Posts Tagged ‘Animism’

Traditional churches are not alone in their use of ritual words for power. The word “Jesus”, or “in Jesus’ name” is also seen this way by many evangelical Christians. Most Christians probably assume that “in Jesus’ name” is a necessary formula for an exorcism; however, Acts 19:13-16 shows that it certainly isn’t some magical spell. The seven sons of Sceva tried to use the name of Jesus as an abracadabra, and paid dearly. Many evangelical Christians still see the King James English has having special efficacy. Is this any different from the Muslims who believe that Arabic is the only valid language for the Koran?[1]

Many Pentecostal practices at least look animistic on the outside, especially those that search for some kind of special power, granted through ritual, word, or specialist. Even back in the New Testament, the Corinthian charismatics “were always out for evidence. That is why tongues and healings and miracles were so highly esteemed among them. . . They were always out for power; they were elated by spiritual power and were always seeking short cuts to power.”[2]

“A number of Christo-pagan cults think of the Holy Spirit in terms of life force. As such, during religious rituals one may even snort in the Spirit, or while speaking, use short staccato-like gasps to inhale the Holy Spirit. . . Some followers of Pentecostal denominations demonstrate the same practices, which apparently bring power to religious exercises like worship and preaching. The Holy Spirit is here thought of as less of a person than an influence. When thought of in this way, the Holy Spirit is a power source to be tapped.[3]

      Faith is sometimes seen as a magical force, as well. More of it can produce better results and more efficacious healing. Pentecostals also tend to give more credence to specially anointed specialists, sometimes seeming to believe that the person possesses a unique power. Evangelicals of all stripes commonly use Bible verses as a means of making God do what He already promised He would do, in essence attempting to manipulate Him for our own agenda. Even the Bible gets treated as an object of power, as if it had magical properties invested in its paper and leather. Members of our Polish evangelical church have commented that we shouldn’t put our Bible on the floor – not just out of respect for God’s Word, but because it will bring bad luck.

So, how can animism be avoided, when we continually look for shortcuts to power? Philip Steyne devotes two chapters to this question in his book Gods of Power. Julie Ma also addressed this question when she wrote about the Santuala movement in the Philippines. According to Steyne, it is vital to understand, value, and interpret the Bible correctly. It is our guide, and correct application of its truth, especially as God related to Israel, helps us understand God’s relation to pagan animistic ideas. It must be well-understood and affirmed that God is wholly other. He is not part of nature, He does not need intermediaries, and He cannot be manipulated by ritual and sacrifice.[4] Dr. Ma also emphasizes Biblical guidance, but in a special appeal to her Pentecostal colleagues, to not focus just on miracles. She says that Santuala focused on blessings and healings, and lost the understanding that God’s blessing is freely given because of His relationship with His children. Instead, they retained the idea that a sacrificial offering was necessary to obtain God’s blessing. She also identified a lack of adequate teaching and no stable leadership as reasons the Santuala movement syncretized traditional religion with Christianity.[5]

As Christians, we need to remember that we don’t need shortcuts. God cannot be manipulated – and He doesn’t need to be. He is wholly separate from nature, but yet is present everywhere. We don’t need special rituals, words, or objects. Full of grace, He extends blessing and relationship to us, on the basis of His Son. Specialists – like priests and pastors – aren’t anointed conduits to God. They serve to encourage, exhort, rebuke, and explain the Word – but they aren’t irreplaceable, and they aren’t mediators.

Further Reading:
 Gods of Power, by Philip Steyne, 2005. Columbia, SC: Impact International Foundation.

Christianity and Animism in Taiwan, by Alan F. Gates.1979. San Francisco, Calif.: Chinese Materials Center.

Spirit of the Rainforest, by Mark Andrew Ritchie. 2000. Island Lake Press.

Visionary Vine, by Marlene Dobkin de Rios. 1972. Chandler Publishing Company.

What is Animism?

Animism in Christianity? Traditional Christianity

[1] Philip Steyne, Gods of Power, Columbia, SC: Impact International Foundation, 2005, p. 102.

[2] Michael Green, I Believe in the Holy Spirit, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975, p. 208-209.

[3] Steyne, p. 92.

[4] Ibid., p. 169-181

[5] Julie C. Ma, “Santuala: a Case of Pentecostal Syncretism”, Asian Journal of Pentecostal Studies, 3/1 2000, p. 77-79.

