“Rethinking The Problem of Theodicy in Haitian Vodou”

“Rethinking The Problem of Theodicy in Haitian Vodou”

***I dedicate this piece to three friends: Benjamin Hebblethwaite, Paul Camy Mocombe, and Nixon Shaba-lom

In contemporary Vodou scholarship, the notion of theodicy and the opposing binary of good and bad remains unfortunately an unexplored terrain. Vodou scholars have either reject both concepts as if they only belong to the Abrahamic religions or Asian religious traditions such as Buddhism.

Some of my friends who are specialists in Vodou boldly assert that there is no concept of sin, and good and bad in Vodou. Some have argued that “sin” is a Christian concept. It is not Vodou nor does one find it in any African traditional religions. Even if sin is not a basic element in Vodou theological vocabulary and rhetorical grammar, atonement is part of Vodou praxis and liturgy. More often, atonement in Vodou deals with human trespasses, transgressions, shortcomings, the break-up of a vow with a law, for example. These various names we proposed here all pertain to one’s relationship with the Vodou Spirit. In a nutshell, one must atone for one’s sins and seek reconciliation with the Lwa.

Interestingly, if one carefully studies various Vodou songs such as praise songs, thanksgiving songs, agricultural songs, songs of alienation and exile (i.e. Lapriyè Ginen [The Ginen Prayer], and Le grand recueil sacré, ou, Répertoire des chansons du vodou Haïtien [The great sacred collection, or, Repertoire of Haitian Vodou songs] by Max Beauvoir; Vodou Songs in Haitian Creole and English by Benjamin Hebblethwaite ) or examine exegetically Haitian novels (i.e. Masters of the Dew by Jacques Roumain, General Sun, My Brother by Jacques Stephen Alexis) and Vodou poetry (i.e. Un Arc-en-ciel pour l’occident chrétien : Poème, mystère vaudou (Poésie) by René Depestre. Translated by Colin Dayan, as A Rainbow for the Christian West: The Poetry of René Depestre), the notion of human transgression as sin and the failure to maintain balance, as well as the problem of theodicy is inevitable and deliberate in the Vodou proper, as well as in Haitian Vodouist imagination through texts and visual/plastic arts. Vodou aesthetics through Vodou art and aesthetic performances such as the “mizik ginen” and “mizik rasin” all narrate a vision of good and bad in this Religious tradition, and the “ideal world” we long for and that which has departed from the Vodou practitioner. Vodou practitioners also shout “Ichabod”/” The glory has departed!

In fact, “theodicy” is one of the major issues in the acclaimed Haitian novel Masters of the Dew, which accounts for the environmental crisis, natural disasters, drought, human death, animal death, and the hostility that exists between the peasants in the village of Fonds Rouge, the geographical and cultural setting of the novel. The problem of “theodicy” is momentous, omnipresent, and toxic in the Fond Rouges community, and it causes strife and disturbs the peace and harmony in the Vodouist community there. As a result, the much Vodou-devoted parents of the protagonist Jean-Manuel Joseph had to call upon the Vodou Lwa to find a solution to the problem of not only “natural evil” in the village, but also the predicament of human-inflicted pain and suffering in their midst.

Furthermore, in the Haitian Vodouist tradition and cosmological order, the mere existence of a multiplicity of Lwa, is by design, and the fundamental function of the Lwa is, with the help of human (volitional) agents, to create harmony, equilibrium, balance, and equity in the world. The Vodou Lwa not only represent the various ideals of how the world should be and could be, they are in fact representations of how the world ought to be. The Lwa as messengers of the Creator-Bondye (The “Good God”) also infers that the present world does not represent the intended will of God/Bondye, and that human beings have created another world that contradicts “the Ideal World” that Bondye has willed. Hence, the creation of the Vodoun (Spirits) exists by divine necessity so that human beings in cooperation with the Messenger-Lwa could eventually achieve the intended plan of their Creator-Bondye, the good God. Arguably, the Vodoun are Bondye’s promising notes to Vodou adepts. They exist to help human beings/Vodouists deal with theodicy.

