One of the books I am currently reading through is Vincent J. Donovan, Christianity Rediscovered: Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Edition, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1978; reprint, Maryknoll, NY Orbis Books, 2003. You can find more information about the book by clicking on its picture in my side widget “books I am reading.”
The author, a Catholic missionary to the Masai people in Tanzania, describes his journey of rediscovering the gospel message as he sought to share it with the Masai people. In chapter four, he is describing his conversations with the Masai people about God (whom the Masai people call Engai in their language) and our origins as a created life. The Masai people have a monotheistic belief but also have reduced God’s interest to being concerned only with blessing and protecting the Masai people. Sound familiar?
Donovan reflects on this reductionist view of God:
“I have been to [sic] 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…
“I say 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 (p. 36).
“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.”
God is great!!! That is a confession routinely heard among Christians during worship and yes God is great. But let’s not fail to hear what Donovan is telling us. God is too great to be reduced to the limited concerns of any one nation, person, ethnic group, tribe, or even religious group. When we reduce God to such concerns, asking God to bless our tribe to the peril of another tribe, we effectually reduce God to an idol god.
“For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised; he is to be revered above all gods. For all the gods of the peoples are idols, but the Lord made the heavens. Honor and majesty are before him; strength and beauty are in his sanctuary. Ascribe to the Lord, O families of the peoples, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength. Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name; bring an offering, and come into his courts. Worship the Lord in holy splendor; tremble before him, all the earth” (Psalm 96.4-9, NRSV).