Ethnographic Study of Poland II: Ontology

Posted: April 5, 2013 in Catholic Church, Ethnography, Europe, Missions, Poland
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Ethnographic Study of Poland I

Ontology is the philosophical study of being – what exists, what does it mean to exist? Our study focused specifically on the existence of God, the spirit world, and life after death. We also asked some questions relating to the influence and authority of the church in the lives of Poles. In the paragraphs below, it would be helpful to remember that the total number of respondents was 11, although not everyone answered every question.

1. God

In 2008, the Polish Center for Public Opinion Research conducted a poll that indicated that 94% of Poles believe in God.[1] Earlier research done by the European Commission in 2005 showed 80% of Poles believe in God, with another 15% believing in some spirit or life force.[2]

Eurobarometer 2005 Belief in God

Eurobarometer 2005 Belief in God

Of the 10 people who responded to our question about God, one didn’t believe in God, and two weren’t sure if he existed. One of the seven who believed in God had nothing to say about his perception of God. However, seven people – including one of the ones who wasn’t sure he existed – had a description of God.

Of those seven, three thought of him as a person (including one of our afore-mentioned agnostics). The other four thought of God as a force, or energy. The personal terms included “Almighty” “merciful”, and “forgiving”. One young man sheepishly referred to God as a “kind old grandpa.” The ones who specifically described God as a force said that He is a powerful, positive energy for good. These respondents indicated that God works in people’s lives, that He gave a feeling of security, that He was the quintessence of knowledge – but yet, they did not see Him as a person.

As an aside, the fact that in English, in this section, I use a male, personal pronoun for God has no connection with how our respondents referred to God. In Polish, the word God is male and personal, but it’s a function of grammar that then requires the pronoun to also be male and personal, in the same way that in Polish “car” is male and requires a male pronoun, and “truck” is female and requires a female pronoun. Although it may be that the majority of Poles think of God as male – without it simply being a function of grammar – our respondents showed a surprisingly high incidence of thinking of God as non-personal.

2. Death

For many of our respondents, the issue of death seemed to be the one that most engaged an emotional response – and even influenced the rest of the conversation. One person – the atheist from above – said that death was purely biological, and the person ceased to exist. 10 of the respondents were not sure – calling death a big question mark – although they had a few ideas. Two young men said they tried to never think about death. One young man said the Moslem idea of death was better – going to heaven and having 40 virgins. Only one person stated what I would consider a Catholic view of death – that when we die, we go to purgatory, and then on to either heaven or hell. According to him, even an atheist would have a chance in purgatory. The most common idea was that after death, we live on, not as a soul, but as a force, or a ghost, in a different dimension. We remain able to see what happens here, and sometimes to influence it. Not a single respondent thought of life after death as a corporeal existence.

3. The Spirit World

The view of death is intertwined with the view of the spirit world. Three of the male respondents do not believe in ghosts, or in any kind of spirit. They also didn’t see their ancestors as having any influence over them, other than genetic, or perhaps as an example to follow. All of the female respondents, and two of the men, however, do believe in spirits. One person (our faithful Catholic from above) specifically mentioned the “Holy Spirit”, and several believed in good and evil spirits that can possess a person.

I was surprised at the stories that the questions about spirits and our ancestors prompted, however. Several respondents began to share how their dead mother or father had talked to them, intervened in their life, or rescued them from danger. Even one lady who said she didn’t believe in ghosts went on to share two stories of how her mother, after death, had rescued her. Three people used the idea of “guardian angel” and “dead parent” interchangeably.

The question of death, spirits, and ancestors is one that should be explored much further. With the importance of All Saint’s Day in the Polish calendar, and the important Catholic practices of prayers and masses for the dead, it is easy to see how significant this issue is for Poles – and we evangelicals focus our attention on attacking Catholic practice, rather than attempting to understand the functional worldview of those around us, and proclaiming the real hope of eternal life in a New Heaven and New Earth.

4. The Church

The Church was reviled, criticized and kicked to the curb by most respondents. And I emphasize – all of the respondents would consider themselves Catholic. It was not mentioned as a place of spiritual growth, nor were its leaders considered to be authorities – with the glaring exception of John Paul II, who made nearly everyone’s list of authority figures.

Church buildings were sometimes mentioned as sources for spiritual power – because of the opportunity they provided for a person to concentrate, pray, and notice the beauty of the décor. But church services and church leaders were not considered. The Roman Catholic Church as an organization was not described positively and priests were divided into two groups – those who had a real calling, and cared about people; and those who didn’t. Our faithful Catholic from above said the Church has authority in spiritual matters, but then said, “The Church has authority on Sunday. Only.”

As an observer, I would say that Poland is in a time of upheaval concerning the influence of the Roman Catholic Church in society. There is a media and popular backlash right now against church personalities and positions. This probably partially explains some of our respondents’ negativity. However, some of the issues are deep-seated and enduring. It is likely that the Church’s position will continue to weaken.

Comments
  1. […] Part II – Ontology: God, Death, the Spirit World and the Church […]

  2. […] up: Freedom in Christ from the burden of manipulating God. Ethnographic Study of Poland I Ethnographic Study of Poland II: Ontology Ethnographic Study of Poland III: Axiology and […]

  3. […] to the ethnographic report, and include the questions we used. Ethnographic Study of Poland I Ethnographic Study of Poland II: Ontology Ethnographic Study of Poland III: Axiology and Epistemology Ethnographic Study of Poland IV: […]

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