Posted in book reviews

Magesa on African Spirituality

51nfH883olL._UY250_In What is not Sacred? African Spirituality (Orbis, 2013, Kindle edition), Laurenti Magesa, a Jesuit from Tanzania (East Africa), opens up a new world to Westerners unconsciously fashioned by an individualistic frame-of-reference, a different way of being where the primary category is not “I” but “we.” This communal worldview takes into account not only the present but reserves a large place for the past, ancestors who have gone before, those who though dead, still live.

Magesa acknowledges that arguably there are many African cultures; however, he maintains that there is a unified way of viewing the world and life together that unites all sub-Saharan peoples, what he calls a “sameness of spirit and intention” (location 147). What is not Sacred? addresses a variety of topics related to this worldview. He argues that a truly African Christianity must allow Africans to preserve from their pre-Christian religious heritage elements that are not in conflict with the Gospel.

This essay shall limit itself to three topics that Magesa addresses, namely: 1) the role of vital power; 2) sex and community, and 3) reconciliation.

The role of “vital power”

What is “vital power”? Magesa observes (location 620):

Vital power requires and demands the active ‘skill’ inherent in created order so as to negotiate relationships between the visible and invisible elements of the universe. Vital power implies that nothing is what is seems to be on the surface. To realize this is to begin to know the meaning of life and to start living it well and fully.

The author calls this vital energy “primordial,” a force that helps the “universe to exist harmoniously and with all its constituent components” (location 633). Importantly, the ancestors are a “fundamental link in the force of life” and the “dispensers of morality and (the) venerated patriarchs of the community” (location 645).

While what Magesa observes is undoubtedly correct, he seems incapable of stepping outside his own frame-of-reference to offer meaningful critique. He passes by without comment the term “venerated patriarchs.” Can females have no place among what John Mbiti calls the “living dead,” those who take an active interest beyond the grave in the earthly vitality of the people group? According to Rev Gift Mutkwa of Africa Nazarene University, the Shona of Zimbabwe do acknowledge Mbuya Nehanda as an ancestor, but primarily for her status as the wife of Sekuru Kaguvi. In any case, if women are almost never acknowledged as ancestors, this has ramifications for the here-and-now role of women in societal leadership. If women will not be venerated later, why should we consider their point-of-view now? Magesa’s own faith confession (Roman Catholic) does not allow for the ordination of women, but for Christian traditions that do, one may ask: Is an element of prejudice based upon gender hard-wired into the African religious worldview?

Laurenti Magesa
Laurenti Magesa

A second area where Magesa offers no corrective is the question of spirit possession and libations. Speaking of herbalists who heal, he portrays them as “guided by other powers such as that of the ancestors through dreams of possession” (location 697). Likewise, he speaks of “ancestral spirits” who are capable of “bi-location,” dwelling in the “sky” but also able to “possess any creature for a certain purpose” (location 774). Later, Magesa explains: “Broadly speaking, spirit possession can be benevolent or malevolent, depending upon whether the possessing spirit fulfills positive or negative expectations” (location 1551). Because (on Magesa’s reading) the spirit can guide a family regarding the seemingly recalcitrant but justified behavior of some of its members, this type of spirit possession can have a “pedagogical value for the larger society to reform unjust systems” (location 1564). In no instance does Magesa critique the practice of spirit possession. Instead, he appears to ascribe to it positive value. For the reader reliant upon Scripture as the rule of Christian faith and practice, this is no small offense. Followers of Christ are called upon to “test the spirits, to see whether they are from God” (1 John 4:1a, NIV). One must wonder whether some have unwittingly invited demon possession in the name of so-called ancestral possession. Could this explain why the frequency of demon possession seems greater in Africa than in the Western world where the cult of ancestors is largely absent?

Further, Magesa describes “daily veneration of ancestors through prayer, or frequent pouring of libations to them” as “acts of piety” and as “necessary for the good ordering of the life of the community” (location 1306). Does Magesa’s language of piety as related to ancestors introduce an element foreign to Christian faith? Pouring out libations to the ancestors treads dangerously close to a similar practice that Paul declared out-of-bounds. In 1 Corinthians 10:14-22, he warned the Corinthians to avoid participating in both the table of the Lord and the “table of demons,” of drinking the cup of the Lord and drinking the “cup of demons.” To do so is to practice idolatry (v. 14) and to risk arousing the Lord’s anger  (v. 22). The error was split religious loyalties. God will brook no competition. Would this not include competition with the mini-deities called ancestors?

