Whats the difference between Traditional African religion and Christianity?

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A very inspiring discussion took place on SA FM’s Morning Talk on the 24th of September 2013. In the guest list was a panel of experts and those included Mr Ntshangase – a retired lecturer at the University of Kwazulu Natal and Chief Sefogole Makgeru – deputy Chairperson of the House of Traditional Leaders. By conception the discussion was relevant given the fact that South Africa was celebrating Heritage Day – a day that was formerly known as Shaka Day and since adjusted into Heritage Day with the dawn of democracy in 1994. The question asked: what is the difference between Traditional African religion and Christianity? was pertinent to present day South Africa where we have a diversity of belief systems manifesting themselves into different religions.

It is very interesting the topic of religion and given the sensitivity of the topic, it was to be expected that the discussion would become heated. But what is the difference between Traditional African religion and Christianity? According to Christianity, believers are taught to connect to God through the one and only son of God Jesus Christ. In contrast, Traditional African religion puts emphasis on praying to God through the ancestors who due to their perceived spiritual essence, are acknowledged as a closer link to God. But it doesnt stop there, on the one hand, Christians have been taught to believe that the manner in which Traditional African religion connects with God is inappropriate and thus there is a need to “repent” or “convert” or “be born again” – a call that appears, at least from where one stands, more subjective than fair. It is this sort of persuasive language that leaves one with more questions than answers given the fact that on the other hand, there is less evidence to suggest that Traditional African religion perceives Christianity as inappropriate. In the Christian faith, there are quite a number of words and concepts used to refer to other religions as inferior. Words like “demons”,” heathen” and “pagan” have been recorded in the Bible – which is instrumental in Christianity. Although some people have gone on to deny Christianity calls Traditional African religion names, it became clear that there is a polarity of views within the Christian cohort. We could sense that when one caller who claimed to be a Christian smsed “ Traditional African religion is demonic period, for one to connect to God they need to be cleansed with the blood of the only messiah – our Lord Jesus Christ” but the laughter that came from Chief Makgeru and Ntate Ntshangase suggested otherwise. According to Chief Makgeru: “African religion is not a church, its a way of live. You don’t need an instrument like the Bible or a Koran to connect to God. It is a home grown faith similar to breathing and therefore was never necessary to go to church to pray, its all in the nature of humans that they know there is a higher being connected to them via the spiritual world: Modimo ”.

The question posed, as provocative as it is, is quite heavy given the fact that there is a dominant worldview that suggests one religion is better than the other. If one was to ask people who follow the Christian doctrine; it is to be expected that the perspective would be skewed towards their choice of religion and vice versa. Through the information explosion that came with the missionary education that was brought to Africa and other parts of the world during the hey days of colonisation and subsequently, Apartheid; it has become a normality for the Christian faith to present itself into a religion “of all” and ultimately; the perception since then has been that for someone to connect with God; they ought to pray God through Jesus Christ. One interesting caller on the radio show responded to the question by claiming that the main purpose of missionary education was not to belittle other religions but to merely teach what the Bible had purported ought to be exported to other nations in the world, for enlightenment?

The connection one can trace between the vociferous conquest of broad based education by western nations into Africa and the belittlement of the existence of African religion by this sort of subjective Christian worldview is immense and has caused so much tension, wars, terror and the eventual hatred between human beings; in particular Africans. In the world today we continue to see a battle of ideology in religion between religions such as Islam, Judaism and Christianity just to mention a few. This battle, one could claim, has nothing to do with natural competition but the desire by one religion to rule over the other. And this has been so since the earliest centuries. As we continue into the 22nd and 23rd centuries, one wonders whether the hatred that has become between people of different religions will ever cede?

There is no religion that is better than the other, that’s a subjective worldview, retorted Ntate Ntshangase. It became clear from the discussion that day as Chief Makgeru concluded, that “the differences in religion will be with us for years to come”. What we have gathered thus far is that the only way to a peaceful future of religious justice is for people to be tolerant towards each other. For most people in the Traditional African religion, the future means that they will have to learn to live with the damage that has been done by certain quarters of the Christian faith. As already divided as we are in the African nation, it would be crazy for anyone to suggest those who have been converted and influenced by the Eurocentric way of life would suddenly revert back to Indigenous Knowledge Systems. By the same token, it is unacceptable that in a democratic society like South Africa, the perception that Traditional African religion is inferior continues to manifest amid the many attempts made since 1994 to address the injustices of the past. It is clear that Christianity is instrumentalist and persuasive in nature while Traditional African religion is introvert and non-partisan. Let everyone stick with what works for them and continue to learn from one another as one human family.

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