Tuesday, May 22, 2012

African Religions

Continuing my posts for World Religion class, chapter 3 of the Hopfe/Woodward texts discusses African Religions.  After noting their diversity (given that they cover a large continent) and obvious mistakes made in evaluating these religions (either as savage or as idealized), the book looks at some specific examples.  There are two points I'd like to focus on.

First, the book notes that it is common for these religions (as it is for most polytheists according to the book) to claim that there is a High God who is the creator or co-creator but who is now disinterested and not involved in the world.  The book gives examples of such stories.  In each case, this "creator" seems to fashion the world out of pre-existing stuff and is therefore a "maker" rather than the creator that gives being to what did not exist before.  Second, it is notable that this maker is not infinite (all powerful, all good, all knowing), but is limited in power, can be tricked or fooled and so is limited in knowledge, and does not care anymore so is limited in goodness.  Consequently, it can be confusing to liken this High God to any theistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, or Islam).

Three examples from the book are from Mozambique, the Yoruba, and the Nuer.  The first two have the belief that the High God is now distant and uninterested.  The latter believes that the High God is actively involved in life and is the focus of their religion.  My question: is it possible to resolve these two different views of the High God, and if so how?

The second point I wanted to focus on concerns the rituals that address the lesser spirits, ancestors, and life stages (such as coming of age).  Why is this "religion?"  In what way is it different from "science."  It seems to me as I read about these practices that the participants are trying to understand the cause and effect of the world.  However, because they do not believe that the world is limited to the material it is necessary for them also to incorporate the other aspect of reality, the spiritual.  Now, someone might argue that these rituals are not efficacious, but isn't that just an issue of trying to understand cause and effect more fully rather than religion?

I'm not suggesting these are equivalent to modern science, but I am wanting us to explore the claim by some modern scientists that all of existence can be reduced to the material causes seen in nature.  Are religions such as those discussed in this chapter also trying to understand causes, and in what ways might these causes come under question?

These two focal points come together in this way: If God is the creator, what does the creation reveal about God?  Are we merely involved in the creation in order to get what we want out of it, such as beneficial results, or is the creation an object of study because it reveals something about its creator?  And what can it reveal about the creator?