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In this book Van Rheenen presents a comparative analysis of western dualistic secular culture and its worldview with the dynamic integrated worldview of what are often referred to as "traditional" or "animistic" peoples. He explains the characteristics of an "animistic" understanding of the world in such a way as to clarify how characteristics of this worldview are found in various cultures, not just "traditional" ones.
I met Van Rheenen when were both working in Kenya years ago. Unfortunately, we were living in different locations and I did not get to know him well. I had various levels of acquaintance and familiarity with the work of various missionaries of the Church of Christ Mission.
Van Rheenen worked primarily among the Kipsigis people in the Highlands of Kenya, east of the Great Rift Valley. He presents many experiences from this culture and events from which he learned the cultural worldview of the Kipsigis. I have visited in some Kipsigis churches, but did not have an intimate familiarity with this people. I have read some of the sources he cites in his extensive bibliography.
Variety in Animism
Because of Van Rheenen's experience in Africa, many of the examples he presents come from various African peoples, Bantu, Nilotic or Atlantic from West Africa. The Kipsigis are part of the Highland Nilotic cluster of peoples. He explains the differences between various peoples whose beliefs and practices fall into this broad category called "animistic."
The definition he provides for animism helps the reader to overcome some of the misunderstandings and stereotypes of animism. It is clear from the great variety of practices and beliefs he presents that "animism" is a working term, not in any was a "religion." It is rather a category of worldview that is expressed in various ways, but can be seen to entail a basic set of beliefs about the world and our existence.
He provides a more comprehensive definition:
"The 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 future actions and, frequently, to manipulate their power."
American Organized Animism
In his comparative description of animism, Van Rheenen refers to more traditional forms of organized animistic worship and practice in the Western hemisphere, such as Brazilian spiritism, Condomble and varieties of voodoo. Other sources explain that many sects of the latter are often organized in the form of the Christian pantheon of saints, with a dual name system, a sanit's name and a traditional African spirit name.
But he likewise references the variety of practices and beliefs commonly called New Age, as well as various practices of divining the future. A prime example of the latter is the constant practice of Nancy Reagan in consulting astrologers and mediums to determine the best time for President Reagan to make speeches, have certain meetings, etc. Her spiritist practices received great publicity during the questionable Reagan presidency.
Van Rheenen's analysis should be very helpful to naïve secular westerners in understanding the religious worldview of the majority of the world's peoples in traditional culture. The way Van Rheenen approaches this subject, readers and the "silent majority" of "developed societies" who follow what is technically called "low religion" rather than "high (formal, rational or theological) religions."
It is unfortunate that so many American missionaries do not realize that they have a secular worldview, and the categories by which they organize reality, are not a world standard, but on the contrary are based on a minority rationalist worldview. Over my decades of living in Africa, I have seen too many westerners focus on information and structural characteristics of their form of Christianity.
Van Rheenen makes reference to such people also, and indicates that their unawareness of the underlying worldview, beliefs about the spirit world and categories of organizing realty will led to a dualistic system. They might accept a surface Christianity, but their real operating base, especially in crisis continues to be the animistic worldview. That is where they must live, and where decisions must be made.
Ironically, my analysis of the situation is that western Christian missionaries who insist on the "right doctrines" (information and formal vocabulary) and "proper church order" (cultural expression of organizational structure) are a primary cause of syncretism.
Van Rheenen's book is a great foundational resource in a field that has been neglected.
See related reviews and articles on this site:
Indigenous Asian Expressions of Christian Faith
Postmodernism — The Church's Challenge and Opportunity
South African Spirituality
Spirit World in Cultural Comparisons
Umbanda, Spirits and Demons and Christianity
Worldview, Ethnicity and Social Dynamics in African Politics
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First written and posted on Thoughts and Resources 23 April 2007
Last edited 19 December 2007
Copyright © 2007 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use. Other rights reserved.