Tuesday, March 06, 2012

The Spirit of the Rainforest

Our post-Enlightenment worldview is so engrained in most of us that we are unaware of its existence.  It is the lens through which we see and interpret reality.  There are many important aspects to that worldview, but for the moment I only want to focus on one of them: the neat compartmentalization of the material and the spiritual in our thinking. 

For some in our society, specifically the secular humanists, the spiritual world is not simply segregated from the material world—its very existence is denied.  What the tools of reason and logic cannot define and measure is assumed to be unreal. 

But atheistic philosophers were not the only ones to buy into this view.  As Dallas Willard pointed out in The Divine Conspiracy: 

…Rudolf Bultmann, long regarded as one of the great leaders of twentieth-century thought, had this to say: “It is impossible to use electric light and the wireless and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries, and at the same time believe in the New Testament world of spirits and miracles.”
     To anyone who has worked through the relevant arguments, this statement is simply laughable.  It only shows that great people are capable of great silliness.  Yet this kind of thinking dominates much of our intellectual and professional life at present, and in particular has governed by far the greater part of the field of biblical studies for more than a century.[i] 

But even Western evangelical Christians, though accepting the reality of a spirit world, do a very thorough job of isolating that world from conscious thought.  We relegate the spirit world to “someplace else.”  The world of sight and touch and taste and sound and smell we encounter daily is a material reality completely separated from any spiritual world that we may affirm. 

Such was not the case for most of human history and is still not the case in much of the world.  It was certainly not the case in the Celtic Christian tradition. 

In Celtic Christianity God’s gracious power, God’s spirit, one might say God’s grace, is everywhere in the natural world and in all our dealings with it, as much as it is in all those spiritual persons who are on God’s side or have gone to God’s side at last… 

…no one who does not come to grips with the nearness of the spirit world will ever understand Celtic Christianity.[ii] 

Jungleman, a Yanomamö Indian shaman, would have easily related to Celtic Christian spirituality.  For the last half of the 20th Century Jungleman watched with growing dismay as missionaries serving deep in Venezuela’s Amazon Basin under the auspices of New Tribes Missions, worked to win Yanomamös to Christ.  Spirit of the Rainforest[iii] is Jungleman’s first-person account of what happened. 

The Yanomamö of the Amazon are one of the cruelest and most war-like people on earth.  Until very recently most Yanomamös still lived in the Stone Age.  As the author describes them: 

The Yanomamö are one of the world’s most mysterious peoples.  Small, rarely over five feet tall, they have the speed, strength, and agility of a jungle cat.  Their women can tote their own weight up and down a jungle trail that would challenge me even if I were empty handed.  Their men can call, track, and shoot anything that breathes in a jungle that is hostile enough to kill anyone but a trained survivalist.[iv] 

Spirit of the Rainforest is Jungleman’s story as told to the author during six visits to Amazonas over a period of 13 years.  With at times horrifying matter-of-factness, the old shaman recounts brutal attacks by rival clans of Yanomamös against each other.  Men, women, children, and infants are slaughtered alike without hesitation.  Women are casually gang-raped and taken as slaves.  These attacks lead in turn to retaliatory counterattacks, setting up feuds that continue for generations.  Shamans call upon the spirit world to aid them in attacking their enemies.  Against this grim reality, courageous missionaries work patiently in miserable tropical isolation to slowly win converts to Jesus, their work often undermined by immoral anthropologists determined to keep the Yanomamö stuck firmly in the Stone Age as a curiosity to be studied—and often abused. 

Spirit of the Rainforest is fascinating glimpse at a way of understanding reality dramatically different than our Western post-Enlightenment worldview.  Read it and you will never think about the spirit world in the same way again.

[i] Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, A division of HarperCollinsPublishers, 1998), 93.
[ii] James P. Mackey, ed., An Introduction to Celtic Christianity (Edinburgh: T&T Clark Ltd, 1989), 13, 11.
[iii] Mark Andrew Ritchie, Spirit of the Rainforest: A Yanomamö Shaman’s Story, 2nd Ed. (Chicago: Island Lake Press, 2000.
[iv] Ibid, 7.

Friday, March 02, 2012

A Great Quote from Augustine

Here is a marvelous quote from St. Augustine that ought to be required reading at every evangelical college and seminary in the country.

Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience.  Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn.  The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of the faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men.  If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason?  Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books.  For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion [quoting 1 Timothy 1:7] 

– St. Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, Chapter 19.