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Four fairly distinct philosophical and scholarly traditions form the background to John S. Mbiti’s classic treatment of the African worldview. The first is the extensive anthropological literature on individual peoples, begun in the colonial period and continuing during African national independence following World War II. This work provided the data from which a more general “African” perspective might be developed. The second sort of research was specifically into religion, as missionaries and scholars became aware that Africans held well-developed religious views that were not merely “primitive” and “superstitious.” A third and related scholarly strand was the growing interest in African philosophy, especially in the question of the ontology or “theory of being” implicit in African beliefs and practices. There was an increasing recognition of Africa’s independence from Europe not only politically but philosophically: Africa was emerging as other than a dependent colonial stepchild. Fourth and finally, Mbiti as a Christian minister and an accomplished theologian was a representative of the long tradition of eschatological speculation into the ultimate destiny of human beings. Mbiti drew on all these traditions but was in the unique position of being a native African religious practitioner who combined all four, in his person and in African Religions and Philosophy.

A Theory of African Religious Life

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The book is a comprehensive treatment of the African understanding of God and humanity. It is comprehensive in the African, but not the Western, mode. It includes very little on politics and economics, and virtually nothing on history and science. Instead, it rests on the premise that to understand (traditional) African life is to accept this truth: Africans live in a religious universe and are participants in a religious drama. The book is intended to demonstrate this first principle, in order discussing time; God; other spiritual beings; human beings and their institutions, especially the family; death and the afterlife; spiritual power and spiritual “specialists”; ethics; and the developing historical situation in Africa. It is, in sum, African life as viewed from the “inside.”

To hold that Africans are a religious people is to say that their understanding of being is spiritual. Mbiti distinguishes five ontological levels, in descending order: God; spirits, including both extra-human beings and deceased humans; living and nascent human beings; the remainder of biological life; and lifeless objects. There is also a sixth sort of being, a power or energy pervading all things. God controls this power, as do spirits to a lesser extent. This ontological hierarchy implies that material objects, with which the modern world is preoccupied, have relatively little reality.

This spiritual ontology illuminates and is illuminated by the African conception of time. That which is most real is spiritual, and that which is spiritual exists most fully in the past. Furthermore, the deeper in the past a (spiritual) being is, the more real it is. In general, each thing that is older is more real than each thing that is younger. Past beings are ontologically (and, Mbiti illustrates, ethically) superior to present beings; future beings barely exist, if they exist at all. Correspondingly, the past—in Swahili, the Zamani—has greater reality than the present, the Sasa, and it has far greater reality than the future. This ontology, coupled with Mbiti’s analysis of East African verb tenses, is the basis of his extremely controversial contention that, traditionally, Africans have virtually no conception of future time.

Thus, movement from present toward past is movement toward being. Aging and then dying place each person on this path from the Sasa to the Zamani—toward one’s ancestors, toward the spirits, and ultimately toward God. This would be very good religious news, except for two problems. The first is that African peoples believe that, deep in the Zamani, a close, happy relationship between humans and God was broken, either by accident or through human disobedience. Humans thus came to have a destiny in the Zamani, but not a union with God. The second problem is the nature of that ultimate destiny. The African belief is that personal identity is retained only as a “living-dead”; that is, in the first several generations following death when a person’s family continues to remember that person. Once personal memory passes and the Sasa period is left completely, personality also passes. The person is lost in the collective immortality of undifferentiated spiritedness. The Zamani is thus a personal graveyard without the possibility of divine union.

These fundamental religious beliefs are thoroughly intertwined with African institutions and the African psyche. The orientation toward the past encourages a very deep traditionalism. That which is older is more real and more authoritative, and therefore should be revered, maintained, and continued. An endless cycle or pattern of repetition thus becomes the norm. This pattern is the human equivalent of the endless natural cycle. There is a future in the sense of things yet to be, but these things should be and probably will be as they have been previously. Observance of tradition helps to ensure this continuity and predictability.

The most important traditions are in a sense religious, but in the practical sense of being centered on marriage and family life. Traditional African life is family life in marriage, including the complex initiation rites that remove a person from childhood and ready him or her for marriage. Mbiti provides considerable, interesting detail on these rites, which powerfully impress on the individual the absolute necessity of procreation. One must marry and must have children, for religious reasons. Only children ensure the existence of future generations that will remember a person after his or her death, and thus provide the limited personal immortality possible on the Sasa-Zamani borderline.

