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Perspectives from the World's Religious Traditions
By Jeff Levin, Stephen G. Post
Templeton PressCopyright © 2010 Templeton Press
All rights reserved.
"If God Did Not Love Me, God Would Not Have Made Me!"
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Exploring Divine Love in African Religion
John S. Mbiti
IN THE LARGELY ORAL traditions of African peoples, there are obviously no written views about divine love or other topics. I have also found no extended discussions of this theme by individuals, communities, or academic institutions, other than references to the love of God in Christian circles.
Nevertheless, in their traditional life, people are aware of the divine love, and do say something about it, without necessarily using this terminology. The notion belongs to the wide spectrum of ethical concepts that includes God's love, mercy, kindness, providence, generosity, creative activity, and saving acts (salvation). We find such views in the vast areas of proverbs, beliefs, ethics, myths, stories, and symbols that every community cherishes. People speak about life in ways that point to their love-based relationship with God. In this oral context, such opinions are community opinions since they cannot be tied to an individual by virtue of his or her writing them down.
In each of Africa's roughly two thousand languages (plus many more dialects), there are obviously words for love and related concepts, with various usages. Similarly, in every one of these languages and among the peoples who speak them, there is at least one word for God and many ideas about God. Thus, "love" and "God" are common concepts in African life and religiosity. This chapter examines three areas in which the concept of divine love would be concealed in traditional life: proverbs, prayers, and names of God. As a point of entrance, we consider first the concept of God's relationship to human beings (persons).
A strong feature of traditional African life is its religiosity (or religiousness), which is today commonly called "African religion." It defines the landscape of people's lives at the deep level of their awareness of existence, worldviews, and participation in life. We find religion in various forms in every ethnic community or people (not to use the discarded word "tribe"). Yet, over the vast continent, there exists an assortment of commonalities and similarities of belief, praxis, worldviews, and values, to make it possible to speak of African religion in the singular, allowing for variations in location and time.
God and the Creation Of Persons
One of these strong commonalities of African religion is people's acknowledgment of God. We find this religious component in every people and language, constituting a monotheistic view of and belief in God. Everywhere, people confess or acknowledge God to be the Creator and Sustainer of all things. While they have no physical representations of God, people use symbolic language and anthropomorphisms to speak about God. Through such uncomplicated affirmations or anthropomorphic symbols, communities disseminate and perpetuate knowledge about God, which they articulate especially in proverbs, sayings, prayers, and names of God. Proverbs are short and easily memorable. Everybody can use proverbs spontaneously at any occasion as he or she may see fit, but family and ritual elders generally say the prayers for their families and communities.
Besides speaking of the many activities (works) of God, people reflect also about the nature and being of God. In many cases, they use symbols and anthropomorphisms to fathom the mysteries of God. They have also many concepts that describe the ethical nature of God. In this range of concepts we unearth how people speak of God as being kind, loving, good, and just. In relation to people, they perceive and describe God as Parent, Mother, Father, Ruler, Judge, Friend, Savior, Protector, Giver of Children and Rain, Healer, and Preserver. They pray and perform rituals, calling upon God in whom they trust.
All these references to God indicate and illustrate how the belief in God is the anchor of African religiosity. It is a communal value, an integral part of people's heritage and identity. It plays an essential role in explaining the world, in putting ethical values into action, and in relating to the day-to-day situations and experiences of life. People refer to God in all situations, in connection with life experiences and puzzles. This strong belief in God colors traditional views about the world and human persons, starting with the creation of the world.
We spotlight the creation of humans, in which innumerable myths feature God as the ultimate Creator. In some myths, God created persons from clay; in some, God created the first persons and pulled them out from a hole, or from marshes, or from a tree (of life). In other myths, people tell that God made the first persons in heaven and brought them to earth. Still other myths present the creation of persons in a process over a period of days, to equip them fully to live on the earth. Many variations of these mythical accounts of creation exist, and some of them incorporate spiritual (or ancient human) figures in the work of creation, whom God assigned particular roles in the creation process.
Creation stories commonly tell that the original state of persons was one of happiness. God granted them immortality, or rejuvenation upon getting old, or the ability to rise again after dying. God provided for their necessities of life. That is already a demonstration of divine love at the initial creation. But persons lost this original state of bliss. In some cases that happened through their own fault, in others through an animal (like the chameleon, the hare, or the hyena), or by accident. Calamitous consequences followed when that happened. Among them, there came the separation of God from persons, the disconnection between heaven and earth, and the loss of resurrection and rejuvenation. Death, diseases, misfortunes, and the termination of free provisions also resulted.
