Philosophical Foundations in Traditional religious view

We have identified four basic philosophical foundations in a traditional religious view. These four categories were outlined by Steyne in his study of animism (1990). These categories are classified as:

  • Holism/organism which is governed by the Law of Harmony;
  • Spiritualism which is governed by the Law of the Spirit;
  • Dynamism/power-consciousness which is governed by the Law of Power;
  • Communalism which is governed by the Law of Kinship.

The four foundational religious beliefs discussed in the previous sections with the above four categories in the philosophical foundations, do have a combined effect in producing “a powerful and pervasive” religious and cultural worldview which dominates and influences the traditional African thought. The philosophical foundations complement the theological foundations of the previous section. From the philosophical foundations we can also develop the traditional “moral laws” within the traditional worldview.

  1. Holism/Organism: the Law of Harmony

This is a holistic or an organic view of the world, which is governed by the law of harmony. The law of harmony simply means “a state of agreement or peacefulness”. The traditional African seeks to live in harmony and to balance his life in a harmonious and peaceful existence with his entire world and especially with the spirit world.

The terms organic or holistic are similar. An organic view sees the whole world as “a complex structure of inter-dependent and subordinate elements whose relations and properties are largely determined by their function in the whole”. A holistic view sees “the organic or functional relation between parts and wholes” that constitute the whole world (Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, 1977). Steyne uses the term holism as “a philosophical term for the view that life is more than the sum of its parts”. He defines the concept in the following way:

“The world interacts with itself. The sky, the spirits, the earth, the physical world, the living and the deceased all act, interact and react in consort. One works on the other and one part can’t exist nor be explained without the other. The universe, the spirit world and man are all part of the same fabric. Each needs the other to activate it” (Steyne, 1990:58);

How does man see himself and relate to his world with this organic or holistic view of life? From this conception, man stands face to face with the “physical”, the “material” and the “spiritual” dimensions of his world. He interacts with them and they in turn interact with him. Steyne observes that man (1) “feels at one with his world and his world mystically reciprocates” and (2) he does not differentiate or draws “distinctions between the physical, material or the spiritual”; “between the sacred and the profane”; between “the secular and the religious”; between “his profession and his community responsibilities”; “they are all knit together in a whole” (Steyne, 1990:59).

We can understand how Western dualism creates serious theological problems for the traditional Africans who have an organic or holistic view of life. Christian theology should use this traditional African worldview to develop a relevant and effective theology for Africans. The pantheistic elements imbedded in this African holism would have to be addressed and evaluated Biblically.

The concept of nature is related to that of the impersonal or the mysterious powers as well as to the spirit beings. Nature is defined as “this visible material world or universe, comprising both living and non-living things, visible and invisible powers, plants and animals, the inanimate and the natural phenomena, like lightning and thunder, all centered around man. The spirit world is all the same tacitly understood as inclusive in nature” (Oji, 1988:15); Nature is created by the Creator. Nature, man and the spirit world constitute one fluid coherent unit, hence, the conception of the traditional African worldview as a unity. It is not a confused world of non-integrated parts. Life, in general, is holistic and remains mysterious.

Christianity has to address the African holistic/organic view of the world, which is governed by the law of harmony. Here, Christianity faces, not a specific religious belief, but a philosophical worldview that is expansive and covers the totality of life, both in the human world and in the spirit world. Christianity faces the all embracing worldview that puts everything into one basket: (1) the mystical and mysterious powers and forces; (2) the spirits, divinities and (3) the Supreme Being. And all of these categories of the spirit beings demand man’s attention. Man, on account of this has developed all kinds of religious practices, rituals and ceremonies as means of serving and meeting man’s needs. Furthermore, he employs all kinds of means to communicate with each one of these spirit beings, where and if possible. He employs the services of many specialists and religious practices that can effectively link him up with the spirit world.

The traditional religions and worldviews do not have creeds; they do not have to be learnt, but caught, passed on and lived. This is a pervasive religious worldview with a dominant and powerful influence on man in traditional Africa. Christianity has to address this traditional religious holism/organism. These aspects are felt very strongly in the traditional conception of the mystical, mysterious and spirit powers and forces, which must be lived with in harmony/balance.