Correspondingly, in Vodou hermeneutics, the Vodou spirits also articulate and embody concurrently the various expressions and manifestations of the divine will, desire, and plan. As messengers of the divine will, the notion that the Vodou spirits help to create a relational cosmic order and improve the interplays between human beings in the world is indicative (1) the present world is not the way it should be, (2) the present creation is out of order, and (3) that human nature is out of balance and has been altered by the anti-Bondye human dispositions such as the evil choices and actions free volitional agents orchestrate in the world. In other word, we live in a world that is not harmonious, balanced, and equitable; hence, human beings need the lwa to put all things and the creation as whole to the intended will of Bondye.

Another way to think about the reason the lwa exist in Vodou is to improve the world by readjusting its order and human relationships and fellowship, and reestablishing human shalom and wholeness. Yet the underlying question we ought to explore and seek to understand is this: What is the ontology of the things that are out of place and harmony in the universe? How can we identity them? How should we classify them? Can we place them in different categories? Can we classify them as bad and evil things? Or what makes the world not so good, some human relationships evil, and some human choices anti-Bondye?

Whether one refuses to accept (or reject) the idea of bad and good does not (does) exist in Haitian Vodou or theodicy is (or is not) an element in Vodouist conception of the world/worldview, the Vodouist must face the existence of evil in the world. (Please don’t be quick to say theodicy and the opposing binary of good and bad are Western and Christian concepts; they’re not African!). The Vodouist like every religious and non-religious person in the world is trouble about the problem of human suffering, oppression, and pain, as well as the relationship between the good God (“Bondye”) and the presence of evil in our community, city, nation, and in the world. African traditional religions just like the African-derived religions in the African Diaspora have their roots in the ancient Egyptian religions and spirituality. Ancient Egyptian religions have shaped African/African diasporic religious liturgical practices, ethical systems, divination system, theological beliefs, and moral principles. Ancient Egyptian religions and spirituality have left their enduring mark on the Haitian Vodouist tradition. An important resource that sheds some light about those parallels and connections relating to theodicy and good and bad actions can be found in the famous Egyptian “The Book of Dead.”

Arguably, religion is a human invention, and at the core of every religion, there’s a form of spirituality and attempt to achieve piety. One of the functions of religion is to help humans cope with the care, burden, and anxieties of this world. The Vodou religion is no exception, and Vodouists are affected everyday by the troubles and worries of this world; yet they consult the lwa to find out why and to find a solution? That is theodicy; that is the conflict between the “ideal world” Bondye envisioned for human beings and the world that is.

Six years ago, I published a major article to address the problem of theodicy in Haitian Vodou through an exegetical reading of Jacques Roumain’s famous novel, Masters of the Dew. It was published in the academic journal Theology Today, which is associated with Princeton Theological Seminary/PUP: “The Rhetoric of Suffering, Hope, and Redemption in Masters of the Dew: A Rhetorical and Politico-Theological Analysis of Manuel as Peasant-messiah and Redeemer,” Theology Today (October 2013) 70: 323-350.

Allow me to say this in closing: Many Haitian peasants and some people (some of whom are family members and friends, and my late grandmother whom I so loved and cherished was an ardent Vodou-Catholic practitioner, as well as the great Vodou priestess [Mambo] in her community in Haiti) that I know who practice Vodou are quite aware of the problem of good and bad and correspondingly the predicament of theodicy in their religion and in their everyday experience; interestingly, the intellectual study of the Vodou religion is playing an utopian game with the real life and the real experience of Vodou practitioners. Like other religious traditions, Vodou has its own challenges: some of those challenges are ethical, moral, theological, and existential. The Vodou scholar must make these challenges as part of his or her intellectual adventure and curiosity about the religion. The basic human disposition to all religion is curiosity and the attempt to discover truth, the ideal, and gain understanding.

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“Black Theological Education and Liberalism, and The Shortcomings of Conservative and Evangelical Seminaries and Divinity Schools” (Part I)

“Black Theological Education and Liberalism, and The Shortcomings of Conservative and Evangelical Seminaries and Divinity Schools” (Part I)

The majority of black theologians and biblical scholars, and clergy in the United States are trained in the nation’s most liberal seminaries and Divinity schools, resulting in serious weaknesses in theological thinking, biblical exegesis, and ministerial practices in black congregations.

