Lavi M Nan Men Bondye o Sen
In Voodoo in Haiti, Alfred Métraux writes:
Métraux's mention of Deus otiosus is a term often applied to African notions of God: that God is remote, withdrawn and uninvolved. For example, here's a brief abstract about some writings about Deus otiosus.
It's not clear to me whether or not Métraux is taking some scholarship about African religions and trying to apply it to Haitian Vodou, or if he is relying only on his personal research conclusions. If it's the former, that's a bit suspect, although there are times when that kind of application can be revealing (i'll mention an example in a minute). On the other hand, sometimes it's just mistaken.
Métraux has been described as a man who never stopped asking people what things mean. I'd like to take that to mean that he really discussed this idea of the Deus Otiosus with several people in Haiti, and asked their opinions about it.
Shannon Turlington, in The Complete Idiot's Guide to Voodoo, says much the same thing:
Turlington's words are so clearly restatements of Métraux that I find myself asking if she had any first-hand experience with Haitians.
And this is part of what I think makes the study of Vodou so difficult unless you have real teachers. Material from just a few sources gets repeated again and again (in often near-identical words).
Laënnec Hurbon says, simply:
Leah Gordon's Book of Vodou says:
Maya Deren's comments on the topic include:
Interestingly, Deren suggests that in Haiti God is not quite as remote as in Africa. She says:
But she later goes on to say:
It almost starts to seem like there are really only two or three anecdotes about the Haitian notion of God, and they are repeated over and over again by almost every author who comes near the subject.
Karen McCarthy Brown, in Mama Lola, repeats this information, but at least we get the sense that it has been vetted by Mambo Alourdes:
I feel pretty confident in Brown's scholarship. I think that if she reports that God isn't involved in the day-to-day affairs, then I doubt that she's just parroting Métraux.
Recalling what Deren said, a footnote in Brown's book seems extremely interesting. She remarks on a piece of langay (or langaj, an Arcane spiritual language used in Vodou) that Alourdes uses -- "Lisa dole zo":
And Ross Heaven, himself an initiated Houngan, writes:
So having established that this is what all the writers say about Bondye, I'm forced to report that my manman kanzo pretty much thinks that they have no idea what they're talking about.
Here's the thing, though. I'm not convinced that she's right. Having listened to a large number of things that she's said, I don't really get the impression that she's read any of these things firsthand; she's objecting to her perception of the claim, rather than the original claim itself. I mean, in posts to alt.religion.orisha, she doesn't even seem to be very clear about who said it.
Also, in one such post, one of things she says to "prove" that the whole "remote God" story is a fallacy is that Haitians almost never say anything about the future without qualifying it with "Si Bondye vle". Which is kind of amusing given what I've written above. Her debunking seems to be based on the assertion that since God is mentioned a lot, God must therefore be immediate and accessible. But the assertion doesn't seem to take into consideration Métraux claim that the word "God" is always on the lips of Haitians.
This is a point of Haitian theology that's very interesting to me, and so I feel moved to look deeper at the topic than my manman would seem to favour.
As someone who didn't grow up in Haiti, I suspect that I'm never really going to understand the notion of Bondye as fully as a native Haitian. If Métraux is reporting accurately, then what does he mean by "vague and impersonal power"?
I'm not sure, completely. But there are a few things that seem salient to me.
First is the way that God is referred to in various songs. I'm aware of multiple songs that use the phrase "Lavi m nan men bondye o sen" (my life is in the hands of God, oh saints). This phrase is used in various parts of the Priye Ginen. For example, there's a whole callback sequence where the person leading the Priye identifies various lwa, as the rest of the congregation play back these three sentences:
What strikes me as interesting about this phrase is its implication of servitude. And not servitude in the way that one "serves the spirits". One of the things I was taught about serving the spirits is that if the spirits don't work on your behalf, you stop feeding them. One's relationship with the spirits is an exchange system. You give the spirits what they want and the spirits should give you what you want. And if it doesn't work that way, then you should kick those spirits out.
But saying, "my life is in God's hands" always suggested to me a very different relationship with God. Definitely not a relationship between equals.
I have not observed people sacrificing animals for God. I have not seen people leave food for God. People do these things for the lwa, because the lwa can be bartered with. You can ask the lwa to work on your behalf. But God. Well... your life is in God's hands, and what you hope to come about will only come about si bondye vle (if God is willing).
Another difference is that the ways in which Christians interact with God really aren't relevant in Vodou. One does not, for example, pray for forgiveness. One does not beg God for the strength to deal with difficult things.So, while God is clearly "out there", one doesn't really negotiate with Him the way one negotiates with the lwa. God does what He wills but the lwa should work on your behalf.
And I think it is in that sense that Métraux describes Bondye as "impersonal".
Copyright © 2004 by B.C. Holmes. Last updated May 16th, 2004.
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