The Supreme Being In African Traditional Religion And Christianity

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Table of contents

  1. Diverse African Traditional Religions and Christianity's Universality
  2. Historical Roots and Evolution of African Traditional Religion
  3. Contrasting Beliefs: Christianity vs. African Traditional Religion
  4. The Role of God in Both Religions
  5. The Hierarchy of Spiritual Beings in African Traditional Religion
  6. Salvation and Ancestral Communion in African Traditional Religion
  7. Conclusion: Shared Belief in a Supreme Being

Diverse African Traditional Religions and Christianity's Universality

There is no one “African Traditional; Religion”, there are many, and Christianity could be said to be one of them, since it has been in Africa as long as it has been in Europe, and almost as long as it has been in Asia. African Traditional Religion has no specific founder whereas Christianity has its founder who is Supreme God. Christians believed in one God whereas African traditional religious people believed in many gods for example god of rainmaker, god of the sun and god of fertility according to some scholars.

Historical Roots and Evolution of African Traditional Religion

African Traditional Religion is the oldest religion practiced in Africa and it has spread across the world through migration and slavery. This ancient way of worship of the African people have some similarities with many global religions because it served as a way of life, a model and path for enlightenment for the faithful. It promised them better afterlife and also redemption from forces of oppression and aggression which plagued humanity for ages of our existence. (Adamo D.T 2001)

Contrasting Beliefs: Christianity vs. African Traditional Religion

And the main difference between Christianity and most of the others is that Christianity is universal, and is not confined to the descendants of any particular physical ancestor, since the Church is a spiritual fellowship of people from every tribe, nation, people and languages In Christianity God is the covenant maker and He gives the power to keep the covenant. Many forms of African Traditional Religion teach that the spirits of the dead can be born back into the realm of the living.

The Biblical teaching is that human have one life on earth, a single judgment, and then everlasting rest or punishment of the soul. In Christianity possession of the Holy Spirit of God is both the sign of being “sons of God” and the source of power and comfort. Christianity is for All Ethnic Groups and African Traditional Religions are specific to each ethnic group on the continent. No ethnic group is motivated to teach another ethnic group its forms of religion and convert them. In African Traditional Religion there is a difference in the severity or degree of a sins. If one does harm to someone in your his own ethnic group, it a more serious sin than if one commits it against someone of another group (Mbiti 1970).

In the Christian sin is against and in rebellion to God. In Christianity all sins are equal. Sacrifices are offered in African Traditional Religion in order placate, appease, or ask favours’ of the spirits. They are often offered when a wrong is committed. The will of God, as revealed in the Bible, is that all people be forgiven and saved through the sacrifice of His son. Christianity is the fulfilment of God’s prophesy to liberate man and to reinstate his freedom, to fulfil his destiny to be Children of God. In the formation of Christianity many Jewish traditions were copied or inherited as it was essentially born out of Judaism - Jesus was a Jew - the first Christians were Jews. The sacrifice of the Mass has many of the features of the temple with an altar, a tabernacle, vestments, incense, prayer all of which functions in the framework of the laws as given to Moses, which we know as the Ten Commandments. Christians believe in the Trinity - one God, the same God as the Jews, but in three persons. The incarnation of God in Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus left us to be and remain with us. (Van Der Watts 2003)

The Role of God in Both Religions

Both religions believe in a God who takes care of his children, when we believe and trust in Him. The act of feeding His people, as was accomplished in the desert, is continued through the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, where Jesus feeds us with Himself. Christianity introduced Baptism, to consecrate believers and retains the Priesthood, marriage and the right of transition, but through the will of Jesus introduced the Sacrament of Penance so that through the mercy of God we may be continually healed of our sin the supreme God and human beings. (Adamo 2001)

The concept of human beings in AIR is also important, because it is generally acknowledged that God is the originator of humanity, despite the fact that the exact method of that creation may be different from place to place (Mbiti 1990:120; Muzorewa 1985:16–17). To be a human being is to share a sense of a community. What makes a human being is incorporated in the ‘complex unity of the tribe, outside of which all others are strangers and inferiors, if not enemies’ (Sidhom 1969:99). This relationship can be extended to the invisible world, the spirit world in all the hierarchical order, namely God, Deity and Ancestors (Oborji 2002:17). When there is estrangement between God and the spirit beings, there is a need to pacify and recapture the lost relationship between God and humankind by sacrifice, performing rituals and medicine (Orji 2002:18).

