Roots of Belief

San Jose Mercury

February 26, 1995

By Richard Scheinin



"I have not stolen. I have not slain people...I have not said lies. I have not cursed."

Chester Higgins Jr., photographer and free-ranging scholar of the African spiritual tradition, is reading from the 42 "negative confessions" found in the Egyptian Book of the Dead. The ancient Egyptians believed that a moral life on earth was a prerequisite to eternal life in the spirit world. Only if a deceased person's heart was judged pure enough, Higgins explains, could his or her soul proceed to live with the god Osiris in the afterworld.

"I have not copulated with another man's wife," he continues. "In other words, Thou shall not commit adultery," Higgins paraphrases, then continues. "I have not caused anyone to weep...I have not gossiped. I have not slandered. I have not caused terror."

Higgins is convinced that these moral standards are the basis for the Ten Commandments and the ethical systems that undergird Judaism, Christianity and Islam. And he boldly predicts that the "next spiritual revolution" among black people will be the rediscovery of ancient African spirituality. Miraculously, he says, its essence survives in the richly varied religious expressions of blacks around the world.

The saint worship of Santerians in Cuba; the trances and dreams of Pentecostals in the Americas; the fervent worship of Baptists in the one–room Alabama church with the potbelly stove that Higgins attended as a child: All are echoes of the original, African "natural theology" that was initially codified by the Egyptians. It may be scattered in shards about the modern world, Higgins says, "but the remnants are there. And good investigators, like any good excavators or archaeologists, can go back to start fitting this puzzle together."

Higgins, 48, has been assembling pieces for years. He is a staff photographer for The New York Times whose recent, highly acclaimed collection of photos and essays is titled, "Feeling the Spirit: Searching the World for the People of Africa" (Bantam $50). It is the product of Higgins' 26 years photographing the daily lives and rituals of African peoples in more than 30 countries.

Drawing on his research and a body of scholarship that dates back more than a century, he says the Egyptians were the first people to develop and codify a system of spirituality. He speaks exuberantly about this history for hours: After the Romans leveled the last temple of Isis around 400 A.D., the Egyptians took their refined teachings–already known in a more rudimentary form throughout Africa–to the African interior, from which it was dispersed throughout the continent. Their teachings strongly influenced the Yoruba people of Nigeria and the Akan speaking people of Ghana. And when the modern African diaspora commenced with the slave trade in the 17th century, Africans carried its essence to Brazil, the Caribbean and North America, where millions of immigrants and roots-conscious blacks now come full circle to recognize their common spiritual roots.

Q. You write and talk about a worldwide African spiritual sensibility: "We the African people have a very special relationship to the spirit," you say. What does that mean?

A It means we tend to feel more grounded and accepting of our natural feelings when it comes to spiritual expressions. We tend to embrace them with a certain passion and vigor. Most other people are quite reserved in doing so, in confronting the miracle of the infinite spirit. Obviously, I'm not talking about everybody. But I think African people tend to have a special relationship with the spirit. And I think the proof is that the earliest study of religion and spirituality came from Africa: the oldest documented codification of spirituality was buried in the pharaohs' tombs for 4,000 years.

So we've had this relationship, and it's become a part of our psyche. I always tell people, "It doesn't matter whether you come down Jesus Avenue of Mohammed Boulevard, because when you get to the end, we've all reached the same place of enlightenment."

And I think that we humans–all of us right now– we're all living with a hole in our souls. I don't care whether whites are trying to fill it by turning to the Dalia Lama, or Native Americans are trying to fill it by looking back to their natural theology, or Africans are returning to their natural theology. We're all beginning this search.

Q Let's define this African "natural theology."

A It says that nature is the one infinite and final force to be reckoned with. Therefore, nature is the perfect manifestation of the infinite God...the infinite spirit that is beyond our comprehension.

