Photograph by David Coulson in Different
Topics in Chapter
Kipsigis Tribe, Kenya--1984: The day that Jonathan died was the saddest of days. Jonathan had been a pillar of the church. He had even taken the gospel back home and taught his mother and father to know Jesus Christ. As an effective arbitrator of disputes, he was deeply respected by the village. His sudden death had been a shock to the community. As the casket, made from rough-hewn boards, was lowered into the ground, even the stoic old men of the village wept.
In Jonathan's mind his illness could be traced to an incident when one of his neighbors borrowed a cow from another neighbor to provide milk for his family. When the owner came to get the cow, the neighbor concealed that the cow had given 1 birth to a calf and that the calf had been sold. When the owner eventually heard that his cow had calved, he angrily returned to demand possession of the calf. He was told that the calf had been sold but that another would be purchased and given to him instead. While these negotiations were going on, the wife of the man who had borrowed the cow became sick and died. Many in the community began to whisper that witchcraft had killed the woman; others concluded that her death was in retribution for the sins of the family for selling the calf.
Jonathan became involved when he talked with the daughter-in-law of the man who had borrowed the cow. Her husband, Richard, became very angry when he heard that Jonathan, an outsider, was interfering. Richard rushed to Jonathan's house and cursed him.
Soon Jonathan became very ill. At the hospital he was described as having diabetes complicated by malaria and a severe infection. But Jonathan's worldview could not describe disease merely in terms of physical causes. As pain and fear increased, Jonathan screamed "Richard! Richard!" in his delirium. His mind could only think "Richard! Richard! Why have you cursed me?"
Jonathan's dying screams came out of the deep recesses of the Kipsigis worldview. Kipsigis believe that there are spiritual causations to all sudden and severe illnesses.
Kipsigis Christians who were at the hospital caring for Jonathan heard his dying screams. They understood that Jonathan had believed in the curse and did not have adequate faith in the power of Christ to counter it. "Why didn't he have the faith to counter the power of a curse?" they asked. "Is our faith adequate to withstand the power of Satan?" They questioned Jonathan's faith and at the same time wondered about their own.
Abilene, Texas--1988: An insightful Brazilian woman living in the United States and dating a future Brazilian missionary has aptly challenged the naiveté of future American missionaries going to her country. While critiquing one of my papers on Brazilian Spiritism, she wrote a series of reflective questions concerning the typical missionary's lack of preparation in dealing with animistic religion.
White House, Washington D.C.--1988: Who decided the exact time when President Reagan and Premier Gorbachev would sign the intermediate-range nuclear forces treaty? According to Time's cover story "Astrology in the White House," the astonishing answer seems to be the astrologer Joan Quigley, a sixty-year-old Vassar graduate who has written three books on astrology (Seaman 1988, 25). Donald Regan, the disgruntled former White House Chief of Staff, has written:
First Lady Nancy Reagan dabbled in astrology as far back as 1967. Her trust in astrology, however, was bolstered in 1981 when Quigley showed her that the astrologer's chart predicted extreme danger for the President around March 30. On that date John Hinckley had severely wounded the President with a handgun. From that time on Mrs. Reagan consistently consulted her astrologer to determine "propitious" times for her husband to travel, to make public appearances, and even to sign treaties (Seaman 1988, 25). She later wrote, "Astrology was simply one of the ways I coped with the fear I felt after my husband almost died in the assassination attempt (Reagan 1989, 56).
Nancy Reagan's use of astrology is only one of many examples of animistic practices in the United States. Shirley MacLaine's five books on the New Age movement have sold more than 8 million copies. Out On a Limb, her third volume, describes her personal walk as she discovered the spirit world. In 1987 this book was made into a five-hour TV extravaganza promoting New Age thinking. Numerous Hollywood movies depict the dead in some way coming back to guide or help the living.
Personal spiritual beings are channeled by New Age practitioners. The much heralded J. Z. Knight professes to be the medium channeling the messages of Ramtha, a 35,000-year-old warrior who reports that he once lived on Atlantis. Jo Ann Karl believes she channels the spirits of the archangel Gabriel and a spirit named Ashtar. Neville Rowe, a New Zealander who now lives in California, claims to channel the spirit of the astral being Soli (Friedrich 1987, 66).
