, the source of the existence of the whole universe and every single creature. The Baluba use a similar expression: Sba Bantu ne Bintu. The father of all things and all human beings is first of all the Supreme Creator, the Supreme source of all life. As many Western and African scholars have pointed out, in African traditional religion, there is only one Creator. In some myths, God creates directly the whole world. In some others, he creates the spirits and delegates to them the mission to create the world on his behalf.
Thus, the Baluba call God Sbakapanga, Wa bumbile ngulu ne minonga (Father of the creation, he created mountains and rivers). In many creation myths, God is spoken of as the Molder or the Potter who created the first human couple (male and female) by using clay. The Shilluk believe that God used clay of different colors in making men, which explains the difference in human skin pigmentation. The Dogon explain racial differences by the fact that Amma, who created all human beings, used the light of the moon for the skin of Europeans and the sun for Africans.
Thus, contrary to an ingrained prejudice against the so-called tribal religion, Africa has the conception of a universal creator, which led to an ethic that values the dignity of every human being and not merely that of the members of one's clan or ethnic group. This notion of “morality without borders” found its best expression in that legendary sense of African hospitality and solitarity (Ujamaa).
It should be noted that the African notion of a Creator God has its peculiarity. Among the Yoruba, God is called the “Father of Laughter.” No wonder African people are well known for their fondness of laughter. As we clarify in the conclusion of this entry, the notion of a Laughing God is extremely valuable for a better understanding of the healing and liberation power of African traditional religion.
God as Mother
It is worth noting some critical facts here. First, there is the inclusive nature of most African languages. In Kiluba and many other Bantu languages, there is no grammatical gender difference. Subsequently, God is never spoken of with the pronoun “He” or “She.” For instance, the expression unena means “He speaks” or “She speaks.” Second, women have always played a crucial role in African traditional religion as priestesses, mediums, diviners, or prophetesses. Finally, the African pantheon is replete with gods and goddesses. All this stems from the understanding of God's nature as a kind of “yin-yang,” to borrow the Chinese category. God in Africa expresses his nature in both masculine and feminine forms. God's motherhood is widely expressed in proverbs, songs, and names given to God in various ethnic groups.
Although God is often called Father in many regions, there is a significant tradition that presents God as Mother. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Bakongo ethnic group, which still practices the matriarchal system, explicitly refers to God as “Mother.” Elsewhere, God is referred to as “Nursing Mother” (among the Maasai of Kenya and Tanzania), “Great Mother” (Nuba of Sudan), “Mother of People” (Ewe of Benin, Ghana, and Togo), and the “Great Rainbow” (Chewa of Malawi and Zambia). It should be noted, however, that in African thought, God is basically beyond gender identity.
Thus, what people refer to when they call God Mother or Father is the quality of his caring love. God is a parent; as such, he incarnates both motherhood and fatherhood. He is called father and mother at the same time to express what he does for human beings as protector and source of life. The image of God as Mother is not confined to matriarchal societies. Even in patriarchal societies, people consider God as Mother to emphasize His love and the fart that He takes care of people, cherishing and nursing every human being. This vision of God's motherhood is not exclusivist. It lives side by side with the vision of God's fatherhood.
Vidye Kadi Katonye
One of the most striking aspects of African worship is the abundance of “strict rules of purity” imposed to everyone involved in performing rituals directed to God. Indeed, African traditional religion is replete with rites of purification and taboos pertaining to rules of cleanliness. The diviner (Kilumbu) or the priest (Kitobo or Nsengha) who presides over a religious ceremony begins prayers, sacrifice, or a divination session only after extensive rituals of purification of the body and the mind. Priests and officiating elders must refrain not only from sexual intercourse and certain foods and activities before and after the ritual, but also from evil thought.
This purification practice stems from the fundamental belief that God is pure, and therefore it is not suitable to approach God with a “dirty heart” or “dirty hands.” The Baluba explicitly state that God is spotless, stainless, and blameless (Vidye kadi katonye). In the eyes of the Yoruba people, God is “the pure King who is without blemish.” Here the Baluba and the Yoruba express a belief common to many other Africans. This notion of God's purity is translated into three other essential attributes of God: holiness, righteousness, and goodness. By goodness is meant the notion that no evil occurring in the world can be attributed to God because the one who is pure cannot perform malevolent deeds.
