Animism in Christianity? Part 2: Traditional Christianity

Posted: April 18, 2013 in Animism, Catholic Church, Missions
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Although animism is certainly present in folk forms of Christianity, where many people still have not brought the old forms and beliefs under the lordship of Christ, some of that syncretism occurred long ago in the traditional Churches, as well. In The Idea of Nature, R. G. Collingwood says that “the ancient Greek philosophers essentially secularized pagan animism. They turned it into the principle that the world of nature is saturated or permeated by mind. . . the world of nature is not only alive but intelligent; not only a vast animal with a ‘soul’ or life of its own, but a rational animal with a ‘mind’ of its own. Individual plants and animals, represented “a localization of this all-pervading vitality and rationality.”[1] Perhaps this thinking helps explain why Francis of Assisi preached the gospel to the birds. “His view of nature and of man rested on a unique sort of pan-psychism of all things animate and inanimate … he tried to substitute the idea of the equality of all creatures, including man.”[2] A similar idea that all nature is one entity, including man, is reiterated by Catholic authors Lewis Thomas in The Medusa and The Snail and Annie Dillard. Thomas and Dillard share “a sense that we human beings cannot divorce our lives and fates from the incredibly energetic, profuse and beautiful nature that has spawned us. Let ‘ecology’ name this sense of the interdependence of all living things, and the old theses about Christ’s pantokratorship become planks for an ecological platform and faith.”[3] The Carmodys, in Contemporary Catholic Theology, identify “ecology” with a cast of mind that “conjures process theology: creation as a living web, an endless reticulation.”[4] They also see a positive role for a militant feminism that follows a religion that is “nature-oriented and life-affirming. It entails a witchcraft, but one that is wholly positive.” According to them, as long as these new witches accept Christ’s solutions to death and sin, their practices are worthwhile and acceptable.[5]

Eastern Orthodoxy also allows for, or even encourages people to pursue that harmony of nature. “God and nature are one in the same thing,” says Dostoyevsky through a character named Mary in The Possessed.[6] Later in the same novel Shatov says “Kiss the earth, drench it with your tears, ask forgiveness.”[7] According S. A. Mousalimas, an Orthodox writer,

“Dostoyevsky’s character’s exhortation corresponds to a folk tradition. A peasant woman makes obeisance to the earth to atone. A moment earlier she made peace with the members of her family, and then with “the fair sun, the clear moon, the numberless stars, the dark nights, the soft showers, the raging wind.”Now, she atones to the earth: Why?—because she must cut the earth with a plow to bring forth food to sustain her life. So, she brings her forehead to the earth; and sighing, she prays:

One further blow, my foster-mother, I wish to touch you with my head,

To beg your blessings, Your blessing and your pardon.

I have torn up your breast Cutting with the iron ploughshare.

Never have I smoothed your face, Never have I combed your locks;

I have bruised you under the harrow With its teeth of rusty iron.

Foster-mother, pardon me, In the name of Christ our Savior,

Of the Holy Mother of God, Of Blaise our intercessor,

 Elias the wise, the prophet, And the knightly George.[8]

Mousalimas attempts to defend these traditional ideas as panentheism  “all-(in)-God”, which is different from pantheism “all-(is)-God.”[9] In this, he sees Christ Pantocrator (Ruler of All). However, one really wonders if the Russian peasant woman makes such a distinction. These practices sound like nature religion, with the names of Christ, Mary and some saints added in for good measure. There seems to be little difference from what Wright calls “natural religion.” “Natural religion in Biblical times analyzed the problem of man over against nature . . . The whole aim of existence was thus to fit into the rhythm and integration of the cosmic society of nature.”[10]

In addition to these animistic ideas about nature that exist within the historical Church, a number of practices have come into existence resembling animistic rituals. Such practices include ritual prayers, such as “Hail Mary” and the Lord’s Prayer, the adoration and use of relics, the use of sacramentals, saints as intercessors and lucky charms, specialists as the only legitimate performers of religious rites, and special formulas as necessary for those rites to be efficacious. Of course, most of these practices have a Christianized basis, and sometimes the practices become animistic in folk understandings, without ever being approved in their animistic forms by church leadership. However, some of these practices are approved and encouraged, even though at best they closely resemble animistic ideas.

Ritual prayers become animistic when they are used as means of getting power or manipulating God or the spirits. So words like “Hail Mary” are seen as having special power,  as is the Lord’s Prayer.

In Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican churches, the use of relics and sacramentals is widespread. Although there are rules governing their usage – in an attempt to redeem the pagan ideas behind some of them – many people do not completely understand the redeemed meaning. Relics are venerated and seen as having special power. These might include body parts of saints, pieces of wood from the “true” cross, vials of Mary’s breast milk, etc.[11] Here in Poland, as of May 2012, at least 100 Catholic churches already possessed a relic from Pope John Paul II – who has not yet been named a saint. These relics include drops of his blood, his staff, and a belt that was bloodied during the attempt on his life in 1981.[12] “Miracles wrought by relics are of daily occurrence in all parts of the world. It is not that people are favourably affected by them through the imagination or feelings, but that the relics themselves are imbued with supernatural power. . . .(This is) the undiluted fetishism of Africa.”[13]

Many sacramentals, such as foot washing or palm branches, probably have a meaning closely tied to the Biblical tradition that prompted them. They are seen as special means of grace, but do not necessarily have special power, especially against evil spirits. Other sacramentals, such as Holy Water and the Crucifix are considered to be effective means to ward off demons.[14] In fact, Fr. Amorth, the “church’s leading exorcist” claims that demons are afraid of the crucifix.[15] The rosary, medals of saints, and scapulars are among the sacramental objects that have special power. The St. Benedict medal especially contains the formula Vade Retro Satana to ward off Satan.

“Scapulars consist of two small pieces of cloth, wood or laminated paper . . . joined by two bands of cloth.”[16] Some are used simply as devotional aids, but most are seen to have special power invested in them. Even though the “theory of sacramentalism rests upon [the idea] that spirits are believed to be embodied in or attached to or conveying influences through material objects, yet the anthropologists involved decided to restrict [fetishism] to the African religious complex. One would have thought that hard logic would have dictated that all religions which uphold the doctrine of sacramentalism be reduced to fetishism![17]

In Poland and many other Catholic countries, the Host is venerated as having special power, and during Corpus Christi, is paraded through the streets in a special house (tabernaculum), so people have opportunity to pray to it, venerate it, and be blessed by it. Echoes of animism may be seen in the Mass itself, and especially in the doctrine that only certain specialists (priests) can perform the Mass.

Were we simply to look at practice, without knowing the title of the religion, I think I would agree with the quotes above from Hodge and Imasogie – this is fetishism. Animistic manipulation of God and the spirits through objects of power.

Next up: animism in evangelical practice? (Trying to insult everyone equally . . .)

What is Animism?

Animism in the Bible? part 1

Animism in the Bible? part 2

Animism in Christianity? Part 1: Folk Christianity

[1] R.G. Collingwood, The Idea of Nature, Oxford University Press, USA, 1960, p. 3-4 quoted in N. Pearcey, & C. B. Thaxton, The Soul of Science: Christian Faith and Natural Philosophy, Turning Point Christian Worldview Series, Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1994, p. 69

[2] Lynn White, Jr. “’The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis,” The Subversive Science: Essays toward an Ecology of Man, ed. P. Shepard and D. McKinley, Boston, 1969, 350-351

[3] John Tully Carmody and Denise Lardner Carmody, Contemporary Catholic Theology, San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1980, p. 53.

[4] Ibid., p. 161.

[5] Ibid., p. 181

[6] Fydor Dostoyevsky, The Possessed, London: Penguin Classics, 1971, p. 154.

[7] Ibid., p. 261

[8] S. A. Mousalimas, “The Divine in Nature: Animism or Panentheism?” Greek Orthodox Theological Review: 35/4, 1990, p. 370-371

[9] Ibid., p. 368

[10] G. Ernest Wright, “The Old Testament and Paganism” International Review of Missions Volume 40, Issue 159, July 1951, p. 269.

[11] John Armstrong, The Catholic Mystery, Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 1999, p. 136.

[12] (relics from John Paul II already in 100 churches)

[13] C. Hodge, Vol. 3: Systematic theology, Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997, p. 462

[15] Ibid.

[16] James O’Toole, Habits of Devotion: Catholic Religious Practice in Twentieth-Century America, Cornell University Press, 2005, p. 98

[17] Osadolor Imasogie, “African Traditional Religion and Christian Faith.” Review and Expositor 70, no. 3 (Summer 1973), p. 285.

  1. […] 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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