Animism and Spiritual Warfare
Since the beginning of creation of the heavens and the earth and soon after creation of man and woman, there has been an ongoing war. A battle for a territory between good and evil where the victor does not take over a piece of land but where the victor controls the mind. Spiritual warfare is taking place in the minds of each individual on earth. The good is trying to establish truth in the mind and the evil is bent out to destroy anything that resembles truth. As John Macarthur puts it in his book “The Truth War”, it is a battle for truth, a battle for the mind, a battle against false doctrines, evil ideologies, and wrong beliefs.
Our adversary is extremely knowledgeable of human thinking. He can manipulate our circumstances and our thinking by the way of events in our lives to produce a distorted view of reality and truth. He has many ways in which he can cause us to stay far away from truth and God. One way, Satan has been successful in keeping many way from the truth is by the use of animism. He has crafted a mentality in many regions of the world which perverted any view of truth. A system based on lies effecting the individual person, the social aspect, and life of the community resulting is a fear based life of bondage.
Taking a closer look at animism, we see across the world, many religions or religious belief systems have been developed for a way for man to reach or satisfy God or a god of their design. There is a plethora of world religions that have been in existence since mankind has inhabited the earth. Religious beliefs that do not partake in the major world religions are often called folk religions, tribal and primal religions. Animism The secular definition, found in the New World Encyclopedia, is a belief in numerous personalized, supernatural beings endowed with reason, intelligence and/or volition, that inhabit both objects and living beings and govern their existences. There is no specific religion that is attached to animism but it is more of a belief system set in place by ancestral rituals and practices. The term “animism” was academically accepted through the work of Edward Bennet Taylor. Taylor was an anthropologist who coined this term in reference to a system that finds its beliefs in the supernatural realm and mystical ideas. Taylor felt that this idea of animism developed when the times of the barbarians were developing into a more sophisticated and modern society, as folklore religion and superstitious ideas had not been left behind.
If we look at the word “animism” we see the etymology of the word stems from the Latin word anima which means breath or soul. This refers to method or agency of which spirits and supernatural beings move in to inanimate objects or geographical locations where believers think they reside. They also hold a view that the soul is immortal, free to roam around their graves and the earth. Ancestors are revered by the animist and must have complete respect so not to bring any unlucky circumstances against themselves. Taylor’s theory seems to be correct in that the rituals were being carried over into each generation. As Gailyn Van Rheenen defines animism comprehensively as follows:
Animism is a belief that personal spiritual beings and impersonal spiritual forces have power over human affairs, and consequently, that human beings must discover what beings and forces are influencing them in order to determine the future action and frequently, to manipulate their power.
The animist worldview contains both what is seen in the physical world and what is not seen in the spiritual world. These two realities are not distinct since what is felt is also not seen in the physical world. There are three levels that the animist believe exists, the different planes or zones are the upper zone, middle zone and the lower zone. This is of great importance to understand for those entering the mission field to get a perspective of how some indigenous cultures interact with world religions, especially Christianity. The upper zone pertains to a High God of their culture and even the God of the bible in some regions. The middle zone is occupied by lesser deities, spirits, ancestors, and impersonal forces which have animated interaction with the other zones. The lower zone deal with humans, plants and inanimate objects who interact with the middle zone. The arena where the animistic activities function is between the lower and middle zones.
Even within the animistic worldview, they hold to the fact that there is a Supreme being in the upper zone although it may not be the God of the Bible but they know there is a High God. Just as Romans 1:20 tells us that His divine nature having been clearly seen, being understood what has been made, they are without excuse. They have an understanding that all things came into existence by a Supreme being but there are many spirits residing in the other zones. With this basic understanding of creation and a Creator, their ability to grasp the God of the universe really is not much of an obstacle opposed to one who absolutely rejects God and the creation.
The Bible has shown us how to view and interpreted animism. In the early texts of the Old Testament, Moses writes under the influence of the Holy Spirit and direct revelation from God in passages concerning how we should only worship one God and no other. We should not worship any image in the form of a male or female, any animal on the earth or likeness of any winged bird (Deut. 4:15-20). We should not serve other gods and worship them, sun or the moon or heavenly hosts (middle zone) which I have commanded you (Deut, 17:2-7). Moses made clear imperatives on what not to worship including those objects that the animist worship or bow down to out of fear. The book of Job speaks of the beasts and the birds of the heavens and the fish in the sea (Job 12:7-8). Again, Job speaks of the moon and the sun (31:26-28). There shall not be any worship of objects on earth or in the heavens but only the worship of God.
