For a number of years now I have had a problem with one of my studies: animism. The ancient belief that all things are imbued with spirit, and that spirits have their own lives (as it were).
Animism includes such beliefs as the transmission of souls through the funeral sacrifice, ancestral spirits as guides for the living, and souls as the causation of life.
My biggest struggle has been how to open up this concept enough so that Christian prayers could have any meaning for someone in a country where the inhabitants still hold ancient spiritual beliefs.
Animism, to me, is a closed, Earth-bound way of seeing life and its relation to what is no longer in body. Christianity, to me, opens up this way of seeing things by incorporating a view of God as something outside our Earthly experience, something that transcends, something that functions both separately from us and together with us.
Christianity can include the abstract, the very abstract.
Animism needs to feel its feet on the ground at all times.
In animism, all questions are answered. In Christianity, all answers are open to be questioned.
So how does a “sky” religion address the souls of the “Earth” believers?
Traditionally, and at times, the conversion from paganism to Christianity has been fierce and forced. Other times, it’s been a matter of theological seduction and individual heroism.
But that is when people have been face-to-face. How do I get down on my knees and pray for a country that is bound by its non-seeing of me? I can see them, but they cannot see me back.
As it were.
Then, poking yet again into the practices of voodoo and finding my finger pricked and bloody, I had an insight.
Now, it’s not that this was the first time that I wondered exactly what the relationship was between animistic practices and Christianity (there were times when the overlap was just too tangible to be coincidental). I even wondered if Pentecostal missionaries in Africa brought back some of the mystical practices they witnessed and incorporated them intact into their religious celebrations.
Take for example, the falling down during prayer. Completely passing out. Falling in the Spirit, it’s called.
Was there. Is here.
But that’s not what this post is about.
What I realized one day recently is that the common way of considering saints in the Christian church is merely a form of animism. It’s ancestor worship in a dressed-up form. Saints today are considered people, long dead, who can, through our individual petitions, come into our Earthly lives and arrange our stuff in a way to our liking.
In addition, the view of the making of the holy through martyrdom is very much the animistic view of the making holy through sacrifice. Sacrifice unto death.
And, yes, while you could argue that our view of death-sacrifice is an imitation of Christ, I would counter that Jesus was not made holy through his death on the cross.
He was holy on Earth from the moment of his birth, if not before.
The death of Jesus has nothing whatsoever with transforming his own self. It had to do with clarifying his relationship between God, himself, and us.
But martyrs, most especially in the veneration of relics, become something tightly Earth-bound. Their spirits may have been released, but we’re holding onto their bones, their hair, their blood in order to have some direct way to get in touch with their mojo. We want their magic and we want it here now with us on Earth.
The whole idea of God as intercessor, of God as co-creator, of God as a force in our world becomes insignificant compared with our regular and formalized recognition of saints as our intermediaries. Why go to God individually if we can chat with a saint instead?
Much more personal. Much more of the ground we walk on everyday.
In the Bible, saints are just people.
People. Living people. Like you and me.
They are people who are in a community that is devoted to Jesus. You know, like the congregation of a church. Or a service organization. Or a march down Pennsylvania Avenue in support of our pre-borns.
Ordinary people who are singled out because of their piety.
Not, not ever, people who are dead at least five years and who can only be considered a saint through the acclamation of an infallible guy who sits on a fancy chair and is deemed the maker of saints.
Here’s the deal: in scripture, we make ourselves saints. We choose God. We choose to follow Christ as our savior.
In our culture, it is God, with the help of his fancy friends, who chooses the saints. It is God, with the help of his fancy friends, who decide who is worthy of His special love.
There’s a significant shift in the emphasis on sainthood here: from our own volition to God’s (with the help, etc.) discernment.
And I wonder about how, if we had stayed true to the actual scriptural meaning of sainthood, how possibly different our world would look today.
I think about an open acknowledgement of saintly people as they are. Those who like to pray. Those who are thrilled to serve others. Those who value reverence.
In schools, students are acknowledged for their different gifts. There are those who are good with balls of different shapes and sizes. There are those who shower us with their artistic talents. There are nerds and math geniuses. There are sheep raisers and enthusiastic cooks.
But there are no saints.
Think about how different today’s anti-religious dynamic might be different had there been saints clubs in schools. Clubs where those students who were so inclined could study things like prayer and differences in worship practices, where they could get involved with community enrichment projects, where there was actually a space in the school where the reverent could go to find peace and balance.
In public schools.
Saints as a reality. An everyday reality.
As something natural. A part of ordinary life.
Losing this true definition of so many of us on Earth has left many of us — I know it did me — without a feeling of being recognized for who we are.
We huddle together in our churches and acknowledge each other — somewhat. We do our best to downplay our spiritual beliefs in the outside world in order to not be lectured or dismissed as a nut case.
I think we should revive the true meaning of sainthood, and offer our sanctity — a sanctity that comes from our actions, our affiliations, our commitments: not from someone else — to the world as a whole. Both to observe and to join.
The sainthood of the ordinary man.
Thanks be to God.