Olupona Lectures on African Religions in the Modern World

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Jacob Olupona, a professor of African religious traditions at Harvard Divinity School, gave a lecture yesterday entitled “The New Diaspora: African Immigrant Religious Communities in America.” Today Prof. Olupona will continue his residency in the Tri-College community by meeting with senior religion majors at the Tri-Co in plenary sessions. Prof. Olupona’s lecture was sponsored by the Departments of Religion of Swarthmore and Haverford.

Prof. Olupona, who got his Bachelor’s degree in Nigeria before coming to the United States to study and teach, focused on broad themes that affect the composition and expression of religions across Africa today. He also addressed how he believes religion should interact with African cultures in order to encourage a “cultural renaissance,” which he believes Africa could be on the verge of.

Prof. Olupona painted African societies to be inherently pluralistic, with many indigenous African traditions borrowing from other nearby traditions so that there are really no religious traditions that exist in isolation from one another. This pluralism was able to accommodate non-indigenous traditions as well, as with the early manifestations of Christianity and Islam in Africa. These religions originally spread to Africa in a way that did not crush indigenous culture and belief systems. Instead, Christianity and Islam was able to absorb indigenous attitudes in order to create a “distinctly African” form of Christianity and Islam.

The advent of colonialism markedly changed the situation, because African communities were made politically and, more importantly, economically and culturally subservient to the West. Today and in recent history, the cultural and religious capital of many African societies has been defined solely by Western powers rather than by an interplay between traditional sensibilities and those of the outside power. This has led to both Christianity and Islam becoming more fundamentalist, not traditionally African, and not as pluralistic as before.

This is the case even as overt political colonialism has faded away, as Olupona illustrated with the particularly insidious case of Western faith-based economic aid. Olupona stated that in traditional African religions a god was judged by his functional effects in the world; a religion wouldn’t develop around a god that didn’t immediately reward those who worshipped him.

Africans today take that same sensibility and become followers of fundamentalist evangelical Christianity because they see that it is having the most tangible effects on everyday life. Therefore, charity work done by religious groups, even those who don’t set out to convert Africans, leads to African converts accepting wholeheartedly Western versions of Christianity devoid of any African influence. Olupona does not doubt the good intentions of Western religious charities, nor does he want to discount the many concrete good things that they have done in Africa, but he acknowledged its inherent drawbacks.

Although current fundamentalist forms of Christianity and Islam that are dominant in Africa today often arrived in their exported form through colonial channels, Olupona was clear that the threat of fundamentalism to pan-African pluralism was not a “clash of civilizations” or a case of the powerful external influences battling a united weak group of people internal to Africa.

Many Africans are dedicated adherents to the fundamentalist religions, which makes the situation one that needs to be resolved within Africa between Africans, and not by external intervention. However, the fact that the current situation pits Africans against Africans often makes it much more difficult to resolve in a way that preserves traditional African beliefs and cultures.

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