Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka Inaugurated the ISS Distinguished Speaker Series

On January 17, 2007, Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka addressed hundreds of people at Claremont Graduate University, a crowd which included students, professors, and community members.  The Institute for Signifying Scriptures hosted his lecture, which discussed the dynamics of and threats from religion that the 21st century faces.  His lecture was titled “Deities for a Secular Dispensation.”

Penetrating questions framed and punctuated Soyinka’s remarks. Dubbing it “the question for our time,” he asks whether religion can truly cohabit with humanism. In some places, the question is better phrased: “Can religion truly cohabitate with humanity?” If they are incompatible and religion were to vanish, what might take its place?

Soyinka began his discussion of the dilemma of religion in the 21st century by pointing to the uniqueness of each religion. Soyinka explained that religious claims to uniqueness cause all religious wars. Considering the history of the twentieth century, Soyinka pointed out that some of the worst atrocities were not committed in the name of religion but in the service of ideology. He observed, however, that violence perpetrated expressly in the name of religion has increased in the last decade, as can be observed in Nigeria, Indonesia, India, or the former Soviet Republic. Despite the observation that religion functions as the pivotal instigator of so much recent conflict and violence across the globe, and rather than just wish religion away, Soyinka holds on to the possibility of religion providing restraint and an alternative to its legacy of violence. Convinced that the religious impulse is entrenched in the human psyche itself, Soyinka suggests that religion could be crucial to human survival and may contribute to the existence and stabilization of some—not all—psyches. He calls to mind the double helix of the human genome and proposes that the ideological impulse can be found on one track, while revelatory inclination, sanctified in scriptures, follows the other.

Soyinka continues the scientific analogies by adding a corrective to Marx’s famous quip, “Religion…is the opium of the people.” Instead, religion can act as the homeopathy of human condition, a projection of the human pathos. Though he says all religion is built on the invocation of deities, Soyinka presents his own Yoruba tradition as one that is somewhat self-conscious of its homeopathic properties. Esu, the most ubiquitous of all Yoruba deities, is the random and unpredictable factor in divine and human affairs, a trickster figure who teaches the multiplicity of all reality. The deities, ever-evolving, are conceived of as in need of unity with human existence, confounding the Western concept of the one-sided dependency and effectively stagnant relationship between humanity and the divine. Mutually exclusive categories of “creator” and “created” are arbitrary, imposed, and do not obtain.

The histories of colonial and civil violence prompt Soyinka to consider the qualities that allow some traditional religions to endure, as Yoruba has, while others die. The answers may lie precisely in the flexibility of the Orisha tradition, especially in its relationships to sacred text. The Ifa, Yoruba’s divination corpus, destabilizes the concepts of “scriptures” familiar to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in particular. Odu (sacred signs) are morality tales, historic vignettes, narrative verses and divine counsel that comprise the Ifa. The Ifa never condemns skepticism and is, in many senses, contradictory itself. In divination, the Ifa diagnose, but seekers are self-determining and gods remain indifferent to them: “Within one’s own hand lies the direction of one’s destiny.” Essentially, the Ifa challenge the bibliocentrism of other world religions by emphasizing the “perpetual elasticity of knowledge.”

Faced as we all are by heightening religious violence, Soyinka proposes prescriptions for transformation. It is too late to suppress the intuitions, as Soyinka refers to them, that we call “religion” or “superstition.” Both belief and non-belief must be made to best ennoble humanity and guide its ethical choices. Soyinka turns to tolerance as the virtue most in need of cultivation. Ogun, Soyinka’s own guardian and one of the oldest in the Orisha pantheon, is the deity of iron and metallurgy. Soyinka presents Ogun’s essence as a model for addressing geopolitical religious violence. Alloys, blended and accommodating metals, are both strong and malleable. Our global dilemma demands tolerance, a spirit of accommodativeness.

Soyinka closed his lecture with a reading of an odu involving a brash youth.  This youth mistreats a number of religious practitioners, striking a babalawo and knocking over a Muslim knelt in prayer. The odu teaches that premature is the death of the youth who strikes the devout in the midst of their devotions: “speedily comes the death of maggots, speedily.” Soyinka believes this odu supplies an important lesson for the contemporary world. Both Islam and Christianity brutally colonized Africa, but in this odu the Yoruba tradition demands tolerance and endurance of its adherents. Though we shall all end up as food for maggots, Soyinka prayed that we all be saved from dying the death of maggots. Such an ignoble future is assured if adherents continue to stylize their religions as essentially unique and exclusive, a logic facilitated by summoning the phenomenon we call “scriptures.”

Questions for Further Discussion

    * Can secular humanism satisfy the deeply ingrained religious impulse that Soyinka  proposes?
    * How can Soyinka’s exercise in comparative religions be constructively used to address religiously-motivated violent conflicts?
    * How does Soyinka’s use of Yoruba traditions work as a way to undermine the “uniqueness” claims of dominant religions?
    * Does Orisha represent indigenous scriptural practices in terms of its elasticity and malleability?

To see a PDF of the event program, click here.
To see a PDF of the event flyer, click here .
To read the original event press release, click here.

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