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Les dynamiques religieuses dans le pacifique

Gabriele Weichart
Françoise Douaire-Marsaudon

Introduction. A Rich Profusion of Religious Forms

Françoise Douaire-Marsaudon et Gabriele Weichart

Texte intégral

  • 1 See Douglas, 1995: 57-92.

1Oceania today offers a rich profusion of religious forms, the ever-changing result of complex processes in which Christian proselytism has played and is still playing a large role. This is hardly surprising when one considers the extreme diversity of Pacific societies in sociocultural, political and economic terms as well as the very broad spectrum of their historical transformations. But this diversity is equally attributable to the mutations and metamorphoses of Oceanian Christianity itself, generated by contact with the local populations. In his pioneering work, John Barker has stressed the “astonishing syncretism” of the different forms of Oceanian Christianity, behind the nevertheless often exclusivist overtones of their discourses (1990: 11 and following). A prelude to globalization and the spearhead of modernity, today as in the early days of the missions, the expansion of the Christian religion has been a very powerful acculturation factor for the peoples of Oceania. However, many of these societies, particularly those converted in the nineteenth century, nowadays claim Christianity as one of their culture’s founding values. We run no risk of being mistaken when we assert that the Christianization process is still in progress in Oceania and that it affects all realms of social life, especially the political sphere1.

  • 2 See Fer and Malogne-Fer, 2009: 13-30.

2In the social sciences, the issue of religion in the Pacific, considered in its diversity, made a relatively late appearance2. Today, three important sets of questions permeate it. The first is the result of the many empirical phenomena which have arisen and developed in and from Christianization and which concern the nature, reasons, forms and effects of the major transformation that conversion to the new religion has represented for the peoples of Oceania. Certain questions are asked, directly or indirectly, by the contributors to this book: what are the reasons for the Christian missionaries’ success or failure among the different peoples of Oceania? What were the important parameters in the integration or rejection of a new system of beliefs, with its doctrine, dogma and the social and ritual practices associated with it? Were there prior conditions, specific factors present at a certain point in these societies’ history, processes evolving, which made it possible to accept the new religion or not? How are the new forms of sociality expressed by the different members of a community, by men and by women etc. and what do they mean for them such as they are developing in religious life today?

3The second set of questions concerns the cultural change entailed in the adoption and/or the imposition of Christianity: what changes for the peoples of the Pacific when they are confronted by Christianity? As Christianization is characterized by the importation – however this has been accomplished – of a religion originating elsewhere, what does the change involved signify for the populations concerned: a more or less homogeneous, more or less stable mixing of two religious systems or, on the contrary, a brutal and deep break with former society? Or another type of recomposition involving two systems of interpreting the world whose methods need to be understood and analysed? In this work, we shall see that the answers to these questions, when they are given, are far from uniform.

  • 3 With regard to this debate, see in particular Keesing (1989), Jolly and Thomas (1992), Sahlins (19 (...)

4Consequently, for social science researchers, there is also the problem of choosing an analytical framework in which to study the relationship with the past and the change this entails. Should the relationship with the past be placed in the context of a society’s supposed continuity or, on the contrary, is it not more pertinent to call into question this general frame of reference, all too often considered self-evident? In the introduction to their recent work Anthropologie du christianisme en Océanie, Yannick Fer and Gwendoline Malogne-Fer criticize what they call the anthropology of continuity and its effects on the study of3 Christianity: “In adopting the autochthonous discourse on the primacy of a cultural permanence encompassing Christianity, an anthropological philosophy of continuity tends in fact […] to relegate this traditional Christianity to the rank of a secondary force, part of a cultural system it has only peripherally modified” (Fer and Malogne-Fer, 2009: 19). This may be the case. But if the discontinuity of the relationship with the past is postulated from the very beginning, if to start with we dispense with the autochthonous discourse on cultural permanence, do we not run the risk of missing what these populations think, say and do when they turn the discontinuities of their own history into continuities? Do we not run the risk, with an a priori anthropological concept of discontinuity, of relegating to the rank of secondary forces, not just Christianity and any other element of a cultural system, but the people themselves, the thinking, acting people who constitute a society’s members? If, as Maurice Godelier says (2007: 189), people do not only live in society but produce society in order to live, should we not at the same time consider the societies’ breaks with history and what their members do to overcome these (and by overcoming them)?

