African Time

This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2006 Daniel Harper.


The first reading, an excerpt from the poem “Of the African Eve” by Everett Hoagland, is not included here due to copyright restrictions. Mr. Hoagland is the former Poet Laureate of New Bedford and member of this congregation.

The second reading this morning is from an essay titled “African Indigenous Religions” by James Cox:

“African indigenous religions can be called a form of humanism, because religious activity focuses on how positive benefits for society can be enhanced…. This humanism is a communal humanism and is not individualistic. Fulfillment comes for individuals as they participate in family and community relationships.

“Because religions focuses on communal wellbeing, Africans are concerned with the present moment and not with a future existence after death. There is no sense of the past moving through the present to some future event; the past and the future find their menaing in the present. Hence, distance from the present is more important than the direction time takes…. The fundamental concerns of African societies with health and well-being are expressed primarily through ritual activity. Festivals, feasts, dances, and artistic expressions celebrate communal existence, both of the living and the dead.” [pp. 127-128]

SERMON — “African Time”

For the past three months, I’ve been exploring our Western religious tradition in my sermons on Sunday morning. That is to say, I’ve been talking about the religious heritage of Judaism, Christianity, and the indigenous European traditions currently being revived as paganism. Now I’d like to turn our attention on Sunday mornings to a broader field, and spend a little time engaging in conversations with non-Western religious traditions.

I say we “engage in conversations with” other religious traditions, and I am careful to use exactly that phrase. In the last century, Unitarians and Universalists occasionally tried to adopt liturgies and other practices from other religious traditions. We have come to recognize that that sort of thing is wrong; we now have a term for it, “cultural misappropriation.” Rather than trying to steal the religious traditions of other peoples, we instead are coming to re-evaluate our own religious tradition, and we are finding great richness within our Unitarian and Universalist traditions; in short, we are becoming more comfortable with who we are, and we’re not trying to pretend we’re something else. Yet we also recognize that there are non-Western religious traditions out there, and we recognize how important it is to engage those religious traditions, not in the sense of trying to adopt them wholesale, or trying to co-opt them, but in the sense of engaging in conversations with equals.

In honor of Black History Month, I thought I’d start us off by engaging in conversations with traditional African religions. I have been fascinated by traditional African religion and philosophy since 1983 when, as a philosophy student in college, I was introduced to this tradition by Lucius Outlaw, a philosopher and one of my mentors. I still remember when Lou had us read a book titled African Religions and Philosophy by John S. Mbiti. Mbiti was trained as a theologian, and I suppose you could say this was the very first book of theology I ever read.

Mbiti was a Christian; he went to seminary and served as an Anglican priest, and only later became a scholar. As a Christian, he was of course concerned to a certain extent with missionary work, and if you read his work carefully, you get the sense that one of his motivations for his scholarly work was how to communicate Christianity to persons embedded in a traditional African framework. Coming from that perspective, he believed the way people look at time, the way Westerners and traditional Africans experience time, was the fundamental problem for the Western tradition as we try to understand Africans.

You see, we Westerners believe that time is like a line. For us, time begins at some point — maybe with the Big Bang, or maybe with God creating the world. After that, everything moves forward in time. But one day, time will end — maybe time will end when entropy overtakes the universe, or maybe time will end with God’s last judgment. The specifics may differ, but whether you’re a traditional Christian, or a Jew or a Muslim; or whether you follow the insights of Western science; either way, we Westerners believe that time has a beginning and an end.

Time considered as a line is so fundamental to our culture that we don’t even question it. We assume that’s the way things are, that there can be no other way of thinking about time. I mean, what could be more basic than a timeline? It’s so basic that we learn about timelines as children.

But if you’ve ever taught younger children, you quickly realize that thinking of time as a line is a fairly sophisticated concept. If you show a timeline to a preschooler, he or she will simply not get what you’re taking about; preschoolers like timelines, they think they’re pretty, but they don’t really understand them. And when children start to learn how timelines work — really learn about timelines, to the point where they can create their own timeline without outside help — you can see the pride they take in this accomplishment. I can remember when I first learned how to make a timeline as a child; I remember feeling a sense of wonder at this fascinating new concept; it was something I quite literally had never thought of when I was younger.

