The Changing Conceptions Of God

Luke N. Mbefo


  1. Introduction: African Intellectual Situation
  2. Igbo Traditional Religion: A Godless Religion?
  3. Neo orthodoxy: Awa with natural theology
  4. The Emergence of secularism
  5. Neo liberalism
  6. Method of Correlation
  7. Process theology
  8. Conclusion
  9. References

Introduction: African Intellectual Situation
The Latin remind us: Vita est in motu (To live is to change Life) demonstrates itself in its dynamism, in its effort to evolve, to be in process. Even in the region of religious experience, African culture has undergone changes, indeed an enhancement – a growth. It becomes difficult, on the basis of our lived experience, to maintain with Cardinal Ottaviani his basic attitude of Semper idem. Darwin’s discovery of evolution, in his The Origin of Species and assumed in the Ascent of Man, has injected the element of process and becoming even in God-talk which hitherto has been held captive by the Greek idea of God as the self-sufficient Unmoved Mover. And since the Greek were the teachers of Europe and the West generally, this ideal of the self-sufficient monad they call “the man come-of-age,” whose credentials include his ability to realize himself without God. Der Mundige Mensch may be a secular ideal, but he is a lonely creation of the human imagination. He is an ideal that recreates both the Greek and Hebrew hubris of being like the immortals.

The overriding concentration of the African intelligentsia on the continent has been the assessment of the impact of European use and/or misuse of African self-understanding during its period of colonial activity. Was European occupation merely an episode in African history and therefore without lasting influence? Or have the Europeans so misused Africans that we have been so completely denuded of self-respect, confidence and initiative that we continue merely to ape European self-understanding without reference to our own identify? Can we affirm ourselves over and above other self-hoods? Can we still recover the specifically African genius that could signal an alternative for other samples of being human? In this introduction, I am calling to mind the universe of discourse appropriate for discussions of post-colonial Africa, a universe argued for in my “The Reshaping of African Tradition” (1988).

Marzui, in his Africa’s Three-fold Heritage (1986), talks about the two fires with which the Europeans have held Africans in bondage. There is the fire of the machine-gun whose effects remain a shame to “civilized” humanity as we behold the carnage perpetrated in the colonial battle-fields from the Cape to Cairo. There is the hell-fire of the missionaries that restrained the spiritual ambitions of the likes of the Mau-mau and Ekumeku warriors. The combined effect of both methods of intimidation has been to evoke a suffocating awe of the white man. The Igbos, for example have been so over-awed by the technological and scientific achievements of the white man that they rank the white man among the Olympian gods. “The white man, he is Agbara”.

In Igbo religious thought, Agbara is a superhuman being as efficient as he is capricious, over whom ordinary humans have no control. For all we know, the white man could be, in his appearance among the Igbos, a demi-god and this association has not really been effaced from the Igbo consciousness in its various relations with the white man. Somehow, the white man still remains the senior partner in co-operative ventures.

More ancient evidence, however, exhibits an original pride in Igbo religious achievement. It is part of our ancestral legacy that the gods must merit our worship. We give them worship because they are able to perform and accomplish our requests. There are stories of shrines whose gods/goddess failed to perform and who were therefore destroyed and others set up in their places. Igbo equity and fairness applied equally to the gods: “onye na nke ya, onye na nke ya”. “We respect the gods; the gods should respect us”, was a principle the Igbos arrived at independently of Christianity and Western education.

