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Religion without spirituality is akin to a car without an engine

By Jaiye Edu, Edited by Anita Kouassigan
14 June 2020   |   3:00 am
Shola Ojora is a qualified lawyer who studied law at the University of East Anglia (UEA) before completing his legal qualification at the Nigerian Bar School in 1999

Yoruba religion… revitalising spirituality. Photo credit: Google

Shola Ojora is a qualified lawyer who studied law at the University of East Anglia (UEA) before completing his legal qualification at the Nigerian Bar School in 1999. He practiced Law briefly at FO Akinrele before exploring the Oil & Gas sector, both upstream and subsequently downstream. After six years in Oil & Gas, he decided to explore a different sector and went into Property Development.

As a director of Primrose Development Company (PDC), he held the position of Sales & Business Development Director until 2012. He remains a non-executive director of PDC. Currently, he is the Managing Director of ROSACheck Links Limited, which is a background screening company. He also sits on the board of a few other companies in the Technology and Digital space. In this thought-provoking interview, he goes spiritual, dissecting the concept of religion and spirituality, and the role of religion in the growth and development of Nigeria.

Why have you decided to have an open conversation about spirituality with The Guardian at this time?
Whilst reconnecting to an old family friend, we casually got on to the topic of faith, spirituality and religion, and its general impact on society. I think my friend found a stubbornness in me, about my being against third parties dictating how to be spiritual.

Please can you make your own distinction between religion and spirituality?
Some will argue that they are one and the same, but I genuinely beg to differ. A simple distinction can be made between the two, or a more complex distinction can be argued. Without meaning to oversimplify the matter, the latter speaks to a personal relationship with one’s Faith, and the former speaks to a communal relationship with an identified Faith. As you can probably tell, I have chosen the simple distinction.

There are debates about the role of religion in the growth and development of Nigeria. What are your views about this?
Another difficult question to answer within the allocated space for discussion. I can’t really speak about other religions, nor profess to know too much about their efforts with their congregations in the area of Nigeria’s growth. However, from my experience with Christianity, I don’t think this question has a black or white answer. Furthermore, I do not see Christianity in Nigeria as a matter of growth but rather as a stabilising force in – certain areas. I also see areas where it has also been destabilising.

When I think of the growth and development of Nigeria, I think in terms of The Economy and the generally positive direction and welfare of the nation. There is no doubt that Nigerians tend to take religion very seriously. We do acknowledge that there is a Higher Being or Entity, and I think religious institutions do implement programs that reinforce that notion. Churches also run programmes for drug addicts and generally attempt to assist the starving. These are great examples of Christianity’s principle of giving to the less fortunate. I want to believe other faiths also run such programs. In my opinion, these are stabilising programs, not growth programs.

I think churches serve us best when we consider “the moral code” they offer, which to a large extent our laws are built on. Again, I think that would speak more to the developmental aspect of the question, rather than the growth of the country. It is my understanding that some churches run private schools. If anyone of their congregation members can send their children to these schools free of charge or at an affordable price, then I think we are dealing with the “growth” element. However, it is my understanding that these schools are rather expensive, and the average congregation member and his family cannot afford to send their children there. Therefore, this makes me think that is a missed opportunity for growth in the country, that is, not utilising what is otherwise a viable path to potentially change lives for the better.

In addition to this, I know that churches run seminars on how best to get jobs etc. I have often thought rather than having these seminars, they could make more of a difference by driving more impactful agendas, such as encouraging apprenticeship programs, and by engaging their more affluent congregation to drive ideas that translate to less talk and more action. And who knows, if religious leaders find success with similar programs with this type of outlook, the government may just step in and amplify the efforts. Germany runs this apprenticeship-style system, and have found it to be very effective for social and economic growth.

My final point brings all the main Faiths back into the discussion. The general global atmosphere of polarisation has not escaped churches or mosques and it can be argued that they even fuel division or omit to curtail it. Increased attendances to churches and mosques can be a powerful tool in the wrong hands. Fanaticism is not just reserved for the camp of Muslims; it also exists in Christianity. While Christians tend not to carry guns and other weapons, there are other forms of ammunition that can be deployed without firing a bullet. I cannot recall seeing the country as divided between the North and South as we are witnessing today. “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” If we are not united, therein lies a crucial part of our growth and development problem. So, my viewpoint is that I don’t believe that much growth and development can be attributed to religion. In fact, for the most part, religion may have played the exact opposite role

Do you feel that the organised religions of Nigeria have responded to the COVID-19 crisis as you, from your own personal view, would have expected?
I think the answer to this question varies, and it wouldn’t be fair to generalise under one faith versus another, but rather to compare a religious institution to another – regardless of the faith. We have all listened to or watched the news. Certain religious houses have paid heed to government and health workers’ advice on how best to tackle this COVID-19 scourge- social distancing, pandemic hand hygiene, the wearing of masks and so on. Some have adhered to the guidelines and regulations, and some have done their best to contravene the regulations, especially with regards to the rules of the religious assembly during these challenging times.

