“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.