The African Spirit in the context of Religion.

Driving through Philly today I saw several people both middle-aged, and young folk, from all walks of life, seeking alms or money at traffic stops. Faced with the “realization” of limited resources (since one can’t help everyone) I mollified my conscience through the application of moral logic. The thinking followed the path that while it is “good (?)” to wish love, peace, and happiness to others, the “actualization” of tangible lifestyle changes is usually a personal one.  The problem with logic of course is that it doesn’t necessarily solve the problem or alleviate the plight of others. While I have not embraced any particular African religion per se I have developed an appreciation of aspects of the “African Spirit” through (what I can only describe as fascinating research on) African Tribal Art which has yielded the occasional eureka moment and helped me question and put into perspective my own religious belief system.


E1 Ogbodo Enyi (“Elephant Spirit”) mask 

I’m not seeking the “home run” on this issue, just looking for a quiet place (or vantage) where I can compare, contrast and move on with a better understanding. Consider the example of the “Elephant Spirit” mask. The Ogbodo Enyi[1] masquerade was used in the process of male socialization in the Igbo tribe. Ogbodo Enyi (“spirit elephant”) is not specifically an elephant spirit but the elephant is a “fitting model” because it’s “singular power and endurance also characterize the volatile spirit” of the adult male. It is this level of “abstraction”, modeling, and “transposition of spiritual characteristics” that I find particularly creative throughout the ethos of African Tribal Art.

If a person considers his belief in the existence of a higher being or not, this can be mapped on a one- dimensional continuum of “atheist to believer”. We can also up the level of complexity by several orders of magnitude and model the mapping as a “realization-actualization-need-choice” transitive point bound by let’s say four dimensions.

At this point it would be clear that the mechanism behind the choice of a religion is neither “right nor wrong” (as opposed to the flawed logic of an analysis which is correct/incorrect). The dichotomies of “right/wrong”, “sin/sinless”, “good/bad” are based on a collective framework of rules used to determine conformance levels, much in keeping with the needs of a society to promote rules related to standards of behavior.

In both society and religion there is also a high propensity for the common existence of a “profit motive” which is tied to sustainability and longevity. As a result one may find the need to ostracize differences in opinions and suppress or ratify changes in thinking by using processes designed to obfuscate rather than clarify. In a nutshell, it is far easier to apply punitive measures than to change rules or even make slight adjustments in keeping with different scenarios. From an external perspective it may also be necessary to protect one’s way of life by taking a combination of tactical, strategic, and prophylactic measures.

The choice of the higher power or the religion we ascribe to denigrates simply to a personal preference.  The reasoning behind the preference or “the why” is related to “personal drivers” that can be diverse, and vary in complexity from combinations of timing, exposure, environment, value and reward, need, and experience.  The irony is that our closeness to God may be more linked to our ability or lack thereof to accept religious differences in others rather than to belong to a specific religion, or to follow a certain code.

[1] Cole, H. M. & Aiakor, C. C. (1984), Igbo Arts, Community and Cosmos. p155

[E1] Photo Credit to Material Culture (Max Garb Ethnographic Arts Auction) 2013

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