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Africa Traditional Religious System as Basis ofUnderstanding Christian Spiritual Warfareby Yusufu Turaki

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Africa Traditional Religious System as Basis of
Understanding Christian Spiritual Warfare
by Yusufu Turaki
I. Introduction
The primary objective of this paper is to define the African
traditional religious system as the basis of understanding
Christian spiritual warfare within an African context. This
background is essential to any application of Christian
spirituality in Africa. For this reason, the paper serves only as
an introduction to the application of Christian spirituality in
Africa. There are basic African religious foundations that need
to be presented and defined. These are essential for any
Christian spiritual inquiry and application in Africa.
II. African Traditional Religious System
African traditional religious system has the following
A. Foundational Religious Beliefs
There are four foundational religious beliefs in the traditional
religions: (1) the belief in impersonal (mystical) power(s); (2) the
belief in spirit beings; (3) the belief in divinities/gods and (4)
the belief in the Supreme Being. These foundational religious
beliefs are essential to our theological interpretation and
analysis of the traditional religions. Any meaningful and
effective Christian approach to the traditional religions must
begin from here.
1. Belief in Impersonal (Mystical) Power(s)
What is the influence and impact of this dominant religious
belief in impersonal and mystical powers upon the whole of
traditional African life? The Bible and Christian theology have
to address this foundational and dominant influence and impact
upon the traditional African life.
The belief in the impersonal (mystical) power is dominant and
pervasive in traditional African religious thought. The whole of
creation, nature and all things and objects are consumed with
this impersonal power. This impersonal power is what Edwin
Smith called mysterium tremendum. This same power has
been given various names, such as, mana, life force, vital
force, life essence and dynamism.
In African beliefs, the source of this impersonal or (mystical)
mysterious power is not always known, but it is usually
attributed to the activities of higher "mysterious" powers,
whether personal or impersonal that either generates or
deposits such powers in things or objects. The potency,
efficacy and the durability of such "inhabited" impersonal
powers varies from object to object. Some objects are said to
be inherently more power induced or "imputed" than others,
that is, they are more naturally endowed with powers than
others are.
The manifestation and the use of the impersonal powers are
related to the practices of medicine men and women, diviners
and seers who use natural objects, plants and animals for
medicine, magic, charms and amulets. Some specialists belief
that mysterious powers imbedded in things or objects can be
extracted for specific uses. Mystical and mysterious powers
can be transmitted through certain object media or by pure
spiritual means. Mystical powers can be sent to specific
destinations for an intended good or evil. Mystical powers can
be contagious by contact with objects carrying or mediating
such powers.
The impersonal powers can be used for both good and evil. The
life of a traditional African with this belief in the impersonal
powers is at the mercy of the benevolent or wicked users of
the mystical powers at their disposal. This belief is very much
reflected in the traditional religious practices and behaviour.
As stated earlier, the belief in the impersonal (mystical)
powers is dominant and pervasive among traditional Africans.
This belief has a theological basis. Christianity must recognise
and study the theological basis of the traditional African belief
in the existence of mystical and mysterious forces. The
religious and social role and function of this belief must be
thoroughly studied and understood. The application of the Bible
and the Christian Gospel to this very religious belief must
address it at its foundations and roots:
1) What do traditional Africans feel about the pervasive and
dominant presence of the mystical and mysterious powers and
forces? The Bible and the Gospel of Christ must address this
traditional religious core value and its dominant influence upon
man in traditional Africa. A Biblical and Christian theology has to
be formulated and developed so as to address the traditional
theology of mystical and impersonal powers.
2) What is the nature of this traditional belief in the mystical,
mysterious powers and forces and its total influence and
impact upon the total man in traditional Africa? How do we
apply the Bible and the Gospel of Christ to the nature of this
belief and to the nature of its impact or influence upon man in
traditional Africa?
3) What are the religious practices and behaviour that do
accompany, support and reinforce (a) this belief and (b)
feelings generated by this belief? How do we study and apply
the Bible and the Gospel of Christ to all the various practices,
attitudes, rituals, rites and ceremonies that traditional Africa
has fundamentally developed from this belief?
Our theological approach must go beyond matching Biblical texts
with specific traditional beliefs to addressing the theological,
philosophical, moral and ethical bases and foundations of
these beliefs. We must lay the axe at the root. Religious beliefs,
feelings, practice and behaviour have roots and bases. The
traditional conception of mystical and mysterious powers has
deep theological roots.
When Christian categories are introduced, such as: the power
of the blood of Christ; the power of Christ; the power of the
Holy Spirit; the power of God; the power of prayer in the name
of Jesus, how are these powers understood theologically by
man in traditional Africa? The traditional theology of power
and forces is what should be addressed by the Bible. When a
belief in the potency of mystical and mysterious powers and
forces are condemned as demonic, man in traditional Africa
needs to know why such things are demonic. They seem to
work and he sees and experiences their power, potency and
efficacy. A mere reference to a Bible verse may not be enough
to dissuade and convince him to do and believe otherwise.
His religious beliefs and practices are structured within the
framework of his traditional religious worldview. They must be
addressed at the root, at their theological basis and worldview.
What is that theological foundation of the belief in the mystical
and mysterious powers and forces and its accompanied
feelings, practices and behaviour? This is what a Christian
theologian must find out. The African needs more than just a
Bible verse, he needs a Christian worldview which contains
such. He needs to know why he should believe differently. The
"why" is contained within the Biblical and Christian
2. Belief in Spirit Beings
What is the influence and impact of this dominant religious
belief in spirit beings upon the whole of traditional African
life? The Bible and Christian theology have to address this
dominant influence and impact upon the traditional African life.
Traditional African concepts of reality and destiny are deeply
rooted in the spirit world. The activities and the actions of the
spirit beings govern all social and spiritual phenomena. The
spirit world can be divided into two broad categories: (1) non-
human spirits and (2) the spirits of the dead. Non-human
spirits are regarded in hierarchical order in accordance with
their kind and importance, depending upon their power and the
role they play in the ontological order in the spirit world (Oji,
First in the hierarchy is the Creator, then the deities, object-
embodied spirits, ancestors' spirits and other miscellaneous
spirits that are non-human, comprising both good or harmless
spirits and evil spirits. Man stands between this array of
spiritual hosts in the spirit world and the world of nature
(Ikenga-Metuh, 1987:125-144).