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The Hierarchy of Spiritual Beings in African Traditional Religion

First and central amongst the themes in AIR is God and human beings. The basic structure of AIR amongst the Yoruba people of Nigeria has the Supreme Being as the head of all things, the creator (Van der Walt 2003:63) and the controller, the everlasting, the omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent and ever-acting God, even if all divinities and the ancestors became silent. Like in the Old Testament, the basic belief in the Supreme Being, God, is not disputed all over Africa. He is the unique and the incomparable one. B.J van der Walt’s diagram has the Supreme Being as the head and the rest of the spirit world and human community follow him (Van der Walt 2003:64

The divinities the next in rank to the Supreme Being, God, are the divinities. The divinities are brought to life by the Supreme Being. Amongst the Yoruba people of Nigeria, Orisa-nla is one of the divinities and the next in rank to God, but created by God, who left the universe in their hands to be refashioned. All the divinities are functionaries and act as intermediaries between the Supreme Being and the rest of the universe, including human beings. They have no power of their own, except what the Supreme Being permits them to do. Yet they are very important as far as the orderly function of the universe is concern The final end and tch and every person is to reach the spirit world of one’s ancestors, to be venerated by one’s descendants as an ancestor and eventually be reincarnated (Oborji 2002:24); therefore, ancestors are people who have made it to the spirit land and are venerated by their descendants. They are regarded as part of the elders of the families with enhanced powers to bless, protect or punish the families. They are invoked to share at gatherings, ceremonies and ritual communion and are seen as symbol of peace, unity and prosperity in the family. The ancestors are not worshipped, but highly respected as members of the families. They are next to the divinities in the hierarchy (Oborji 2002:24). Ancestors act as intermediaries between God and the members of their family

Salvation and Ancestral Communion in African Traditional Religion

From all the preliminary statements above, one will be correct to say that African religious systems of ancestors were not merely tolerated by God; ‘they were the results of efforts of African cultures wherein the Spirit of God was an active agent’ (Kalilombe 1981:67). The fact is that AIR has been a medium, through which God has been communicating with the traditional Africans until the advent of Christianity (Kalilombe 1981:65). Therefore, AIR is based on that revelation and according to Oborji, it is also based on the Africans’ pre-Christian idea of salvation and the security of life and a religion on quest for long life (Oborji 2002:28). Oborji (2002) described salvation in AIR:

Final end and the aspiration of all, every person, is to reach the spirit-land of the one’s ancestor, to be venerated by one’s descendants as an ancestor, and eventually (at least in some traditions) to be reincarnated. Ancestors therefore, are people who have made it to the Spirit land and being venerated by their descendants. The ancestors are not worshipped by the Africans; rather they are regarded as the elder members of the family. As spirits, they have enhanced powers which they are believed to use mainly to protect the interest of their families, or clan. In the hierarchy of beings, after the Supreme Being and the deities, come the ancestors. (Oborji 2002:24)

Death is not the only requirement for achieving salvation or attaining the position of ancestors. Old age, life lived very well according to the accepted standard of the group, off-spring and appropriate funeral ritual are other important requirements for the salvation (Mbiti 1991:68–69). The highest one can hope for at death in AIR, is ancestral communion, life in s the spirit-world of ancestors (Oborji 2002:29). This might be one of the reasons why Vatican II answer the question affirmatively that:

Those also can attain to everlasting salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and, moved by grace, strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience. (Kalilombe 1981:51)

Conclusion: Shared Belief in a Supreme Being

In conclusion both religion believed in God be it Christianity or African Traditional Religion although they followed different approach.


  1. Adamo, D.T., 2001a, Africa and Africans in the Old Testament, Wipf and Stock Publishers, Eugene, OR.
  2. Adamo, D.T., 2001b, Explorations in African Biblical Studies, Wipf and Stock Publishers, Eugene, OR.
  3. Adamo, D.T., 1989, ‘Salvation According to Christianity and Buddhism’, The Journal of Religious Studies, 17(2), 82–88.
  4. Adamo, D.T., 1983, ‘The Church in Africa and African Traditional Religious Beliefs and Practices’, Rel. D. dissertation, Indiana Christian University.
  5. Ariarajah, S.W., 1976, ‘Toward a Theology of Dialogue’, paper presented at a Consultation on Asian and African Contributions to Contemporary Theology, Ecumenical Institute, Bossey, 1976, pp. 3–11.
  6. Ashcroft, B., Griffiths, G. & Tiffins, H., 1989, Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures, Routledge, London, UK. doi:10.4324/9780203426081
  7. Awolalu, J.O., 1991, ‘The encounter Between African Traditional Religion and other Religions in Nigeria’, in J.K. Olupona (ed.), African Traditional Religion in Contemporary Society, pp. 30–40, Paragon House.
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