an approach from intercultural philosophy

Wim van Binsbergen


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1. Introduction[i]

There is currently a hype in the production of encyclopedias on Africa, and in this context Valentin Mudimbe approached me a few years ago whether I would be willing to write the entry on ‘African spirituality’ for an encyclopaedia of Africa and the African diaspora which he was editing. Never having used the word ‘spirituality’ in any of my own writings on African religion so far, and bargaining for time, I asked him what I was to understand by it: time-honoured expressions of historical African religion such as prayers at the village shrine; the wider conceptual context of such expression, including African views of causality, sorcery, witchraft, medicine, the order of the visible and invisible world, and such concepts as the person, ancestors, gods, spirits, nature, agency, guilt, responsibility, taboo, evil, not to forget the ordering of time and space in terms of religious meaning; the expressions of world religions in Africa, especially Islam and Christianity; the accommodations between these various domains. Mudimbe’s answer was: all of the above, and whatever else you wish to bring to the topic. Though unduly flattered by his request, I never came round to writing the entry: I could not overcome the fear of exposing myself as ignorant of the essence of African religion.

                        Very recently, I brought together in one website[ii] a considerable number of my papers on African religion as written over the years, also in preparation for a book largely to consist of the same material. This has made me reflect on the very topic Mudimbe invited me in vain to write on.

                        The readily available material from the website contains only some fifteen of the myriad writings on African spirituality which are in existence, and in that respect there is no special reason to take these specific writings as our point of departure. Yet I will do so, for the following reason: as far as these writings are concerned, I have first-hand knowledge of the specific empirical and existential conditions under which the statements they contain came into being, and of the personal evolution of the author who made these statements. Implicitly this means that I appeal to introspection as one of my sources of knowledge. While a time-honoured tool in the history of philosophy (think e.g. of Socrates’ daimôn and Descartes ‘cogito ergo sum’), we are only too well aware of the dangers of introspection.[iii] The public representation of self in what may be alleged to be pure introspection inevitably contains elements of performativity, selection, structuring, and is likely to be imbued with elements of transference reflecting the introspecting author’s subconscious conflicts and desires. Incidentally the same criticism applies, in varying degrees which have hardly been investigated, to all other philosophical and social scientific statements. Be this as it may, I rely on introspection only implicitly in the present argument: mainly I will acknowledge my personal recollection of the specific social processes of my own gaining knowledge, or ignorance, of African spirituality.

                        The present argument may ultimately, in more final form, serve towards the introduction of my book in the making, and this is another incentive to write it. The extensive references to my own published work merely serve to cover as many as possible of the articles to be included in the prospective book.

                        What I wish to do is pose a number of obvious and straight-forward questions, and attempt to give very provisional answers to them, in order to initiate our further discussion on these points:


     Is there a specifically African spirituality?

     Can we know African spirituality?

     What specific themes may be discerned in African spirituality?

     To what extent is African spirituality a process of boundary production and boundary crossing at the same time?

     Within these boundaries, what is being produced: group sociability, the individual self, or both?

     How can we negotiate the tension between local practice and global description of African spirituality?



2. Is there a specifically African spirituality?

It is almost impossible to separate this question from the next one, concerning the epistemology of African spirituality. However, we have to start somewhere, and it may be best to start where the controversies and the politics of intercultural knowledge production are most in evidence. The existence of a massive body of writing specifically on African religion, and the institutionalisation of this field in terms of academic journals, professorial chairs, scholarly institutions, at least one world-wide scholarly association, has helped to make the existence of specifically African spirituality (or religion, I will not engage in terminological debate here) into at least a globally recognised social fact. But to recognise the nature of social facts as being socially produced at the same time raises the question of irreality, virtuality, performativity, existence by appearance only. If we argue that ethnicity is socially produced, we argue at the same time for the deconstruction of ethnic identity claims as inescapable, historically determined, absolute, unequivocal.[iv] Something similar has been argued for culture.[v] Is it now the turn for African spirituality to undergo the same treatment?

                        African spirituality features prominently in the increasingly vocal expressions by intellectuals, political and ethnic leaders, and opinion-makers who identify as African or who can claim recent[vi] African descent. Of late such discussions have concentrated around the Afrocentrist movement[vii] for which I personally have great sympathy.

                        Here a dilemma arises.

                        One could either stress[viii]

(1)  the fact that the concept of ‘Africa’ is a fairly recent geopolitical construct and therefore is unlikely to correspond to any ontological reality informing, and mediated through, spiritual expressions some of which (like royal cults, ancestral cults, cults of the land) can be demonstrated[ix] to have existed for centuries if not millennia on the soil of the African continent. By taking this view one may have long-term historical reality on one’s side, but at the same time one gives the impression of seeking to rob those who identify with ‘Africa’ from their most cherished possession, their most central identity.


Or, alternatively, one may


(2)  affirm that there is something uniquely African, not just in sheer terms of geographical location or provenance but also in substance, thus playing into the cards of the Afrocentrists and similar consciousness-raising forms of intellectual mobilisation. But then one must be prepared to run the risk of oversimplification, seeing one ‘African spirituality’ where in fact there are myriad different African spiritual expressions, some as far apart as:

(a)   the cult of royal ancestors in West Africa under the Akan cultural orientation, and

(b)   the ecstatic veneration of the Holy Spirit in Pentecostal Southern African churches;


(c)   the veneration of land spirits in the somewhat thin Islamic trapping of local saints in North Africa, and

(d)   the ecstatic cults of affliction associated with misfortune, a unique personal spiritual quest, and the circulation of persons and commodities across vast distances of space, as in the South Central and Southern African ngoma complex;


(e)   the meticulous cultivation of female domesticity and sexuality in South Central African girl’s initiation cults, and

(f)    the annual cult of the descent of the Cassara demiurge, revenger and cleanser of witchcraft, in westernmost West Africa.

                        These examples, all within the range of my own African religious research in over three decades, may be multiplied ad libidum.

                        If many colleagues clamour to subsume these varieties of spiritual expression under a common label, as ‘African’, it is not so much because these expressions are situated in the African continental land mass, or manifestly pertain to a recognisable shared tradition, but largely because all of them may be cited to represent forms of local identity and symbolic production on the part of people whose image of dignity, whose image of spiritual and intellectual capability and autonomy, has been eroded in recent centuries of a North Atlantic mercantile, colonial and post colonial hegemonic assault.

                        ‘African’ in my opinion primarily invokes, not a common origin not shared with ‘non-African’ or ‘non-Africans’, nor a common structure, form or content, but the communality residing in the determination to confront and overcome such hegemonic subordination.