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.

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

What is Animism?

Animism in the Bible? Part 1 of 2

There are a number of examples of animistic practice in the Old Testament, some of which are condemned. Philip Steyne refers to the idea of words having power in the stories of Balaam’s curse in Numbers 22-24 and the centurion who told Jesus to “just speak the word and my servant will be healed” in Matthew 8:8.[1] Isaiah condemns Israel’s practices of magic and witchcraft in Isaiah 47:9-15. The Israelites kept the bronze serpent on a pole from Numbers 21:1 and by the time Hezekiah cleaned out the temple in 2 Kings 18:4, it had become an object of worship, and the Jews burned incense to it. For many, the phylacteries from the Talmud, mentioned in Matthew 23:5, have become a ritual object of power that keep men from impure thoughts and give efficacy to their prayers ( – especially the blessings).

Two examples that look like animistic practices but aren’t necessarily are found in 1 Kings 5:10, when Naaman is told to dip in the Jordan seven times, and in Acts 19:12-16, when the handkerchiefs that Paul had touched are used to heal sick people. Animists would see Naaman’s ritual of cleansing as homeopathic magic that removed sickness, and Paul’s hankies as objects of power that removed magic by contagion.[2] The second example evokes images of modern television faith healers.

David seems to also view the ark of the covenant as an object of power, when he has it returned to Jerusalem in 1 Chronicles 13. The entire story surrounding the ark, which defeats and embarrasses Dagon, god of the Philistines, and brings blessing to the town of Kiriath-Jearim is one that is difficult to understand, without falling into our own animistic ideas of objects of power. An animist would also interpret the death of Uzziah, when he touched the ark on its way to Jerusalem, through the lenses of taboo, meaning that the object itself was untouchable.[3] Of course, the ark must have been touched multiple times both before and after – and not necessarily by ritually clean or chosen individuals. Uzziah was not killed because he broke taboo, but because he knowingly broke God’s rules, and usurped God’s place.

Simon the Sorcerer, in Acts 8, saw the Holy Spirit as a new source of power, and the laying on of hands as the ritual that conveyed that power. He was functioning logically from his own worldview, but when Peter corrects him harshly, he seems to realize his error, although he still looks to Peter as the “prayer specialist” or power broker. Again, reflection of Simon’s thinking can be seen in some branches of modern Christianity, where certain individuals are considered to have a “special anointing” that allows them to pray more efficaciously or dispense healing.

Finally, Numbers 5:11-33 shows an interesting ritual for discovering infidelity. A woman suspected of infidelity was given water mixed with dirt from the temple floor. If she was guilty, the water would cause great suffering, including making her infertile. If she was innocent, she would be fine. Philip Steyne compares this to animistic rituals, and indicates that a true animist would have no problem accepting such a ritual, although he would interpret the reasoning behind the ritual from a completely different perspective.[4] The Law, with its foundational rituals, could have been attractive for an animist. However, “while the Lord ordained the use of ritual in worship, He abhorred ritual that aimed at divine manipulation. The only actions that pleased God were those that arose from the heart (Hos 6:4–6), and true worship was to be accompanied by joy in the Lord (Dt 12:12, 18).[5]

Although there certainly are animistic practices in the Old Testament, most are condemned by God. The way some practices are understood to a great degree depends on the religio-philosophical lens used to interpret them. An animist understandingly sees an echo of the rituals he knows so well. Modern liberal scholars see the Hebrew religion as an amalgam of other pre-existing religious ideas – including animism. However, in the Old Testament, God consistently transcends nature. And “it is increasingly understood to-day that the former identifications in early Israel of a Mountain-God, a Fertility-God and a War-God, from which the ‘ethical monotheism’ of the prophets gradually evolved, are figments of scholarly presupposition and imagination.”[6] In other words, God Jahwe was wholly other from the very beginning and remains so today.

Next: Animism in Christianity

[1] Philip Steyne, Gods of Power, Columbia, SC: Impact International Foundation, 2005, p. 101.

[2] Ibid., p. 111-112

[3] Winfried Corduan, Neighboring Faiths, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998, p. 139.

