Wednesday, November 10, 2010

African Religion

(I'm doing some teaching this morning to RMS II graduates on African Religion. Here are some notes I'm using.)

To understand Africa you must understand its religions, and how religious it is.

• “It is largely through religious ideas that Africans think about the world today.” (Ellis and Ter Haar, 2)

“All African peoples believe in God.” (Mbiti, AR, 45)

• African belief in God came about because of…

o People’s reflections concerning the universe. “African peoples believe the universe to have been created.” (Mbiti, AR, 45)

o People realized their own limitations and weaknesses. Disasters, tragedies, and death “may easily have led people to speculate that there must be someone greater than themselves and greater than the world, who had full control over it.” (Mbiti, AR, 46)

o People observed the forces and power of nature. “It is likely that they began to associate the heavens with the one whom they eventually called God.” (Mbiti, AR, 46)

• “Every African people has a word for God and often other names which describe him.” (Mbiti, AR, 47)

• God is Creator of all things. “This belief is common everywhere in Africa.” (Mbiti, AR, 49)

• “God also sustains, keeps and upholds the things he has created.” (Mbiti, AR, 49)

• God provides for what he has created. “For that reason, African peoples call him the Giver of things, Water Giver, Healer, Helper, Guard, Source. They believe that God only gives good things. All African peoples pray, asking God to give them what they need and come to their rescue, because they believe that god provides.” (Mbiti, AR, 52)

The nature of God

• God is:

o Good

 The people of Zaire say, “Rejoice, God never does wrong to people!” (Mbiti, AR, 55)

 In Liberia people say, “God causes rain to pour down on our fields, and the sun to shine. Because we see these things of his, we say that he is good.” (Mbiti, AR, 55)

o Merciful

 People call God “the God of pity,” “the Merciful One,” “the Kind One.”

 God “is the source of all mercy and kindness. Therefore people expect others to show kindness and mercy towards one another, and these qualities are highly appreciated in African societies.” (Mbiti, AR, 55)

 While in Kenya Cliff Msioki told me that if I was in trouble people would come and help me. If my car broke down people would see that I got to me destination.

o Holy and pure

 God has no fault or failure.

 In Nigeria people speak of God as “the pure King,” “the King without blemish,” and “the Whiteness without patterns.” (Mbiti, AR, 56)

 In Kenya some people speak of God as “the Possessor of Whiteness,” and associate him with the snowy top of Mount Kenya.” (Mbiti, AR, 56)

o All-powerful

 People say: “It is only God who makes the sun rise and set”; “God can turn things upside-down”; “God is the Master of all things.”” (Mbiti, AR, 56)

o All-knowing

 People in Nigeria say, “Only God is wise!” (Mbiti, AR, 57)

 “In order to show this idea more forcefully, people speak of God as the All-seeing and All-hearing, the Watcher of everything, the All-seer, and the Discerner of hearts.” (Mbiti, AR, 57)

 Some people say, poetically, that “God is the Big Eye, and that God has long ears.” (Mibiti, AR, 57)

o Present everywhere

 “In some areas God is known as the Great Pool.” (Mibiti, AR, 57)

 God is everywhere at once.

o Limitless

 God has no limit.

 God is “the Limitless One who fills all space.” (Mibiti, AR, 58)

 God cannot be exhausted by human imagination.

o Self-existent

 “While God has made all things, he himself is not made. He exists on his own; he is self-existent.” (Mibiti, AR, 58)

 “In South Africa some people have a name for God which means ‘He who is of himself’ or ‘He who came into being of himself’.” (Mibiti, AR, 58)

 “So the question of how God originated does not arise; it is a meaningless question as far as he is concerned.” (Mibiti, AR, 58)

o The first cause

 God is called “the Original Source.” (Mibiti, AR, 58)

 Some call God, simply, “the Beginner.” (Mibiti, AR, 58)

o Spirit

 “Some people call him simply the Great Spirit, the Fathomless Spirit, the Ever-present Spirit, or the God of Wind and Breath. The air or wind is often used as a metaphor when speaking of God as spirit.” (Mibiti, AR, 57)

o Never changes

 “In Nigeria the people sing that ‘Nobody has ever heard about the death of God, because he never dies!’” (Mibiti, AR, 60)

o Unknowable

 God cannot be explained. God cannot be fully known.