                        It is especially important to realise that ‘African’, when applied to elements of cultural production, usually denotes items which are neither originally African, nor exclusively, confined to the African continent. Elsewhere I have extensively argued how many cultural traits which today are considered the central characteristics and achievements of African cultures, have demonstrably a non-African origin, and a global distribution pattern which extends far beyond Africa.[x] This is not in the least a disqualification of Africa, for exactly the same argument, and even more so, may be made for so-called European characteristics and achievements, including Christianity and modern science. It is only a reminder that broad continental categories are part of geopolitics, of ideology and identity construction, and not of detached analytic thought. There is a famous passage in Linton’s Study of man[xi] in which he describes the morning ritual of the average modern inhabitant of the North Atlantic: from the slippers he puts on his feet to the God to whom he prays, the cultural items involved in that process have a heterogeneous and global provenance, most hailing from outside Europe.

                        The cultural and intellectual achievements commonly claimed as exclusive to the European continent, are a concoction of transcultural intercontinental borrowings such as one may only expect in a small peninsula attached to the Asian land mass and due north of the African land mass, thrice the size of Europe. What makes things European to be European, and things African to be African, for that matter, is the transformative localisation after diffusion.[xii] Transformative localisation gave rise to unmistakably, uniquely and genially Greek myths, philosophy, mathematics, politics, although virtually all the ingredients of these domains of Greek achievement had been borrowed from Phoenicia, Anatolia, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Thracia, and the Danube lands. And a similar argument could be made for many splendid kingdoms and cultures of Africa.[xiii]

                        If we accept that ‘African’ today is primarily a political category reflecting the desire to assert self-identity and dignity in the face of subjugation and humiliation under North Atlantic hegemony, then ‘African spirituality’ can no longer be defined, naively, as a particular way in which the inhabitants of the African continent go about their time-honoured religion, today, and in presumed continuity, to a greater or lesser extent, with the religious patterns such as these existed before European colonial conquest. We know that ‘African’ is a meaningless category except in contrast with the ‘non-African’ implied in the term, and implicated in a particular political history of hegemony vis-à-vis what is so-called ‘African’. As befits the place of origin of mankind, the African continent has the greatest variety of somatic, cultural and religious forms in the world. We cannot define Africans by reference to that variety. What makes Africans Africans is not that they tend to have heavily pigmented skins and woolly curly hair covering their heads (this does not apply to all people residing in the African continent, and moreover it does apply to many people outside the African continent, including many not of recent African descent, such as the original inhabitants of Southern India, Melanesia, New Guinea and Australia), but that they have shared in the experience of recent intercontinental political, military and economic history. In asking the question as to the nature of African spirituality, we are no longer primarily interested in the ways in which ‘Africans’, of all people, use the concepts of spirit, and the actions of prayer, sacrifice, ritual, to endow their world with meaning, order, and intent, as if things African constitute their entire world. African spirituality can only be a political category, which seeks to define a local spirituality (better probably: a locality of the spirit) in the face of the threats, lures and inroads of global processes beyond the local.

                        ‘African spirituality’ then is a scenario of tension between local and outside, utilising spiritual means (the production, social enactment, and ritual transformation, of symbols by a group which constitutes itself in that very process) in order to try and resolve that tension. In the last analysis, African spirituality is not a fixed collection of such spiritual means (‘spiritual technologies’) which might be labelled specifically ‘African’ if that epithet is to denote geographical provenance. The means are extremely varied, as we have seen. And in many cases these means are imported intercontinentally from outside Africa. These cases probably include spirit possession,[xiv] and certainly such world religions as Islam and Christianity, -- these three forms of African spirituality together already sum up by far the major religious expressions on the African continent today.

                        The latter does not mean that these three forms of African spirituality are inherently un-African and alien to the longue durée of African cultural history. Spirit possession is increasingly agreed to constitute a transformation, in recent millennia, of the religion of Palaeolithic hunters whose religious expression has been world-wide mediated (often in shamanistic forms iconographically marked by deer[xv] and circle-dot motives,[xvi] which passed through Mesopotamia and the eastern Mediterranean basin in the second millennium BCE) in the particular form it took in the Northern half of Eurasia by the onset of the Neolithic. It is likely that this North and Central Eurasian spiritual expression was considerably indebted to the emergence of art, symbolic thought, and language by somatically modern man in Africa from 200,000 BP (and especially 100,000 BP) onwards.[xvii] Yet it is my impression that African cults of possession and mediumship derive primarily from a common Old World stock emanating from North and Central Eurasia, and not so much from the direct intra-African descendent forms of the Later Palaeolithic. More recently, both Islam and Christianity emerged in a Semitic-speaking cultural environment which was not only geographically close to Africa, but towards whose genesis African influences have been highly important: Mesopotamian influences on ancient Judaism have been stressed by scholarship from the late nineteenth century,[xviii] but it is only in recent decades that the great influence of ancient Egypt on that seminal world religion is widely admitted and studied in detail;[xix] by the same token, it is increasingly clear that the cradle of the Semitic languages is to be sought in Northeast Africa (where even today the wider linguistic super-family of Afroasiatic has its greatest typological variety), and that many of the basic orientations of the Semitic civilisations of Western Asia may have parallels if not origins in the African continent.

                        To try and define the conditions under which the process of the creation of locality in the face of a confusing and identity-destroying outside world takes place, is the main challenge of cultural globalisation studies today.[xx] Also in some of my own writings, typically including those not emphatically appearing under the heading of African religious studies, this process has been explored.[xxi] Invariably, the process hinges on the creation of a sense of community which involves the installation, both conceptually (in shared language) and actionally (through control of the flow of people and commodities) of boundaries defining ‘us’ (a ‘we’ into which the acting and reasoning ‘I’ inserts herself) as against ‘them’. Without such boundaries, no spirituality, yet, as we shall see, the very working of spirituality is to both affirm and transgress these boundaries at the same time -- so that ultimately, African spirituality is about both the affirmation of a South identity based on a particular historical experience, and the dissolution of that identity into an even wider, global world.



3. Epistemology: Can we know African spirituality?

The above positioning of African spirituality has deliberately deprived the concept from most of its entrenchedly parochial and mystical implications. If the creation of community through symbols is a social process aiming at selective and situational inclusion and exclusion through conceptual and actional means, and if the process is not limited to a specific selection of cultural materials supposed to constitute, intrinsically, ‘African spirituality’, then the vast majority of people identifying as ‘Africans’ would at most times be excluded from the creation of community undertaken by other ‘Africans’ in a specific context of space, time and organisation.

