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Theological Circle – September 2014

AFRICAN TRADITIONAL RELIGION (ATR)

In the course of looking at world religions, in this meeting we approached the question of ATR.

The meeting began with a very brief overview of the various missionary eras in Africa and their limitations. It was clear that a lack of inculturation hastened the demise of the early North African missionary expansion except for the well inculturated Ethiopian Church. Similar drawbacks could be seen in the 16th & 17th century ventures in sub-Saharan Africa.The vast missionary expansion of the 19th & 20th centuries came with the baggage of colonialism and “civilization”. At the second Vatican Council only 300 bishops from Africa were present and most of these were of European origin. There has been an explosion of interest, inculturation, and study of African Traditional Religion and Spirituality since then.

Fr Sizwe introduced a wide range of African categories from his own Zulu background which helped greatly to appreciate some of the dynamics at work in ATR. He spoke of the various names for God [in Zulu, “the One who appeared first” and also “the One who is big, big, big”]

He also spoke from personal experience of the ancestors: good and bad and the related question of witchcraft. This led to a discussion about the Sangoma [cf. A Sangomas Story by Eliot Ndlovu]. Examples of the use of muti were given to show how many African inhabit several worlds at the same time.

Sizwe also shared about the role of healing in traditional African beliefs. The underlying insight is that whatever happens has a cause and so a cause (causer) must be found for diseases and misfortunes.This led to questions about the role of witchcraft in the case of Benedict Daswa who refused to co-operate in a “witchhunt” to find the person responsible for the burning of some rondavels which had in fact been struck by lightning. Benedict’s cause for canonization is advancing and he is likely to be declared a martyr, dying as he did in defence of the Church’s teaching about witchcraft.

An interesting aspect of inculturating the Gospel in the African traditions is the possibility of referring to Jesus as the Proto-Ancestor, the first among the elders. Elders are held in great respect and are often treated as “the library of the Tribe”.

A spirited discussion took place after Sizwe’s presentation. One thing that emerged clearly was that the problems of inculturation are faced by the Church in all cultures. Sad examples of lost opportunities, and good examples of the gospel being incarnated in cultures free from colonialism were cited.Two writers were recommended: Fr A.E. Orobator S.J. [theology in an African Pot] and any of the writings by Laurenti Magesa [What is not sacred?].

The meeting closed by reciting a prayer compiled from John Mbiti’s book [Introduction to African Religion].

The next meeting , October 13th, will consider some of the Basic Principles at work in intergral Evangelization [Africa’s Good News by Sean Wales, C.Ss.R.]

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