Essentials of African Traditional Religions - Lesson 4

Christian Interaction with ATR

In this lesson, you will learn about the interaction between Christianity and African Traditional Religions (ATR) in Africa. You will be introduced to the characteristics of ATR and its relationship with African culture. The lesson will cover the historical interaction between Christianity and ATR and the different approaches Christians use in their interaction with ATR. Additionally, you will learn about the current interaction between Christianity and ATR, including syncretism, the indigenization of Christianity, and Christian opposition to ATR. Finally, the lesson will conclude by summarizing the key points and implications for the Christian mission in Africa.

Timothy Tennent
Essentials of African Traditional Religions
Lesson 4
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Christian Interaction with ATR

Essentials of African Traditional Religions: WM241-04 Christian Interaction with ATR

I. Introduction

A. Overview of the topic

B. Importance of the topic in Africa

II. Understanding African Traditional Religions (ATR)

A. Characteristics of ATR

B. ATR and African culture

III. Historical Interaction between Christianity and ATR

A. Early European mission activities in Africa

B. Different approaches of Christian interaction with ATR

IV. Current Interaction between Christianity and ATR

A. Syncretism

B. Indigenization of Christianity

C. Christian opposition to ATR

V. Conclusion

A. Summary of key points

B. Implications for Christian mission in Africa

  • In this video, Timothy Tennent provides an overview of the definition, characteristics, and historical context of ATR, as well as its significance for missions. Key takeaways include insights into the beliefs and practices of ATR, and the implications of these beliefs for evangelism and outreach.

  • This lesson covers the essentials of African Traditional Religions, including their definition, characteristics, historical context, and current state.
  • In this lesson, you will learn about African Traditional Religions (ATR), including its definition, historical context, distinct features, practices, and role in promoting social justice.
  • This lesson will give you insight into the role of ancestors in Yoruba cosmology, including the significance of ancestor worship and the role of ancestral altars.
  • This lesson provides an overview of the interaction between Christianity and African Traditional Religions (ATR) in Africa, including its historical background, current state, and implications for the Christian mission in Africa.

In this course, you will gain an understanding of the essentials of African traditional religions, their key beliefs and practices, and their role in shaping African societies. You will explore the beliefs in a Supreme Being, ancestors, and spirits, as well as the rituals and ceremonies that form an integral part of these religions. Additionally, you will learn about the ethical values and social structures that emerge from African traditional religions and how they intersect with Christianity. Finally, you will examine the preservation and future of African traditional religions in the face of modern challenges and opportunities.


Dr. Timothy Tennent
Essentials of African Traditional Religions
Christian Interaction with ATR
Lesson Transcript


In this final part of the summary lectures of African Traditional Religion, our goal is now to engage in the Christian interaction with this material. As I mentioned several times, missionaries came into the African context and the early assessment was a negative assessment of African Traditional Religion. There was a tendency to not take it seriously, and to believe that the Christian gospel essentially would come in and obliterate these lower conceptions of God and practices, and Christianity would come in quite powerfully. But in the more modern period, we’ve developed a much different understanding of African religion, and we’ve seen the resilience of it, and I think it’s worth exploring some of the thought behind this, and how it happened, in terms of respecting the religion and the resilience of it, and the need to take it seriously. There are also a number of things that we’ve raised in passing in the last several hours of this survey that raise very important missiological and theological questions about what happens when Christianity relates itself in a first-contact situation with African Traditional Religion and the various expressions of it.

For example: Can a sky god like Olodumare -- we looked at that as an example, but can any of the sky gods -- be elevated and given universal significance as the god of creation, the God of Biblical revelation, as a way to translate that into current Christian proclamation? We saw in Acts 17 how the apostle Paul was wandering about the marketplace and he sees an inscription to an unknown god, and he uses that as a basis for declaring the universal significance of Yahweh and the lordship of Jesus Christ. Well is this a precedent for what we would find in Africa? In other words, would Christians come and effectively say, “What you worship in ignorance, this I now proclaim to you”? This is something that we need to address.