What Constitutes the Spirit World?
What constitutes the spirit world is summarised below in the
words of Kato (1975:36-41):
1) The whole world is full of spirits;
2) the abode of spirits are numerous, such as the silk cotton
tree, baobab tree, sycamore tree, burial grounds and other
3) the spirits are classified into two categories, the bad ones
and the good ones;
4) a firm belief in reincarnation;
5) a belief in and practice of exorcism or spirit possession;
6) a belief in life after death, future reward and future
7) evil spirits are always associated with Satan (Kato,
8) spirit possession.
In defining the religious worldview of Africa, Mbiti stresses the
fact that the spirit world of the African people is very
densely populated with spirit beings, spirits and the living-dead
or the spirits of the ancestors (Mbiti, 1969:75). The spirit
world is the most pervasive worldview. Contained within it are
the spirits, the ancestors and the Supreme Being or God
(Ikenga-Metuh, 1987:103-179).
There is a very close relationship between the spirit beings
and the mystical or impersonal powers and forces
described in the previous section. This realm of the
supernatural operates mystical power, magic, witchcraft,
sorcery and many others. The spirit world or the realm of the
supernatural is, in a sense, a battleground of spirits and
powers that use their mystical powers to influence the course
of human life. These mystical powers can be designated as
positive or negative, good or evil, which may bring blessings or
If man only knew how to master and control the realm of the
supernatural, the world would be a much happier place. Belief in
the mystical powers as described already, the spirit beings
behind them and the human quest to control or influence them
had produced a variety of specialists such as medicinemen,
rainmakers, mediums, diviners, sorcerers, magicians and
witches. Superstitions, totems, taboos and rituals grew out of
such beliefs.
For safety and protection in a world dominated by the spirit
beings and powers, one needs a spiritual compass for guidance
and practical efforts for control, protection and security
through religious rites, reverence to ancestors, symbolic totems
and regulative taboos, rituals, superstitions, customs and
specialists. For guidance and protection in life, one needs some,
if not all, of these.
As we have already observed, in the African traditional
religious thought, spirits are believed to dwell or inhabit certain
trees, rocks or mountains, caves, rivers, lakes, forests,
animals, human beings, the skies, the ground and other cites,
carved or moulded objects, charms, amulets.
The spirit beings are usually divided into two categories: (1) the
spirits of the dead elders (the ancestors) and (2) the non-
human spirit beings. The ancestors are close to the humans and
serve as their custodians. All spirit beings are endowed with
certain powers and they apply these powers upon the humans
for their good or for their harm. Because the spirit beings are
malicious, capricious and sometimes benevolent, man must be
wise in his dealings with the spirit beings. They can easily be
angered, provoked or injured by the humans and so man requires
tack and wisdom in dealing with them. In dealing with both the
impersonal (mystical) powers and the spirit beings, man needs
human specialists who have gained experience and access to
these two types of mysteries to help them live a successful
life and acquire good human well-being. These spirit beings can
be "manipulated" to serve the humans or vice versa.
This belief, just as in the case of the previous one, has a
theological basis. Christianity must recognise and study this
very theological basis of the traditional African belief in the
existence of spirit beings. The religious and social role and
function of this belief in the spirits must be thoroughly studied
and understood.
3. Belief in Many Divinities
What is the influence and impact of the dominant religious
belief in the divinities upon the whole of traditional African
life? The Bible and Christian theology have to address this
dominant influence and impact upon the traditional African life.
African traditional religions in some parts of Africa, have had
an elaborate pantheon of divinities. But there are exceptions
to this general observation, especially in Southern Africa and
some parts of West Africa. Some African ethnic groups do not
seem to have divinities, while some were known to have no
special shrines or worship places designated to the divinities
or to the Supreme Being. However, the Yoruba of Nigeria are
known for having several hundreds of divinities.
African scholars for the past three decades, have changed
certain perspectives and even the definition of African
divinities (Idowu, 1962; Mbiti, 1975). Some African scholars no
longer accept the term polytheism (worship of many gods).
They prefer the term "divinities" or "deities" to "gods". The
debate on whether African "divinities" were worshipped as
"gods" or whether they were only "intermediaries" or
"mediators" is inconclusive. Some have argued that "Africans
do not worship their divinities nor their ancestors, but God". In
this argument, a view is being held that sacrifices, offerings
and prayers offered, are not directed to the divinities or the
ancestors, as ends in themselves, but are directed ultimately to
God. We have no intention of discussing this debate here, but
simply to mention it in passing.
African divinities are many and each has its specific area of
influence and control. Some of these divinities were originally
mythological figures in some African legends and primordial
histories and cosmologies, while some were tribal heroes or
heroines. Divinities covering different aspects of life, society
and community were usually established, such as divinities of
the sea or the waters, rain, thunder, fertility, health or
sickness, planting or harvest, tribal, clan or family deities.
African divinities took the forms of mountains, rivers, forests,
the mother earth, the sun, the moon, the stars, and ancestors.
The plurality of the divinities with their varying powers,
influence, hierarchy, territoriality, even within one ethnic group
or community, says a lot about the African religions, worship,
beliefs and practices. This leaves an open door for religious
accommodation, tolerance, assimilation and adaptation within
the traditional religious thought. The traditional African
understanding and the interpretation of Christianity have deep
roots in these fundamental beliefs of the African traditional
religions. This belief, just as in the case of the previous one,
has a theological basis - the plurality of divinities
( polytheism).
