Foundational Religious Beliefs

There are four foundational religious beliefs in the African traditional religions: (1) the belief in mystical power(s); (2) the belief in spirit beings; (3) the belief in divinities and (4) the belief in the Supreme Being. These foundational religious beliefs are essential to our theological interpretation and analysis of the traditional religions. Any meaningful and effective Christian approach to the traditional religions must begin from here.

  1. Belief in Mystical Power(s)

What is the influence and impact of this dominant religious belief in impersonal and mystical powers upon the whole of traditional African life? This is a foundational and dominant influence and impact upon the traditional African life.

The belief in the impersonal (mystical) power is dominant and pervasive in traditional African religious thought. The whole of creation, nature and all things and objects are consumed with this impersonal power. This impersonal power is what Edwin Smith called mysterium tremendum. This same power has been given various names, such as, mana, life force, vital force, life essence and dynamism.

In African beliefs, the source of this impersonal or (mystical) mysterious power is not always known, but it is usually attributed to the activities of higher “mysterious” powers that either generates or deposits such powers in things or objects. The potency, efficacy and the durability of such “inhabited” impersonal powers varies from object to object. Some objects are said to be inherently more power induced or “imputed” than others, that is, they are more naturally endowed with powers than others are.

The manifestation and the use of the impersonal powers are related to the practices of medicine men and women, diviners and seers who use natural objects, plants and animals for medicine, magic, charms and amulets. Some specialists’ belief that mysterious powers imbedded in things or objects can be extracted for specific uses. Mystical and mysterious powers can be transmitted through certain object media or by pure spiritual means. Mystical powers can be sent to specific destinations for an intended good or evil. Mystical powers can be contagious by contact with objects carrying or mediating such powers.

The impersonal powers can be used for both good and evil. The life of a traditional African with this belief in the impersonal powers is at the mercy of the benevolent or wicked users of the mystical powers at their disposal. This belief is very much reflected in the traditional religious practices and behavior.

As stated earlier, the belief in the impersonal (mystical) powers is dominant and pervasive among traditional Africans. This belief has a theological basis. Christianity must recognize and study the theological basis of the traditional African belief in the existence of mystical and mysterious forces. The religious and social role and function of this belief must be thoroughly studied and understood. The application of the Bible and the Christian Gospel to this very religious belief must address it at its foundations and roots but not opposing it:

1) What do traditional Africans feel about the pervasive and dominant presence of the mystical and mysterious powers and forces? The Bible and the Gospel of Christ must address this traditional religious core value and its dominant influence upon man in traditional Africa. A Biblical and Christian theology has to be formulated and developed so as to address the traditional theology of mystical and impersonal powers.

2) What is the nature of this traditional belief in the mystical, mysterious powers and forces and its total influence and impact upon the total man in traditional Africa? How do we apply the Bible and the Gospel of Christ to the nature of this belief and to the nature of its impact or influence upon man in traditional Africa?

3) What are the religious practices and behavior that do accompany, support and reinforce (a) this belief and (b) feelings generated by this belief? How do we study and apply the Bible and the Gospel of Christ to all the various practices, attitudes, rituals, rites and ceremonies that traditional Africa has fundamentally developed from this belief?

Our theological approach must go beyond matching Biblical texts with specific traditional beliefs to addressing the theological, philosophical, moral and ethical bases and foundations of these beliefs. Religious beliefs, feelings, practice and behavior have roots and bases. The traditional conception of mystical and mysterious powers has deep theological roots.

When Christian categories are introduced, such as: the power of the blood of Christ; the power of Christ; the power of the Holy Spirit; the power of God; the power of prayer in the name of Jesus, how are these powers understood theologically by man in traditional Africa? The traditional theology of power and forces is what should be addressed by the Bible. When a belief in the potency of mystical and mysterious powers and forces are condemned as demonic, man in traditional Africa feels offended because there are no proof that they are demonic.

They really work and an African man sees and experiences their power, potency and efficacy. A mere concocted reference to a Bible verse is not be enough to dissuade and convince him to do and believe otherwise.

Our religious beliefs and practices are structured within the framework of our traditional religious worldview. What is that theological foundation of the belief in the mystical and mysterious powers and forces and its accompanied feelings, practices and behavior? This is what a Christian theologian must understand.

  1. Belief in Spirit Beings

What is the influence and impact of this dominant religious belief in spirit beings upon the whole of traditional African life? The Bible and Christian theology have to address this dominant influence and impact upon the traditional African life. Many Christian churches misuse the bible to attack these beliefs.

Traditional African concepts of reality and destiny are deeply rooted in the spirit world. The activities and the actions of the spirit beings govern all social and spiritual phenomena. The spirit world can be divided into two broad categories: (1) non-human spirits and (2) the spirits of the dead. Non-human spirits are regarded in hierarchical order in accordance with their kind and importance, depending upon their power and the role they play in the ontological order in the spirit world.

