This study was initially produced as a doctoral dissertation by a Brazilian, studying the Umbanda religion, an Afro-Brazilian spirit religion. English title: The Challenge of Umbanda - Brazilian Low Spiritism - To the Christian Community: Its Theological and Pastoral Implications.
This is an excellent theoretical and practical study. She explores virtually all historical and contemporary sources, analyzing the worldview and practices of Umbanda, and the practical conditions of individual practitioners.
Of interest is the extensive spirit-world concepts she draws out from the Brazilian worldview. She concludes that, rather than being "Afro-Brazilian," Umbanda is actually Brazilian. This means that although African symbols, practices and gods or spirits are characters in the Umbanda world, they are "employed" in an animistic world that is already indigenous to Brazil.
The religion is not primarily intellectual, but focused on individual ecstatic experience of possession by a spirit. The goal of Umbanda is to experience possession by “spirit beings,” generally understood in terms of the names and characteristics of traditional Brazilian Indian spirits or of Yoruba African spirit-gods ancient African Yoruba religion still practiced in Nigeria today. The practice and beliefs, however, have been indigenized in Brazil.
A great insight of this book was that the animism and "syncretism" reported in Brazilian Roman Catholicism is actually European animism which had already been incorporated unconsciously in European Catholic Christianity or consciously adopted with the unsuccessful high aim of using these practices or beliefs as bridges to the gospel. I see direct parallels to other South American expressions of Catholicism, which is distint form Catholicism in other parts of the world.
Additonally, Brazilians became fascinated with European "High Spiritism," which deevloped in Europe as a spiritual rationalist movement. This movement was associated with communciation with the dead, sceances, and related sitiritist experiences. Umbanda developed out of a more experiential "Low Spiritist" movement that spread and resonated strongly with the deep-seated Catholic spiritual animism from the old World and the African spirit religion of the former slaves.
Umbanda was gradually developed over a period in the 1800s. A strong influence was the European Spiritist movement. The European spiritist groups became regular and prominent in Brazil around 1865. We should be careful to distinguish between Umbanda and the negative or evil Brazilian magic cult Quimbanda, and the more African and also negative Brazilian spirit religion called Condomblé. All these forms really got established in the early 1900s. Internet searches can provide more details on these movements from more formal sources.
A strong African component was introduced through the heavy input of African persons in the slavery period of Portuguese colonialism. An indigenous American source of the animism which evolved into Umbanda is the Indian traditional religious worldview. Thus three cultures of animism (European, Indian and African) come together in largely African guise, in the superficial formal structures of the Catholic Church, and on into a separate religious milieu of Umbanda.
The author's estimates at the time of writing (research published 1986) indicate 85% of the Brazilian population were practitioners of Umbanda. This number, of course, indicates that there is a great overlap in reported membership of Catholic and Umbanda.
The author provides many events and actual cases to illustrate various aspects of the situation and approaches to addressing that. She points out weaknesses in the rational North American worldview which limit missionaries from understanding or addressing this spirit worldview, then provides specific means to meeting these deficiencies.
Dancing and music are used to establish a trance state in which the practitioner calls on a certain ancestral divine Umbanda spirit to possess him/her. The event is guided by specialists that are somewhat like priests. The intent of the Umbanda ritual is to gain the power or protection of the spirit god that posseses the believer. This possession is sought and is voluntary. The purpose of the ritual is to produce the possession experience. There seems to be a danger, however, of involuntary possession after some sessions of possession.
Abstract beliefs don’t seem to be a feature or focus of this religion. But since they believe in possession by spirit owners, there is, of course, belief in a spirit world. “Beliefs” in the western intellectual rationalist sense, are not a feature of Umbanda or most traditional religions. The religion is focused on experiences, rather than legal observances. Umbanda is not a institutional religion like Catholicism or Christian denominations. It is local and groups vary in their specific practices and important focuses.
Itioka closes here study with an insightful practical proposal on counseling practitioners of Umbanda oppressed by spirits or converts leaving the faith, and provides guidelines for "curing the memories."
(Read in Portuguese, but an English short version of the text is also included in the Portuguese dissertation. I first photoread the English version, then photoread the Portuguese version, before reading the Portuguese text for detail.)
See related reviews and articles on this site:
Science, Magick and Faith in Hollywood
Spirit World in Cultural Comparisons
Sympathetic Insights towards Traditional Worldviews
Why Wicca is So Attractive
Yoruba Religion in the Americas
For More on Umbanda:
Os Orixás na Umbanda [The Spirit-gods of Umbanda]
Umbanda – Wikipedia
Umbanda in the USA – Blog
Umbanda in the USA – Yahoo Group
Os Orixás são Deuses? [Are the Orixas Gods?] Video by an Umbanda Priest (In Portuguese)
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First written July 2005
Posted on Thoughts and Resources 19 September 2006
Rewritten 23 November 2011
Copyright © 2006, 2011 Orville Boyd Jenkins
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