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Primitive ritual and belief - E. O. James - PDF

Primitive ritual and belief 

Primitive ritual and belief



The study of anthropology in general, and of comparative religion in particular, is one which appeals nowadays to a very large section of the educated public. 
In the light of modern knowledge, many old preconceived notions regarding the early his- tory of mankind have to be abandoned, and some of the ancient beliefs have to be re-stated in a manner in which the modern mind can accept them. 

The spirit of inquiry is abroad, and nowhere more than in the field of religion. Furthermore, it is to the question of origins that the minds of many turn at this time, and, therefore anthropology, which may be described as the " science of human origins," occupies no inconspicuous place in the modern renaissance. 

How did religion originate? Is it the result of Divine revelation, or is it the product of evolution? Has God really revealed Himself " by divers portions and in divers manners " in times past, and in these latter days spoken to us by His Son? Are the pre-Christian religions an age-long prayer, to which the Incarnation is the answer, or is Christianity merely the highest because of the latest development in a long line of human thought and aspiration? 

All these questions are legitimate and right, both from the scientific and from the Christian point of view. Inquiry in the sense of specialized research that aims at truth for truth's sake is the method by which the scientist establishes his hypotheses, and the Christian is likewise exhorted to " prove all things." Was it not for the very purpose of leading the faithful inquirer into all truth that the Paraclete was sent into the world? 

In the following pages the subject to be investigated is that of primitive ritual and belief as practiced by the aborigines of Australia — the lowest culture extant — and by other primitive people. Although the main thesis is purely anthropological in character, yet it is hoped that the work may be of interest to the theologian as well as to the anthropologist since an attempt will be made to discover the permanent element in and the real significance of rudimentary customs. 

It is almost impossible for any writer to preserve an absolutely open mind on questions that go to the very root of the higher religions, because, as an anthropologist of no little repute — and one to whom the author owes a debt of gratitude that cannot easily be paid — has pointed out, " being men we all find it hard, nay impossible, to study man impartially. 

When we say that we are going to play the historian or the anthropologist, and to put aside for the time being all considerations of the moral of the story we seek to unfold, we are merely undertaking to be as fair as we can. Willy-nilly, however, we are sure to color our history, to the extent, at any rate, of taking a hopeful or gloomy view of man's past achievements and his future prospects." 1 Likewise, the antagonist of historical religion is sure to find in primitive ritual and belief the starting point of a long process of evolution in which Christianity is but an evolved form of earlier conceptions, containing vestiges of the cults from which it is derived. 

The apologist, on the other hand, is equally certain to regard the lowest phase of religion as the germ of a great movement towards the final revelation of the absolute Truth that, 1 R. R. Marett, " Anthropology," p. 205. he believes came by Jesus Christ. 

The present writer, as a priest of the Catholic Church, cannot claim to be free from " theological and confessional prejudice," but, if he has been guided by a priori considerations, he ventures to think that he is only guilty of the same error as that committed by many of his opponents. 

The anthropologist pure and simple is merely concerned with the scientific history of man apart from questions of values, progress, the attainment of ends, or the purposive interpretation of the facts with which he has to deal. Nevertheless, if he is an anthropologist he is also a human being, and cannot afford to take a wholly external and impartial view of life, lest he forgets that primitive men had souls and spiritual worth.

 It is therefore perhaps not unpardonable for an anthropologist to be a theologian or a philosopher as well, provided that he records his facts faithfully and correctly, free from coloring to suit his interpretation of them. All history, and more especially the history of early man, must deal primarily with externals, the true and permanent inwardness of which can best be discovered by adhering to the Aristotelian principle that a process of development is only understood in view of its outcome.


Author: E. O. James
Publication date:1914

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