Many of Orobator’s categories are recognisably and classically Christian. In his treatment of the Trinity, he suggests that the issue for the African is how the One God (a familiar concept in traditional African religion) can in fact be three. He suggests that explanations of ‘three persons’ have drawn too heavily on the Neo-Platonic thought of the discussions of the fourth century. Incomprehensible to the average person, they revert to seeing God as ‘mystery’, emphasising God’s other-ness and distance.
Orobator offers a more everyday image as a way of speaking about the Trinity. He draws on a concept from the Yoruba people in Nigeria: the Obirin meta. This refers to a woman who ‘combines the strength, character, personality and beauty of three women.’
Picture the African mother with a basket of produce on her head, a baby on her back and a hoe in her hand. She is farmer, provider and mother. Orobator refers to striking artwork of such a woman where she is also suckling a fully grown bearded man: she is sustainer of young and old, not just giver of life. Each of those roles interact with each other in a complexity of relationship and being. This woman doesn’t just have different exterior characteristics but has several dimensions in her essence and at her core. She helps us to think of a God of ‘many realities, many relationships and many qualities at the same time and [is] the one and the same God.’
It’s not that this image is by any means complete but it does bring an insight that is uniquely African and that connects with African concepts and experience. He says, ‘By naming God in this way… the mystery blocking our imagination and understanding disappears. God comes closer to us in the reality of everyday things… God is the radically open-ended One.’
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.