Seeing God among the Orishas

March 21st, 2016

The Obamas only have two days in Cuba for their historic trip to the island nation this week. I can tell you that based on my visits there back in the early 2000s, that’s not enough time to appreciate the rustic beauty of Havana, let alone Varadero’s gorgeous beaches or the lush landscape between the two.

My trips there were courtesy of the Institute for Advanced Journalism Studies. DeWayne Wickham, the institute’s founder, had created a wonderful reporting project called Africans in the Americas. Our objective was to document the impact of people of African descent in the American hemisphere.

Since the Obamas’ itinerary reportedly includes a walking tour of Old Havana, I hope they will be able to visit the Asociación Cultural Yoruba de Cuba and its museum that celebrates the African roots of the Cuban religion known as Santeria.

Santeria evolved from Yoruba, the religion of African slaves who were from sections of Nigeria, Togo and Benin. After being trafficked to Cuba, they took their Yoruban beliefs and combined them with other African religious practices and Roman Catholic Christian concepts.

If the museum’s layout hasn’t changed in the 15 years or so since I visited it, they’ll see displays of the religion’s Orishas, spirits believed to guide various aspects of life. Almost every display in the museum featured a very tall statue of the featured Orisha, maybe 10 to 12 feet tall — except for the one dedicated to Olodumare. It had no statute or any other representation.

I noticed the difference and asked our tour guide for an explanation. Olodumare, she said, is the supreme God who created the universe.

“No one has ever seen Him,” she said through our translator.

My mind raced through all the Bible stories I’d been taught as a child and landed on the one in Acts 17 about Paul’s speech to the men of Athens.

“I see that you are very religious in all respects,” Paul said in verse 22 of the New English Translation. “For as I went around and observed closely your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: ‘To an unknown god.’ Therefore what you worship without knowing it, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives life and breath and everything to everyone.”

Paul was pointing the Athenians to the truth about God by using their belief in the existence of a God who defied depiction. It was a brilliant and effective introduction to a larger theological truth.

We Christians don’t worship idols, the visual representation of deities. And some will say that the displays in the Yoruba museum in Havana are idolatrous.

I’m not so sure. My reading and reporting on the Yoruba faith through the years indicates that there is some disagreement about whether or not the Orishas actually are considered gods, or something more like Catholic saints or even angelic spirits.

What I do know, though, is that the Yoruban understanding of Olodumare is very close to the one we Christians have of Yahweh, whom the Bible also refers to as Jehovah, JAH and YAH. And that makes me think that we of the Abrahamic traditions perhaps are too proprietary about God, as though who God is belongs solely to us and is defined only by us.

The Bible teaches that God exceeds our understanding. And the reality is that God doesn’t belong to us at all. It is we who belong to God. Consequently, I believe God can be perceived by others, even if they don’t not worship or perceive God as we do.

I’m not suggesting that all perceptions of God are equal. And no perception of God, including ours, is accurate or complete. I am a Christian, though, because I believe that our faith gives the best explanation of who God is and what our relationship with God can be.

I also believe, as Acts 17 suggests, that divine truth relentlessly tries to penetrate humanity’s cultures and beliefs. So even in an Athenian pantheon full of idols — or a Havana museum filled statues of Orishas — there can still be one display that points to the truth about the Creator of the Universe.  

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