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African traditional religions Part 2 – The nature of God

Published:Thursday | September 1, 2016 | 12:00 AMPaul H. Williams

Last week, in a veiled comparison between African traditional religions and Christianity, which is the major religion in Jamaica, some of the key elements of African traditional religions were discussed using Kenya-born Professor John S. Mbiti, a well-known scholar and researcher of African religions, as the main reference. Today, the discussion continues with a look at the notion and nature of God in African traditional religions.

Before religions such as Christianity, Islam, and Judaism permeated African societies, African people had an awareness and acknowledgement of a god, a supreme being, greater than all things. "This is the most minimal and fundamental idea about God, found in all African societies," Mbiti writes in African Religions and Philosophy.

African ideas of the supreme being, called different names by different peoples, are influenced by their geography, history, social, and cultural backgrounds, and the physical environment, thus the huge variety of concepts. "This does not rule out the fact that through contact with the outside world, some influence of ideas and culture has reached our continent, but such influence is minimal. I maintain that African soil is rich enough to have germinated its own religious perception," Mbiti says.

Their knowledge of that supreme being is expressed in their proverbs, songs, poems, myths, chants, rituals, and ceremonies, and not in any one sacrosanct text that is used to spread the word. He is both transcendental (unreachable) and immanent (inherent) at the same time. He, the maker of all things, transcends everything, he is supreme, unreachable, beyond the scope of our understanding of who he is.




Yet, contact can be established with him. He can be reached through sacrifices, prayers, offerings, etc. "For most of their lives, African peoples place God in the transcendental plane, making it seem as if He is remote from their daily affairs. But they know that he is immanent, being manifested in natural objects and phenomena, and they can turn to him in acts of worship, at any place any anytime," Mbiti writes.

But what is the nature of that supreme being who is so near (immanent) and so far away (transcendental) from the realities of traditional African peoples? To them, he is omniscient (all-knowing) and omnipresent (everywhere). There is much honour and respect for him because he is wise, and since he is wiser than all, he is adored for his unlimited wisdom. He can see and hear everything, so there is no need to call upon him, and since he sees and hears everything, he is everywhere.

This all-knowing and omnipresent being is also omnipotent. He has control over everybody and everything. His omnipotence is demonstrated by his control over man and nature. The elements of nature are out of the control of man, but are controlled by this almighty supreme being.

He can let nature do whatever he wants it to. Mbiti explains, "So, in this context, power is viewed hierarchically in which God is at the top as the omnipotent; beneath Him are spirits and natural phenomena; and lower still are men who have comparatively little or no power at all."

Underlying the notion that the supreme being is at the same time transcendental and immanent is the belief that he is a spirit, invisible. And, as such, there is no one physical and iconic image of him. He is everywhere and everything. This great spirit, which is God, is "incomprehensible", "fathomless", inexplicable, and mystical, even. Mbiti says, "So God confronts men as the mysterious and incomprehensible, as indescribable and beyond human vocabulary. This is part of the essential nature of God."

He is also regarded as a pitiful and merciful comforter who will deliver people from calamities and misfortunes. He is essentially good, causing people to be prosperous and fertile, and everything is done according to his will, which controls the universe and the fortunes of mankind. Even misfortunes are regarded as governed by God's will, which is just. Yet, he strikes a balance. He is capable of anger, and some misfortunes are caused by his anger. And importantly, God is a holy supreme being, full of love and purity.