Another question would be: Is it desirable or certainly permissible to re-direct pagan practices toward Christian ends, rather than a radical abandonment? One of the concerns is that if Africans closely identify their culture with their religious practices, how does one separate them from their religious practices, and yet affirm their African culture? So, can you re-direct some of their practices and fill them with Christian content, Christian meaning? For example, many of the African traditional practices involve ceremonies around the eighth day. We talked about rites of passage and many of them have an “eighth day” ceremony. Can that be re-directed towards the kind of dedication where of course Christ himself was dedicated on the eighth day? Many African tribes will put amulets around a child’s neck, and this amulet is filled with various magical inscriptions which protect the child from evil. Well, would it be appropriate to put around the child’s neck a Christian phylactery with Christian teaching or the Ten Commandments, or the affirmation that Jesus is Lord or whatever, around a child’s neck to demonstrate that he’s protect by the Lord Jesus Christ and the Word of God? Is this contextualization? Is it syncretism? These are things that need to be addressed in this discussion.

In order to approach this discussion, I think the best way is to actually go back into time a bit, into the 1970’s where I think we have probably the most interesting and most vigorous debate about these questions early on between two scholars named Humphrey Fisher and Robin Horton. Now, this debate really is about the vitality of primal religions or folk religions, including and especially related to African Traditional Religion. Robin Horton in April of 1971 published an article entitled “African Conversion”. He published this in the Journal of the International African Institute. Later, Humphrey Fisher wrote a rebuttal to that in January of 1973, called “Conversion Reconsidered”. Horton responded in 1975 with another article coming back and defending his thesis, called “On the Rationality of Conversion”. And then later on, ten years later, Fisher wrote yet another article called “The Juggernaut’s Apologia: Conversion to Islam in Black Africa”, where he again addressed the issue of conversion in Africa.

All of these cases are mainly focused on how African Traditional Religion responded to the presence of Islam. Now in our case, even though I am speaking about this in reference to Christianity, it doesn’t really matter that their focus was mainly on how African religion responded to Islam, because it’s the same basic challenge, whether it be Islam or Christianity. One of the reasons why often studies of religious change are done in Africa in relation to Islam or Christianity is that Africa is more or less a neutral territory. Neither Islam nor Christianity was indigenous to Africa; both had come from the outside to alien cultures. It is much better to look at Islam and Christianity in Africa, for example, than it would be to see how Muslims adapt to Christianity in the Middle East, or how people respond to Islam in the western world, or whatever. So in a sense, Africa becomes a good place to look at how traditional religion adapts or responds to the coming in of monotheistic religion.

Robin Horton (the first man who wrote the article in April of 1971), basically introduces what he calls the “Intellectualist Theory”. Horton’s theory is this: he believes that the African religion was very resilient. He believed in the strength and the resilience of the African religion, and he believed that essentially Islam was forced to adapt itself to the 3-tiered African cosmology. So essentially, Allah enters into the supreme being level of the pantheon. And then he saw how the Islamic view of spirits, and of “gin”, which is very important in Islamic cosmology, gets magnified in Africa and becomes a major portion of the pantheon of divinities. And then you had the ritual power-brokers, where he pointed out how Muslim clerics increasingly took on roles that were normally part of the African traditional religious functionaries. So for example, the Africans would perform divination, and we went into some detail in the summary lectures looking at the divination rites of the Yoruba religion. So to take the Yoruba as an example: when the Muslims arrived (and by the way, Islam is pretty well entrenched in many parts of Yoruba-land) in Yoruba-land, they saw that people did not do anything about consulting divination. And so they developed a similar board, but rather than having the Orisa on the edge of the wooden board, they just simply had the inscription of what is known in Islam as the “Shahadah”: “There is no god but Allah, and Mohammed is the prophet of Allah.” Or they would have “Allahu Akbar”, that is to say “God is Great” written in Arabic on the edge. But essentially the board is the same, and then you have the sand that you spread on the board – this powder that they spread on the board – they would claim that it was actually sand from Mecca in Saudi Arabia. So with some slight adaptations, they would essentially perform divination just the way the Africa traditionalist priest would do. They even had their version of the “quick” divination. They would have 2 threads that were attached to 2 different verses of the Quran, and you would choose one of the threads, and point to a verse in the Quran, which would then be read and interpreted, just the way the clerics in the African Traditional Religion would interpret some of the odus.

