I read with keen interest Giramata’s article titled “What if God was one of us” where she rightly notes that the idea of a divine being has been subconsciously assumed by Africans to be foreign from their cultures, and that the collective psychological shock from the colonization period was so brutal that local divine concepts were wiped from our collective mindset. Given this violence on our collective psyche, any worthy idea of the divine must not be imagined to have origins in Africa. Here’s the problem with the spiritual-psychological occupation that conceives the divine as necessarily an alien being: our identity–how we think of and how we value ourselves–is derived from our concept of the divine. If we are not good enough to originate the divine, then nothing good can come from us, and our blessings can only be granted by those from whom the divine has origins; that is, those who also happen to consider themselves as our saviours.
The divine, being fundamentally an abstract concept, is naturally defined in a sociological context with specific environmental, social, economic and political realities. It is a concept that develops from how a group of people identifies itself in the world. Consequently, it is natural to have as many concepts of divinity as there are communities in the world. If anything, this shows that a universal claim of one divine concept is absurd and can only be rooted in an unbridled desire for domination.
Mankind’s myths of God’s origin
There are two spiritual myths of God’s origin for mankind. The divine is either ascending or descending.
The descending approach represents the notion that mankind only discovered ‘God’ when He descended to reveal Himself to man: God comes down to man. Before then, we supposedly were in the wilderness. This notion always comes with the claim that the revealed God is the only God.
The idea that God is revealed has serious implications. A messenger announcing the (good) news to the world says that the true ‘God’ has been “revealed.” An entire doctrine is then based on the veracity of the claim made by the messenger because, obviously, God sent him and him only. The issue with that claim, however amazing, is that it stays a claim. Clearly, anyone can claim to be the messenger of a true God.
This brings us to the second quandary. The revelation begs the question: since one must believe that there’s only one true messenger for the message to be believed, then which messenger should be considered the genuine one? Otherwise, the existence of multiple messengers naturally brings into question the entire scheme and raises questions about their claims. Moreover, multiple messengers would also imply multiple Gods, which leads us again to the question: which God is the genuine one? Again, the fact that messengers all claim their God to be the only way, the only truth, and the only life brings forth the need for them to prove their respective claims. And that is, indeed, impossible because their doctrine is not built on any proof but on claims. Consequently, they demand that we simply believe their claim: faith. In other words, the moment the competing claims face unanswerable questions, faith is erected as an impenetrable wall. One would think that the power to reveal God would be reserved to one endowed with the abilities to answer the questions upon which their credibility and the truth of their revelation stand.
Further, a philosophy that claims to be the only truth, one that aims to take over the world based solely on faith, is problematic and dangerous. The moment it comes across another competing philosophy, many of its high-sounding arguments/claims are reduced to few options: to pray for the ‘uncircumcised’ so that the power of prayer may convince and lead them to convert, or to violently convert them by ‘fire and force.’ This explains the use of violence by faith-based religions to proselytize people because, when challenged, they cannot revert to reason. It is not by accident that the Catholic Church benefited from the violence of the colonial regime to convert Africans, many of whom had resisted peaceful missionary overtures prior to colonization.
The ascending approach
The ascending approach represents the notion that humanity, from their observation of nature and social interactions in life, comes up with a way of integrating the notion of the divine into their reality: man reaches up to God and conceptualizes a divine being based on the former’s life experiences. Unlike the unproven and unprovable claims of the messenger, in this perspective, there is no claim to have known God. God becomes a creation of man around shared values and beliefs of a community; people speak of the same God the same way they speak the same language, create songs, name things and people, and even choreograph dance moves that, in a shared conception, refer to an ideal.
Moreover, the ascending approach has no messenger or guarantor. It is open to dialogue and change. Because spirituality is mixed with culture, its precepts are engraved in people’s hearts. As a matter of fact, it is their culture. In other words, spirituality as a culture achieves what the Christian faith aims to but has always failed to accomplish because it has remained an occupying, invasive phenomenon.
In Hebrews 10:16, Paul exposes the contrast between the Old and New Sacrifices: “This is the covenant I will make with them after that time, says the Lord. I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds.”
This passage is significant in as far as it demonstrates the utter confusion of African Christians who torture themselves into a spiritual culture that is not theirs. While the core of their humanity yearns for its indigenous spiritual worldview, Africans ferociously mimic an alien spirituality that can never be part of their sociocultural sensibilities.
Although the ascending approach brings harmony and order, one might argue that it makes the people vulnerable and exposed to domination. The welcoming culture of tolerance and the propensity to accommodate outsiders are premised on the false assumption that we all share a similar benevolence, a misjudgment that left our ancestors unprepared for the confrontation that was to follow.
Further, the African Christian has mimicked the question that sets the ground for confrontation with his/her own people: ‘Do you believe in God?’ is a rather typical question asked by African Christian believers to a new acquaintance. In their subconscious, it is obvious that there is only one God: their God. Ironically, the natural response of an African who isn’t spiritually occupied would be, ‘Which God are you referring to?’ Of course, at this point in time, such an answer would sound ridiculous to African Christian believers, which is yet another piece of evidence of how detached they have become from the indigenous African concept of the divine.
In the final analysis, it now seems obvious that – whether one considers the reliance on faith in the descending approach or the constructive nature of God in the ascending approach – both approaches essentially create God. The key difference is that the descending approach invites confrontation with competing belief systems, while the ascending method accommodates them. Indeed, the fact that the latter doesn’t claim to be the only way to the divine invites dialogue with other belief systems. It invites the good from each belief system and denounces the bad. Indeed, not bound by anyone or any book, its proponents have greater prospects for learning from mistakes they make along the way and reinventing themselves. Most importantly, this kind of spirituality encourages its followers to think critically about their behaviour even as they claim to abide by its unwritten precepts; this is only possible because it doesn’t pretend to be sacred. Replacing this spiritualty for another, whose central tent is faith that shuts down the minds of Africans, ranks high among the greatest of human tragedies.