Issue 42, December 2003
Seminar on Hermeneutics: Interpreting Scriptures in Pluralist Contexts
"Who made the Drum knows what is inside it:
Interpreting Sacred Messages in African Traditional Religion"

Chidi Denis Isizoh
Summary by Rev. Wilfred Tyrrell, S.A.

Denis Isizoh began with a very personal account of his home town in Eastern Nigeria, Ogbunike, where Roman Catholic and Protestant missionary activities were very strong. In less than a century 90% of the town was Christian. And like many missionary efforts by Christians, it left the indelible marks of both a divided Christianity and the deep rootedness of the converts’ indigenous religious beliefs. Isizoh tells of the Protestants challenging Catholic beliefs as unbiblical, and in turn, how Catholics like himself would denigrate the followers of African Traditional Religions as idol worshipers. His point was twofold. First that the Biblical text was the criteria for both Protestant and Catholic Christians claiming their version of a true religion, and secondly, the total disregard for the oral tradition in both early Christianity and in African Traditional Religions.

Thus, in contributing to the seminar’s discussion Isizoh extends the parameters from "Reading Scriptures in Pluralist Contexts" to "Interpreting Sacred Messages in Pluralist Context". Herein lies his contribution to religions that exist without 'written scripture', and survive on oral tradition and the oral transmission of sacred messages. A strong presumption that what makes a religion is its sacred text, among other elements, is rebuffed by Isizoh.

In Section two, "Setting the Context", Isizoh again reiterates the personal by means of the particular study 'to present some samplings from the situation found among some people of sub-Saharan Africa'. He holds, and correctly so, that "Africa is not a monolithic society" and as such his scope of inquiry will be limited to the diversity and difference while noting strong religious conceptual similarities in sub-Saharan communities.

One striking difference between Western concepts of religion and the African sub-Saharan is that the word 'religion' is not translated literally into local languages, but is rather a descriptive account of ways of living. "From cradle to the grave [all aspects of human life, personal and communal] a traditional African follows this way. In this way, the secular and the religious meet, the sacred and the profane fuse together and visible and invisible unite". Here Isizoh maintains that "every human activity has its religious implication", and as such "there is almost always a spiritual solution to every problem". Human life is infused with the spiritual.

In Section Three of the paper, "The Edandala", Isizoh etymologically demonstrates the complexity inherent within various African words for the Supreme Being: Edandala, the Unexplainable; Njinya, He who is everywhere; Borebore, Excavator, Originator or Carver; and, found in many societies, God is Creator, Mumbi, Cuta, Kagingo, uDali. Quoting John Mbiti, the author concludes that "God is described as shrouded with mystery deeper than can be fathomed". Pascal's Deus Absconditus, the hidden God who no longer inhabits our scientific world, has no place in this traditional African religious world view. As Isizoh states, "through his manifestations (attributes personified), God is present in everyday life and is of practical importance".

This last statement of the author is confirmed in the following two sections of his paper, “Sacred Messages in African Traditional Religion” and “Attitudes of followers of African Traditional Religion toward Sacred Messages”. These two sections make clear that the Supreme Being communicates through various means: visions, signs, omens, words, sickness and healings, just to name a few. God is their source. And, that when God speaks through natural phenomena and events, as depicted in a scene from Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, “God’s message has immediate application, it is final, and not subject to dispute.” These messages can be for individuals or for entire communities, they may be relevant for the present or pertain to an immediate future. As Isizoh concludes, “the patrimony of God’s word (Sacred Messages) is preserved in the collective memory of a given community and passed down from one generation to another in personal names, proverbs, symbols and rituals.” Herein lies the living oral transmission of sacred messages.

In Section Six, “Reading of Sacred Messages in pluralist context” Isizoh maintains that a follower of African Traditional Religion would interpret the Sacred Messages of other religions in complete obedience, as they do within African Traditional Religion. God is God, of every one, and everywhere, regardless of nomenclature. “God’s word is not subject to interpretations according to the disposition of the listeners.” God’s message has immediate application and significance for the whole person. It is a complete message for a complete world view, intersecting every corner of one’s life, personal and communal.

In conclusion, I have attempted to summarize what Chidi Denis Isizoh presented in his paper, “Who made the Drum knows what is inside it”: Interpreting Sacred Messages in African Traditional Religion. He expanded on the seminar’s theme of “scripture” to include the oral traditional sacred Messages of the African Traditional Religion as an equally valued religious source of sacred communication, and in so doing, was able to demonstrate the diversity within African Traditional Religion. Isizoh was also able to address the conversation between African Traditional Religion and Islam and Christianity because of African Traditional Religion’s openness to God’s sacred messages in all cultures and peoples “because their ultimate source is God, the Borebore, the drum maker who knows what is inside the drum he has made.”

Msgr. Chidi Denis Isizoh has special responsibility for Africa and dialogue with African Traditional Religion at the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue in the Vatican.


Next article: Seminar on Hermeneutics: Interpreting Scriptures in Pluralist Contexts:
Application of Buddhist Praxis in Christianity - Katrin Åmell  

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