Belief in impersonal spiritual forces is becoming more widespread. An estimated 50 million Americans "casually or in dead earnest look to the alignment of the stars for guidance" (Seaman 1988, 25)! Dr. Delores Krieger in her nursing classes at New York University teaches the art of therapeutic touch to transfer mystical healing power (Friedrich 1987, 65). Despite opposition by conservative Christians, Edward Winchester has formed a Pentagon Meditation Club to link "individual `peace shields' to protect humanity" ("Peace Shield," 1988) by the unified force of global meditation. Although Animism remains only a substream in American culture, animistic practices are beginning to proliferate in the post-Christian age.
Although these rites are classified under "New Age," they are not new; they are merely reformulations of old beliefs practiced in various ways in animistic contexts throughout the world. A subheading of Time rightly comments that "a strange mix of spirituality and superstition is sweeping across the country" (Friedrich 1987, 62). From Nancy Reagan to Shirley MacLaine to J. Z. Knight, animistic customs of New Age thinking are being promoted and practiced in the United States of America.
These three glimpses of Animism--one from Kenya, another relating to the inadequacy of missionary training for animistic cultures, and the third from the United States--provoke many questions. Are animistic worldviews "logical"? Should these perceptions be taken seriously? How are Christian missionaries to learn about animistic beliefs of a given people when they are hidden from outsiders? How does Christianity deal with the issues posed by animistic religion? What does the Bible have to say about animistic practices? What biblical model must be presented in communicating God's eternal message to animistic people?
The term "Animism" originated with Edward B. Tylor in early anthropological writings. In 1873 he defined Animism in Religion in Primitive Culture as "the doctrine of Spiritual Beings" (1970b, 9) and said that "Animism, in its full development, includes the belief in souls and in a future state, in controlling deities and subordinate spirits, . . . resulting in some kind of active worship" (1970b, 11). These spirits include both those of living ancestors who are "capable of continued existence" after death and "other spirits, upward to the rank of powerful deities" (Tylor 1970b, 10). These writings set the precedent for defining Animism as "the belief in personalized supernatural power" (Smalley 1971, 24).
A concept of impersonal spiritual force, not connected with any "being," was discovered by the Melanesian missionary R.H. Codrington in 1891. This impersonal force, called mana, was described in his book The Melanesians (1891). R. R. Marett picked up this concept, introduced it into anthropology, and developed theories about it (1909). From these early formulations anthropologists have frequently differentiated between personal spiritual beings and impersonal spiritual forces. They have called beliefs in personal spiritual beings "Animism" and beliefs in impersonal spiritual forces "Animatism."
However, in animistic societies there is no clear differentiation between personal spiritual beings and impersonal forces. These powers are thought to exist side by side and interact with each other. For example, in Folk Islam it is often impossible to distinguish between misfortunes attributed to jinn (personal spiritual beings) and to those attributed to the evil eye (an impersonal spiritual force). The jinn are frequently thought to make use of the evil eye for their own purposes (Westermarck 1933, 19). In many cultures magic, an impersonal spiritual power, is used to force spirits to act. Frequently practitioners of animistic beliefs are possessed by spirits or receive information from spirits to determine what personal or impersonal spiritual powers are causing sickness or catastrophe. In animistic society there is an interplay between personal and impersonal powers.
Because personal spiritual beings exist side by side with impersonal spiritual forces in most world cultures and interact with each other, a broader definition of Animism is necessary. This definition acknowledges that impersonal and personal spiritual powers cannot be easily segmented.
Animism: A "Belief" System
Animism is a belief system through which reality is perceived. This belief system assumes that the seen world is related to the unseen: An interaction exists between the divine and the human, the sacred and the profane, the holy and the secular. Personal spiritual beings and impersonal spiritual forces are everywhere thought to be shaping what happens in the animists' world. Animists live in continual fear of these powers.
A Western secularist would likely look at these beliefs with amazement and ridicule. "How can these unseen powers be real?" he reasons. "How can anyone really believe that spirits and forces should be feared, manipulated, or worshipped?" To him, belief in spiritual beings and forces does not seem "logical." However, the animist begins with different presuppositions. He assumes that spirits and forces shape reality and interprets daily events to fit this model of reality. While a Westerner generally interprets reality through a secular worldview believing no spiritual powers impact the living, the animist presupposes that all of life is being controlled by spiritual beings and forces. The animistic model is as logical as the secular model, if one accepts the basic assumptions of spirits and forces shaping reality.