The philosophical law of harmony deals with the theological questions of reconciliation, restoration, reverence, awe, sense of wonder, the accompanied sacrifices and offerings, ceremonies, rituals and worship. Moral and ethical questions are also raised in the area of a relationship between the humans and spirit beings. How do humans and spirit beings relate to each other and under what moral laws?

With whom and what should man seek to live in harmony, in peace, in fellowship and communion? The theology of redemption and reconciliation in the work of Christ on the cross becomes more meaningful as it addresses the questions of cosmic harmony.

  1. Spiritualism: The Law of the Spirit

This is a spiritual view of the world governed by the law of the spirit. This law reflects the preponderance and the dominance of the spiritual reality in the traditional African beliefs and worldviews. The whole of creation is replete with the dominant and pervasive presence of the impersonal powers and forces, spirit beings and many divinities. Thus, “this world in essence is spiritual rather than material” and “life is saturated with supernatural possibilities”. Steyne describes this view further by saying: “Everything in life can be influenced by and responds to the world of spirits. Whatever happens in the physical realm has a spiritual co-ordinate and, likewise, whatever transpires in the spiritual realm has direct bearing on the physical world. Man is related to and dependent upon the unseen. For this reason all of life is to be understood spiritually. The correct response to any situation is spiritual, whether the matter is a family affair, sickness, or ceremonial practice” (Steyne, 1990:59).

This religious worldview is called spiritualism and it is pervasive and dominates the entire life of man. The reason for this spiritual pervasiveness and dominance is stated thus: “The whole universe is interconnected through the will and the power contained in both animate and inanimate objects. Everything man is, does, handles, projects and interacts with is interpenetrated with the spiritual. His socio-cultural structures, down to their finest details, are under the control of the spiritual powers or forces. Nothing in man’s environment escapes the influence or the manipulation of the spirit world. The world is more spiritual than it is physical and it is spiritually upheld. If life is affected by spirits, then it is of utmost importance to maintain good relations with the spirits and secure their favor” (Steyne, 1990:37);

Steyne used various concepts and terms to describe the traditional religious worldview. In traditional religious worldview, the “question of meaning” in life is dominated by the spiritual emphasis. “Life’s questions and answers revolve around the spiritual rather than the physical”. It is on account of this spiritual view of life, that “when personal resources fail, religious specialists will divine and supply satisfactory meanings”. Traditional Africans both recognize and understand this quest for meaning in the everyday happenings of life and would want to find out what lies behind every incident in life, such as “catastrophes, natural disasters, disease, untimely death and the other exigencies of life”. One must look “beyond the obvious” in order to find the spiritual “reasons” or causes in life. Because “the unseen is present in all phenomena”.

Given this spiritual view of the world, Christianity has to address the intrinsic meaning of African spiritualism and the dominance of the law of the spirit in the traditional African life. The penetrating power of the law of the spirit gives the traditional worldview a pantheistic conception of the source and the effect of the mystical and spirit powers and forces, while the presence of a myriad spirits and divinities, result in a polytheistic conception. Certain moral laws govern the inter-relationship and integration of spirit beings and humans in traditional spirit world. Religious practices, ceremonies and rituals function within these moral.

  1. Dynamism/Power-Consciousness: the Law of Power

This is a dynamic/power-conscious view of the world governed by the law of power. The dominance of the impersonal, the unseen and the unpredictable spirit powers and forces in the world, make man to search and look for power which can help secure him in this dangerous world, where fate, evil, contingency, mortality and death abound. Steyne describe this power-consciousness in the following words:

“Life’s essential quest is to secure power and use it. Not to have power or access to it produces great anxiety in the face of spirit caprice and the rigors of life. A life without power is not worth living … Power offers man control of his uncertain world. The search for and acquisition of power supersedes any commitment to ethics or morality. Whatever is empowering is right” (Steyne, 1990:60);

What is this power? Where does it reside? Where can it be obtained? By what means? How can it be used? Upon whom? Where? For what purpose? Many terms are used variously to describe this power, such as life force, vital force, life essence and dynamism. Power can be obtained by “ritual manipulation … in the form of sacrifices, offerings, taboos, charms, fetishes, ceremonies, even witchcraft and sorcery” (Steyne, 1990:60). There are also other means for obtaining this power:

“The power may also be secured by the laying on of hands or by encountering a spirit being, either directly or through ritual means or through prayer. The power may be transmitted through contact with persons of superior religious status or by using clothing or something previously associated with such a person. How it is secured is a secondary concern. It must be acquired whatever the cost” (Steyne, 1990:60).