 People in Zaire and Angola call God “the Marvel of Marvels.” (Mibiti, AR, 59)

Worship and Prayer

 In Africa, the universe is viewed as a deeply religious universe. “Worship helps to implement that view.” (Mibiti, AR, 60)

• “Prayer is the commonest method of approaching God. It is found in all African societies.” (Mibiti, AR, 60)

• “The practice of making sacrifices and offerings is found all over Africa. By this practice material or physical things are given to god and other spiritual beings. This act marks the point where the visible and invisible worlds meet, and show man’s intention to project himself into the invisible world.” (Mibiti, AR, 63)

o “In African societies, life is closely associated with blood… The life of one person or animal, or of a few of either, is destroyed in the belief that this will save the life of many people. Thus, the destruction of one becomes the protection of many.” (Mibiti, AR, 63)

In the African religious universe there are intermediaries between God and man.

• People feel small in the sight of God. So, in approaching him, they need the help of someone else. “For that reason, some African peoples make use of helpers in approaching God, although they also approach him directly.” (Mibiti, AR, 68)

• “These helpers may be called intermediaries. Some are human beings, while others are spiritual beings. The human beings include priests, kings, medicine men, seers, oracles, diviners, rain-makers and ritual elders… People go to them and tell them their needs, and it is then their duty to approach God through prayer, sacrifice, offerings and the interpretation of visions or dreams.” (Mibiti, AR, 68)

• The kind of spiritual beings who help people in their approach to God are:

o Divinities

o Some spirits, especially those of national leaders and heroes

o The dead, especially family members who are still remembered in the family

• “The idea of intermediaries fits well within the African view of the universe, which holds that the invisible world has its own life and population. The life of this invisible world is in some ways higher than that of man, but God is higher still. In order to reach God effectively it may be useful to approach him by first approaching those who are lower than he is but higher than the ordinary person.” (Mibiti, AR, 68)

• “Although African peoples use these intermediaries in performing some of their acts of worship, they do not worship the intermediaries themselves as such.” (Mibiti, AR, 69)


• In the African worldview “the universe is composed of visible and invisible parts. It is commonly believed that, besides God and human beings there are othyer beings who populate the universe. These are the spirits. There are many kinds of spirits.” (Mbiti, AR, 70)

• Nature Spirits

o Nature spirits of the sky

 “These include: the sun, the moon, stars, ‘falling stars’, rainbows, rain, storms, wind, thunder and lightning. People say or believe either that such objects and forces are themselves the spirits, or that there are spirits occupying and controlling them.” (Mbiti, AR, 71)

 Not all Africans believe in these. The more rural the community, the more there is belief in nature spirits.

o Nature spirits of the earth

 These are connected with: “the earth, hills, mountains, rocks and boulders, tress and forests, metals, water in various forms, different animals and insects

• Human Spirits

o “Human spirits are those that once were ordinary men, women and children. Belief in the existence of these spirits is widespread in Africa. It is the natural consequence of the strong belief in African Religion that human life does not terminate at the death of the individual, but continues beyond death. It follows, therefore, that there must be myriads upon myriads of human spirits.” (Mbiti, AR, 75)

o The spirits of those who died recently are called “the living dead.” “The living dead are the spirits that normally matter most of the family level. They are considered to be still part of their families. They are believed to live close to their homes where they lived when they were human beings. They show interest in their surviving families, and in return their families remember them by pouring out parts of their drinks and leaving bits of food for them from time to time… [O]n the whole the spirits of those who died recently are benevolent towards their families as long as they are remembered and properly treated.” (Mbiti, AR, 77-79)

o “Spirits do not have concrete shapes and features, since by definition they have no physical form. But it is believed that when they appear to people, they may look like human beings, animals, insects or other things, and they can change suddenly to a different form. The spirits of the living dead look as they did when they were human beings.” (Mbiti, AR, 79)

What practical relevance does this have for African life?

• Ellis and Ter Haar tell of the widely circulated story of Evangelist Mukendi from what was formerly Zaire, and today is the Democratic Republic of Congo.

• The story in Mukendi is written in a book entitled Snatched from Satan’s Claws. The book claims:

o Mukendi was weaned by a mermaid and pledged to Satan bu his father, a witch.

o Mukendi claims that this underwater underworld was created by withces, and witches live there.

o These witches have made universities and even an international airport, which is directly under the capital city of Kinshasa.

o Every city has a spirit-city beneath it. This is where the “spirits of people who in life were controlled by fallen angels congregate and communicate with the witch doctors, sorcerers and magicians who still live on earth.” (Ellis and Ter Haar, 49)

o These agents of the devil feed on human flesh.

o “The ultimate purpose of this underground activity is to ‘steal, kill and destroy’.” (Ellis and Ter Haar, 49)

o “Mukendo’s book is just one example of an abundant African popular genre on human involvement in the spirit world.” (Ellis and Ter Haar, 50)