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The Spirituality of African Peoples: Community

The third chapter of Peter J. Paris’s The Spirituality of African Peoples is titled “Community: The Goal of the Moral Life.” If there is one thing most casual observers of African and African American cultures grasps, it is that the importance of community is a preeminent African value. Paris quotes John Mbiti to drive this point home with respect to religion as a communal “possession”:

To be human is to belong to the whole community, and to do so involves participating in the beliefs, ceremonies, rituals, and festivals of that community. A person cannot detach himself from the religion of his group, for to do so is to be severed from his roots, his foundation, his context of security, his kinships and the entire group of those who make him aware of his own existence. To be without one of these corporate elements is to be out of the whole picture. Therefore, to be without religion amounts to a self-excommunication from the entire life of society, and African peoples do not know how to exist without religion. (51, citing African Religions and Philosophy [Doubleday, 1970] 3)

Paris makes about five key points about African views of community life.

Ancestors

In African societies one’s ancestors are “the principal link between the ethnic community and the realm of the spirit” (51). Interacting with these ancestors (including through rituals of appeasement) is a necessary component of preserving peace and harmony in the world. Ancestors serve a vital function within the hierarchy of lesser spiritual beings the supreme Deity has established.

Such an arrangement meshes with traditional African understandings of life and death. According to Paris, “In the African worldview there is no death in the sense of radical separation from either the family or the tribal community. Rather, Africans belief that life is eternal and that its motion is not linear but cyclical” (52).

Departure from physical life is the transition point between mortality to immortality. The departed become, in John Mbiti’s words, “the living dead” in that, though no longer living, they remain connected to the tribe and the family for as long as anyone can remember them by name. Because of this enduring connection to the world of the living, they fulfill the roles of intermediaries between the earthly and spiritual realms under God’s direction. At the same time, they are thought to continue an existence much as they experienced in physical life: “they retain their moral character, social status, and familial consciousness” (52). I’m reminded at this point both of the funerary cults of ancient Egypt and, once again, of the cult of saints and martyrs in early orthodoxy. The echoes of the early church come through more overtly when Paris later describes how African slaves in America embraced the heroes of the Bible as a new focus of “ancestral devotion”:

African slaves gradually adopted many relevant ancestors of their captors which, in this situation, turned out to be various biblical personages who eventually function for them as surrogate ancestral protectors. Thus, the inclusion of Moses, Joshua, Daniel, Mary, Jonah, or Paul in their spirituals was tantamount to granting them membership in the African realm of the spirit. (57)

Time

This view of the ancestors implies an understanding of time that is different from that of Western cultures. Rather than thinking in terms of past, present, and future, African time is divided into what Mbiti calls “potential time and actual time”:

According to traditional concepts, time is a two-dimensional phenomenon, with a long past, a present and virtually no future. The linear concept of time in western thought, with an indefinite past, present and infinite future, is practically foreign to African thinking. The future is virtually absent because events which lie in it have not taken place, they have not been realized and cannot therefore, constitute time. If, however, future events are certain to occur, or if they fall within the inevitable rhythm of nature, they at best constitute only potential time, not actual time. What is taking place now no doubt unfolds the future, but once an event has taken place, it is no longer in the future but in the present and the past. Actual time is therefore what is present and what is past. It moves “backward” rather than “forward”; and people set their minds not on future things, but chiefly on what has taken place. (54, citing Mbiti, 21, 23)

This is similar to the concept of time Bruce Malina proposes for the ancient Mediterranean world.

Paris unpacks this conceptualization of time in order to clarify what it means for the ancestors to gradually move into the distant past and why it is important for the living to keep their memory alive. It also contributes to understanding why children are such a necessity: since a continuing family is required for becoming an ancestor, progeny is a prerequisite (55).

Reciprocity

Already implicit in Paris’s discussion of the ancestors is the idea that the living and the “living dead” are joined together in a reciprocal relationships. Each depends on the other: the ancestors need a family to preserve their memory (and thus ensure their immortality); the living need ancestors to be their protectors and intermediaries in the spiritual realm. Paris writes,

Apart from their relationship with the living dead, families would be deprived of any direct access to the spiritual realm since neither the objectified spirits [i.e., the dead who are no longer remembered on earth] nor the divinities have the capacity to establish personal relationships. (56)

These relationships reflect the moral ethos, particularly the paramount goal of harmony within the universe.

Leadership

The living leader of the community is also an important link to the realm of spirit in African cultures. Though rarely thought of as divine themselves (ancient Egypt is a notable exception), kings were at least understood to “provide the highest link between the people, the ancestors, and the gods” (58, citing Robert F. Thompson, Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy [Random House, 1983] 7).

In the previous chapter, Paris described the fierce loyalty often displayed toward legitimate authority figures in African societies. It was assumed that wrongdoing generally percolated “up” from the masses rather than trickling down from kings, priests, or tribal elders, resulting in a “profoundly passive” stance toward authority (41). To be sure, African societies devised various checks and balances against tyrannical rule as well as complex procedures for determining matters of succession in governance. Furthermore, Africans “could become ferocious whenever required to confront illegitimate authorities” (42)—the usual outcomes being either forced suicide or ceremonial assassination! (59). Still, African societies assumed that the social order was ordained by God and preserving order and harmony was upheld as the highest good (43).

The king must therefore be of exemplary moral character, and it is assumed that the significance of the office transcended the person who currently holds it. Once enthroned, “the king enjoyed the unquestioned loyalty and obedience of all his subjects” (59).

Following W. E. B. DuBois, Paris compares the role of the ancient tribal king with that of African American clergy as the focal point of the community. It is certainly true that African American religious leaders are often venerated by their congregations in ways their white counterparts find hard to understand. I wonder as well whether the same could be said for ancient African bishops, especially in times of oppression or persecution.

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3 Comments

  1. mikelioso says:

    I’m not sure how useful it is to use example from sub Saharan Africa, particularly west Africa, to explain the the customs of north Africa. I think it would be like using Iranian culture to explain the archbishop of Canterbury. The different regions of Africa are quite separated by language and heritage.

    Quite a bit of what I’ve read here as traditional African religious expression is found culture around the world, which may not be so surprising since it seems all mankind descended from Africans. For instance, it is well known that the power of ancestors is prominent in East Asian religion. The lack of concern for the future is found in primitive South American thought. Its is a sensible world view for cultures that create innovations very slowly. In their minds all the inventions, fire, the creation of the world, culture, lay in the past. No one can imagine the future to hold anything but an endless repetition of the present.

    It may be interesting too compare pre-Islamic Berber culture and the African Saints, but I’m not sure how much of that culture survives.

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  2. Mike, that is precisely my point in doing this exercise. Oden—and Paris!—argue for broad structural similarities in cultures found throughout the continent. Just as we can speak in general terms about European or Asian cultures, we should be able to speak about African cultures as such. Oden in particular points to the river-based patterns of cultural diffusion that link the Maghreb and Egypt to regions further south. If Oden is right, there should be something discernibly African in the consensual orthodoxy of a Cyprian or an Athanasius. If he’s not, investigating the broad cultural patterns of Africa should reveal that as well.

    And you’re quite right about the commonalities between various pre-industrial cultures. Right now I’m wondering if what Oden sees as Christianity’s African heritage might not more accurately be described as its preindustrial Mediterranean heritage—admitting of course that Africa also borders the Mediterranean and contributed to the development of its culture in pre-Christian and early-Christian times.

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