First in the hierarchy is the Creator, then the deities, ancestors’ spirits and other miscellaneous spirits that are non-human, comprising both good or harmless spirits and evil spirits. Man stands between this array of spiritual hosts in the spirit world and the world of nature.

What Constitutes the Spirit World?

What constitutes the spirit world is summarized below in the words of Kato (1975:36-41):

1) The whole world is full of spirits;

2) The abode of spirits are numerous, such as the silk cotton tree, baobab tree, sycamore tree, burial grounds and other places;

3) The spirits are classified into two categories, the bad ones and the good ones;

4) There is a firm belief in reincarnation;

5) A belief in and practice of exorcism or spirit possession;

6) A belief in life after death, future reward and future punishment;

7) Evil spirits are always associated with Satan (Kato, 1975:36-41);

8) Spirit possession.

In defining the religious worldview of Africa, Mbiti stresses the fact that the spirit world of the African people is very densely populated with spirit beings, spirits and the living-dead or the spirits of the ancestors (Mbiti, 1969:75). The spirit world is the most pervasive worldview. Contained within it are the spirits, the ancestors and the Supreme Being or God (Ikenga-Metuh, 1987:103-179).

There is a very close relationship between the spirit beings and the mystical or impersonal powers and forces described in the previous section. This realm of the supernatural operates mystical power, magic, witchcraft, sorcery and many others. The spirit world or the realm of the supernatural is, in a sense, a battleground of spirits and powers that use their mystical powers to influence the course of human life. These mystical powers can be designated as positive or negative, good or evil, which may bring blessings or curses.

If man only knew how to master and control the realm of the supernatural, the world would be a much happier place. Belief in the mystical powers as described already, the spirit beings behind them and the human quest to control or influence them had produced a variety of specialists such as medicine men, rainmakers, mediums, diviners, sorcerers, magicians and witches. Superstitions, totems, taboos and rituals grew out of such beliefs.

For safety and protection in a world dominated by the spirit beings and powers, one needs a spiritual compass for guidance and practical efforts for control, protection and security through religious rites, reverence to ancestors, symbolic totems and regulative taboos, rituals, superstitions, customs and specialists. For guidance and protection in life, one needs some, if not all, of these. That’s where prophetic ministry becomes relevant.

As we have already observed, in the African traditional religious thought, spirits are believed to dwell or inhabit certain trees, rocks or mountains, caves, rivers, lakes, forests, animals, human beings, the skies, the ground and other cites, carved or molded objects, charms, amulets.

The spirit beings are usually divided into two categories: (1) the spirits of the dead elders (the ancestors) and (2) the non-human spirit beings. The ancestors are close to the humans and serve as their custodians. All spirit beings are endowed with certain powers and they apply these powers upon the humans for their good or for their harm if dishonored. Because the spirit beings are capricious and sometimes benevolent, man must be wise in his dealings with the spirit beings. They can easily be angered, provoked or injured by the humans and so man requires tack and wisdom in dealing with them. In dealing with both the impersonal (mystical) powers and the spirit beings, man needs human specialists (inspired by the creator) who have gained experience and access to these two types of mysteries to help them live a successful life and acquire good human well-being. These spirit beings can be “manipulated” to serve the humans or vice versa.

This belief, just as in the case of the previous one, has a theological basis. Christianity must recognize and study this very theological basis of the traditional African belief in the existence of spirit beings. The religious and social role and function of this belief in the spirits must be thoroughly studied and understood other than simply dismissing it as the works of the devil.

  1. Belief in Many Divinities

What is the influence and impact of the dominant religious belief in the divinities upon the whole of traditional African life? The Bible and Christian theology have to address this dominant influence and impact upon the traditional African life.

African traditional religions in some parts of Africa have had an elaborate pantheon of divinities. But there are exceptions to this general observation, especially in Southern Africa and some parts of West Africa. Some African ethnic groups do not seem to have divinities, while some were known to have no special shrines or worship places designated to the divinities or to the Supreme Being. However, the Yoruba of Nigeria are known for having several hundreds of divinities.

African scholars for the past three decades have changed certain perspectives and even the definition of African divinities (Idowu, 1962; Mbiti, 1975). The African “divinities” were and are not worshipped as “gods” they were and are only “intermediaries” or “mediators”. “Africans do not worship their divinities nor their ancestors, but God”. In this argument, Africans hold a view that sacrifices, offerings and prayers offered, are not directed to the divinities or the ancestors, as ends in themselves, but are directed ultimately to God.

