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?
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?