What Does It Mean To Be Religious (Spiritual)?

“It was in Africa that the first tool was invented, the first fire lit by a human hand, the first crop planted, the first village established, the first language spoken,” says E. Thomas Lawson in “Religions of Africa.” And Africa is still vibrant, unlike North America and Europe.

Even if someone defines himself or herself as an atheist, their religious attitude is the first and most important thing in a person. Can serious people on all continents share a basic understanding of what it means to be religious (or ‘spiritual,’ to use the colloquialism)? It’s imperative that we find out.

African people had their own spiritual lives and well developed religions long before the colonialists appeared with their violent, enslaving underpinnings in Christian theology. I wonder, why does Christianity continue to gain converts on the African Continent, when it is inextricably bound up with colonialism?

Not to excuse the Islamic conquerors and proselytizers. But with some notable exceptions (not to mention a widespread involvement in the slave trade), Islam has a much older presence on the Continent, dating from the time of Mohammed. Islam diffused and became integrated in many lands long before the Scramble for Africa by the European powers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with its blatant aggression and direct rule.

Not having visited the Continent as yet, the appeal of Christianity for many Africans is one of the things I hope to understand. Of course, present-day missionaries, whether evangelicals from America or Catholic priests from Africa will have their own reasons, conforming to their particular creeds and screeds.

But the question goes deeper, and has a direct bearing on the parlous condition of political life in so many Africancountries. From a distance, it appears that in many respects African leaders have absorbed the worst traits of the colonizers, while the best qualities of the many and various peoples have been subsumed, suppressed, and all but erased.

In America the same basic phenomenon of domination and spiritual/cultural destruction occurred, with Europeans having reduced the hundreds of proud tribes of Native Americans to mostly miserable pockets of people on reservations. To this day, the rates of poverty, alcoholism, and child mortality on Indian lands are much higher than the national average.

When I was a young man, I recall having a conversation with my father that reflected a common view of his generation, and the earlier generations of largely settlers (invaders to the Indian way of seeing things) that swept across the ‘virgin’ continent.

We had been talking about some beleaguered group of indigenous people in South America, when my father rather pitilessly, and even pridefully said, “yes, it’s like the Indians, and we exterminated them.”

Fortunately such attitudes no longer prevail, at least openly, though there’s presently a dangerous anti-immigrant tide sweeping across the over-developed countries in North America and Europe. Everyone lives in a truly global society now, but the atavism of the ‘other’ still rears its ugly head all over the world.

As I see it, only authentic spiritual feeling can end the division between ‘us and them,’ the primal division, which organized religions greatly contribute to with their belief systems and dogmas. A genuinely religious person makes no divisions. One sees the world first in the context of the whole of humanity, not one’s religion, nation, or ethnic group.

It’s not that Africans or any others should stick with or return to their indigenous or animist traditions. Just that they see that the religions of the colonialists, past or present, are not superior to their own religious sensitivities and sensibilities.

Theologians will spin their webs until the end of time, but fewer and fewer people are caught in them. Belief systems gave, and still give a few, a false sense of certainty, a false comfort, a false picture of the sacred. But God cannot be pictured, and it’s a sacrilege to make a man into God.

To be religious or spiritual (I’m using the word synonymously) has nothing to do with belief systems and traditions, much less the overlay of encrusted and irrelevant theologies. To be religious, to have a true inner life, means having direct contact on a regular basis with the infinite, the nameless, the sacred.

There are no intermediaries.

Martin LeFevre