How do we explain the unexplainable? A question that seems simple enough yet brings about a different answer from most everyone it’s asked. One thing that most answers will have in common though is that they will suggest the supernatural. In this essay we’ll be exploring the many supernatural beliefs present in American culture, from Christianity to voodoo. First we’ll take a look at some of the different belief systems and practices present in the U. S. , and later on the function they serve as a part of our culture.
One of the biggest belief systems in our culture today would have to be that of Christianity. Christianity stretches back to around 30 A. D. when the death of Jesus Christ, believed to be the son of God, occurred. Christians believe that Jesus Christ was the incarnation of God in the flesh; consequently they worship him as their god. According to Christianity, God and Jesus Christ are one and the same. Christians believe that Jesus was crucified for sins committed by humanity, thereby saving the people who had committed the sins.
To them this was the ultimate act of righteousness and they hold Jesus as their savior for it. Just as God was incarnated into flesh once as Jesus Christ, Christians believe there will be a second coming marking their salvation and the damnation of the sinners of the world. Christians also believe in the completion of sacraments, or visible and outside actions that show inner faith in God. Christians believe in completing two sacraments, that of baptism and the Eucharist. Baptism is a sort of initiation into Christianity; therefore it’s usually done during the infancy of a child born to Christian parents.
The washing of the child is used to signify the cleansing away of worldly evils and the entrance of the child into a pure and clean life through the worship of Jesus Christ (http://www. beswick. info/basicch/whatwe. htm,1997). The Eucharist which is a sacrificial meal eaten in the name of Christ. Catholicism is also a major belief system in our culture. Similar to Christianity, Catholics also believe Jesus Christ to be the son of God. Catholics believe that God gives to the good and punishes the bad.
Catholics, like Christians, believe in sacraments, but unlike Christians they have seven instead of two. The seven sacraments of Catholicism are the sacraments of baptism, the Eucharist, confirmation, penance, anointing of the sick, holy orders, and matrimony. The sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist are explained in the paragraph concerning Christianity. Due to lack of space I’ll only be explaining a couple of the Catholic sacraments.
Catholics believe that the church is a holy institution with the power to forgive all sins (http://www. catholic. org/clife/prayers/sacrament. php? d=4,2003), thus when a member of the church sins it is his duty to confess the sin to the church and receive punishment due, this is penance. The sacrament of matrimony calls for members of the church and live according to the standards of the church for the duration of their lives. Another staple of the Catholic Church is communion. Communion is when a member of the church is believed to receive the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Christ through the ingestion of bread and wine. Judaism, while not as prominent as Christianity or Catholicism, also represents a major part of our religious culture.
Judaism is based on the story of a man named Abraham who lived sometime between 1900-1400 B. C. According to the story Abraham questioned the practice of his ancestors to worship statues carved out of wood and clay. So he goes on an odyssey to seek his own faith. During his journey he turns his worship to many objects and forces, such as the stars and the moon. After feeling no spiritual fulfillment Abraham finally decides that one god must rule over everything. At the moment Abraham realizes this he bows before this god and prays to him, it is said that God then revealed himself to Abraham (Rossel 2003).
Jews, like Christians and Catholics, believe in one god. However, Jews do not believe in Jesus Christ. Jews do not believe it possible to be both god and man, as Christians contend Jesus was. Jews believe that God and man are separate entities, and that every person is created equally in God’s image, making us all sons and daughters of God. Jews practice circumcision as a sign of the covenant, or promise, made between God and Abraham that Abraham’s children (the Jewish people) would inherit the holy land of Canaan (Rossel 2003).
Islam is the last belief system we will be looking at dealing in the God that is believed to have given life to Jesus and spoken to Abraham. The Muslim religion is centered on the belief that Mohammed was the last great prophet in a chain that included Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. Mohammed is said to have lived from 570-632 A. D. and was said to have received revelations from God for 23 of those years. The Muslim book of revelations is the Koran. Muslims believe that on the Day of Judgment everyone will rise from the dead and be sent to either heaven or hell eternally.
