The tribal god

This excerpt comes from pages 33-36 of Christianity Rediscovered. In it, Donovan recounts his discussion with a Masai village in East Africa after asking them what they thought about God:


Then they told me of God, Engai, who loved rich people more than poor people, healthy people more than the sick, the God who loved good people because they were good, and rewarded them for their goodness. They told me of God who hated evil people–“those dark, evil ones out there”–and punished them for their evil. Then they told me of the God who loved the Masai more than all the other tribes, loved them fiercely, jealously, exclusively. His power was known throughout the lush grasslands of the Masai steppes; his protection saved them from all the surrounding, hostile, Masai-hating tribes, and assured them of victory in war over these tribes; his goodness was seen in the water and rain and cattle and children he gave them……Each African tribe believes in God, and it is generally considered to be a monotheistic God. But each tribe likes to restrict the attention and protection of this God to its own territory, thus planting the seeds for polytheism.I continued talking with the people who were now listening very closely: “When Abraham followed God out of his land, there began on this earth the story of the one, true, living, High God.”Everyone knows how devout you Masai are, the faith you have, your beautiful worship of God. You have known God and he has loved you. But I wonder if, perhaps, you have not become like the people of the tribe of Abraham. Perhaps God has become trapped in this Masai country, among this tribe. Perhaps God is no longer free here. What will the Kikuyu do to protect themselves against this God of the Masai–and the Sonjo? They will have to have their own gods. Perhaps the story of Abraham speaks also to you. Perhaps you Masai also must leave your nation and your tribe and your land, at least in your thoughts, and go in search of the High God, the God of all tribes, the God of the world. Perhaps your God is not free. Do not try to hold him here or you will never know him. Free your God to become the High God. You have known this God and worshipped him, but he is greater than you have known. He is the God not only of the Masai, but also my God, and the God of the Kikuyu and Sonjo, and the God of every tribe and nation in the world.”And the God who loves rich people and hates poor people? The God who loves good people and hates evil people–‘those dark, evil ones out there’? The God who loves us because we are good and hates us because we are evil? There is no God like that. There is only the God who loves us no matter how good or how evil we are, the God you have worshipped without really knowing him, the truly unknown God–the High God.”There was silence. Perhaps I had gone too far. The mention of a wandering search that took a lifetime must have evoked memories of their own ancestors recalled from generation to generation around nomadic campfires. Abraham himself must have seemed like a long lost ancestor to them, he who used to like to “fill his eyes with cattle.”……Finally someone broke the silence with a question. Whether he asked the question out of curiosity or anger, I do not know. I only know it surprised me:

“This story of Abraham–does it speak only to the Masai? Or does it speak also to you? Has your tribe found the High God? Have you known him?”

I was about to give a glib answer, when all of a sudden I thought of Joan of Arc. I don’t know why I thought of her, but suddenly I remembered that since the time of Jeanne D’Arc, if not before, the French have conceived of God (le bon Dieu–what would the Masai think of him?) as being rather exclusively and intimately associated with their quest for glory. I wonder what god they prayed to?

Americans have some kind of certainly that “almighty God” will always bless their side in all their wars. Hitler never failed to call on the help of “Gott, der Allm├Ąchtige” in all his speeches, in all his adventures. A Nazi doctor once told me that they could always count on the Catholic school children to pray for Hitler every morning, to ask God’s blessing on him. What god, the Teuton god?

I have been to many parishes in America where they prayed for victory in war. I recognized the god they were praying to–the tribal god. I will recognize him more easily now, after having lived among the Masai. And what about the God who loves good people, industrious people, clean people, rich people, and punishes bad people, lazy people, dirty people, thieving people, people without jobs and on welfare–“those dark, evil people out there?” Which god is that?

I sat there for a long time in silence looking at the Masai people. They called their God Engai. Well, that is no more strange-sounding than our gods. The god invoked by the pope to bless the troops of Mussolini about to embark on the plunder of Ethiopia, and the god invoked by an American cardinal to bless the “soldiers of Christ” in Vietnam, and the god of French glory, and the German god of Hitler were no more the High God of scripture than is “Diana of the Ephesians” or Engai of the Masai of East Africa.

To each one of these cultures must ever be presented again the proclamation of the message, symbolized in the call of Abraham–to leave their land and their nation, to learn of the High God, the God of the world. All nations are to be blessed in Abraham.

I finally spoke out again, and I marveled at how small my voice sounded. I said something I had no intention of saying when I had come to speak to the Masai that morning:

“No, we have not found the High God. My tribe has not known him. For us, too, he is the unknown God. But we are searching for him. I have come a long, long distance to invite you to search for him with us. Let us search for him together. Maybe, together, we will find him.”

(Above photo courtesy of TangoPango)