With the introduction of Christianity or other religions, such as
Islam, this belief with its worldview may have an added feature
and it is henotheism, the worship of one god without denying
the existence of other gods. There is a possibility that the
Christian God who has been introduced, can be worshipped
along with other gods. The theological basis of this traditional
belief allows it to take place without creating any serious
theological crisis in the traditional religion. Plurality of gods or
divinities permits plurality of beliefs, practices, feelings and
behaviour in one religion. This belief also gives room for
accommodation, adaptation and domestication of new gods or
divinities into the old religion. Other gods or divinities and
divergent views and practices can be tolerated without
confusion. All these are possible because of the theological
foundation of this belief in many gods and also in the hierarchy
of gods or divinities.
4. Belief in a Supreme Being (God)
What is the influence and impact of this dominant religious
belief in one Supreme Being upon the whole of traditional
African life?
The works of African scholars for the past three decades
have established the fact that Africans have a concept of an
universal God and the Creator (Idowu, 1962; Mbiti, 1975). Most
Africans are in agreement that the traditional Africans do not
actively worship this Supreme Being.
Idowu calls the Yoruba religion "diffused" monotheism. This
means that the Yoruba had originally a "monotheistic" religion,
but as the religion gradually decayed over the centuries, the
rising proliferation of the divinities were overshadowing the
earlier monotheistic beliefs and practices of the religion. Even
with this definition of "diffused" monotheism in the Yoruba
religion, coupled with similar notions scattered across the
continent of Africa, the overwhelming facts do show that,
even though Africans generally have an awareness and belief
in the Supreme Being, the truth is, this Supreme Being is not
known to have been exclusively worshipped by traditional
Africans. Instead, the African divinities and the ancestors,
who are the lesser beings, have been actively involved in the
everyday religious life of the traditional Africans. They directly
receive sacrifices, offerings and prayers offered by the
traditional Africans. In most traditional African societies, the
Supreme Being was not actively involved in the everyday
religious practices of the people, but the divinities, the gods
and the ancestors were. In some parts of Africa, the Supreme
Being is usually mentioned in prayers, songs and in some religious
The definition of the divinities or ancestors as "intermediaries"
is very weak in the face of the Biblical definition of religions,
divinities and gods in general. Traditional Africans believe in a
Supreme Being, who is "above the lesser" divinities and the
hierarchy of beings. This belief has its profound theological
influence upon the traditional Africans. The God who is above
the lesser gods, seems "not to be intimately involved or
concerned with man's world. Instead, men seek out the lesser
powers to meet their desires" (Steyne, 1990:35). This leads
man to turn to the impersonal powers, the divinities, the gods,
the ancestors and the spirit beings for help. God is only
occasionally mentioned or remembered.
How do we define the nature and the structure of the African
traditional religious thought? The belief in the impersonal
powers is expansive and pervasive. It is also equally true of the
belief in the spirit beings. The third component, which is the
belief in the divinities or gods, is not as pervasive and
expansive as the first two components. Not every ethnic
group in traditional Africa has divinities or gods. The fourth
component, which is the belief in the Supreme Being, is widely
held all over Africa, but this belief does not generate any
religious fervour or any intimate relationship with the Supreme
Being as with the first three entities. The Supreme Being
seems to be far remote or less functional in the traditional
African everyday life. The religious activities of the traditional
Africans revolve mainly around the first three entities. But
these four fundamental religious beliefs do not tell us much
about the organisation of the traditional religious system. How
is the traditional religious system organised around these four
The basic theological system, which was developed from
these four fundamental beliefs, is summarised by Steyne: " ...
the world is essentially spiritual and the material and the
spiritual are totally integrated. Man needs power from outside
himself to control his environment. Life's purpose is to seek
and maintain the balance and harmony that result in success,
happiness and security. To do this man must deal with the
spirit powers correctly. Thus by rites, rituals and liturgies, he
must impress and manipulate spirit beings to produce success,
happiness and security" (Steyne, 1990:39).
5. Hierarchy of Spiritual Beings
The traditional religious worldview conceives of all spiritual
beings in their hierarchical order. The Supreme Being is the
highest and the greatest. The lesser beings, such as gods and
divinities occupy a lesser position, but higher than the humans
do. The authority, power, influence and legitimacy of spirit
beings depend upon their position within the ontological order
of beings. Spirit beings, by virtue of their positions and roles
within the ontological order, (1) dispense and control the
activities of spiritual and mystical powers and forces and (2)
influence morality and ethics of the human societies.
Traditional Africans respond to these spirit beings according
to their place of hierarchy, power, influence and role. Religious
values, activities, practices, morality and ethics are accorded
to each spirit being in proportion of his position of authority,
power, influence, territoriality and legitimacy. Thus, in
traditional religious worldview, spirit beings are graded. This has
great consequences on the traditional conception of morality
and ethics (Ikenga-Metuh, 1989:243-259).
This theological concept in traditional religions has a great
influence upon how traditional Africans define the role and
function of the Supreme Being, lesser beings, divinities and
ancestors in an African community.
We now turn from examining the foundations of religious beliefs
to the foundations of religious practices.
B. Foundational Religious Practices
Religious beliefs do beget corresponding religious practices and
religious behaviour. The five inter-related and integrated
religious beliefs examined in the previous sections have
established the theological basis of the traditional religious
system. These beliefs have in consequence influenced the
development of the corresponding religious practices, which
we are going to describe very briefly. The traditional religious
system is informed and motivated by these religious beliefs and
their corresponding practices, behaviour and feelings.
The foundational religious practices in the traditional religions
are: (1) the practices of establishing links, relationship and
close ties with the cosmic mysterious, mystical and spirit
powers and forces; (2) the practices involving various religious
and social rites, rituals (sacrifices and offerings) and
ceremonies; (3) the practices of establishing various spiritual
and mystical communications with the spirit world and spirit
beings and (4) the religious and social practices of relating to
the various activities of the traditional African specialists.
Discussions in this section will be very brief. Ideas in this
section are culled from Steyne (1992) and Gehman (1989).
Various religious practices are described covering a wide range
of religious and social interests. Our primary goal for doing this
is to enable us to identify and define the theological
foundations of the traditional religious practices and behaviour.
