A hierarchy of symbols : Samoan religious symbolism in New Zealand

Theology Religion Christianity Humanities Arts and Social Science (HASS) Samoa New Zealand

This dissertation seeks to understand the religious experience of Samoans in New Zealand. The research uses the framework and themes of phenomenology of religion to observe, describe and interpret the expressions of Samoan religious experience in the thoughts of Samoans, their actions and their communities.The major analysis is conducted on the basis of selected theoretical structures of symbolism, for religious symbols are an important means of expressing and thereby interpreting religious experience. Religions work through clusters of symbols which are activated by universal symbols. Religious symbols enable humans to conceptualize and thus experience the ultimate reality of God and salvation.Samoan life is based on the inter-related areas and entwined symbols of fa'a-Samoa ('traditional Samoan way of doing things'), the āiga ('extended family') and the Christian Church. Central to all three is the experience of living within a hierarchy, for Christianity, fa'a-Samoa and Samoan families are all hierarchically structured. In both their secular and religious lives, the hierarchy is a key symbol of life and salvation.Christianity plays a significant part in the lives of Samoans. The churches can be divided into two groups according to their acceptance or "rejection" of the cultural activities and ceremonies of fa'a-Samoa. However, instead of detailing the particulars of each religious group, this dissertation seeks to identify and describe the symbolic components which are important in the formulation of Samoan religious experience and which continue to activate the religious expressions of Samoans in New Zealand.Part One introduces the different kinds of Samoan churches and examines varying types of religious experiences. Then traditional mythical models of hierarchy, sacrifice and associated taboos are discussed, for there is a strong possibility that the symbolism has been deeply embedded within the Samoan psyche. Because of this, the Samoan hierarchy and the discipline with which individuals subject their needs to that of their family and church, is reinforced through the traditional requirements, protocols and ceremonies of fa 'a-Samoa.Part Two focuses on characteristics and functions of religious symbols, and presents examples of mythical, allegorical, visual and natural symbols which are consciously used by Samoans. The perennial phenomenological themes of time and space are introduced through the hierarchical structure of the 'ie tōga ('fine mats') followed by an analysis of the Samoan concept of time, the symbolic functions of Samoan personal names and Samoan church buildings.As a result of this research one can affirm that the religious experience of Samoans in New Zealand is closely tied to the symbols of hierarchy, for it is the hierarchical thrust which leads humans to the ultimate values in life. This symbolism becomes even more significant when it is combined with the universal symbolism of regeneration as manifested in the use of 'ie tōga for feagaiga ('covenants') and māvaega ('farewells'). These symbolize the pulse beat of the constant meetings and partings - an essential component of Samoan time and the human life cycle.

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