The God my Ancestors knew but didn’t know

My Yoruba ancestors (along with most African cultures) believe in a supreme being; they call him Olodumare. They revere him as the source of all life and the originator of all that exists. He is too great to come into contact with the universe, so he is somewhat distant and aloof. This task of dealing with the mundane affairs of humanity is handled by the lesser gods, the orisa. Thus in theological terms, we have a transcendent deity who is not immanent, but reigns as the king over a large group of smaller deities, spirits, and forces.

Abstract Africa in a Tiger Camouflage
Abstract Africa in a Tiger Camouflage

Centuries ago, in the very different climate of Palestine, God was unveiling himself to us. Amidst the ruggedness of the middle eastern terrain, and the simplicity of their diet and clothing, Jesus was born. Earlier prophecies about him, as well as his subsequent life and ministry, would reveal that this was no ordinary Jewish prophet; he was God himself. And he revealed a very different kind of God from what my ancestors (and even many Jews) believed. Among others, this difference lies in two key respects: Immanence and Love.

Immanence

The Incarnation (what Christians typically call the act of God in taking up human nature in order to redeem humanity) is the climax of God’s ongoing interaction with his creation. Ever since creation, God has been involved with his universe. He sustains it and animates it by his spirit. Paul wrote of this when he described God as the one ‘in whom we live and move and have our being’ (Acts 17:25,28). As it were, He has this intimate interaction with us always. This idea about God’s immanence is also spoken of in passages of scripture like Psalm 139:1-10; Jer. 23:23-24; Ephesians 1:11; 4:6; and Hebrews 1:3. Thus it gives a very different picture of God from that of my ancestors. The God revealed in the Bible is not a distant God; he is a God who draws near to his creation. And he has demonstrated this most powerfully in the Incarnation. Here the second person of the trinity left his throne to lodge with humanity. Olodumare has lesser gods in charge of the Human Affairs department, but does not involve himself directly. Some might say it’s just delegation; the way any busy executive might do today. Well, the immanence of God is certainly a comfort for the Christian believer. To know that my God is with me all the time, that I can reach out and call to him, that I never leave my house without walking through his corridor, is an awesome and superior privilege. And clearly, such a view of God answers better to who we are as humans.

Love

The second point ties closely with the first. You cannot love what you have no relation with. By losing immanence, Olodumare loses love. Perhaps, it can love the orisa, but it cannot love humans. This structure of interrelationships between the spiritual realm and the human world thus emphasizes Power rather than Love. And this explains why Power, and the fear of it, is so important in the Yoruba life and world view. The Biblical or Christian view goes against this outlook. Yes, God is powerful; immeasurably so. Yet, when John was to describe God, he identified his character as Love (1 John 4:8). The entire life and ministry of Jesus was a massive demonstration of God’s loving character in defeating sin and establishing the kingdom. And God’s expectation from humans is for just such a relationship based on love (see Deut. 6:5; 7:7; 10:12; 13:13; Joshua 23:11; Psalm 42:8; Matthew 22:36-40). Olodumare is a powerful being, but he is not a God of Love. And that makes a lot of difference.

When Paul met with the philosophers in the city of Athens, he observed that they had a statue to an “unknown God”. In their religious fervour and devotion, they wanted to be sure that they had not left out any ‘god’. So Paul used the opportunity to tell them of the true God who came in human nature rather than have some wooden statue be his reference point.

The ‘God’ which my African ancestors believed in, without fully knowing, has revealed himself. Jesus Christ came to our world several centuries ago and lived among us. His mission was to inaugurate, and ultimately consummate, God’s kingdom on earth. The scriptures describe him as “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation” (Col. 1:15). Therefore, whoever desires to know what the God who created heaven and earth looks like should look to Jesus.

Shortly before his crucifixion, Jesus was speaking to his disciples when one of them, Philip, asked him to show them the Father. To which Jesus responded,

“Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:9)

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