This establishes the theological foundations for defining and
interpreting traditional religious practices and religious
In this section and in other places, we are not going to
differentiate between what is strictly religious from what is
strictly social or what are prohibitions and abominations or
taboos from what are acceptable social and religious norms,
practices and behaviour. Both the good and evil are found in the
traditional religious worldview.
1. Establishing Links and Relationships with Cosmic,
Spiritual and Mystical Powers
In his quest to establish links and relationships with cosmic,
spiritual and mystical powers and forces, man in traditional
Africa has developed a variety of religious and social practices,
rituals and ceremonies as means of achieving this quest. There
are two types of religious and social practices that are used in
traditional Africa in order to establish links and relationships
with the cosmic, spiritual and mystical powers and forces: (1)
through the means "of exercising control" over the world of
the mystical and spiritual powers and (2) through the means of
restoring cosmic and spiritual harmony/balance.
Why is it necessary for man in traditional Africa to seek to
establish links and relationship with the mystical and spiritual
powers and forces? In the first place, what do these spirit
and mystical powers have to offer man in traditional Africa?
What are those spiritual and mystical powers that man is
searching for? What does he use these powers for? Secondly,
what are the means of establishing these links and
relationships? How are these means acquired? From whom and
where can these means be acquired? Do they have rules and
regulations? What happens if such are broken?
These probing questions are necessary in elucidating the deep
and hidden theological foundations of religious and social
practices involving cosmic spiritual and mystical powers and
forces. The two means of linking and communicating with the
spiritual powers and forces in traditional Africa are presented
a. Means of Exercising Cosmic, Mystical and Spiritual Control
In his quest to exercise cosmic mystical and spiritual control
over his world, man in traditional Africa has developed a
variety of religious and social practices, rituals and ceremonies.
The means of acquiring or having access to these powers and
forces are many. Each is governed by its own set of rules and
regulations. The means becomes very important because it
sets its own rules and regulations, which must be followed
faithfully. The means determines the religious behaviour and
what rites, rituals and ceremonies must be performed so that
the desired end can be achieved. The means controls
behaviour, practice and even to some extent, feelings and
expressions. The powers that grant and distribute the needed
commodities become all-powerful while those that receive
them become slaves or devotees.
What if those who have the privilege to distribute the needed
powers and forces are in themselves "wicked" and "evil"?
That describes the danger which man in traditional Africa
faces in his quest and pursuits of spiritual and mystical
powers. What would he not do in order to gain access to
mystical and spirit powers? And what would he not do in order
to control, retain and keep on using such mystical powers and
Cosmic, mystical and spiritual control can be exercised through
the practices of: (1) incantations and power of words; (2) the
power of symbolism; (3) the power of magic; (4) the power of
charms; (5) the power of fetishes or "juju" and (6) the power
of witchcraft and sorcery (Steyne, 1990).
The condemnation of many of these practices abound in both
traditional religions (some prohibitions and abominations) and
the Holy Bible. Even though the Bible condemns them, the
potency and powers usually manifested in this area are
powerful. The Bible does not deny their existence, but rather
condemns their practice, use and believe in them.
The theological issue here does not lie in the prohibitive act of
its condemnation, but rests in two things: (1) the belief in the
usefulness of such powers and also the belief in the means
and practices of obtaining power and (2) the act of self-
giving or the giving of oneself to the authorities or entities that
lie behind these powers. A Biblical theology should address: (1)
These powers and, if obtained, what will they be used for?
(2) Which practices, behaviour and feelings are involved as
means of obtaining the desired powers? (3) The act of self-
giving or selling out of oneself, the act of bowing down to
worship the giver who is other than or a rival to God.
These powers are indeed usurping the central place of God in
the life of man. The Bible clearly and emphatically states that
these beings are enemies of God and their primary involvement
with humans is to keep them away from their Creator and God.
Whether these practices are sanctioned or prohibited in the
traditional religions, they, however, fall short of Biblical
standards. These powers are obtained, not from God, but from
his usurpers, the Devil and his demons. Even those obtained
from the divinities, fall short of the Biblical standards too.
Divinities cannot be acceptable substitutes of God Himself. In
the Bible and Christian theology, only God can exercise power
and control over his entire universe. A Christian theology of
God's providence and Christ's mediatorial work on the cross
become relevant here.
b. Means of Restoring Cosmic and Spiritual Harmony
Man's delicate dealings with the cosmic and spirit powers and
forces have certain rules and regulations. And these become
manifest in certain religious practices. Man is aware that many
things do go wrong and not all his expectations and needs are
always met. And when things go wrong and expectations and
needs are not met, there must be something wrong. Things can
be corrected through reconciliation, restoration and the making
of peace. Cosmic and spiritual harmony can be restored through
the practices of (1) sacrifices and offerings/gifts and (2)
taboos (Steyne, 1990).
The spirit beings who dispense powers to man are still in
charge of the spirit world even when things go wrong. It is the
humans who are required to do something so that harmony,
peace and fellowship can be restored. What types of
offences, or wrongs, violations and sins do humans commit
against the spirit world or the spiritual order? If wrongs are
admitted, what fears, feelings or guilt do they generate? Who
gets hurt when the humans sin or go wrong? Why is maintaining
cosmic harmony and order necessary for man? What specific
religious practices, sacrifices and offerings are efficacious in
acts of reconciliation and peace making between the humans
and the spirit world?
Christianity has to address these theological issues and
provide Biblical solutions to them. In the Bible and Christian
theology, only God is the rightful means of restoring cosmic and
spiritual harmony over his entire universe. A Christian theology
of reconciliation becomes relevant here.
2. Practices Relating to Rituals and Ceremonies
Ritual practices are many, depending upon their functions.
There are rituals that are communal with fixed annual seasons,
hence ceremonial in nature. There are others that are private
or do not have any fixed annual calendar, but are practised as
needs arise. Rituals and ceremonies play very dominant religious
and social functions in African societies.