The first missionaries to Igboland, for example, came with the prejudice that Igboland was “the citadel of Satan” and therefore required a spiritual military alliance on a scale larger that the Gulf-war and Kosovo bombardment combined. Michael the Archangel was to lead this spiritual cohort intended to plant the cross of Christ and the kingdom of the living God in a territory inhabited by demons and demonology. The inhabitants were savages. But in the course of their missionary labours, these earlier missionaries did undergo a conversion. They realized that these nations were merely savages. They were seen to be noble savages, cultivating the virtues of hospitality to visitors, justice and truth among themselves as represented by the Nze and Ozo institutions, peace demonstrated by inter-marriage and concordances between the various communities. Their society did not seem to have lacked the equipment necessary for communal life and concord. Oku din a mba na eghuru mba nni. Liberally, the form of firewood native to a people suffices to cook the peoples food. This is to say, each cultural area has a certain independent and autonomy to regulate their societal affairs, including the religious region of experience. Perhaps Igbo religion asserted its autonomy and pride in the famous confrontation between Bishop Shanahan and the Nkwele Ezunaka Community on the outskirts of Onitsha Anambra State, Nigeria. This community welcomed the school system Shanahan offered but rejected his Christianity. “We have our own God”, was their defiant assertion. If today, African Traditional Religion has become recognized as offering salvation to its faithful adherents, the first argument for this recognition was proffered by the Nkwelle Ezunaka community. The God they worshipped satisfies their religious challenges.

Igbo Traditional Religion: A Godless Religion?

To many people, religion means the worship of God, and religious belief means belief in God. We know from the history of religions that a great many religious beliefs contain no overt reference to God, including historical affirmations, generalizations, and speculative propositions. In his controverted study, “The Supreme God As Stranger in Igbo Religious Thought” (1984), Professor D. Nwoga made efforts to number Igbo piety among the godless religions. Basing his take-off point from a chance remark by the anthropologist northcote who, in 1912, doubted that the concept of Chukwu was widespread among the Igbos, Nwoga argued that the missionaries mistook the Chukwu of the Aros to be the Hebrew God who made heaven and earth. Nwoga was a professor of English at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. The present speaker suggested that he defended his allegation before a theological community in one of the series of symposiums organized by the Spiritan International School of Theology in Enugu. That was the occasion of, perhaps, the first theological debate in Nigeria reminiscent of the questions disputate of scholasticism in the Middle Ages. The smoke of the theological battle accruing from Nwoga’s presentation between Nwoga and professor Metuh has not completely deserted discussions on the status of ‘god’ in traditional Igbo God-talk.

Metuh’s position was based on a wider platform than Nwoga’s. The traditional names of God, the proverbs the Igbo used about God, the pre-Christian myths about God were sources of metuh’s ammunition in combating the rather a prior position defended by Nwoga. The Igbo slave, Gustavus Equiano, who may have hailed from Isseke in Ihiala Local Government Area, as recent scholarship claims, was called in all collateral evidence to show that the Igbos had the concept of God before Christianity arrived. The importance of this open debate was that it jolted theologians from their religious apathy and forced them into the theological arena. Discussions on the role of Chi thereafter suffocated dogmatic: discussions in the Bigard Memorial Seminary Enugu. Nigeria and Ezekwugo started to talk loudly of his thesis on Chi hitherto imprisoned in his doctoral tomb.

From the names of God in the Igbo catalogue, two concepts ground Igbo spirituality. In the first place, the Igbos profess the existence of God. Chukwudi or Chidi, God exists is affirmed with no supportive argument. If there was a debate in the tradition akin to Anselm’s debate with the biblical fool who said there was no God, we do not know. And we do not have clues for further research. Phenomenological and existential analysis can only offer us situations in life where one is prone to affirm God’s existence rather than to negate it. But whether this was so or not, we cannot verify. Neither do we have arguments for God’s existence on a level as provided by Plato or Thomas Aquinas and put into doubt by an Immanuel Kant. One thing is certain however, if Chi or Chukwu is the dynamic equivalent of the Hebrew word for the God who made heaven and earth, then the Igbos – even without the Judeo-Christian-tradition behind them had from their own genius arrived at that natural knowledge of God’s existence demanded by the Book of Wisdom and Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. Judging from Igbo lived experience and inferring from their religious response to their spiritual horizon, God’s existence was assumed generally in the Igbo religious space. This belief in God’s existence gives foundation and stability to the life of the religious Igbo.