So we Westerners train our children to think of time as a line. But John S. Mbiti tells us that traditional Africans think of time differently. Mbiti says in traditional Africa

“…time is a two-dimensional phenomenon, with a long past, a present, and virtually no future. The linear concept of time in Western thought, with an indefinite past, present, and infinite future, is practically foreign to African thinking…. What is taking place now no doubt unfolds in the future, but once an event has taken place, it is no longer in the future but in the present and the past. Actual time [as opposed to potential time] is therefore what is present and what is past. It moves ‘backward’ rather than ‘forward’; and people set their minds not on future things, but chiefly on what has taken place.” [pp. 21-23]

Since I first read this passage, twenty-some years ago, I have been fascinated by this idea that there could be a very different way of understanding time.

It should be obvious that a linear notion of time is essential to Western religions. For Christians and Jews, time begins when God created the universe, time unfold in a linear fashion, and one day God will bring about an end to time. All the indigenous European pagan traditions I’m familiar with have a similar understanding of time: time begins when the universe is created, and it flows in a line from that point to the present, and an many European pagan traditions the universe will someday end — think of Norse myths for one example. And non-theistic humanists are pretty sure that the universe started with the Big Bang, time proceeds in a linear fashion from there, and the universe will end when everything cools down from entropy.

It’s my guess that most of us here this morning think of time as a line, and for most of us, religion is unthinkable without linear time. Nor is it necessarily a bad thing to think about time as linear. Unitarians of a hundred years ago used to say they believed in salvation by character and progress onwards and upwards forever — progress onwards and upwards forever requires us to think of time as a line headed in one direction. At some level, we still retain that belief, which is why we are so dedicated to social justice work: we know, given time, that we can overcome injustice and make the world a better place. The good side of thinking of time as a line means that the Western tradition holds out the possibility of working towards greater justice in the world.

However, the traditional African concept of time challenges us to understand things in a new way. And this brings me to the first reading this morning, the poem by Everett Hoagland.

In the poem, Everett Hoagland points out the great irony of Westerners who claim to have discovered certain things. Christopher Columbus claimed to have discovered the Americas, while ignoring the native peoples who discovered the land thousands of years earlier. Livingston claimed to have discovered a waterfall in Africa, which he named after a British queen “to keep it from going native.” And now, says Everett Hoagland, based on the analysis of mitochondria in human DNA, there are scientists who claim to have discovered an ancient African woman who is the ancestor of all, and these scientists have named this hypothetical woman “Eve.” She was an “African Eve,” says Everett Hoagland, and these scientists who discovered and named her, “they acknowledge eden was/ and mother africa is.” And then later in the poem, we hear: “she is more than isis aphrodite madonna/ even more than eve.”

She was even more than Eve. And I’d like us to try to understand what the poet means when he says she is even more than Eve. For me, one way to understand how she is more than Eve is to understand time in a different way. So I’m going to ask you to bear with me for a moment — we’re going to go back to John S. Mbiti, get a little better understanding of how traditional Africans understand time, and then return to the African Eve.

First, back to John Mbiti. Mbiti did research in East African languages, and discovered that in some ways these East African languages have a richer understanding of time than do many Western languages. Mbiti found nine verb tenses in these languages. There are three future tenses: East Africans can talk about a far future of perhaps two years worth of natural cycles; an immediate future of within the next short while; and then a future that places one event after another event. East Africans have three present tenses: what’s in the process of happening right now; what has happened in the past hour or so; and what has happened today since morning. Then there are three past tenses: one which speaks of yesterday; one which speaks of any day before yesterday but within living memory; and then a tense which refers to the deep past of no specific time.

From a theological or religious point of view, I am especially fascinated by this last past-tense, which speaks of the deep past, a past of no specific time. If we had such a verb tense in English, it would solve lots of religious problems for us. In our Western languages, we are stuck on the timeline of historical time. When we speak of something in the past, we can only speak of it as if that event actually truly happened as history. This has caused us much confusion. For example, when we speak of God creating the world, we can only speak of that as if it actually happened, which confuses things badly. It confuses things so badly that there are people who are convinced that you can assign a historical date to God’s creation of the world: they say that God created the world in the year 4004 B.C.; so if you want to know exactly when the Biblical Eve was alive, it was 4,000 years ago. I was recently reading a news article about a Christian company that offers tours of the Grand Canyon, where they assume that the Grand Canyon is less than 6,000 years old, and they point out alleged evidence that the Grand Canyon was not carved out by the Colorado River over millions of years. These tours are very popular, but the only reason they exist is because in our Western tradition, we confuse the past-of-no-specific-time, and the actual historical past. Timelines are powerful, but they can be dangerous!