So in many ways, what Robin Horton noticed was that there was no major shift in the African world-view that was required when African religious practitioners were met by Islamic missionaries. There merely was a change in emphasis from the second-tier microcosm to the first-tier macrocosm, and Horton argued that this was already underway anyway – that Islam and Christianity were merely catalysts or accelerators for these changes which were already underway. In other words, what he argues is that African religion was already beginning to focus on the high deity and to put more emphasis on the high deity, and to articulate the presence and the role of the high deity in the daily lives of their people, and so Islam just simply fed into that change that was already underway. So, in this case, Horton argues that this is what has happened in African Traditional Religion.

In response to that, Humphrey Fisher simply did not agree. He argued that Christianity and Islam both represent an entirely new world-view, a new cosmology, a new eschatology, a new understanding of revelation and authority, a new understanding of history which totally transcended ethnic or tribal lines. Indeed, it was an entirely new religious framework that was being brought in to Africa. The African world-view simply could not survive the superior world-view and the positive articulation that was involved with Islam or Christianity. So he called this view the “juggernaut view”. And if you know your other religions, you’ll know that a juggernaut is a reference to the Hindu god “Jagannath”, who is a god that was brought out from a famous city in Orissa, India, and they would bring this god out and roll this god out through the streets of the city, and this god could not be stopped – this chariot that the god rode on could not be stopped. So people would throw their children underneath the wheels of this god as acts of sacrifice, and because the wheels would never stop the children would be crushed. So it eventually goes over into English into the word “juggernaut”, which means something that is in motion that is inevitable that cannot be stopped. So Fisher’s idea was that, once Christianity came into the African Traditional Religion context –or Islam, either one, because both of them represented superior religious structures -- he believed that the demise of African religion was inevitable. The juggernaut was in motion; it may take time, but eventually it would happen. So essentially, primal religions were collapsing all over the world under the weight of a superior world-view. This view of Fisher was reflected in a number of books written at that time. Geoffrey Parrinder, for example, a greatly respected authority in religions, he wrote a book entitled “The Gods in Retreat.” He spoke about the twilight of the gods. The idea was that the modern world just simply could not sustain belief in these kind of obscure deities with these obviously a-historical stories and so forth. J.K Perridge once wrote many years ago that traditional religion in Africa is “hardly a force to be reckoned with. “ Dean Gilliland spoke of the funeral of African religion, or last rites of African religion. So, many of these scholars of that time (in the 60’s) believed that in fact we were seeing the end of African Traditional Religion in our day. They believed that this was true because they lacked any central authority, they lacked any universally recognized sacred text or traditions, and they had such simple religious structures that they were very easily replaced by other kinds of beliefs. That was the belief.

But then as time developed, we began to recognize the resilience of these religious structures. And more and more the weight has shifted back toward more of a Horton view, which argued that in fact there was a great revitalization going on, so that these religions tended to survive quite well in the contexts of these other religious ideas. So, modern scholars like Le Monsanet, for example, have argued that the receptor religions have a lot more resilience than perhaps people have recognized. So the result is today we see a much more concerted attempt to address ourselves to the African context, take it more seriously, and to try to see how this can be done. In fact, I would add that in addition to the two basic visions of Horton and Fisher, there is another option that often occurs, the basic idea of the juggernaut view of Fisher, that it’s just a matter of time and that things will eventually collapse, or the idea that somehow or another it’s going to last on. You often also see that many of the traditional practices and traditional rites of the African religions find a new birth, kind of a Phoenix idea, where they do in fact fall to the ground and appear to die but, like the Phoenix of old, they achieve some kind of re-vitalization, because people begin to re-explain many of the rituals of Africa and give them new meaning. So there’s actually in some sense an attempt to esotericize some of what appears on first glance to be crude outward activity and re-interpret it in a much deeper way. So because of that, it would be a bit of an overstatement to jump in and declare the end of the traditional religions around the world.

