IIC Newsletter: December 1998


IIC Annual Autumn Lecture at Mansfield College, Oxford.

By Dr Elizabeth Amoah, University of Ghana.

Respondent: Dr James Cox, Westminster College, Oxford.

On a dark and wet October afternoon, over 70 people came to hear Dr Amoah speak about African Indigenous Religions and Inter-Religious Relations, on the continent of Africa. Dr Amoah began by saying that the indigenous African religious heritage, with its age long plurality, offers useful insights into the search for a viable inter-faith paradigm. She made particular reference to Ghana, the area of her research and, within it, the Akan traditional religion. She highlighted its basic characteristic features:

– A strong belief in the community of spirits which are said to be capable of influencing the lives of people. These spirits range from the creator god, gods/goddesses, the earth deity to the ancestors and they work together for the ‘total well-being of humanity’.

– Emphasis on the spiritual dimension of total human life is expressed culturally and in relationship between people and their physical environment. Religion has a practical rather than meditative or philosophical slant and explanations are sought for the meaning of life and the problems of suffering and evil. Suffering and evil are sometimes interpreted as the results of the activities of bad spirits.

– Religion is generally perceived as a tool for survival and for enhancing life: getting the support of as many spirits as possible to overcome social problems and evil spirits and to gain prosperity, fertility, virility, children, good health, long and peaceful life and eventually a peaceful death and reunion with the ancestors.

– One can belong to many religious traditions at the same time, because life is a constant struggle and any religious tradition that promises a better life will be embraced. It is a sort of insurance policy. ‘The more cults one frequently consults, the more equipped one is for life.’

– Exclusive claims to religious truth are not relevant within the Akan tradition as it emphasises that the spiritual can be communally shared and, therefore, respects other faith traditions.

– Reciprocal relationship is stressed between members of the community. Members commit themselves to supporting each other regardless of religious differences.

Dr Amoah reiterated that such features naturally encourage respect for other peoples faith traditions and this makes it easier to live together for the common good.

She gave examples of how Christian and Muslim converts continue to engage in cultural practices such as rites of passage at birth, puberty and death; the practice of female circumcision to prove belonging to a particular cultural or ethnic group; the necessity of giving appropriate funeral rites to the deceased, regardless of whether those rites are Christian, Muslim or Indigenous. At time of crisis family members instinctively turn to their cultural belief that death is just a moment of transition to another world.

She argued that the inevitable process of exchange of African and non-African thought-forms is a form of interfaith relationship in many African societies. At the grassroots level, people do not see dialogue as an argument between two parties but a process of fruitful exchange of relevant beliefs, concepts, practices and sharing resources that contribute to attainment of an enhanced and peaceful life.

What has already happened cannot be dismissed as problematic syncretism, as previously, for there is no pristine Christianity or Islam. However, there are some Islamic groups, such as the Wahhabis and some Christian groups, who are seriously engaged in purifying their religions to get rid of African influence. On the other hand, the basic Christian and Islamic symbols, the Bible and the Quran, have entered the traditional shrines.

Many African families living together in the same compound belong to different religions: Islam, different denominations of Christianity and African religions. At the grassroots level, they share common meals, participate in common activities such as farming, funeral rites and festivals, their interfaith dialogue being closely bound with the family and working life of the household and the community at large.

Dr Amoah called the interfaith dialogue at the political and public level the ‘diplomatic’ type of dialogue which is usually initiated by governments. Representatives of the three main religions are invited to participate in Ghana’s Independence Day and other political celebrations and they usually sit together on such occasions. At a formal level, religious institutions and universities are involved in interfaith relationships and there is the emergence of the quest for relevant theologies of African reality. African Christian theologians are reinterpreting their heritage for new Christologies, ‘marrying Jesus with their ancestors’.

In her opinion, what seems to be emerging are the two models of pluralism and acceptance: the Pragmatic model, in which individuals of different religions see each other as bringing something good to offer to the community from their respective traditions and also borrow from each other’s traditions and, second, the Respectful co-existence model which is seen in many Ghanaian African families who live together in friendship and co-operation regardless of belonging to different faiths. The leaders of religions join together for national celebrations. This model of religious plurality is an expression of the Akan proverb that ‘one person’s hand is not sufficient enough to stretch across the face of the creator God’.

She express concern about what she considered to be the third model, the crusade/jihad model, which rejects the authenticity of other religious traditions. This model projects aggressive missionary activity and creates religious conflict in many areas of Africa; for example in Algeria, Sudan and Nigeria. There religion has been used to build nation states and kingdoms which then have to be retained. “Such a model is not viable in Africa or any part of the world,” Dr Amoah said, “as it results in inter and intra-religious conflicts.”

She reminded the audience that our world is becoming a global village in which people from different cultures and faith traditions have no choice but to live together and plurality is becoming a local as well as global phenomenon. She also advocated that the persistent crises in our global village should form a common base for religious people to forge peaceful relationships with each other, based on the combination of the first two models. This way, the particularity of a religious tradition is kept and the importance of mission, that focuses on harmony, peace and the well-being of all persons, is maintained. The African experience can be a good source of learning for all of us.

Dr James Cox, a scholar of African religion and spirituality, responded to Dr Amoah’s lecture in a supportive and appreciative manner. He said that she rightly stressed inter-faith relationships rather than dialogue. African religions are community orientated, non-systematic and pragmatic. They are concerned with well-being and health. His own Zimbabwean research has led to the same opinion. Islam and Christianity, the two main universalist religions which interacted with the African traditions, are missionary and systematic and have brought to Africa a magnification of the God concept. The holy spirit is included in the African hierarchy of spirits, family, territory, high God. African religions have adopted and adapted as have Christianity and Islam. Some African initiated churches have incorporated aspects of traditional spirituality from the indigenous African traditions. African society is complex and multi-stranded in which indigenous religions have an important place. He also said that Islam and Christianity have very deep roots in Africa.

There were many questions from the floor on a range of issues including syncretism, witchcraft, evangelism and African churches. It was felt that some of these are western connotations. What really works in a practical sense is what matters to people in Africa.

There are lessons for all of us drawn from the African experience of Inter-faith relations.

Charanjit Ajitsingh.

Staff Profiles

Sandy Martin, Coordinator: Sandy has been working with the IIC since August 1994. She is employed for four days weekly and is particularly responsible for programme development. She is a member of the Executive Committee of the World Congress of Faiths, a copy editor for the Encyclopedia of Hinduism project and a devotee of Paramahansa Yogananda.

Jael Bharat, General Assistant: Jael is Dutch and helps out wherever needed in the office. He is also a regular member of the Religion, Community and Conflict conference series committee. Jael’s chosen last name reveals his close connection with Eastern spirituality. He has been involved in interfaith work in Holland for several years.

Celia Storey, Office Administrator: Celia has been working part-time for the IIC since its inauguration in December 1993. She helps to administer the day to day running of the charity. She is Christian and hopes people of all faiths will come to respect one another and work together, adhering to their faith teaching, for a peaceable and just world.

Jill Gant, Friends Secretary: Jill worked with multi-cultural and multi-faith communities in London and elsewhere during 26 years in social work. As an open, progressive Christian she is very committed to interfaith work. She has been working in the IIC office half a day a week as Friends Secretary since November 1997.

John Gant, Book-keeper: John is a retired airforce officer and head teacher. He is interested in the unity of all creation therefore concerned for inter-religious understanding and co-operation. John does the IIC book-keeping half a day a week.

Special thanks to Marianne Rankin and Paul Trafford for their contributions to the IIC: Marianne painted our new logo and Paul helped us develop our website.