Traditional rites, rituals and ceremonies all have their
foundational beliefs and theological basis. The purpose for
such practices must be ascertained. The totality of what is
involved in practice must also be ascertained. Rituals and
ceremonies do have their accompanied practices, rules and
regulations. These practices, rules and regulations become the
means of linking traditional Africans with the spiritual powers
and forces. A Christian theology should examine what religious
practices, rules and regulations and what spiritual powers and
forces are solicited.
Theological models of approaching and addressing the
traditional religious practices, rituals, festivals and ceremonies
have been well developed in the Old Testament (Pentateuch)
and the New Testament (apostolic teachings).
3. Practices Relating to Spiritual and Mystical
There are various practices of spiritual and mystical
communication with the spirit world, such as (1) dreams, (2)
visions, (3) vision quests and (4) divination and ordeals (Steyne,
1990). The desire to communicate with the mystical and spirit
powers has its basis in the traditional religious beliefs and
religious practices.
Why is communication with the spirit world so important? With
whom is this communication done, and why? What are the
means of communicating with the spirit world? What is the
content of this communication and what is it expected to
The Bible has so much to say in this area: (1) the means of
communication must be examined in terms of its theology; (2)
the content of communication must also be examined in terms
of its theological import; (3) who is being communicated to?
Both the act and the means of communication and their means
of reception must be examined theologically. Is all
communication in the traditional beliefs and practices directed
to God or to the lesser beings? Why has man chosen to
communicate with the lesser beings rather than God?
Theological models of approaching and addressing the
practices relating to spiritual and mystical communication have
been well developed in the Old Testament (Pentateuch) and
the New Testament (apostolic teachings).
4. Practices Relating to Traditional African
Traditional Africa has a host of specialists who are
professionals in their various disciplines, such as (1) priests,
(2) medicine men and women, (3) diviners, mediums, sorcerers,
witches, wizards and midwives. Each profession has a set of
beliefs, rules and regulations, practices and rituals. Each
profession must be examined in terms of its theological
foundations, practices, moral and ethical foundations. Some of
these professionals and specialists use mystical and spirit
powers, some ordinary human ingenuity and wisdom, while
some are cheats or deceivers. How these powers are acquired
and used must be examined theologically.
The theological models of approaching and addressing the
practices relating to the traditional African specialists have
been well developed in the Old Testament (Pentateuch) and
the New Testament (apostolic teachings).
C. Philosophical Foundations in Traditional Worldview
We have identified four basic philosophical foundations in a
traditional religious worldview. These four categories were
outlined by Steyne in his study of animism (1990). We have
adopted and developed them into a comprehensive and
coherent philosophical system and worldview, which has
enhanced substantially our definition and interpretation of the
African traditional religions and cultures. These categories are
classified as:
Holism/organism which is governed by the Law of Harmony;
spiritualism which is governed by the Law of the Spirit;
dynamism/power-consciousness which is governed by the
Law of Power;
communalism which is governed by the Law of Kinship.
The four foundational religious beliefs discussed in the previous
sections with the above four categories in the philosophical
foundations, do have a combined effect in producing "a
powerful and pervasive" religious and cultural worldview which
dominates and influences the traditional African thought. The
philosophical foundations complement the theological
foundations of the previous section. From the philosophical
foundations we can also develop the traditional "moral laws"
within the traditional worldview.
1. Holism/Organism: the Law of Harmony
This is a holistic or an organic view of the world, which is
governed by the law of harmony. The law of harmony
simply means "a state of agreement or peacefulness". The
traditional African seeks to live in harmony and to balance his
life in a harmonious and peaceful existence with his entire
world and especially with the spirit world.
The terms organic or holistic are similar. An organic view
sees the whole world as "a complex structure of inter-
dependent and subordinate elements whose relations and
properties are largely determined by their function in the
whole". A holistic view sees "the organic or functional
relation between parts and wholes" that constitute the whole
world ( Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary, 1977).
Steyne uses the term holism as "a philosophical term for the
view that life is more than the sum of its parts". He defines
the concept in the following way:
"The world interacts with itself. The sky, the spirits, the
earth, the physical world, the living and the deceased all act,
interact and react in consort. One works on the other and one
part can't exist nor be explained without the other. The
universe, the spirit world and man are all part of the same
fabric. Each needs the other to activate it" (Steyne,
How does man see himself and relate to his world with this
organic or holistic view of life? From this conception, man
stands face to face with the "physical", the "material" and
the "spiritual" dimensions of his world. He interacts with them
and they in turn interact with him. Steyne observes that man
(1) "feels at one with his world and his world mystically
reciprocates" and (2) he does not differentiate or draws
"distinctions between the physical, material or the spiritual";
"between the sacred and the profane"; between "the secular
and the religious"; between "his profession and his community
responsibilities"; "they are all knit together in a whole" (Steyne,
We can understand how Western dualism creates serious
theological problems for the traditional Africans who have an
organic or holistic view of life. Christian theology should use
this traditional African worldview to develop a relevant and
effective theology for Africans. The pantheistic elements
imbedded in this African holism would have to be addressed
and evaluated Biblically.
The concept of nature is related to that of the impersonal
or the mysterious powers as well as to the spirit
beings. Nature is defined as "this visible material world or
universe, comprising both living and non-living things, visible and
invisible powers, plants and animals, the inanimate and the
natural phenomena, like lightning and thunder, all centred around
man. The spirit world is all the same tacitly understood as
inclusive in nature" (Oji, 1988:15). Nature is created by the
Creator. Nature, man and the spirit world constitute one fluid
coherent unit, hence, the conception of the traditional African
worldview as a unity. It is not a confused world of non-
integrated parts. Life, in general, is holistic and remains
Christianity has to address the African holistic/organic view
of the world, which is governed by the law of harmony.
Here, Christianity faces, not a specific religious belief, but a
philosophical worldview that is expansive and covers the
totality of life, both in the human world and in the spirit world.
