The world, our culture, and even our educators are teaching the next generation that there are many ways to God. It is increasingly accepted that all these ways are equally true. What a remarkable ‘introduction 101’ to pluralism and syncretism for our children. As Christian parents we must defend the gospel by differentiating the root of other religions and the root of Christianity. As Africans it is critical that we understand how African Traditional Religion is fundamentally different to the Christian faith.
In Zimbabwe the Shona forefathers recognised the existence of God through his handiwork in creation (Romans 1:20). In Shona God can be referred in a number of ways. Samasimba “the owner of power”, Musiki “creator” and Wedenga “the owner of the sky/heaven”. These titles reflect the Shona knowledge of God: his eternal power and divine nature through observing his creation. African Traditional Religion is man’s historical effort to understand who God is. But given our finite perspective it is impossible for us to understand all there is to know about God.
The Triune God has Revealed Himself in the Bible and the Gospel
In the Bible we see that God has revealed himself to mankind as the trinity. This is impossible to understand through just observing nature. God is not only the Creator but also Saviour and Comforter. The magnificent landforms across our continent, the geographic features, the diverse creatures, the laws of nature, everything in the universe points to the evidence of a Creator (Psalms 19:1-6).
According to Paul, it is clear that African religions did not worship the self-revealing and Triune God of Scripture
God has also made himself known from the Holy Scriptures, through promises of old fulfilled in Jesus Christ, as our Saviour (Luke 24:25-27). As the Comforter, he has made himself known in the person of the Holy Spirit, in his ongoing ministry in and through the Church (Acts 2:16-21). The bottom line is that God has revealed himself to humanity through his handiwork and through the Scriptures. The former is referred to as general revelation and the latter as special revelation which can ultimately lead us to personal relationship with him.
Our forefathers had a conception of God. However, according to Paul, it is clear that in African Traditional Religion we do not worship the self-revealing and triune God of Scripture.
The Root of African Traditional Religion: The Suppression of Truth
In Romans 1:18-32 Paul states the root of false religion: the suppression of truth about God. In the context of the Greek religion in Rome, Paul explained that God’s wrath is evidently manifested against people who do not revere God as is his due (Romans 1:18). All forms of idolatry and false gods are rooted in men squashing the truth about God their Creator. This suppression of truth by men is done in unrighteousness or by unrighteousness. In both cases, the root is the sinful nature of every man in Adam (Romans 5:12). False religion is caused by sin in the hearts of men – the centre of men’s intellect, will and emotions – which in rebellion do not allow the knowledge of God to express itself in their lives.
The means or ways of suppressing the truth about God is captured by Paul in the context of these 5 verses:
- Not glorifying God as God (downplaying his worth and honour) and a lack of gratitude towards God (Romans 1:21)
- Barter-trading the immortal God’s glory for images of mortal creatures (Romans 1:22)
- Exchanging the truth about God for a lie by worshiping and serving the creature instead of Creator God (Romans 1:24)
- Not acknowledging God (Romans 1:28)
- Proceeding to doing and approving that which God has decreed not worthy of being done (Romans 1:32)
An Example of How the Shona Suppressed the Truth about God
The forefathers of the Shona chose to honour God with less honour than he deserved by not worshipping him alone. This can be seen in their oral poetry. These pieces of poetry, especially those for totems, reflect that animals or spirits receive honour and gratitude for God’s deeds. The mortals’ image of the Hungwe bird (Zimbabwe Bird) was glorified in the Shona Religion. This granite stone-carved resemblance was sacred in Shona religion at Great Zimbabwe. Though the Shona knew that God had all eternal power, they also reduced the power of God to spirits that governed mountains, rivers, caves, forests and sacred trees.
Though the Shona knew that God had all eternal power, they also reduced the power of God to spirits that governed mountains, rivers, caves, forests and sacred trees.
In an effort to connect with God, Shona African Traditional Religion believes that the ancestors protect mankind. It also believes that the ancestors carry our prayers to the Creator God (Musiki). The spirits of the dead and ancestors are venerated, appeased and served as mediators, sometimes more than the Creator. Jesus is the only mediator between God and man and it is impossible for our ancestors to connect us with God. Only God, through Jesus Christ his Son, watches over us and comforts us.
The Unique Root of Christianity: The Expression of Truth
Whereas African Traditional Religion has a distorted view of God by suppressing His truth about himself, Christianity starts with expressing the truth about God. Christians acknowledge all that God has done, and can be known about Him known through general revelation (the creation) as well as through and in special revelation (the Bible). Special revelation acknowledges truth about God which we see in general revelation.
Our forefathers in different parts of Africa did not fully acknowledge all that God was as the Creator. Three men stood against our forefathers and acknowledged God as the Creator and all he did as Creator, prior to the era of any special revelation (Hebrews 11:4-7). Abel, Enoch and Noah. These three were declared righteous upon acknowledging God as the Creator.
The hope in the promises of God was missing in the religions of our forefathers. They had the knowledge of God’s creative deeds but lacked the promises.
What God Has Done and What God Promises to do
Though these men acknowledged God through all His deeds, they also hoped for that which God promised. Christians acknowledge the truth about God: what He has done in the past and hope in the promises of God for tomorrow. Abel, Enoch and Noah hoped in the promised ‘serpent crusher’, the seed of the woman to come (Genesis 3:15). Our forefathers forgot or suppressed God’s truth in this promise as they moved from Mount Ararat and then to the Tower of Babel. The hope in the promises of God was missing in the religions of our forefathers. They had the knowledge of God’s creative deeds but lacked the promises.
When the book of Hebrews speaks about these two sides of the same coin that make up true religion, it shows us that all who were declared righteous by God were anchored in that which God had done and in the hope of that which God will do. This is saving faith (Hebrews 11:1-3). Unrighteous people are made righteous through faith. This is the principle that Paul speaks about in the context of Romans 1:18. True religion starts with faith which is being convinced of what God has done and what God will do – in Jesus Christ – and from this faith, people are made righteous.
Christianity and African Traditional Religion are Different
Our children ought to know the difference between African Traditional Religion and Christianity, for their salvation is at stake. African Traditional Religion suppresses the truth of the knowledge of God and the deeds of God. Christianity expresses God’s truth and deeds.
African Traditional Religion is an expression of humanity’s inherited unrighteousness from the sin of Adam. Christianity is an expression of the righteousness gained through faith in Christ. African religions have a distorted and belittling view of God, yet Christianity has a full and comprehensive view of God. Unlike Christianity, African Traditional Religion lacks the promise in the Saviour and Comforter. Christianity rightly glorifies God, but African religion reveres creatures, be it animal or human ancestral spirits. Praise God for his grace in revealing himself through the Scriptures that we may know and worship him in truth!