Another dimension worth paying attention to is how power can be handled. It is “transferable to anything and anyone”. “It permeates everything, though unequally.” The primary objective of this power is for it “to serve man’s purposes”. Steyne makes a very profound statement, which Christians must take very seriously in their dealings with traditional Africans: “Since man’s needs cannot be met without it (power), a powerless religion is valueless.” How does this pursuit of power affect (1) morality and ethics and (2) the relationship between the humans and the spirit beings and forces?

This all-consuming concept of power is very valuable in our understanding of how traditional Africans assess the potency or the efficacy of a new religion or ritual practice, Christianity inclusive. How does Christianity address this power-conscious view of the world and its pursuit in the life of traditional Africans? Christianity must develop a theology of power so as to address the traditional theological conception of power and also how this law of power operates in traditional Africa.

  1. Communalism: The Law of Kinship

This is a communal view of man and the world governed by the law of kinship. The African communal concept is close to that of the organic/holistic view of the world which has been treated above. Man is a community. The world is a community. The community is man in relationships: to the human world; to the world of nature and to the spirit world. Community is defined in terms of “how man in relationships relates to the world around him”.

Man is not an individual that is, living in a state of independence, but he is communal, that is, living in a state of relationships and interdependence. This communal conception of man defines how: (1) he becomes a member of community/society; (2) he relates to other human beings in community; (3) he relates to the spirit world and (4) he relates to nature and the world. Man lives not only in terms of this communal relationship, but also in terms of his communal attitude towards them all. It is not human beings alone that are in community, but they are also in solidarity with the world of nature and of the spirits as well as the ancestors. Man as an individual does not live in terms of himself, but in terms of the human community and nature. Man is not independent, but dependent. Man does not claim personal rights and freedom, but fulfils communal obligations and duties. Van der Walt, in his two books mentioned earlier (1994 and 1997) has given us a satisfactory definition of African communalism. African communalism “stresses the human community“. Van der Walt listed the characteristics of African communalism as: “communal self respect”; “interdependence”; “survival of the community”; “group assurance”; “co-operation and harmony”; “affiliation” and “shared duties”. He lists about 40 characteristics of African communalism in contrast with Western individualism (Van der Walt, 1997:29-44). These characteristics are what Steyne calls the “practice of community” and also “man understands community holistically”.

But what is the basis of man’s communalism in Africa? What is the basis of man’s living in relationships to the world around him? The African concept of community or communalism is derived from kinship. Kinship in this context refers to family relationships rooted in a progenitor or an ancestor. The relationship is defined in terms of the physical and blood linkage to the progenitor or the ancestor. The community takes its roots or beginnings from this human origin (physical and blood source) and a network of relationships are built around this ancestral nucleus.

The unifying factor and the stronger bond of relationship of a given people is created by the fact of a blood-relationship. Having a common progenitor(s)/ancestor(s) or origin strengthens kinship/blood ties. This is what defines affinity, loyalty and obligations to a “blood-community” by all members. Social behavior, attitudes and practices are derived from this closed-knit kinship or blood relationship. The integration of tribal groups into modern African states did not eradicate kinship but incorporated it.Kinship as

A. Foundation of a Community

As it has been stated earlier, kinship system forms the basic social unit and general social organization and the community revolves around it. It regulates and orders the life of a community/society on a kinship basis. The most powerful principle of social organization is the concept of “brotherhood” derived from “blood-relationship”, which are characterized by kinship affinity, loyalties and obligations of relatives. This regulates social behavior and attitudes and orders social interaction in society among relatives and persons. Religious and social norms and codes of behavior, attitudes and practices guide social interactions of kinsfolk and also how kinsfolk are to relate to outsiders and strangers.

B. Man in Community

There are two views of man in community: (1) man’s understanding of his place, position and status in community which helps to integrate and conform him to the community and (2) man’s understanding of his actions, activities and behavior which helps to integrate and conform him to the community.