While those institutions may provide considerable advantageous resources, better networking, and human support and connection, contributing to a solid intellectual (theological) education of the future black scholar and minister towards the common good, some of these theological and ministerial centers have fostered in modern black theological education a distinctive expression of black theological liberalism and a crisis in black theological thought that bluntly reject biblical authority and the exclusive salvific message of the Gospel through Christ’s satisfactory atonement through his shed blood, and interrogate the relevance of the historic confessions of the Christian faith in black life and black ethical practices in the contemporary moments.

Nonetheless, as any theological worldview, there are many merits of or good things we can learn from Black theological liberalism. First, Black theological liberalism in the contemporary intellectual enterprise accentuates the imperative of black freedom and black agency in a society that constantly doubts the value of black existence and challenges the merit of black dignity and humanity. Second, this theological category or system seeks to promote the hoslitic welfare of black people and sustain the notion that the black life in the modern American society is worth safeguarding and that black people as a collective (human) race deserves the protection and care, not the constant surveillance and monitoring of the black body or existence, of the American government. Third, black theologians operating within the tradition of black theological liberalism embrace the promises of the Social Gospel Movement to envision an alternative life for black folk in America in which equal opportunity and access to better employment and housing opportunity, better education, healthcare, job promotion, and economic mobility are also granted to them. Fourth, Black theological liberalism draws from a wealth of sources and traditions for theological reflection and imagination, and the Bible is not its sole authority in matters of faith and practice. Finally, this theological tradition in black highlights black voices and agency, as well as those of non-European theological traditions and canons in the theological exegesis of the Biblical text and theological eisegesis of the contemporary American culture toward black and human flourishing.

Moreover, the five-fold tenets of Black theological liberalism, which I proposed above, are both the direct and by-products of non-conservative and liberal seminaries and institutions, which train most of black theologians and clergy in the United States. In the same line of reasoning, there are at least five major reasons accounting for the (Black) preference to be educated and formed in non-Evangelical and conservative schools:

1. Lack of racial diversity and inclusion, and faculty and leadership representation in the faculty-staff body of these schools.

2. A closed theological curriculum or program that does not represent the rich diversity and plurality of Christian scholarship and thought, considering the manifold contributions of a wide-range of Christian thinkers (i.e. Black, Hispanic, Asian, non-White European descent) to the Christian ministry and the discipline of theology and religious studies–even within the Orthodox theological (Evangelical) tradition.

3. The human dynamic and atmosphere in those schools are not often welcoming and friendly to the so-called minority students and students of color; some black students believe their presence is not wanted in these closed circles.

4. Black students and students of color are interested in non-Evangelical and non-conservative schools because of the promise of future and better employment opportunity (especially to those who are preparing for a career in the academia as professors and school administrators), greater financial funding and support, the educational and intellectual prestige associated with those schools such as Harvard Divinity schools, Union Theological Seminary, Boston School of Theology, Candler School of Theology, University of Chicago Divinity School, etc., and the close affiliation of (named) seminaries and divinity schools, for example, with renowned (named) universities and world-class faculty.

5. Unlike most Evangelical and Conservative seminaries and Divinity schools, most non-conservative and liberal schools intentionally pursue greater gender and racial inclusion in their faculty-staff make-up, promote and incorporate greater ethnic diversity and plurality of thought, worldview, and praxis in theological education and ministerial formation, and they train their students in the highest rigor of the social sciences and the humanities, critical theory, and multicultural education; also, these schools strategically and ideologically prepare their students to become cross-disciplinary, interdisciplinary, and intersectional Christian activists, human rights advocates, public intellectuals, social critics, scholars, and ministers and pastors.

As a black Christian minister and (Evangelical) theologian who embraces the historic confessions of the Christian faith, I value many of the merits and benefits of Black theological liberalism, as they address serious issues of equality, fairness, justice, representation, and equity in our culture and theological schools. These are also Gospel issues. On the other hand, there lies a profound dilemma in black theological education, black theological thinking, and ministerial practice, which are arguably a direct failure of Evangelical and conservative seminaries and institutions.

I hope the leadership of those (conservative) schools would be intentional about the theological training and ministerial formation of black seminarians and students of color, which could eventually contribute to more effective and biblically-centered black christian leadership and ministers, as well as strong and healthy black and ethnic churches in this country.

