Guest Post: Relations Between Christianity And Yoruba Traditional Religion: Examples Of Misinterpretations And Misrepresentations (1)


Hello folks, thanks for reading my last piece on Obas and Defacement of Culture. Your response to the piece was amazing to the point of overwhelming. It is  great encouragement for a writer to see his work received that way, and I hope to write more pieces for you to read and enjoy . Thanks and Thanks again.

The guest post today is the first part of a three part series of a  paper  that one of the nice people who engaged me on my Obas and cultural defacement piece  directed and  encouraged me to read. It was written T. F. Jemiriye. A Professor of  Department of Religious Studies, University of Ado-Ekiti, Ekiti State, Nigeria in 2006 and it compares and contrasts Christianity and the Yoruba Traditional Religion. I hope to share the long but interesting paper over the next few days in bits, so that it is easier to follow. I hope you read and enjoy it too.

I. Introduction

This paper looks into examples of misinterpretations and misrepresentations of Yoruba Traditional Religion (YTR) by Christians and of Christianity by (YTR). These examples are the broad ones that cut across Christian denominations in Yoruba land and that most people in (YTR) would relate to. There are many other examples that may be considered as special problems of individual Christian denominations or of little local groups of (YTR). These denominational hang-ups have not been considered in this paper because they are often results of doctrinal positions of such denominations. It is noted that the attempt here is not to justify or reject any denomination’s doctrine as this is outside the scope of this paper. Problems arising from the limit of this scope have been left off this study for the denominations to consider from their doctrinal standpoint.

A. From Christian Standpoint Looking at the Yoruba Traditional Religion
1. A Substitute for or an Improvement on?
Many Christian interpreters of YTR did so with a mind of substituting Christianity for YTR while some others did the interpretations with a view of improving the position of Christianity. This is reflected in Parrinder’s writing on “Christianity Today” when he wrote:
The churches have benefited by exploration, trade, colonisation, new communications, education and the international languages. They have put parts of the Bible into more than five hundred African tongues and this has been one of the most influential ways of naturalising the religion, both in the older churches and among the independents.
This approach of having a substitute or an improvement has been rejected by many Yoruba scholars as being as un-objective approach. This is buttressed by the view that Esu was translated Satan and not Jesus in the Bible.
Idowu pointed out that it is a “presumptuous notion” that is typical in the “Western world, and with the great monotheistic religions” that the concept of God is clear and he went further to disagree with the notion. But this notion has been seen as the basis for the “substitute” or “improvement” attitude of Christians toward the Yoruba concept of God. Idowu emphasised that there is no place,, age or generation which did not receive at some point in its history some form of revelation and that to deny this fact is either to be deliberately blind to facts or to betray a gross ignorance of facts. Idowu quoted many writers to prove that most of their interpretations are not really ‘in situ’ with the Yoruba context of God discussed. Most of the writers interpreted with the mind of substituting a Christian context at the end. This has caused more negative than positive feelings for the non-Christian Yoruba, especially since the 1950. This has also led to more scrutiny on what part of the concept of God Christianity really focuses upon. An example of this type of focus is on whether the Yoruba God-gods is to be called polytheism or monotheism.
Idowu’s “change or decay” fits into this question of a substitute or an improvement and also into the next on monotheism or polytheism. As Idowu concluded in the section, “there is a vacuum in the Yoruba concept of God, and Christianity stands the best chance of fulfilling this.” It is now very necessary for Christian interpretation to be well defined whether the goal of such a filling is to be a substitute for YTR or an improvement on YTR. The cry of the Christian groups that advocated a complete substitute for YTR has been that an improvement on YTR will result in syncretism. The other side says anything substituted is a death blow to Yoruba culture, indigenous revelation of God and it will result in planting Western world in Yoruba land under the name of Christianity rather than making Christianity native to Yoruba land as it is now native to Europe and the Western world. Details of this principle have resulted in many denominational differences. Examples include interpretation of how missions, evangelistic crusades, mass media outreach are to be carried out. While it is not easy to define an answer to these problems, it remains that both approaches (substitute or improvement) cannot continue to stand together as they are, if Christianity is to be considered by many Yoruba as a united religion.

2. Polytheism or Monotheism

Booth’s discussion on polytheism or monotheism makes it clear that it s whatever focus is put on that decides whether Yoruba God-gods is to be called polytheism or monotheism. The emphasis could be on concreteness or ultimacy, on God or Orisa, on the human level or on the level of God. It seems most of the early Christian interpreters of the Yoruba God-gods concept were ready to apply no other term but monotheism to this same concept! Regardless of what is used in qualifying the term monotheism, the debate still stands.
One is prone to ask why the fuss on monotheism and why the reluctance of early Christians or the eagerness of the later Yoruba interpreters of YTR to apply the term monotheism to the Yoruba God-gods concept? Idowu definitely reflected the high tension of whether it should be polytheism or monotheism when he wrote:
African Traditional Religion cannot be described as polytheistic. Its appropriate description is monotheistic, however modified this may be. The modification is, however, inevitable because of the presence of other divine beings within the structure of the religion.

This Idowu’s position puts any interpretation of the Yoruba God-gods concept that makes it polytheistic a misinterpretation and a misrepresentation of the Yoruba God-gods concept. While this is more of the “half filled or half empty glass,” it could be said that the trend since 1950 seems to be a deflection from the use of the word polytheism and a more general application of monotheism (in any modified form) to the Yoruba God-gods concept. Thus, from many Christians standpoint, polytheism better describes the Yoruba God-gods concept because the pattern does not fit monotheism in the same sense as Christians might see Christianity fit, but this term is seen as a misinterpretation of the Yoruba God-gods especially by the Yoruba who are now applying monotheism to the YTR concept of God and gods.

3. Idolatry or Mediatory Functionaries

Again, the choice is here loaded by the background of the interpreter. The focus on the Yoruba gods has been called idolatry by many Christians looking at YTR. The same Yoruba gods are described as mediatory functionaries and arms of Olodumare by J. O. Awolalu and E. B. Idowu and others. It may then be asked, are those that are called Yoruba gods idolatry misinterpreting or misrepresenting the Yoruba concept of gods and if they are not, how is this to be reconciled with the other side? The only conclusive answer is Booth’s view that it depends on what is being focused by the interpreter.10 But whatever position the focus is put, it seems that the trend now is moving from an interpretation that calls Yoruba worship of God-gods idolatry to one that sees the same as mediatory functionaries.  In this respect, it is easy to accommodate explanations like Benjamin Ray’s  that uses psychoanalytic position to say “the Sango cult appears to have a therapeutic character.” While Sango is seen by some as completely wild and negative. Ray’s conclusion on Sango proves that interpretation of Sango could be functional and positive.

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