Starting with the first view, Steyne (1990:61, 62) listed the following concepts of man in community:

  • Man “relates not only to people, but to almost everything else”;
  • Man “does not see himself as an individual but believes that his real life is in community with his fellows”;
  • Man “believes he is incomplete and inadequate without” his fellows;
  • Man “needs the support of the community and only feels normal when he is in relationship with it”;
  • Man fears “a broken relationship between persons of the same group” and this can “be termed sin”;
  • Man “is integrally related to his community” and he becomes “a full member of society” by undergoing several “rites of passage” in his lifetime;
  • “without ancestors and their influence in life, man loses both his focus and reason for being” and “life without ancestral focus is empty and meaningless”;
  • “the belief in reincarnation provides communities with a link to the past through its ancestors and a link with the future through the unborn”;
  • The community “sets parameters of the normative in life”, because “community is designed for harmony” and for this reason, everything must be done to maintain this harmony;
  • “idiosyncrasies, withdrawal or undue publicity are feared” and man “as a member of society conforms emotionally and intellectually to societal customs or pressures” and “he accepts these with little or no objection”;
  • “diversity or non-conformity is costly to the community and may signal the activity of evil spirits” and “there is overt and covert pressure to conform to community norms”.

With the second view, Van der Walt (1997:31-34) lists about 40 African characteristics of “man in community”. We cannot mention all of them but select only a few:

  • A high regard for the group elevating it above the individual;
  • Like people (socially centered);
  • Inclusive attitude;
  • Security;
  • Dependence on people;
  • Intense, strong personal relationships;
  • Strong group pressure;
  • Individual initiative is not appreciated or encouraged – good human relations are a priority;
  • Co-operation;
  • Great degree of uniformity;
  • Duties towards the community are emphasized;
  • The law has to restore social harmony – restitution is important;
  • Dialogue: decisions have to be taken with the approval of the group and everybody has the opportunity to air views;
  • Modesty, compliance, pliability, willingness to compromise – character traits which lead to peaceful co-existence with one’s fellow man;
  • Marriage is compulsory for all, needs the consent of the community and is intended in the first place to engender children;
  • Strong bonds with the extended family (many brothers, sisters, fathers and mothers).

This, however, does not exhaust all that has to be said about man in community. More will be said about man in his relationship to nature, the world of the spirit and the human world.

C.  Man as Integral and Conformable in Relationships

The community acts on man to integrate him, while man acts to conform himself to the community. Both activities are normative in nature as explained by both Steyne and Van der Walt in the previous section. The integration and the conformity of man are not only to the world of the humans, but also to the world of nature and the spirit world. This is what theological and philosophical foundations help him to achieve, as examined in the two previous sections.

“Becoming a member of a community” is the most basic social principle of understanding man in relationships to others. It is in the process of becoming a member of a community that man becomes a person or an adult. This process of becoming either (1) a member of a community, or (2) becoming a person/adult is usually done through “rite and ritual”. Steyne states that “man’s comings and goings are tied in with the spirit world. Birth, life and death are not accidental events. Man is psychologically akin to spirits and life must be understood spiritually” (Steyne, 1990:64).

Man is not only intimately related to (1) the spirit world, but also to (2) the community of the ancestors, who now live in the past, as well as to (3) the unborn. The life of the community of the living is controlled, maintained and protected by the community of the ancestors. The human community, therefore, is a community of relationships between (1) the ancestors, the “living-dead”, (2) the living and (3) the unborn descendants. The communal life in this kinship system is “ancestrally chartered”. Steyne observes that outside of this ancestral kinship “there lies no possibility of life” and “personhood is meaningless apart from” these ancestral kinship and relationships (Steyne, 1990:64, 65).

“Man is only man in relationship, as he participates in family and community life”. One of the most important kinship relationships of man is marriage.

“Marriage is more than a physical relationship. It has eternal consequences. Not to marry is to cease living now and in the hereafter. Marriage establishes essentials in life and in death. Begetting children guarantees eternal life. Not only do children provide for the reincarnation of the ancestors, they also sustain the ancestors through prescribed rituals such as sacrifices and offerings” (Steyne, 1990:66).