Although many people raise complaints about misfortunes, no African religion considers God to be intrinsically evil. In some proverbs, God is called “the Father Creator Who creates and uncre-ates.” He is considered as intrinsically good and the source of any good in human life. The Baluba, Bakongo, Igbo, Herero, and others say categorically that God does them only what is good. The Ewe firmly hold that “He is good, for He has never withdrawn from us the good things which He gave us.” The Banyarwanda, the Baluba, and many other people believe that only through God's will does one find a wife or a husband, a job, or wealth or is restored to good health.
This belief in divine purity and goodness is enshrined in timeless cosmogonies. In their numerous creation myths, Africans have wrestled with the question of the origin of evil and suffering. The conclusion is that God is not the source of evil. The myths of the origin of suffering stress the responsibility of human beings and present God as pure (Utoka). This notion of purity refers to the African conception that God has a “good heart” (mucima muyampe). This heart embodies the virtues of truthfulness, impartiality, and, most important, goodness, which is translated into love, compassion, and forgiveness. The Luba notion of God as a loving, compassionate, and forgiving God (Leza wa Lusa ne Buswe, Leza Muyampe) is found in many other parts of Africa.
It is worth mentioning here that African traditional religion is devoid of the notion of original sin. The African God does not hold children accountable for the sins of their ancestors, but he is a God who abhors evil and punishes evil-doers. Thus, God's goodness is the fundamental source of African morality. The notion of God as the supreme judge of human thought and actions is predicated not only on his purity and ownership of the whole creation, but also on the fundamental fact that nothing escapes God's eye.
God as Omnipotent, Omnipresent, and Omniscient
Luba prayers often begin with the formula, Abe Leza wabine ne wa buninge bonso (O, you truthful and omnipotent God). Luba and other traditional prayers are predicated on the fundamental belief that “nothing is impossible to God.” The creator and owner of the universe is understood as an omnipotent or “Almighty God.” This might includes the power of God's knowledge. As a Supreme Creator who transcends space and time, the Master of the universe is particularly endowed with the ability to know the past and the future, the deeds and secret thoughts of humans.
This omniscience is reinforced by his omnipresence. To better express these qualities, people use various metaphors. The Baluba liken God to the wind (Leza udi bwa luvula). The metaphor of seeing and hearing is often used to explain God's omniscience. The Ila people say that God has “long ears.” The Baganda people visualize God as “the Great Eye” or “the Sun” that beams its light everywhere. In many regions, God is given names that mean “The Wise one,” “He who knows or sees all,” or “The Discerner of hearts, who sees both the inside and outside of human beings.” With knowledge comes the other fundamental attribute: wisdom. God is thus viewed as the wise king who governs the world wisely.
God and Names
These attributes and countless others are exemplified in the litany of praise names given to God and in the theophoric names of the African people.
In Sierra Leone, for instance, God is called Maada (Grandfather), Mabawa (Great Chief), Yataa (The One whom you meet everywhere), and Meketa (The One who remains and does not die, the Everlasting One). Names used in Cameroon include Hilolombi (the Ancestor of days, the first one, the beginning of everything), Nkoo-Bot (the Maker of People), Mebee (Bearer of the Universe), Ebasi (the Omnipotent), and Nyi (He who is everywhere and hears and sees everything). The Banyarwanda use Intana as the official name of God and various other names that describe his nature—for instance, Iya-Kare (the Initial one) and Iya-mbere (the Preexisting one).
The Bashi of Kivu (Congo) use four basic names for God: Nyakasane (Master, Sovereign), Nyamuzinda (origin and end of everything, from the verb Kuzinda, to stand at the end), Nnamabanga (Owner of the universe), and Nyamubabo (The Existence par excellence, from the verb kubabo, to be there, to exist). They use other names to describe specific activities or qualities of God, such as Lulema (creator, from the verb Kulema, to create), Kabumba (creator, from the verb kubumba, to make like a potter), Kalanga (conservator, from the verb kulanga, to preserve, to keep), or Lugaba (the Generous one, from the verb kugaba, to give, to offer). God's attributes can also be gleaned from the names of African people.
Africa has a long-standing tradition of theophoric names, by which parents give to their children names that express their relationship with God and their desire to see children grow in virtues. Thus, the Baluba use names such as Dyese or Katokwe, which convey the idea of being blessed by God. In Rwanda, Uganda, and parts of West Africa, the very name of God is incorporated in people's names. In Uganda, where God is called Katonda and Rubanga, we find names such as Byakatonda (for or by the creator), Byarubanga (thing of God), and Takacungurwarubanga (we were saved by God).