African Forms of Worship

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Mbiti argues forcefully that this homage to the departed should not be understood as ancestor worship. Africans worship God and other, lesser deities. The line between religion and ethics nevertheless is indistinct. The ongoing relationship between the living and the departed might be termed the ethics of generation and generations. Implicit in generation is hierarchy. The debt that the living owe to parents, and parents before them, reaching back to God, is life. Givers of life, in its human and other forms, are superior to receivers; thus, there is no contradiction in worshiping a more remote God and a more proximate Earth Goddess, nor in holding that it is practically impossible for elders and betters to do wrong (because they have done such great good). African ethics is “corporate”—the individual is subordinate to the community—but not merely in the social or spatial sense. The community also, and even primarily, exists in time, reaching back in the deep Zamani to God. There thus exists an African spatial-temporal cosmos that is less material than ethical and spiritual.

The African reverence for and celebration of life might suggest a wholly positive attitude toward spirits. There is, however, a pronounced tension between spiritualism—or spiritism—and traditionalism. African peoples very much value continuity, predictability, and a routinized future. That which is out of the ordinary—the birth of twins is a common example—is unsettling and often considered evil. The African view of God is that He usually and perhaps always does good. Evil exists, however, and an effort is made to explain it. Evil does not exist by chance, nor as a result of the activity of the (usually) friendly and familiar living-dead. Instead, evil is caused by those depersonalized spirits which exist deep in the Zamani, remote from living people. The spirits have some relation to that power or force—the sixth ontological category mentioned earlier—which pervades the universe and operates across space and time.

Africans are very wary of this force, and they are both respectful and wary of those living persons who have unusual access to it. In this attitude toward spiritual power, Mbiti sees the paradoxical quality of intensely communal African life. Individuals are spiritually close but quite unsure how spiritual power will be used; to be spiritually open is to be spiritually vulnerable. On a practical level, spiritual specialists such as medicine men, mediums, and rainmakers function and are consulted. “Good magic” and/or protection against “evil magic” is sought. On the ontological and cosmological levels, however, the problem is difficult to address rationally, let alone resolve. If one believes the universe to be fundamentally spiritual, yet is unsure whether the spiritual power is good or evil, what attitude toward the universe does one adopt?

Limits of African Traditionalism

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Mbiti sees, in this absence of a clear religious good news, the limitations of traditional African religious ontology. The lesser limitation is secular. The lack of a notion of a future that is dynamic, changing, and progressive ill prepares Africans for participation in the modern world. Mbiti, however, is far from convinced of the wisdom of many modern institutions, especially of formal intellectual education, which fails to prepare young people for practical family life.

It is not, then, the general African worldview that Mbiti finds inadequate: It is the specific understanding of a person’s spiritual destiny and, by implication, the nature of the spiritual power itself. African corporate society, founded on traditionalism, does not sufficiently distinguish the individual from the group. This is mirrored on the ontological level by the loss of personhood to a generalized spiritual mass deep in the Zamani. Simply put, the person is spiritually lost. For Mbiti, Christianity rectifies this. It teaches that the spiritual power is unequivocally good: It is Christ’s unconditional love for each human being. Acceptance of that love provides an ontological security and personal spiritual destiny not present in traditional African religions.

The Spread of Mbiti’s Thought

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Numbers alone never measure the impact of a book, especially one of philosophy, but they are a starting point. African Religions and Philosophy, in the original edition, was reprinted thirteen times and translated into Japanese, French, German, Korean, and Polish. The demand for a shorter, more simple version led Mbiti to publish Introduction to African Religion in 1975; it was reprinted nine times. In 1990, a revised and enlarged edition of African Religions and Philosophy was published, followed in 1991 by a revised edition of the Introduction to African Religion. It is safe to say that Mbiti has, together with Geoffrey Parrinder, taught traditional African religion to the world, and that, in emphasizing the cohesion of African religion, ontology, and ethics, he stands alone.