Man lives also in relationship to the spirit world, which explains his “everyday experience”. This intimate relationship to the spirit world “is reflected in his every system of thought and action”. Steyne describes both man’s relationship to the spirit world and to the kinship community in these words:

“His behavior is ordered by the spirit world. If the spirits will it, the circumstances will be good. But malevolent forces may also exercise control. Generally, man seeks to harmonize with his world. In order to do this, every behavior pattern is conceived of in terms of kinship relations. He must maintain specific patterns of conduct, fulfill expected social roles and conform to societal values. Any disregard of these has spiritual ramifications. Every effort must be made to avoid giving offence to the spirit world. Kinship provides ideological identity and also security. Within the kinship community there is a moral obligation and each individual is expected to conform to custom. To break relationships or disregard custom is to sin” (Steyne, 1990: 66, 67).

Man’s morality, ethics and accountability are to be understood in terms of his relationships to (1) the spirit world and (2) the kinship community. Within this network of relationships, man is not held “individually responsible for his actions”. “Because he believes himself to be the extension of the spirit world, the corporate family and the tribe, these must all share responsibility and blame for what he is and does. He is acted upon by powers he believes are beyond his control” (Steyne, 1990:67);

Man’s claim for not being “held responsible for his actions”, is based upon the belief which states that “man is the product of what the family, the clan, the tribe and the spirits have made him”. This traditional belief has very serious moral and ethical consequences for morality and ethics in Africa.

Besides his relationship to the spirit world, his kinship relationship with the ancestors and fellow humans, man is also related to nature. John V. Taylor is quoted as saying: “No distinction can be made between sacred and secular, between natural and supernatural, for Nature, Man and the Unseen are inseparably involved in one another in a total community” (Steyne, 1990:68).

The spirit and mystical powers and forces “which can be used for either good or bad” inhabit the world of nature. In his relationship to the natural world, man seeks to understand the spiritual and the mysterious powers that lie behind natural phenomena. For this reason “animals, plants, rivers, rocks, mountains and heavenly bodies may all carry messages” which he has to decipher.

Man relates to nature by totemism: “In totemism certain taboos apply to the totem animal(s) and/or plant(s). Totem objects are not to be killed, spoken of by name, eaten or even looked at in some cases. They elicit feelings of brotherliness. They are believed to have souls of similar nature to man’s. They may be emblematic of abstract and emotional attitudes claimed by a group of people” (Steyne, 1990:70);

The belief in totemism sets apart some animals or plants for certain kinship affinity, religious or medicinal purposes. The potency, value and efficacy of each are determined by its nature, which can be rated or qualified among others. Animals and birds for sacrifices, objects for offering and the ritual or the ceremonial sites or groves are also carefully selected depending upon their religious value and efficacy. Nature provides man with a vast array of contact points with the world of the spirit.

The task for Christianity is to define the African within the context of this communal network of relationships which is governed by the law of kinship, the law of harmony, the law of power and the law of the spirit.

D. Spirit Beings

Generally, theologians and scholars have classified the African world of the spirits into four broad categories of beliefs:

  • Belief in the Supreme Being (God);
  • Belief in the lesser divinities/messengers;
  • Belief in the ordinary spirits;
  • Belief in the ancestors.

It is important to state here that the belief in the spirits, that is, all the four categories mentioned above, dominates pervasively the African continent and its traditional religions and worldview. The philosophical foundations as earlier stated do have a profound influence on the religious beliefs, practices and behavior. As we have observed, the traditional African Christian need to clearly distinguish “between the spiritual and the physical modes of existence”. This very conception in the traditional worldview is very important to our understanding of the African traditional beliefs and teachings about the spirit world, especially the unity between the spiritual and the natural. This social fact is very important to our understanding and interpretation of the traditional religions and cultures.

This study has revealed to us the nature and the heart of the traditional religions, especially its religious beliefs and practices. The theological foundations of the belief in these divinities and spirits have been made evident. From this background, a theology of Christian spirituality is required as means of addressing adequately the roots of this traditional religious belief in the spirit beings. The influence and impact of this traditional belief upon the religious practices and behavior of traditional Africans must be carefully understood and addressed by a Christian theology. A Christian theology must address the significance of the spiritual beings, powers and forces that lie behind the traditional religions (Eph. 6).