[4] Steyne, p. 133

[5] T. Cabal, C. O.  Brand, E. R. Clendenen, P. Copan, J. Moreland, & D. Powell, The Apologetics Study Bible: Real Questions, Straight Answers, Stronger Faith, Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2007, p. 126

[6] G. Ernest Wright, “The Old Testament and Paganism” International Review of Missions Volume 40, Issue 159,  July 1951, p. 270.

In a follow-up to the ethnographic study of Poland, where some animistic ideas were revealed, I wanted to look at animism in the Bible and Christianity.

Animistic practices occur frequently in the Bible. Some have seen a latent animism in Judaism and Christianity; however, “in Biblical teaching, nature is good, but it is not a god. It is merely a creature. The Bible stands firmly against any deification of the creation. The Biblical doctrine of creation rules out all this.”[1]

Andrew, a poster from Project Reason ( would argue that we can see animism promoted in the Bible in such passages as Genesis 12:6-8, where we find Abram traveling to Shechem to visit the “oak (or evergreen) of Mamre,” supposedly a tree already ancient and revered by the time that Abram arrived.

It was on this spot that Yahweh appeared to Abram, in consequence of which he built an altar. The connection between a specific and well-known sacred tree, and the appearance of Yahweh, can’t be missed. . . The same must be said about the terebinth (evergreen) of Mamre . . . in Hebron—where Yahweh again appeared to (newly renamed) Abraham, who built another altar (Exodus 13:18 and 18:1). . . In Genesis 35:4, Jacob buries the “strange gods” he has rejected in order to worship Yahweh under the tree in Shechem, mentioned above…thus assuring that the “strange gods”, now watched over by a more powerful deity, couldn’t harm him. . . In Judges 9:6, the Shechem tree is again mentioned as the location of Abimelech’s coronation—-presumably to have divine witness to the event. (

            Although the tree in Shechem (Mamre) may certainly have been worshipped by those who came before Abraham, there is no indication of God promoting a worship of the tree. And Andrew’s assumption that Jacob buried his idols below the tree because Yahweh, “the tree god,” was stronger, is reading something totally foreign back into the text. The burning bush from Exodus 3:2-5 and Deuteronomy 33:16 are mentioned as referring to an animistic fact that God dwelt in a bush. 2 Samuel 5:23-24 is also interpreted as God indwelling the trees as a sign for David to attack the Philistines. In both cases – if we understand God to have “indwelt” these inanimate objects, and not simply speaking poetically about making them burn or rustle – God’s indwelling is temporary, and neither the bush nor the trees are meant to be objects of worship or special power. God is the source of the power that temporarily “animates” the bush and the trees. “God does not inhabit the world the way a dryad inhabits a tree; He is not the personalization of natural forces. He is not the world’s “soul”; He is its Creator”[2]

Animism is probably seen in the story of the stone that Jacob slept on when he dreamed about a ladder leading to heaven in Genesis 28:11-22. Andrew claims that Jacob believed a spirit in the stone was the source of his dream, and thus he made a pillar out of the stone, anointed it with oil, and named it Beth-el (House of God). Although Andrew is repeating the debunked “Documentary Hypothesis” of comparative religion, “this stone was actually a cult object, somewhat like the sacred Black Stone of the Kaabah in Mecca. Stone worship must also lie behind the account of the cairn erected by Jacob and Laban in Gilead (Gen. 31:47).”[3]  Even the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church sees this as an echo of animism.[4] Although Jacob’s understanding and practice may have been flawed, he still saw God as the source of the dream, and God as the object of worship – a God who was not confined to the stone.

Some also see the “cloud by day, pillar of fire by night” as an evidence of an animistic God. Again, though, when God refers to Himself, He is not confined to a tree, stone, cloud or pillar, although He may temporarily animate them. Of course, many “lesser deities” are referred to, including Baal, Ashtarte, Moloch, Dagon and other gods. These are invariably mentioned as false gods, and their worship is condemned. One exception is a short, vague reference to Lilith in Isaiah 34:15. She was “a female goddess known as a night demon who haunts the desolate places of Edom.”[5] However, there is uncertainty as to the meaning of Lilith (could be some kind of an owl – which may also then have animistic ideas), and Isaiah could be using Edomite ideas to emphasize his message.

In part 2, we will look at some further examples of animistic practice in the Bible.
What is Animism? First part in this series

[1] 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. 23.

