Foundational Religious Practices

We now turn from examining the foundations of religious beliefs to the foundations of religious practices. Religious beliefs do beget corresponding religious practices and religious behavior. The five inter-related and integrated religious beliefs examined in the previous sections have established the theological basis of the traditional religious system. These beliefs have in consequence influenced the development of the corresponding religious practices, which we are going to describe very briefly. The traditional religious system is informed and motivated by these religious beliefs and their corresponding practices, behavior and feelings.

The foundational religious practices in the traditional religions are: (1) the practices of establishing links, relationship and close ties with the cosmic mysterious, mystical and spirit powers and forces; (2) the practices involving various religious and social rites, rituals (sacrifices and offerings) and ceremonies; (3) the practices of establishing various spiritual and mystical communications with the spirit world and spirit beings and (4) the religious and social practices of relating to the various activities of the traditional African specialists.

Various religious practices are described covering a wide range of religious and social interests. Our primary goal for doing this is to enable us to identify and define the theological foundations of the traditional religious practices and behavior. This establishes the theological foundations for defining and interpreting traditional religious practices and religious behavior. Refer to Steyne (1992) and Gehman (1989).

  1. Establishing Links and Relationships with Cosmic, Spiritual and Mystical Powers

In his quest to establish links and relationships with spiritual and mystical powers and forces, man in traditional Africa has developed a variety of religious and social practices, rituals and ceremonies as means of achieving this quest. There are two types of religious and social practices that are used in traditional Africa in order to establish links and relationships with the spiritual and mystical powers and forces: (1) through the means “of exercising control” over the world of the mystical and spiritual powers and (2) through the means of restoring spiritual harmony/balance.

Why is it necessary for man in traditional Africa to seek to establish links and relationship with the mystical and spiritual powers and forces? In the first place, what do these spirit and mystical powers have to offer man in traditional Africa? What are those spiritual and mystical powers that man is searching for? What does he use these powers for? Secondly, what are the means of establishing these links and relationships? How are these means acquired? From whom and where can these means be acquired? Do they have rules and regulations? What happens if such are broken?

These probing questions are necessary in elucidating the deep and hidden theological foundations of religious and social practices involving spiritual and mystical powers and forces. The two means of linking and communicating with the spiritual powers and forces in traditional Africa are presented below.

  1. Means of Exercising Mystical and Spiritual Control

In his quest to exercise mystical and spiritual control over his world, man in traditional Africa has developed a variety of religious and social practices, rituals and ceremonies. The means of acquiring or having access to these powers and forces are many. Each is governed by its own set of rules and regulations. The means becomes very important because it sets its own rules and regulations, which must be followed faithfully. The means determines the religious behavior and what rites, rituals and ceremonies must be performed so that the desired end can be achieved. The means controls behavior, practice and even to some extent, feelings and expressions.

The powers that grant and distribute the needed commodities become all-powerful while those that receive them become devotees; Mystical and spiritual control can be exercised through the practices of: (1) incantations and power of prayer; (2) the prophetic means. According to African traditional religious foundations there are also negative powers that are controlled by the devil and practiced by bad people. They include (1) the power of symbolism; (2) the power of magic; (3) the power of charms; (4) the power of fetishes or “juju” (5) the power of witchcraft and sorcery.

The condemnation of the practices in the later section abounds in both traditional religions (some prohibitions and abominations) and the Holy Bible. Even though the Bible condemns them, the potency and powers usually manifested in this area are powerful. The Bible does not deny their existence, but rather condemns their practice, use and belief in them.

The theological issue here does not lie in the prohibitive act of its condemnation, but rests in two things: (1) the belief in the usefulness of such powers and also the belief in the means and practices of obtaining power and (2) the act of self-giving or the giving of oneself to the authorities or entities that lie behind these powers. A Biblical theology should address: (1) these powers and, if obtained, what will they be used for? (2) Which practices, behavior and feelings are involved as means of obtaining the desired powers? (3) Separation of what the source of these powers could be? God or the devil?

