Leonardo Boff mentioned the concept of Pachamama in an interview I blogged about recently. This comes from the Andean worldview of indigenous people in South America including many in Bolivia. I’m not an expert on Andean indigenous religion, but I though I’d try to take a stab at describing what I’ve learned about this idea and how it might be helpful to our view of the earth.

Bolivia has the largest population of indigenous people in Latin America (Guatemala has the most in Central America). Most of these people are Aymara and Quechua and come from the altiplano region, a flat plain between the two ridges of the Andes mountain range. There are other indigenous people in Bolivia who come from the lowlands and do not share the Andean worldview which is a point of contention in Bolivian politics.

Most of what I learned about the Andean worldview and concept of Pachamama comes from an incredible Bolivian woman who works at the Maryknoll Institute for Languages in Cochabamba. She is a very visual and tactile person, because the whole time she was explaining this to us she was cutting construction paper and creating these visual representations of what she described. Here’s what I gleaned from our conversation which keep in mind was in Spanish and I’m not yet fluent. Any gaps in understanding our most certainly my fault.

Kicking the Flows201101171442.jpg

The Andean view of the world could best be illustrated with a vin diagram. Some people use three vertical linear levels representing the sky, earth and underworld, but according to this teacher that is probably not an accurate illustration. It is better to use a vin diagram with three circles overlapping. The circles represent the three pachas or realms. The realm of the sky is where birds, clouds and things having to do with the sky live. This realm represents spiritual things like god or ancestors. The pachamama is the realm of the earth. This is the realm that gives us life. It includes animals, plants, humans and the earth. The realm under the earth is considered the underworld. It represents death and the unknown.

These realms are not separate from each other as a vertical linear diagram might indicate. Instead they overlap. Birds live in trees and often get their food from the realm of pachamama, even though they belong to the pacha of the sky. The plants and animals belonging to pachamama need air, sun and rain to live. The underworld is connected to pachamama through the world under our feet. Death is part of the flows that keep balance and the unknown is part of our existence. Honestly, I don’t completely understand the underworld and its relationship to pachamama or the realm of the sky. I tend to put it into categories and boxes that are more familiar to me, mainly agriculture and the Judeo-Christian worldview.

Between each of these realms there is a two-way flow. They overlap, but there is also an exchange between them as described above in the ways they overlap. The ideal is for everything to be in balance between these realms. The center of the vin diagram represents the convergence of these three realms. So, when one of these realms is out of balance it affects the other two. Everything is interconnected.

Even though I feel I don’t understand the underworld realm very well, one example might shed light on how it is perceived. In Bolivia when miners go into mines they will often make an offering to “Tíe” (not sure about spelling). This is like the god or ruler of the underworld and is depicted as a goat-like figure which resembles our caricatures of Satan. When the Spanish Catholics conquered this area of South America and began mining for silver and later tin, it naturally appeared to them that these pagan people were making an offering to the devil. This is not the case.

In the Andean worldview opening a huge hole in the ground and taking things from the realm of the underworld is a pretty scary venture. Not only is this the realm of death and the unknown, but such action interrupts the natural and healthy flows between the three pachas. The offering given to “Tíe” is an effort to correct the imbalance that the miners are participating in, not an offering to the devil.

Worshipping the Earth?

Many of the Christians here in Bolivia and elsewhere quickly become nervous around indigenous religions, because of the way they understand our relationship to the earth. You can see in the above example how foreign this understanding is to Christians. The concern usually revolves around the idea that these religious beliefs and worldview amounts to worshipping the earth. If this means simply giving something the reverence it is due then I agree that the Andean worldview worships the earth. However, the meaning usually implies some sort of pantheism, that they actually believe that the earth is god. This does not seem to be the case in my limited understanding. In fact, I think this mistake is often made when trying to interpret indigenous religions and/or worldviews around the world. Our hermeneutic, or way of interpreting, these beliefs is only in terms of our own Christian doctrines. This causes a lot of confusion. You cannot simply equate cultural and religious symbols on a one-to-one basis. They must first be understood on their own terms as much as possible. Much harm has been done in Christian missions through the centuries, because of this kind of misunderstanding and misinterpretation.

