Let me start with a declaration from start: I am a Pentecostal Christian who has often been curious about the trajectory of both mainstream Christianity (be it evangelical or Pentecostal) and African Christianity, their religious formations and their critical intersection as a result of cultural expansion, colonialism and modernization.
By Tunji Olaopa
My growing up had the immense benefit of what Ali Mazrui calls Africa’s triple heritage of the intersection of the traditional, Christian and Islamic cultural and religious practices. And yet over a long period, Christianity in its Evangelical/Pentecostal incarnation has dominated the landscape beyond the reach of any proportionate merger involved in the triple heritage.
And so my curious sense always seeks to find answers for the numerous queries that assail my mind about the trajectories of Christianity and its universalist aspiration, as well as the traditional African spirituality as the basis of what African orient their lives by.
Part of my reflective wonderment was in part instigated by my reading of Chinua Achebe’s Arrow of God. Ezeulu, the chief priest of Ulu, sent his son, Oduche, to be his “eyes and ears” in the Whiteman’s culture and religion. Oduche eventually got fascinated by Christianity, and got drawn by its theology of God’s love and goodness. Oduche then faces a dilemma: loyalty to his tradition and culture, or resignation to his new found faith.
Like most born again Christians today, he eventually gets to the point of betraying his father and his culture. Christianity induces in him a sense of estrangement from his cultural heritage. Oduche abandons his culture and embraces Christianity, and everything about that culture suddenly becomes idolatrous and demonic. I do not see myself in Oduche’s shoes. I came to Christianity with my eyes fully open and my heart fully comprehending about its theological demands and imperatives.
And unlike him, my parents were devout Baptist but I hold an abiding interest in the functionality of my African heritage especially the philosophical fundamentals of its spirituality. While Oduche betrayed and abandoned his culture, I hold a fundamental respect for a culture within which I grew up and got my firm footing in the world. Rather than be in a dilemma, I have often wondered why African Christianity has failed to achieve a theological fit between being a Christian and being an African; why, that is, African spirituality has not totally been adapted by the Christian theology.
There is no doubt any longer in anyone’s mind that Christianity has enormously affected the demographic landscape of Africa. Indeed, most Africans now define their identities in terms of their religious affiliations, either as Christians or as Muslims. What is even more fascinating is the emergence of African Christianity as a regional dimension of Christian practices, with its own symbology, liturgical dynamics and theologies. African Christianity reaches very deep into its early connections with the Christian faith and its spread across the entire world. And in this sense, African Christianity laid its own foundation for fighting against the Eurocentric coloration of global Christianity.
The revolution that led to the establishment of the African Church in Nigeria, in 1901, was a significant reaction to the dehumanization of Africans. The church was therefore an attempt at recuperating African agency and humanity. And this is all the more so when Christianity ought to facilitate the brotherhood of all of humanity as the children of God.
Yet, the phenomenon of the indigenous African churches, beyond its quest for agency and the struggle for humanization, does not still satisfy my yearning for the understanding of my Christian faith in its relationship with other non-Christian religious forms. I am keenly aware that Pentecostalism especially is deeply contradicted in its internal evolution and contact with non-Judaic religions. Thus, for instance, I am curious as to why mainstream Christianity, even in its African form, attempts to demonize African cultures and spirituality.
A very controversial one which is not difficult to understand, but which has also not escaped my intellectual exploration even if only for reflection is one of why, for instance the effort of an organisation like the Reformed Ogboni Fraternity (ROF) to merge aspects of Christianity and Yoruba traditional cultures is still seen in terms of a bastardization? As far as I could glimpse from research, the ROF is an attempt to underscore Christianity’s principle of a universal brotherhood of all humans under God. It was established by Archdeacon T. A. J. Ogunniyi in December 1914. Initially called the Ogboni Fraternity of the Christians,” the ROF got its inspiration for the association from Biblical theology, translational dynamics, African spirituality and Yoruba religio-cultural framework. Ezekiel 23, verse 23 – “all of them desirable young men, captains and rulers, great lords and renowned”—is translated by the Yoruba Bible as “Awon Ogboni to ni okiki” (The Ogboni with renown). And this blends with the status of the old Ogboni cult in the traditional Yoruba society and their renown as wielders of the traditional constitutional and religious powers.