In Rwanda and Burundi, we find names like Bizimana (God knows everything; Intana being one of the names of God in Kirundi and Kinyarwanda), Niyibizi (God knows all about it), Ndayiziga (I depend on Him), and Ndibokubgayo (I am alive because of Him). In Nigeria, we find some significant Igbo names like Chukwuemeka (God did marvelous thing to me), Cbukwuka (God is almighty, God is the highest), Cbukwuma (God knows), Ikecbukwu (God is my force), Cbigozie (God bless!), Cbimuanya (God does not sleep), Cbiamaka (God is beautiful, God is good), Cbidiebere (God is merciful), Cbinedu (God is my leader), and Cbinyere (Gift of God). These theophoric names are prevalent in many other parts of Africa.
In Ghana, another type of theophoric name is known as “cosmological names.” Among the Asante and Fante, children receive their names according to the day of their birth and, thus, carry on the character of the spirit that presides over the cosmos in that particular day. Thus, children born on Friday, like UN Secretary General Annan, are called Kofi (with Afua as the female version), and those born on Saturday like the legendary president Kwame Nkrumah are called Kwante or Kwamena (with Amba or Ama as the female version). Other names include Kwasi or Kwesi for those born on Sunday (with Akosua for girls), Kwadwo or Kodwo for those born on Monday (with Adwowa for girls), Kwabena or Kobena for those born on Tuesday (with Abenaa for girls), Kwaku or Kweku for those born on Wednesday (with Akua for girls), and Yao for those born on Thursday (with Yaa for girls).
Most important, it is held that children share some of the qualities of the specific deity that presides over the universe on the particular day of their birth. Thus, children born on Sunday have the gift of leadership and are under the protection of the Whisk spirit (Bodua); those born on Monday have a peaceful character and the gift of peacemaker and are guided by the Crab spirit (Okoto). Tuesday's children have a special fire of compassion from the Ogyam spirit. Wednesday's children have a golden heart, solid like the rock, and live under the protection of the Ntoni spirit. Thursday's children are the children of the boar spirit (Preko) and enjoy the gift of courage. Friday's children tend to be restless, curious, and an adventurer, like the Okyin spirit. Finally, the children of the spear spirit (Atoapoma) born on Friday are tenacious. Given that a strong relationship exists among the High God, the cosmos, and various spirits, cosmological names, like the theophoric names, also illustrate the African understanding of the nature and character of God.
The African Vision
From the hundreds of divine names and attributes praised in songs or invocations, God appears in many forms and has many characteristics that could be summarized in 20 major categories. Thus, God is understood by Africans as
- creator or the ultimate source of all existence;
- true owner of the universe;
- supreme judge who abhors injustice, evil, discrimination, and oppression of the weak;
- supreme ruler of the universe;
- a laughing God;
- a parent (mother and father);
- immanent and near to people;
- transcendent and the mysterious one who cannot be fully understood or known;
- perfect, pure, or holy;
- everlasting and immortal;
- invisible and immaterial;
- the nganga (the healer of bodies and souls);
- peaceful and peacemaker; and, finally,
- a compassionate God who is
- forgiving, and
- caring or loving.
The African God is not a jealous God. However, the notion of might and kingship led to the conceptualization of God as a warrior against the forces of evil, with all the ambiguity that such a notion carries in the hands of evil rulers or those addicted to libido dominandi.
If it is true that human beings are the way they think, believe, or pray, then this African vision of God has tremendous implications for social order, democracy and human rights, the global market, and the credibility and authenticity of religious experience in this age of increasing intolerance and religious terrorism. This is all the more true because there is more to religion than mere ritual, dance, and invocation of deities. Religion is not merely a basis of consolation for souls lost in the uncontrollable machine of world politics and global market or in the vicious circle of obsolete customs and traditions.
African traditional religion, like many other forms of religion, constitutes an encyclopedic compendium of knowledge about the world that guides people in their quest for the meaning of life and their metaphysical need to understand the world as a meaningful cosmos and grasp their place and role in the flow of world events. The African vision of God shapes people's consciousness of the world and of themselves. It provides a hermeneutical key for understanding the world and the raison d'etre of political, economic, social, cultural, and religious events. As such, the attributes of God constitute a fundamental basis for the critique of all forms of religious, political, economic, social, or cultural thought and behavior. Five major areas of such implications are worth mentioning.
