The following is an excerpt from African Traditional Religion versus Christianity by Dmitry Usenco. It’s a featured Speakeasy selection, and there are still limited review copies available for qualified reviewers.
The main target of the book is to ascertain the current relationship between African Traditional Religion (ART) and Christianity without siding with any religion but writing from an impartial and secular point of view. The author believes that the discipline of semiotics would answer the purpose in the best possible way. On the other hand, semiotics has its own restrictions as its view may seem reductionist. However, this apparent reductionism is in many cases due to the philosophical inconsistencies often manifested by the founders of the discipline (Peirce and Saussure) as well as their 20th-century successors (structuralists and poststructuralists). Thus, the same irrational mytheme (the perception of sign as a heterogeneous duality of ‘non-identical twins’) is traceable both in Saussure and Derrida. However, such restrictions and inconsistencies can be overcome if we approach the subject matter from a different perspective. The author believes that his background in linguistics and literature qualify him for this undertaking.
Because semiotics of religion is not a well-developed discipline, the author prefers to start with defining religion from the viewpoint of its signifying (symbolic) properties. Soon it becomes apparent that religion, being defined this way, displays many common features with other manifestations of human culture, such as language and technology. All of them seem to have a common origin and to obey similar laws of development, at least at the early stages of humanity. This thesis can be illustrated by comparing some key aspects of ATR and Christianity, including:
- the idea of alienation between man and God (‘the Fall of Man’)
- the ideoplastic and iconic representations of spiritual objects (fetishes and idols)
- the symbolic meaning of witchcraft; the semiotic (socioeconomic) function of sacrifice
- the dynamic balance between polytheism and monotheism in any given religion, Christianity not excepted
The key factor, which, in author’s opinion, eventually leads to one religion being replaced by another is the gradual loss of signification by the arch-deity (usually the skygod). This process can be countered by initiating a counter-movement (renewal) when a different generation of gods arrives to oust the older one whose symbolic powers have been blunted in the course of time. Alternatively, certain individuals may respond by simply denying the existence of spiritual entities (atheism). The latter option, however, looks problematic because of the evident connection between religion and language, which is ‘hardwired’ in human psyche. Human language, strictly speaking, has no proper means to express the non-existence of God. All it is capable of doing is to speak about God’s absence. To illustrate this predicament, the author offers a close reading of The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, showing how an atheist’s idiom can come to contradict his original message.
With the denial option found to be a dead end, the author concentrates on the renewal option offered by Christianity, specifically in the teachings of its founder, Jesus of Nazareth. He also points out that many traditional religions of Africa contain obvious germs of what later could produce ideas similar to the Christian doctrines of redemption and salvation. Yet there is something that makes the latter stand out and dominate among ancient traditions. That something is, in the author’s opinion, that fact that Jesus’ sermons and miracles (as we know them from the Gospel) are largely attempts to reconcile the realities of the contemporary world with the Jewish written tradition (the law and the prophets). Although it seems that Jesus’ original was to develop such reconciliation skills among his (mostly illiterate) audience, the latter tended to choose the way of least resistance and use his personality as a universal reference point in perpetrating a religious renewal which had been maturing in Jewish society for some time. This tendency was fully unfolded in the theory and practices pursued by Paul of Tarsus who developed a renewal technique that was widely applicable to the Gentile world. This discovery predetermined Christianity’s subsequent expansion.
When an expanding religion approaches a competing tradition, it has the choice either to oust or to absorb the latter. This is a largely universal pattern, which the author conventionally styles as opposition of ‘Josiah vs Joshua’. In modern idiom, this can be expressed as the opposition between exclusivism and inclusivism. These two essential approaches have been (fairly recently) complemented and increasingly challenged by pluralism which is technically consistent with the constitutional secularism of many African nations. The author analyses the practical realisation of all three approaches in Africa, with an emphasis on Pentecostalism and Catholic inculturation. One of the reasons why Christianity emerges as the winner in its competition with traditional religions is the fact that its semiosis is more compatible with modern technology. Viewed from this perspective, the future of African Traditional Religion (and more broadly of her cultural heritage in general) may depend on its ability to devise the right cultural policies and provide for their implementation.
Praise for African Traditional Religion versus Christianity
“I recommend this book both as an incidental introduction to semiotics and for outlining common underlying ‘processes’ found in different religions. Wide-ranging scholarship is applied to fascinating subject matter so relevant to contemporary globalized cultural contrasts. The seriousness of the book is offset by the writer’s entertaining style. It should enhance understanding of the shared heritage of religions relevant to conflict situations arising from rapid social change.”
—Richard F. Turner, graduate of Jesus College, Cambridge
“If an author like Dmitry Usenco, writing on the topic of African Traditional Religion versus Christianity, is able to pleasantly surprise a trained theologian and missionary with forty years of experience in Africa (Ghana) like myself with new perspectives and insights, then I feel justified to endorse this book to a larger audience. No religious presentation should underestimate, let alone disrespect, the cultural heritage of the people it wishes to understand. Traditional theology has not always scored high in the appreciation of this basic insight in respect of Africa. Refreshing to find new perspectives to look at African realities.”
—Joop Visser, SMA, Ghana
About the Author
Born in Moldova (then part of the USSR) Dmitry Usenco graduated from the local state university in 1991 with a masters in English. He continued his studies at the Institute of World Literature, Moscow, where he earned his doctoral degree in 1998 with a dissertation on Robert Browning. After a six-year academic career at a private university in Moldova, he moved to the United Kingdom where he has since then worked as a translator, interpreter, and now also writer. This is his first full-size book he commends to the attention of his readers. It is based on his experiences in West Africa acquired during his visits to Ghana and Togo in 2016, 2017, and 2019. As regards the theoretical background, his first book can be viewed as an attempt to voice his life-long interest in religion through the medium of his philological schooling.
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