Worshipping the Spirits… and the Unknown God
Animists purpose is to placate a multitude of spirits
Paul’s declaration in Acts 17, can have special meaning to a missionary working among people who worship spirits they believe inhabit everything around them. Instead of worshipping the one God of the universe, animists are involved in what the Bible calls “spirit worship” —placating a multitude of unseen spirits who hold power over every aspect of life.
Some animists do acknowledge a creator-god, usually seen as a deity of the sky or the sun. And although this dim memory of the God of Genesis has been submerged in a plethora of lesser gods, it has not been totally erased.
Goddesses of the moon are often seen as being involved in the human life cycle while in agricultural societies, the “earth mother” holds power not only over the fertility of the land but over human fertility as well.
From these major gods have developed thousands of others. In animism there can be individual gods who hold sway over a local stream, a tree, or a particular type of animal. In societies based on hunting buffalo, for example, there may be a buffalo-god who, if his favour is curried, will provide the animal for tomorrow’s kill. Animism also ascribes magical powers to animals, heavenly bodies, or other created objects.
Spirits also are believed to cause illness, bring natural catastrophes, and lead to victory or defeat in war. In everything from planning a marriage to laying out a village, the favour of the spirits must be gained.
But the price can be high. In some cultures, the ritual sacrifice of a child has been considered necessary to save an entire village from an offended god’s wrath. And in the past, ritual cannibalism was practiced when it was believed that by eating a particular part of a defeated enemy’s body, that individual’s “spirit” would pass to the conqueror.
In one country where animism prevails, its followers have been known to descend on the scene of auto accidents, hoping to scoop up human blood to be used in their rituals—a more powerful substitute for the animal blood most often available.
Priests, witch doctors, and shrine guardians preside over most rites. Because they are seen as holding the power to gain favor with the spirits, they have influence that often exceeds that of the tribal chief.
Secular scholars debate the historic place of animistic religion. Some see it as a primitive form of worship that later leads to more formal polytheism, then to monotheism, and ultimately, say the humanists, to atheism.
The Bible, however, speaks of animism as the ultimate manifestation of rebellion against the Creator—a misplaced worship of the creation itself (Rom. 1:18-25). In the West, manifestations of these beliefs include reading horoscopes, using crystals for healing and power, druid practices, and other ideas that fall within the general scope of the New Age movement.
The role of missionaries in animistic societies, therefore, is not to transform them into clones of Western culture, as some critics have asserted. It is to bring them the Good News of a personal Creator who has complete power over all He has made and who wants all people to be in fellowship with Him forever.