Muslims practice living life by a divine law called Sharia which casts ideals on many aspects of their everyday life. Sharia holds religious and secular law to be one and the same. Muslims hold five key practices, they are as follows; Shahada is the profession of faith in God and belief in his prophet Mohammed, Salah is the formal worship of God, Zakat is a system of giving in which 2. 5% of ones total yearly income is given to the poor and less fortunate, Hajj is a journey to Mecca that every Muslim undertakes in their lifetime at least once, and Sawm is fasting during the holiday of Ramadan (http://www. slam-guide. com/ch3-2. htm, No Date).
Paganism is a very different set of beliefs from those mentioned above. Paganism can involve witchcraft and is therefore shunned by practitioners of the previously mentioned religions. Paganism is centered on the belief and worship of both a God and Goddess, the worship of two figures is said to bring a better spiritual balance for Pagans (http://members. aol. com/mjolnir13/pagan101/paganblf. htm, No Date). Practitioners of Paganism believe that every force and physical object is a part of their God and Goddess.
Ideally Pagans are very tolerant of other beliefs and tend to live by a “live and let live,” policy when it comes to belief systems. They choose not to push their beliefs onto others nor do they admonish those who hold different beliefs from their own. Paganism favors its elders for their knowledge and experience (http://members. aol. com/mjolnir13/pagan101/paganblf. htm, No Date). A very central aspect in Paganism is the “law of three” which means that any action you take, positive or negative, will be returned to you threefold (http://members. aol. om/mjolnir13/pagan101/paganblf. htm, No Date). One of the most misunderstood belief systems in our culture today is that of voodoo. The most common image that will pop into many peoples minds at the mention of ‘voodoo’ is, of course, a voodoo doll, and of course with this comes the assumption that if I were to, for example, poke the doll in the heart with a pin, then I will infact have pierced the heart of the person the doll is made to represent, killing them. This is a classic example of an idea put into our heads by enculturation and holds no truth.
Voodoo came to be in the 17th century as a combination of West African and Roman Catholic religions. It was created by slaves in the American South (http://brnet. com/vopage. html, No Date). Voodoo is based on the existence of spirits called ‘loa’ that are channeled and controlled by priests or priestesses. Voodoo also invokes the use of curses, charms, and spells which they call ‘gris-gris’. These ‘gris-gris’ can be used for both good and evil. Contrary to popular belief most voodoo practitioners insist that voodoo’s primary function is to cure ailments (http://brnet. om/vopage. html, No Date).
However there is a dark side of voodoo called ‘Petro’ that encompasses the calling of evil and angry spirits, and involving death curses and the making of zombies as told to Gino DelGuercio in the article “Secrets of Haiti’s Living Dead”. These belief systems serve many different purposes to the people who practice them. Some of them less meaningful, such as a Pagan relating himself getting cut on the hand to the ‘law of three’. Some of them very meaningful, such as a Catholic understanding that his purpose for being in the world is to serve God.
A lot of belief systems serve as a source of morals and a structure for discipline in our everyday lives. Religions such as Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Catholicism all lay down moral guidelines early in their teachings. Holy laws such as the Ten Commandments or the Sharia of Islam are examples of such guidelines. Belief systems are also invaluable in explaining things that were previously unexplainable. How was the earth created? What happens to us when we die? These questions and more are what our supernatural beliefs answer for us.
Some belief systems such as Paganism can serve to explain why events happen in our everyday life. A Pagan might attribute their good fortune in finding money in the street to the fact that they gave a homeless person money earlier in the week. Most belief systems call upon their practitioners to congregate in practices and activities centered on their beliefs. Voodoo practitioners hold a ceremony to ensure good luck to one of their own who will be going on a long trip. Catholics attend mass on Sunday to receive communion and learn the teachings of the Bible.
The many belief systems and functions they serve in our culture will always be a source or great conflict and debate for those that they serve. For those of us taking an etic view, the supernatural will always spark fascination and curiosity among us. There are many different ways that we explain the unexplainable, each encompassing its own unique elements in doing so. However one common factor seems to abound when dealing in supernatural beliefs, each is unparalleled in the spiritual value they hold among their followers.