Sex and community

Laurenti Magesa also examines the role of sexuality in relation to community. In Western settings, sex is often viewed through the individualistic prism of fulfilling one’s bodily desires. On the other hand, for African cultures, sex derives its meaning and value not in relation to self-actualization but primarily as a means of procreation, of increasing the vital life force of a people. Magesa explains (location 1502):

In the experience of the African community, nothing unites one person to another, to the ancestral and divine spirits, and to the universe as a whole as much as the conjugal bond; this is where the energy that activates life in the form of conception and birth is most present…Any degree of physical attractiveness notwithstanding, a barren woman generally possesses no beauty where it counts most; similarly, regardless of any other physical attribute, a man without children is ‘worthless,’ of no use to himself or the community.

For Magesa, both homosexuality and celibacy are abhorrent since they diminish the numerical flourishing of the people (location 1490-1502). Although Magesa had earlier praised Ubuntu as the African hallmark of “full humanity” (location 322), Ubuntu is absent in his discussion of sexuality – why? Is there no connection? Archbishop Desmond Tutu described Ubuntu as “the self-assurance that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are tortured or oppressed” (cited by Magesa, location 322). The reader may wonder: What does Ubuntu have to say when Nigerian homosexuals are tried and (if convicted) sentenced to death by stoning? (For my biblical/theological case against capital punishment, click here). What happens when two African communal values – namely, group flourishing and humanity – collide, and does the Gospel have anything additional to contribute to the conversation?


Besides the concept of vital power and the relationship between sex and community, a third important topic raised in What is not Sacred? is reconciliation. Chapter 15 – “Reconciliation as Peace” – warns that lasting reconciliation between people must move beyond a strictly “legal approach” and implement “sacramental dimensions” (location 3275). Citing John Mbiti, Magesa tells the fascinating story of a reconciliation ceremony between the Luo and Maasai peoples of Kenya (location 3238-3250). They built a fence of poisonwood trees to symbolize hostility, with the warring parties facing each other on opposite sides of the fence:

Then they took a black dog and laid it across the fence. The dog was cut into two and blood was allowed to flow through the fence and onto the ground, on both sides of the fence. Then the mothers with suckling babies exchanged their young back and forth across the fence, so that Maasai mothers could suckle Luo babies and Luo mothers suckle Maasai babies. Prayers followed this, in which the respective elders beseeched God to bless the covenant of peace. The participants pronounced anathemas on any one who ever crossed that fence to do evil.

According to Magesa, the dog was “innocent” and “neutral.” Its blood was “deliberately shed to symbolize the end of the spilling of human blood” (location 3250). Magesa does not draw the Christian application – Is he hesitant to compare Christ to a dog? – yet the Western believer for whom dogs are faithful and loving companions may see in this image one similar to Ephesians 2:14-16 (NIV):

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.


Laurenti Magesa’s What is not Sacred? African Spirituality provides an insider’s look at the worldview of sub-Saharan Africa, explaining elements of African spirituality that potentially make for a stronger, more indigenous Christian faith. One may debate where in Magesa’s presentation legitimate contextualization of the Gospel message becomes syncretism, an ill-advised mixing of belief systems. Despite this caveat, Magesa has made a significant contribution to African theology. It is especially useful to the reader born outside Africa who is looking for an insightful introduction to the worldview of nearly a billion of the Earth’s inhabitants.


Image of Laurenti Magesa: Africa Mission


UPDATE: On November 7, 2016, I received the following e-mail from Dr. Magesa. It is reproduced here with his permission:

Dear *Professor Crofford,

Many greetings from Hekima University College, Nairobi, where I reside and work.
Two days ago, a friend sent me the link where you reviewed my book, What Is Not Sacred? African Spirituality. I really appreciate what you say and bring to my attention as disparities between the African spiritual perspectives and Christian (biblical) faith. What you point out in the three areas you  opted to discuss – “the role of vital power,” “sex and community,” and “reconciliation” in African spirituality vis-a-vis the “Christian” faith – is well taken, but that was really not the purpose of my discourse in the first part of the book.
I was not writing to compare or contrast African and Christian spirituality just yet; I was reserving that for a later effort on my part. Rather, my goal was simply to lay bare how African spirituality perceives these aspects of human relationship with God, because this perspective is usually not known or, whenever it is discussed, it is often on the basis of many (usually unwarranted) biases and prejudices evident in many anthropological and even Christian theological studies. For the sake of respectful dialogue between the two approaches, I thought it is important to articulate African spirituality as it is in itself, on its own terms. That was my point, an indispensable step, I am convinced, in the process of Inculturating the Christian Gospel in Africa. It is for this second step that I find your critique of the elements I bring out in African spirituality so useful, even if, I must say, I would not necessarily agree with the methodology you employ for the task.
Still, many thanks for enlightening my thinking with your review. (By the way, I have just seen your review of my colleague, Orobator’s book, Theology Brewed in an African Pot, which I find equally stimulating) Blessings in your work.
Laurenti Magesa
*Note from Dr Crofford: My academic rank is Senior Lecturer.


Greg is interested in many topics, including theology, philosophy, and science.

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