by Dr. Albert J. Raboteau
Professor Raboteau is one of the nation’s foremost authorities on African-American religious history, and the Henry W. Putnam Professor of Religion at Princeton University. He chaired the Princeton Department of Religion from 1987 to 1992 and served as dean of the Graduate School in 1992–93. Dr. Raboteau is a convert to the Orthodox Church, and helped found the Mother of God, Joy of All Who Sorrow Orthodox Church (OCA), which is attended by several Princeton students and other community members.
When I was considering becoming Orthodox, a friend and fellow historian of African-American religion asked me if I understood how much Orthodoxy fit the aspects of African-American religion that had most personally interested me over the years. Several months earlier, an Orthodox monk had remarked to me how attuned he thought Orthodoxy was to the traditional spirituality of black people. Both comments took me by surprise. I had been so absorbed in the details of my own individual path toward Orthodoxy that I had failed to notice the forest for the trees, to discern the overall pattern my life was taking.
Gradually after my chrismation, I began to reflect more generally upon the relationship between the faith of Ancient Christianity that had claimed me and the religious traditions of my people whose history I had been researching, writing, and teaching for the past twenty-five years. Since there are so few black Orthodox, it seemed like a lonely task. Providentially, a friend informed me of the conferences on Ancient Christianity and African-Americans, the purpose of which is to gather people from around the country to discover – in the context of prayer and the Divine Liturgy – the deep affinities and resonances between Orthodoxy and African-American spirituality.
The resonances or points of convergence between Orthodoxy and African-American spirituality are profound. The first resonance is historical. Ancient Christianity is not, as many think, a European religion. Christian communities were well established in Africa by the third and fourth centuries. In Egypt and Ethiopia, Coptic traditions of worship, monasticism, and spirituality have remained authentically African and authentically Christian down to the present day.
The second resonance is spiritual: there are important analogies between African traditional religions and Orthodox Christianity. In classical theological terms, these analogies constitute a protoevangelion: a preparation for the Gospel based on God’s natural revelation to all peoples through nature and conscience. I would distinguish eight principal areas of convergence between African spirituality and Ancient Christianity.
1. Traditionally, African spirituality has emphasized the close relationship, the “coinherence” of the other world and this world, the realm of the divine and the realm of the human. The French poet, Paul Eluard expressed this insight concisely when he said, “There is another world, but it is within this one.” Orthodoxy also emphasizes the reality and the closeness of the kingdom of God, following the words of Jesus, “The kingdom of God is within [or amongst] you.” Indeed, the closeness of the heavenly dimension is graphically symbolized in Orthodox churches by the iconostasis, the screen which stands for the invisibility that keeps our visible eyes from perceiving the heavenly kingdom already present among us behind the royal doors. The icons hanging upon the iconostasis serve as so many windows upon this invisible, but ever present world, as do the lives of the saints that the icons represent. In both traditions, ritual is understood to be the door that allows passage between the two worlds to take place.
2. Traditional African religions depicted the other world as the dwelling place of God and of a host of supernatural spirits (some of them ancestors) who mediated between the divine and the human and watched over the lives of men and women, offering, when asked, to protect people from harm or to provide favor on their behalf. Orthodox Christians believe in the power of saints, ancestors in the faith, to intercede with God for us and to protect and help us in time of distress.
3. African spirituality values the material world as enlivened with spirit and makes use of material objects that have been imbued with spiritual power. Orthodoxy sees the world as charged with the glory of God and celebrates in the feast of Theophany the renewal of the entire creation through God becoming flesh in the person of Jesus. Orthodoxy also appreciates the holiness of blessed matter, and uses water, chrism, candles, icons, crosses, and incense in the celebration of the Divine Liturgy and the Holy Mysteries (Sacraments).
4. The person in traditional African spirituality is conceived not as an individualized self, but as a web of relationships. Interrelatedness with the community, past as well as present, constitutes the person. Orthodox theologians speak of the person as being radically interpersonal, a being in communion, ultimately reflecting the interpersonal nature of the Divine Trinity. And the corporate character of Christian identity is grounded in the reality of the Mystical Body of Christ.
5. African religions speak of human beings as the children of God, who carry within a spark of God or “chi,” a bit of God’s soul that animates the spirit of each man and woman. Orthodoxy, following Genesis, teaches that we are created in the image and likeness of God and that it is our basic vocation to be “divinized,” becoming more and more like the image in which we are created.
6. African spirituality does not dichotomize body and spirit, but views the human being as embodied spirit and inspirited body, so that the whole person body and spirit is involved in the worship of God. Orthodoxy also recognizes the person as embodied spirit and stresses the importance of bodily gestures, such as signing the cross, bowing, and prostrating, in the act of private and public prayer.
7. Worship in African-American tradition is supposed to make the divine present and effective. In ceremonies of spirit-entranced dance, the human person became the representation of the divine; And divine power heals and transforms. In Orthodox worship, God becomes present to His people, most powerfully in the Eucharist as the Holy Spirit changes bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ and as those receiving Christ in Communion become more and more healed and transformed.
8. The African-American spirituals placed a strong emphasis on a tone of sad joyfulness that reflected African-Americans’ experience and their perspective on life. In Orthodoxy, the sad joyfulness of the liturgical chant tones poignantly expresses the attitude of penthos or repentance which characterizes the Orthodox Christian’s attitude toward life. This tone of sad joyfulness relates directly to the third major area of analogy between African-American spirituality and Orthodox, the experience of suffering Christianity.
Ancient Christianity prized the gift of martyrdom, the witness through suffering even death itself for the truth of the Christian gospel. Paradoxically, Christians throughout history have seen periods of martyrdom as periods of spiritual vitality and growth.
“The blood of martyrs is the seed of faith.”
Suffering Christianity, following in the pattern of Christ and the saints, has been for Orthodoxy a mark of the authenticity of faith. African-American Christians have offered a prime example of suffering Christianity in this nation and have understood their own tradition as an extension of the line of martyrs from the days of the ancient Church.
One of the classical liturgical expressions of African-American religions is the “ring shout,” a counterclockwise, shuffling movement in which the shouters move round in a circle to the driving rhythms of counter-clapping and steadily repeated song which bring all present into one accord. The style of movement and the religious impulse behind the ring shout go back to the ancestral homelands of those Africans carried to America by the Atlantic trade in slaves. The danced circle may stand for us as a symbol of the steadfast faith of African peoples — through slavery and oppression — that all human beings are created in the image and likeness of God.
Ancient Christianity does not break that circle, but brings it to amazing fulfillment in the endless circle of love flowing continuously between the divine persons of the all-merciful Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.