                        For instance, a number of spiritual complexes, including one revolving on the veneration of dead kings, another on girl’s initiation and the spirit of menstruation and maturation named Kanga, another on commoner villagers’ ancestral spirits, yet another on spirits of the wild as venerated in cults of affliction and in the guilds of hunters and healers, together make up the spiritual life world of the contemporary Nkoya ethnic group.[xxii] This statement needs to be qualified in view of the fact that many who today identify as Nkoya, including the groups dominant ethnic brokers and elite, have undergone considerable Christian influence and would primarily identify as Christians of various denominations, primarily the Evangelic Church of Zambia, Roman Catholicism, and recent varieties of Pentecostalism. Moreover, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Islamic Swahili long-distance traders penetrated into the land of Nkoya and left some small cultural traces there. All these complexes define insiders and outsiders in their own right, to such an extent that most Nkoya tpople today could be said to be outsiders to most of what in some collective dream of Nkoya-ness would be summed up as the basic constituent features of the Nkoya spiritual world! All Nkoya men are in principle excluded from participation in and knowledge of the world of female initiation; women and all male non-initiate hunters are excluded from the hunters’ guild’s cults except from the most public performances of its dances and songs, and so on. Over the pastdecade, my research on identity, culture and globalisation in Zambia has concentrated on the annual Kazanga festival,[xxiii] the main rural outcome of a process of ethnicisation by elite urban-based Nkoya in the 1980s. The main feature of this festival is that elements from all these spiritual domains (with exception of Christianity, which however contributes the festival’s opening prayer and the canons of decency governing dancers’ clothing and bodily movements) are pressed into service in the two-day’s repertoire of the festival. The effect is that thus all people attending the festival, whose globally-derived format (including a formal programme of events, the participation of more than one royal chiefs seated together, the re-enactment of girl’s initiation dances by young women who have already been initiated, the use of loudspeakers, the opening prayer and national anthem, the careful orchestration of dancing movements by dancers who are uniformly dressed, and who receive payment for their activities, etc. etc.) is entirely non-local, are forged into a performative, vicarious insidership, by partaking of a recycled form of spirituality devoid of its localising exclusivity. Here boundaries are crossed and dissolved, and the most amazing thing is that -- as I argued at greater length elsewhere -- the Nkoya people involved do not seem to notice the difference between the original spiritual dynamics, and its transformation and routinisation in the Kazanga context. Or rather, if they notice the difference they appreciate the modern, virtualised form even more than the original village forms. However, one might also argue that it is only by sleight-of-hand that the illusion of a more extensive insidership is created here whereas in fact the essence of the virtualisation involved is that all people involved, also the original insiders, are turned into outsiders, banned from the domain where the original spiritual scenario could be seen to be effective.

                        When such transformations of inside participation and outside contemplation and exclusion exist, already within one cultural an linguistic community with a small window on the wider, ultimately global world, we should be very careful with claims as to the sharing or not sharing of the spirituality involved. Central to my argument is that African spirituality consists in a political scenario, and that in that context the minutiae of contents of a specific cultural repertoire, and a specific biologically or socially underpinned birth-right, are largely or even totally irrelevant.

                        This may be a difficult position to accept for cultural essentialists including many Afrocentrists. Yet it is a position which I have extensively elaborated and which subsumes my entire intellectual career.[xxiv] It is the position in which I claim to be a Dutchman, a professor of intercultural philosophy, a Southern African sangoma, and an adoptive member of a Nkoya royal family, all at the same time.

                        In the light of the constructed nature of any domain surrounded by the boundaries that spirituality both creates and transgresses, any spiritual domain, African or otherwise, is by definition porous and penetrable -- in fact, it invites being entered, but at a cost defined by the spiritual boundaries surrounding it.

                        That cost is both interactional and conceptual. An exploration of this cost amounts to defining the place and structure of anthropological field-work as a technique of intercultural knowledge production; it is here that the introspection mentioned in my introduction comes in. Without engaging with the insiders along the locally defined lines of etiquette, implied meanings, shared local secrets, it is impossible to attain and to claim insidership. Without engaging with the linguistic and conceptual bases of such communality as the insiders create by means of their spirituality, it is impossible to achieve insidership in their midst. Such insidership is a social process also in this sense that it cannot just be claimed by the person aspiring it; quite to the contrary, it has to be extended, recognised and affirmed by those who are already insiders, and who as such are the rightful owners of the spiritual domain in question. These are complex processes indeed. Not only the original outsider such as the anthropologist seeking to enter from a background which was initially far removed from that of the earlier insiders, but also these insiders themselves in their process of affirming themselves as insiders, have to struggle with massive problems of acquisition of cognitive knowledge, language skills, details of organisational, mythical, theological and ritual nature. Their credentials as insiders are socially and perceptively mediated, and as such contain a considerable element of performativity, which in principle stands in tension vis-à-vis actual spiritual knowledge and attitudes, for in the public production and perception of the latter a non-per formative existential authenticity tends to be taken for granted. Also the initial outsider seeking to become insider must perform in order to affirm her eligibility as insider, and this adds a layer of potential insincerity to all claims of intimate spiritual knowledge of secluded local domains.

                        Yet, despite all these qualifications, I can only affirm that, yes, the very many distinct domains of locality created by African spiritualities are as knowable to the initial outsider as they are to the earlier insiders. The difference is one of degree and not of kind. Paramount is the political scenario of insertion, not the immutable facts of an allegedly fixed cultural repertoire or birth-right; least of all a congenital predisposition to acquire and appreciate a specific, reified cultural repertoire — as racists, including racist variants of Afrocentrism, would affirm.

                        Meanwhile knowing is not the same as revealing, and an entirely new problematic arises when one considers the problem of how much or how little the outsider having become insider in a specific domain of African spirituality, is capable of revealing the knowledge she has gained, to the outside world, globally, and in principle in a globally understood international language. Here at least three problems loom large:


     Can everything, especially everything spiritual, be expressed in language? The answer is inevitably: no, of course not.[xxv]

     Can everything, especially everything spiritual, be transferred from the specific domain of one language to that of another language? Here the answer is: yes, to a considerable extent, but not totally, cf. Quine’s principle of the indeterminacy of translation).[xxvi]

     Can one mediate inside knowledge to outsiders without betraying the trust of fellow-insiders? Here the answer is: that depends on the extent to which one allows the process of reporting to be governed by the agency of these fellow-insiders -- if that extent is minimal one’s reporting is downright betrayal and intellectual raiding in the worst tradition of hegemonic anthropology; but it is not impossible to mobilise the earlier insiders’ agency, for many insiders today welcome global mediation of their identity, and therefore may help to define the forms in which they wish to see their own spiritual insidership mediated.[xxvii]



4. Themes in African spirituality

I have claimed that in principle African spirituality is a political scenario devoid of specific cultural contents. In actual fact however the range of variation in the cultural material that has gone into the myriad specific constructions of African spirituality, although wide, is not entirely unlimited.

