African Traditional Religion and its Global Contributions

Sunday B. Agang (PhD candidate in Theology and Public Policies within the Confines of Christian Ethics/Systematic Theology).

Address: Fuller Box #76

Center for Advanced Theological Studies (CATS), School of Theology

Fuller Theological Seminary

Course Title: Global Dictionary of Theology

InterVarsity Press

June 2006



“African Traditional Religion” (ATR) is the term used for the indigenous religious traditions of Africa. While ATR has been often seen in negative terms, especially by early missionaries, later studies have demonstrated that ATR is not really what these outside observers earlier on assumed. However, while this change is a welcomed development, we must seek to study more the impact of ATR on the African peoples Christianity and its effect on the larger global community. In view of this above background, the primary aim of this article is to argue that ATR is not just limited to ritual sacrifices but a way of life of the African peoples. This is no where clearer than in the phenomenal growth of the Church in Africa and indeed elsewhere. Therefore in this article I shall attempt to show that ATR contributes to the phenomenal growth of the Church in the global south. But I must ask what kind of contribution does this way of life make? How does it become the source of authority for the African people? Why is Christianity in Africa sometimes described as “skin deep?” These and many other questions form the larger background of the argument in this article. It takes the following approach: A brief review of the classic, a brief review of contemporary efforts and finally my reflection on what I see as the link between ATR and the global Christian community, using the Cones’ trajectory of Black Theology.

A Brief Review of the Classic

ATR is not a single religion as some people generally think. Since it is a way of life for the diverse ethnic and cultural groups of a vast continent one must also expect diversity in beliefs and practices. Generally speaking ATR is the religions of pre-Christian and Islamic Africa. It is ingrained in the diverse cultures.

ATR is the foundation stone upon which all African morality and ethics are built. Since African people are known to be notoriously religious there is no separation between church and state as it is known in the West. ATR is intrinsically tied to African people’s beliefs, culture, and practices. Thus it has both “inner and outer” realities.

The father of African theology, John Mbiti, has argued that Africa has become a fertile ground for Christianity because Christianity and ATR focus on the things to come. He writes, “The Christian faith is intensely eschatological, and whenever the Church expands she brings and displays her eschatological presence (kerygma, repentance, conversion, sacraments, salvation, mission and the like).” Likewise “Akamba religious ideas and practices are directed primarily to ‘eschatological’ aspects of life—concerning death, the departed (the living-dead), the spirits and the hereafter (Mbiti, 1971:17 and cf. 1967).  This seems to reduce ATR to otherworldliness. But I believe that ATR is not reducible to otherworldliness but also to this worldliness. When outsiders think about ATR they think of it in terms of abstract rituals. But this is a wrong perception because in much of Africa life is all-encompassing and all-embracing. Africans worldview is not dichotomized like the Greek philosophical worldview. In Africa the spirits unite heaven and earth. This is why perhaps the belief in ancestors is incorporated into the belief system of African peoples.

A Brief Review of Contemporary Efforts

The study of ATR is crucial today because of the paradigm shift of the center of Christian gravity. If Philip Jenkins assessment is right, Africa is one of the areas where we expect to see the next Christendom (Jenkins, 2002). Thus this assessment needs to push African theologians to do more careful analysis of the situational development of ATR so that we will be able to predict the sort of Christianity that Africa will give the world. Africa holds hope for the world if ATR is carefully analyzed and developed.

