Religion’s Future in View of Its Past
Part 18—15th century onward—When “Christians” and “Heathens” Met
“Religion’s in the heart, not in the knees”—D. W. Jerrold, 19th-century English playwright
MISSIONARY activity, a distinguishing mark of early Christianity, was in keeping with Jesus’ command to “make disciples of people of all the nations” and to be witnesses of him “to the most distant part of the earth.”—Matthew 28:19, 20; Acts 1:8.
In the 15th century, Christendom embarked on a global program to convert the “heathen.” What kind of religion had these “heathen” peoples been practicing up until that time? And did any subsequent conversion to “Christianity” touch their heart or only cause them to drop to their knees in formal submission?
In Africa there are an estimated 700 ethnic groups south of the Sahara. Originally, each had its own tribal religion, although their similarities betray a common origin. In Australia, the Americas, and the isles of the Pacific, dozens of other indigenous religions are to be found.
Most believe in one supreme god and yet, polytheistically, still make room for any number of lesser deities—family, clan, or communal gods. One study made of the Aztec religion lists more than 60 distinct and interrelated names of deities.
In Africa and the Americas, people with the most “primitive” religions believe in a supernatural figure known as the Trickster. At times described as the cosmic creator, at other times as a rearranger of creation, he is always viewed as slyly deceptive and lustful, although not necessarily malicious. The North American Navaho Indians say that he ordained death; the Oglala Lakota tribe teaches that he is a fallen angel who caused the first humans to be banished from paradise by promising them a better life elsewhere. The Encyclopedia of Religion says that the Trickster often appears in “stories of creation,” playing “opposite a spiritual creator-deity.”
Reminiscent of Babylon and Egypt, some native religions teach a trinity. The book The Eskimos says that the Spirit of the Air, the Spirit of the Sea, and the Spirit of the Moon form a trinity that “ultimately controlled practically everything in the Eskimo environment.”
Ronald M. Berndt of the University of Western Australia informs us that Australian Aborigines believe that the cycle of life “continues after death, from the physical to the wholly spiritual, returning in due course to the physical dimension.” This means that “human beings are spiritually indestructible.”
Certain African tribes believe that after death ordinary people become ghosts, whereas prominent persons become ancestor spirits, due to be honored and petitioned as invisible leaders of the community. According to the Manus of Melanesia, a man’s ghost or that of a close kinsman continues supervising his family.
Some American Indians believed the number of souls to be limited, necessitating that they be “reincarnated alternately in first a human and then either a spirit or animal being.” The Encyclopedia of Religion explains: “A human death freed a soul for an animal or spirit, and vice versa, linking humans, animals, and spirits in a cycle of mutual dependency.”
Thus, early explorers were surprised to find Eskimo parents lax in disciplining their children, even addressing them with terms such as “mother” or “grandfather.” Author Ernest S. Burch, Jr., explains that this was because the child had been named after the relative indicated by the term used, and an Eskimo father naturally “shrank from the idea of chastising his grandmother, even if she had now moved into the body of his son.”
The “hereafter” was depicted by some North American Indian tribes as a happy hunting ground, where both humans and animals went at death. There they were reunited with beloved relatives but were also confronted by former foes. Some Indians scalped their enemies after killing them, apparently believing that this prevented the enemies’ entry into the spirit world.
Does the prevalent belief among native religions of some form of life after death prove Christendom correct in teaching that humans have an immortal soul? Not at all. In Eden where true religion got its start, God said nothing about life after death; he held out the prospect of everlasting life in contrast to death. The idea that death is a gateway to a better life was fostered by Satan and was later taught in Babylon.
Human Needs or Divine Interests?
The emphasis in native religions tends to be on personal safety or communal well-being. Thus, of the religion of early Australian Aborigines, Ronald Berndt writes: “[It] reflected the variable concerns of people in everyday living. It focused on social relations, on the crises of human existence, and on practical matters of survival.”
Designed to deal with just such human needs are the modes of worship known as animism, fetishism, and shamanism, existing in various societies in various combinations and in differing degrees of intensity.
Animism attributes conscious life and an indwelling spirit to material objects such as plants and stones and even to natural phenomena like thunderstorms and earthquakes. It may also include the idea that disembodied spirits exist who exercise either a benignant or a malignant influence on the living.
Fetishism comes from a Portuguese word sometimes used to describe objects thought to possess supernatural powers that offer their owner protection or help. So Portuguese explorers employed the term to designate the charms and amulets they found West Africans using in their religion. Closely related to idolatry, fetishism takes many forms. Some American Indians, for example, ascribed supernatural powers to feathers, regarding them as effective vehicles in “flying” prayers or messages heavenward.