But the deployment of the old name for a society that is known to be a cult justifiably undermined the ROF’s credibility. The cult of the Ogboni is rooted deeply in an image of a mystical connection with metaphysical forces beyond the grasp of many. And hence, deploying that name by those who desired to ground it in Christianity becomes a huge disservice to their effort for a syncretistic template of Christianity and traditional Yoruba religion. Most religions in the world belief in the spiritual values that the ROF articulated as their core belief: honesty, sincerity, brotherliness, love, uprightness, truthfulness and beneficence. What was then the fascination with a syncretist approach rather than staying with either of the religion?
This question is fundamental for me. It stands at the core of my search for understanding in the relations among different religions of the world. In affirming my faith in God through Christianity, I am equally aware that I am totally ignorant in so many aspects of even the African spirituality. For instance, I am aware that there are so many aspects of that spirituality that are hidden to the general public or the uninitiated. And that limits the capacity of anyone who is not willing to be initiated to understand what is involved. A good example in this regard is the phenomenon of witchcraft in Africa. Hunting for witches has become one of the most significant modern pastimes of Christian practice in African today. Some few weeks ago, a nonagenarian woman was burnt to death in Ghana for supposedly being a witch. And in Nigeria, little children are routinely subjected to all manners of terrible acts all in the name of witch-hunting. Witchcraft therefore becomes something that titillates one’s curiosity. But how does anyone understand the spirituality of witchcraft without being a witch? And how does Christianity come to term with a practice which is rooted in secrecy, and negative connotations?
My attempt to understand African Christianity has often been moderated by the significance of modernization in the understanding of the Abrahamic religion. I have often been fascinated by the journey of Abraham from Ur of the Chaldees to Canaan, and the manifestation of God to him that transformed his spiritual awareness, as well as laying the foundation for Judaism and Christianity. What is the relationship between the pre-Abrahamic Jewish religious formation and African spirituality? Why did God ask Abraham to leave Ur? What was the religious inclination of the land that Abraham left? We can draw specific deductions. Maybe God needed Abraham for a specific assignment that his relationship with his land and its people may not allow. This will be a straightforward theological explanation. But why could Abraham not carry out God’s assignment in his native land? Maybe the land of Ur was in a pre-God or animist state that could not withstand Abraham’s assignment? There are many theological questions that will dazzle the wondering mind.
Traditional African religious template has often been regarded as animistic. For most Christian, animism would be seen as a pejorative description of a people’s religion. Animism, from the Latin “anima” (spirit or breath), is the belief that animate and inanimate things and objects have a unique spiritual essence that animates them all. Such a belief is often ascribed to many indigenous cultures, and in this sense, animism is taken to be prior to Christianity or Islam. One can then immediately see how, like Abraham’s relationship to Ur, Christians would want to perceive traditional African spirituality as animistic. However, animism has received a recent revival in African studies, with scholars of religion, literature, history and cultural studies rethinking what an animist culture means and how that description best fit African religions and cultures. Indeed, the argument is that, contrary to the positivist and scientific understanding of the world, we are all animistic in our dealing with the universe.
We therefore begin to see clearly why African Christianity or African Pentecostalism remains in a tensed relationship with non-Christian faiths everywhere. There are so many things that we think we know about the universe, about others and about their religions. And yet, there are equally so many things we do not yet know. While my faith as a Christian impels me to conceive of the universe, the world and its people in relation to the love of God, my intellectual restlessness compels me to keep up a quest into how non-Christian cultures and traditions understand God, how such cultures react to modernization and how both Christian and non-Christian cultures relate in a world bedeviled with enormous evil that requires that we love one another and treat others as we want to be treated.
- Olaopa is a Retired Federal Permanent Secretary Directing Staff, National Institute For Policy and Strategic Studies (NIPSS), Kuru, Jos