5The latter issue has been abundantly discussed, as we know, in the course of the somewhat stormy debate over “custom” and the invention of tradition – a debate which originated in the Pacific – during the last two decades of the twentieth century. Today the discussion is not over but it would seem, nonetheless, to have lost some of its virulence and to be tending to fade into the background behind a third set of questions, they too of an epistemological nature, asked in particular by some of the contributors to the present work: given the extreme diversity, both in the forms of imposition and appropriation of Christianity and of the modes of autochthonous religious mutation, does there exist an analytical model which would enable us to understand all the transformations resulting from these phenomena? Some of the authors of this work do not hesitate to venture onto this problematic ground and to propose explanatory models, some already tested – like the Dumontian model of hierarchy and values – or newer ones, in order to analyse the cultural change entailed in the Christianization process. For others, it is more a question of defining and understanding the specificities of the cultural change involved in the evolutions of Oceanian Christianity and of seeing if it is possible to draw from their analysis general tendencies or lines of force.

6In their attempts to find answers to these questions, or to think them through anew, the authors have investigated and analysed in detail ethnographic examples from different regions of Oceania, Melanesia (above all New Guinea) being the region most represented in this book. Two articles propose an analysis of Christianization in the Polynesian archipelagoes of Samoa and Tonga and another example is given from eastern Indonesia.

7Whether they study the conversion phenomenon, the interaction between missions and autochthonous peoples, the millenarian revival or the metamorphoses of Christianity, whether they are interested in “the actuality of paganism” or in “the contemporaneousness of prophetism” – to borrow the terms used by André Mary (2007) – the authors of this work, who have often been involved for several years in this radically and rapidly changing field of research, attempt to understand what is at stake in the evolution of configurations of contemporary spirituality in Oceania. In doing so, they also question the validity of the conceptual categories and tools used as, for example, those of belief (Lenclud, 1991), of cultural change (Robbins, 2004), of syncretism (Babadzan, 1982) or of indigenization.

  • 4 All the presentations at the ESfO 2005 conference were given in English but, as it was decided to (...)

8The present work is the result of a joint reflection in one of the sessions of the ESfO (European Society for Oceanists) conference held in Marseilles in July 2005. At the end of the session, a riveting and impassioned discussion took place between the participants which left no doubt that the work of this session should be published. Eleven out of the fifteen presentations given during the session have become chapters in this book. Five texts are in French, seven in English4. The chapter order was obvious insofar as it seemed less disconcerting for the reader to follow the unfolding of the different faces of Oceanian spirituality through time. We have therefore chosen to respect this chronology as far as possible, with a progression from the nineteenth century through to today.

9In his reflection on magic and its innovations among the Lelet of New Ireland, Richard Eves shows that modernity, associated in the eyes of the Lelet people with capitalism and individualism as with colonization and Christianity, has not put an end to the belief in magic, even if the latter seems to be practised less. Therefore, he sees a continuity between old and new magical practices and asserts that a large part of the representations and conceptions of ritual and of what is expected of magic exists within the structure of Christianity and has adjusted very well to it.

10In societies such as those of Samoa and Tonga, in which Christianization is considered as having been achieved in the middle of the nineteenth century, Christianity is today claimed as a founding value. For Robson, Christian proselytism was less dramatic and less traumatic in Samoa than in other regions of Polynesia, as in Tahiti, for example. After 1830, conversion to Christianity was a deliberate, pragmatic and personal matter, and the same can be said of the growth of Mormonism in recent decades. At first, conversion was not led by the chiefs. Though one of the most powerful among them, Malietoa Vainu’upo, did afford his protection to the Polynesian “teachers” brought by the British missionaries, his support was just one factor among others in this conversion. Schooling and material considerations, as well as religious conviction, played a part in the decision to adopt the new religion as did a certain compatibility between traditional and Christian beliefs. More recently, the Samoans have turned their attention to better integrating Christianity into their own cultural traditions, which has entailed a reinterpretation of the former with regard to the system of traditional values and the mythology of Samoa. Today, Christianity is no longer identified as a Western or foreign religion but as an essential part of Samoan tradition and culture.

11In Tonga, the Christianization of the population did take place according to the traditional pattern, as Françoise Douaire-Marsaudon shows us, that is to say it initially corresponded to the desire to appropriate it of certain chiefs who imposed it on their subjects and used it to establish power over their rivals. However, what is not always clearly distinguished in this rapid conversion controlled from above is the imbrication of the Christian religion and Churches with local political life. From this point of view, it can be said that there is a strong continuity with the past in these societies, insofar as politics and religion have doubtless never formed separate spheres in social life. Nevertheless, this enmeshment of the religious field and the political sphere today takes on very different forms from that of the past. This fact again raises the question of the relationship these societies develop and maintain with their past. If contemporary Tongans – like Samoans – nowadays claim Christianity as a founding source of their history, their relation to the memory of the past, and more specifically to that linking them to their ancestors, seems today marked by uneasiness and embarrassment, in short as if it were a “blurred” memory which raises questions.