Animism: A Belief in "Beings and Forces"
"Beings" and "forces" are typically interacting phenomena in animistic contexts. "Beings" are personal spirits which include God, gods, ancestors, ghosts, totemic spirits, nature spirits, angels, demons, and Satan. These personal spiritual powers will be discussed in Chapter 9. "Forces" are impersonal powers. They include the power behind the use of magic, astrology, witchcraft, evil eye, and other related phenomena. Some cultures have broad, descriptive terms for this power, like mana in Melanesia, toh in parts of Indonesia, and baraka in the Muslim world. These impersonal spiritual powers will be discussed in Chapter 10. Since personal spiritual beings and impersonal spiritual forces interact in animistic cultures, they must be studied in relation to one another.
Animism: "Power to Control Human Affairs"
The essence of Animism is power--power of the ancestor to control those of his lineage, power of an evil eye to kill a newborn or ruin a harvest, power of planets to affect earthly destiny, power of the demonic to possess a spiritist, power of magic to control human events, power of impersonal forces to heal a child or make a person wealthy. Animism's "foundation is based in power and in power personalities" (Kamps 1986, 5).
The secret use of spiritual power by an individual is almost always malevolent--meant to cause suffering. When used publicly by recognized leaders of a society, spiritual power is often benevolent, discovering who has brought evil upon the society. Whether spiritual power is used negatively or positively, its existence is never questioned by the animist.
Animism: "Discovering What Beings and Forces are Impacting Life"
The animist lives in fear of the spiritual powers. He may appease the spirits before and after harvest, seek the spirit world to insure success before the marriage of his daughter, determine how the planets and stars will be arranged on the day of an important election, or dress up his male child like a girl so that he might not be injured by the evil eye of a jealous neighbor. The animist is overwhelmed by the many powers that might bring evil upon his life. He believes that only by use of the powers can he be successful. He desperately searches for information to ward off evil and manipulate the powers to do his bidding.
He is never completely confident that all powers are lined up on his side. When confronted with unexpected evil, he typically asks questions like "Who has caused this affliction to come upon me? Why has it happened to my family at this particular time? What power is troubling me? Has this been caused by an ancestor? By some spirit? By witchcraft? By the evil eye? By the stars? Who can help me discover the cause and source of this evil?"
Benevolent animistic specialists are consulted to determine the cause of the affliction and prescribe remedies. It might be determined that malevolent practitioners have brought the evil upon those afflicted. Sometimes malevolent practitioners, despised and feared in every animistic society, are consulted to defeat enemies. A taxonomy of both benevolent and malevolent animistic practitoners is given in Chapter 7.
Each animistic society uses numerous methods to determine which powers are impacting their lives. These methodologies of divination--omens, astrology, technique, ordeals, relying on the dead, dreams, and possession--will be discussed in Chapter 8.
Animism: "Determining Future Action and Manipulating Power"
Animists seek to discover what beings and forces are impacting them in order to determine future action and, if necessary, manipulate powers that stand in the way of health, wealth, and security. They believe that they can only determine future courses of action by discovering what is happening in the spiritual realms. They may determine that the time is favorable to invest in the stock market, sign a treaty, plant crops in the fields, or marry a wife. Ominous signs might lead them to postpone action or to attempt to manipulate the powers.
Much of Animism is based on manipulation. The animist does not seek a personal relationship with the powers. He rather seeks to manipulate spiritual beings and forces to do his will. He might manipulate spiritual powers in order to determine the source of calamity, to predict the future, to curse those who are in opposition, or to determine a fortuitous time to invest in the stock market.
People of God, in contrast to animists, believe that humans should neither divine spiritual causation nor attempt to manipulate the divine. They must rely on God and pay homage to him. The prophets exhorted Judah to "wait on the Lord" and "put trust in him" (Isa. 8:17). But instead of "waiting on the Lord," they desired immediate knowledge and power and consequently began to consult the mediums and the wizards. Isaiah rightly asked Israel: "Should not a people inquire of their God? Why consult the dead on behalf of the living?" (Isa. 8:19). They should have relied on the "law and testimony" in order to receive the true "light of dawn" (Isa. 8:20). Instead of relying on God, they attempted to manipulate their destiny by animistic rites.