In the second place, there is an eschatological dimension to Igbo spirituality. The name Chi/Chukwugekwu points to a final judgment without appeal destined to be executed by God himself. The Arochukwu oracle served for a long time as the last Court of Appeal for the Igbo. When it was found to be the forerunner of Nigeria’s present 419 sybdrome (cheating), it was destroyed by a British expedition in the first decade of the last century. That the name however continued to be used is an indication that for the Igbos, the long juju was believed to be God’s sacrament of the end judgment reserved for him. For the Igbo, Chukwu of the Aros is not simply an oracle comparable to the Igwekala of Umunoha. The shrine that gave habitation to the oracle was a physical and audible symbol of the God assumed to be the last court of appeal. Devotees from every part of Igboland trooped to the oracle not for its own sake but for the belief that the unseen God somehow has been his terrestrial epiphany among the Aros. Being smart and exploitative, the Aros capitalized on the Igbo religious sensitivity about Chukwu and used it to deceive their countrymen for their own benefit. The destruction of the physical symbol of this belief did not entail the abandonment of the belief in God as final arbiter and restorer of justice. Christians now use both names in baptism thereby signifying that Christianity is neither a stranger nor a radical vehicle of a new image of God. The oppressed and the victimized, the widows deprived justice could always look to God as their avenger. Not only hospitality and forgiveness are the achievements of African Traditional Religion as claimed – and tightly so—by Soyinka in his Nobel Prize for Literature acceptance speech (1986), but even the characteristics of God as just and as final arbiter go back to that religion. In many ways, Igbo traditional religion was a fertile soil for the growth of Christianity. We already notice how pre-Christian view about God came to be renewed and to be reshaped in the light of Christian revelation. Where people tended to regard death as the ultimate victor, onwuemelie, religious women now counter it by answering Chukwuemelie. Proverbs that asked for vindictiveness now include tolerance: egbe bere ugo bere. Customs that were formerly seen as the greatest sacrifice to God, for instance human sacrifice, have become obnoxious.

Perhaps, their belief in God as creator is better explained by two Igbo stories associated with the vulture than by the myths of Eri or of the ogwumagalaba. For instance, according to the Igbo story, God from the very beginning decreed that there should be respect for old age simply by creating the vulture bald. Another story has to do with aesthetics. After comparing itself with other birds, their beauty and elegance, the vulture felt it was at a disadvantage. It went back to God as source of all gifts to ask him whether he had finished his decorative work on it. God is, in both stories, interpreted as the source of whatever there is.

But the content of Igbo prayers – non-Christians alike – have generally a common characteristic. They fail to allow God to be himself. Igbo prayers appear to be anthropocentric; God exists to carry out human desires and the human purpose. Idahosa and prosperity preachers, winners chapels where God is seen to be not of the poor but of the rich, become the new centres of religious assemblies. A dramatic example is the custom of hawkers in long-distance bus travels. These businessmen use prayers and religious songs as means for softening travelers before declaring their real motive, namely selling their waters. In this practice, God and the invocation of God are means to an ulterior end, namely the making of money. God is no longer the “ultimate concern” (Tillich), but a means to that ultimate concern, namely money. Or again, there is the attribution of everything directly to God’s initiative even where human weakness is the source of a consequence. Whatever happens is seen as achieved by God. The human contribution is lost sight of Man is not seen as a source in partnership with God; he is not acknowledged as a co-operator with God. Hence when a couple adds more children to its already malnourished brood, the responsibility is ascribed to God. It is God’s work: Oluchukwu. When the bus driver who has been trained and tested and possesses a driver’s license and keeps to the highway code starts on a journey, the prayer asks God to take-over the driving and the conduct of the journey to safe destination. When the Igbos work, they are enterprising and exude self-confidence; when they pray, they forget that God calls them to partnership in establishing His Kingdom. Bidding prayers in Christian liturgies tend to concentrate on what God should do for humans. Perhaps, this recognition call attention to the data of revelation, what God has manifested of himself over and above man’s natural knowledge of God. This leads us to insert our discussion within the larger context of contemporary discussion of God-language.