                        Let me give an example. In 1981, when guided by a hospitable new roadside acquaintance into a West African village in Guinea Bissau for the first time in my life, I could blindly point out the village shrine and improvise meaningfully on its social and spiritual significance, merely on the basis of having extensively participated in village shrine ritual in South Central Africa, at a distance of 5,000 km across the continent, and having written comparative accounts of shrines in South Central and Northern Africa.[xxviii] The same applies to spirit possession, to whose South Central African forms I could relate on the basis of my earlier research into similar phenomena in North Africa.[xxix] The forms of kinship ritual and royal ritual in West and Southern Africa are amazingly reminiscent of each other, and I am gradually beginning to understand the historical reasons for this, especially the diffusion (taken for granted in the first half of the twentieth century, and ridiculed in the second half) of royal themes from Ancient Egypt.[xxx] The same similarity exists in the field of divination methods, albeit that here the underlying common source is not Ancient Egypt but late first-millennium CE Middle-Eastern Islam having undergone the distant influence of Chinese I Ching which goes back to the second millennium BCE.[xxxi] But as the latter forms of oracular ritual already indicate, there is no compelling reason to limit our comparisons to the African continent, and in fact there are continuities and similarities extending all across Africa extending all over the Old World and occasionally even into the New World.[xxxii] It would be easy to spell out these themes and communalities more fully, but for our present intercultural-philosophical argument they are not essential; what is more, they would only detract us.



5. African spirituality as boundary production and boundary crossing at the same time — in other words as intercultural philosophy

Adopting a formal perspective that takes the greatest possible (or should I say: an impossibly great) distance from cultural specificities, I have suggested that African spirituality is a political scenario of community generation through spiritual means. In other words, African spirituality is a machine to generate boundaries.[xxxiii] However, a boundary which is entirely sealed is no longer negotiable and amounts to the end of the world. The very nature of a boundary in the human domain is that it is negotiable, albeit only under certain conditions, and at a certain cost. I have attempted to spell out some of these conditions and costs.

                        The argument, if found not to be totally devoid of sense, has implications for intercultural philosophy beyond the mere analytical study of African spirituality. For also intercultural philosophy itself could be very well defined in the very same terms I have now employed for African spirituality. While forging a specialist inside language amongst ourselves as intercultural philosophers, we intend the boundary which we thus erect around ourselves to be porous, and to be capable of being transgressed by those we seek to understand, and by whom we seek to be understood. Both within, and across, that boundaries there will be limitations to the extent to which we can know, understand, represent and mediate; but the possibilities are well above zero.

                        There is an unmistakable kinship between my approach to African spirituality as a content-unspecific boundary strategy towards community, and Derrida’s approach to différance as a strategy to both affirm and postpone the affirmation of difference; little wonder that the above argument was written shortly after I attempted to critically reflect on Derrida’s 1996 argument on religion.[xxxiv]

                        Besides my reluctance to spell out, at this point, whatever would appear to be the specific contents of African spirituality after all, another set of questions continue to bother me, leaving me rather dissatisfied with the above argument while upholding its general thrust, which would ultimately point to a definition of religion beyond ontology, beyond metaphysics, as mainly a (necessarily contentless) vector of sociability.



6. The politics of sociability versus the construction of the individual self in African spirituality

The following dilemma arises at this point. Such boundary creation and boundary crossing as goes on in the context of African spirituality, does not only create situational and contextual communities to which one may or may not be co-opted -- it also articulates an I who by having the experiences engendered by these various spiritual technologies, involves herself or himself in these domains of community, and in the very process constitutes itself. Therefore my emphasis, in the above argument, on the implied political dimension of African spirituality, is demonstrably one-sided. It is not the ad hoc community created within spirituality-based boundaries, but the I who is the locus of these experiences, because it is only the individual who possesses the corporeality indispensable as the seat of experience at the interface between self and outside world. As Henk Oosterling aptly pointed out,[xxxv] spirituality necessarily amounts to an embodied project. African spirituality then is not only a social technology but also a technology of individuality, of self. Is this reason to distinguish between, let us say, social spirituality (the technology of community) and religious spirituality (the technology of self)? Is such a distinction at all possible? Or is spirituality best understood as the nexus between self and community, as the technology which (in the classic Durkheimian sense)[xxxvi] renders the social possible despite the centrifugal fragmentation of the myriad individual conscious bodies out of which humanity consists.



7. Spirituality between local practice and global ethnographic/ intercultural-philosophical description

A second and related point addresses my own positioning within the above dilemma. I came to intercultural philosophy in the late 1990s out of dissatisfaction with the objectifying stance of cultural anthropology; before reaching that point, this dissatisfaction had brought me to suspend professional anthropological distance: I joined (1990-1991) the ranks of those whom I was supposed to merely study, and became a Southern African diviner-priest (sangoma), in ways described in several of my papers.[xxxvii] The present argument goes a long way towards explaining how I can be a sangoma, a North Atlantic professor of philosophy, and a senior Africanist social researcher, at the same time: if the essence of African spirituality (and any other spirituality) is contentless, then the affirmation of belief is secondary to the action of participation.[xxxviii] The problem of actually believing in the central tenets of the sangoma world-view (ancestral intervention, reincarnation, sorcery, mediumship) then scarcely arises, and largely amounts to a sham problem.

                        But not quite. For at the existential level one can only practice sangomahood, and bestow its spiritual and therapeutic benefits onto others as clients and adepts, if and when these beliefs take on a considerable measure of validity, not to say absolute validity, at least within the specific ritual situation within which these practices are engaged in. The community which this form of African spirituality (and other forms of African and non-African spirituality) generates, clearly extends beyond the level of sociability, and has distinct implications for experience and cognition. It is a political stance[xxxix] to insist on the validity of these sangoma beliefs and to engage in the practices they stipulate, and thus not to submit one-sidedly to the sociability pressures exerted by another reference group (North Atlantic academic) and the belief system (in terms of a secular, rational, scientific world-view) they uphold; yet the latter belief system is worthy of the same kind of respect and the same kind of politically motivated sociability, as the sangoma one.