African theologians have rejoiced that one of their own has taken African religion seriously in a theological sense. As a work in religious ontology, African Religions and Philosophy contributes more than further information on African religions. It also goes beyond setting forth the philosophy behind African religious beliefs and practices, although Mbiti sometimes talks in these terms, and thus exposes the work to a purely philosophical critique centering on his notion of time. To do ontology is to consider premises about being, and it is Mbiti’s thesis that African premises about being are religious. In other words, the African view is that being is divine, and that human “being” has in it an element or aspect of the divine.

This understanding places African Religions and Philosophy squarely in a tradition in which philosophy is not understood as critical, individualistic, and (therefore) modern. Mbiti is emphatic that “Africa” is unintelligible in these terms. It is far more intelligible in terms of all traditions of philosophical theology, including but certainly not limited to the Christian tradition. It is to be hoped, if not inevitably expected, that the lasting impact of Mbiti’s work will be to help establish Africa’s place in a renewed conversation about divine being.


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Additional Reading

Evans-Pritchard, E. E. Nuer Religion. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1956. The classic study of a particular African religion. The work is demanding, but at least the concluding “Reflections” should be read.

Gyekye, Kwame. An Essay on African Philosophical Thought: The Akan Conceptual Scheme. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1986. Gyekye engages in a sustained critique of Mbiti’s views, contrasting Akan (Ghana) notions of time with those of East Africans. Despite this, there is much agreement both on the value of studying indigenous philosophy and on its content.

Hountondji, Paulin J. African Philosophy: Myth and Reality. Translated by Henri Evans. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983. Hountondji understands Mbiti as one of a number of “church ethnophilosophers” who, in emphasizing indigenous African spirituality, deflect attention from political and economic interests. An influential, controversial book.

King, Noel Q. African Cosmos: An Introduction to Religion in Africa. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 1986. A useful treatment by Mbiti’s former colleague at Makerere University, with considerable attention to the religious rituals practiced by a number of African peoples. Contains some illustrations, a glossary of African religious terms, and an extensive annotated bibliography.

Munro, J. Forbes. Colonial Rule and the Kamba. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975. Discussing the period 1889-1939, Munro provides insight into the social circumstances in which Mbiti grew up. His exceptional educational achievements become especially evident.

Olupona, Jacob K., ed. African Traditional Religions in Contemporary Society. New York: Paragon House, 1991. A series of papers by African scholars intended to study African religion sympathetically, from the “inside.” Mbiti’s contribution, on women in African religion, attempts to counterbalance the disparaging patriarchal view.

Olupona, Jacob K., and Sulayman S. Nyang, eds. Religious Plurality in Africa: Essays in Honour of John S. Mbiti. Berlin: Mouton De Gruyten, 1993. A wide-ranging, occasionally uneven collection of essays in recognition of Mbiti as scholar and minister. Mercy A. Oduyoye’s critique of his views on marriage is noteworthy, given Mbiti’s recent defense of women. Contains biographical material and a complete Mbiti bibliography through 1987.

Oruka, H. Odera, ed. Sage Philosophy: Indigenous Thinkers and Modern Debate on African Philosophy. Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1990. An interesting, engaging work in which Odera interviews a dozen “sages” and contrasts their indigenous but individual views with the holistic approach attributed to Mbiti. Critical essays by other African philosophers are included.

Parrinder, Geoffrey. African Traditional Religion. Reprint. Rev. ed. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1970. A fine, widely available introduction to the subject. Parrinder communicates, briefly and clearly, his understanding (shared with Mbiti) that Africans traditionally live in a spiritual universe.

Serequeberhan, Tsenay, ed. African Philosophy: The Essential Readings. New York: Paragon House, 1991. Various viewpoints on the debate over the nature of African philosophy. Kwasi Wiredu’s contribution, providing a critical but reasonably balanced assessment of Mbiti’s work, is especially relevant.

Tempels, Placide. Bantu Philosophy. Translated by Margaret Read. Paris: Presence Africaine, 1959. Originally written in Dutch and first published in a French translation in 1945. In the book that triggered the debate on African philosophy, Tempels argues that, in Bantu ontology, force is being, and being force. It is paired with Mbiti’s work as “ethnophilosophy.”