Christianity faces the all embracing worldview that puts
everything into one basket: (1) the mystical and mysterious
powers and forces; (2) the spirits, gods, divinities and (3) the
Supreme Being. And all of these categories of the spirit beings
demand man's attention. Man, on account of this has
developed all kinds of religious practices, rituals and ceremonies
as means of serving and meeting man's needs. Furthermore, he
employs all kinds of means to communicate with each one of
these spirit beings, where and if possible. He employs the
services of many specialists and religious practices that can
effectively link him up with the spirit world.
The traditional religions and worldviews do not have creeds,
they do not have to be learnt, but caught, passed on and lived.
This is a pervasive religious worldview with a dominant and
powerful influence on man in traditional Africa. Christianity has
to address this traditional religious holism/organism and its
pantheistic tendencies. These aspects are felt very
strongly in the traditional conception of the mystical,
mysterious and spirit powers and forces, which must be lived
with in harmony/balance.
The philosophical law of harmony deals with the theological
questions of reconciliation, restoration, reverence, awe, sense
of wonder, the accompanied sacrifices and offerings,
ceremonies, rituals and worship. Moral and ethical questions are
also raised in the area of a relationship between the humans
and spirit beings. How do humans and spirit beings relate to
each other and under what moral laws?
With whom and what should man seek to live in harmony, in
peace, in fellowship and communion? The theology of
redemption and reconciliation in the work of Christ on the
cross becomes more meaningful as it addresses the questions
of cosmic harmony.
2. Spiritualism: The Law of the Spirit
This is a spiritual view of the world governed by the law of
the spirit. This law reflects the preponderance and the
dominance of the spiritual reality in the traditional African
beliefs and worldviews. The whole of creation is replete with
the dominant and pervasive presence of the impersonal
powers and forces, spirit beings, many divinities and gods.
Thus, "this world in essence is spiritual rather than material"
and "life is saturated with supernatural possibilities". Steyne
describes this view further by saying: "Everything in life can be
influenced by and responds to the world of spirits. Whatever
happens in the physical realm has a spiritual co-ordinate and,
likewise, whatever transpires in the spiritual realm has direct
bearing on the physical world. Man is related to and dependent
upon the unseen. For this reason all of life is to be understood
spiritually. The correct response to any situation is spiritual,
whether the matter is a family affair, sickness, or ceremonial
practice" (Steyne, 1990:59).
This religious worldview is called spiritualism and it is
pervasive and dominates the entire life of man. The reason for
this spiritual pervasiveness and dominance is stated thus: "The
whole universe is interconnected through the will and the
power contained in both animate and inanimate objects.
Everything man is, does, handles, projects and interacts with is
interpenetrated with the spiritual. His socio-cultural structures,
down to their finest details, are under the control of the
spiritual powers or forces. Nothing in man's environment
escapes the influence or the manipulation of the spirit world.
The world is more spiritual than it is physical and it is spiritually
upheld. If life is affected by spirits, then it is of utmost
importance to maintain good relations with the spirits and
secure their favor" (Steyne, 1990:37).
Steyne used various concepts and terms to describe the
traditional religious worldview. In traditional religious worldview,
the "question of meaning" in life is dominated by the spiritual
emphasis. "Life's questions and answers revolve around the
spiritual rather than the physical". It is on account of this
spiritual view of life, that "when personal resources fail,
religious specialists will divine and supply satisfactory
meanings". Traditional Africans both recognise and understand
this quest for meaning in the everyday happenings of life and
would want to find out what lies behind every incident in life,
such as "catastrophes, natural disasters, disease, untimely
death and the other exigencies of life". One must look "beyond
the obvious" in order to find the spiritual "reasons" or causes in
life. Because "the unseen is present in all phenomena".
Given this spiritual view of the world, Christianity has to
address the intrinsic meaning of African spiritualism and the
dominance of the law of the spirit in the traditional African
life. The penetrating power of the law of the spirit gives the
traditional worldview a pantheistic conception of the
source and the effect of the mystical and spirit powers
and forces, while the presence of a myriad spirits and
divinities, result in a polytheistic conception. Certain moral
laws govern the inter-relationship and integration of spirit
beings and humans in traditional spirit world. Religious practices,
ceremonies and rituals function within these moral.
3. Dynamism/Power-Consciousness: the Law of
This is a dynamic/power-conscious view of the world
governed by the law of power. The dominance of the
impersonal, the unseen and the unpredictable spirit powers
and forces in the world, make man to search and look for
power which can help secure him in this dangerous world,
where fate, evil, contingency, mortality and death
abound. Steyne describe this power-consciousness in the
following words:
"Life's essential quest is to secure power and use it. Not to
have power or access to it produces great anxiety in the face
of spirit caprice and the rigors of life. A life without power is
not worth living ... Power offers man control of his uncertain
world. The search for and acquisition of power supersedes
any commitment to ethics or morality. Whatever is empowering
is right" (Steyne, 1990:60).
What is this power? Where does it reside? Where can it be
obtained? By what means? How can it be used? Upon whom?
Where? For what purpose? Many terms are used variously to
describe this power, such as life force, vital force, life
essence and dynamism. Power can be obtained by "ritual
manipulation ... in the form of sacrifices, offerings, taboos,
charms, fetishes, ceremonies, even witchcraft and
sorcery" (Steyne, 1990:60). There are also other means for
obtaining this power:
"The power may also be secured by the laying on of hands or
by encountering a spirit being, either directly or through ritual
means. The power may be transmitted through contact with
persons of superior religious status or by using clothing or
something previously associated with such a person. How it is
secured is a secondary concern. It must be acquired whatever
the cost" (Steyne, 1990:60).
Another dimension worth paying attention to is how power
can be handled. It is "transferable to anything and anyone". "It
permeates everything, though unequally." The primary objective
of this power is for it "to serve man's purposes". Steyne
makes a very profound statement, which Christians must take
very seriously in their dealings with traditional Africans: "Since
man's needs cannot be met without it (power), a powerless
religion is valueless." How does this pursuit of power
affect (1) morality and ethics and (2) the relationship between
the humans and the spirit beings and forces?