There have been stories accusing some churches (not all of them) of being more concerned with the collection of tithes and the usual business of the church, rather than focusing on the spiritual wellbeing of its congregation. I have been a little shocked – perhaps horrified – learning about the desperation of members of congregations lamenting about how they need to get to church. Even during the Passover, the Israelites stayed at home. If we are to interpret COVID-19 as another example of a plague, churches that have argued otherwise have left me dismayed, disappointed and bewildered. I am glad that my church fell in line with the government’s advice. They encouraged members of the church to stay home, reiterated the health authorities’ guidelines, and offered online services. God is omnipotent.

To conclude, I think organised religions have generally responded well to the crisis, but there are also elements that have not done so well. People need to have faith right more than ever during these unprecedented times. Where are the so-called faith healers, who apparently perform miracles and drive out demons from members of their congregations? There has never been a better time for them to demonstrate what we often view on TV. On the other hand, I have heard of organised religions organising food for the poor, counselling their members, and raising funds to assist the most vulnerable. This has been admirable to witness and should be acknowledged.

Please share your faith journey
I guess my connection to nature has a great deal to do with my faith journey, as one cannot help but appreciate the presence of God during those magical moments spent in touch with nature. For instance, I recall in being in Cape Town in 2005 where I stood at the southernmost tip of the continent, where the Indian Ocean meets the Atlantic Ocean. The raw beauty of such an experience was truly uplifting. Next, I have always been fascinated with animals – from those you can touch and pet to those who are just a privilege to observe. You get to witness the loyalty of a dog, or the independence of cats, the grace of elephants or the magnificent great white shark. I believe everything in nature is intricately woven and linked to God and the creation of The Universe.

Historically, however, my journey has been rather jagged. My late father was Muslim as the Ojora family are traditionally a Muslim family. My mother is a Christian (Anglican), which complicates my story and upbringing a little more. I have always had the greatest of respect for both religions, though my childhood influences leaned more towards a Christian upbringing, as both my primary school and high school were Christian schools. Furthermore, in boarding school, it was mandatory for us to read a book for 30 minutes before bed. Whilst books such as The Hardy Boys and The Chronicles of Narnia were very popular among young boys in the UK, I wasn’t accustomed to such and so my reading material was the Bible. My sisters and I had a good grasp of the Bible at a very young age. It might have been our maternal grandparents that got us interested.

I was baptised and then confirmed at 13 years old. My father never really objected, but neither did he really approve. He would tease me that I was always Muslim in his eyes. I also have a poignant childhood memory from around 1991/1992, during a family trip around Israel, a semi-pilgrimage. When we arrived in Jerusalem, I noticed that both my parents became a little more defensive about their different religions. It was comical to watch, but it was the importance of the city that aroused my spiritual curiosity. I do believe my spiritual outlook was somewhat split – some might say confused – but at the same time, I genuinely had an appreciation and respect for both religions.

My father passed away a few years after that trip, in accordance with Muslim rites. The funeral moved me greatly and I believe this had a profound effect on me. Subsequently, I found myself taking Islamic classes, I dated a lady from the Middle East, who explained things to me, and my paternal grandfather and I would discuss issues surrounding the Faith. Later on, shortly after my older sister passed away around 2005, I happened to stumble upon a church in the US. I was broken after my sister’s passing, and a little discussion with the vicar and regular church attendance in the US reactivated something within my spirit that I had not felt since I was a child. Since then, I have not really looked back. I carry the deep respect for Islam in my heart and all the good things that I can remember, but I reverted back to my Christian Faith. I cannot profess to be a scholar in either Faith, but I like to think I am a product of what it is to have a tolerance between the two religions.

Do you feel that we need more inter-faith dialogue in our society?
I really do. I think much can be done to develop the area of religious tolerance. Reading of lives being taken in the name of faith or religion has always surprised me. I often ask myself which religion actually encourages people to go out and commit such atrocities, and which God instructs us to take another person’s life? And yet, we find this is an ever-increasing mindset. History has a weird way of repeating itself when it comes to wars. Somehow, faith is usually hijacked for political gain. This is where we all have to be careful. When the two mix, it is so potent, and peace gives way to hatred. Examples can be seen in the Middle East, Myanmar, former Yugoslavia – to name a few countries. It’s absurd. All faiths seek peace, and rightly so. There has to be inter-faith dialogue to renounce those who try and hijack this powerful tool. Faith has always been about peace and spiritual elevation in our behaviour and compassion towards one another.

If the European missionaries had not come to Nigeria, do you think we would be practicing a different form of Christianity, or not at all?
This is something I often ask friends and vicars that I am privileged to address this same question with. Without meaning to sound bitter or angry, I do get upset when I think about how, as a country, we seem to practice Christianity the European way to the point that we tend to practice it more vehemently than the Europeans do. I am often reminded of that great quotation by Jomo Kenyatta: “When the missionaries arrived, the Africans had the land and the missionaries had the Bible. They taught us how to pray with our eyes closed. When opened our them, they had the land and we had the Bible.”