And in his poem, Everett Hoagland points out another danger. Those scientists who say they discovered an African Eve are actually using their verb tenses incorrectly. They need to distinguish between the past-of-no-specific-time, and the past-of-scientific-inquiry. Eve, whether she is an African Eve or a biblical Eve, lives in the past-of-no-specific-time. Eve did not ever live in the historical past, the past that can be explored by scientific inquiry; Eve is no more real than Anasi the spider, and in fact Anasi and Eve live in exactly the same time. It is extraordinarily presumptuous for those scientists to presume to name that hypothetical woman, the source of all human mitochondrial DNA, to name her “Eve.” Worse yet, those scientists give her a Western name, straight out of the Western religious tradition. And that’s as bad as Christopher Columbus claiming to have discovered the Americas; that’s just as presumptuous as when Livingston decided he would name that African waterfall.

Not only that, but once you call this hypothetical woman who was the source of all human DNA “Eve,” why that raises this funny possibility that the “African Eve” lived in some kind of “African Eden.” And from there, it would be easy to find ourselves right back in the same trap that certain fundamentalist Christians fall into, when those fundamentalist Christians try to tell us that when human beings lived in the Garden of Eden back in 4,004 B.C.E., the world was perfect and then woman sinned and it’s all been downhill from there. My friends, if we can just remember to distinguish between the past-of-no-specific time, and the actual past, we could save ourselves a lot of problems.

We challenge ourselves by exploring other religious traditions. Traditional African religions can teach us something about ourselves: they can show us that our religious tradition has us understand time as a line. Traditional African religions can also help us see that we have to be careful with our religious understandings of time as a line. For if time is a line, that timeline will come to an end sometime in the future. From a religious point of view, we Westerners have to watch our for a deep-seated belief in the inevitable end of the world. This kind of thinking can be most destructive: if you believe the world is going to end someday, maybe sooner rather than later, you have less incentive to make this present world any better; if everything’s going to end and die anyway, why clean up the environment, why feed the hungry, why correct social injustice?

So it is that by exploring other religious traditions, we learn more about ourselves than about those religious traditions.

A Place To Call Home

This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2005 Daniel Harper.


I have one short reading this morning, by the Japanese Zen Buddhist monk and poet, Ryokan.

Though travels
take me to
a different stopping place each night
the dream I dream is always
that same one of home.

SERMON — “A Place To Call Home”

I want to speak with you this morning about what it means to call a place home. No doubt I got interested in the topic of home because Imy partner and I have just moved for the third time in three years. But it was just by chance that last week I came across the poem by Ryokan:

Though travels
take me to
a different stopping place each night
the dream I dream is always
that same one of home.

To dream of a place we can call home:–

Even if you live all your life in the same place, it can seem as if you have a different stopping place each night; even if you travel continuously, each place you stay can feel like home.

Scientists who study the earliest human beings, and the earlier humanlike beings, speculate that our ancestors moved from place to place depending on the availability of food and water. In this place that we call home, the south coast of Massachusetts, the indigenous peoples that lived here before Europeans arrived spent winters in upland hunting grounds, moved to fertile ground to plant beans and corn and squashes, spent summers by the sea to fish and gather shellfish, moved back to their fields at harvest time, and ended the circle of the year by returning to the hunting grounds. Home for them might have meant the length of a river and the watershed it drained; or an annual round of fields and hunting grounds where ancestors got their food, places that would change slowly as the fertility of the soil waxed and waned or game animals moved in and out. Today we tend to think of home as a room or an apartment, or a small plot of ground in the city with a house, or a slightly larger plot of land in suburbia with a house. But home is more than a building, more than a house lot. When we call a place “home,” we mean something more complicated than that.

Ryokan, in his poem, says that when he is traveling with a different stopping place each night, the dream he dreams is always the dream of home. Some people try to tell us that we should be at home wherever we are, because wherever you are, there you are. Or that we should be at home in our own skins. Or that we should feel at home wherever we are. I have never been satisfied with any of these sayings, any more than I am staisfied by saying home is a few rooms where I sleep and watch television. You can be sure that Ryokan was not dreaming of a television set.

In common useage when we say “home,” oftentimes we are referring to a room or an apartment or a house where we go to sleep at night — after having watched some television of course. But if you really think about it, your home is more than that room or apartment or house. It’s not enough to have a room or three. If you walk through any suburban neighborhood you can see the houses where people try to make it enough: those are the houses with the rooms lit by the blue glow of a television set or video game. Televisions are marvelous inventions, and I do enjoy watching reruns of “Will and Grace” while I’m at home. I like having my familiar desk and dishes and chairs, too, but while all these thigns might make a place feel homelike, they aren’t home. Maybe we have to look farther afield to discover what home means.

