I get this question from time to time. For those for whom spirituality or religion must include a Deity (and only ONE!) belief in God is a primary method for determining the distinction between bonafide religion or a weird cultish or devilish practice. And because African spiritual traditions are already in that “weird” or “devilish” category, this is usually the first question I am asked when someone learns that I am initiated in the Yoruba tradition. “Do you believe in God?”
I have found many practitioners of African and African Diasporic traditions using the word “God” to describe our understanding of the Source of All Things, along with other words and phrases from other religions (like “prophet,” “holy,” “Word of God,” “angels”). I understand that sometimes we have to use language that people are familiar with to describe unfamiliar concepts. However, we have to concede that we often lose ground at this point, not in the sense of territory, but we lose the grounding of our worldview and the experiences of our ancestors, especially when we move from using those words with non-practitioners and begin using them amongst each other. In this way, we are saying that the words our ancestors used to describe their understanding of the world and spirit isn’t valid and requires an outside lens and vocabulary to get a grasp of it.
A friend, a Christian, recently asked me if I believe in God. I replied, “If you are referring to a male deity that is the Creator and Source of all things, then, no.” He said I didn’t need to answer that way; a yes or a no would have sufficed. But the word “God” is pretty loaded; it means so many different things to so many different people. Saying “yes” would make it seem as though I believe in his understanding of God (which I don’t) but saying “no” may lead him to conclude I don’t believe in any higher consciousness or power at all (which I do).
Yoruba spiritual tradition, and African spirituality in general, is not dogmatic. At all. Yes, we have rituals and ceremonies that have to be followed in very specific ways but this is because we desire a certain outcome, not because we are compelled to follow a particular belief or practice. Water boils at 100 degees Celcius. If I want water to boil, I must generate enough heat to get the temperature to rise to at least 100 degrees Celcius. This is not a dogmatic statement; on this planet this is law.
Our understanding of “God” is similar. We know that the Source of All Things is something that we could never, ever fully comprehend. Glimpses could hardly amount to a full understanding. We don’t even know how everything on Earth works, oceanographers have said we’ve only explored less than 5% of the ocean, so how could we fully understand something like “God”? Though Yoruba cosmology includes higher level beings, including a being or consciousness that sparked the Big Bang and put creation in motion, similar to Buddhism belief (or disbelief) in Deity is inconsequential. What we believe about the forces of creation and nature (called irunmole and orisa/orisha) in Yoruba cosmology) doesn’t matter if we can’t make practical use of that belief or knowledge to facililate higher spiritual awareness and make life on Earth more peaceful and harmonious. In other words, I can wax poetic (or theologic) about the nature of water and fire all day but if I don’t know how to heat up water to boil so that I can make spaghetti then I am wasting precious brain space and am no use to my community. (I make awesome spaghetti, by the way. One tip = don’t put the noodles in until the water is boiling.)
In Yoruba tradition, we believe a higher consciousness, force, spirit, or being facilitated and continues to faciliate the creation of all things but we don’t spend much time on trying to figure out what or who that force or being is. We place much more emphasis on the forces and beings closer to home to help us fulfill our individual destinies and live the best possible lives, in a holistic sense.