Animism has been devised as a stumbling block or a snare for the spiritual warfare that we are engaged in when in the mission field. Animism and its primitive cultural traditions, as it is passed down from generation to generation, distorts the truth of God and His creation not allowing the natural revelations that God has bestowed on mankind to be accepted as truth. If we look at the definition that Van Rheenen stated, we see completely that their belief system is that of the spiritual nature. Under the influence of this ideology, they are in bondage to a system of fear and exercising of rituals in order to stay healthy and not die. Their view, even in death and illness holds to a belief that they have wronged the spiritual world in some way leaving themselves open to whatever actions the primal spirits may execute.
Several geographical examples may shed some light to the animistic view. In the Philippines, for example, is a Catholic dominated country where 90% are following the Roman Church, there is much animistic beliefs in sync with their religion. There is a belief that there are spiritual beings that occupy trees called “duwende” which developed in Latin America as well possibly from the Spanish influence in the Philippines as well. Children are taught this at a very young age and it matures into a fear into adulthood. These spirits occupy trees for the most part and even have good counterparts depending on the color of them. They are even believed by the animists that they occupy rocks, caves dark parts of the home and even ant hills. Although not as prevalent today in suburban Philippines, the “duwende” still has a hold of many in the outer provinces and islands of the Philippines.
On the island of Guam, another predominately Catholic island in the Pacific with its own Spanish influence by their rule, there is almost the same folklore as the “duwende” but this takes on a more fearful personality. The “taotaomona”, is a belief that the dead ancestral relatives of the indigenous people of Guam, the Chamorro, live in a specific tree species. This tree is the Banyan tree. Its large sprawling canopy and thick trunk lends to its ominous and creepy reputation. Their belief is that nobody is allowed to touch it, trim it or cut it. It must be respected since their ancestors are living in the tree after passing to death. If anyone disrespects the tree, then they disrespect the dead and will suffer physical ailments and even death. This belief is very strong today among those professing Catholics.
In the Micronesian Island of Marshall, the primitive view of man stems from the folklore where man is mortal and the soul of the dead journey towards the island of the dead or skyward or underground. Some believe that the Marshallese soul of the dead must swim across a channel to reach Nako island, where food is everlasting but many will not make it and sink being weighed down by their sins. In this, Marshall is still somewhat a primitive island, where these beliefs are still very active today. When missionaries arrive on Marshall they are faced with this as their biggest obstacle which is creation and death. More of a mythological tale for the creation of Marshall but there is a belief that it was created. There are many syncretistic rituals that are being practiced today in the Marshall Islands. Pages of the Bible are torn and placed inside bottles and hung on trees to keep evil spirits away from their homes. This stems from an animistic view tied with some sort of weak Christianity that was taught by visiting missionaries.
How is a missionary to attempt to deal with animism in their commission to bring the Gospel to the nations of thee world? As I was taught in secular management, we must first, identify the issue. Next, we must formalize the best solution. Lastly, we must execute the solution. This holds true for ministry. We have been given God’s Word, which holds all the appropriate solutions for all issues that we will face in the mission field. We must be able to discern what is required to help these people come to the realization of their own depravity and requirement for the Lord. We must be able to articulate God’s Word according to their need. This is not an enormous feat that is impossible since many have been successful in the mission field in bringing the truth of the Gospel and changing lives and moving cultures away from the spiritual warfare that held them in bondage for generations.
Animist have some basic and relative beliefs that we share. They do believe in a Supreme being but believe that the being is too far removed from them or too abstract to be known. But our adversary has developed a keen and crafty way to drive people away from the truth. By slight deception and very slight at that, away from the truth of God’s Word has enough power to pervert and distort anyone’s thought process into any falsehood or belief system. Satan is busy blinding people from the truth. Using social structures, Satan uses this as a means to persecute anyone wanting to convert to Christianity. We hear of witchcraft and other doers of spiritual evil having such powers to perform magic and cast spells, do these actually work or have any power at all? If a person is held in bondage in a false belief system keeping him away from the truth, then in a sense they are powerful. Social stigma and persecution fuels the fear amongst developing nations where a crab like mentality can cause someone in the village to do anything to keep someone down from getting away from a false system presents a true obstacle form the Gospel being effective.
