What is Animism?

Posted: April 12, 2013 in Animism, Ethnography, Missions
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As a follow-up to the ethnographic study of Poland, I wanted to do some more thinking and writing about animism, specifically possible occurrences of animism in the Bible, and likely occurrences in Christianity.

In order to understand when and how animism occurs in the Bible and Christianity, we need to first define animism, and list some of its practices and beliefs. Usually, animism and Biblical Christianity are seen as being incompatible,[1] so if animism is present, it is more likely to be present in pieces, rather than as a whole.

Philip Steyne, in his book Gods of Power, describes animism on pages 34-40. “Animists believe that an impersonal power is present in all objects. This power may be called mana, or life-force, or force-vital, or life essence or dynamism. . . The person in possession of this force may use it as he sees fit, but always stands the chance of losing it.”[2] In addition to this force that is present in all objects, animists believe that spirits inhabit certain objects, places and people, and these spirits may be manipulated for one’s own benefit. [3]

Animism believes in a supreme god, who is not intimately involved with man or the world. Man looks to lesser beings for power, and lives in a world that is completely spiritual.  Two kinds of spirits are frequently venerated – ancestors and nature spirits.[4] He will look to keep these lesser powers in harmony. In fact, this may be seen as a triangle, with the supreme being (sometimes called a sky god), above ancestors and nature spirits, with humans in the middle, trying to placate all three.[5] He also focuses his attention on sources of power, especially in sacred objects.[6] Everything is connected, “through the will and power contained in both animate and inanimate objects.”[7] All of life’s questions have a spiritual answer. There is a “mysterious spiritual energy in all things. People who recognize this organize their entire lives around relating to that energy.”[8]

Power is needed to make rain, give good crops, secure employment, heal diseases, guarantee fertility, or pass school exams. Protection is needed from disease, evil spirits . . . catastrophes . . ., failure, sorcery, and witchcraft. . . Ways to secure power include contacting religious specialists, performing rituals, using medicines, contacting spirit beings or ancestors, worshiping ancestors, using charms and fetishes, participating in ceremonies, observing taboos and going on vision quests.[9]

            This power may be objective, not dependent on the person who possesses the power, or it may be subjectively dependent on the person and his “life force”. Expertise of the power broker is important, as may be his health or virility (life force), or the power objects he possesses.[10] The animist has a religion based on works, and the correct following of rituals and liturgies is paramount. If faith enters, it is “faith in his own ability to make things work in his favor.”[11]

When we look for evidences of animism in the Bible and Christianity, frequently man’s desire for power impels him toward animistic thinking or practices. Although theologically, “the godlike creatures of animism and the creator-God of Christianity have next to nothing in common,”[12] we will see that man tends toward power sources that he can manipulate, rather than toward a God that is the source of all power, free of manipulation and jealous of His own glory, but also infinite in love and grace.

Next up: Animism in the Bible?

[1] G. Ernest Wright, God Who Acts, London: SCM Press, 1973, p. 20

[2] Philip Steyne, Gods of Power, Columbia, SC: Impact International Foundation, 2005, p. 34

[3] Ibid.

[4] Winfried Corduan, Neighboring Faiths, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998, p. 136

[5] Ibid, p. 137

[6] Steyne, p. 36

[7] Ibid., p. 37

[8] Corduan, p. 136

[9] Steyne, p. 38

[10] Ibid., p. 39

[11] Ibid.

[12] D. Story, Defending your faith. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1997, p. 112

  1. […] part 2, we will look at some further examples of animistic practice in the Bible. What is Animism? First part in this […]

  2. […] What is Animism? Animism in the Bible? Part 1 Animism in the Bible? Part 2 […]

  3. […] What is Animism? Animism in the Bible? Part 1 Animism in the Bible? Part 2 Animism in Christianity? Folk Christianity Animism in Christianity? Traditional Christianity […]

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