Wednesday, April 24, 2013

American Polytheism

King Kamehameha the I
     If I saw that title, I'd probably expect a post on Mormonism... but no, my wife and I are not vacationing in Utah, but Hawaii (or "Hawai'i" if you show off your local flair)  We got in last night, so after almost 24 hrs. here, I can honestly say this is the most religious spot in America I've seen lately (this is likely due to my residence in the region with the lowest church attendance and religious affiliation in the nation!).  I'm sure if I lived in the Bible Belt, I might have a different perception;  so in most places in Hawaii, you see statues, monuments and plaques to historic figures, royalty from the monarchy that ruled the islands until 1893 and continued as important personages into the 20th century. 
     The religiosity of Hawaii is subtle, yet pervasive;  unlike most other states, the native population of the islands continues to influence the culture.  Most of the lower 48 contained tribal peoples, but through the governmental policies of the 1800's (which I am not supporting or condoning), the indigenous culture was largely abolished.  Yet in Hawaii, you have virtually all the hallmarks of a distinct worldview, complete with language and religious beliefs.  So in case any of you have the plans or the privilege of visiting these picturesque green dots in the Pacific, you might benefit from some disjointed spiritual insights gleaned from the museums and historic sites.
     As I started with, Hawaii's native culture is polytheistic ("...for as many as your cities are your gods, O Judah!" Jer 2:28).  It seems to me that there is a great similarity between the animism of Asia and Africa and Hawaiian belief:  most elemental forces (wind, water, thunder, etc.) have a deity, and there are many other hybrids... half-human, half-animal, humans transformed into animals then deified, you name it!  I learned later in our trip that tribal chiefs were considered the descendants of deity, and there was an intricate system of showing reverence called kupu, which was in force until the mid 19th century.  When a chief walked by, everyone fell to their faces;  when entering the home of a chief, one removed their clothing;  even the possessions of the chief were believed to have sacred significance, and must be revered;  violations of kupu were punishable by strangulation, immolation and other unpleasantries you don't see on tourism commercials.
     Everyone has encountered the word "aloha", the Hawaiian equivalent of hello and/or goodbye, and I
Deceiving beauty...
discovered that it also has a connotation of love and affection.  I was educated that this is due to the perception of all humanity as one o'hana ("family").  In conversations with a couple locals, this taint of universalism came up repeatedly, and I suspect that even the climate of the islands works against a true grasp of biblical truth in this area... in a place of stunning beauty, where the people are friendly and taught overt hospitality with their own language, it's awful hard to admit that all humanity is desperately corrupt, and that God is rescuing His elect through the gospel, separating them from Satan's progeny (including all adherents of this welcoming, tolerant religion) into His household.
      After my stay in the 50th state (I'm finishing this on the plane back), and especially after a most educational trip to the Bishop Museum, I am disturbed to admit that my first response to the original beliefs of Hawaii (and it continues to nag me) was conceited arrogance:
"Sure, those kooky islanders had some strange ideas, but America came in and took over.  So now that we're in charge, all those backward natives will and have seen the obvious superiority of American culture and Christianity, they'll convert!"
The "takeover" of Hawaii is a particularly dishonorable bit of history:  a group of American businessmen arranged a military coup and deposed the last queen to further their financial assets;  she showed serene restraint and didn't resist physically for the sake of her people, but instead petitioned and put her trust in the United States to do the right thing, only to be disappointed... the islands were annexed about 5 years later.   
     So such shallow reasoning might've been harder to shake 50 or 60 years ago, but the further we "progress" into a postmodern world that is enamored with any mystical replacement for Biblical truth, the more we must prepare and expect to respond apologetically (instead of egotistically!) with a clear presentation of the distinctiveness of the gospel.  It is interesting that Satan seems to have only a few basic systems of deceit with which he works to obscure/replace the truth (but who can blame him... if it ain't broke...).  The similarities common to most religions occur in Hawaii too, making it simpler for us to hammer home the revealed truth of God's Word, the Creator of all the world.  I can tell you from experience the societal ills in the mainland are present in Hawaii (again, the "entertainment" of 2 prostitutes having a screaming match is hard to find in the brochures!), so the remedy of Jesus offered in Scripture is just as relevant and necessary as everywhere else.

Photos courtesy of my ancient, but trusty camera

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