Prof Pius Adesanmi’s horrific death aboard the crashed Ethiopian Airlines’ flight 302 on 10th March, 2019, rightly drew an outpouring of responses from around the world. While many of the tributes were occupied with the intellectual side of his multi-faceted persona, little has been heard of what must have been his spirituality. Ironically, it is the spiritual that was more egregiously framed by the manner of his death. On the morning of his ill-fated flight, he made a post on his Facebook status of a Bible passage that, with his demise now, appears prescient. The said scripture has done more than just appearing prescient; it has shone a massive light on what must have been the late public intellectual’s deep faith. In the highly secularised world of letters, any profession of faith is considered something to be bashful, even ashamed, about.
Adesanmi had quoted verses 9 and 10 of Psalm 139 thusly:
- If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea;
- Even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me.
A psalm of King David, Psalm 139 is taxonomically grouped with its preceding four psalms as a Psalm of Thanksgiving. While all members of the group evince heartfelt gratitude to God, Ps 139 is unique in its sense of awe and acknowledgement of God’s all-encompassing knowledge and overlordship. While the Book of Psalms has been described as “one of the noblest monuments of all ages,” some of its members contain goose bump-inducing rhapsodies. The sense of total surrender to God’s benevolent omniscience is redolent all through Ps 139. The two verses highlighted in Adesanmi’s Facebook post are foregrounded by the rhetorical question and answer in verses 7 and 8:
- Whither shall I go from thy spirit? Or whither shall I flee from thy presence?
- If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there; if I make my bed in hell, behold thou art there.
God’s omni-presence overawes the psalmist leading to the climactic summation in verse 17:
- How precious also are thy thoughts unto me, O God! How great is the sum of them!
To think that these noble lines were what fed the fecund imagination of the seminal Adesanmi moments before he ended both his physical and eternal trips, is pure glorious. Glorious but counter-intuitive. Are intellectuals not meant to be atheists and agnostics? What sudden apostasy could have overtaken Adesanmi moments before his demise and got him so full of evangelistic fervour as to broadcast the same on his timeline? These questions are posed as provocateurs not necessarily in respect of Adesanmi who was a devout Roman Catholic altar boy in his younger days, but to address the wider issue of religion and the intellectual.
It is not clear how the notion of the genius-free thinker gained currency; what is clear is that the Age of Enlightenment brought along with it the pushing of the envelope in critical thinking. Nothing was off limits to the Scientific Revolution that preceded the Enlightenment and as the old order gave way to the new libertine one, theism had to be the victim. The leading lights of the era including Nietzsche, Descartes, Hegel, Kant and Darwin, were a mixed bag of free thinkers and believers in God. Nietzsche audaciously and sacrilegiously stated in 1882 that “God is dead.” But even from those early days, there was no shortage of believer-scientists and philosophers like Galileo and Descartes. However, heretics and apostates like Nietzsche and Darwin charted a course that associated critical thinking with atheism or, at least, a sufficient disinterest in a Higher Power behind the universe. This perception had no empirical backing but what is perception if not hazy feeling? Thus, the evidence of icons of the Scientific Revolution like Sir Isaac Newton meant nothing to those who fed this canard. Newton whose eponymous laws of Physics are at the foundation of modern science, was a major devotee of the Church of England in his day, while Rene Descartes was an influential Roman Catholic.
As bad money drives away good money, so has the critical thinking – atheism gang become dominant against the clear evidence of history. Nothing has fuelled that belief like Karl Marx’s cant that religion is the opium of the masses. Ever since, if you showed you believed in God, you were not credited with much critical thinking ability. Over time, it appears that the grouse of the intelligentsia is not so much about having a religious belief as believing in Jesus Christ, the Son of God. That ‘stone of offense’ has survived its Pharisaic traducers but must contend with the modern free-thinking agnostic. Thus, you find the intelligentsia believing in all kinds of gods except Jehovah. Albert Einstein was pantheist just so that he wouldn’t belittle his prodigious IQ by pledging loyalty to monotheism. Our own Nobel Laureate abhors modern religion but his works are full of worshipful references to Ogun, Olokun, and other Yoruba deities. So the question arises: if the bone of contention was about religious belief in the generic sense, why do these geniuses get away with their other theisms? Why would they abhor the Source but believe in His tributaries; forbid the egg, but devour the chicken?