Paul Hiebert used to say that at the base of every religion is essentially primalism -- that all religions are built on basic primal ideas (all non-Christian religions), and therefore one has to recognize the power of this. In other words, African religion may exist on, even if it’s not under the name of African Traditional Religion. It may exist on in more of a subsidiary way within or under the cloak of another religion. So one of the problems that we’ve found is that because we felt that people claim to be Muslim for example, rather than followers of African Traditional Religion( or Yoruba religion or Olodumare), that this fact represented the death of that religion. But what we’ve found is that people would come into Islam, and proclaim Islam, but the power of the African religion would continue on in a very profound way. It would just operate underneath the world religion rather than overtly be called that.

So in today’s society, with the ongoing secularization and the contact with western civilization and western culture, I would say it would be a big mistake to assume or think that African Traditional Religion, or any of the primal religious belief systems are vanishing from the scene. They’re simply hiding themselves within the other religions, and they are in a sense in people’s blood, as it were. And it therefore affects how people view their world and how they examine it. I would say, for example, when I was in Nigeria I was really quite surprised because in the earlier census that they took in Nigeria, they had a choice as to whether people identified themselves as followers of African Traditional Religion, or whether they were Christian or Muslim. But at some point (I think it was in the late 80’s or early 90’s), this census was changed. Instead, they simply asked people whether they were Muslim, Christian, or “other” -- they simply took out the choice altogether of African religion. So on paper, it seemed that the people who followed Islam or Christianity dramatically increased. But in fact, people simply were no longer given that choice, and more and more people were identifying themselves with a major world religion, and the African Traditional Religions would be hiding beneath the larger expression of the world religion.

Today if you look at the practice of Christianity in Africa, it’s often identified with what’s called the AIC movement – the African Indigenous Church, also called the African Independent Church, or the African-Initiated Church. These are the churches that are not a part of the historic western missionary church-planting in Africa. These are indigenous churches that have arisen in Africa and have their own life and experience within the African context. Now if you look carefully at the African indigenous churches, you’ll find that there are a number of features from traditional religion which are being carried over into the experiences of African indigenous churches. Let me give you a few examples.

For example, one of the features that we noticed in the African Traditional Religions was levels of power and authority, and this gradation from god all the way down to surrounding nature. This has been reflected in some of these indigenous churches. For example, part of the firmament of African indigenous churches is a group of churches known as the Cherubim and Seraphim Churches. These are churches that actually have as part of their worship service the adoration of angels. This is something that would be totally rejected in traditional churches all over the world. And yet this crops up in Africa because it is a natural part of the African system to create various levels of authority and power, so why not include the angels in more of an explicit situation? Contrast that with the west – our own hidden heresies where we ignore angels altogether – we scarcely believe that they even exist, and we have no room for them in our theology. So in some ways, we have to take a little bit of a hit on this, because we didn’t come into Africa as missionaries with any kind of developed angelology – any proper doctrine of angels, even though they’re very prominent in scripture. And so instead, the Africans discovered angels in the Bible and they’ve made a place for them in their worship service. So that’s an example of how you can see this happening.

The indigenous churches often also have a strong emphasis on divine healing, which again I believe is overall a positive development because the traditional practitioners always had methods and ways in which people were healed. So they would have new rituals that were involved in people praying for the sick and so forth, and this is all part of things that were often neglected by the mission churches. Many of the African indigenous churches are often surrounded by certain strong prophetic leaders – great prophets, well-known African leaders who have become leaders and starters of new big vast denominations in Africa. Well these function much like the chiefs do in the African traditional society. So all of this is to say that we’d be very mistaken if we didn’t see how the traditional religion influences, in some cases positively critiques, the western, more sanitized enlightenment version of Christianity; but also some real problems and concerns that we have about Africa’s own version of heresies that come out and come into Christianity.

