An African Ecological Ethics of Invitation
Journey of the Universe, Shelter Island
By Mohammed Girma
I recently had an opportunity to watch the documentary film made by Yale Divinity School theologian Mary Evelyn Tucker and cosmologist Brian Swimme, titled Journey of the Universe. It is an ambitious project that aims to present cosmology from an interdisciplinary perspective with two overarching purposes: First, the film “aims to convey the nature of our physical world by tapping the perspectives of a multitude of disciplines, from astronomy to theology and religious history”; the second and deeper agenda of the film is to create a more engaged attitude toward our environment by delineating our relationship with the universe in scientific language.1
Fascinated by the beautifully crafted story and the urgency of the subject matter, I nevertheless found myself making some critical observations of the movie from an African point of view. I was brought up in rural Ethiopia, where people enjoy an intimacy with nature and experience few, if any, technological intrusions. I lived a substantial part of my life among communities which hold Christianity, Islam, and African traditional religions as their religious commitments. As a theologian and philosopher, I have made quite a few attempts to reflect, academically and critically, on African understandings of nature, time, and society. Having now lived, studied, and worked in Europe and the United States for the better part of a decade, I have also become aware of the important differences between Western and African cosmologies.
My observations here have very little to do with the content or quality of this film project (which is admirable), but are focused on the ideological and contextual disparities in the way different peoples understand reality, its origin, and our relation to it, which leads me to wonder about the methods used when attempting to get an environmental message across. Precisely because the environment is such an urgent concern that demands more than mere “intellectual gymnastics,” I believe there needs to be some openness to retooling and contextualizing this ecological narrative in such a way that it will resonate with different people living in various cultural contexts, many of whom may adhere to different ideologies and beliefs from the ones that undergird this film. In Africa, God is more than an object of worship. “Speaking God” is a social skill, too. For people who claim to depend on God not only for their spiritual needs, but also for rain, sun, fertility, peace, justice, and reconciliation, removing God from ecological discussions runs the risk of associating the issue with a Western secularist or humanistic agenda. Though Journey of the Universe might be of interest to a handful of African intellectuals, I fear that relying heavily on the language of evolutionary philosophy, with no reference to God, will not prompt a wide range of regular Africans to take concrete action. The worst-case scenario is that framing the ecological crisis in this way could wrongly lead to a perception that the issue of the environment is a Western humanist issue, thereby providing support for the already predominant attitude of many African leaders that the pressing issue in Africa is not the environment, but economic development.
In actuality, the issue of the environment is closer to the heart of most Africans because their survival depends on seasonal precision. A majority (70 percent) of sub-Saharan Africans still live in rural areas, where they are easily exposed to drought and starvation during erratic climate changes and unpredictable weather conditions. Yet, I’m not sure if the scientific community has developed an effective dialogue tool to convince ordinary African folks that they also are contributing to the looming environmental horror. For this reason, I found the language of “participation” in the documentary quite enchanting. We are participants not only in creating life, but also in destroying it. The documentary is rich with materials and analogies that flesh out this sense of participation, and this understanding would only need cultural nuances to be communicated effectively to ordinary Africans.
It seems to me, however, that the documentary is based on the assumption that the universe is autonomous, creating and re-creating itself through mind-bogglingly complex evolutionary processes. Philosophical debates aside, I don’t think this sense of the autonomy of nature would sit well with African perceptions of reality. This, again, is a question of context and contextuality. If the overriding purpose of the documentary is to mobilize people from every corner of society throughout the world, my suggestion is that we need a more flexible hermeneutics. I admit that it is impossible to fully account for the multifarious nature of African cosmologies. There could be conceptual variations, for example, between Akan and Yoruba cosmologies. That said, I will try to anchor my arguments in a few generic features that I believe characterize the nature of most African cosmologies I have studied.
One of the main characteristics of the African cosmologies I have encountered is the notion of dependence and interdependence. Sometimes this is elucidated as a chain of being in which God (the creator and sustainer of everything) is at the top of the chain, followed by spirits, ancestors, living humans, animals, and plants.2 Indigenous African ideologies place a tremendous emphasis on the respect people should have for this chain of being, since the elimination of one part of the chain implies the elimination of the others. Moreover, the spiritual order is believed to have given birth to the material order. According to African cosmologies, the very physical existence of the material order—mountains, rivers, trees, land, and the vast range of natural phenomena—is believed to be sufficient proof of the existence of spiritual reality.3 It is not surprising, then, that disrupting this chain of being is a morally questionable act: it demystifies nature, denies nature the rich spiritual ascription given to it, and reduces it to its mere techno-material dimension. This is why traditional African societies can be apprehensive about such concepts as modernization or urbanization. They fear that modernization would disconnect the material order from the higher spiritual order, thereby mechanizing nature to its bare physical presence and disrupting the fusion of realities that regulates the rhythm of life. Such variations in cosmological understandings should prompt those with ecological goals to formulate alternative narratives that rely on a language of “participation” and also on a sense of dependence and interdependence, rather than on a belief in autonomy.
Another generic element that characterizes many African cosmologies is the notion of “invitation.” In African cosmologies, nature cannot create and re-create itself. Instead, God, who is also regarded as timeless, is responsible for setting up both spiritual and material orders. In many African cultures, God is characterized as Excavator, Architect, Originator, Inventor.4 God, the grand architect, fashioned the earth in such a way as to invite human beings to live in it. This means that the physical existence of human persons in this designed place is limited, and yet, this limited physical existence is synchronic and complementary to the cosmic order maintained by the creator of the universe.5 While creation is seen as being within the ambit of God, he is always its overseer. In African religions, God is in and to nature more than human beings are,6 and this interrelatedness between God as a host and humans as guests provides humans with a peculiar ethical framework. Based on this ethical foundation, primal African religions require their adherents to express great sensitivity for both the visible and the invisible worlds. The sense of invitation regulates our human response not only to nature, but also to other genders, races, and ethnic variations.7 The concept of hospitality in African cultures incorporates ideas of caring, providing, sharing, ministering, and “mothering.” Ethically, it is a contemptible act in Africa for a guest to abuse a possession belonging to the host. The guest is supposed to take special care of the materials belonging to the host as a sign of gratitude and respect. Culturally, Africa is known for having an active “shame culture,” but this comes out of the context of invitation. A guest is expected to maintain a sense of dignity, and one way to do this is to guard against tampering with the order of the host. The implications of this cultural sense of being a guest for the ethic of ecological interdependence are immense.
The last line in the documentary is, “We always belong here.” From a Western point of view, this certainly is an astute way to close the film. And, at face value, any sensible theology of creation or eschatology would not contradict this statement. For one, the sacred literatures teach us, as human beings, that we are made of “dust,” or adam (in Hebrew and Arabic). Second, eschaton as such is not about the destruction of the “created order.” To the contrary, eschaton is about restoration and redemption of the whole creation. We belong together with nature in the inception of the universe, and also in its restoration. Restorational participation, in one way or another, should therefore be one of our fundamental theological mandates. However, the ideological postulation underpinning that last line, “We always belong here,” would hardly resonate with African audiences. The humanistic assumption that takes on spatiotemporality as the ultimate horizon, and the lack of a sense of humans as guests, would sharply contradict African cosmologies. Therefore, any ecological narrative is best formulated and retooled for Africa by using the notion of invitation rather than the notion of always belonging here. A contextualized “last line” of the film for African participants would be this: “We are invited into a mutual interdependence with the reality surrounding us.”
- For more information about the film, visit its website: www.journeyoftheuniverse.org. In particular, see Frank Brown, “Mary Evelyn Tucker Partners with Cosmologist Brian Swimme on Journey of the Universe,” Notes from the Quad (Yale Divinity School).
- Mika Vähäkangas, In Search of Foundations for African Catholicism: Charles Nyamiti’s Theological Methodology (Brill, 1999), 258.
- The Oxford Encyclopedia of African Thought, ed. F. Abiola Irene and Biodun Jeyifo (Oxford University Press, 2010), 313.
- See John Mbiti, African Religions and Philosophy (Heinemann, 1990), 39–41.
- The Oxford Encyclopedia of African Thought, 313.
- Mercy Amba Oduyoye, Introducing African Women’s Theology (Sheffield Academic Press, 2001), 46.
Mohammed Girma is an assistant professor at Evangelische Theologische Facultiet, Belgium, a research associate at University of the Free State, South Africa, and author of Understanding Religion and Social Change in Ethiopia: Toward a Hermeneutic of Covenant (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).