[2] Ibid., p. 24

[3] G. Archer, Jr. A survey of Old Testament introduction (3rd. ed.), Chicago: Moody Press, 1994, p. 151.

[4] F. L. Cross & E. A. Livingstone, The Oxford dictionary of the Christian Church (3rd ed. rev.),  Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005, p. 71

[5] W. C. Kaiser, in R. L. Harris, G. L. Archer, Jr. & B. K. Waltke (Eds.), Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, Chicago: Moody Press, 1999, p. 479.

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

A Polish worldview is also strongly reliant on manipulation. The animistic elements we saw in our study contribute to this, as does as the common understanding of Roman Catholicism. The idea that we must be good enough to get to Heaven creates guilt, feelings of inadequacy, and a loss of hope. However, if we aren’t good enough, we can always rely on going to church, buying masses or indulgences, or – and here is the only hope for the mortal sinner who lacks in material wealth – suffer through purgatory long enough to make it to heaven. In any case, the system – even God’s system – can be manipulated. In fact, many Poles highly value something they call “kombinowanie”, which is loosely translated as “working the system.”

Animism covered with a 1000-year old veneer of Catholicism has also produced a strong legalism. On the one hand, this has probably been the most significant reason why divorce, homosexuality and abortion are still rare. The shame connected to all of the above practices keeps them in check. On the other hand, Poles don’t usually consider God or Church as contributing to their happiness.[1]

Manipulation and legalism remain prevalent in the evangelical church, as well. We who proclaim a Christ who died once and for all, who proclaim a salvation sola gratia still think we can work the system, and add our own rules to God’s unmerited favor. In addition, working the system is still praised by many evangelical leaders – even now that the political system is no longer blatantly anti-God. We wallow in a slough of legalism, but continue to use the only methods we know – working the system – to try to clamber out. And we can’t make it.


Galatians 5:1-15; with a glance toward the Prodigal Son, Luke 15:11-32

Paul addresses our problem in Galatians 5, and points us toward freedom in Christ. Manipulative false teachers had preached the necessity of following the law, in addition to belief in the Christ. The practice of circumcision is used by Paul as an example, “but for a Gentile Christian to accept circumcision by choice, as a matter of religious duty, implied the acceptance of the whole way of life to which circumcision was the initiatory rite.”[2] And Paul says that “for the Galatians to submit to circumcision as a legal obligation would be an acknowledgement that law-keeping (in this particular form) was necessary for the achievement of a righteous status in God’s sight. Such an acknowledgement would be to nullify the grace of God”.[3]

Instead of a voluntary return to the slavery of the law, Paul points us toward freedom in Christ. “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery”[4] “The juxtaposition of an indicative followed by an imperative is a common grammatical feature in Paul’s writings . . .The imperative, ‘Stand firm,’ not only does not contradict the indicative, ‘Christ has set us free,’ but in fact results from it. Because of who God is and what he has done for believers in Jesus Christ, Christians are commanded to ‘become what they are.’”.[5]

We are free – at the moment of salvation, Christ set us free. Free from the bondage of sin, but also free from the bondage of law. However, by returning to the slough of Law, we deny the power of grace. Chrystostom put it this way: “He that is circumcised is circumcised for fear of the Law, and he who fears the Law, distrusts the power of grace, and he who distrusts can receive no benefit from that which is distrusted. Or again thus, he that is circumcised makes the Law of force; but thus considering it to be of force and yet transgressing it in the greater part while keeping it in the lesser, he puts himself again under the curse. But how can he be saved who submits himself to the curse, and repels the liberty which is of Faith?”[6]

Our identity, according to Paul, is that of sinners set free. In verses 2-4 Paul describes the potential results when we voluntarily choose a different identity. We are in danger of “falling from grace” and being “severed from Christ.” Why? Because when we choose law and legalism, a manipulation of the system, we choose our own ability to keep the rules (or at least work the system) instead of a total reliance on the Christ who died for us. Christ is really of “no advantage to us,” because we don’t need Him!