Neo Orthodoxy: Away With Natural Theology

More than any other modern theologian, it was perhaps Karl Barth who insisted on the wholly “Otherness” (totaliter aliter) of the God who reveals himself in the Bible. He was fond of citing the line from Ecclesiasticus, “God is in heaven, and thou art on earth”! This God, upon which everything is absolutely dependent, is utterly unapproachable except by means of divine self-revelation. This is God who sits in judgment on all sinful humanity, but also God who graciously proffers forgiveness and salvation through the atoning gift of God’s son, Jesus Christ. It was such talk as this really inaugurated twentieth century theology. As he writes in the foreword to his Church Dogmatics:

As I look back upon my course, I seem to myself as one who, ascending the dark staircase of a church Tower and trying to steady himself, reached for the banister, but got hold of the bell rope instead. To his horror, he had then to listen what the great bell and sounded over him and not over him alone.
In his study of Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky, and especially by studying the Bible itself, he came to see the bankruptcy of liberation which exalted man at the expense of God: liberalism studied man’s religion rather than God’s revelation. But for him, theology is the study not of human philosophy of religious experience but of God’s word. He proposed the abolition of all natural theology in order to insist of God’s word as the sole basis for theology. This principle provided him with a firm ideological basis from which to oppose the incursion of Nazi ideal into the church and came to expression vividly in the Barmen Declaration. But not everybody agreed with Barth. His friend Emil Brunner throughout his work entitled Nature and Grace where he argues that there are two revelations of God in creation as well as in Jesus Christ. While the former may not suffice for the construction of a natural theology, it does provide a “point of contact” (the so-called Ankunepfungspunkt, punto d’inserimento) for the gospel. For instance, our conscience makes us aware of sin and the gospel is addressed to this awareness. He claimed, with considerable justice, that his less extreme position was closer to the reformers than was Barth’s. Barth responded swiftly and vehemently in a work titled nein! (No) in which he savages Brunner. For Barth, there is only one revelation of God – in Jesus Christ. Without the gospel, there can be no real concept of God or of sin. Given the situation of Nazism, Barth was fearing that Brunner was opening the door to a new liberalism in which man’s natural understanding of God would control and distort God’s revelation. He feared that Brunner was opening the door to Nazi’s influence in the church and to Feurbach whose The Essence of Christianity (1841) claimed that all theology (talk about God) was really anthropology (talk about man). Most systematic theologians like Thomas Acquinas started with natural theology, the doctrine of God before considering his self-revelation in Jesus Christ. Instead Barth argues that we should start with God as revealed in Jesus Christ. Revelation is aletheia; philosophy is doxa he would agree.

The Emergence of Secularism

The mid-seventies of the last century gave rise to radical theology or the so-called “death-of-God theologies”, a phenomenon that was new and without precedence in Christian tradition. While neo-orthodoxy conducted an intra-church dialogue, secular culture as elegantly presented in Harvey Cox’s The Secular City (1965) has shrouded God-talk in an environment of irrelevance and anachronism. Secularism stands for a mono-dimensional interpretation of reality. This interpretation is presented, not by the symbolic language of religion, but by the monosyllabic language of empirical science. The end-result of secular culture is to render theological language meaningless. As Gilkey puts it “I do not even know what you mean by the word “God”, or “I find metaphysical propositions meaningless”. Some sample titles of books published at this stage show the quandary in which theologians found themselves, Gordon D. Kaufman, God the Problem (1972), Martin Buber, Eclipse of God (1988), John C. Murray, The Problem of God (1970) and Don Cupitt, Taking Leave of (1980). Churches in Europe and North America came to be called “tombs of God” because of massive membership desertions. “Men have come of age” and could manage their affairs without the directions of the religions and their priestcraft. Christian theologians accepted the secular thesis of God’s death as given and assigned theology the secular task of seeing how we can live like Jesus in the world, free. Africans in Europe and America started to raise questions about the intention of the Europeans: why did they sell to us a commodity i.e. Christianity which they no longer need? Historians of ideas started to talk about the post-Christian era. Pious Africans now engage in the re-evangelization of Europe and North America. And many of them seem to have been equally infected by the epidemic called secularism.

