The roots of Maori spirituality lie deep in their ancestral heritage. It is something they share with all Polynesian peoples, but it goes even further back in time to include all Austronesian peoples.
The Austronesian family extends from Taiwan in the north to Easter Island in the east, New Zealand in the south and Madagascar in the west (but excluding Australia and inland peoples of Papua New Guinea). This great family share historically related languages and cultures.
Religion in Austronesian societies is not separate from the rest of culture. It has been referred to as an ‘implicit religion’ in that it permeates the whole culture. In recent centuries these cultures have embraced Hinduism, Islam and Christianity but always bringing their distinctive spiritual attitudes to their new faiths.
These spiritual attitudes lie deep in their respective worldviews. These are difficult to describe because they lie more at the subconscious levels of experience and show themselves most immediately in the works of the imagination, in the mythologies, arts and religious life of populations. It is in their imaginative life that communities create the metaphors by which they represent their world.
Identifying a generalised New Zealand Pakeha worldview is made difficult by the complexity of Pakeha society and its shallow historical roots in this land. Nevertheless it does reflect something of European cultural history before colonisation.
Perhaps most significant is the influence of the philosopher Rene Descartes on European thought. His rationalism, his splitting of mind and body as well as his emphasis on the thinking individual (‘I think therefore I am’) as defining the human person, underpin the analytical way westerners continue to think about their world and their place in it. As well as Descartes there are ideas derived from the 18th century Age of Enlightenment such as secularism, positivism and utilitarianism which were imported uncritically into the young colony and have become the foundations of our public culture.
No one is an island
All this contrasts markedly with the way Maori view the world. For one thing the western ideal of the isolable individual as a free agent is antithetical to Maori social values. No person stands alone. Somewhere there is a group to which the person belongs, from which he/she derives a meaningful identity and without which there is no sense of wholeness.
Similarly the soul and body remain integral in the consciousness of the Maori person. Furthermore Maori are imbued with a deep sense of the sacred in ordinary everyday life, and the spiritual touches life in all its dimensions. Such a view does not recognise the binary categories of sacred and secular.
The late Rev Maori Marsden, a notable Maori theologian, observed how Maori conceive of the universe as a two-world system ‘in which the material proceeds from the spiritual and the spiritual (which is the higher order) interpenetrates the material physical world of Te Ao Marama.’
He concluded ‘that while the Maori thought of the physical sphere as subject to natural laws, these could be affected, modified and even changed by the application of the higher laws of the spiritual order.’
He is saying that the Maori reality is rooted in the physical and the metaphysical, the spiritual and the material, and both must be considered when change and development are contemplated.
With such sharply contrasting views of reality it is not surprising that conflicts should arise between Maori and Pakeha in the public domain. The Maori sense of the sacred challenges the secular culture of Pakeha New Zealand more forcefully than do the Christian churches.
There is frequent conflict between Maori communities and local authorities over the use of land considered wahi tapu, or sacred. These are often old burial sites or places associated with mythical guardians (taniwha, kaitiaki). Instead of dismissing taniwha as irrational Maori superstition they are best understood as a way of talking about metaphysical realities not recognised in Pakeha public discourse. They are ways of reminding us all that development is not solely a material matter.
The South African theologian David Bosch once contrasted differences between Old Testament Hebrews and primitive Christian attitudes towards God with later Christian thought influenced by Greek philosophy. In his view the God of history gave way to a metaphysical God, and rational knowledge became more real than knowledge from experience. It became more important to reflect on God’s nature than on the relationship in which people stood to him, ‘and the abstract idea became more real than the historical’.
In a general way Maori culture differs from Pakeha in the importance it attaches to history (as the deeds of the ancestors) as opposed to the Pakeha concern for progress, and event, requiring interpretation, as distinct from event requiring rational explanation.
There is also a strong sense of the imminence of the divine in the world contrasting with the human-centred rational universe of the Pakeha.
In these ways Maori worldviews and their concomitant spiritualities are more reminiscent of the Hebrews of the Old Testament whereas Pakeha worldviews show their roots as springing from the Greeks.