African divinities are many and each has its specific area of influence and control. Some of these divinities were originally mythological figures in some African legends and primordial histories and cosmologies, while some were tribal heroes or heroines. Divinities covering different aspects of life, society and community were usually established, such as divinities of the sea or the waters, rain, thunder, fertility, health or sickness, planting or harvest, tribal, clan or family deities. African divinities took the forms of mountains, rivers, forests, the mother earth, the sun, the moon, the stars, and ancestors. The plurality of the divinities with their varying powers, influence, hierarchy, territoriality, even within one ethnic group or community, says a lot about the African religions, worship, beliefs and practices. This leaves an open door for religious accommodation, tolerance, assimilation and adaptation within the traditional religious thought. The traditional African understanding and the interpretation of Christianity have deep roots in these fundamental beliefs of the African traditional religions. This belief, just as in the case of the previous one, has a theological basis – the plurality of divinities.

With the introduction of Christianity or other religions, such as Islam, this belief with its worldview may have an added feature, the worship of one god without denying the existence of the divinities. There is a possibility that the Christian God who has been introduced by missionaries is the same God that Africans worshiped, but through divinities. The theological basis of this traditional belief allows it to take place without creating any serious theological crisis in the traditional religion. Plurality of divinities permits plurality of beliefs, practices, feelings and behavior in one religion. This belief also gives room for accommodation, adaptation and domestication of new divinities into the old religion. Other divinities and divergent views and practices can be tolerated without confusion. All these are possible because of the theological foundation of this belief in many divinities and also in the hierarchy of divinities.

  1. Belief in a Supreme Being (God)

What is the influence and impact of this dominant religious belief in one Supreme Being upon the whole of traditional African life?

The works of African scholars for the past three decades have established the fact that Africans have a concept of a universal God and the Creator (Idowu, 1962; Mbiti, 1975). Most Africans are in agreement that the traditional Africans were misinterpreted by missionaries that they did not actively worship this Supreme Being.

Idowu calls the Yoruba religion “diffused” monotheism. This means that the Yoruba had originally a “monotheistic” religion, but as the religion gradually developed over the centuries, the rising proliferation of the divinities as media monotheistic beliefs and practices of the religion reduced. Even with this definition of “diffused” monotheism in the Yoruba religion, coupled with similar notions scattered across the continent of Africa, the overwhelming facts do show that, religion in Africa has an awareness and belief in the Supreme Being.

In promotion of Christianity, missionaries tried to discourage the authority of the African divinities and the ancestors; but according to African traditional religion, the divinities have been actively involved in the everyday religious life of the traditional Africans. Through them, the supreme God received sacrifices, offerings and prayers offered by the traditional Africans. In most traditional African societies, the Supreme Being was actively involved in the everyday religious practices of the people, through divinities and the ancestors. In most parts of Africa, the Supreme Being is mentioned in prayers, songs and in important religious ceremonies.

The definition of the divinities or ancestors as “intermediaries” is very weak in the face of the Biblical definition of religions, divinities in general. Traditional Africans believe in a Supreme Being, who is “above the lesser” divinities and the hierarchy of beings. This belief has its profound theological influence upon the traditional Africans. The God who is above the lesser divinities, is highly and intimately involved or concerned with man’s world. God is highly glorified, mentioned and remembered.

How do we define the nature and the structure of the African traditional religious thought? The belief in the impersonal powers is expansive and pervasive. It is also equally true of the belief in the spirit beings. Though the third component, which is the belief in the divinities, is not as pervasive and expansive as the first two components. Not every ethnic group in traditional Africa has divinities. The fourth component, which is the belief in the Supreme Being, is widely held all over Africa, this belief generates high religious fervor and there is intimate relationship with the Supreme Being as with the first three entities. However, these four fundamental religious beliefs do not tell us much about the organization of the traditional religious system. How is the traditional religious system organized around these four components is an issue of interest.

The basic theological system, which was developed from these four fundamental beliefs, is summarized by Steyne: ” … the world is essentially spiritual and the material and the spiritual are totally integrated. Man needs power from outside himself to control his environment. Life’s purpose is to seek and maintain the balance and harmony that result in success, happiness and security. To do this man must deal with the spirit powers correctly. Thus by rites, rituals and liturgies, he must impress and manipulate spirit beings to produce success, happiness and security” (Steyne, 1990:39).

  1. Hierarchy of Spiritual Beings

The African traditional religious view conceives of all spiritual beings in their hierarchical order. The Supreme Being is the highest and the greatest. The lesser beings, such as divinities occupy a lesser position, but higher than the humans do. The authority, power, influence and legitimacy of spirit beings depend upon their position within the ontological order of beings. Spirit beings, by virtue of their positions and roles within the ontological order, (1) dispense and control the activities of spiritual and mystical powers and forces and (2) influence morality and ethics of the human societies.

Traditional Africans respond to these spirit beings according to their place of hierarchy, power, influence and role. Religious values, activities, practices, morality and ethics are accorded to each spirit being in proportion of his position of authority, power, influence, territoriality and legitimacy. Thus, in traditional religious view, spirit beings are graded. This has great consequences on the traditional conception of morality and ethics (Ikenga-Metuh, 1989:243-259).

This theological concept in traditional religions has a great influence upon how traditional Africans define the role and function of the Supreme Being, lesser beings, divinities and ancestors in an African community.