Traditional African Religion, Cosmology and Christianity

By Kyriakakis, Ioannis | Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

Traditional African Religion, Cosmology and Christianity


Kyriakakis, Ioannis, Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies


Abstract: In this article I am applying the anthropological term of "cosmology" to the study of Christianity in order to place plural Christian settings under a wider methodological perspective. I am drawing on the findings of my fieldwork in Southwestern Ghana, where I met twelve different Christian denominations and five traditional healers operating in one village. I am sketching a concise image of the local Nzema cosmology and then I am launching an attempt to present its Christian equivalent. Informed by the situation in the field, by general history of Christianity, as well as by my personal understanding of it, my cosmological investigation yields three different Christian cosmologies, which all coincide side by side in African contexts. I see, thus, pluralism as inherent to Christianity itself, rather than as an outcome of cultural encounter between Christianity and local pre- Christian religion.

Key Words: Anthropology, Study of Religion, Cosmology, African Traditional Religion, Christianity, Christian cosmologies.

The predicament of the study of Christianity

Most of our ideas about Christianity within social science have been shaped either from the perspective of an atheist-agnostic intellectual, or from the perspective of a western Christian. This is rather a natural consequence of the fact that most if not all of the non-agnostic historians of religion and theologians have been mainstream Christians, while most if not all sociologists of religion have been atheist and agnostics1. Both those groups of scholars tend to take Christianity for granted, to accept its Euro-American historical version, unquestionably, as orthodoxy, and then explore second or third world Christianities as cultural or socio-economic deviation, survivals of the past, syncretism and the like. For this strand of social science, however, which explores the possibilities of researching knowledge beyond the Euro-American orthodoxies, the only safe and less prejudiced standpoint from which one can study Christianity is neither the one of the non-believer (for whom the truth about faith always comes from politics and economy) nor the one of the denominational believer (for whom the truth about faith always follows his or her own church tradition). In few words both the perspectives of the atheist and the denominational Christian are culturally prejudiced. Social science can under specific conditions foster a third, less culturally-prejudiced direction. In my view this third direction, can provide the safest and less culturally prejudiced space from which one can see and study Christianity. This third direction, I am suggesting, should be based on Christianity itself as a tradition, that is the doctrine and the teachings of Jesus Christ, as much as possible disconnected from any particular church dogma, as if Christianity was not our own -western- religious tradition.

What the researcher who follows this direction is called to do is to shape his or her own understanding of Christianity together with the subjects of his or her study and this is what anthropologists, ethnographers, historians, sociologists of religion, folklorists and religious scholars have always done in the past with the so-called "local", "primitive" or "third world" religions and cosmologies. The famous believer-non-believer question posed by Evans-Pritchard2 seems not to have a place here. Anyone is allowed to have an understanding of what Christianity is and what it is not, without being obliged either to believe in it or reject it. Various understandings will then be compared and discussed. Joel Robbins in his article in 'Current Anthropology'3 claims that anthropology of Christianity has failed to create a common ground constituted by widely accepted themes and questions, no matter whether we give different answers to these questions. He blames the "continuity paradigm" as he calls it, which anthropology allegedly follows, that is, the tendency to regard "our research subjects" as the remaining links to pre- Christian cultural origins endangered and threatened by modernity and Christianity. …

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