And everything in the world is alive, whether it's organic or inorganic. The ancient Egyptians had a phrase called Kha. It's the double identity of nature, where on one side there is the physical–the world of phenomena–and on the other side there is the spiritual–the world of noumenal. Everything liveth. And as we begin to understand that, we are amazed by nature's order and complexity and balance. We want to harmonize and align ourselves with the natural forces around us. It's not about an "I," it's about an "us."

In Christianity, you come into this world already a sinner, and you have to use the rest of your life to get back to a place where you become acceptable. African theology accepts the perfection of the infinite spirit, of which you are a part. You don't come loaded with guilt and sin.

Q The idea that contemporary black religious expressions are remnants, or echoes, of an ancient tradition is intriguing.

A African people after slavery were turned aloose–we lost our very tongue and had no idea that our religion had ever been codified. And what I find in the diaspora is the acting out of the ancient spiritual dramas, but a lot of names have been changed and stories lost...People took different pieces on their migrations. It's kind of like a big quilt. Someone took a patch over here. Someone took a patch over there, and there. And unbeknownst to them, they all came from the same quilt. And I say there's a big thread that stitches them all together. There is this linkage here, this signature of spirituality that goes back.

Q Let's have some examples.

A The ancient Egyptians believed that the world is constantly oscillating between balance and imbalance. Today, the Dogon people of Mali hold to this very belief and recite prayers to keep themselves from falling into imbalance.

In the Caribbean islands, the Pentecostals have been the people most interested in Africanizing their Christianity. And they do it by introducing the drum, by wearing white, which is a sign of pure light, and they have these ceremonies that go into the night, as in African spirituality. More than any other Protestant group, they are in touch with the intensity of fellowship that you find in African spiritual religion. And the Baptists would be next up the line.

Q There are amazing photographs in your book of ancient stone churches in Ethiopia that are literally embedded in the earth. Thousands of people pray in these churches before dawn, and come back out as the sun rises. The people are Christian, yet you say the imagery reflects Egyptian cosmology.

A You have to remember that the Ethiopians and Egyptians believed in the same gods until about 1000 B.C., when Sheba went to Solomon, conceived a child and changed her country to Judaic tradition. Now, the Egyptians believed that every day, the sun deity, known as Re, passed out of the body of the sky deity, known at Nut, and a new day was delivered to Geb, the deity of the Earth.

So in these churches today, you see the worshippers entering the earth, ruled by Geb. The first mass is before sunrise, which brings the magic of fertility and deliverance into the new day–via Re. So there's a confluence: The words they speak are Christian, but the symbols and practices harken back to African spirituality.

Q The themes of freedom and deliverance remain important in black churches in this country.

A In religion, you always have deliverance. Moses is nothing but deliverance. Jesus brings a new message of deliverance.

Whenever we go to church, our hearts are laden with the wrong we think we have done, and we want to unload. We want to get in touch with that spirit...so that we have lift. We want to become verily as light as a feather, to become one with the spirit, thereby feeling freedom and deliverance from all the baggage we accumulate on earth. This, too, goes back to the Egyptians.

Q You accept the view that the Christian trinity, too, is rooted in Egyptian cosmology.

A Right. What's known as the Theban trilogy consists of Asar (Osiris), his wife Ast (Isis) and his son Heru (Horus). Asar is the father, Ast is the mother, and the son Horus represents the spirit of the everlasting sun.

Let's begin with Asar. He was the grandson of the creator, and the deity of civilization. Then, when he was killed, he became the deity of the afterlife, reigning in the stars of heaven. Now his brother Seth, who was the deity of confusion, betrayed and murdered him. And Asar was a good person, so his death became a sacrifice. And in his death, he is the person who will receive you.

Now, Heru (Horus). Have I told you about the story of his impossible birth?

Seth chopped Asar into 14 pieces and buried them in all sorts of places so they would never be found, because he was afraid of Asar's resurrection. Ast went about and found all these 14 pieces so she could make a decent burial for him. And she put them together like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, and she began to wail and recite magical chants and she fell upon the body. And she took the seed of the dead man and became pregnant. That's the first impossible birth, and she had a son, and the son was Horus. Now does that sound like a parallel to anyone you know?