12Denis Monnerie too is interested in Christianity’s relationship with the past and memory, in a region (Hoot ma Whaap) of New Caledonia in the north of Grande Terre also Christianized in the nineteenth century. In his eyes, in order to understand how Catholicism became established in this region it is necessary to observe and analyse ceremonies which took place more than a century later, for local narratives evoke this aspect of the history of colonialism. All this shows that certain notions and practices fundamental to regional relations in Hoot ma Whaap are today – and probably have been from the very beginning – used and adapted by the Kanak to receive and, to a certain extent, control the Catholic priests, practices and ideas. This demonstration enables the author to make a certain number of proposals for understanding the relationship between the past and the present in the Kanak world and beyond.

  • 5 “Tok Pisin” is the official term used to designate the pidgin spoken in Papua New Guinea.

13In the inland regions of the big Pacific islands, Christianization is a much more recent phenomenon and certain modes of resistance to the Christian message, like moreover new forms of religious expression, show the local populations’ desire to create and to control the conditions of their spiritual life. In the profoundly Christian country of Papua New Guinea, the situation of the Ankave is an exception, as Pascale Bonnemère undertakes to show us. Since 1972 several representatives of the Lutheran Church have been sent into the Suowi valley to convert its inhabitants, but none of them have stayed more than two consecutive years. During the 1990s, one of them might have managed to introduce the Christian message enduringly, particularly because he taught many villagers to read Tok Pisin5, but he behaved so disrespectfully towards the local culture and the men defending it that he was driven out for good and his successors forced to leave the valley as soon as they arrived. The situation was still the same in 2002. The author seeks to understand the Ankave’s reluctance to receive men of the church amongst them on a long-term basis and shows us that this is due both to external factors and to reasons linked to their history.

14The Asmat of East Papua were converted to Christianity by American missionaries. In the whole region inhabited by the Asmat, there are four Catholic denominations, two Protestant ones and a Pentecostal one. However, for Astrid de Hontheim, it is above all the Crosier Fathers (Catholics) and the members of The Evangelical Alliance Mission (TEAM, Protestants) who can be considered responsible for evangelization efforts in this region. Astrid de Hontheim compares the ideas and behaviour these two missionary orders, one Catholic the other Protestant, develop in their relations with the Asmat in a fundamental sphere of social life, that of health. This approach enables her to present the way in which the Asmat cope with illness and misfortune and to evaluate the missionaries’ involvement on a medical level as well as the manner in which this involvement affects the confidence the Asmat place in them.

15In the more contemporary forms of evangelical Christianity and millenarian movements, the legitimacy of the Church institution is sometimes replaced by the personal authority of the prophet priest. This is the case for the John Frum cult in Vanuatu. However, going against the analyses that see the cargo cults as Western “narrative constructions”, Marc Tabani explores the continuity of this millenarian cult on the island of Tanna (Vanuatu). Known as one of the most famous, its history already goes back more than seventy years. The powerful millenarian revival it has been going through since the year 2000 is on a scale with the prophetic outbursts of its past. Though the field observations run counter to current assertions about the “non-existence of cargo cults”, they also tend to invalidate former theoretical propositions which likened these cults to movements which were the “forerunners of nationalism”. In order to fully grasp the originality of the John Frum cult, the author pays particular attention to the question of time and of the indigenization of the millenarian representations.

16In the traditional churches as in the new charismatic movements, women or the young constitute collective interest groups whose concerns spread far beyond purely religious needs. Deborah van Heekeren, Annelin Eriksen and Gabriele Weichart discuss the value of sociality, of relations with the community, under the influence of Christianity. Deborah van Heekeren has chosen to focus her attention on the “companionship” exchanges which are part of the programme of the United Church Women’s Fellowship of the Vula’a (usually known as the Hula) on the South-East coast of Papua New Guinea. The comparison, in these networks of Christian companionship, between the new forms of exchange and more traditional ones, based on a study of the socio-historic context of the Vula’a and neighbouring Melanesian groups, reveals in the author’s eyes the ontological dimension of gift exchange. Deborah van Heekeren comes to the conclusion that it is not exchange relations which create society but that, on the contrary, it is relational ontology which generates these exchanges. For the author, this ontology is essentially relational because it represents a mode of being based on the need for establishing and maintaining relations through exchange.

