by Rev. Shawn Sanford Beck
So what exactly is “Christian animism”? It’s a valid question, as these two words are rarely held together, and more often placed in stark opposition to each other. It may be helpful to begin with a working definition of the term “animism”. The Shorter Oxford claims that animism is “the attribution of a living soul to inanimate objects and natural phenomena.” The term emerged during the early stages of nineteenth-century cultural anthropology, as a way to describe “primitive” peoples’ understanding of religion. In many ways, it was a subtly derogatory term, implicitly suggesting that animism was a stage in the evolution of religion, which would “grow up” into polytheism, then henotheism, and finally culminate in a “mature” monotheism. There are other problems with the term as well, one of which is the misunderstanding that animism describes essentially “disembodied” spirits which inhabit or possess otherwise “inanimate” things, such as rocks or trees. This view is a product of a mechanistic and dualistic understanding of the universe, and as such distorts the actual beliefs and practices of the various animist traditions in question.
Furthermore, animism is often confused with other concepts such as ancestral reverence and polytheism. Certainly, all of these phenomena are related to each other, and often co-exist in a given religious worldview; in this work however, we will concentrate primarily on the nature spirits, or “spirits of the land”.
These weaknesses aside, I still find that animism is a useful term. Set in the context of a worldview which sees spirit as the “interiority” of matter, rather than its dualistic opposite, animism can be reclaimed as a concept which sees the natural world as sentient, personable, and very much alive. It helps us to experience and understand each created entity, from a prairie gopher to a Rocky Mountain range, as a person, someone to whom we are related. That is basically what I mean when I use the word animism.
Christian animism, then, is simply what happens when a committed Christian engages the world and each creature as alive, sentient, and related, rather than soul-less and ontologically inferior. However, that’s not really “simple”, is it? This type of stance vis-à-vis the natural world would have enormous implications for all aspects of Christian belief and practice. What would liturgy look like, for instance, if we knew that plants, animals, and whole ecosystems were co-worshippers with us? How would our eschatologies change if we had to “make room” in heaven for the entire created order? Would our ethical processes morph if “love your neighbour” now included cows, plankton, and all manner of creepy-crawlies? And what does pastoral care look like for trees anyways? All of these, and more, are questions with which a Christian animist perspective must engage.
by Shawn Sanford Beck
Come follow the Cosmic Christ on the path of the green priesthood, deep into the heart of a living web of Divine Creation.
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