A positive note to state here, since the animist have false ideologies stemming from social acceptance and daily life occurrences, they are easily receptive to the truth. Their view on sin is not concerned with offending the Supreme being but of the many spirits in the middle level. This wrong view of sin causes much of the fear that experience on a daily basis. The fear that they are consumed with, concerning witchcraft, magic and spirits, they can be disciple into the truth that love drives out fear (1 Jn. 4:18). Showing the power that Christ holds in His defeat those of power and authority (Col. 2:15). Reaching their view of harmony within humanity, Christianity shows that Christians can live in harmony together but more so with God. They can be shown that this harmony is not based on any manipulation on their part but of their submission to God’s authority and obeying the commandment to love one another. Showing or exposing that their once feared idols are powerless such as when societal changes occur such as land development will aid in the understanding of the uselessness of what they feared. Like the mountain that was dissolved by development or the river that was dammed causing it to dry up in parts or the tree that was sacred being cut down and nothing happening to the individuals that cut the tree down.. They must be shown that they can be delivered from their spirits who have plagued their society into a loving and caring God.
The message has to be expounded to reach the person in order to give all their animistic beliefs for the sake of Christ. Their low religion views must be left behind in order to take on the high religion view. As for an illustration, there is a Kenyan proverb that tells of how two walking sticks cannot be burned together. This explains how the animist having the dualistic lower and higher view cannot coexist. They hold unto the higher view for questions on cosmic level ideas, origin and destiny but revert back to the lower for addressing questions dealing with illness, death and drought. Understanding of their beliefs is critical but the success is also dependent on proper contextualization.
For good contextualization, there must be a deeper knowledge of their culture and what realities exist. There must be discernment of what is acceptable not just “tossing out the baby with the bathtub so to speak.” The theological response will differ from each geographical region. It is proper to weigh everything against Scripture in their daily life also keeping an eye on the individual cultural lifestyles that each region poses. The Gospel must be delivered in a culturally relevant manner but there can be nothing to diminish the Cross in fear of offending anyone (1 Cor. 1:23). Western missionaries have mistakenly made errors in judgement in trying to Westernize the mission field. Such great missionaries as William Carey, Hudson Taylor and others had leaned towards understanding the culture and becoming “one of them” when reaching the lost. (1 Cor. 9:20). Don Richardson had issues with the natives in Papua New Guinea concerning to Gospel. The natives related with Judas Iscariot and made him their hero, Richardson then contextualized in relation to the Sawis tribe for them to fully understand Christ.
In the space of contextualization, we must weigh our opinions on their views on matters such as witchcraft and spells. In our Western culture, we have dismissed these to folklore or urban legends and do not believe in the powers they may possess. But if these people actually believe in the power of these animistic gods and spirits then we must gain understanding to what they are experiencing. If they are suffering from the effects of displeasing a spirit, then we must not just dismiss it as folklore or heresy and see how we can comfort them. Initially, we must be learners of their culture and society. We then can make proper assessments and strategize on the best method of action.
The use of metaphors can be a solid means in reaching the animist. There are several metaphors in the Bible telling of the atonement. In Acts, Romans, Galatians and Hebrews each in their own way, the authors told of the atonement by either legal setting or an eschatological setting. An animist will grasp the message but the urgency of the message will not be understood.It is until they see Jesus as the hero who defeats powers and principalities and overcomes all evil and puts death to death then they will fully understand. They must be touched in their hearts where their worst fears are hidden. Jesus Christ came to overcome the evil in their lives and they must walk away with that message. They must know that freedom from the evil one is available but only through Christ.
The motives for salvation of the animist must be discerned. Animist, as stated above, are not concerned with their sin offending God or their Supreme being but offending the many spirits that will, in their minds, inflict punishment by way of illness or death. They must be taught the difference between social sins and theologically defined sins. In their current system, they worry about social sins that will disrupt social harmony. These sins that offend the spirits, can easily be manipulated by doing some ritual of magic.
Most animist only seek salvation for humanistic reasons.to fill the need to receive favor from an ancestor or any other selfish need. They must hold unto the restoration of the relationship with God the Creator as the reason to seek salvation. Knowing that the animist is more concerned with the existential things in life than the ultimate reality, they are more concerned with power and the ability to make things happen or success than truth. This is the sad reality of animism. But the hope we can instill in them through the Gospel can release them from the lies that keep them bound to this false system developed by the adversary. Showing that Christ is the Victor and is King ruling today can give the animist the proper understanding that is required to turn their backs on the systems they were taught. Removal of the middle zone will allow them to see that God is directly above them and is accessible for a personal relationship.
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 Rheenen, Communicating Christ in Animistic Contexts. p. 30
 Paul G. Hiebert, R. Daniel Shaw, and Tite Tienou, Understanding Folk Religion: A Christian Response to Popular Beliefs and Practices (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Academic, 2000). Kindle location 6673
 Don Richardson, Peace Child, Reprint edition (Bethany House Publishers, 2005).
 Rheenen, Communicating Christ in Animistic Contexts. P. 141