As Tamie and I prepare to move to Tanzania, we’ve been trying to get a sense of the religious world of East Africa. ‘Animism’ — the world of tribe and tradition, of folk religion — is an ever-present background to religious life in Tanzania, whether Christian, Muslim or otherwise.
One of the hallmarks of animism is its vivid sense of the spirit world. As Westerners, that’s something that tends to freak us out. When we try and fit it into our categories, it just seems absurd!
The problem is not with animism so much as our own categories. The thing is, we’ve got an excluded middle. We naturally dichotomise things rather than integrate them, so we find it hard to see how the ‘physical’ and the ‘spiritual’ could be embedded in one another. And really, this is our problem. While we could try recovering the ‘middle’ because it helps us to communicate, or because we think it’s a missiological best practice, we’d be missing the point: the excluded middle is an inadequacy in ourselves and in our expression of Christianity.
In this series of posts, we’ll try and come to terms with our excluded middle by getting into an animist head space, seeing Jesus from a Tanzanian point of view, and ‘including the middle’.
It’s vital that we address our excluded middle. Western Christians in Africa have always been concerned about syncretism, wanting to ensure that Christian belief and practice is not compromised by other religious influences. However, this has often led to Christians seeing the ‘middle’ realm as dangerous, leading them to dismiss it or ignore it altogether. But this is exactly where another problem appears, because the middle realm has always been the place in which people attempt to meet everyday needs. So, whenever Christianity fails to interact with the middle realm, people easily end up with a split-level worldview, papering Christianity over persistent traditional beliefs. That’s why many African Christians will continue to access witch doctors and other traditional practices without any perceived contradiction. In the end, excluding the middle to avoid syncretism only leads to more syncretism!
African traditional religion
African traditional religions generally share a similar three-layered world. God long ago withdrew to a distance, so communities instead seek help from the world of the spirits through their ancestors. The ancestors have been called the living-dead: they are the tribal leaders of ages past, inhabiting a higher realm while remaining in communion with the tribe.
This is why the ‘middle’ is so important: it’s the realm in which the ancestors are active, so it’s the realm in which blessing and protection can be sought beyond our own means. It’s vital to have access to the ancestors because it means influence in their realm and a source for meeting daily needs.
Life therefore involves a daily quest for power. However, this quest for power usually ends up in egocentric attempts to control and manipulate the ‘middle’ by magic.
What if the quest for power involved a different goal and different means? What if we were able to think theocentrically instead?
Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.