17On the island of Ambrym, in Vanuatu, the structure of social relations is based on a fundamental differentiation between gender categories. Annelin Eriksen contrasts female roles and activities with male gift exchange practices in a graded society and shows how they are all both hierarchically opposed and related, according to the analytical model proposed by Dumont (1966). While personalization and competition characterize exchange practices among men, it is sharing among peers which is the mark of women’s exchange activities. The study of gender relations in the church of Ambrym and the comparison of them with those prevailing in society in general, where the men’s hierarchy is dominant, reveal how, in the context of the church, the hierarchical relation is inverted.

18For her part, Gabriele Weichart proposes a discussion of community aspects and individualism in Minahasa society, in the North-East of Sulawesi, Indonesia. Although this region is not usually part of Oceania, the history of its Christianization, the native people’s reactions, their ways of adopting Christianity and adjusting it to their culture present many similarities with the examples from the islands of the Pacific. In the eyes of the author, the traditional values of equality and competition are encouraged in the contemporary Christian environment in which concern for the community and for the individual go hand in hand. For the author, this constitutes an important factor in the adoption and success of the Christian church in Minhasa society.

19The last text in this work look at the question of radical change, of the dialectics of rupture and continuity in Melanesian societies confronted with the rigid injunctions of the charismatic and pentecostal Churches. Joel Robbins undertakes a discussion of individualism in Melanesian societies, more particularly among the Urapmin of Papua New Guinea. Using the Dumontian theory of the hierarchy of values, he interprets the shift of a society centred on the relational dimension in pre-Christian times towards a contemporary individualistic orientation as a change in values leading eventually to a radical cultural transformation. In his analysis of charismatic and pentecostal Christianity, Joel Robbins is less interested in the Church as an institution as in Christianity as a system of ideas.

20As all the contributions to the present work demonstrate, religious anthropology in the societies of the Pacific appears today to have been considerably transformed and enriched, in particular thanks to a critical and reflexive reappraisal of its own field of research liable to make sense of a wealth of new data. One of the epistemological choices resulting from this reflection was a reassessment in the 1990s of the historical dimension of the phenomena involved in religious dynamics, a choice to which most of the authors in this work adhere. This shows too an emergent idea in current research: that of also taking into account the subjectivity of religious experience in all its diversity, in its most spectacular expressions as in its most secret or hidden aspects.



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1 See Douglas, 1995: 57-92.

2 See Fer and Malogne-Fer, 2009: 13-30.

3 With regard to this debate, see in particular Keesing (1989), Jolly and Thomas (1992), Sahlins (1993), Friedman (1993), Babadzan (1999). On the question of autochthonous populations’ roots in history, cf. Bastide (1970), Douaire-Marsaudon (2002), Hamelin and Wittersheim (eds) 2002.

4 All the presentations at the ESfO 2005 conference were given in English but, as it was decided to publish a bilingual work, some of the French authors have translated their text into their own language and two English-speaking authors have been kind enough to accept translation into French (J. Robbins and A. Eriksen; see the English version (published) in their bibliography).

5 “Tok Pisin” is the official term used to designate the pidgin spoken in Papua New Guinea.


Directrice de recherche au CNRS et membre du Centre de recherche et de documentation sur l’Océanie (CREDO), à Marseille. Ses recherches, commencées en 1982 à Tonga, puis à Wallis et à Futuna, ont pour objet l’étude des rapports entre les transformations des systèmes politiques polynésiens et la construction de la personne (sexuée), les processus de christianisation et les relations entre mémoire et histoire. Elle a publié notamment Les premiers fruits : Parenté, identité sexuelle et pouvoirs en Polynésie (Tonga, Wallis et Futuna), Paris : CNRS-Éditions et Éditions de la MSH (1998) et elle a coordonné plusieurs ouvrages dont The Changing South Pacific : Identities and Transformations, (avec S. Tcherkézoff), Canberra : Pandanus Book, ANU (2005) ; Missionnaires chrétiens, XIXe-XXe, Asie-Pacifique (avec A. Guillemin et C. Zheng) Autrement (2008) ; Grand-mère, grand-père. La grand parentalité en Asie et dans le Pacifique, Marseille, Publications de l’Université de Provence (2008).

Chargée de cours au Département d’Anthropologie sociale et culturelle de l’Université de Vienne (Autriche). Ses recherches de terrain se situent en Indonésie et dans l’Australie indigène et ses publications portent sur l’art et l’identité, la nourriture et les festins ainsi que sur le christianisme et les missions chrétiennes. Elle a co-édité Food Chains : Eating, drinking, feeding – framing social relations (Les chaînes alimentaires : du boire et du manger ou comment se nourrissent les relations sociales) dans le périodique Anthropology of Food (2007).

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