                        The dilemma is unmistakable, and amounts to an aporia. I solve it in practice, day after day, by negotiating the dilemma situationally and being, serially in subsequent situations I engage in within the same day, both a sangoma and a philosopher/ Africanist. But as yet I do not manage to argue the satisfactory nature of this solution in discursive language. And I suspect that this is largely because the kind of practical negotiations that produce a sense of solution and that alleviate the tension around which the dilemma revolves, defy the consistency, boundedness and linearity of discursive conceptual thought, -- in other words, the dilemma itself seems a rather artificial by-product of rational theoretical verbalising on intercultural and spiritual matters. As I argued elsewhere,[xl] discursive language is probably the worst, instead of the most appropriate, vehicle for the expression and negotiation of interculturality. And this renders all academic writing on African spirituality of limited validity and relevance. But why confine ourselves to writing and reading, if the real thing is available at our very doorstep?




[i]               An earlier version of this paper was read at the June 2000 meeting of the Research Group on Spirituality, an initiative of the Dutch-Flemish Association for Intercultural Philosophy NVVIF, held at the Philosophical Faculty, Erasmus University Rotterdam. I am indebted to the participants for their constructive remarks, and particularly to Henk Oosterling, Cornée Jacobs, and Frank Uyanne.

[ii]       .

[iii]              Dalmiya, V., 1993, ‘Introspection’, in: Dancy, J., & E. Sosa, eds., A companion to epistemology, Oxford/ Cambridge (Mass.): Blackwell’s, first published 1992; Shoemaker, S., 1986, ‘Introspection and the Self’, Midwest Studies in Philosophy, 9.

[iv]              van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 1992, Kazanga: Etniciteit in Afrika tussen staat en traditie, inaugural lecture, Amsterdam: Vrije Universiteit; shortened French version: ‘Kazanga: Ethnicité en Afrique entre Etat et tradition’, in: Binsbergen, W.M.J. van, & Schilder, K., ed., Perspectives on ethnicity in Africa, special issue, Afrika Focus, Gent, 1993, 1: 9-40; English version with postscript: van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 1994, ‘The Kazanga festival: Ethnicity as cultural mediation and transformation in central western Zambia’, African Studies, 53, 2, 1994, pp 92-125; van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 1999, ‘Culturen bestaan niet’: Het onderzoek van interculturaliteit als een openbreken van vanzelfsprekendheden, inaugural lecture, chair of intercultural philosophy, Erasmus University Rotterdam, Rotterdam: Rotterdamse Filosofische Studies; English version in: van Binsbergen, Intercultural encounters, o.c.; shortened English version also in .

[v]               van Binsbergen, Culturen bestaan niet, o.c. Davidson even made a similar claim for languages, which is relevant in this context since language is among the main indicators of cultural and ethnic identity: Davidson, D., 1986, ‘A coherence theory of truth and knowledge’, in: LePore, E., ed., Perspectives on the philosophy of Donald Davidson, Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 307-19.

[vi]              ‘Recent’ is here taken to mean: ‘having ancestors who lived in the African continent during historical times, and specifically during the second millennium of the common era’. There is no doubt whatsoever that the entire human species emerged in the African continent a few million years ago. There is moreover increasing consensus among palaeoanthropologists, based on massive and ever accumulating evidence, that modern humans (Homo sapiens sapiens) emerged in the African continent between 200,000 and 100,000 years ago, and from there brought language, symbolic thought, representational art, the use of paint etc. to the other continents. Cf. Roebroeks, W., 1995, ‘ ‘’Policing the boundary’’? Continuity of discussions in 19th and 20th century palaeoanthropology’, in: Corbey, R. & B. Theunissen, eds., Ape, man, apeman: Changing views since 1600, Department of Prehistory, Leiden University. Leiden, pp. 173-179, p. 175. Gamble, C., 1993, Timewalkers: The prehistory of global colonisation, Bath: Allan Sutton.

[vii]             On Afrocentrism, cf. the most influential and vocal statement: Asante, M.K., 1990, Kemet, Afrocentricity, and knowledge, Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press; and the (largely critical) secondary literature with extensive bibliographies: Berlinerblau, J., 1999, Heresy in the university: The Black Athena controversy and the responsibilities of American intellectuals, New Brunswick etc.: Rutgers University Press; Howe, Stephen, 1999, Afrocentrism: Mythical pasts and imagined homes, London/New York: Verso, first published 1998; Fauvelle-Aymar, F.-X., Chrétien, J.-P., & Perrot, C.-H., 2000, eds., Afrocentrismes: L’histoire des Africains entre Égypte et Amérique, Paris: Karthala; and the discussion on Afrocentrism in Politique africaine, November 2000 (in the press), to which I contributed a critique of Howe, while I am also a contributor to Fauvelle, Afrocentrismes, c.s., and the author of a forthcoming review of Berlinerblau in the Journal of African History.

[viii]             As I, for one, did in: van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 1997, ‘Rethinking Africa’s contribution to global cultural history: Lessons from a comparative historical analysis of mankala board-games and geomantic divination’, in: van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 1997, ed., Black Athena: Ten Years After, Hoofddorp: Dutch Archaeological and Historical Society, special issue, Talanta: Proceedings of the Dutch Archaeological and Historical Society, vols 28-29, 1996-97, pp. 221-254 -- currently being reprinted as Black Athena Alive, Hamburg/Muenster: LIT Verlag, 2000.

[ix]              Cf. van Binsbergen, W.M.J., Religious change in Zambia: Exploratory studies, London/Boston: Kegan Paul International

[x]               van Binsbergen, W.M.J., ‘Islam as a constitutive factor in so-called African traditional religion and culture: The evidence from geomantic divination, mankala boardgames, ecstatic religion, and musical instruments’, paper for the conference on ‘Transformation processes and Islam in Africa’, African Studies Centre and Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World, Leiden, 15 October, 1999, forthcoming in: Breedveld, A., van Santen, J., & van Binsbergen, W.M.J., eds., Dynamics and Islam in Africa; van Binsbergen, ‘Rethinking Africa’s contribution’, o.c.

[xi]              Linton, R., 1936, The study of man, New York: Appleton-Century.

[xii]             On this key concept for contemporary ‘modified’ (to adopt Martin Bernal’s term) diffusionist approaches, cf. van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 1997, ‘Black Athena Ten Years After: Towards a constructive re-assessment’, in: van Binsbergen, Black Athena: Ten Years After, o.c., pp. 11-64, esp. p. 35f, and passim thoughout this entire volume.

[xiii]             van Binsbergen, W.M.J., in preparation, Global Bee Flight: Sub-Saharan Africa, Ancient Egypt, and the World — Beyond the Black Athena thesis.

