Chukwuka–“Chukwu is Supreme”: When Religious Beliefs Collide, and “Things Fall Apart”

“Neither of them succeeded in converting the other but they learned more about their different beliefs.” —Chinua Achebe, “Things Fall Apart” (1958)
Chukwuka–“Chukwu is Supreme”:
When Religious Beliefs Collide, and “Things Fall Apart”
I guess that I have not succeeded in convincing my students in my literature class–in which we have read Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, the most influential novel in the Anglophone Africa, written by Chinua Achebe in 1958– that the Igbo people of Nigeria are monotheists just like the Christians, Muslims, and Jews, they “worship” one God. Those how have written their final essay on the subject of religion in the novel or have done a comparative analysis of African traditional religion and Christianity as their subject of research have emphasized that the Africans are polytheists and believe in strange religious customs and traditions. (Not all of my students made that claim, but most of them do.)
Interestingly, in the story itself, there’s an important debate on the very nature of God in African theology, as well as what is deemed religious; this conversation about faith occurs between an important Igbo character and intellectual named Akunna and the British missionary named Mr. Brown who, along with the colonial administrators, came to “civilize” and “Christianize” the Igbo people. According to Akunna, Mr. Brown misses the mark and misinterprets both the nature of religion and the nature of God in Afrian religious tradition. Consider the following conversation:
“You say that there is one supreme God who made heaven and earth,” said Akunna on one of Mr. Brown’s visits. “We also believe in Him and call Him Chukwu. He made all the world and the other gods.”
“There are no other gods,” said Mr. Brown. “Chukwu is the only God and all others are false. You carve a piece of wood–like that one” (he pointed at the rafters from which Akunna’s carved Ikenga hung), “and you call it a god. But it is still a piece of wood.” The tree from which it came was made by Chukwu, as indeed all minor gods were. But He made them from His messengers so that we could approach Him through them. It is like yourself. You are the head of your church.”
“No,” protested Mr. Brown. “The head of my church is God Himself.”
“I know, said Akunna, “but there must be head in this world among them. Somebody like yourself must be the head here.”
“The head of my church in that sense is in England.”
“That is exactly what I am saying. The head of your church is in your country. He has sent you here as his messenger. And you have also appointed your own messengers and servants. Or let me take another example, the Disctrict Commissioner. He is sent by your King.”
“They have a queen,” said the interpreter on his own account.
“Your queen sends her messenger, the District Commissioner. He finds that he cannot do the work alone and so he appoints kotma to help him. It is the same with God, or Chukwu. He appoints the smaller gods to help Him because His work is too great for one person. “
“You should not think of Him as a person,” said Mr. Brown. “It is because you do so that you imagine He must need helpers. And the worst thing about it is that you give all the worship to the false gods you have created.”
“That is not so. We make sacrifices to the little gods, but when they fail and there is no one else to turn to we go to Chukwu. It is the right to do so. We approach a great man through his servants. But when his servants fail to help us, then we go to the last source of hope. We appear to pay greater attention to the little gods but that is not so. We worry them more because we afraid to worry their Master. Our fathers knew that Chukwu was the Overlord and that is why many of them gave their children the name Chukwuka–“Chukwu is Supreme.”
“You said one interesting thing,” said Mr. Brown. “You are afraid of Chukwu. In my religion Chukwu i a loving Father and need not be feared by those who do His will.”
“But we must fear HIm when we are not doing His will,” said Akunna.” And who is to tell His Will? It is too great to be known.” (Things Fall Apart, 178-281)
For Chinua Achebe, Christian missionaries from Western countries who have set their foot on the “dark soil” of the “Black Continent,”  have misinterpeted African traditional religion (s) and, as a result, misunderstood the African people, their culture, cosmology,  and worldview. Achebe has underscored this phenomenon as one of the major failures of (historic) colonial Christianity in colonial Africa in the project of mission civilatrice and christian evangelism. Sometimes, the real enemy is within. Unhealthy religious ideology just like cultural supremacy can be an arrogant thing, especially in the case that when one’s religious confession or piety becomes the very hindrance that blocks communication and defers understanding between people of different religious persuasion. Arrogant faith could be the most dangerous weapon that destroys faith itself, and hinders  interreligious dialogue and religious conversion.
I wish my students would have read the passage noted above more critically and responsibly. Indeed, Chukwuka–“Chukwu is Supreme.”

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