This all-consuming concept of power is very valuable in our
understanding of how traditional Africans assess the potency
or the efficacy of a new religion or ritual practice, Christianity
inclusive. How does Christianity address this power-
conscious view of the world and its pursuit in the life of
traditional Africans? Christianity must develop a theology of
power so as to address the traditional theological conception
of power and also how this law of power operates in
traditional Africa.
4. Communalism: The Law of Kinship
This is a communal view of man and the world governed by the
law of kinship. The African communal concept is close to
that of the organic/holistic view of the world which has been
treated above. Man is a community. The world is a community.
The community is man in relationships: to the human world; to
the world of nature and to the spirit world. Community is
defined in terms of "how man in relationships relates to the
world around him".
Man is not an individual, that is, living in a state of
independence, but he is communal, that is, living in a state of
relationships and interdependence. This communal conception
of man defines how: (1) he becomes a member of community/
society; (2) he relates to other human beings in community; (3)
he relates to the spirit world and (4) he relates to nature and
the world. Man lives not only in terms of this communal
relationship, but also in terms of his communal attitude
towards them all. It is not human beings alone that are in
community, but they are also in solidarity with the world of
nature and of the spirits as well as the ancestors. Man as an
individual does not live in terms of himself, but in terms of the
human community and nature. Man is not independent, but
dependent. Man does not claim personal rights and freedom,
but fulfils communal obligations and duties. Van der Walt, in his
two books mentioned earlier (1994 and 1997) has given us a
satisfactory definition of African communalism. African
communalism "stresses the human community". Van der
Walt listed the characteristics of African communalism as:
"communal self respect"; "interdependence"; "survival of the
community"; "group assurance"; "co-operation and harmony";
"affiliation" and "shared duties". He lists about 40
characteristics of African communalism in contrast with
Western individualism (Van der Walt, 1997:29-44). These
characteristics are what Steyne calls the "practice of
community" and also "man understands community holistically".
But what is the basis of man's communalism in Africa? What is
the basis of man's living in relationships to the world around
him? The African concept of community or communalism is
derived from kinship. Kinship in this context refers to family
relationships rooted in a progenitor or an ancestor. The
relationship is defined in terms of the physical and blood
linkage to the progenitor or the ancestor. The community takes
its roots or beginnings from this human origin (physical and
blood source) and a network of relationships are built around
this ancestral nucleus.
The unifying factor and the stronger bond of relationship of a
given people is created by the fact of a blood-relationship.
Having a common progenitor(s)/ancestor(s) or origin
strengthens kinship/blood ties. This is what defines affinity,
loyalty and obligations to a "blood-community" by all members.
Social behaviour, attitudes and practices are derived from this
closed-knit kinship or blood relationship. The integration of
tribal groups into modern African states did not eradicate
kinship but incorporated it.
a. Kinship as Foundation of a Community
As it has been stated earlier, kinship system forms the basic
social unit and general social organisation and the community
revolves around it. It regulates and orders the life of a
community/society on a kinship basis. The most powerful
principle of social organisation is the concept of "brotherhood"
derived from "blood-relationship", which are characterised by
kinship affinity, loyalties and obligations of relatives. This
regulates social behaviour and attitudes and orders social
interaction in society among relatives and persons. Religious
and social norms and codes of behaviour, attitudes and
practices guide social interactions of kinsfolk and also how
kinsfolk are to relate to outsiders and strangers.
b. Man in Community
There are two views of man in community: (1) man's
understanding of his place, position and status in community
which helps to integrate and conform him to the community
and (2) man's understanding of his actions, activities and
behaviour which helps to integrate and conform him to the
Starting with the first view, Steyne (1990:61, 62) listed the
following concepts of man in community:
Man "relates not only to people, but to almost everything
man "does not see himself as an individual but believes that
his real life is in community with his fellows";
man "believes he is incomplete and inadequate without" his
man "needs the support of the community and only feels
normal when he is in relationship with it";
man fears "a broken relationship between persons of the
same group" and this can "be termed sin";
man "is integrally related to his community" and he becomes "a
full member of society" by undergoing several "rites of
passage" in his lifetime;
"without ancestors and their influence in life, man loses both
his focus and reason for being" and "life without ancestral
focus is empty and meaningless";
"the belief in reincarnation provides communities with a link to
the past through its ancestors and a link with the future
through the unborn";
the community "sets parameters of the normative in life",
because "community is designed for harmony" and for this
reason, everything must be done to maintain this harmony;
"idiosyncrasies, withdrawal or undue publicity are feared" and
man "as a member of society conforms emotionally and
intellectually to societal customs or pressures" and "he
accepts these with little or no objection";
"diversity or non-conformity is costly to the community and
may signal the activity of evil spirits" and "there is overt and
covert pressure to conform to community norms".
With the second view, Van der Walt (1997:31-34) lists about
40 African characteristics of "man in community". We cannot
mention all of them but select only a few:
a high regard for the group elevating it above the individual;
like people (socially centred);
inclusive attitude;
dependence on people;
intense, strong personal relationships;
strong group pressure;
individual initiative is not appreciated or encouraged - good
human relations are a priority;
great degree of uniformity;
duties towards the community are emphasised;
the law has to restore social harmony - restitution is
dialogue: decisions have to be taken with the approval of the
group and every body has the opportunity to air views;
modesty, compliance, pliability, willingness to compromise -
character traits which lead to peaceful co-existence with
one's fellow man;
marriage is compulsory for all, needs the consent of the
community and is intended in the first place to engender
strong bonds with the extended family (many brothers,
sisters, fathers and mothers).
This, however, does not exhaust all that has to be said about
man in community. More will be said about man in his relationship
to nature, the world of the spirit and the human world.
c. Man as Integral and Conformable in Relationships
The community acts on man to integrate him, while man acts to
conform himself to the community. Both activities are
normative in nature as explained by both Steyne and Van der
Walt in the previous section. The integration and the
conformity of man are not only to the world of the humans,
but also to the world of nature and the spirit world. This is
what theological and philosophical foundations help him to
achieve, as examined in the two previous sections.
