Times On Sunday (Swaziland),
Some non-theological reactions to the Boleswa Theological conference!
by Dr Ben Dlamini
In a launching of a new album for a gospel singing group, Manzini Healing Waters, I met one man, who commended me on my articles, and said he enjoyed reading them. He added that he thought I was a teacher, and was intrigued how I became involved in religion. I gave him a straight answer, I believe the answer intrigued him more than he was before we met. I said to him, I am a teacher by profession, but religion is my life.
When I went to attend the Boleswa Theological Conference, I found professional theologians, not necessarily those who shared my religious outlook that religion is a way of life. The theologians have reduced religion into a science. Religion has to be subjected to the same type of tools of enquiry as they apply to any other type of knowledge such as "Physics", "chemistry" or "sociology".
It is expected that religious knowledge must be a result of such enquiry. You must be able in the end to put "Q.E.D." "Quite Easily Demonstrated", as Euclid could easily have done.
I agree that all knowledge under the sun can easily become a subject of human research and conclusions can be easily drawn depending on the facts that have been gathered. There is only one subject that defies this type of scientific research or investigation. It is religion.
Religion is largely revelation and to a very small degree human enquiry. The knowledge of the existence of God and the universe is not a subject of scientific research. It is a declaration by "I AM" and "IT IS". It appeared to me that most of the speakers and the commentators in the conference wanted to assert the objectivity of scientific enquiry that would apply to hard sciences to the extent that even God would have to be demonstrated by use of a microscope or telescope.
In fact, even the very idea of one God was highly questioned as if it was an idea from cyberspace. It is a conference where the idea of many Gods or was it gods, seemed to dominate. What was most interesting was that there was never an attempt to define the God (god) or Gods (gods) that were being discussed.
One of the prominent Professors in Theology was totally intimidated by any reference to the existence of one God. I specifically asked him how many Gods he thinks exist in the universe. He told me, without flinching, that there are as many gods as there are people or as many gods as there are communities. I tried to pursue the point by asking, which of these many gods did create the universe? This question seemed irrelevant in this environment.
The most intriguing position for me was what exactly is being taught in these schools of theology of these universities? I can only surmise that some of them are going to the extreme of attempting to dethrone religion from its high position of being a Revelation from God to that of being like any subject such as Anthropology which is a scientific enquiry into the origin of man. I believe the two will never be the same. Scientific enquiry has its own place in the search and discovery for knowledge. It is limited. There are questions for which man needs a direction from a higher source. It is these matters that involve creation and its destiny. It is the area where we deal with the creation of man from dust, his endowment with a spirit from God and the eternal existence of that soul, which are conclusions that cannot be derived from any form of research.
It is in order for all of us to make inquiries about ancient religions such as African Traditional Religion, Zoroastrianism, and even Christianity which is almost 2,000 years old. The Revelation by any of these messengers is being pieced together from different writings and none of which are a direct verbatim report of the Messenger Himself. Researchers attempt to find out what the Message was and what the people who follow it, believe about it.
There is presently much interest in the African Traditional Religion. In the conference, many questioned John Mbiti's approach where he claims that there is only one African Traditional Religion practised all over Africa. Some believe that there are as many African Religions as there are Tribes, Nations or Communities, for each is different from the other. The major objection to John Mbiti is his treatment of African Religions in the context of progressive revelation. Some believe that African Traditional religion should be treated as an independent religion with no relation or link with the other major religions of the world.
I believe that there is no religion that can be considered in isolation. The link is a real one although many of the theologians would want us to believe that the claim that there is one God is a dogmatic approach, in which we force everyone to accept the one God or be damned.
Some of us believe that there is one God. He created the whole universe. We believe that what is called multifaiths, is only some aspects of one religion that has come from the only one God, who has revealed all these religions. He has revealed Traditional African Religion, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, Sabeanism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, the Babi Faith and the Baha'i Faith.
At the moment, most people belong and practice one of these religions of the world. Those who practice a certain religion, such as African Traditional Religion, may have a feeling that their religion is the only direct way to God. We do not need to argue against their belief. They have a right to their way of belief and worship. There is no way another person can dictate otherwise. This belief does not change the true position that all religions in the world are linked through their origin from one source. The name of that source is not important. The essence of Divinity is one and not multiple. This is not a conclusion from research, it is direct revelation from God, which tells you that:" God is one" (Deut. 6:4) and that "There is none other God, but the Lord." ( I Kin. 8:60; Is., 44:6).
