chapter  13
African Spirituality, Religion and Innovation
ByElizabeth Amoah
Pages 14

As someone who comes from the African continent, which displays complex and diverse realities that are going through constant and rapid changes, I find the theme of religion and innovation appropriate and challenging. It is appropriate because, first, the rapid changes in the social institutions in Africa affect in one way or the other the religious traditions on the continent. This demonstrates that religion and other aspects of culture sometimes do critique and change each other and that the process of innovation in religion is, in a way, a response to changing historical systems. By saying this, I am not ignoring the fact that religious innovators go through genuine religious and spiritual experiences. However, the fact that the existing cultural and social contexts give clarity and meaning to such experiences cannot be totally ignored. Second, the reality of religious plurality can be seen everywhere in Africa and

consequently complex religious realities have emerged from the encounter between the various religious traditions. For example, the encounter between the indigenous African religions and Christianity in particular continues to result in the emergence of new religious movements that are not just ‘Christian’, not just ‘traditional’, but more nuanced and intricate religious realities. That is to say that African people have changed Christianity as presented to them by Europeans. They have set their own priorities and have interpreted the Gospel in a way that is relevant to their own realities. Similarly, the indigenous religions have gone through changes and modifications. This is not to say, however, that the process of exchange between different

religious traditions is unique to the African continent. Africans did (and are doing) what everyone has done. Indeed, Christianity in its historical development has gone through similar processes in whichever cultural situation it has been introduced. In this regard, John Pobee (1979, p. 56) writes:

The point I am trying to make is that any religion that is ‘dissolved in the solvent’ of the existing culture, in this case the culture of pluralism, will surely go through the process of innovation. Depending on the prevailing situation, some aspects of that religion will inevitably be rejected, adapted or modified. Since plurality and change are global phenomena, it is apt to argue that

innovation in religion is a universal situation. Therefore, the theme is not only appropriate to my context alone but to other contexts as well. Who would have thought, for example, that an opening worship of the recent Lambeth Conference of the Anglican Communion would incorporate Afro-Brazilian dance, African music and drums, Swahili and Arabic languages as prominent media of expression in an ancient Anglican cathedral in Britain? Or that Anglican Bishops would be asked to visit disco bars and clubs in the attempt to reach out to the youth? This is surely evidence of the global nature of innovation in religion. Our changing world is becoming increasingly complex and pluralistic and this makes innovation in religion inevitable. Again, the complicated and fluid nature of the realities in our world today

makes the theme challenging. It poses fundamental issues. For example, there is the tendency to generalize and oversimplify any discussion on the varying religious realities in Africa. Also, given the vast array of data, the choice as to which theory or model is appropriate for analysing the process of religious innovation in Africa becomes problematic. So it is expedient to briefly declare my interests as well as the theoretical frame for the discussion. For the past years, I have been researching into and teaching phenomenology of religion, African traditional religion and the history of the Church in Africa, particularly West Africa. My researches have taken me to visit shrines and churches, including my own Methodist church in Ghana. I have participated in various activities organized by a number of the African Instituted churches – activities that range from healing services, ‘all night’ prayer and deliverance services, to rolling on the beach.1 In the traditional shrines, I have also observed the performance of different rituals such as munnsuyi, a ritual performed in Akan traditional religion to drive away evil spirits or to avert an impending misfortune for individuals and the community at large. Again, my research on women and religion in Ghana has taken me to some Ghanaian Muslims who are popularly, but inappropriately, called mallams.2 In their role as Muslim ‘medicine men’, they sometimes write versions from the Qur’an on slates, wash these passages away with water, and bottle the concoctions as love potions for their clients. The context of my research is basically Ghana, but my findings would seem

to be true of many African societies. From my research, I have come to realize that, first, the process of Christian and Islamic mission in Africa has been a phenomenon of exchange whose focus has been between non-African and African thought-forms. More importantly, however, within the minds of African persons, traditional African realities have continued to exist in

exchange with Christian and Islamic expressions. Second, some African Christians and Muslims continue to practise, even if in modified forms, some of the resilient cultural practices that are intertwined with indigenous religions. I have in mind rites de passage at such times as birth, death and puberty, as well as marriage. Again, it has also been observed that some of the essential Christian and Islamic symbols such as the Bible and the Qur’an are found in the traditional shrines and they have become part and parcel of the existing traditional religious symbols. A crucial implication from these observations is that African persons did not

simply embrace these two foreign religions passively. Religions in Africa are not in watertight compartments. Rather, they influence each other to some degree. More so, these religions and cultures have a strong grip on African persons, despite the strong influence of modernity. I agree therefore with Professor Assimeng when he says:

In other words, traditional African culture, though not static, is crucial in shaping life’s pursuits and priorities. It is precisely in support of the fact of continuity, particularly in religion, that Eugene Nida argues that when persons adopt a new religion ‘they give new meaning to old traits or they attach old meanings to new events’ (Nida 1963, p. 241). That is to say, there will always be what is described as a ‘carry-over’ from the former to the new religion. In my opinion, this observation is a true picture of the African situation where many African persons move from one religion to another. A related question to this observation – a question that has occupied the minds of scholars of religion for some years – is: what is religion to the African? In other words, what do Africans want in religion? I submit that in any discussion on innovation in religion, the correlation between the desires and aspiration or the wanting and the practice of religion is a very crucial issue that needs to be critically examined. Having said this, I shall now discuss the thrust of this chapter. From the

short re´sume´ of my research interest, it is obvious that my approach is phenomenological. Thus, I am quite aware that my claims as an outsider may be different from that of the religious innovators. The main thesis of this chapter is that in the course of changes that have beset African societies, the resilient aspects of the traditional African religious heritage have often shown themselves to be very much alive in the Christian renewal movements on the continent. The rest of the chapter thus is set out in two main sections plus a

brief conclusion. The first section deals with terminology and clarifies the use of pertinent terms such as ‘indigenous spirituality’, ‘religion’ and ‘innovation’. The second section deals with charismatic renewal movements in Ghana, in which I discuss some of the elements of indigenous African religions that have been ‘carried over’ to these movements. The conclusion revisits pertinent questions and issues posed by the process of innovation in religion.