For example, the Shilluk people in the Sudan narrate that God made the first persons (male and female) out of clay. Then God gave them legs with which to walk and run, hands with which to plant grain, eyes with which to see that grain, and a mouth with which to eat it. Afterward God gave them the tongue, with which to sing and talk; and finally ears, so that they may enjoy the sound of music, dance, and the speech of great men and women. Then God sent them out, as complete persons, encased with full dignity, or, one would say, "divine dignity."
In various ways, people express this notion of the completed, perfected, and dignified nature of the first humans. Some depict them as "children of God," living with God as a family; some depict them as existing in harmony with God and the rest of creation; and some assign to them privileged duties, positions, or oversight toward other creatures. But that was not an assignment of dominion over other creatures.
Creation as Basis for Divine Love
African ideas revolving around creation, especially the creation of human beings, point to this as the most explicit expression of divine love. The simple saying that many people would be heard to utter is an obvious statement, but it amounts to a profound confession of faith: "If God did not love me, God would not have made me!" The traditional adherents of African religion often talk like that in response to other persons (Christians) trying to convert them, by telling them that God loves them. Converts to Christianity would also talk like that, through sermons and teaching about the love of God in the Christian tradition. In both cases, the people are saying in effect that being alive is witness enough to the fact that God loves them. Divine love is for them an ontological fact of life—an obvious reality by which they live. It is an integral part of their identity, for without it they would not exist. Itself, life is an expression of divine love. That love is personalized in the creation of the individual person. Any message based on that fact makes sense; it is welcome. It fits into their religious worldviews. People thus confess their conviction, positive rephrasing of which would read as follows:
God made me, because God loves me.
God loves me, since God made me.
God "must" love me, for God to have made me.
Because God made me, God loves me.
Since God made me, God really loves me.
I am the living evidence that God loves me.
This conviction is expressed in proverbs such as, "God conceals himself from the mind of man, but reveals himself to his heart." A person may not (cannot) comprehend or feel God with the head. But a person feels God's love through the heart. The mental picture of God is fleeting, but the love of God in the heart is continuing. The head aspires to grasp the greatness and the being of God, an exercise that can be neutral or detached. Head knowledge may not reach the heart. The heart, on the other hand, is open to emotions, one of which is love. To say that God "reveals God's self" to a person's heart is to say that God penetrates into the seat of emotions. A contrast emerges here: with regard to the human mind, God "conceals" God's self; with regard to the human heart, God "reveals" God's self. People cannot "research" God through the mind. But people can get in touch with God through the heart, and love can best achieve that. God loves persons and therefore reveals God's self to them through the receptacle of love. God "pours" God's self out toward people, and that happens in the heart. The heart is the receptacle of not only love but also other emotions, which are attributed to and derive from God. These include God's compassion, mercy, kindness, care, and goodness.
There are many dangers and threats to life, such as famines, wars, diseases, accidents, disasters, catastrophes, and human injustices. People experience and appreciate the kindness and compassion of God in the face of these hardships and threats. For example, out of God's kindness, God supplies the family with what it needs; as an Oromo (Ethiopia) proverb says, "By the kindness of God the house (family) is satisfied." Even individuals are aware of God's kindness for their lives and they trust God to meet their needs, in spite of what other people may do to them. We consider later other proverbs that take up this idea.
Names of God that Explicitly or Implicitly Point to Divine Love
Name Giving in African Society
One of the widespread African customs is the giving of personal names that describe the outstanding features or activities of the person, or that anticipate such meanings. Traditionally the giving of additional names can take place at any age, after the initial naming of the child. The name may even be a strengthening of the current name. People assign names to fit some features such as the seasons, diseases, places, animals, human and natural events, physical features, general characteristics like the beautiful (poetical) sound of the name, and names of historical or mythical figures. A person may be named "Locust" if he or she was born at a time when there was a locust invasion in the land. A person may be named "Morning" if born in the morning. A person may be named "Runner" if in the course of growing up he or she develops superior running skills. A person may be named "Happy One" if, as a child, he or she was notably cheerful and happy. Another may get the name of a departed member of the family, such as a parent, grandparent, or sibling who died before. This is a way of remembering the departed (living dead), and saying that the departed has now symbolically returned through the birth of the new baby.
