Tropical Idolatry

A Theological History of Catholic Colonialism in the Pacific World, 1568-1700

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R. L. Green
  • New York, NY: 
    Lexington Books
    , June
     150 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


R. L. Green engages in an in-depth study of Jesuit missiological activity throughout the Pacific, including Mexico, the Philippines, and the Mariana Islands. Green’s Tropical Idolatry: A Theological History of Catholic Colonialism in the Pacific World, 1568-1800 fleshes out the religious confrontation between the Spanish colonizers and the various indigenous populations they encountered, and whom they saw as idolatrous and consequently oppressed. 

The first chapter deals with how Spanish Jesuits perceived themselves and the indigenous peoples, which also affected how the former would interact with and understand the latter (17). Green recounts the objectives of the group and the role of the spiritual exercises in the formation of the order, which would lend itself well to the current imperial agenda. This leads into the second chapter, where Green discusses how “empire would frame the theological discourse and spiritual traditions of their religious order” as they developed and did their work in the various colonies (35). The chapter points to how intertwined the Jesuits were with the current setup of the colonies, which led to internal tension amidst their growth and success in the Pacific region. Chapters 3 and 4 then discuss how this close relationship of colonialism and religion was justified by elaborating on the theological and missiological worldview that employed the Spanish Catholic understanding of law and idolatry. Green does this by engaging with early modern Jesuit Father José de Acosta’s work, highlighting how de Acosta’s work as a Jesuit influenced the use of violence in converting indigenous populations and how de Acosta understood idolatry. Chapters 5 and 6 then elaborate on how the theological worldview in chapters 3 and 4 are put into practice in the Pacific region. The fifth chapter focuses on the Philippines while the sixth focuses on Mexico and the Mariana islands, where Acosta’s notions of nature idolatry were “affirmed” after observing the religious practices of the indigenous populations. In response, the Jesuits would use various methods to gain the friendship and trust of the indigenous population, yet at the same time destroy non-Christian icons and discredit other religious specialists, wiping away integral aspects of the indigenous people’s cultures.

Green’s work situates Jesuit activity within the socio-political milieu of that time and the theological framework of the Jesuit order. He focuses primarily on printed historical works, but also at times makes use of other unpublished material and is clear in his use of various terms throughout the book. The text itself is also well researched and thorough. It serves as an interesting dialogue partner with other work such as that of Horacio de la Costa, a Jesuit historian native to the Philippines who produced work that also covers roughly the same time period and whom Green also briefly mentions in his historiography.

By taking a look at the missionary conversion methods that the Spanish Jesuits used, Green gives a detailed picture of how closely entangled religion and empire where during the colonization period, and how such an entanglement led to the colonizing of, violence against, and the deaths of many people in the name of evangelization. That complexifies the events surrounding colonization and religion and shows the substantial effect of the imperial ideology on Jesuit theology, and subsequently, of this Jesuit theology on the colonizing and mission efforts during that time.

One interesting note was the contact between Catholicism and Islam during this time. In doing their missiological work in the Philippines, the Jesuits had to contend with a sizable Islamic population that was also proselytizing and thus, in competition with the Jesuits and other Catholic groups. Green acknowledges that discussing Islam added a further layer of complexity to his work, though he does not expound upon this topic as much, as he notes that the Jesuits “did not intend to confront Filipino Islam head on” but rather “sought to strengthen the faith of neophytes saved from nature idolatry” even though the Jesuits also acknowledged Islam as “more of a threat to the Jesuit enterprise than simple nature idolatry” (96). It would thus be interesting to see Green’s work in conversation with work on Islam and colonization and how those issues affected efforts to build empire.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Stephanie Ann Puen is a doctoral student in Theology and Teaching Fellow at Fordham University.

Date of Review: 
October 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

R. L. Green is Assistant Professor of Religion at the College of the Holy Cross.


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