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The Spirituality of African Peoples: Ethics

At first I debated lumping the last two chapters of Peter J. Paris’s The Spirituality of African Peoples together, but then decided the final chapter, “Ethics: African and African American Social Ethics” really needed to stand alone as a kind of summary of much that has come before.

According to Paris, the summum bonum in African culture is the well-being of the community: “The preservation and promotion of community is the paramount goal of African peoples in all spheres of life. It is a practical goal that is deeply rooted in their cosmological thought and constitutive of all personal and public life” (130-31). This “highest good” is the same at every level: “from the supreme God, through the subdivinities, ancestral spirits, communal and familial leaders, to the youngest child” (131).

African cosmological thought is anthropocentric and holistic, and thus implies a sacramental view of life—the material and the spiritual impinge upon each other reciprocally. Even so, African anthropocentrism

does not imply either the superiority of humans over other forms of life or a denial of the supremacy of the deity over all existence. Nor does it constitute a rationale justifying wanton exploitation of humans over natural resources. It merely means that humans are at the center of a sacred cosmos in which they are expected to assume immense responsibilities for the preservation of its unity. (131)

In describing this sacramental view of life, Paris elaborates a bit on what he introduced in the previous chapter about personal destiny. In particular, he identifies the idea of original sin as something foreign to African world views:

African cosmologies have nothing comparable to a doctrine of original sin that condemns the whole of humanity. This does not mean that Africans view all humans as morally good. Nothing could be further from the truth, and evidence to the contrary is quite abundant. Rather, in contrast to those who are born with good destinies, it is widely believed that some people are bearers of various types of bad destinies. Some of them are capable of modification; others not. In either case, with the combined help of professional diviners and much concentrated effort on their own part, humans may, to a certain extent, overcome many aspects of a bad destiny. Thus the notion of destiny, whether good or bad, does not imply human passivity. Instead it informs persons about the possibilities that they are either capable or incapable or realizing. (132)

I will simply note in passing the paradox that the doctrine of original sin was most vigorously promoted—some would say invented—by an ethnic North African, Augustine of Hippo.

Among African peoples, good moral character “constitutes the nature of the moral life.” It is through such character development that Africans seek to promote the well-being of the community and authentically live out their sacramental understanding of human existence.

But first he gives a few more words about the cosmological grounding of African ethics in “a cosmological spirituality that unites three interdependent realms of life, which are usually ranked in hierarchical order—spirit, history, and nature” (135). He continues,

Thus, all life is sacred. This is a fundamental principle for all African peoples. Unlike most Western thought, the sacred is not separated from human and natural life but permeates both. As a consequence, the function of human life is a sacred vocation, namely, to preserve and promote the life of the community and each of its individual members. (135)

Paris concludes this chapter with a summary of some specific aspects of African moral excellence. African ethics aims at “enabling individual persons to become good so that they will also become good leaders in their respective communities. In the section that follows, he draws on the lives of Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr. as examples of an African and an African American leader of laudable moral character.

Certain specific virtues are highly praised in African cultures. I’ll conclude my summary by listing these and providing Paris’s definitions.

Beneficence is closely tied to hospitality and prioritizing the needs of others over one’s own good.

Symptoms of beneficence are many. They include hospitality, generosity, liberality, benevolence, magnanimity, and love. All are expressive of practices undertaken by persons whose character is shaped by those practices. The beneficent person is a person of good will, one who joyfully extends hospitality to all alike. In this respect the beneficent person respects all persons. Though morally superior to ordinary people, the beneficent person is quite unaware of his or her moral goodness. Like all moral virtues, beneficence functions as a second nature for the one who is beneficent. (138)

Forbearance is an important moral virtue given Africa’s tragic history. Both Africans and, later, African Americans have had to “endure a long-term dehumanizing plight of racial oppression, economic injustice, political  disfranchisement, and social ostracism” (141). These experiences were not foreign to the early African Christians, who endured not only the persecutions instigated by imperial Rome but also found themselves on the losing side in a number of ecclesiastical conflicts that might also be interpreted (at least in part) in political terms: the Donatists in Latin North Africa and the Egyptians Copts (and later Ethiopian Orthodox) in the Nile Valley during the christological controversies of the fifth century. (For the Donatists, see ch. 6 of John Driver’s Radical Faith [Pandora, 1999]. For the political aspects of Coptic origins, see chs. 4–5 of The First Seven Ecumenical Councils (325–787) [Liturgical Press, 1983] by Leo Donald Davis.)

Forbearance is often developed by attending to activities “that serve the pragmatic goal of survival” (141), among which Paris notes in particular compromise and nonviolent resistance.

Practical Wisdom is “excellence of thought that guides good action” (144). According to Paris,

This virtue pertains to the measure of cognitive discernment necessary for determining what hinders good action and what enables it. It is the fully developed capacity of a free moral agent for making reasonable judgments about the best means for the attainment of penultimate goals as well as the determination of their commensurability with the ultimate goal of the good life. (144)

In practical terms, it is grounding in the wisdom of experience passed down from one’s elders, which provides the reasoning underlying all of the other virtues (145).

Improvisation, the next moral virtue Paris names, is the creative use of received tradition, applying old wisdom to new challenges. Like the arts, moral virtues are formed by habitual practice. But for moral people, as for great artists, practice has made the virtue or the art like a second nature in which individuality shines through (146).

Improvisation comprises unpredictable variations on a theme. It brings novelty to bear on the familiar, not for the sake of destroying the latter, but for the purpose of heightening the individuality and uniqueness of the agent and his or her creative ability. Improvisation expresses not only the agent’s creativity and spontaneity but also his or her spirit of perceptive wholeness. By keeping the old and new close at hand, the virtue of improvisation embraces and enhances the whole and thus serves to promote and preserve the goal of community. (147)

Forgiveness is, of course, a well-known biblical virtue. Paris writes,

African peoples have always known the great toll that hatred takes on both the personality of individuals and the life of the community. In the interest of their highest goal, community, they have shunned hatred by cultivating the virtue of forgiveness through the habitual exercise of kindness. (149)

Justice is, according to Paris, the supreme virtue “because it is the sum of all the virtues”:

On the one hand, it inheres in each of them by determining the moral impact of their practices on others. On the other hand, it is the totality of the moral quality contained in all the virtues. In other words, one cannot be just without possessing all the other virtues because complete justice would be diminished by the lack of any one of them. (152)

African peoples are concerned primarily with two forms of justice: (1) the individual’s obligations to the community, and (2) the community’s obligations to its members and itself. In Aristotelian terms, these deal respectively with civil law and the common good; commutative and distributive justice (152).

This concludes my summary of the parts of Paris’s book that are most germane to an investigation of whether Thomas Oden’s contention is true that Africa shaped the Christian mind. Next, I’ll take one post to summarize Osadolor Imasogie’s Guidelines for Christian Theology in Africa. Then I think I’ll need to see if a case can be made that the same broad cultural patterns are present in more northerly parts of Africa, in the Nile Valley or further west in regions colonized by Phoenicians many centuries before the birth of Christianity.

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1 Comment

  1. I read this great book when it first came out. I have enjoyed seeing you blog through it.

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