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Thursday, August 31, 2017

African spirituality is unique in its commitment to community

African spirituality is unique in its commitment to community

God is in the ties that bind all of creation together, says Father Stan Chu Ilo.

"I cannot translate conservative or liberal into my native language," says Ilo, who was born in Nigeria. "If I visit my village, I cannot describe these concepts in Igbo." He says that his African friends and family can't relate to the concepts that polarize Americans. "We can disagree, but we don't have to slam each other. This is community," he says.

Americans should be better at dealing with ambiguity, diversity, and disagreement, says Father Stan Chu Ilo, a research professor of Catholic studies and African Catholicism at DePaul University in Chicago. Life can embrace both joy and sorrow; two people can disagree and yet love each other deeply.

For Ilo the concept of community emerges from a distinctly African spirituality. Everything and everyone is connected; your well-being depends on the well-being of the people around you, as well as that of the trees, the streams, even the rocks. This, for Ilo, is where we find God: in the common threads that bind us together into one common web of relationship and responsibility.

Ilo believes that what ties everything--people, rivers, rocks, trees, and animals--together is God. African Christians see this rich connection between all created things through their faith in Jesus. "Jesus made these connections," he says. "A relationship with Jesus helps to tighten this web of connectivity so that it doesn't fall apart."

What kinds of stories do people in the United States and Europe tell about Africa? 

You hear multiple narratives about Africa and Christianity in Africa. Africa has always been a puzzle to people.

In the 15th century, when the Portuguese were exploring Africa, they kept looking for this elusive king called Prester John. They had heard of this marvelous king in Africa. But it was all just a myth.

In the 16th century, a great African king called Mansa Musa stopped in Cairo on his way to pilgrimage in Mecca. He had so much gold and wealth that he crashed the stock markets. The Arabs, too, became fascinated with Africa, saying among themselves, "This king has so much money, 500 slaves, so many wives, and so much wealth." It was part of why the Arabs decided to cross the Sahara Desert into the African hinterland.

So false myths and stories about Africa are nothing new. Today the stories have changed: I hear people say that people in Africa are very conservative because they are opposed to social issues like same-sex marriage, abortion, or gender issues.

I also hear people say that Africa is the future of the church, since there are so many African priests working in the United States and Canada. The church in Africa is growing at a time when the church here is kind of shrinking.

Some people are very optimistic about the church in Africa because of their strong faith and the exponential growth of the Christian population. But others tell the narrative of the poor church. People see images of hunger, starvation, war, and disease--most recently ebola.

Finally, some people see Africa as where you go to have fun and enjoy Africans' hospitality and friendship. This summer I traveled with staff and faculty from DePaul on safari. Some of them saw Africa as this beautiful continent and connected with the natural beauty of Africa beyond some of the negative stereotypes.

What do these narratives say about Africa?

There is no one story about Africa. Africa has many ethnic groups in 54 countries. In my home country of Nigeria, for instance, I can't even talk about a common narrative of Catholicism.

Catholics have interacted with Muslims for close to 200 years in northern Nigeria. This has made the texture of Catholicism there very specific and unique.

If you ask me about the true picture of Africa, I would say it is a multiplicity of human experience held together by a common African spirituality based in the connections between people.

The face of African Catholicism--whether in South Africa, Zambia, Botswana, Uganda, the Central African Republic, or Ghana--is that common thread of the spirituality of the intimate connections of reality.
This spirituality is often expressed in celebration. People celebrate life. They celebrate faith. They celebrate death. They celebrate suffering. Life is governed by a spirituality of intimacy and connection.

Say more about this African spirituality.

Someone has called it the moral tradition of abundant life. What is abundant life? I say it is human and cosmic flourishing, when every reality is intimately connected to every other reality in a harmonious bond. African thinking believes that war, hatred, alienation, injustice, and segregation are all evils that not only diminish both the perpetrators and the victims, but also God.

René Descartes, the French philosopher, said, "Cogito, ergo sum," or "I think, therefore I am." But many scholars in African philosophy and theology say it would be more appropriate to say, "I belong to the community, therefore I am. I am loved, therefore I am. I am related to you, therefore we are."

In Bantu thinking, this is called the "vital principle"; l experience life through my encounter with other humans and cosmic realities. The more I am in harmony with creation, the richer I become and the more life is generated in me. Even stones have a vital principle because they are connected to the whole bondedness of life. Many in Africa refer to this as Ubuntu, "I am, through you" or "we are, through others."

The I cannot have any meaning outside of the loving embrace of the we. And the we has no meaning if the multiplicity of individuals within that framework are not intimately connected, sharing life, experiences, pain, and suffering.

This doesn't mean that people don't have their own individual identities or that you collapse the individual into the anonymity of the commonality of human beings. Rather it's that your identity is intrinsically connected to that of every other person in a common web of life.

In traditional African society, when a baby is born his or her umbilical cord is buried and a tree is planted on it. This is how African traditional societies calculated people's age. The tree makes a new ring every year, so if you want to know how old someone is, you go to their tree of life.

We called these ancestral groves, places where these trees of life were planted. They were part of the intimate connection that holds everything together. This is what it means to have a spirituality of abundant life: It is only through connections that we can live fully.

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