A job or a workplace are often another place that becomes a sort of home to us. Work need not be paid employment. Henry Thoreau writes: “For many years I was self-appointed inspector of snowstorms and rain-storms, and did my duty faithfully; suveyor, if not of highways, then of forest paths and all across-lot routes….” I have done some of that work at times when I had insufficient paid employment; like Thoreau I have found that “my townsmen would not after all admit me into the list of town officers, nor make my place a sinecure with a moderate allowance.” But work is work whether you are paid for it or not.

Work is the way you contribute to the grand working of the cosmos. Work offers a second place in our lives. Even if you work at home, the work you do can make your house or apartment feel like a different place. Work also brings us into contact with a different set of people. You have a circle of family, housemates, neighbors, and friends that come and go in your house or apartment; and you often have a different circle of acquaintances, co-workers, customers, and friends that come in go in your world of work. Although it’s never quite that simple, since if you work in a family business or stay at home to raise children, you might see much the same circle of people at home and at work.

The place you live and the place you work are both parts of the place you call home. I am convinced we human beings need at least one more place in our lives. Two years ago, we were living in Oakland, California, and there was a Starbucks coffee shop a few blocks away from us. A group of men gathered there each evening, sitting outside when the weather was fine, and talking for hours in some language I did not recognize — a friend of ours said they were Eritrean. Personally, I’m not a big fan of Starbucks coffee shops, but that Starbucks in Oakland offered another place in the lives of those Eritrean men. I have no idea what they actually talked about; but for a price of mediocre coffee they could go and sit for hours at a time, reconnecting with old friends or striking up conversations with a new acquaintance.

Not that I think that going to a Starbucks coffee shop is going to make your life complete. We do need that place where we can go and have informal conversations with people outside the inner circle of family or housemates, conversations that stretch beyond the limits of the workplace. Those informal conversations take place at Starbucks, or at the mall, or on the edge of the soccer field while you’re watching kids play soccer, but those informal conversations are not quite enough.

In the times of our ancient, prehistoric ancestors, I like to imagine that we had still another place:– sitting in a circle around a fire at night. Sitting around that fire in the evening, we (or rather our ancestors) had time to talk with friends and family and neighbors. And that was also where we told the stories about where we came from, and who we are, and what the meaning of life might be. That was where we sang the old songs and chants together. It’s where children learned how to be adults by watching adults who were not their parents. It’s where we dreamed dreams and where we sometimes managed to share the great mysteries of being — not necessarily where we encountered the great mysteries of being, but where we shared those mysteries with others.

Unlike our ancient, prehistoric ancestors, we rarely sit around communal fires any more. But I believe our congregation fills much the same place in our lives today. Our congregation is, or should be, a place where we can sing the old songs (and maybe some new ones too), and ask the big questions about life, the universe, and everything; and share together something of the mysteries of life.

So you can see, in spite of the way we commonly use the word “home,” that home is more than, or should be more than, just some rooms in a building with a television set. Yes, we need a safe place to lay our heads at night, yes we need food and clothing besides, and maybe in the crazy postmodern age we need to watch “Will and Grace” before going to bed at night. Adding a workplace helps complete the picture of what a home is: we also need to contribute to the workings of the cosmos, however we may do that. And we need places where we can have those informal conversations with other people. But we also need that place by the ancestral fire, to hear the stories of olden times, to tell our own stories, to help nurture the children, to explore the great mysteries of the cosmos.

I want to point out something about these places that make up home, and it’s going to sound pretty obvious, but still needs to be pointed out. You can live in a room by yourself (and maybe a television set). You can work by yourself. But the ancestral fire has to have other people sitting around it. When you come to the proverbial ancestral fire to hear the stories of olden times, there pretty much has to be someone else there to tell the stories. When it’s time for you to tell your own story it really helps if there’s someone there to listen to you. When you face the great mysteries of life and death, you need to share those with other people.

Or to put it another way, when you explore the great mysteries of the cosmos you ahve to do it in conversation with, in partnership with, other human beings. You can’t do it alone. Our culture values the loners, the cranky individualists, the characters like John Wayne who seem to be totally self-sufficient. But the myth of the loner, the myth of John Wayne, is just fiction. The reality is that those who try to be totally self-sufficient wind up being less than fully human. We need other people in order to be fully ourselves.

So it is that we have our homes, the place where we lay our heads at night; and we have our work, where we have a hand in the workings of the cosmos; and we have a place around the ancestral fire. That’s why I keep going to church — because without that place around the ancestral fire, I don’t really have a place to call home.