Understand African Spirituality by Considering Creation

Understand African Spirituality by Considering Creation

Ifa, Kongo, Vodou, Palo Monte, Santeria and other practitioners are bound together by common ancestors who developed religions from a central understanding of creation.
By Mark Hoerrner

It's true that many African faiths have found their way into non-African civilizations, such as Santeria in Cuba or Vodou, Candomble, and Yoruba in America. But because African religion is a transitive state of being more than an organized religion, this is not an unexpected development when history is reviewed.

In short, Western journalists always seem to ask the wrong questions.

Asking African religion practitioners to separate the concepts of nature, deity, and man from one another is like asking a toaster to talk coherently about the mating habits of llamas. Part of this comes from the fact that faith, much like it is delivered in Western religions from father to son, is delivered in a similar oral and sometimes (rarely) written tradition.

Most African tribal traditions point to a central act of creation that generally has man as part of the creation. There is a heaven and earth, and much weight is given to the Sun and Moon. Most times, this is in the form of some sort of divine status, such as each being one of the eyes of a chief god, or Orisha.

One author describes an interesting insight into what Westerners refer to as "animism," or spiritual activity in non-animate objects such as rocks, trees, and flora. The author, the African scholar Mbiti, reports that only certain objects have an inhabiting spirit and thus receive a certain status within the ontological hierarchy of belief. Mbiti says the hierarchy is God, spirits, man, animals and plants, inanimate objects and unusual phenomena involving them.

The creation story usually happens with some sort of accidental event pushing heaven and earth apart, such as the Yoruba legends about how the earth was existing in a sort of close relationship with heaven and then something happened. In some legends, someone was greedy in his interaction with heaven; in another, a woman touched the heavens with an unclean hand. Whatever the case, these myths push heaven into a physically attainable place.

Unlike the Christian religion, where man is made in the image of God and thus has dominion over the earth, African tribal religions place man in a frail state of being. Certainly, some Yoruba factions take great offense to being compared with animals and as such, but Mbiti points out that his hierarchy is correct. Often, these religions are deemed fatalistic, but one might call them pragmatic in that the perceived place on the planet is at the whim of gods who no longer seem to react after the great divide between heaven, man and the natural forces of the planet. Life is a huge gift.

The natural world cannot be pried away from the existence of man in this regard. Likewise, much of the earth relies on the way in which man treats the earth. Thus, the symbolic picture of creation is materially woven into the fabric of human existence.
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