Whether these practices are sanctioned or prohibited in the traditional religions, they, however, have backing of Biblical standards. These powers are obtained, from God. Those that obtain their powers from the devil are even condemned in African traditional religion. It must be understood that divinities do not give such powers but divinities are messengers according to the Biblical standards. Divinities are never substitutes of God as many Christian teachings allege. In the Bible and Christian theology, only God can exercise power and control over his entire universe through his angels in cooperation with traditional divinities.

  1. Means of Restoring Spiritual Harmony

Man’s delicate dealings with the spirit powers and forces have certain rules and regulations. And these become manifest in certain religious practices. Man is aware that many things do go wrong and not all his expectations and needs are always met. And when things go wrong and expectations and needs are not met, there must be something wrong. Things can be corrected through reconciliation, restoration and the making of peace. Spiritual harmony can be restored through the practices of (1) Spiritual prayers and (2) Prophetic prayers

The spiritual beings are ever in charge of the spirit world. It is the humans who are required to do something so that harmony, peace and fellowship can be restored. What types of offences, or wrongs, violations and sins do humans commit against the spirit world or the spiritual order? If wrongs are admitted, what fears, feelings or guilt do they generate? Who gets hurt when the humans sin or go wrong? Why is maintaining harmony and order necessary for man? What specific religious practices, sacrifices and offerings are efficacious in acts of reconciliation and peacemaking between the humans and the spirit world?

Christianity has to address these theological issues and provide Biblical solutions to them. In the Bible and Christian theology, only God is the rightful means of restoring spiritual harmony over his entire universe. A Christian theology of reconciliation becomes relevant here.

  1. Practices Relating to Rituals and Ceremonies

Ritual practices are many, depending upon their functions. There are rituals that are communal with fixed annual seasons, hence ceremonial in nature. There are others that are private or do not have any fixed annual calendar, but are practiced as needs arise. Rituals and ceremonies play very dominant religious and social functions in African societies.

Traditional rites, rituals and ceremonies all have their foundational beliefs and theological basis. The purpose for such practices must be understood. The totality of what is involved in practice must also be understood. Rituals and ceremonies do have their accompanied practices, rules and regulations. These practices, rules and regulations become the means of linking traditional Africans with the spiritual powers and forces. A Christian theology should respect what religious practices, rules and regulations and what spiritual powers and forces are solicited.

Theological models of approaching and addressing the traditional religious practices, rituals, festivals and ceremonies have been well developed in the Old Testament (Pentateuch) and the New Testament (apostolic teachings).

  1. Practices Relating to Spiritual and Mystical Communication

There are various practices of spiritual and mystical communication with the spirit world, such as (1) dreams, (2) visions, (3) vision quests and (4) divination and ordeals (Steyne, 1990). The desire to communicate with the mystical and spirit powers has its basis in the traditional religious beliefs and religious practices.

Why is communication with the spirit world so important? With whom is this communication done, and why? What are the means of communicating with the spirit world? What is the content of this communication and what is it expected to achieve?

The Bible has so much to say in this area: (1) the means of communication must be examined in terms of its theology; (2) the content of communication must also be examined in terms of its theological import; (3) who is being communicated to? Both the act and the means of communication and their means of reception must be examined theologically. All communication in the traditional beliefs and practices are directed to God through the spirits and angels.

Theological models of approaching and addressing the practices relating to spiritual and mystical communication have been well developed in the Old Testament (Pentateuch) and the New Testament (apostolic teachings).

  1. Practices Relating to Traditional African Specialists

Traditional Africa has a host of specialists who are professionals in their various disciplines, such as (1) priests, (2) medicine men and women, (3) diviners, mediums, sorcerers, witches, wizards and midwives. Each profession has a set of beliefs, rules and regulations, practices and rituals. Each profession must be examined in terms of its theological foundations, practices, moral and ethical foundations. Some of these professionals and specialists use mystical and spirit powers, some ordinary human ingenuity and wisdom, while some are cheats or deceivers. How these powers are acquired and used must be examined theologically and separation must be properly done.

The theological models of approaching and addressing the practices relating to the traditional African specialists have been well developed in the Old Testament (Pentateuch) and the New Testament (apostolic teachings).