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Dialoguing with the Biocosmic Aspects of Melanesian Religions: A Missiological Perspective

By Mantovani, Ennio
International Review of Mission , Vol. 91, No. 361

Article excerpt


In this article I intend to describe and reflect on one aspect of Melanesian religions. I call this aspect biocosmic because in its symbolism -- stories, rituals, and celebrations -- it shows no concern with a theos -- a god -- but with a bios, with the fullness of life, a life which is not limited to humans but is shared by the whole cosmos. Hence, it is biocosmic. (1)

A further intent of this article is methodological, i.e. how to enter into dialogue with a cosmic religion, (2) and with people who express their belief not through philosophical reflections and terminology but through stories, rituals, and celebrations, i.e. through symbols.

Symbols, which are polyvalent by nature, take their full meaning from the system to which they belong and from the context in which they are used. As a consequence, what appears to be the same symbol can have different meanings in different systems and contexts. In order to understand a symbol, one must understand the system to which it belongs, i.e. the cultural context that gave birth to it and in which it is used. If one intends to dialogue with the biocosmic aspects of religions in Melanesia, one must begin by understanding the biocosmic symbolic system. Any other approach will lead to misunderstandings.

To dialogue, however, one needs mutually understandable and clearly defined terms. This creates a serious problem. Melanesian languages lack such technical terms. The praxis is to use Western terms like "religion", "gods", "spirits", "magic", "rituals", "sacrifices", etc. to express Melanesian religious phenomena. The question is: "What if the Melanesians have religious experiences the West does not know about and which are different from the Western ones?" (3) By naming the experiences one interprets them; one assumes that they are identical or very similar to the experiences known in the West. However, this is exactly what has to be proven.

One cannot enter into a dialogue and assume that one knows the experience of the partner and that, therefore, one can name it. One reason for entering into a dialogue is to be enriched by the partner, by discovering something new. By naming a phenomenon one ends the search: one pretends to know what it is all about. If possible one should use the local term or describe the phenomenon, e.g. one could say Simbu "kill pigs" instead of Simbu "sacrifice pigs". "Kill pigs" describes the phenomenon while "sacrifice pigs" interprets it. The former leaves the issue of meaning open for further discovery; the latter closes it. The latter looks like indoctrination under the disguise of dialogue. One must enter the dialogue with an attitude of humility; and of openness for the surprise, for the discovery, for the enrichment.

In any religion, as in any culture, one should distinguish between the ideal and the real: the ideal is what ought to be, the real is the human compromises with and the betrayals of the ideal. In Christianity one distinguishes the ideal Christ gave to its church from the abuses and sins of Christians in the past, and present. One preaches and proclaims the ideal, knowing that in life it is often compromised and betrayed. One is attracted and motivated by the ideal, not by the real. What the outsider sees of a religion is always the real, not the ideal. One needs to read and meditate on the sacred scriptures to discover the ideal.

One should adopt the same attitude to other religions. The abuses and distortions should not lead one to ignore and condemn the ideal of which the real is a distortion. One should go to the "sacred scriptures or traditions" to discover the ideal. Besides this, one should not compare the ideal of Christianity with the real of other religions, Melanesian ones included. In this article I shall try to present the ideal of Melanesian religions as revealed through the stories and celebrations, well knowing that Melanesians, like Christians, often do not live up to their ideal; they distort it and sometimes they betray it. …