Friday, July 29, 2011

Ethiopian creationism?

Have you ever heard of Lucy?

If you're especially knowledgable (or if you just read that Wikipedia page) you'll know that she was a partial skeleton of an Australopithecus afarensis found in Ethiopia in 1974.

Lucy is far from the only primate fossil specimen that illuminates human evolution found in Ethiopia; there are dozens of important specimens found over the years. The national museum in Addis Ababa devoted a huge percentage of its space to providing detailed information about these fossils, human evolution more generally and palaeontology.

Another interesting thing about Ethiopia is the dominant religion: Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity. Now, I'm far from an expert in the field, my observations are based purely on talking to a few people over a week in the country and reading a few Wikipedia pages, but here goes anyway.

As I understand it, the Ethiopian church split off from the rest of Christianity very early on; well before the split of the Eastern and Western churches into Orthodoxy and Catholicism. In fact, by the great schism, Christianity was already Ethiopia's state religion and they had already translated the Bible into Ge'ez (a translation that is still in ritual use today).

The religion still seems very strong in the country, at least in the north where we were. Pretty much everyone we spoke to professed to be a Christian though they said there were some substantial pockets of animism and Islam down south. The deacon who was our tour guide around the monolithic rock churches of Lalibela told us that there wasn't a strong history of proselytising, although there were missionaries that went to visit the southern provinces of Ethiopia, he said there weren't really any efforts to teach outsiders about the faith. They have a different calendar, a bit more of a focus on fasting* and their own festivals and holy sites, but as far as we could tell, they were pretty in line with the sorts of beliefs we had seen outside the country.

Wikipedia tells me that Ethiopian orthodoxy is considered to be in full communion with Catholic teachings, which means that the pope decided that they might have some different traditions, but they are essentially following the same doctrine. They seemed to have a lot of the same saints - St. George is a major saint had one of the churches of Lalibela dedicated to him. I asked a few people (including our deacon friend) what the significance of St George was to Ethiopians and he said that St. George was famous because he killed a dragon: the ultimate symbol of evil. There also seemed to be a lot of Ethiopian saints whose names and deeds escape me now.

A lot of the most spectacular sights in the country are Ethiopian Orthodox holy sites including the rock churches I mentioned earlier and what they claim is the real, actual ark of the covenant. Sadly, we didn't have time to see the church that supposedly contains the latter.

Soon enough, I started wondering: are Ethiopian Christians creationists? Does national pride over the importance of the scientific discoveries there outweigh doctrine?

According to the three people I asked this question (one deacon and two laypeople, all men between the ages of 20 and 35) the answer is no. The three people I asked knew about Lucy and were familiar with the idea that we shared an ancestor with apes but didn't believe it. None of the people I spoke to about it showed any interest in convincing me of their point of view, my guess is they looked at it as a matter of faith.

I'd be interested in finding out to what extent this is a doctrinal matter but, sadly, I don't know any Ethiopian Christians in Melbourne.

* Their fasting food was vegetarian and really tasty, which was pretty nice for the wife - she was getting pretty sick of nshima/ugali and greens from further south.

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