The Judeo-Christian way is based upon personally relating to sovereign God giving to him glory and honor. Conversely, the animistic way is based on manipulating the divine to serve human needs. To guide the Christian evangelist to communicate God's eternal message in an animistic context, Chapters 5, 6, and 11 give theological integration and orientation to the study of spiritual powers. Chapter 5 presents a basic biblical theology of spiritual beings and forces. Christian proclamation in animistic contexts based on a biblical theology of the kingdom is described in Chapter 6. Chapter 11 contrasts animistic and Christian perspectives of sin and salvation and gives guidelines for teaching Christian conceptions in animistic contexts.
At one time missiologists believed that Animism would fade away. They presumed that participants of animistic rites would forsake these rites to become participants of world religions. In 1973 Tippett gave Animism "ten years, at the very utmost twenty" to disappear (Tippett 1973, 9). Phil Elkins in the 1960s wrote of the urgency of missions to receptive animistic areas. He said:
However, Animism has not died; in many cases it has extended itself. In writing about missiological trends, David Hesselgrave says, "Cults and the occult, Satanism and witchcraft, are not only surviving on the mission fields of the world, they are also thriving there and simultaneously invading the Western world!" (1988, 205). Just as Israel was tempted to forget the sovereignty of God to follow animistic Baalism, so are many nominal Christians forsaking God to serve present-day Baals. In some areas of the world (Brazil, for example) folk Catholicism in the rural areas has reformulated itself into organized, vibrant spiritist cults in the urban centers. Hoornaert writes that Spiritism is "the expression of the religion lived by the majority of Brazilians" (1982, 72). Twenty-five percent of the Brazilian people are overt spiritists with numerous Catholics being active spiritist participants when confronted with extreme illness, catastrophe, or problems of interpersonal relationships. In fact, it is estimated that more Brazilians routinely engage in spiritistic rituals than go to Catholic mass (Nielson 1988, 94).
Despite the growth of Christianity and Islam in Africa, traditional religion is very much alive. The African theologian Bolaji Idowu writes:
In areas where secularism has predominated (North America and Europe), animistic streams of culture are on the rise. In the North America some cults overtly worship Satan, channel ancestral and astral spirits, attempt to access universal life energy, and revere cultic personalities making them gods. In Europe Animism continues both under the guise of Catholicism and as a cultic phenomena. Some studies have shown that the number of witches in France exceeds the Protestant population (Itioka 1990, 9). A missionary to France writes:
Itioka, in writing about mission trends of the 1990s, comments: "What we are seeing is a reversal of worldviews. While the northern hemisphere is becoming more pagan, the southern hemisphere is being evangelized, . . ." (1990, 10).
Generally Animism is not dying but reshaping itself into new contemporary forms. In some areas animists are becoming Christians, orthodox Muslims, and high religious Buddhists and Hindus. However, in other societies people are rejecting beliefs in high God and various secular beliefs and embracing Animism. As long as Satan maintains his grip on the world, Animism as a belief system will not die but simply change with changing times.
Stephen C. Neill has estimated that 40 percent of the world's population base their lives on animistic thinking (1970, 125). Because Animism frequently hides behind the facade of other world religions, Neill's already high percentage is probably a low estimate. According to Kamps' interpretation of the data of Winter and Graham (1982), most of the world's "unreached peoples" are animistic: "Among the 88 percent of those classified as unreached peoples, it is estimated that 135 million are tribal animists and 1.9 billion are involved in a world religion based in animism" (Kamps 1986, 6). Thus Warner is correct when he says, "The unreached world as a whole is animistic at its base" (1988a).
The sheer number of animistic peoples indicates the need for missionaries to learn to communicate God's message in animistic contexts. Hesselgrave has insightfully said:
The persistence and revival of animistic beliefs in the twentieth century demonstrate the need for qualified missionaries who understand the logic of animistic worldviews and who are prepared to powerfully proclaim God's victory over all powers and forces as demonstrated by the life, resurrection, and exaltation of Jesus Christ.