So, all of this is something that one must consider when looking at African Traditional Religion. And in the process I believe that you’ll see that missionaries and other workers, African Christians have done a great job at trying to wrestle through many of these issues and think about what it means to come into the African context and communicate the gospel, how to relate to the beliefs that are already there, and how to find ways to effectively communicate these properly in the Christian context. And we should be in prayer because the African context is one of the most dynamic, growing contexts of Christianity in the world today.

And so we have got to move away from the old, maybe we should call it the patriarchal or colonial model, where the western church becomes the pattern for church around the world. But instead we have to look for a much more cooperative model, where we learn to listen to our African brothers and sisters – the ways in which they have found problems or deficiencies in the western missionary models -- and yet also enter into a true engagement with the Africans about ways in which their theology can be consistent with larger global Christianity. To use a word that I believe was coined by Roland Robertson, at least in a Christian application in 1995, the word “glocal” is a combination of the words “global” and “local”. And I think this is really the challenge that always remains for those of us who are Christians working in the African context. On the one hand, we have to be true to the local context. We have to find ways to make sure the gospel makes sense in the local context. On the other hand, the gospel is always universal, it’s global. Thus the word “glocal”, the combination of “local and “global”. The church is a global faith. It resonates with truth that’s true whether you live in the first century or the twenty-first century; whether you’re living in New York City or you’re living in Mombasa. Wherever you are, these great universal truths of the gospel are still true just the way they are.

So that becomes the challenge of the Christian faith. And Andrew Walls has pointed out, “The incarnation is not just that God became a man, but that God became a particular man.” There’s no such thing as a generic gospel or a generic incarnation – there’s a very specific one, where God enters in to specific history, takes on specific flesh, and this is the challenge of the gospel in these contexts of African Traditional Religion. On one hand, it is the universal gospel – it’s the good news claims of the first century. And yet it must come into a particular context where it makes sense and it relates to local contexts and answers African needs. One African scholar said that Africa suffers from the “multi-headed hydra” of AIDS, of famine, of corruption, of disease, of war, and all these difficult problems. And all of these require a Christian solution, a Christian answer. And so there are times when western theology and western biblical proclamation in Africa has been, in the words of John Mbiti, “theologically provincial”. That is to say that it is drawn upon western ideas and western problems, and has not really fully addressed itself to the particular challenges which are found in the African context. And so in order to respond to that, you need to develop a more global view of Christianity, and see how Christianity takes on wonderful hues as it enters into Africa. The Africans are bringing great new insights into the Christian faith – how the Christian faith can be best articulated in a way that makes sense to Africa, how they can respond to challenges related to spirit worship, the so-called “excluded middle” spirits and demons, divine healing – all these things need to find their way and work their way out in the local context. And so we need a gospel that it is both global and local. And this is what I think is the challenge for those of us who are interested in seeing the gospel encouraged in the African context.

One of the greatest needs today is that there are so many Africans coming to Christ that there’s a large gap between those who are following Christ initially and coming to Christ and coming to Christ and being brought into churches with effective leadership. There’s a great need for leadership development in the African context – people well-trained in Bible, in theology, in church history -- that can answer some of the very difficult questions that some of these new African believers are bringing to the table. And right now, evangelism in Africa is running at about 24,000 new believers every day. And the result is that we can hardly train leaders fast enough for the growing African church. And if we don’t train leaders more quickly and better, then we’re going to end up with innumerable problems and heresies and difficulties that create problems in the Christian expressions in Africa. So this is a very important theme, and I hope and pray that those of you who are listening to this will be appreciative of the dynamic work that God is doing in Africa, and how He’s using the African past and the African experience to in many ways enrich the Christianity of the twenty-first century. Because in the twenty-first Century, the average Christian will not be a white male from North America or western Europe, but the average Christian will be a young female west African or sub-Saharan African who is a follower of Christ. So more and more we’re going to see the African experience of Christianity to be normative Christianity – one that requires particular challenges and opportunities for us, as part of the global Christian community.

Thank you very much.