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African traditional religions – Part 3 – God and nature

Published:Saturday | September 10, 2016 | 9:00 AMPaul H. Williams

For millennia, African peoples have associated nature and natural phenomena with a supreme being (God) or divinities. Nature to them is God, and God is nature. That is the essence of their religious existence. And because of this notion, they have no one particular image of what God looks like. God is reflected in nature, and natural objects and phenomena are his manifestations.

And since nature is a manifestation of God, he is not seen as an entity with physical attributes. Yet, there are those who believe he has ears, and eyes, since in his omnipresence and omniscience he sees and hears everything. When bodily functions are attributed to him, it is done metaphorically, however. Some people believe he eats and drinks the things offered to him through sacrifices and offerings, that he smells the incense they burn in rituals, that he is walking when the earth quakes, etc.

Animals and plants, especially those that are eaten, are religiously linked to God. They are gifts from him to feed themselves. And to the creator of all things, they have shown gratitude through sacrifices. All over Africa, cattle, sheep, goats and chicken are used in sacrifices and other religious rituals. Some animals, especially cattle, are regarded as sacred.

"For example," John S. Mbiti writes, in African Religions and Philosophy, "The Herero regard all cattle as sacred, as having originated from their mythical 'tree of life', from where human and animal life comes. They eat then only when sacrificed in religious ceremonies."

 

DIFFERENT ASSOCIATIONS

 

Different peoples have different associations of animals and plants with God. For example, according to Mbiti, the Langi and Turu see the buffalo and lion as the manifestation of God. The snake shares God's immortality. The lizard is regarded as a messenger who brought news from God that men should die. The chameleon is the harbinger of immortality and resurrection. And, "among the Akan and the Ashanti, the spider symbolises 'wisdom'; and for that reason, God is given the title of Ananse Kokroko, which means 'the Great Spider, that is, the Wise One' ".

Yet, it is with the elements and natural phenomena that the association of God is strongest. God is the creator of Heaven and Earth, African people believe, and Mbiti says all African peoples associate God with Heaven and the sky in one way or the other. He lives and reigns from there; it is his main manifestation, so many people's name for God means sky or heaven. "Thus, God cannot be separated from heaven, and heaven cannot be separated from God; the object points to its creator, and thoughts about the creator point towards the heavens and the sky," Mbiti writes.

The sun, moon, and stars, too, have religious significance. For the Ila people, "the sun signifies God's eternity", and among many societies the sun is considered the manifestation of God himself, and the same word is used for both.

"At best, the sun symbolises aspects of God, such as his omniscience, his power, his everlasting endurance, and even his nature," Mbiti explains.There are similar associations of God with the rain, wind, lightning, and thunder. Some associate God with rain so closely that the same word is used for both. A few societies personify stars, comets and meteors as spirits. Some consider them to be God's children.

Because Africans see God and nature as one, they have created a relationship with nature they being at the centre of it, and God, the creator of nature, is father not only to them, but to other divinities and spiritual beings. He is the provider of all things, and so they reach out to him through prayers and supplications. "This sense of God's fatherhood is needed and experienced most in times of need, such as danger, despair, sickness, sorrow, drought or calamity," John S. Mbiti writes.

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