Arriving in Cameroon, West Africa, to teach at a Baptist seminary for six years beginning in 1976 was quite a journey. This was true physically because of the long travel, emotionally due to cultural adjustments, and spiritually because of an awakening as to how Africans generally see spirits replete in every person and thing—living or dead.
One incident illustrates this well. Once, I and two other missionaries were summoned to our local chief’s fish farming pond. Despite warnings, two of his sons had gone swimming; only one returned. The chief’s workers were tasked to get us to retrieve the body of the drowned son. We foreign missionaries were not afraid of the pond or the spirits that the Africans thought inhabited the dangerous waters, especially its water witches.
Eventually, the whole compound erupted in mourning because it turned out the boy had died. We lifted his limp body out, and soon they buried him. My wife, a registered nurse, was there to provide assistance if she could resuscitate the boy. However, they did not let her out of the Land Rover. As a female, they feared the water witch (a.k.a. Mommy Water) could inhabit her and cause those of us swimming around for the body to drown also.
This worldview spiritually charges natural realities with non-material meanings. Traditional religious beliefs abound and fill lives with the fear of spirits, both personal and impersonal.
Universally every culture is charged with these types of spirituality and moral consciousness to form expectations for right and wrong actions. Some individual people deviate from this pattern, but their cultures have mores.
Immanuel Kant (1704-1824) argued that the universal reality of moral conscience demonstrates the existence of God, or at least a god. Kant proposed that a sense of inherent duty was the end of practical reason. Simply stated, since every culture or people group exhibits morality (though variously defined by specific belief systems), then there must be an “all-powerful will … that we hope to attain the highest good.” According to Oxford philosopher Samuel Enoch Stumpf (1918-1998), “The moral universe also compels us to postulate the existence of God as the grounds for the necessary connection between virtue and happiness.”
Because all cultures have a traditional spirituality or religion, could this imply that both moral conscience (à la Kant) and consequential religious systems point to divinity and original religious impulse, perhaps even original monotheism? The process seems as old as the Garden of Eden. After God instructed Adam and Eve to care for the Garden, they were told to eat freely of every tree except the one God designated to avoid; the serpent then came and tempted them.
The serpent said to the woman, “You surely will not die! For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable to make one wise, she took from its fruit and ate; and she gave also to her husband with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loin coverings. (Genesis 3:4-7)
Herein lies the essence of homemade or designer religion, a humanly constructed alternative to God’s expressed will. It constitutes sin. The Fall was human modification of the basis for relationship and communion with God. Alternative proposals to God’s design degenerate into the worship of creation rather than the Creator (Romans 1:18) and distort moral conscience and communion with God. Nakedness was real before the Fall, but moral consciousness and actual sensation of guilt came once Adam and Eve chose to embrace the serpent’s design for their human ways and “the eyes of both of them were opened.”
African Traditional Religions presume a personal, high god that created the world and left it to run in place. Animistic tendencies appear layered in and through all of the world’s major religions, even Christianity in some traditions. The universality of such spiritual impulse points us to the self-revealing one true God of the Bible. In a time when pluralism and ideological chaos swirls, it is encouraging to recognize the truths all around us and to have an anchor in the storm. Search for meaning and purpose builds off of a centered life settled in God’s will, not our designer religions.
Samuel Enoch Stumpf, Philosophy: History and Problems New York : McGraw-Hill, 1971) 326, cites Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1956).
Stumpf, Philosophy: History and Problems, 326.
Articulation of the theory and implications of original monotheism are convincingly rendered by Wilhelm Schmidt, The Origin and Growth of Religion: Facts and Theories, New York: Cooper Square Publishers, 1972; Winfried Corduan, A Tapestry of Faiths: The Common Threads between Christianity & World Religions, Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2002); Winfried Corduan, In the Beginning God: A Fresh Look at the Case for Original Monotheism, Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2013.