There are also names that outwardly seem unpleasant, but they serve to stress the contrary, such as "The Ugly One," "The Bad One," "The Hated One," and so on. Such names evoke or indicate feelings of love but without verbalizing them and without praising the person, lest something bad befalls her or him. "The Ugly One" tells how the parents consider the child to be so beautiful that they dare not call him or her "The Beautiful One," in order to avoid a misfortune striking the child. Some names, on the other hand, specifically give titles, honor, respect, praise, and flattery, particularly those that are self-given by or accorded to public figures, such as "Defender of the Land," "Father (never Mother?) of the Nation," "Great Hero," and so on. Names may also describe the wicked doings of political figures like "Slaughterer," "Disappear" (because he takes away other people who are never seen again alive), or "Sharp Knife." Some such names are not necessarily used openly for fear of the consequences.
Most African names have a lot of compact meaning in them. They may summarize the character of the person, the circumstances of the person's birth or life experiences, the historical happenings at the time of birth or even later, the activities of the family members, or weather conditions, prevailing diseases, wishful thinking, etc. Names also have power in them; in many cases they are the identity of the persons who bear them.
When we transpose this custom or system of using names to point to real (or imaginary) identities of persons onto the names given to God, we are faced with very solid concepts about God. The names have evolved in the course of generations. Since they are common property of the ethnic group or community concerned, they come out of community wisdom and views about God. They are the theological expressions of the people. Most likely they evolve through an informal process of careful formulation, and the names become theological pointers about God. I have collected about two thousand such names of God, personal and attributive names, from all over Africa. From this list, I give examples of names that point to people's recognition or affirmation of divine love.
Human Confidence and Trust in God as Friend
Akan (Ghana): Nyaamanekose (He in whom you confide troubles which come upon you)
Banyarwanda (Rwanda): Ndagijimana (in God I entrust my property)
Banyoro (Uganda): W'omukago (the Friend)
This set of descriptive names of God reveals people's attitudes toward God. They have complete confidence and trust in God, which arises from the unspoken certainty that God loves them and loves the created world. To name God "friend" is to elevate people's confidence in God to great heights, acknowledging that God loves them like a real friend in human relations. They feel safe and secure before God. People sense that God accepts and recognizes them, that their identity before God is valuable. The concept puts the people in a reciprocal status as friends of the Creator Friend. People are free to respond to that friendship. Other concepts derive from this name, some of which we consider below.
God as Consoler, Comforter, Savior
Akan (Ghana): Abommubuwafre (Consoler or Comforter who gives salvation)
Banyoro (Uganda): Mujuni (the Author of safety and security, the Savior)
Ganda (Uganda): Ssewaunaku (He who has pity on the poor and the suffering)
Ila (Zambia): Luvhunabaumba (Deliverer of those in trouble)
These names point to people's feelings toward God, feelings of being safe and secure in the sight of God. Only where there is love do people feel secure. Not only that, but God saves them and delivers them when trouble or danger arises. Only through definite love would God do that freely, and the people do not have to pay God for such delivering and saving acts. There can be no deliverance or salvation without divine love. People experience and take note of such deliverance and salvation from dangers and threats to life, of which there are many. These include sickness, accidents, death, famines, threats from animals and natural catastrophe, threats from human beings, and weather conditions such as storms and droughts; dangers may befall people in journeys, in the night, in hunting or fishing expeditions, and even in disputes and fights with fellow human persons. Expressed negatively, if God did not love them, God would not deliver or save them from such dangers.
God as Giver
Abaluyia (Kenya): Giver of all things
Akan (Ghana): Amosu (Giver of rain), Amaomee (Giver of sufficiency), Totorobonsu (causes rain to fall copiously); Giver of the Sun and Light, Giver of Sunshine
Banyoro (Uganda): Mugabi (He who distributes things), Muliisa (He who feeds), W'emigisa (He who has and gives blessings)
Bemba (Zambia): Kaleka-Misuma (He who gives complete [whole] gifts), Kapekape (He gives to each and every creature all their needs), Nalusandulula (Multiplier, He who makes all things multiply)
Ewe (Benin, Ghana, Togo): Mawu (Sky, Rain, All-wise Creator and Giver of all good things)
Shilluk (Sudan): Giver Who looks after the country
Shona (Zimbabwe): Gracious One
With these names and attributes of God, people are expressing God's constant provision toward them and the world. One major item in the background is the supply of rain (water), on which people depend for their lives. Rain is life for the community, for the land. And when the Akan of Ghana speak of God as "Totorobonsu" (causes rain to fall copiously), they are symbolically saying, in effect, that divine love is as plentiful as the rain, that it is for all people, for the whole land, for the whole earth. Divine love is the water of life, and God gives it freely and generously.
Excerpted from Divine Love by Jeff Levin, Stephen G. Post. Copyright © 2010 Templeton Press. Excerpted by permission of Templeton Press.
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