What this view of our relationship to the earth reminds us (because I believe it is inherent in our own tradition) that all of creation is interdependent and interconnected. The Western scientific worldview posits a disconnected and independent existence for human beings. Science can (though not necessarily) result in a reductionistic and atomistic view of the world in which everything is broken down into its component parts and interrelationships are often ignored or called anomalies. I’ve talked to an agricultural scientist at the Texas A&M research station in Stephenville who has found this to be true even in his own field which studies animals, plants, crops, etc., but ignores and often does not fund research that studies the relationships between these fields.

I continue to believe that God is the God of the whole world and truth is found in the diversity of human expressions of belief throughout the world. I don’t believe in some sort of universal religion which ultimately does violence to the diversity of human expression, but marvel that truth is revealed also beyond the borders of the church.

9 comments on “Respect Your Pachamama

  1. The Christian view that comes closest to having similar spiritual views as the indigenous pachamama is panentheism. I find it a very compelling view for a number of reasons; there seems to be some biblical support; it’s wholistic rather than atomistic; it grays the distinction between Christianity and other religions, helping to bridge the gap; it explains how we can hear God through nature; it gives a framework to explain the forces at work in miracles; it makes God more immanent, easier to understand how God is always present and always knows; doctrines like transubstantiation become more real.


  2. Just to be clear, you think if someone is making an offering or sacrifice to “the god or ruler of the underworld” you find that to be legitimate worship of the one true God, since He is “God of the whole earth?”


  3. Your statement is quite a leap from what I actually wrote. Nowhere did I equate indigenous Andean religion with Christianity or “worship of the one true God”. What I did say is that the Spanish Christians that conquered this continent and created these mines in the first place believed that they were making an offering to the devil or demons. This was/is clearly not the case.

    I was trying to shed light on the Andean worldview from its own context and show how Christians have and continue to misinterpret indigenous religions by imposing our own worldview and understanding. We should first understand people within their own context before jumping to our own conclusions about their practices and religion. The history of missions is full of examples and issues that would make most Western evangelicals nervous. The reality is that when the gospel crosses (imaginary national) borders into other cultures and worldviews (as it did in the New Testament) then the results are often messy (and wonderful).

    Polygamy is a great example that makes Westerners very uncomfortable. If you go into a culture/tribe/society whose social structure is based on polygamy and tell them it’s wrong then you will be doing irreparable harm to those women that you convince to leave their only safety net, especially if you are not prepared for the consequences. Some missionaries have therefore chosen to accept polygamy in those cultures as acceptable for Christians to continue. My point is only that things are not so neatly divided into the categories of pagan and believer as we like to believe.

    I also said that truth is found beyond the borders of the church. I think Scripture makes that clear when marginalized people often reveal something to the insiders in Israel and in the early Jewish Christian community (Rahab, Ruth and Boaz, Acts 10 and on and on).


  4. I’m sorry if I misinterpreted what you wrote. I think the example of polygamy is not a relevant parallel here. In that example you’re dealing with people who have come to Christ and are beginning to learn about God’s order and figuring out how to do that after having followed an opposing order. What you’re talking about in the post above is a people who are very far from worshiping God or following His order.

    When I read of someone paying homage to a “god of the underworld” in response to having taken something from him, it breaks my heart because it’s pretty clear he’s serving a god that needs something. Our God has no needs (Acts 17), and the idea of trying to pay him back for something He’s given is contrary to the concept of grace. People who are not in Christ are serving something else, Paul is explicit about this (Ephesians 2). Therefore whatever he’s serving is not God.

    I think this Andean needs the gospel. He needs to know he’s serving a false god and that there is something greater. Because I am saying his god is false, I’m clearly judging according to my Christian worldview, which I also read you to say that we shouldn’t do. But did Paul do any different in Acts 17?


  5. I know of missionaries who do not wish to do away with polygamy and have decided that in that cultural incarnation of the gospel it is acceptable. The church has always struggled with this tension because the nature of Christianity as “the ultimate local religion” is one that is constantly in conversation across and within cultures. The point of this example is merely to point out that things are not as easy to figure out as we often think from North American armchairs, not to make a direct parallel.