The true state of African Traditional Religion will be a problem for many years to come, because there is no written literature, there are no known people who will outright claim that they practice traditional religion because, in the African context, religion is not an organised activity. It is a way of life. It is the problem being faced by most African governments in compiling national statistics of adherents of different religions, because it is not likely that in a census survey, it would be possible to find anyone who directly claims to be an adherent to traditional religion.
The one way to find out if there are any adherents to African Traditional Religion, would be to agree to designate certain activities to be defined as constituting an adherence to African Traditional religion. It would then be the duty of the questionnaires to elicit responses from respondents who agree to be engaged in certain traditional activities which are normally considered to be part of the African culture. If this is properly done, it can be easily found that many Africans who claim to be adherents to some of the major religions such as Christianity, Islam or the Baha'i Faith are also adherents to the African Traditional Religion.
Personally I do not find any conflict between the Baha'i Faith and my belief in the African Traditional Religion. I do sacrifice to my ancestors. In time of need I do appeal to my ancestors for assistance and do report to them any major activities of the family. If someone has died, before the funeral proceeds to the cemetery, I report to my ancestors to accept whoever is coming to join them. It is our belief that the members of the family of the deceased are the first to welcome him into the next world.
It is part of the teachings of Baha'u'llah that those who have passed into the next world are still part of our family. Even though we are not able to see one another, but spiritually we are all united.
The teachings of Baha'u'llah state: " Those who have passed through death have a sphere of their own. It is not removed from ours; their work, the work of the kingdom, is ours; but it is sanctified from what we call 'time' and 'place'. Time with us is measured by the sun. When there is no more sunrise, and no more sunset, that kind of time does not exist for man. Those who have ascended have different attributes from those who are still on earth, yet there is no real separation. In prayer there is a mingling of station, a mingling of condition. Pray for them as they pray for you."
We believe that our ancestors will assist us. We also have a duty to appease them. We do sacrificial works, memorial services and name children and places in their names so that they should be remembered and valued among society. We make big parties with a lot of meat so that people can absolutely enjoy themselves and give praise to the ancestors.
The teachings of Baha'u'llah make it clear that: " The progress of man's spirit in the divine world, after the severance of its connection with the body of dust, is through the bounty and grace of the Lord alone, or through the intercession and the sincere prayers of other human souls, or through the charities and important good works which are performed in its name."
"As people in this world are in need of God, they will also need Him in the other world. The creatures are always in need, and God is absolutely independent, whether in this world or in the world to come. The wealth of the other world is nearness to God. Consequently, it is certain that those who are near the Divine Court are allowed to intercede, and this intercession is approved by God. But intercession in the other world is not like intercession in this world. It is another thing, another reality, which cannot be expressed in words."
It should be clear that the intercession by human souls, involves two levels. It may be the souls that have already ascended into the other world, or it may be souls that are still alive in this world. The teachings of Baha'u'llah further state: "The rich in the other world can help the poor, as the rich can help the poor here...What is their merchandise, their wealth? In the other world what is help and assistance? It is intercession. Undeveloped souls must gain progress at first through the supplications of the spiritually rich; afterwards they can progress through their own supplications."
There is even an assurance that spiritual progress is possible for the worst wrong doers:
"As the spirit of man after putting off this material form has an everlasting life, certainly any existing being is capable of making progress, therefore, it is permitted to ask for advancement, forgiveness, mercy, beneficence, and blessings for a man after his death because existence is capable of progression. That is why in the prayers of Baha'u'llah forgiveness and remission of sins are asked for those who have died."
As it is, in Swazi Traditional belief, the ancestors are not worshipped. They perform the function of intercession for the living and the dead who are spiritually weak. The Swazi Traditional religion always makes it clear that all people worship Mvelincanti ["the One Who came first"]. He communicates to them through his messenger, Mlentemunye ["the One-Legged One"]. This is a direct parallel with any major religion which recognises God, His Manifestation and the Holy Souls or Angels, which help whenever man is in trouble.
The Ancestors in the Swazi Traditional Religion are there to intercede on our behalf, and it is our duty to assist them also to make spiritual progress in the realms of God.
Dr Ben Dlamini
©Copyright 1998, The Times of Swaziland