[xiv]             Eliade, M., 1968, Le chamanisme: Et les techniques archaïques de l’extase, Paris: Payot; 1st ed 1951; Lommel, A., 1967, Shamanism, New York: McGraw-Hill; Lewis-Williams, J.D., 1992, ‘Ethnographic evidence relating to ‘‘trance’’ and ‘‘shamans’’ among northern and southern Bushman’, South African Archaeological Bulletin, 47: 56-60; Halifax, J., 1980, Shamanic voices: The shaman as seer, poet and healer, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books; Bourgignon, E, 1968, World distribution and patterns of possession states, in: Prince, R., ed., Trance and possession states, Toronto: [publisher ] , pp. 3-34; Winkelman, M., 1986, ‘Trance states: a theoretical model and cross-cultural analysis’, Ethos, 14: 174-203; Goodman, F., 1990, Where the spirits ride the wind: trance journeys and other ecstatic experience, Bloomington, Indiana U.P, 1990; Ginzburg, C., 1992, Ecstasies: Deciphering the witches’ sabbath, tr. R. Rosenthal, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books; repr. of the first Engl. edition, 1991, Pantheon Books, tr. of Storia notturna, Torino: Einaudi, 1989; Campbell, J., 1990, The flight of the wild gander, HarperPerennial; van Binsbergen, ‘Islam as a constitutive factor’, o.c.

[xv]                Rostovtsev, M.I., 1929, The animal style in south Russia and China, Princeton: Princeton University Press; Bunker, E.C., Chatwin, C.B., & Farkas, A.R., 1970, ‘Animal style’, in: Art from east to west, New York; Cammann, Schuyler v. R., 1958, ‘The animal style art of Eurasia’, Journal of Asian Studies, 17:323-39.

[xvi]             Segy, L., 1953, ‘Circle-dot sign on African ivory carvings’, Zaïre, 7, 1: 35-54.

[xvii]            Anati, E., 1999, La religion des origines, Paris: Bayard; French tr. of La religione delle origini, n.p.: Edizione delle origini, 1995; Anati, E., 1986, ‘The Rock Art of Tanzania and the East African Sequence’, BCSP [ Bolletino des Centro Camuno di Studi Preistorici ] , 23: 15-68, fig. 5-51; Wendt, W.E., 1976, ‘ ‘’Art mobilier’’ from Apollo 11 Cave, South West Africa: Africa’s oldest dated works of art’, South African Archaeological Bulletin, 31: 5-11; Gamble, Timewalkers, o.c., with very complete bibliography.

[xviii]           E.g. Rogers, R.W., 1912, Cuneiform parallels to the Old Testament, London etc.: Frowde, Oxford University Press; Pinches, T.G., 1893, ‘Yâ and Yâwa in Assyro-Babylonian inscriptions’, Proceedings of the Society of Biblical Archaeology, 15: 13-15 (of course totally obsolete now, but that is not the point). More recent standard works on this topic include: Heidel, A., 1963, The Gilgamesh epic and Old Testament parallels, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, third edition, second edition 1949; Pritchard, J.B., 1950, ed., Ancient Near Eastern texts relating to the Old Testament, Princeton: Princeton University Press (many times reprinted); Kitchen, K.A., 1966, Ancient Orient and the Old Testament, London: Tyndale Press; Craigie, P., 1983, Ugarit and the Old Testament, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans

[xix]             Redford, D.B., 1992, Egypt, Canaan, and Israel in ancient times, Princeton: Princeton University Press; Williams, R.J., 1971, ‘Egypt and Israel’, in: Harris, J.R., ed., The legacy of Egypt, 2nd ed., Oxford: Clarendon, pp. 257-290; Assmann, J., 1996, ‘The Mosaic distinction: Israel, Egypt and the invention of paganism’, Representations, 56; and especially the comprehensive project undertaken by M. Görg, editor of the series Fontes atque pontes, reihe Ägypten und Altes Testament (Wiesbaden), e.g.: Görg, M., 1977, Komparatistische Untersuchungen an ägyptischer und israelitischer Literatur, Wiesbaden; Görg, M., 1997, Israel und Ägypten, Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft.

[xx]                Appadurai, A., 1995, ‘The production of locality’, in: R. Fardon, ed., Counterworks: Managing the diversity of knowledge, ASA decennial conference series ‘The uses of knowledge: Global and local relations, London: Routledge, pp. 204-225; Meyer, B., & Geschiere, P., 1998, eds., Globalization and identity: Dialectics of flow and closure, Oxford: Blackwell; Fardon, R., van Binsbergen, W.M.J., & van Dijk, R., 1999, eds., Modernity on a shoestring: Dimensions of globalization, consumption and development in Africa and beyond, Leiden/London: EIDOS; de Jong, F., ‘Modern secrets: The production of locality in Casamance, Senegal’, Ph.D, University of Amsterdam, forthcoming (2001).

[xxi]             van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 1991, ‘De chaos getemd? Samenwonen en zingeving in modern Afrika’, in: H.J.M. Claessen red., De chaos getemd?, Leiden: Faculteit der Sociale Wetenschappen, Rijksuniversiteit Leiden, 1991, pp. 31-47; van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 1997, Virtuality as a key concept in the study of globalisation: Aspects of the symbolic transformation of contemporary Africa, The Hague: WOTRO [ Netherlands Foundation for Tropical Research, a division of the Netherlands Research Foundation NWO ] , Working papers on Globalisation and the construction of communal identity, 3, also available in: ; van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 1998, ‘Globalization and virtuality: Analytical problems posed by the contemporary transformation of African societies’, in: Meyer, B., & Geschiere, P., eds., Globalization and identity: Dialectics of flow and closure, Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 273-303; van Binsbergen, W.M.J., ‘Witchcraft in modern Africa as virtualised boundary conditions of the kinship order’, in press in: G. Bond, & Ciekawy, E., eds., Witchcraft dialogues: New epistemological and anthropological approaches to African witchcraft, my contribution available on: ; van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 2000, ‘Sensus communis or sensus particularis? A social-science comment’, in: Kimmerle, H., & Oosterling, H., 2000, eds., Sensus communis in multi- and intercultural perspective: On the possibility of common judgments in arts and politics, Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, pp. 113-128, also available on ; van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 1994, ‘Dynamiek van cultuur: Enige dilemma's van hedendaags Afrika in een context van globalisering’, Antropologische Verkenningen, 13, 2, 17-33, English version: van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 1995, ‘Popular culture in Africa: dynamics of African cultural and ethnic identity in a context of globalization’, in: van der Klei, J.D.M., ed., Popular culture: Africa, Asia and Europe: beyond historical legacy and political innocence, Proceedings Summer-school 1994, Utrecht: CERES, pp. 7-40.