"Becoming a member of a community" is the most basic social
principle of understanding man in relationships to others. It is in
the process of becoming a member of a community that man
becomes a person or an adult. This process of becoming either
(1) a member of a community, or (2) becoming a person/adult is
usually done through "rite and ritual". Steyne states that "man's
comings and goings are tied in with the spirit world. Birth, life
and death are not accidental events. Man is psychologically akin
to spirits and life must be understood spiritually" (Steyne,
Man is not only intimately related to (1) the spirit world, but
also to (2) the community of the ancestors, who now live in
the past, as well as to (3) the unborn. The life of the
community of the living is controlled, maintained and protected
by the community of the ancestors. The human community,
therefore, is a community of relationships between (1) the
ancestors, the "living-dead", (2) the living and (3) the unborn
descendants. The communal life in this kinship system is
"ancestrally chartered". Steyne observes that outside of this
ancestral kinship "there lies no possibility of life" and
"personhood is meaningless apart from" these ancestral
kinship and relationships (Steyne, 1990:64, 65).
"Man is only man in relationship, as he participates in family
and community life". One of the most important kinship
relationships of man is marriage.
"Marriage is more than a physical relationship. It has eternal
consequences. Not to marry is to cease living now and in the
hereafter. Marriage establishes essentials in life and in death.
Begetting children guarantees eternal life. Not only do children
provide for the reincarnation of the ancestors, they also
sustain the ancestors through prescribed rituals such as
sacrifices and offerings" (Steyne, 1990:66).
Man lives also in relationship to the spirit world, which explains
his "everyday experience". This intimate relationship to the
spirit world "is reflected in his every system of thought and
action". Steyne describes both man's relationship to the spirit
world and to the kinship community in these words:
"His behavior is ordered by the spirit world. If the spirits will it,
the circumstances will be good. But malevolent forces may also
exercise control. Generally, man seeks to harmonize with his
world. In order to do this, every behaviour pattern is conceived
of in terms of kinship relations. He must maintain specific
patterns of conduct, fulfil expected social roles and conform
to societal values. Any disregard of these has spiritual
ramifications. Every effort must be made to avoid giving
offence to the spirit world. Kinship provides ideological identity
and also security. Within the kinship community there is a moral
obligation and each individual is expected to conform to custom.
To break relationships or disregard custom is to sin" (Steyne,
1990: 66, 67).
Man's morality, ethics and accountability are to be understood
in terms of his relationships to (1) the spirit world and (2) the
kinship community. Within this network of relationships, man is
not held "individually responsible for his actions". "Because he
believes himself to be the extension of the spirit world, the
corporate family and the tribe, these must all share
responsibility and blame for what he is and does. He is acted
upon by powers he believes are beyond his control" (Steyne,
Man's claim for not being "held responsible for his actions", is
based upon the belief which states that "man is the product
of what the family, the clan, the tribe and the spirits have
made him". This traditional belief has very serious moral and
ethical consequences for morality and ethics in Africa.
Besides his relationship to the spirit world, his kinship
relationship with the ancestors and fellow humans, man is also
related to nature. John V. Taylor is quoted as saying: "No
distinction can be made between sacred and secular, between
natural and supernatural, for Nature, Man and the Unseen are
inseparably involved in one another in a total
community" (Steyne, 1990:68).
The spirit and mystical powers and forces "which can be used
for either good or bad" inhabit the world of nature. In his
relationship to the natural world, man seeks to understand the
spiritual and the mysterious powers that lie behind natural
phenomena. For this reason "animals, plants, rivers, rocks,
mountains and heavenly bodies may all carry messages" which
he has to decipher.
Man relates to nature by totemism: "In totemism certain
taboos apply to the totem animal(s) and/or plant(s). Totem
objects are not to be killed, spoken of by name, eaten or even
looked at in some cases. They elicit feelings of brotherliness.
They are believed to have souls of similar nature to man's. They
may be emblematic of abstract and emotional attitudes claimed
by a group of people" (Steyne, 1990:70).
The belief in totemism sets apart some animals or plants for
certain kinship affinity, religious or medicinal purposes. The
potency, value and efficacy of each are determined by its
nature, which can be rated or qualified among others. Animals
and birds for sacrifices, objects for offering and the ritual or
the ceremonial sites or groves are also carefully selected
depending upon their religious value and efficacy. Nature
provides man with a vast array of contact points with the
world of the spirit.
The task for Christianity is to define the African within the
context of this communal network of relationships which is
governed by the law of kinship, the law of harmony, the
law of power and the law of the spirit.
D. Spirit Beings
Generally, theologians and scholars have classified the African
world of the spirits into four broad categories of beliefs:
belief in the Supreme Being (God);
belief in the lesser divinities/god;
belief in the ordinary spirits;
belief in the ancestors.
It is important to state here that the belief in the spirits, that
is, all the four categories mentioned above, dominates
pervasively the African continent and its traditional religions
and worldview. Even though they can be classified
hierarchically, the levels and the quality of their differentiation
and distinctiveness are fluid and diffused. This is so because
of the profound influence of the traditional religious
worldview outlined in the previous section.
The philosophical foundations as earlier stated do have a
profound influence on the religious beliefs, practices and
behaviour. As we have observed, the traditional African hardly
distinguishes "between the spiritual and the physical modes of
existence". This very conception in the traditional worldview is
very important to our understanding of the African traditional
beliefs and teachings about the spirit world, especially the
unity between the spiritual and the material. This social fact is
very important to our understanding and interpretation of the
traditional religions and cultures.
This study has revealed to us the nature and the heart of the
traditional religions, especially its religious beliefs and practices.
The theological foundations of the belief in these gods,
divinities and spirits have been made evident. From this
background, a theology of Christian spirituality is required as
means of addressing adequately the roots of this traditional
religious belief in the spirit beings. The influence and impact
of this traditional belief upon the religious practices and
behaviour of traditional Africans must be carefully studied and
addressed by a Christian theology. A Christian theology must
address the significance of the spiritual beings, powers
and forces that lie behind the traditional religions (Eph. 6).


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