Spiritism in Brazil – Part Two

Before one can attempt to share the Gospel with people who do not share the same worldview, it is imperative that we first study their worldview in order to understand how they think, and therefore be able to communicate the message of the cross in a way that makes sense to them.  Many times this proves to be a lengthy and arduous process, both the studying and deciphering the intricacies of their worldview, as well as figuring out how to best contextualize the message of the Gospel.

Animism undergirds spiritism.  “Animism is a world view that sees everything in the universe as warring against each other to become the ‘deity’… it refers to the belief that everything in the world, including people, plants, animals, objects and even dreams and ideas, have a soul or spirit.”[1]

Although Brazil is classified as a Roman Catholic country, many Catholics are only nominal Catholics, and “…spiritism is an ideology followed by most Catholics in Brazil.”[2]  John Maust, has called Brazil “the land where spirits thrive.”[3] When the Portuguese arrived in the land, they brought with them Catholicism and began converting (at times by force) many of the indigenous people.  Later, African slaves began to arrive, and with them came their gods and rituals.  Although the feudal lords were Catholics, many of their religious practices involved the worshiping of idols in the image of the Catholic saints, rather than the doctrinal matters and the sacraments of the faith.[4]  These now slave masters, did not allow their slaves to worship their own gods.  The African slaves, in turn, used the names and images of the Catholic relics to represent their own gods, in this manner the feudal lords believed they had converted to Catholicism and would not beat them for practicing their own religion.  Many of the slaves sold in Brazil were from the Yoruba people of West Africa, and they gave their gods (Orixás) the names of the following Catholic saints: Iemanjá (goddess of the sea) became the Virgin Mary; Xangô (god of thunder and lightning) became St. Jerome; Ogun (god of war) became St. George; and Olodum (the chief god) became Jesus; Exú (master of divination) has been associated with Satan[5], others claim he is represented by St. Michael or even St. Anthony of Padua depending on the region.

Since that time, spiritism began to grow rapidly and spread throughout the country and was quickly assimilated throughout the population.  Pluralism and syncretism have played a major role in Brazil, and many who consider themselves devout Catholics, eagerly participate and practice spiritist rituals.

                [1] Debbie Burgett, What is Animism? (New Tribes Missions), http://www.ntm.org/magazine/9560 (accessed 19 May 2010).

                [2] Gailyn Van Rheenen, Communicating Christ in Animistic Contexts (Pasadena: William Carey, 1991), 11.

                [3] John Maust,  “The land where spirits thrive,” in Christianity Today as quoted in Communicating Christ, Gailyn Van Rheenen, 255.

                [4] Van Rheenen, Communicating Christ, 255.

                [5] David Burnett, World of the Spirits, (Oxford: Monarch Books, 2000), 243-244.


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About Bárbara

I am a Christ follower, wife, mother, missionary, and Online Instructor for LU Online teaching Introduction to Missions. My family and I serve at Living Bread Ministries; planting churches among the desperately poor in South America. I have an MA in Intercultural Studies from LBTS. My passion is to see the Lord Jesus worshiped among the poor and needy and to see lives transformed by the power of the Gospel.
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