In the story of the unProdigal Son, shown in Luke 15:11-32, Jesus describes a similar attitude in the elder son. Tim Keller, in his book The Prodigal God, describes the attitude in this way: “You can avoid Jesus as Savior by keeping all the moral laws. If you do that, then you have ‘rights.’ God owes you answered prayers, and a good life, and a ticket to heaven when you die. You don’t need a Savior who pardons you by free grace, for you are your own Savior.”[7]

Paul says that only faith working through love really matters (v. 6). Of course, he reminds us that freedom is not to be used as “an opportunity for the flesh” but is to be used to serve one another (v. 13). In fact, he summarizes the law – and our responsibility to it – with Jesus summation of the law: You shall love your neighbor as yourself (v. 14, cf. Lev. 19:18 and Mark 12:31). Paul seems so frustrated by the manipulative false teachers that he wishes they would take their circumcision knives to themselves – and slip – cutting off not just the foreskin, but the entire organ. (v. 12)

The key issue is an issue of identity. And this is where we can address the issue of legalism and manipulation for Polish believers. We are sinners, saved by grace, through faith – not through our own works (Ef. 2:8,9). We start from faith – we don’t work toward it. “Using the devices of condition-result and contrast, Paul succeeds in asking and answering a key question: What could circumcision, and the opposing identity it represents, possibly add to the freedom already possessed by the Galatian believers? Paul’s answer: Absolutely Nothing!”[8]

So, instead of a Christ-denying legalism, whether based on our evangelical rules or Catholic sacraments, we proclaim a freedom in Christ, based on His death and God’s grace. It’s not a cheap grace – it cost Him everything – nor is it an excuse for unholy living. Actually, it’s the foundation for love and good works. But, in proclaiming our true identity in Christ, we emasculate legalism and remove the need to manipulate God with our rituals, rules and relics.

In the final post, I’ll give a short conclusion to the ethnographic report, and include the questions we used.
Ethnographic Study of Poland IV: Postmodern Animism

[1] 15% of the respondents listed “God, Providence” as an important contributor to their happiness

[2] Bruce, F. F. (1982). The Epistle to the Galatians : A commentary on the Greek text (229). Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co.

[3] Bruce, F. F. (1982). The Epistle to the Galatians : A commentary on the Greek text (229). Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co.

[4] The Holy Bible: English standard version. 2001 (Ga 5:1). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

[5] George, T. (2001). Vol. 30: Galatians (electronic ed.). Logos Library System; The New American Commentary (352–353). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

[6] Schaff, P. (1997). The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Vol. XIII (36). Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems.

[7] Keller, Timothy. (2008) The Prodigal God (37-38). New York: Penguin Books Ltd.

[8] Duvall, J Scott. “Identity-Performance-Result” : Tracing Paul’s Argument In Galatians 5 And 6.” Southwestern Journal Of Theology 37.1 (1994): 32. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials. Web. 2 Nov. 2011.

Poland is undeniably Roman Catholic, statistically and culturally. In light of its Catholicism, the following instruction from a Lausanne paper still rings true: “Formulation of effective strategies for reaching nominal Christians among Roman Catholics involves at least five basic components: correct attitudes, correct doctrine, consistent lifestyles, community and interaction, and practical application and solutions.”[1]

However, the ethnographic survey we did showed me, in part, how superficial that same Catholicism is in the lives of many Poles. Most of the people in our survey cling to beliefs that seemed animistic – regarding the spirit world, ancestors, places of spiritual energy, and ways to achieve spiritual success – not to mention the magic spiritual qualities attached to relics, crucifixes and pictures of Mary. In addition, all of the people in our survey were postmoderns – with the possible exception of our oldest male. The relativity of truth, the reliance on feelings for direction, and the subjective nature of what it meant to be “good” all portrayed a postmodern worldview. And I was surprised! Twelve years as a participant observer, and I still thought Catholic influence had kept Poland more modern than postmodern.

So, although the Lausanne paper mentioned above is still appropriate – it’s general enough to apply to postmoderns as well as Catholics – I think some adjustments need to be made in my own apologetic approach. A consistent lifestyle, community and interaction – from the above strategy – should be top priorities. A defense of absolute truth remains necessary – but it will be ignored if not accompanied by relationship and a consistent lifestyle. Some of our respondents mentioned they listen to people who demonstrate compassion and sacrifice on behalf of others. People like Mother Theresa. Jesus asks the same of us. When we love and live for others, we will gain a hearing.

