My one serious complaint about Thomas Oden’s How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind is that it is light on the specifics of what in fact constitutes the distinctively African aspects of the consensual orthodoxy of the patristic period. In order to fill in some of those blanks, I’m re-reading The Spirituality of African Peoples by Peter J. Paris.
Paris’s book is as much about the African American experience as it is the peoples of Africa per se, although he argues there is a great deal of common ground at the deep, structural level among the spiritualities of people of African origin both on the continent and in the diaspora. Even so, I’m going to strive to limit myself to comments that specifically apply to the traditional spiritualities of Africa itself. For my purposes, I’m simply going to report what Paris says about a number of crucial themes in African spirituality, with off-the-cuff remarks about possible connections to early African Christianity where appropriate. My goal is neither to prove or disprove Paris’s contentions, nor for that matter to prove or disprove Oden’s assertions about the African-ness of early Christian orthodoxy. My much humbler goal is merely to begin collecting data by which Oden’s thesis might be tested.
Paris’s first substantive chapter is titled “God: The Source and Ground of All Life.” He begins by arguing for the legitimacy of generalizing about African spirituality in the first place, given the great diversity of African cultures. He writes,
Calling some things European or American or Asian is analogous to calling other things African. Since we do the one with impunity, why not the latter? In brief, I seek to identify broad structural components comprising the moral and religious thoughts of African peoples while recognizing the vast differences of content in each particular cultural context. (27)
The first of these “broad structural components,” Paris contends, is belief in one God. This God is never capricious, but rather is conceived as a trustworthy creator and preserver of the universe, including material objects, plants and animals, human beings, and lesser supernatural beings (spirits, ancestors, lesser “divinities,” etc.). This belief in and devotion to a supreme, self-existent, transcendent creator and preserver is, in Paris’s judgment, “the clearest mark of continuity among Africans everywhere” (39).
A number of things can be said about this God. First, this God sits at the head of a vast hierarchy of lesser spiritual beings. Paris quotes J. Omosade Awolalu, who explains that this supreme Deity
is believed to be responsible for the creation and maintenance of heaven and earth, men and women, and who also has brought into being divinities and spirits who are believed to be his functionaries in the theocratic world as well as intermediaries between mankind and the self-existent Being. (28; citing Yoruba Beliefs and Sacrificial Rites [Longman, 1981] 3)
African spirituality is thus more “henotheistic” than “monotheistic,” with every tribe connected to the spiritual world through a network of subdivinities and ancestral spirits. This conceptualization fits well with the long-acknowledged emphasis on the tribal and familial solidarity in African cultures. The “community” doesn’t stop with the living relatives one sees in the everyday world but also embraces the spiritual dimension.
In New Testament terms, one might bring in the concept of “fictive kinship” at this point. The first Christians often found themselves at odds with their families of origin, and thus clung to the church itself as a replacement οἶκος or “household.” The language of household management and familial relations pervades the New Testament as a description of what the church is supposed to be like.
The Remoteness of God
Within this framework, the supreme Deity, though “willful and just,” is also remote. This remoteness “is analogous to that of a tribal king or a familial patriarch” in that it is “the primary sign of authority and power” (30).
Far from a sign of disinterest, to the African mind, this remoteness is in fact an indication of divine benevolence, since humans “do not have the capacity to withstand any direct encounter with God” (30). Paris writes,
Africans sometimes refer to the sun as analogous to God. Humans delight in having the sun at a great distance from them because, were it otherwise, they would be destroyed rather than empowered by it. Thus, the deity’s remoteness does not evidence any lack of concern for humanity. It rather connotes the reverse. By maintaining distance from nature and humanity the deity manifests divine care. Thus Africans are grateful for God’s remoteness and pray regularly for God’s continued protective care through the mediation of the subdivinities and ancestral spirits. (30-31)
Perhaps we see here an African explanation for the ancient custom of venerating Christian saints and seeking their intercession before the divine throne? (Only slightly off-topic, iMonk reports a rather depressing encounter with an Ethiopian Christian woman who, I would argue, took the whole “remoteness of God” thing way too far.)
Neither Male nor Female
Another characteristic of the African understanding of God is that God is described in metaphors that are both male and female. Or, more to the point, God is described sometimes in masculine terms, sometimes in feminine terms, pointing to the divine transcendence of the very category of gender. Here Paris appeals to Joseph A. Omoyajowo for an overview:
The African concept of God is not altogether masculine. In many parts of Africa, God is conceived as male, but in other parts, he is conceived as female; the Ndebele and Shona ethnic groups of former Rhodesia have a triad made up of God the Father, God the Mother, and God the Son. The Nuba of the Sudan regard God as “Great Mother” and speak of him in feminine pronouns. The Ovabo of South West Africa say that “the mother of pots is a hole in the ground, and the mother of people is God.” Although called the queen of Lovedu in South Africa, the mysterious “She” is not primarily a ruler but a rain-maker; she is regarded as a changer of seasons and the guarantor of their cyclic regularity. (31-32, citing “The Role of Women in Traditional African Religion,” African Traditional Religions in Contemporary Society, ed. Jacob K. Onupona, 74)
Furthermore, some African peoples view God as possessing two natures, both male and female (32).
There are several Old and New Testament passages that describe God in feminine terms, but I think everyone would agree that masculine terminology is predominant. I wonder if the prominent place given to the Virgin Mary in Catholic and Orthodox thought might be a way of exalting the feminine aspects of divinity in a way that seemed more biblically orthodox to those who first took this approach. I also wonder about the sad reality of misogynistic attitudes in many traditional African cultures.
That’s enough for now. I’d especially like input from two kinds of people: (1) those with first-hand experience with African cultures, to help correct and clarify my understanding of African worldviews; and (2) my kind and forbearing Orthodox and Catholic readers, to suggest how these African structural components sound in relation to your own spiritual backgrounds.