[xxii]            van Binsbergen, Religious change, o.c.; van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 1992, Tears of Rain: Ethnicity and history in central western Zambia, London/Boston: Kegan Paul International; van Binsbergen, W.M.J., & Geschiere, P.L., 1985, ‘Marxist theory and anthropological practice: The application of French Marxist anthropology in fieldwork’, in : van Binsbergen, W.M.J., & Geschiere, P.L., ed., Old modes of production and capitalist encroachment: Anthropological explorations in Africa, Londen/ Boston: Kegan Paul International, pp. 235-289; a shorter version specifically on religion included in: .

[xxiii]           van Binsbergen, Kazanga, Dutch, English and French version, oo.c. van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 1999, ‘Nkoya royal chiefs and the Kazanga Cultural Association in western central Zambia today: Resilience, decline, or folklorisation?’, in: E.A.B. van Rouveroy van Nieuwaal & R. van Dijk, eds., African chieftaincy in a new socio-political landscape, Hamburg/ Münster: LIT-Verlag, pp. 97-133. French version in press. Further discussions of the Kazanga festival in my Virtuality, o.c., ‘Popular culture in Africa’, o.c., and ‘Sensus communis or sensus particularis?’, o.c.

[xxiv]           van Binsbergen, ‘Culturen bestaan niet’, o.c..

[xxv]            Quine, W.V.O., 1960, Word and object, Cambridge: MIT Press.

[xxvi]                Hookway, C., 1993, ‘Indeterminacy of translation’, in: Dancy, J., & Sosa, E., eds., A companion to epistemology, Oxford/ Cambridge (Mass.): Blackwell’s, first published 1992; Wright, C., 1999, ‘The indeterminacy of translation’, in: Hale, B., & Wright, C., 1999, eds., A companion to the philosophy of language, Oxford: Blackwell, first published 1997, pp. 397-426; Quine, W.V.O., 1970, ‘On the reasons for the indeterminacy of translation’, Journal of Philosophy, 67: 178-183; Quine, Words, o.c.

[xxvii]           Cf. van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 1984, ‘Can anthropology become the theory of peripheral class struggle? Reflexions on the work of P.P.Rey’, in: van Binsbergen, W.M.J., & G.S.C.M. Hesseling, G .S.C.M., eds, Aspecten van staat en maatschappij in Afrika: Recent Dutch and Belgian Research on the African state, Leiden: African Studies Centre, pp. 163-80; earlier German version in: van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 1984, ‘Kann die Ethnologie zur Theorie des Klassenkampfes in der Peripherie werden?’, Österreichische Zeitschrift für Soziologie, 9, 4: 138-48. An extensive attempt to create intercultural intersubjectivity in the rendering of ethnographic knowledge is described in: van Binsbergen, Tears, o.c.

[xxviii]          van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 1976, ‘Shrines, cults and society in North and Central Africa: A comparative analysis’, paper read at the Association of Social Anthropologists of Great Britain and the Commonwealth (ASA) Annual Conference on Regional Cults and Oracles, Manchester, 35 pp; soon available at ; Van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 1979, ‘Explorations in the sociology and history of territorial cults in Zambia’, in: Schoffeleers, J.M., ed, 1979, Guardians of the land, Gwelo: Mambo Press, pp. 47-88; revised edition in: van Binsbergen, Religious change, o.c., chapter 3, pp. 100-134,

[xxix]           van Binsbergen, Religious change, o.c.; van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 1985, ‘The cult of saints in North-Western Tunisia: an analysis of contemporary pilgrimage structures’, in: E.A. Gellner, ed., Islamic dilemmas: reformers, nationalists and industrialization: The Southern shore of the Mediterranean, Berlin, New York, Amsterdam: Mouton, pp. 199-239; Van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 1980 ‘Popular and formal Islam, and supralocal relations: the highlands of north-western Tunisia, 1800-1970’, Middle Eastern Studies, 16: 71-91; van Binsbergen, W.M.J., forthcoming, Religion and social organisation in north-western Tunisia, Volume I: Kinship, spatiality, and segmentation, Volume II: Cults of the land, and Islam; van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 1988, Een buik openen, Haarlem: In de Knipscheer.

[xxx]            van Binsbergen, Global Bee Flight, o.c., with extensive discussion of the literature.

[xxxi]           van Binsbergen, ‘Rethinking’, o.c.; van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 1994, ‘Divinatie met vier tabletten: Medische technologie in Zuidelijk Afrika’, in: Sjaak van der Geest, Paul ten Have, Gerhard Nijhoff en Piet Verbeek-Heida, eds., De macht der dingen: Medische technologie in cultureel perspectief, Amsterdam: Spinhuis, pp. 61-110; van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 1996, ‘Time, space and history in African divination and board-games’, in: Tiemersma, D., & Oosterling, H.A.F., eds., Time and temporality in intercultural perspective: Studies presented to Heinz Kimmerle, Amsterdam: Rodopi, pp. 105-125; van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 1995, ‘Four-tablet divination as trans-regional medical technology in Southern Africa’, Journal of Religion in Africa, 25, 2: 114-140; van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 1996, ‘Transregional and historical connections of four-tablet divination in Southern Africa’, Journal of Religion in Africa, 26, 1: 2-29; van Binsbergen, ‘Islam as a constitutive factor’, o.c.; van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 1996, ‘The astrological origin of Islamic geomancy’, paper read at ‘The SSIPS [ Society for the Study of Islamic Philosophy and Science ] / SAGP [ Society of Ancient Greek Philosophy ] 1996, 15th Annual Conference: ‘‘Global and Multicultural Dimensions of Ancient and Medieval Philosophy and Social Thought: Africana, Christian, Greek, Islamic, Jewish, Indigenous and Asian Traditions, Binghamton University’’, Department of Philosophy/ Center for Medieval and Renaissance studies (CEMERS).

[xxxii]           The latter applies e.g. to cat’s cradles (games consisting of the manual manipulation of a tied string), certain board-games, and the form of the Southern African divination tablets, which have amazingly close parallels among the North American indigenous population; cf. Culin, S., 1975, Games of the North American Indians, New York: Dover; fascimile reprint of the original 1907 edition, which was the Accompanying Paper of the Twenty-fourth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology of the Smithsonian Institution, 1902-1903, by W.H. Holmes, Chief.