Q The Yoruba people of West Africa worship the goddess Oshun, who is derived from Ast and the Egyptian deity of Hathor. Your book has a photograph of modern Yoruba rite involving hundreds of people at the water's edge in Coney Island. How widespread is the interest in Yoruba and other traditional African religions?

A It's happening in Brooklyn and Miami, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. It's happening in Los Angeles, in Oakland. People move around, and it's growing...What you're seeing in the Coney Island photo is a ceremony that marks the memories of millions of Africans who died crossing the Atlantic during the middle passage to America. The people holding the ceremony are reconnecting to their spirits,

Q The book also has a photograph of a Brazilian Candomble ceremony in Manhattan where four chickens were sacrificed. You joined the communion line to drink from the bowl of sacrificial blood and "reached within," you wrote, "to quell the objections of my Protestant upbringing...with the taste of the blood came a sense of oneness that took me across 500 years and the Atlantic Ocean."

A I felt as if I had been transported. It's like when you look at the pyramids. It's very hard to describe what it's like. When you grow up in a world that's all rectangles and boxes, how do you describe a 40-story structure that has slanted walls as sides?

But I felt that a spirit had transplanted me from one place to another by this simple act. I believe the encounter with the spiritual happens when people are ready. So all my years of spiritual study had brought me to that point, that transition. Ofcourse, what I didn't say in the book was that the blood was mixed with sparkling cider! It made it all the more palatable.

Q. Aha! You also describe yourself as a "spiritual" person, rather than a "religious" one. "Religions create walls, and therefore conflict," you say. But aren't you advocating a new, "correct" African religion for black people? Louis Farrakhan has already called Islam the true religion of the black man.

A Farrakhan sees Islam as the African religion for several reasons. First of all, he and all Muslims feel that Christianity cannot be their religion of salvation since Christianity was used historically to oppress and enslave us. And therefore Christianity has no credibility. And if Jesus can have only white skin and blonde hair, then he is of no use to us. They look and they see that Africa today is worshipping Islam. So they embrace Islam as a non-Western religion. But as people begin to understand the true history of Islam–the Arab Muslim role in the slave trade and the historical abuse that Islam perpetrated on African people–they're beginning to understand that Islam also was a conquering religion.

Still, Islam has given people the conviction that they do have options to expand their world and to begin to search for the god-spirit that speaks to them and that is non-oppressive and can be a vehicle for liberation.

So Islam has started a movement, and Islam will not be its end. Islam will be a vehicle to move people between Christianity and African spirituality. It will become the bridge.

Q You're very outspoken. You must anger a lot of people.

A There's no one way of looking at anything, and I offer my point of view in love. I don't think that what I'm talking about should threaten people. I think it's advance notice of the next spiritual revolution for people to get involved in. It opens a lot of floodgates.

Instinctively, there is a spiritual marker that comes with the African blood that has been dormant. And this search of mine is causing this dormant thing to start awakening.

For example, I feel very close to Ogun. Ogun, the deity of iron, and he's a warrior deity. He deals with iron because iron is a tool of war. But he's also a deity that's about exploration and expansion and protection. And I find peace and consolation in knowing that Ogun is a part of my life.

And another source of inspiration to me is Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, who was the last African Emperor. He was a very capable man and ruler who had a strong belief in Christianity, a strong faith in his people, and who felt very connected to his ancestors.

Q You end your book with a tribute to your late mother, Varidee Loretta Young Higgins Smith. What do you carry with you from your years attending church with her?

A That people are people, and want to be good...I took away the understanding that we're all connected, that we're all like each other, no matter what uniform we wear.

I hold love and admiration for anybody who goes to a church or synagogue or mosque, and puts in a few hours recognizing that we are human and have temptations and troubles that pull us back and forth. We all go to the House of the Lord or the House of Allah and we try to recompose ourselves, we try to find a way to forgive ourselves for not being as great as we wanted to be last week. And we try to find the confidence to go out and be better the next time.

 
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