Christianity arrived on our shores long before Europeans did. It was prevalent in Ethiopia around the 4th Century and other denominations formed thereafter. There is great pride that is attached to their form of Christianity, and arguably a greater truth behind it. Growing up in the ‘80s, I noticed that most Nigerian Christian homes would have the wrong depiction of Jesus. The skin tone was almost certainly wrong if one considers the region that Jesus came from (as instructed by the 2nd commandment, I do my best not to have an image of Jesus or God). The version of European Christianity has somewhat interrupted the Nigerian, and I would argue, the true African spirit which existed long before they stumbled upon us. We are ardent defenders of a version of a faith that has destabilised us. I liken it to a child who is naturally right-handed and being forced to become a left-hander. I often ask myself how voluntarily receptive our ancestors were to Europe’s version of Christianity. Would our ancestors be proud of what we have become? I have nothing against European Christianity. It has worked for Europe, and I don’t begrudge them. History is history. Unfortunately, it has not worked for us.

“What will it profit a man if he gains the world but loses his soul?” Our spirituality has been undermined, and I am not sure we actually appreciate that fact. Personally, it might be too late for me to rewire my spirituality and wean myself out of this spiritual box I find myself in. But I am fortunate to have the option at my disposal to explore a version of Christianity that runs more in line with the Orthodox Christian faith closer to Africa, and more in line with the faith Ethiopians practice. I am yet to think of an African country that practices European Christianity that is flourishing and truly functional.

The point I am making reminds me of a strange conversation I had with a former African-American colleague during a flight to Ghana. He had mentioned how he was a “traditionalist” and naturally, I became a little uncomfortable discussing the topic when we were 25,000 feet up in the air. At first, I engaged in the discussion from a judgmental angle, trying to convince him that his faith was not a viable path to spirituality, but then the discussion took a different turn when he mentioned two irrefutable facts- the question of what religion we would be practicing had Nigeria not met the Europeans, and how he had travelled over 9,000 miles to the birth-place of traditional Yoruba worship, only to be chastised and ridiculed by the very tribe that we’re custodians of the religion, which millions around the world follow. I couldn’t really argue or continue to judge him any more for practicing the faith of my ancestors, because he made me question my roots. There are indeed deeper questions to be asked: Were we such a terrible and cursed people before European Christianity was “forced” upon us? Are we a more blessed people since we took up that particular form of Christianity?

What do you think religious leaders can do to build a Nigeria that works for the common good?
I am yet to witness the dividends of being solely religious. Religion without spirituality is akin to a car without an engine. From my observations and my limited understanding (admittedly), I do feel Nigerians tend to appear more engaged in service attendance and the theoretical side of things, which can come across as being almost ritualistic. It is my belief that religious leaders should also be advocating the practical elements – less talk and more action. I do not subscribe to the holy behaviour in church, and yet the worldly behaviour outside the church. I genuinely believe spirituality allows and advocates putting the Good Word into action, which I believe is what Jesus was trying to teach us all along. I would also like to see less promotion of materialistic prayers and meditations. Indeed, we all pray for success. Rather than praying for success as we all know it, let us also pray for “good” success. Knowing the difference is what I would challenge every reader to try and explore, and for the church to really drive that point across.

Hearing out Shola, it was clear that he has wrested intensely for a long time with the issue of what it means to be a person of faith and how to live it out. His desire for more inter-faith dialogue in Nigeria is one which I am in agreement. It is underpinned by the scriptural commands to “love God and love neighbour”, imperatives that are shared by Christians, Muslims and Jews. Given Nigeria’s volatile political-religious situation, people of faith in Nigeria generally face the challenge of expressing the biblical commands together and Shola is right to draw attention to the lack of practical expression of loving your neighbour. The scriptures tell us, that one cannot love God without loving one’s neighbour. So, as we (who are of Abrahamic faith traditions) root ourselves deeply in our faiths and in the security and truth of God, we are called to reach out in humility and love to the stranger in our midst.

The Church worldwide has made huge strides in promoting dialogue and interfaith reconciliation with non-Christians since the publication of the document ‘Nostra Aetate’ (In our times) in 1965. In seeking the common good, Shola’s plea for prayers for “good success” is justified but I would go further. Good success requires trust in the “other” around us and who in their essential being, is an image of the invisible God. Trusting your neighbour of whatever tribe or religion is risky and carries uncertainty. But as people of all faith, we are called to pursue all that leads to peace and justice and all that builds up our common life, which, in doing such things, will lead to the development and growth of Nigeria.

Jaiye Edu is an Anglican priest. He trained for the priesthood at Ridley Hall, Cambridge while studying for a degree in Theology for Ministry at the University of Cambridge. He was ordained in 2014 by the Church of Nigeria (Anglican Communion) and served for four years in parish ministry in the Diocese of Lagos Mainland. He has also had a taste of parish ministry in the US in the Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast, Alabama. Prior to ordination he worked for Christian Aid an international development organisation in London and has a wealth of experience working in a variety of not-for-profit organisations. He is passionate about enabling individuals and society to be transformed by the Gospel. He is particularly interested in public theology and wants to continue to highlight how religion can be an instrument for nation-building in Nigeria. He lives in the UK.

Jaiye Edu