world council of churches

The Baobab Tree of Truth: Reflections on Religious Pluralism in Africa
Kofi Asare Opoku

"Truth is like a baobab tree; one person's arms cannot embrace it" (African proverb)

Protagonists of religious traditions which lay exclusive claim to divine revelation have tended to regard Africa as a blankly barren land, waiting to be planted and watered with the heavenly seeds of truth which are found in their particular religious traditions. This assumption fuelled the Christian missionary enterprise in the past two centuries and continues, unabated, to this day. And although the agents of the missionary enterprise have changed, the assumption persists, albeit in modified form, in the evangelistic work of the fundamentalist groups, some indigenous African churches, as well as the mission-founded churches.

The zeal to evangelize left no room to accommodate local religion-cultural traditions which were deemed to be palpably wrong and had to be done away with. And to drive home the point that truth and error could not coexist, cultic symbols, shrines and sacred groves were destroyed.

The close identification of the Gospel with the self-image of its propagators led to the unquestioning conviction that God had clearly and decisively acted in their history, and that they were under divine obligation to bring others, in whose history God had apparently not acted, into the arena of this salvation history. And the fundamental questions as to whether God acts in other people's histories and what those histories tell us about God, as well as whether history is the only arena of God's self-disclosure, remained unasked and unanswered.

The relationship between the Gospel and local traditions was considered to be that of total discontinuity, which tended to severely and fastidiously limit God's revelatory activity to one event. But to recognize continuity between the Gospel and other traditions is to accept the fact that in no human history has God been absent; and that God could not be dormant in one historical place or period and active in another.

It may be that in their passionate eagerness to emphasize the centrality of Jesus and the newness of Christianity, theologians inadvertently created a dichotomy in God's truth and claimed the right to evaluate God's revelatory acts in the histories of other people.

Such hardened positions led to the strenuous efforts at converting others and ignored the possibility of human error in the appropriation of divine revelation or truth. Human understanding was invested with a degree of absoluteness which is out of step with our finiteness; and it was almost as if the arms of Christianity alone could completely embrace the baobab tree of divine truth, and that God's thoughts had to coincide with human thoughts.

The existence of a plurality of religions is not to be interpreted as a failure on the part of those who have the truth to carry out their divine mission to bring all humankind into the fold. Nor does this point to the hardness of the hearts of other people. On the contrary, it expresses the spirit of God which blows "where it listeth". And to insist on the same response to the experience of God's spirit is to argue for a uniformity which refuses to respect differences.

Above all, claims to truth must be related to the lives of those who claim monopoly over it. For if the truth is to be rescued from the realm of theory and propaganda, then is must be reflected in the lives of those who lay claim to it. For religious traditions should help humankind to attain and maintain the highest human values - values which make us more human and are fundamental to our ultimate good, and which uphold harmony and order among the community of nations in the world and in our societies.

There is need to go beyond the acceptance of religious plurality to a stage where each religious tradition will bear witness to its faith by doing worthy deeds, and express rivalry, not in contentious disputations about who is right and who is wrong, but by striving to undo each other in improving the lot of humankind, in enhancing the quality of human life and in doing what is good. And if we can compare the improvement in the lot of humanity to building a house, then the meaning of the African proverb which says: "Let the elephant fell the trees, let the bushpig dig the holes, let the mason wasp fill in the walls, let the giraffe put up the roof, then we will have a house", will become clear.

If we recognize that the arms of our particular religious traditions cannot fully embrace the baobab tree of truth, it will engender an attitude of respect for others and rescue us from a position of assumed superiority and righteousness which entitles us to declare, in advance, what God will do in the present and at the end of time.

My own researches and reflections over the past three decades in Africa, have led me to an openness which I believe will rid us of the tendency to disrespect others because their beliefs are inferior to ours. And in any case, how can people be saved if they are being despised? Or is this the price to pay for salvation, whatever we mean by it?

I have also been forced to rethink our efforts to force God to be what we "know" God to be, without allowing God to manifest God's self in multifarious ways. It has become clear to me that our inability to live with differences or pluralism is a measure of our limited knowledge (arms too short to embrace the totality of the baobab tree of truth), rather than an incomparable divine command to impose uniformity in belief and expression on all humanity.

Kofi Asare Opoku is Professor of African Traditional Religions and Cultures at the Lafayette College, Easton, Pennsylvania, U.S.A.

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