Animistic motifs of personal and impersonal spiritual powers are combined to create a multitude of distinctive worldviews. Spiritism, which stresses gods and spirits possessing mediums to divine for the living, is flourishing in Brazil. Japanese Shintoism and Chinese Confucianism put great emphasis on filial respect for ancestors. The Cargo Cult of Melanesia uses rituals to induce gods and spirits to give material benefits to the living. Voodoo of Haiti highlights spiritual metamorphosis: Spirits are thought to change form. Humans might take animal shapes and mingle with zombies and spirits. African traditional religionists believe that ancestors, spirits, and gods actively affect the living, and magical rituals must be used to manipulate them. Folk Muslims attempt to harness the impersonal, yet benevolent spiritual power of baraka. Christo-pagan Catholics appeal to saints as intercessors with God. Roman Catholics frequently consider relics of saints as objects of veneration; Eastern Orthodox Christians assess the power of saints through their icons. This brief sampling of animistic perspectives demonstrates that animistic customs are widespread and that different animistic motifs are emphasized in different areas.
Although broad generalizations can be made about animistic beliefs, practices vary widely from society to society. Even people living in close proximity may exhibit remarkable differences in worldview. The Kipsigis, Kisii, and Luo are adjoining tribes in western Kenya. The Kipsigis believe all spirits to be ancestors. The Kisii and Luo, however, perceive the presence of ancestral spirits as well as other spirits who have never been human. While witchcraft and sorcery are prevalent among the Kisii and Luo, these practices are less pronounced in Kipsigis. On the other hand, ancestral blessings, which are not critical to Luo culture, play a significant role in Kipsigis, especially during marriage ceremonies and rites of passage into adulthood. Animism in Kenya, therefore, is not a consistent worldview but a multiplicity of worldviews with similar characteristics.
Such differences in worldviews are also apparent among spiritist groups in Brazil. Kardecism, or high spiritism, advocates that spirits are people without bodies. Condomble, or low spiritism, does not call upon the dead but seeks the guidance of certain African spirit guides.
Unlike Christianity, orthodox Islam, or traditional Hinduism, Animism does not present a consistent cosmology of viewing life.
Although formative to the worldviews of some cultures, Animism is a stratum in every culture. Smalley has written that "Animism is a nearly universal ingredient in all religions, and is not a religious system in itself" (1971, 24). For example, an American baseball player may feel he will win by wearing a special pair of shoes; or a tennis player may believe that he does better if one ball is in his pocket rather than lying on the ground by the net; or he might be one of the 50 million Americans who read the astrological charts to determine how the alignment of the sun, moon, and stars will affect their day. According to Parshall, 70 percent of all Islamic people are Folk Muslims and only 30 percent orthodox (1983, 16). Animism and Islam are frequently "strangely mingled" with "theism and paganism" existing "side by side. The prayer is made to the Almighty, the chapters read are from the Qur'an, but the whole character of the rite is pagan" (Zwemer 1920, 206). "Islam and Animism live, in very neighborly fashion, on the same street and in the same mind" (1920, 207).
Similar statements could be made about Catholicism, Buddhism, and Hinduism. Catholics reverently worship God yet venerate saints and believe in the power of relics to heal. They frequently syncretize the Christian and the animistic. Dan Coker speaks of an overt encounter with a wealthy, educated Brazilian who said, "My religion is Catholicism but my philosophy of life is Spiritism" (1990). The Buddhist of Burma believes that desires of the human body must be subdued in order for him to enter nirvana, while manipulating numerous spirits, called nats, consumes his energies (Nida and Smalley 1959, 7-8). The typical Hindu believes in the high religious concepts of karma, reincarnation, and samsara yet believes that rakasas ("evil spirits") and ancestors imminently impact life and, therefore, must be manipulated and controlled.
Thus many participants of world religions hold to high religious concepts yet continue to act and think animistically. Hindus, who presume that human destiny is determined by karma, also believe in the powerful alignment of buildings. A "wall casts a `look' up to 30 feet away and can crack adjacent walls if it looks at them at a weak point" (Hiebert 1978). Chinese, who conceive of the world as an interplay between the forces of yin and yang, also use divination to determine why a family member has become gravely ill. A Muslim, even though he prays to Allah five times a day bowing toward Mecca, might also be a sorcerer who derives power from possessing the names of five evil spirits written in Arabic script on individual papers (Entz 1986, 46).
