Laurenti MAGESA, What is Not Sacred? African Spirituality. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2013, pp.220, $30.00 pb. ISBN978-1-62698-052-5. Reviewed by Nathan R. KOLLAR, St. John Fisher College, Rochester, NY. 14618

Do we recognize, encourage, nurture and intensify our relationships to all things both living and non-living? If we do, Ubunto is our self and our goal. If we do, we seek full humanity (Ubuntu, Botho, Umunthu, Obuntu, Uhhu, Unhu, Obunu, mutumin kirki) –­­-  African spirituality. An African spirituality sees the entire universe and everything and everyone in it as sacred. Everything is sacred because everything is bound together by a vital energy that produces a cohesive community that is the result of our relationships. The sacred is always found within this community of relationships. When, in my selfishness and individualism, I stand outside the community, I stand outside the sacred.

African spirituality strives for harmony, wholeness, togetherness.  Those spiritualties that are individualistic, materialistic, overly competitive, capitalistic, or solely other worldly are alien to African spirituality. Hatred, jealously, selfishness, anger, pride, crimes against humanity and nature destroy harmony. But so too does disease, pain, suffering, lack of offspring, and witchcraft. The good life lived by those fully human is the goal of African spirituality.

What enables us to recognize, encourage, nurture, and intensify our harmonious relationships are our traditional rituals, family both living and dead,  community, and a morality based on deep sharing and good actions (intention is never enough). Harmony is always necessary to reach our goal of a good life. Yet harmony is a fragile construct that is sometimes experienced and many times destroyed. Death and destruction is always easier to bring about than life and growth. When, through our actions, we destroy those relationships that bring us good life, we, individually and communally, need healing and reconciliation. Healing is wholistic. It includes all the relationships that make us who we are. An important person in the healing process is the diviner who is able to discern what is causing the break in relationships as well as indicate what has to be done for complete healing. A medical doctor usually has a role when physical healing is necessary. Yet the diviner’s task goes beyond the physicality of illness to the non-physical cause of it. The task is  “… to disclose acts of immorality which have provoked the vengeance of the ancestors and to reveal the destructive hand of witches and sorcerers (93).”

There are many traditional rituals used to restore our necessary harmony. Healing among families, communities, and tribes always involve the ancient rituals of forgiveness. The book has many impressive rituals and stories demonstrating these rituals. Central to both communal forgiveness and governance is the palaver (indaba). The ritual of allowing everyone to have their say and arriving at consensus rather than winners-losers reflects the ability of African spirituality to introduce the world (including the Roman Catholic Church) to a model of gathering together to deal with common, divisive, issues. Certainly issues arising from apartheid, genocide, and war would classify as destructive issues. Certainly too the process of indaba (palaver) has proven to be an excellent method for dealing with these eternal wrongs we do to each other.

African spirituality as portrayed by Laurenti Magesa is a necessary addition to any discussion of world spiritualities. The above outline is only a hint at Magesa’s contribution to this discussion.  Anyone interested in the spiritual offerings present in our global community should read this book which first describes the essence of African spirituality and then brings this spirituality into dialogue with the destructive ethical imperatives in Africa and our global community.

At the same time, if you are familiar with indigenous/aboriginal spiritualities, you have read these themes before. But themes are abstractions until they are lived in a certain place at a certain time whether this is contemporary Africa, South America, the Caribbean, North America, or Asia. There is in both the general themes and here, in considering African spiritualities, the challenge of what we mean by community and exactly what type of community is possible and enabled in our contemporary world. Tonnies gemeinschaft – gessellschaft dichotomy is a necessary context for such discussion as our world is torn to pieces by religious and tribal warfare. Magesa does offer us an honest and intelligent consideration of the consequences of gemeinschaft lived out on the African political stage.  Yet, because community is central to African spirituality, we must seek further reflection upon its nature. Exactly how does community feel and what are the consequences of that feeling as we enter into life outside our community? Is this same feeling part of, for many of us, the multitude of communities we live in: church, business, sports, school, politics, and nuclear family? We are surrounded by those who wish us to become part of their community. What should be our norm for joining one and isn’t it enough to many times just accept the gessellschaft nature of much of what we do? Where we are accepted for what we do without the emotional links necessitated by gemeinschaft existence? Life is changing everywhere, not only in Africa. Reading about African spirituality is, in many ways, reading about our own life and the choices inherent in it.