In his acute analysis of ATR beliefs and practices, Yusufu Turaki points out that ATR sees human beings as the pivotal point of God’s creation. Thus “the religious beliefs and the practices and the rituals and ceremonies, are all done to man’s ‘self-advantage.’ His dealings with the spirit world, is ‘not for their sakes, but for his own’” (Turaki, 1999:129) This provides a clue to the kind of ethics and theology that is obtainable in this sort of environment. If humans are the center of everything that means that the issue of sin, guilt and shame are inherent in the ethical schema of ATR; i.e., as Steyne notes, “Man is the measure of all and everything else, including sin, submits to his judgment. He will decide how a deviant act should be evaluated and who should be blamed for it.”[1] A pure ATR is not possible today because of our interaction with the West and other parts of the world; e.g., the Middle East (Steyne 1990:63). There are some similarities between ATR and Judaism. In trying to explore the fundamental issues and ideas in ATR that have being shaping African morality and theology we must seek ask, what issues and ideas are important for our discussion? The answer is: the issue of religion, community, morality and ethics. As Professor Samuel Waje Kunhiyop notes, “Morality in Africa is mainly social ethics rather than personal ethics” (Kunhiyop, 2004:4). That is to say African ethics is regulated by the community. “Communal morality regulates and controls the individual’s behavior or conduct” (Kunhiyop, 2004:4). For instance society can pressurize someone to get marry even when he or she does not have the desire to get marry. He or she does it in order to avoid embarrassment from his/her kin.  Kunhiyop noted that although ATR has no written document, African moral vision has been preserved over the years in: a). oral tradition: As far as we know, other major religions, particularly, Judaism and Islam, started this way. That is, they started by oral traditional passed down from one generation to another. No written document. The argument here is whether or not oral tradition can actually give us a valid religious morality. The fact that ATR was birthed and preserved by oral tradition does not mean that ATR is discredited as a religion. But how can these traditions be interpreted today? Professor Bolaji Idowu gives three ways and Kunhiyop added a forth (Idowu, 1975:83-84). I will also add a fifth, which is “Do not read your Christian’s lenses into it.” But is it even right to say that there is no written document? Yes/No. According to Kunhiyop, what has been passed on from generation to generation automatically becomes “the Scripture of the people” (Kunhiyop, 2004:6). Kunhiyop correctly argues that “Tradition tells people about what God requires” (Kunhiyop, 2004:7). Under this rube of traditional religion, “the elders are the custodians of the rules and regulations that guide the whole community” (Kunhiyop, 2004:7). These rules and regulations were not too cumbersome. b). songs: music is a way of life in African traditional society. Africans express and encounter their experience with realities, both spiritual and physical realities, through music. Thus, as Kunhiyop noted, “the meaning of certain aspects of life” are expressed in songs or music” (Kunhiyop, 2004:9). E.g., in music the youths are warned of the danger of not getting married. The music warns people of what to do or what not to do. In this sense one can safely argue that ATR is intrinsically linked to morality. In short, if you take away religion African morality is emptied of its control. One of the ways in which this is true is in song/music. c) Proverbs/sayings: African sayings and proverbs are the lived experiences of the people. They are concise sayings that speak deeply to the core of the peoples’ consciousness and religious life. They carry weight than it is usually estimated. All African peoples have proverbs that disclose their reliance, beliefs and values. “The cooking pot for the chameleon is the cooking pot for the lizard.” That is to say, “whatever is good for the goose is good for the ganders” (Kunhiyop, 2004:10). What then is the link between this deep rooted way of life with the Christian influence on the continent of Africa and elsewhere?

The Link between ATR and the Global Christian Community: using the Cones’ Trajectory of Black Theology

Since the birth of the Messiah, Jesus Christ, African Traditional Religion (hereafter ATR) ceased to have monopoly over its own context. It is no longer a religion in isolation of other contexts. Jesus’ message through the apostle John sets the agenda that determines the fate of all world religions: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32). The phrase, “all people to myself,” is instructive. It gives a reason for discussing not only ATR but actually all religions in the world. It concerns the message of a global God who calls people into relationship with Himself and with one another (Spencer, 1998: 10).

ATR has impacted the world in many ways. As Lamin Sanneh points out, the roots of African Christianity goes beyond the Euro-American missionary activities in Africa. He notes, “The roots of that contact can be traced back to the very beginning of Christianity itself, when Africans played a prominent role in the life and expansion of the early Church” (Sanneh, 1994:1). It is therefore true to say that “Christianity is the major modern religion practiced today throughout Africa south of the Sahara” (Hinnells, 1997:692). But it is incorrect to say, “This can be accounted for by contact with European nations, which began in the fifteen century” (Hinnells, 1997:692). ATR has had a tremendous impact on the religious life of North America, Europe, the Caribbean and Brazil.  The father of Black Theology, James Cones’ work has proved this fact.

