Saturday 16 March 2013



A decade ago (thus before I was a Christian) I was fascinated by shamans and also by neo-shamanism (the modern Western revival of would-be shamanism)  

I read scores of books on the subject, ranging from library copies of 19th century 'first contact' accounts of hunter gatherers (eg in Tierra del Fuego or among the Eskimos), to modern ethnographic scholarship, and New Age 'self-help' or spiritual books.

It was a personal quest.

I was an alienated modern intellectual seeking 'contact' with reality via the kind of animism of children and nomadic peoples. This seemed to me to be the 'meaning' in life - not a matter of purpose or a cosmic plan; but simply life as a fully-engaged relationship with the rest of the world.


My own 'shamanic' experiences were periods of this kind of thinking, semi-dreamlike moments or minutes when I was fully engaged with the world - solitary, generally remote, often in relation to natural phenomena.


The fact that I have become a Christian is evidence that this kind of things was 'not enough'; but it was valuable in itself - and I have often striven to ensure that my Christian life incorporates the value that I found in Shamanism - which is why I consider a personal relationship with a personal God to be a non-negotiable essence and ideal of Christian life - for lack of which nothing can compensate.


The animistic hunter gatherer (or indeed, ourselves when we were children) lived in a world of meaningful personal relationships that included landscape features, the sky, plants and animals - as well as people.

All this is, and ought-to-be, incorporated-within Christianity - and not (as so often) rejected as a 'paganism' which Christianity has superceded.


Many devout Christians have a lively and personal relationship with Christ, and also with other people especially family - but in order to live properly in this world, as God intends us to live, these relationships should also embrace the natural world - Christians should strive to see the natural world in a lively and personal way.

(Or, perhaps not so much strive as simply allow themselves to do this - because it is spontaneous.)

Different traditions provide different vocabularies by which this may be done (for example, the medieval Christian understanding that the sun, stars and planets are angelic intelligences).

But however it may be done, done it should be!



George said...

C.S. Lewis would agree, based on Narnian descriptions.

Christ was not an aloof ascetic, but a passionate man with direct and very personal relationships.

Bruce Charlton said...

@G - Yes indeed.

This matter is very well covered in an essay on the pagan aspects of Lewis and Tolkien written by the most scholarly of modern neo-pagans - The Inklings and the Gods, by Ronald Hutton and published in the collection Witches, Kings and King Arthur (2003)

Arakawa said...

Oof, having had a number of strange experiences, it is not something I would wish lightly on someone. When I am not suppressing continued experience (the majority of the time, nowadays, though I am not always aware that is what I'm doing) I am conscious of a very painful duality, with an invisible world that overlays the material reality but does not mix with it, like oil and water.

Part of it came from a frivolous attempt some years ago to learn lucid dreaming, part of it was a sort of constant intuition that was always present, of the existence of outside influences on the mind (some extremely negative and to be repelled at all costs), and part of it came from an attempt to write fiction where I was trying to think through the behaviour of the characters and wound up bringing them to life... perhaps a little too well....

(If the two experiences of reality were to mix at any point, that would amount to insanity. As such, it is an irritating sanity, having to hold two difficult-to-reconcile sets of facts in my head at once.)

To put it simply, not having 'shamanic' experiences alienates me from myself, whereas having them alienates me from the conventional beliefs of society and - far more vexingly - conventional Christian doctrine.

(How exactly will I explain to a priest, for instance, that the person most insistent that I keep considering Christianity, who shows up to remind me to pray, and insists that I do not give up on overcoming particular venal sins, is either an animated figment of my imagination from an attempt to write a story, or some kind of travelling spirit who does not really fit into any doctrinal classification?)

My most vexing engagement is indeed with the Christian patristic writers. They indeed confirm my own direct experience of purposive evil, but then go on to say that everything else I experienced in the same manner that did not exhibit evil motivations, was either a delusion or a far more subtle demonic deception.

As such, my 'direct experience of the living world' is on uneasy hold until I can either square the circle with the doctrines that do not admit what I experience, or I can convince myself that such experience is actually unnecessary outside a strictly liturgical context (i.e. move in the opposite direction from what is advocated by this post)....

I observe that even in hunter-gatherer tribes where such experiences were accepted, the shaman (the person putting the least limitation on such experiences) was often a single specialist working on behalf of the tribe.

Bruce Charlton said...

@A - my current understanding of these matters (!) is that the warnings of the Holy Fathers apply to the dangers of deliberately deploying solitary ascetic practices (or implicitly equivalent 'technologies' such as drugs) in hope of attaining theosis - the danger being that the opposite will occur.

But the frequency, and beneficial results, of such direct spiritual experiences within the lives of many very obviously 'good' Christians through history and the current world, suggests that the dangers may be mostly among those whose motivations are bad (e.g. they seek power to enhance their own status or to control/ harm others), or who are socially disconnected, and/or who use extreme technologies.