The New Liberalism

Faced with the new situation, the Nazi prisoner and theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer accepted the “coming of age of the world” in a completely religionless time as a fact. Modern science and its explanations tend to make God superfluous; what has remained is what he calls the “God of the gaps”, a dues ex machine, invoked to fill up the gaps in our understanding of the cosmos and ourselves, invoked when human strength fails to solve the problem of human weakness. For the sake of intellectual honesty. God as a working hypothesis should be dropped, as far as possible eliminated and men must learn to live in the world estideus non daretur, “even if God were not given”. It is a disgrace to win over people by talking about God when they feel themselves helpless. He calls for a religionless Christianity by which he demands of the Christian to speak of God, in a secular way and to live his Christianity in a secular way and thereby share in God’s sufferings “It is not the religious act that makes me Christian, but participation in the sufferings of God in the secular life.” Bonhoeffer’s intention have been variously interpreted simply because he was hanged before he coherently developed his insights.

Method of Correlation

While Death of God theology aims at pushing God out of the world, fresh attempts were being made to find relevance for God in the world. We can only mention such efforts briefly. Paul Tillich presents God as ”that which concerns us ultimately” or “the ground of being”. God is not a Being (who may or may not exist), but Being – itself. In fact it is as atheistic to affirm God’s existence as to deny it! God can be described as personal but he is not a person. Tillich’s view of God is well expressed in a sermon on The Depth of Existence. His audience is secular Christians. The name of this infinite and inexhaustible depth and ground of all being is God. That depth is what the word God means. And if that word has not much meaning, for you, translate it, and speak of the depths of your life, of the source of your being, of your ultimate concern of what you take seriously without any reservation. Perhaps in order to do so, you must forget everything traditional that you may have learned about God, perhaps even the word itself. For if you know that God means depth, you know much about him. You cannot then call yourself an atheist or unbeliever.

In other to meet the question of irrelevance posed for God-talk by modern secular culture. Tillich formulated the “Method of correlation” by which he intended to adapt the Christian message to the modern mind without losing its distinctive character. His method is first to take seriously the questions posed by the modern situation and then to provide answers which are based on the eternal message.

While his method is the theological method, Tillich himself, like most liberal theologians, ended up representing the secular view point rather than the eternal message. And his exposition of the Christian message (cf. His Systematic Theology) is predominantly philosophical. Biblical passages play very little role in these three volumes. Some of his students, like Langdon Gilkey, accept his method of correlation but use the phenomenological method, a hermeneutic of secular experience to uncover what he calls “dimensions of ultimacy” in that secular experience.

Process Theology:

Theologians exploited the process philosophy developed by A. N. Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne, which includes a view of God, to raise a new school within theology, the so-called process theology. Its best known exponents among Protestants are J. B. Cobb, S.M. Ogden and W. No. Pittengber. A Roman Catholic version is found in the vision of the French Jesuit Telhard de Chardin. In general, it aims at dynamizing the Greek image of God as eternal, in the sense of being outside time, as unchanging and static, as the cause of all things though unaffected by them (the unmoved mover). The God of the Bible by contrast is one who needed Moses to bring him to reason when his anger flared up against his people; he is affected by his people to the extent of grieving over them, of leading them out of bondage. God is seen as evolving, and not outside the process. He both affects and is affected by the process. All that happens takes place in God – the world is God’s body. The relation between God and the world is comparable to that between mind and body. God and the world move together through time. Process theology, Tony Lane, rightly observes, makes an eloquent biblical protest against classical theism and sees itself as a return to a more biblical view of God. But then, its philosophical starting point distorts its understanding of God. For instance, it denies that God does know the future, on the grounds that it does not yet exist. And it does not accept the creation does not affect God since it makes God dependent upon the universe. It is often held that God needs the universe and that the universe is eternal. The biblical view of God is evidently different, indeed diverse.