By and large, Cone’s theological thesis is that all Christian claims revolve around the liberation of the oppressed, in general, and the oppressed blacks in America in particular. Cone’s use of the term “Black” therefore is representative. Using Scripture, as its primary source, Black Theology and Black Power, is Cone’s initial attempt at responding to the question, “What does the Biblical message have to do with the Black Power revolution”? Cone sees in Scripture two historical interventions that are obvious pointers to the fact that God is on the side of the oppressed: The Exodus event in the history of the oppressed people of Israel and the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. These two divine interventions in human history led him to the obvious conclusion that God is for and with the oppressed, particularly in their quest for social, political and economic freedom. To Cone therefore the sole motif of Scripture is: Liberation! How does this motif influence his theological method? Or what is his source of theological authority? Cone contends that his primary source of authority is the Black experience. If this is the case, we do need to find out from Cone whether or not the streams of his theological content indeed flow from the ancient source of Black Religion. And if yes it does in what way does it do so?

Cone’s theological authenticity can and should be tested against the sources he uses for developing his theological method. In, Identity Crisis in Black Theology Cecil Cone critiques his brother’s claim to authentic Black Theology because he did not use sources that gave credence to such claim (C. Cone, 1975). In Chapter 1 of Identity Crisis in Black Theology, C. Cone pertinently argues that for there to be a genuine Black Theology Black religion [ATR] has to be one of the three sources and/or bases of its authenticity.  C. Cone points out that these sources include: 1) African Traditional Religion, 2) the environment of slavery, and 3) the Bible. He contended that in order for the Black theologian to be authentic he/she must look to these sources to grasp the authentic Black truth about God.

Sociologists and anthropologists have confirmed that the African is a radically religious person; religion is at the core of his or her being (Busia, 1967). Given that the African is said to be religious, I would say C. Cone is really making an important criticism of J. Cone’s claim of authentic Black Theology. C. Cone argues: “If it is kept in mind that religion was ‘the whole system of being’ for the African who were brought to this country, then it is only natural that religion would be the primary means by which they would attempt to cope with their condition, as well as the weapon for opposition that condition” (C. Cone, 1975:31). Thus C. Cone concludes, “It may be said that Africans were not converted to Christianity but they converted Christianity to themselves” (C. Cone, 1975:32).

In conclusion, I have tried to explore the fundamental issues and ideas in ATR that have shaped and will continue to shape African morality and theology. The issues of religion, community, morality and ethics have far reaching impact on the religious life of Africans both within and outside the continent because they are deeply rooted in the whole belief and practice of the diverse cultures of Africa. The plain truth is that African’s communal activities and their social institutions are intrinsically bound up with religion and the spirit world. This is not to say that Africans are sacralists: rather, Africans seem unable to explain life and its mysteries without some reference to the supernatural (Pobee and Ositelu, 1998:9).





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Busia, E.  Africa in Search of Democracy. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1967.

Cone, Cecil. Identity Crisis in Black Theology. New York: AMEC Press, 1975.

Cone, James. Black Theology and Black Power. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2003

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Jenkins, Philips. The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Kunhiyop, W. Samuel. African Christian Ethics. Kaduna: Baraka Press & Publishers Ltd, 2004.

Pobee, John and Ositelu, Gabriel. African Initiatives in Christianity. Kenya: ACTION Publishers, 1998.

Sanneh, Lamin. West African Christianity: The Religious Impact. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1994.

Spencer, Besancon Aida & Spencer, David William. The Global God: Multicultural Evangelical Views of God: Listening to God and Learning from Culture. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998.

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Turaki, Yusufu. Christianity and African Gods: A Method in Theology. Kenya: IBS-Nig., Press, 1999.