Indeed, I would regard these as positive aspects of life - so long as they are not boasted of, nor exploited (ie like prayer, done quietly and privately).

Put it this way, Christianity without 'gifts of the holy spirit' including personal revelations and private miracles is hardly Christianity at all - more like a life 'about' Christianity than a real Christian life.

My impression of shamans is that they were usually rather unhappy and isolated folk - many did a very important job for the tribe (rather like creative geniuses of recent years), but some were evil (like creative geniuses of recent years).

Arakawa said...

Generally speaking, any particular talent or gift one has needs to be commended to God's will. (This applies to mundane talents just as much as spiritual gifts.)

Obviously, if one is not worthy of the talent, that amounts to giving it up.

If one is worthy of the talent, if it is a good talent to have, experience shows that it will be returned in redoubled form.

If one holds on to the talent without putting it to the test, it will fester.

(This is my personal reading of the parable of the talents. Burying the talent is done either by not putting it to use, or by hoarding it, expecting to use it as a birthright that one is entitled to keep no matter what.)

Basically, no gift one has can fester on the earth indefinitely. Everything must be put to the test, a real one where the gift itself is at stake, and may be lost.

This understanding of the matter of talents and abilities has a completely different basis from the secular understanding of how abilities are cultivated; it is, in practice, very difficult to remember and to translate into actual (as opposed to merely symbolic/pretended) actions.

But this understanding sidesteps the issue of clinging to something like this, while agonizing whether it is good or whether it is bad (something that, I have to admit, is probably beyond my intellectual capacity to verify). Gifts of any sort are for giving up to God, full stop, whether good or bad. If they are meant to return, they will return redoubled (and must be given up to God again, in an even more difficult decision given the magnitude of the gift!). I suspect that in the most blessed individuals, this process of renunciation and return is continuous, rather than flipping from one action to the other, and so every moment it is as though the gift is enjoyed for what it is, as if being given for the very first time.

I suspect that the misery of the 'evil creative genius' type is a function of them attaining to great talent, but then clinging to it as though the sole owner and proprietor; though this mistake is not exclusive to the 'evil' types, given that renunciation is so hard, and it is so unintuitive to simultaneously enjoy a thing and renounce it.

AlexT said...

Incorporating pagan and animist elements is quite common in Orthodoxy. My favourite example is the presence of totem poles outside of churches in Alaska. I think the logic was that just about anything is sanctifiable as long as it's not turned into an idol.

Sylvie D. Rousseau said...

While thinking of what you wrote on 'abstraction' and related issues, or about children naturally believing in God before lapsing in unbelief when older, I remembered a book from the 60’s I read for a class in Canadian English literature, describing a young boy feeling what the commenters called 'communion' with nature.

I experienced many times such a 'feeling' – which is really not a feeling – while alone on the bank of the majestic river or in the forest nearby our home, and on some other occasions of solitary contemplation of ‘nature’. It was not linked to religious thoughts. I had religious thoughts at Church and when praying (I was devout as a child), but this ‘feeling’ occurred later, around 13-15, when I wasn’t devout anymore; I became religiously indifferent near 17.

Much later, I discovered what the ‘feeling’ was, and why I can understand metaphysics to some extent, while I can’t do the simplest calculations without error: it is the intuition of being(cf. Jacques Maritain, Preface to Metaphysics). I think this existential intuition (or what you call self-remembering: to me, it sounds very near) is the main reason why you felt acutely the sense of alienation of Western secular society and eventually came back to Christian belief and practice.

Unfortunately, the Protestant metaphysical frame must eventually be discarded to return to classical theism. Protestant thought (Mormonism is part of it: idealism and materialism are metaphysical stances too) is fundamentally a divorce between ‘spirit and authority, Gospel and Law, subject and object, intimate and transcendent’ and does not respect the order of things deriving from the spiritual reality. (Cf. J. Maritain, Three Reformers: Luther, Descartes, Rousseau. A few pages of this book can be found there:

The Crow said...

Interesting you should say that that something "was not enough".
Enough for what? Compared to?
I've never quite seen life as needing to be enough for me. I mean, it is life, after all. Isn't it?

JP said...

Whenever I'm filling out bureaucratic forms that ask my profession when they have no reason to know it, I answer "Shaman".

The Crow said...

Haha JP:
Whenever anyone enquires as to 'what I do', I answer "I exaggerate!"

NJ said...

Do you know of the book Godseed: The Journey of Christ?

That's a step towards what you're discussing.

Accessing the visionary realms to come to a deeper understanding of Christianity has a long history and would likely be restorative of a too often dry and declining religion. Reading Corinthians seriously and thus pursuing more direct prophetic experience would also likely be helpful.

Bruce Charlton said...

I haven't read Godseed, but it looks like it comes from the neo-pagan perspective which I left - I think the problem needs to be approached from the opposite (Christian) end.