Theologian sees links between Christianity and African traditional religion

May 24, 2012


When a missionary asked Africans in Zanzibar to tell him something about their God, they simply said, “God thunders!” The cleric had travelled across the seas in the 19th century to tell “the heathens without religion” or “people with a primitive religion” about God.

The missionaries succeeded in spreading Christianity in Africa at a time when tribal religions were ignored or denigrated. However, a new version of the book Concepts of God in Africa (which relates the scene described above) says Christianity was actually helped by some aspects of traditional religion. 

Scholar and theologian John Samuel Mbiti details how African peoples imagine and relate to God in all aspect of their lives. “African culture is built and relayed largely on oral (and symbolic) tradition. My book ... is a minute scoop from that tradition,” Mbiti told ENInews, adding that it is a window into the richness of the African understanding of God.

He observed that African religion has many common features with the Christian and Jewish traditions, which contributed to the rapid expansion of Christianity. One feature is that Bible translations used African words for God, according to Mbiti.

Bibles in Africa arrived in English or French and scholars and theologians translated them into local Africa dialects, using local words for God. An example given in the book is that among the Yoruba tribe of Nigeria, the word for God is Olodumare, or the Almighty. In a Bible translation, Olodumare will be used.

“This inevitably promotes the encounter between the two religious traditions in which African religion says ‘yes’ to biblical tradition and readily accommodates it [and] biblical tradition also says ‘yes’ to similar elements of African religion,” says Mbiti in the book’s preface.

This is the second edition of the book, which was released by Acton Publishers of Nairobi. The first edition was published in London in1970 by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK), but went out of print. London-based SPCK is the oldest Anglican mission organization and has been in publishing since 1698.

The latest edition covers 550 African peoples and languages, compared with 300 in the first edition. It records 1,600 names of God, including world’s youngest nation, South Sudan where the term animist is often used to refer to the people’s religion, but where is a traditional name for God. The edition also has new information, more names for God in African languages, and an updated bibliography, a revised index and expanded appendices.

According to Jesse Mugambi, a Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies at the University of Nairobi the book reconfirms that the African cultural and religious heritage is founded on God, a concept that was not thought to exist in traditional religions.

“This book calls for a thorough re-evaluation of the African cultural and religious heritage, giving it the appreciation it deserves,” said Mugambi, who wrote the book’s forward.

“Numerically, Christianity is growing rapidly in Africa and Asia. In the context of world views which are unfamiliar to western Christendom, I think this book is timely. It is an important contribution to African Renaissance,” he said.

Seeing encounters between Christianity and African traditional religions as valuable, rather than hostile, is a complicated process, but Mbiti in the book says it is taking place. Both faith traditions have established a deep rapport around their fundamental element ― God, he writes.

  1. It is interesting to me that the truths of native religion finds aff1nity with Christianity was written about in a first edition in 1970. This a similar date for what we have been experiencing in the Native American experience. Beginning in the early 70's we experienced Indian youth harkening back to native expressions of tribal religion, even as White youth were seeking solutions in eastern religions. The older Indian Christians, an oral people, used their language to describe Almighty God. Missionaries, unless willing to learn the language, continued to persuade by sermons. The Church instituted schools, not to learn the language,but to foster assimilation. In Native ministries today we are having to deal with this legacy. We are necessarily looking at the traditional tribal values and virtues that was overlooked by the early missionaries. Until 1881 native ministries was lodged in Foreign missions. It might be in their interest to have many convrsations with aborigianl peoples around the world who have respect for the creation and the Creator.

    by Cecil Corbett

    May 25, 2012

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