    I never said that we don’t try to make discernments. Cross-culturally and interpersonally, I think the term “judgment” is problematic. It seems to me that Scripture leaves that job to God. I can try to be led by the Spirit and discern how the gospel finds a home in one culture or another, but then again who am I as a foreigner to tell Guaranis exactly what the gospel looks like in their culture. I took an entire semester in seminary to unpack this issue and continue to wrestle with the dynamic between the gospel, culture and Scripture (not to mention throwing in myself from an outside culture into the mix).

    If your starting point is simply that these people are worshipping a false god, then you’ve already failed. It may be absolutely true, but if you hope to build authentic relationships it shouldn’t start with the inherent inferiority of other human beings. Again, I believe and am convinced that Scripture teaches that truth exists beyond the boundaries of the church. This means that we are free to begin with what we have in common with other people and other religions, instead of beginning only with how they have failed and are wrong.

    I never made any claims about whether or not Andean religion was true or false. You can argue you with me all day about that, but honestly it doesn’t interest me that much. I am content to allow God to do the work of judgment and be led by the Spirit as I try to be a faithful follower of Christ.

    My way is much more difficult, confusing and messy than simply categorizing people as inside or outside the boundaries of God, but I hope it is more faithful to the God of Abraham, Isaac, Rahab and Cornelius.


  6. I was going to use the word “discern” instead of “judge,” there is some nuance there.

    I agree that the gospel must be contextualized. Nor do I look on anyone as “inferior” for any reason. I need not remind you that I’ve spent years in cross-cultural missions, wrestling with issues of syncretism, animism, Islam, and the gospel. But I don’t think a starting point that someone is worshiping a false god is either “failure” or problematic. It has to be the starting point, or else why do they need Christ? We’re not talking about people who profess Christ but still make offerings to “Tie,” correct? (Perhaps I’ve misunderstood on this point)

    In Acts 17, Paul observes the worship of a religious people, is deeply troubled, tells them they’re worshiping in ignorance, and that there will come a time when God will judge them. And he presents Christ as the only Way. I don’t think he considers anyone “inferior,” but he also doesn’t shy away from telling them the truth.


  7. (By “starting point” I don’t mean starting point of a conversation. You’re correct that it takes long years of living in the culture to earn that trust. I mean “starting point” in thinking about the people.)


  8. I think there is a reason to hesitate in making a judgment about a situation. The context of an offering in the case of the miner has very different meanings attached to it than say the offerings of the Israelites for their sins. Indigenous people are much more aware of the balance of nature than people coming from a western civilization context. Miners presenting an offering in exchange for taking minerals out of the ground is much more like someone placing a sack of grain on a scale in place of the rock they took off. The scale maintains it’s balance but using a different item.

    How does our worshiping a God to whom we go to after we are dead look different to Andean? Especially when in our tradition we put our dead in the ground?

    The common themes in the Bible are love and forgiveness. These themes are embedded in the death and resurrection of Jesus. I believe those concepts can cross cultural and linguistic boundaries, but different world/spiritual views are going to frame them differently. I think Lucas is wise to proceed with humility. And in many respects love and forgiveness can only be truly taught through what we do/how we relate with others.


  9. Justin- I guess I would say my “starting point” in thinking about people of other cultures and religions is first the imago Dei, that all human beings are created in the image of God, and only then how they relate to my particular cultural incarnation of the Christian faith. The second part is extremely important. I don’t mean to downplay it, but I do think it is usually overplayed.

    I do know that you have spent time in a cross-cultural context and wrestled with these issues. Apologies for not highlighting that. This conversation could turn into a discussion of the nature of truth and human knowledge which I have had way too many times and am not interested in having again. So, while you and I largely agree in many areas, I think we use some of the same language of faith and mean slightly different things. I don’t think that’s a problem. I think God can handle our disagreements over our limited understandings of things like truth and salvation.

    Maria- Well, said. You summed up my thoughts well.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: