Faculty Panel

Do Not Stand in One Place

His Eminence Alhaji Muhammad Sa’ad Abubakar III, the Sultan of Sokoto, visited Harvard in October 2011 to deliver the Jodidi Lecture and to participate in events at HDS. Among them was the seminar “Nigeria and the World,” convened by Jacob Olupona, Professor of African Religious Traditions. Olupona praised the Muslim leader for “actively struggling to spread a method for quelling violence, healing intractable divisions, and cultivating a national identity to embrace Nigeria’s religious and ethnic diversity.” Photo by Justin Knight

By Jacob Olupona

“ọmọde gbọn, agba gbọn, ni a fi da Ile-Ife” [“It is by combined wisdom of the young and the old that the city of Ile-Ife was established.”]
—Nigerian Proverb

Reflecting on how the king of Ile-Ife was chosen and crowned king as a young man, I think of how even though Africans place a great deal of value and respect on seniority and age, their cosmologies also realize the importance of youth. My book City of 201 Gods refers to the perpetual possibility of adding another deity to the Yoruba pantheon so a large number of different traditions exist together in a complex network. New ways of thinking and being can always be incorporated. This diverse cosmology caters to diverse worldviews and identities instead of fighting them off or making them into an “other” that needs to be feared.1 In teaching about religion in Africa, we must reflect this complexity and diversity. In most African philosophies and religious thought, life is incomplete if you try to ignore, negate, or excise any aspect of life; everything must be accounted for, dealt with, and given its place. To ensure balance and fullness in life, every aspect must be included, and this often implies a balance of opposites such as youth and seniority.

In most societies in Africa, there is also a great deal of diversity among religious traditions themselves. My parents were Anglican missionaries and I was quite literally raised in the Anglican parsonage, but a whole branch of my extended family is devoutly Muslim, and we also had others who took part in traditional religion; this is not uncommon among the Yoruba and many other ethnicities in Africa. To properly understand a country like Nigeria, you have to be conversant with the important role Islam, Christianity, and the hundreds of traditional religions play, not to mention the great deal of diversity within the practices of those traditions. Africa is not alone in its religious pluralism, and even societies that are dominated by one religious tradition are always internally diverse. Thus, studying any group of people or even any one religious tradition implies close attention to diversity in a number of different ways.

Here at HDS, the study of religion in Africa, be it Islam, Christianity, or indigenous religions, allows us to teach from a different theoretical perspective—what is often described as theory “from the South” or “indigenous epistemology.” By that, we imply that we recognize the limitation of Western models, particularly with respect to these traditions. It is important for our students to engage themselves in these alternative ways of making sense of the world. They then have a plurality of ways of knowing and meaning making that they can use to better understand the experience of others and to reflect on and illuminate their own experiences. Chinua Achebe, the famous Nigerian author, once said: “the world is like a Mask dancing. If you want to see it well you do not stand in one place.” This pithily sums up the importance of diversity in both the ritual and the religious context, but also the academic context.

Religious studies students must have a multidisciplinary orientation. In the future, I would like to see MTS and MDiv students who graduate with a grounding in religion and theology but who are also involved and engaged in issues of ecology, issues of health and healing, issues of finance and economics, issues of governance and politics, and so on. That is where the future of religion lies in a professional school like our own. This may call for a radical restructuring of the curriculum to engage religion in those practical domains. In other words, I am calling for a radical professionalism in the Divinity School, just like programs at the Business School or the Kennedy School, where students will be able to engage the world on a professional level.

A panel of HDS faculty launched the bicentennial of HDS by discussing the outcome of the 200-year history of the School: a multireligious divinity school.


  1. A classic example is how, in the Yoruba worldview, the disabled and the physically challenged are regarded as the votaries and peoples of the gods (Eni Orisa) and are given special treatment in the society.

Jacob K. Olupona is Professor of African Religious Traditions, with a joint appointment as Professor of African and African American Studies in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

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