Main line Catholic theology strives through the principle of totality and the help of analogical imagination to see God in his self-revelation in scripture and tradition to the patriarchs, the prophets and kings and above all in the human face of Jesus of Nazareth in whom God is personally present. His name to Moses, “I am there as help at hand” has been metaphysically thematised at Ipsum esse subsistens, the source of all other existence. Nevertheless, theological renewal demands a closer recourse to the symbolic and picture language of the bible where God – with analogical predication – is called Shepherd, Husband, Vine tender, etc, he confronts men in their fellow-humans.

We started with what the Igbos have made of their God and we went on to insert their changing images of God within the context of academic and professional theological debate. Evidently, the image of God has never been uniform in both cases. Stable is the realization that God’s reality influences human self-appraisal. In African context as represented by the Igbo, God is hugely used to serve human expectations. He is seen as a problem-solver. In areas of social oppression and economic depression, recourse to God, the problem-solve has field-day. Prosperity preachers and prophets of Christianity-without-the-cross proper. The clergy – along the lines of the Aro oracle – exploit the third-world underdevelopment and popular religiosity for personal benefits. Instead of correcting the flawed images, they tend to promote them for the sake of gain. Are they aware that they are preparing the way for future anti-clericalism?

Developments in secular philosophies and literature demand human autonomy through the exclusion of religious interpretations of phenomena. The affirmation of God is here seen as a threat to human autonomy. The project of being human should be achieved without recourse to a God real or imaginary. Like in the teaching of Sophism, man should remain the measure. Man “on his own” is the goal of secular culture. Science (empirical) and technology point the direction in which human self-understanding and self-realization can and should be pursued. Man aims to have the type of control empirical science offers. Religion is superstition (Voltaire). The motto of the Enlightenment, as analyzed by Kant namely sapere aude, becomes the engine that propels secular man towards a man-determined future.

But classical theology maintains that man is the image of the unseen God. Man’s full realization mirrors that living God we have come to call the Father of the Lord Jesus. Hence the anthropological turn in philosophy that makes “man came of age” the goal of humanity stands on its head. Instead of seeing the affirmation of God to be the diminishment of man as secularism suspects, the emergence of man fully alive becomes the manifestation of the glory of the living God (Iraneaus). Our discussion has not improved on the conclusion the Igbos arrived at even before Christianity taught them about God, the Father of the Lord Jesus. He remains the Ama ama amasi amasi, known but never completely”. We still see the shadows until such a time as the morning star rises in our hearts. With the Igbos, the entire Christian tradition declares in unison Chukwu Ebuka! God is the mystery hidden before time began.


Kaufimann Critique of Religion and Philosophy (Princeton, 1958)

Mbefo, The Reshaping of African Traditions (Enugu, 1988)

Gilkey, Naming the Whirlwind: The Renewal of God-Language) (Indiapolis, 1969).

Bonhoeffer, C., Letters and Papers From Prison, (New York, 1965).

Kehoe, ed. Theology of God (New York, 1971)

Lane, Christian thought (NSW, 1984)

Miller and S. J. Grenz, eds. Contemporary Theologies (Minnerpolis) 1998.

Kaufmann, Critique of Religious and Philosophy (Princeton, 1978).

C. Murray, The Problem of (Yale, 1970).

D. Kaughman, God the Problem (Harvard, 1973).

Buber Eclipse of God (NW. 1988).

Cupitt Taking Leave of God (London, 1980).

Schillebeechx, God the Future Man.

J. O’Donnel, The Mystery of the Triune God (New York, 1989)

Haight, jesus Symbol of God (new York, 1999)

A Roy Eckardt ed., The Theologians at Work (London, 1968).

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