[xxxiii]          Partly on the basis of earlier work by Jaspers and Bataille among others, in the final quarter of the twentieth century the nature and production of boundaries attracted a considerable amount of research in philosophy and the social sciences. For philosophy, cf., for instance, Burg, I. van de, & Meyers, D., ed., 1987, Bataille: Kunst, geweld en erotiek als grenservaring, Amsterdam: SUA; Cornell, D., 1992, The philosophy of the limit, New York: Routledge; Le passage des frontières: Autour du travail de Jacques Derrida, Paris: Galilée, 1993; Kimmerle, H., 1983, ‘Dialektik der Grenze und Grenze der Dialektik’, in: Dialektik heute: Rotterdammer Arbeitspapiere, Bochum: Germinal, pp. 127-141; Kimmerle, H., 1985, ‘Schein im Vor-Schein der Kunst: Grenzüberschreitungen zur Identität und zur Nicht-Identität’, Tijdschrift voor Filosofie, 47: 473-492; Procée, H., 1991, Over de grenzen van culturen: Voorbij universalisme en relativisme, Meppel: Boom; Oosterling, H., 1996, Door schijn bewogen: Naar een hyperkritiek van de xenofobe rede, Kampen: Kok Agora, pp. 138ff and passim. And for the social sciences: Barth, F., 1969, ed., Ethnic groups and boundaries: The social organization of culture differences, Boston: Little, Brown & Co; Devisch, R., 1981, ‘La mort et la dialectique des limites dans une société d’Afrique centrale’, in: Olivetti, M., ed., Filosofia e religione di fronte alle morte, Archivio di Filosofia, 1-3: 503-527; Devisch, R., 1986, ‘Marge, marginalisation et liminalité: Le sorcier et le devin dans la culture Yaka au Zaïre’, Anthropologie et Sociétés, 10, 2: 117-37; Anthias, E., & Yuval-Davis, N., 1992, Racialised boundaries, London: Routledge; Turner, V.W., 1969, The ritual process, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul; Schlee, G., & Werner, K., 1996, Inklusion und Exklusion: Die Dynamik von Grenzziehungen im Spannungsfeld von Markt, Staat und Ethnizität, Koln: Rudiger Koppe Verlag. In a follow-up to the Research Group on Spirituality, the NVVIF proposes to investigate the nature of cultural boundaries in the context of the multicultural society, taking as point of departure the common observation that such boundaries are often produced, in public and performative situations, to be deliberately and emphatically non-pourous.

[xxxiv]                Presumably the argument would win from being combined with my argument on Derrida’s 1996 approach to religion; this will be attempted in a later version. Cf. van Binsbergen, W.M.J., ‘Derrida on religion: glimpses of interculturality’, paper read at the April 2000 meeting of the Research Group on Spirituality, Dutch-Flemish Association for Intercultural Philosophy, now available on the website of the NVVIF: .

[xxxv]           At the session where this paper was first presented.

[xxxvi]                Durkheim, E., 1912, Les formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France. Durkheim departs from what he considers the fundamental condition for religion: the distinction between sacred and profane, which may take all sorts of forms in concrete settings of time and place, but whose fundamental and universal (!) feature is that it is absolute. As such the distinction between sacred and profane is not only the basis for all rational thought, but particularly for a cosmological partitioning of the world in terms of sacred and profane. Sacred aspects of the world (given aspects of the natural world such as animal species (religiously turned into totems), but also man-made aspects: events, human acts, concepts, myths) are not sacred by some aspect of their intrinsic nature, but there sacredness is superimposed by collective human representations; the selection of things sacred is entirely arbitrary and therefore can vary from society to society and from historical period to historical period — what is involved is merely the application, with endless variation, of the distinction between sacred and profane. The sacred is nothing in itself, but a mere symbol -- but of what? The sacred is subject to a negative cult of avoidance, taboo, but also to a positive cult of veneration. It is essential that this cult is a collective thing, in which the group constitutes itself as a congregation, a church -- Durkheim uses this world (‘église’) in the original etymological sense (ekklesia, i.e. ‘people’s assembly’) and without Christian implications: his own background was Jewish, and his argument is largely underpinned by ethnographic reference to the religion of Australian Aborigines, who at the time had undergone virtually no exposure to Christianity. Durkheim then makes his genial step of identifying the social, the group, as the referent which is ultimately venerated in religion. Here Durkheim is also indebted to Comte’s idea of a ‘religion de l’humanité’ as a requirement for the utopian age when a ‘positivist’, rational science will have eclipsed all the religious and philosophical chimera of earlier phases in the development of human society. It is the group which, through its transformation into a religious symbol -- a transformation of which the adherents themselves are largely or completely unaware -- , inspires the believer and the practitioner of ritual with such absolute respect that their ritual becomes an ‘effervescence’, a heated melting together into social solidarity by which the group constitutes itself and perpetuates itself, and in which the individual (prone to profanity, anti-social egotism, sorcery) can transcend his own limitations, can give up his individuality, and become part of the group, for which the individual is even prepared to sacrifice not only ritual prestations, but also himself. Without religion no society, but it is society itself which is the central object of religious veneration; and from this spring all human thought, all logical and rational distinctions, concepts of space and time, causation etc.

[xxxvii]         van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 1991, ‘Becoming a sangoma: Religious anthropological field-work in Francistown, Botswana’, Journal of Religion in Africa, 21, 4: 309-344; van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 1998, ‘Sangoma in Nederland: Over integriteit in interculturele bemiddeling’, in: Elias, M., & Reis, R., eds., Getuigen ondanks zichzelf: Voor Jan-Matthijs Schoffeleers bij zijn zeventigste verjaardag, Maastricht: Shaker, pp. 1-29; both papers available in English versions on: , and in preparation in: van Binsbergen, W.M.J., Intercultural encounters: Towards an empirical philosophy.

[xxxviii]         A point elaborated in: Van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 1981, ‘Theoretical and experiential dimensions in the study of the ancestral cult among the Zambian Nkoya’, paper read at the symposium on Plurality in Religion, International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences Intercongress, Amsterdam, 22-25 April, 1981, 22 pp; available in: .

[xxxix]          van Binsbergen, ‘Becoming’, o.c.; ‘Sangoma in Nederland’, o.c.

[xl]              van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 1999, ‘Enige filosofische aspecten van culturele globalisering: Met bijzondere verwijzing naar Malls interculturele hermeneutiek’, in: Baars, J., & Starmans, E., eds, Het eigene en het andere: Filosofie en globalisering: Acta van de 21 Nederlands-Vlaamse Filosofiedag, Delft: Eburon, pp. 37-52; English version available on: , and in preparation in: van Binsbergen, W.M.J., Intercultural encounters: Towards an empirical philosophy.



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