Shamanism, from a Tunguso-Manchurian word meaning “he who knows,” centers on the shaman, a person supposedly able to heal and to communicate with the spirit realm. The medicine man, witch doctor, sorceress—whichever word you wish to use—claims to ensure health or restore procreative powers. Treatment may require, as it does in some South American forest tribes, that you perforate your lips, nasal septum, or earlobes, that you paint your body, or that you wear certain adornments. Or you may be told to use stimulants and narcotics, such as tobacco and coca leaves.
Being weak on doctrine, native religions cannot convey accurate knowledge of the Creator. And by elevating human needs above divine interests, they rob him of his just due. So as Christendom began its modern-day missionary work, the question was: Will “Christians” be able to draw “heathen” hearts closer to God?
In the 15th century, Spain and Portugal began a program of exploration and colonial expansion. As these Catholic powers discovered new lands, the church set about converting the native inhabitants, conditioning them to accept their new “Christian” government. Papal bulls awarded missionary rights in Africa and Asia to Portugal. Then, after the discovery of America, an imaginary line was drawn in mid-Atlantic by Pope Alexander VI, giving Spain rights to the west and Portugal to the east.
Meanwhile, Protestants were too busy securing their own position against Catholicism to give thought to converting others, nor had Protestant reformers urged them to do so. Luther and Melanchthon apparently believed that the end of the world was so near that it was too late to reach the “heathen.”
During the 17th century, however, a Protestant movement called Pietism began developing. An outgrowth of the Reformation, it stressed personal religious experience over formalism and emphasized Bible reading and religious commitment. Its “vision of a humanity in need of the gospel of Christ,” as one writer described it, finally helped boost Protestantism aboard the “ship” of missionary activity in the late 18th century.
From about one fifth of the world’s population in 1500, the proportion of professed Christians had risen to about one fourth by 1800 and to about one in three by 1900. A third of the world was now “Christian”!
Did They Really Make Christian Disciples?
Traces of truth found in native religions are offset by many elements of Babylonish falsehood, but this is equally true of apostatized Christianity. So this common religious heritage made it quite easy for “heathens” to become “Christians.” The book The Mythology of All Races says: “No region in America appears to have furnished so many or such striking analogies to Christian ritual and symbolism as did the Mayan.” Veneration of the cross and other similarities in ritual “furthered the change of religion with a minimum of friction.”
Africans—for some 450 years regularly kidnapped by “Christians” and brought to the New World to serve as slaves—were also able to change religion “with a minimum of friction.” Since “Christians” venerated dead European “saints,” what spoke against the worship of African ancestral spirits by “heathen Christians”? Thus, The Encyclopedia of Religion notes: “Voodoo . . . , a syncretistic religion pieced together from West African religions, sorcery, Christian religion, and folklore . . . , has become the real religion of many of the people of Haiti, including those who are nominally Catholic.”
The Concise Dictionary of the Christian World Mission admits that the conversion of Latin America and the Philippines was very superficial, adding that “the Christianity of these regions today is riddled with superstition and ignorance.” For the Aztecs, the Maya, and the Incas, “‘conversion’ simply meant the addition of yet another deity into their pantheon.”
Of the Akan peoples of Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire, Michelle Gilbert of the Peabody Museum of Natural History says: “Traditional religion continues because for most people it is perceived to be the most efficacious system of belief, one that continues to endow the world with meaning.”
M. F. C. Bourdillon, University of Zimbabwe, speaks of “religious mobility” among members of the Shona religion, explaining: “The various forms of Christianity together with the various traditional cults all provide a pool of religious responses from which an individual can choose, depending on his or her needs of the moment.”
But if “heathen Christians” are characterized by superficiality, ignorance, superstition, and polytheism, if they view traditional religions as more efficacious than Christianity, if they consider religion just a matter of convenience or expediency, permitting them to move from one to the other as circumstances dictate, would you say that Christendom has made real Christian disciples?
If Not Disciples, What Are They?
True, Christendom’s missionaries have set up hundreds of schools to educate the illiterate. They have built hospitals to heal the sick. And to a degree, they have promoted respect for the Bible and its principles.
But have “heathens” been fed the solid spiritual food of God’s Word or only the crumbs of apostate Christianity? Have “heathen” beliefs and practices been discarded or only wrapped in “Christian” clothing? In short, have Christendom’s missionaries won hearts for God or only forced “heathen” knees to bow before “Christian” altars?
A convert to apostate Christianity adds to his past sins of ignorance the new sins of hypocritical Christianity, thereby doubling his burden of guilt. Thus, for Christendom, Jesus’ words are appropriate: “You scour sea and land to make a single convert, and then you make him twice as ripe for destruction as you are yourselves.”—Matthew 23:15, Phillips.
Christendom has clearly failed to meet the challenge of making Christian disciples. Has she fared any better in meeting the challenge of world change. In our next issue, the article “Christendom Grapples With World Change” will answer that question.
[Picture on page 17]
These real Christian missionaries in the Dominican Republic reach the heart, not just the knees