The danger inherent in the agnostic-genius canard is that it transforms intellectual Lilliputians to giants on the strength only of their agnostic credentials while contriving the opposite for men of faith. In so far as the hood doth not the monk make, neither doth atheism the genius. If any of Cardinal John Onaiyekan’s classmates would become an atheist, would he be found suddenly condescending to the cleric who aced the entrance examination in the entire Northern Region of his day?
Adesanmi in his lifetime did not openly canvas the agnostic-genius canard through his social media posts. But he surely subscribed to the secularisation of public affairs which is the default position of western thought. It was the extension of that thinking that contrived my first disputation on his Facebook timeline. In one of his trademark critical posts of 2013 or thereabouts, Adesanmi lambasted the General Overseer of the Redeemed Christian Church of God, Pastor Enoch Adeboye, for his endorsement of President Goodluck Jonathan which, according to Adesanmi, hoodwinked the millions who voted for Jonathan and, with hindsight, for mediocrity as well. I was convinced that Jonathan was a failure (now post-2015, I’d rather qualify that failure). But the claim that hordes simply voted for him on the strength of Adeboye’s alleged endorsement did violence to logic. I felt if the cleric had suddenly acquired a Hamelyn Pied Piper’s spell over the people, why hadn’t he used it to shoo them into God’s kingdom? It was disingenuous to not adopt Adeboye’s lifelong homilies about righteous living but suddenly make his alleged endorsement the stuff of electoral gospel truth. Adesanmi was however not alone among Nigeria’s intelligentsia who harboured this ludicrous logic. Meanwhile, what constituted the alleged endorsement wasn’t more than an open visitation for prayers by the then presidential candidate whose publicists scooped the ensuing pictures.
That tiff between Pastor Adeboye’s camp and the Nigerian intelligentsia represented by the likes of Adesanmi returns us to the resentment of religion which is at the heart of modern intellectualism. If the Oni of Ife or Emir of Kano had similarly prayed for Jonathan, would they have been so unfairly accused of helping to foist a mediocre Jonathan on Nigeria? Such scapegoatism has been at the core of the Nigerian intelligentsia’s beef with religion. It finds other manifestations in the call to tax churches; the bellyache over the erection of gigantic church auditoriums; and the pet peeves over jet-owning pastors. The question to ask is: If religion is Nigeria’s bane, how does that redound to atheism’s brilliance with Nigeria’s development? To paraphrase Samuel Johnson, religion may have many pains, but atheism has no pleasures.
In life, Adesanmi was our seminal knight poking at the avoidance issues at the heart of our underdevelopment with the sword of his prodigious intellect. He was untainted by Nigeria’s primordial loyalties. If ever any Nigerian belonged to nobody and to everybody, it was Adesanmi and not any bigot in high places. Adesanmi criticised on first principles which is why even those who felt riled by his acerbic keyboard were graceful in their responses. No less a personality than the incumbent Emir of Kano didn’t feel it infradig to respond to Adesanmi by name without resorting to ad hominem. It is therefore not far fetched that in death, the circumstances of his exit would offer a dialectical resolution of the insidious question of whether one could be both a public intellectual and religious.
Mike is published in over a couple dozen journals including: Parousia, Bridge Eight, The First Line, Crack the Spine, The Hamilton Stone Review, Gambling the Aisle, Warscapes, bioStories, The African Roar Anthology, Creative Writing News, EXPOUND, Thrice Fiction Magazine, Ebedi Review, Dark Matter Journal, Bullet Pen and Storymoja, the last two coming with wins in continental contests.
Mike is a freelance book editor and ghost biographer based in Abuja. His debut children’s novel, Cowboy Lamido, has recently been released by Hapicom Publishers. He is a fan of beauty in sight, sound and smell.
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