World Peace and Interreligious Dialogue
In a world driven by religious competition and scramble for souls, a world dramatically shaken by the missionary drive to convert to the “true religion” the alleged godless barbarians, and a world that scoffs at respect for other religions as an impious and false relativism, it has become obvious that no peace among nations is possible without peace among religions. Because the African God is not a jealous God, and because African traditional religion is historically devoid of religious crusades, devoid of dogmas of orthodoxy, missionary zealotry, and the imperative of excommunication and hunt of heretics, the African vision of God brings a much needed fresh air of religious tolerance in a world where passions for truth and certainty and an obscene complex of religious superiority generate so much angst, spiritual restlessness, and unnecessary demonization of the other.
Universal Brotherhood in the Global Village
African creation myths establish the common origin of humankind from the same creator. Subsequently, all races, ethnicities, and religious traditions can be viewed as “chosen by God.” The inclusion of the whole humanity within the same family denounces all forms of discriminations, from tribalism to racism and nationalism, and establishes a strong foundation for human rights because the dignity of every human being stems from Shakapanga the universal creator.
Moreover, because the African principles of hospitality and solidarity are extended not only to the human family, but also to the natural world, God, as Sha-Bantu-Ne-Bintu (father not only of humans, but also of animals and natural world), becomes the foundation of a healthy theology of ecology, especially reverence for nature and respect for animal rights.
God as Mother
Along with the principle of a creator God, the African notion of the motherhood of God constitutes a powerful spiritual tool for the critique of patriarchy and sexism.
God as Creator
The notion of God as creator and true owner of the world informs a critique of private property so dear to the free-market economy. It raises the question of when an individual appropriation of natural resources violates the principle of the universal destination of natural goods and crosses the line of decency to fall into the category of theft of common good. The implications for business ethic here are staggering.
Finally, by refusing to imprison God in man-made sculptures, icons, and intellectual images, African traditional theology sends a powerful warning against the absurdity of religious totalitarianism. God is not the private property of one mind, one gender, one race, one ethnic group, one nation, or one religious tradition. God as Adro-Adroa transcends all human categories, all human constitutions, and all human institutions.
This is even more underscored by that singular African vision of God as the father of laughter. Indeed, African traditional religion is a religion of abundant life, abundant love, and abundant laughter. Although some cultures and religions may strive to bring laughter into bad repute as a bad infirmity of human nature that a pious, rational, and civilized mind should strive to overcome, in Africa, laughter is celebrated as a virtuous expression of a humane heart.
In this era of global war on terror and rising religious fundamentalism, the hermeneutics of laughter offers us a precious lesson. It looks on the cold solemnity of fanatical orthodoxies as a spiritual disease. Laughter is cathartic and therapeutic, but also, and most important, laughter is matter et magistra of life. It calls for caution, discernment, and constant flexibility. Moreover, laughter is prophetic; it denounces the folly of dogmatic modes of thinking in a global village that has become the stage of maverick and Machiavellian politics and is dominated by the diktat of the orthodoxies of fundamentalist free-market theologies.
The worship of a Laughing God is a process of liberation from all types of dogmatic and authoritarian ways of thinking, praying, or being in the world. Thus, despite the numerous mischiefs of African societies and institutions, a well-understood African concept of God constitutes the foundation of those humane African virtues of Bumuntu so critical not only for a genuine African renaissance, but also for the creation of a genuine humanity where the global village can really be a family where all are brothers and sisters. The revolutionary power of such a vision of God for local tyrannies, patriarchy, world politics, and a global market some see as immoral and criminal is self-evident. In a world where religion has always been a double-edged sword, used to heal and to wound, to liberate and to enslave, to bless and to curse, the power to control the definitions of God shapes the outcome of the perennial struggle for meaning and dignity and the quest for peace and happiness. The notion of a “Laughing Adro-Adroa” God constitutes a dramatic and iconoclastic force of empowerment and liberation from cultural, religious, political, and economic tyrannies in this emerging faceless global empire.
- African religions
- African people
- Asante, M. K., and Nwadiora, E. (2007). Spear Masters: Introduction to African Religion. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.
- Mbiti, J. (1992). African Religion and Philosophy. London: Heinemann.