By Rev. Dr. Abraham Akrong
Professor of Religion, McCormick Theological Seminary, Chicago
The Term “Africa”
Since the time of Pliny the elder, who is reputed to have first used it, the term “Africa” has been a bone of contention because it means different things to different people — for many people Africa is essentially a racial group; for some, Africa is a geo-political entity carved up in the last century at the Berlin conference of 1884-85; for others, Africa is a linguistic- cultural entity that describes the life of the African peoples that belong to these communities: the Niger-Congo, the Nilo-Sahara, the Afro-Asiatic and the Khoisan linguistic groups.
Generally, today, we are conditioned to view Africa as a conglomeration of different ethnic groups bound together by the colonial divisions of Africa which still persist today in independent Africa.
The Concept of African Religion
Related to this geo-political and cultural view of Africa is the 19th-century classification based on the so-called evolutionary theory of culture and religion. This classification of religions based on belief systems puts African religion and culture on the lowest level of the evolutionary ladder, because, it was believed, African primitive culture can only produce the most elementary and primitive belief systems. Until recently, this treatment of African religions in the Western intellectual tradition has made it impossible for African traditional religion to speak for itself except in terms of 19th-century evolutionism or the Western anthropological theories of primitive religions and cultures.
From History to Culture
Today the liberation from the classifications of the last century has given an intellectual autonomy to African religion and culture. They can now be understood as self-contained systems that are internally coherent without reference to any grand theories. This has allowed us to face up to the plurality of religions and cultures. Therefore in any discourse about African religion we must start from the perspective of the worshipers and devotees of African traditional religion.
African Religion From Within
A study of the beliefs and practices of the African peoples leads to the theological observation that African traditional religion is a religion of salvation and wholeness. A careful analysis shows an emphasis on this-worldly salvation and wholeness as the “raison d’etre” of African traditional religion. Because Africans believe that life is a complex web of relationships that may either enhance and preserve life or diminish and destroy it, the goal of religion is to maintain those relationships that protect and preserve life. For it is the harmony and stability provided by these relationships, both spiritual and material, that create the conditions for well-being and wholeness.
The threat to life both physical and spiritual is the premise of the quest for salvation. The threat is so near and real because, for the African, life is a continuum of power points that are transformed into being and life is constantly under threat from evil forces. This logic of the relationality of being and cosmic life gives rise to the view that all reality is inter-related like a family. This same relational metaphysics is what under girds the life of the individual in community.
Individual in Community
J. S. Mbiti captures this relational metaphysics succinctly in the dictum: “I am because we are and because we are therefore I am.” The life of the individual comes into fruition through the social ritual of rites of passage. These rites are the process that can help the individual to attain to the goals of his or her destiny, given at birth by God. Those who successfully go through the rites of passage become candidates for ancestorhood — the goal of the ideal life. For the African, ancestors are much more than dead parents of the living. They are the embodiment of what it means to live the full life that is contained in one’s destiny.
God, Creation and Cosmic Life
God in Africa is a relational being who is known through various levels of relationship with creation. In relation to humanity, God is the great ancestor of the human race. Therefore, all over Africa God is portrayed more in terms of parent than as sovereign. In relation to the earth, God is a husband who stands behind the creative fecundity of the earth that sustains human life. God in relation to creation is the creator from whom life flows and is sustained. In relation to the divinities, God is their father who requires them to care for the cosmic processes.
Unity and Diversity
The various elements of African religion that make what I call the transcendental structure of African religion are expressed differently by the various African peoples on the basis of their social organization and environment.
One can describe African religion as a this-worldly religion of salvation that promises well-being and wholeness here and now. It is a religion that affirms life and celebrates life in its fullness; this accounts for the lively and celebrative mood that characterizes African worship in all its manifestations.