Animism thus is a system of beliefs prevalent to some extent in all world cultures. Frequently high religious perspectives and Animism coexist in the same heart. Animists might even "worship the Lord but also serve their own gods" (2 Kgs. 17:33)!
Historically the great growth of the Christian movement has been at the expense of animistic religions. John Stott writes,
For example, when Adoniram Judson died after 37 years of labor in Burma, he left only 100 converts from Buddhism but 7,000 converts from the animistic Karens (Stott and Coote 1980, viii).
Most early converts into the Christian church in Gentile contexts were also animistic. Michael Green asks what attracted the ordinary Gentiles to Christianity in the early church and concludes that "perhaps the greatest single factor which appealed to the man in the street was deliverance from demons, from Fate, from magic" (1970, 123). He gives many examples from the early Christian church. Tatian spoke of his "rescue . . . from a multiplicity of rulers and 10,000 tyrants" (Address to the Greeks 29). Justin said, "We who formerly used magic arts, dedicate ourselves to the good and unbegotten God, . . ." (First Apology 14). He knew of "wicked and deceitful spirits . . . which are hostile to God and whom we of old time served" (Dialogue 30). The belief that arrangement of the stars governs events on the earth "accounts for the courageous resignation of the Stoics," but "Jesus was preached as Lord, Master of the scroll of destiny, the one who breaks the dominance of the astral powers on man" (Green 1970, 124). Ignatius records how "all magic was dissolved and every band of wickedness vanished away, ignorance was removed and the old kingdom was destroyed" (Ephesians 19). Belief in magic was so prevalent in Irenaeus' day that he was forced to contrast Christian miracles to magic (Against Heresies 2.32.3). These early Christians, like the Thessalonians, "turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God" (1 Thess. 1:9).
Much of Northern Europe was also animistic before Christian evangelists proclaimed the Way to deliver the inhabitants "from the domain of darkness." Northern Europeans were involved in spirit worship and magic when Boniface first went to Germany. He bravely confronted animistic practices by cutting down the sacred oak of the Thundergod and, by doing so, demonstrated the power of God over both the taboo of the tree as well as the spirit which stood behind the tree (Tucker 1983, 47). The Irish in Patrick's day "worshiped the sun, moon, wind, water, fire, and rocks, and believed in good and evil spirits of all kinds inhabiting the trees and hills" (Tucker 1983, 39). Although Patrick experienced opposition from the Druids, who upheld the Irish folk religious system, he accepted the Druid social order and proved "himself a mightier druid than the pagan druids." He planted two hundred churches and baptized an estimated 100,000 converts. Most likely a residue of animistic belief "continued for centuries in Celtic Christianity" (Tucker 1983, 39-40) because of Patrick's mixing of the Christian and the animistic. Thus European Christians can look back in history to their animistic heritage.
For a variety of reasons animists remain the most reachable of all the peoples of the world. First, animistic peoples live with an all-pervasive fear of ancestors, spirits, magic, and witchcraft. However, the Christian message provides an ideology in which "perfect love drives out fear" (1 John 4:18). Christ has triumphed over the principalities and powers which undergird animistic systems and put them to open shame (Col. 2:15). Second, while animists fear disharmony, which tears society apart, the Christian message shows how people can truly live in harmony with both God and man. This harmony is not based on humans manipulating the divine; rather, the Christian learns to place his life dependently in the hands of the sovereign God, who is worshipped as Lord of lords and King of kings. Third, tribal animists have been especially receptive because their worldviews are inadequate to explain technologies which seek to control nature. Tribal animists, who believe that trees and rocks contain powerful nature spirits, are shocked when bulldozers and tractors destroy sacred trees and push aside rocks while constructing a new road. Christianity, however, presents God as the creator of all things, who has put humans in charge of his creation (Gen. 1:26). Fourth, the animistic system is typically amoral. The spirits and forces appeased and propitiated in Animism are morally ambivalent. However, moral and righteous Creator God calls the animist into relationship with him. In these ways the Christian system is appealing to the animist.
Because of the receptivity of animistic people, who comprise at least 40 percent of the world's population, the church of Christ needs effective evangelists trained to communicate the Gospel in ways that the animist will understand.
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