Hannah’s Faith: Why I love Hannah’s Story in 1 Samuel 1-2!

Hannah’s Faith: Why I love Hannah’s Story in 1 Samuel 1-2!

Yesterday on Mother’s Day, I had the greatest joy and delight to preach on my favorite story in the Bible. I believe 1 Samuel 1:2-2:21–especially Chapter 1:1-19–is the most beatiful story in the Bible. (I have always loved this story since a little boy attending Sunday School Bible study. Finally, I got to teach it and discussed what it means to the biblical notion of motherhood, spirituality, persistent prayer, and discipleship.) It is a story of motherly love, godliness, devotion, sacrifice, and selflessness. It is also a magnificent story of divine sovereignty and sweet providence, and God’s incomparable grace and liberative intervention on behalf of the oppressed and the weak–resulting in exhilarating moments of joy and celebration in the life of this formerly barren and obscure woman named Hannah.

Let us all imitate Hannah’s faith!

Contrary to what many biblical commentators have said on 1 and 2 Samuel, I believe that Hannah, the mother of Samuel and whose name means “grace,” not King David, is the most important character in this book. Hannah has changed Israel’s story forever and shaped salvation history through the eschatological Messiah, both directly and indirectly.

Christian Church History in and from Other Parts of the World”

“Christian Church History in and from Other Parts of the World”

Often, I tell my friends who teach Christian Church history and Christian theology in seminary and divinity schools that God’s global movement in human history did not begin and end with Western civilization. In fact, God has always been at work in various cultures, nations, people groups, ethnicities, and civilizations in the world. He has left his DNA and footprints–that is, his revelation, both special and general–in the multiplicity of world’s cultures and civilzations.

If Christian Church historians and theologians want to be faithful to God’s historic interactions with the peoples and cultures he had created and beyond the European geographical borders, they must affirm in their teaching the diversity of the divine intervention and integrate in religious (Christian/ecclesiastical) education the “other churches’ histories of God” that have graced the soil of other nations and peoples.

Below, I provide a selected list of non-European centered Church histories that record a different but a complementary story of God among his creation and people. At least, these texts will help seminary students to develop a wider perspective of Christian history and better grasp the universality and inclusiveness of King Jesus’ Gospels and God’s historical records in other parts of the world.

Grace, not Resentment!

Grace, not Resentment!

If we’re serious about improving race relations and racial unity in this society and churches, we have to be open to the possibility of forgiveness and of redemption; resentment will often delay forgiveness and reconciliation.

It is crucial we allow space for the guilty party to mourn and repent of the wrongdoing. Retaliation of any form is never the most effective way to deal with this issue. It is the antithesis of grace. We have to practice & sustain unity and peace in the manner of Jesus, and never should we follow another way, as defined by the culture.

Not so much of a Good Tuesday!

I want to say Happy Tuesday to you all, but I woke up this morning a little upset and very discontent about the “state” of this nation, and about America’s greatest contemporary enemy/ies to human decency, human flourishing, and interracial unity and reconciliation.

Over the course of the past two years, going on to the third year, white supremacy and white Christian nationalism have been fortified and substantially increased in number, and it appears that no (moral) force–political, cultural, legal, intellectual, religious, economic, etc.–in this nation can stop them from their politics of demonization and dehumanization, and ethics of terrorism and death.

Because white supremacy and white christian nationalism are a product of America’s political, cultural, legal, intellectual, religious, and economic system and structure, their ultimate demise in the immediate future is unpredictable and unthinkable.

May the gracious and sovereign God-LORD raise up a new generation of freedom fighters and men and women of character who will not bow down to the power and influence of America’s moral indecency and omnipresent demons: white supremacy and white christian nationalism!

My Talk on “Jacques Roumain and Haiti’s Self Determination”

I will be the guest speaker at the Treasure Coast Cultural Festival for its annual Haitian Heritage Month celebration. I will be presenting on the eminent Haitian revolutionary writer and public intellectual Jacques Roumain:

“Jacques Roumain and Haiti’s Self Determination”

When: Saturday, May 4, 2019
Time: 6:00 pm
Where: Indian River State College
IRSC Treasure Coast Public Safety
4600 Kirby Loop Road.
Fort Pierce, Florida

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