We also need to rely more on the power of God and prayer. Animism is a utilitarian view of God, dependent on objects and rituals to manipulate the spirit world. In addition, we need to be careful not to fall into an evangelical animism that simply replaces one ritual for another. Thankfully, we have immediate access through prayer and a relationship with the Creator of the Universe to unlimited power that can radically transform lives. The Shrine of the Black Madonna in Częstochowa will not save Poland, nor will the many new relics from John Paul II. The Jewish Messiah, despised and rejected, crucified for our sins – once and for all – can save Poles.

Next up: Freedom in Christ from the burden of manipulating God.

[1] LOP 10: Christian Witness to Nominal Christians Among Roman Catholics, Thailand 1980

Ethnographic Study of Poland I

Ethnographic Study of Poland II: Ontology

In the next section of the ethnographic study I did in Poland, with the help of one of my teammates, we look at axiology (the study of values) and epistemology (the study of knowledge, especially how knowledge is acquired). Again, there were 11 respondents in total, and we went through an hour-long interview with each, based on selected questions used in HRAF (human relations area files) from Yale University (subscription needed)


1. Ethics

We didn’t ask any questions that related specifically to ethics, but two questions prompted ethics answers. “How does a person gain spiritual power?” and “How would you define spiritual success?” elicited responses that included following rules, especially the Golden Rule, and an inner peace based on knowing you are doing right.

In addition, the question about discerning God’s will usually brought a response connected with doing good. Although 3 people equated God’s will with fate, 2 people said that we could discover God’s will by following the 10 commandments. 1 person said we could discover God’s will by doing what we thought was good – but said that it had nothing to do with what God says. In the section on epistemology, we will see that most people had a relative view of good and evil, right and wrong, based on how they felt. This view showed up in this question as well, with the idea that discerning God’s will, through being good, was more something that was felt internally than an external set of rules.

2. Exceptions

We asked if rules apply equally to all persons, and most respondents said yes, they do. However, most respondents also indicated that in reality, some people got better treatment than others. Different reasons were cited, including “friends in high places,” possessing more money, or political clout. One person said, “those who make the rules think they are above the rules.” Another described the reality as a “hierarchy” in government and business that allowed for more privileges.


The majority of the questions focused on Polish epistemology. This was the worldview component that I most wanted to study, and the one that seems to be least addressed by other sociological research. I will only cover two areas, but I want to continue to explore Polish epistemology even after this project is complete.

1. Authority

Pope John Paul II: Poland's primary authority

Pope John Paul II: Poland’s primary authority

I mentioned in part 2, Ontology, that the Church was not really seen as an authority any longer, but John Paul II still was. Other persons mentioned included Mother Theresa and the Dalai Lama. Most commonly, however, people mentioned a parent – especially their mother. Two young men mentioned their father as an authority for them, and two people said that anyone who cared about people and invested themselves in serving other would be an authority for them. Two men also mentioned that anyone who had knowledge and experience in a given area would be considered an authority.

Our sample was small, but the men tended to identify authority with knowledge and competence, while the women looked at relationship, and the aforementioned investing in others. This trend also carried through in the component of truth determination.

2. Truth

We asked the question, “how do you determine whether something is true or not?” The most common answer was: “intuition.” According to most respondents, you just know. A few respondents said you feel it, or have an inner peace, most however made a connection with knowledge that you already possess. Two people also said they would ask others, trusting the opinions of their friends to determine what is true. One person (the oldest male) said that he would search for proof. Opinions, knowledge, and objective proofs formed his framework for determining truth.

No one indicated any kind of absolute standard for truth and falsehood. Although the Ten Commandments were mentioned as rules for ethical behavior, the Bible was never mentioned as having anything to do with a truth standard. In fact, with perhaps the exception of the oldest man, the idea of a standard, absolute truth would probably be unacceptable. Not only was the Bible not mentioned, but the Church wasn’t either. For nearly every respondent, truth was a personal, subjective issue.

Science was trusted, in the physical realm, but all but one person indicated that science could not answer all of life’s questions. And a couple of people were wary of science, pointing out that certain scientific assumptions or “discoveries” had later proven to be wrong.

The responses to our questions led me to describe contemporary Polish culture as animistic, with strong Roman Catholic influences (or Catholic, with strong animistic influences), but with a much larger degree of postmodernism than I expected to see. Postmodernism especially showed up in the epistemological portion of our study, in the subjective nature of truth.

In the final two posts, I’ll share some thoughts that our study prompted, regarding Polish postmodern animistic Catholicism.