Animism in Christianity? Part 1: Folk Christianity

Posted: April 17, 2013 in Animism, Catholic Church, Missions
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Animistic practices and ideas frequently arise in Christianity. Although one would think the two systems are diametrically opposed, man’s desire for power that he himself can manipulate leads him to a number of such practices. Some of these practices are considered to be marginally Christian, yet many have gained widespread acceptance in historical “mainstream” Christianity, and in contemporary evangelical praxis.

“Folk” Christianity frequently combines Christianity with animistic or polytheistic practices. Sometimes, these practices take on new meaning, and one could argue that they become “redeemed.” The Roman Catholic Church has been especially effective at accommodating existing religious practices in its missionary endeavors. Around A.D. 600, Pope Gregory I writes that missionaries in England should use pagan temples and sacrificial rituals to “not deprive them of all exterior joys.” (Gregory I, Letter to Abbott Mellitus).  Pope Pius XII restated the Church’s dedication to the principles of accommodation in 1951. . Pope Paul VI expressed his support of accepting what is good in the non-Christian religions and cultures. Vatican II regarded with reverence those teachings in other religions that reflect a ray of truth.[1] In fact, based on the Church history of accommodation, Bernard Hwang argues for a further accommodation of ancestor cults in Asia, especially China and Taiwan.[2] In his master’s thesis, “The Ancestors’ Rites in the Taiwanese Catholic Church,” Marco Lazzarotti shows that this accommodation has been quite significant already.[3]

Pope John Paul II saw ancestor cult as a significant point of contact, as well. He writes in Crossing the Threshold of Hope that “it would be helpful to recall all the primitive religions, the animistic religions which stress ancestor worship. It seems that those who practice them are particularly close to Christianity.”[4] Roman Catholic accommodation is evident in the Philippines, where although Catholicism is the common religion, the shaman or babaylan is sought for help understanding the gods, spirits and ancestors. Amulets, charms, medals and scapularies all have power to ward off evil spirits and gain blessing.[5] Not only has ancestor cult been accommodated, but fetishes, shamans, and spirit manipulation as well.

The Roman Catholic Church has not been alone in syncretizing animism with Christianity, however. Evangelical folk Christianity in Bolivia and Peru results in church members going to see diviners, and commonly participating in the “guinea pig” test, where a sickness is identified and removed when a shaman uses a guinea pig in a magic by transference ritual.[6]

The ancestor cult is alive and well in many evangelical circles in Asia. Evangelical leaders attempt to combat the ancestor cult, but it remains a common part of the life of many believers. Other syncretistic elements also arise from evangelicals. Julie C. Ma, in her article on “Santuala: a Case of Pentecostal Syncretism,” comments about all Christian groups in the Philippines “that many Christians maintain a dual allegiance, practically worshipping two different (groups of) deities.”[7] She goes on to describe the Santuala movement, a quasi-Christian group that combines Pentecostal and animist practices.

The Ghost Dance was an American example that combined Native American shamanist ideas with some Christian thoughts. Wovoka was to be the Messiah, who would redeem the “red” people, and destroy white people. Until then, followers were to live peaceful moral lives, but also work to bring back their ancestors through 5-day long dances.[8] Corduan also refers to the Native American Church as an example of animistic/Christian syncretism.[9]

This author lives in Poland, a country that claims to be 95% Roman Catholic. Our city of Lublin is known for the Catholic University, and an exceptionally conservative form of Catholicism. However, when I injured my knee, dozens of people – both Catholic and evangelical – told me I should go visit “Serwinka,” a lay healer whose methods include practices that look animistic. However, they claim, she is effective. It works.

Animism in the Bible? Part 2

[1] Bernard Hwang, “Ancestor Cult Today”. Missiobgy, An International Review, Vol. V, No. 3, July 1977, p. 363

[2] Ibid., p. 355

[3]Marco Lazzarotti, “The Ancestors’ Rites In the Taiwanese Catholic Church”, Master’s Thesis, July 2008, National Taiwan University

[4] John Paul II, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1994, p. 47

[5] Philip Steyne, Gods of Power, Columbia, SC: Impact International Foundation, 2005, p. 47

[6] Ibid., p. 131

[7] Julie C. Ma, “Santuala: a Case of Pentecostal Syncretism”, Asian Journal of Pentecostal Studies, 3/1 2000, p. 61

[8] Winfried Corduan, Neighboring Faiths, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998, p. 182-183.

[9] Ibid., p. 183-184

  1. […] Animism in Christianity? Part 1: Folk Christianity […]

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