Catholicism was thrust upon the Aymara and Quechua of modern-day Bolivia, and fused with their existing Andean belief system. Evangelicals are, rightly, critical of the syncretism that has resulted. But did Evangelicalism in Latin America make more of a clean break with paganism, or are Protestants just less able to see the more insipid remnants of a pre-Christian worldview?
In Aymara anthropology, all humans have ajayu. It's an aura or spiritual well-being. And it's very, very fragile. Ajayu can be lost when a child falls over, or when we receive a shock. Fear of losing ajayu can lead to overprotection and obsession about what might happen. The treatment, as far as I observed, is lots of kisses and hugs and stacks of blankets, warm drinks and more hugs and kisses.
In an attempt to preserve ajayu, pagos are offered to Pachamama and the myriad apus, or mountain spirits. These might be sweets, amulets, confetti or the first sips of a beer poured onto the ground. While Pachamama works through nature to nourish and maintain balance, the apus are mischievous and capricious. So, Aymara spirituality is essentially pessimistic: pagos don't so much bring good luck as, hopefully, avert bad luck by appeasing malevolent spiritual forces who are all too ready to mess with your ajayu.
(From here on, I promise not to introduce any more Aymara words.)
Western visitors are often confused by Andean culture, close in many ways to the fun-loving stereotype of Latin America, yet imbued with a disarming pathos just under the surface.
Fiesta-filled it might be, care-free it's not: there's a palpable sense of worry. Worry of catching an illness via bare feet, worry that a change in weather will bring on a cold, worry that you'll get an infection from eating raw fruit or salad, and worry about travel to the next city.
If you saw the roads, you'd worry too, and in many ways it's no bad thing to think twice about eating lettuce from a street cart vendor. But when worry takes over, it can become an immobilizing force, we get overprotective and give ourselves ulcers.
Fear can be as devastating to our ajayu as anything an apu could do to us.
In rural Potosí, I once met a man about 35 who looked about 60. He was depressed, gaunt, with no appetite or energy. This Christian man from a local Protestant church was brought for prayer by his family, all convinced that the apus had cursed him and weakened his ajayu. Now this is the thing, maybe that was the case, I don't know. But the fear looked to me to be what was crippling him and them.
Everyone prayed, including the man's family. And the prayer went something like, 'Papito bendito celestial - blessed heavenly daddy - hold him, and keep him, and guard him, and protect him ... from all harm, and all injury, all assaults of the devil, all attacks by demons, ...'. Synonyms piled high. No eventuality left out that could be thought of.
Because if God is like the apus, he might take delight in spotting a hole in the prayer. Aha, you prayed that you'd arrive at your destination, but you didn't say alive! Or well!
Folk religion seems to develop everywhere, not just the Bolivian Highlands. I didn't publish this blog before because I didn't want to be critical of the Bolivian church. But it's common to the worldwide church; it's just more exotic to me as a European that this one incident happened in Potosí.
I suppose you don't have to travel to the Andes to find pagan influence on Christian thought.
And I suppose, too, that just as the Catholic Church is still hard at the job they started following the Conquista, Anglican and other Protestant churches have to learn patience on the mission field. These things don't change overnight.
But what a job for the missionary in highland Bolivia. To foster trust in God, unlike the capricious apus, and to toil in prayer unlike the pagan pagos. To teach, and learn, to be optimistic. To deliver from fear.
“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!"
(Matt. 7, 7ff)