Jean Price-Mars and Contemporary Scholarship on African Traditional Religion.

AuthorJoseph, Celucien L.


In the history of Western thought, European and American thinkers and theorists of religion have used religion as a marker to include and exclude certain people and races from the metanarratives of human history and to silence their contributions to universal civilizations and human progress in modernity. Both Western thinkers and anthropologists have reduced the African people to a life of religionless-ness or "heathenism." In certain intellectual circles, from the Enlightenment era to the first half-of the twentieth-century, it was also believed that religion was the ground to assess human morality, and what is deemed the good life or the ethical life; hence, Western thinkers also linked the religious and moral life with the life of reason and progress. Like morality, they associated religion with civilization and modernity.

Because religion was interpreted to be the compass that regulates human ethics and behavior, and ultimately facilitated the pathway to civilization and modernity, the religious life of African people was overlooked, as Western scholars have disavowed African history. Consequently, these same theorists, ideologues, and white supremacists have deployed religion as a lens to deny the Black race of human equality; in various unscientific and pseudo-anthropological studies, they advanced the notion that African people were inferior to the white race because of a life devoid of religious commitment and piety.

As a response, the first Black anthropologist, Joseph Auguste Antenor Firmin, in his learned and interdisciplinary work, De l'egalite des races humaines (The Equality of the Human Races), published in 1885 at the emergence of the new disciplines of anthropology and ethnology, brilliantly dispelled the racial myth and racist ideology of the inferiority of African people because of their inability to rise above fetishism and totemism. Following Firmin's footsteps and beyond Firmin, in the first half of the twentieth-century, the father of Haitian ethnology and religious thinker Jean Price-Mars has employed anthropological knowledge, the cross-disciplinary approach, and the comparative method to showcase the religious life of African people before European slavery, colonization, and missionary endeavors in Africa.

Although Price-Mars was reared in both the Haitian Protestant and Catholic-Christian traditions, Price-Mars was a religious pluralist and religious modernist; he acknowledged the merits and contributions of all religions to human flourishing. Price-Mars embraced all religions indiscriminately, and did not subscribe to any religious creed, dogma, or confession. (1) Using the pluralist approach to religion promoted by the philosopher of religion John Hick, this essay is also an attempt to fill in an important gap in the comparative study of religion, Africana Studies, Price-Mars' scholarship, and Haitian studies.

The structure of this essay consists of four major parts. The first part examines the essence of religion by employing the theory of comparative methodology. The second division examines the interpretation of African traditional religion in Western scholarship. The third part of the chapter underscores Price-Mars' historic contributions in the academic study of African traditional religion. Finally, we close the essay with Price-Mars' interpretation of the moral vision (religious/theological ethics) of African traditional religion.

The Nature of Religion and the Comparative Method

In his tour-de-force Ainsi Parla L'Oncle, published in 1928, Jean Price-Mars identifies the basic elements of all religion: the reverence for the Sacred or God, priesthood, dance, sacrifice, trance, a system of ethics, and faithful adherents, which he insists form "the most preserving parts of religious rites and that we experience them, either joined together or separately, in the most exalted religions." (2)

Price-Mars concurs that these elementary forms of the religious life result in cases of mysticism, such as in the case of spirit possession; what remains a high possibility is that the religious phenomenon is transfigured universally. (3) Philosopher of religion John Hick advances the idea that we live in a religious universe. Religion is a human phenomenon; however, the concept of religion as interpreted in modern scholarship is an academic invention. Some thinkers have argued that there was never a time in human history in which people have not been religious or committed to a religious faith. Even those who are deemed irreligious or anti-religious have somewhat had a religious encounter or possibly once committed to a religious tradition. This same Hick explains the ambivalence of religion and irreligion in this language:

It is also true that we have to speak today of post-Buddhists, post-Muslims, post-Christians... However the post-religious are still deeply influenced by their religio-cultural past and it remains true that much of the life of humanity flows through the channels of thought and imagination formed by the ancient traditions that we know, in rough order of antiquity, as Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Christianity and Islam. (4) Nonetheless, the religious experience is as complex and ambivalent as the human experience in the modern world. Hick identifies two major responses to the religious life explaining the human experience in the cosmos: religious and naturalistic definitions.

According to the form, religion (or a particular religious tradition) centres upon an awareness of and response to a reality that transcends ourselves and our world, whether the "direction" of transcendence be beyond or within or both. Such definitions presuppose the reality of the intentional object of religious thought and experience; and they are broader or narrower according as this object is characteristic upon generally, for example as a cosmic power, or more specifically, for example as a personal God. Naturalistic definitions on the other hand describe religion as a purely human activity or state of mind. Such definitions have been phenomenological, psychological and sociological. (5) Generally, religion is good for society and human interactions. Various religious traditions could help enhance the human condition in the modern world. Because religion interweaves with human culture and worldview, learning about various religious traditions could assist us in gaining better understanding and insights about the people who embody cultural practices and traditions that are different from ours. Charles Kimball's engaging remark in the opening paragraph of his excellent text on the complexity and neutrality of religion is noteworthy:

Religion is arguably the most powerful and pervasive force on earth. Throughout history religious ideas and commitments have inspired individuals and communities of faith to transcend narrow self-interest in pursuit of higher values and truths. The record of history shows that noble acts of love, self-sacrifice, and service to others are frequently rooted in deeply held religious worldviews. At the same time, history clearly shows that religion has often been linked directly to the worst examples of human behavior. It is somewhat trite, but nevertheless sadly true, to say that more wars have been waged, more people killed, and these days more evil perpetrated in the name of religion than by other institutional force in human history. (6) In other words, religion may influence human actions, social interactions, and human behavior. Geoffrey Parrinder observes that "the intellectual and emotional sides of religion affect behavior. Religion has always been linked with morality, though moral systems differ greatly from place to place. Whether morals can exist without religion or some supernatural belief has been debated, but at least all religions have important moral commandments." (7) Within this backdrop, we suggest that the religions of the world should be studied comparatively and contrastively, as this method could assist in identifying shared ideas and common ethical values, and points of difference or disaccord between them. In addition, the religions of the world that articulate different conceptions of God in their own terms help us to connect us with God, the Divine, and in the words of John Hick, "the Real." Not only have these religions embodied "different forms of life in response to the Real," (8) they also express different response to God and showcase different revelations and manifestations of God. From a pluralistic approach to religious traditions, Hick defines the Real as "ineffable" and that which is "having a nature that is beyond the scope of our networks of human concepts. Thus, the Real in itself cannot properly be said to be personal or impersonal, purposive or non-purposed, good or evil, substance or process, even one or many." (9) Contrary to Hick's claim, in the theology of the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), God is a personal Being who has revealed himself to humanity in a personal way, and his creation is geared toward the designated telos, according to his plan, will, and purpose. In their doctrine of God, most Jews, Christians, and Muslims believe that God is actively involved in the world and his ultimate goal is the cosmic redemption of all people and all created things, both seen and unseen, visible and invisible. While he employs the subject pronoun "it" as a reference to the "Real," which most adherents to the Abrahamic religions would reject, Hick, however, maintains the idea that "The Real is the source and ground of everything, and which is such that in so far as the religious traditions are in soteriological alignment with it they are contexts of salvation/liberation." (10) The Real, for Hick, is a mystery because,

We cannot describe it as it is, but only as it is thought and experienced in human terms--in traditional scholastic language, not quoad se but...

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