Wednesday 21 September 2011

Animism: ancient pagan, Christian, neo-pagan


Animism is the belief that nature is not just alive, but aware - perhaps conscious, and a thing with which humans can have a personal relationship.

But animism comes in various brands.


1. The ancient pagan or hunter gatherer type animism is mostly about power - about building alliances with natural phenomena.

At least that is the basis of 'shamanism' - to use, and benefit from, contact with, and a relation with, the spirit world of nature (animals, large plants such as trees, perhaps features such as a river or mountain).

Such contact being made in states of altered consciousness such as trance or sleep. The possibility of such a relation derives from the belief that 'life' circulates through the world, undergoing transformations - so boundaries between humans, and between humans and animals and other animated entities, are fluid. Life circulates as a spirit, by reincarnation, by transformation of forms - the shaman can therefore participate in relationships with other spirits.

Benefits sought might be wise advice (about hunting, finding food or water, when and where to move base, discernment of various types...), or healing, or success in some project (e.g. victory over rival tribes...).

(Something very similar to hunter gatherer animism is spontaneous to humans, and a feature of all young children - making adjustments for their more limited cognitive capacity. )


2. Christian animism sees nature as alive, conscious, purposive and intelligent - because animated by angels (and demons).

This is perhaps harder for modern people to conceptualize than is hunter gatherer animism - the best model I have seen is in Rupert Sheldrake's The Physics of Angels (and ignoring the confusing contributions of his co-author).

Sheldrake models angels by analogy with physical fields (like gravity, magnetism) and using concepts from quantum physics and relativity to understand difficult concepts such as how angels (like photons) have no mass (like fields), yet act locally (like particles).

Christian animism does not see animated nature as a potential source of powerful alliances, but as a description of reality that reveals the glory of God and the nature of His universe.

For example:


3. Modern, neo-pagan animism is primarily therapeutic: it seeks to cure the modern disease of alienation, to alleviate the sense of meaninglessness from the feeling of an isolated consciousness in a dead universe.

Modern neo-pagan animism is therefore a descendant of the psychological project of Jung. It is not about a description of extra-personal reality, but of perceived reality - and its objectivity comes from the assumption that there are universal, archetypal patterns of the human mind which may be discovered and stimulated.


So, these three perspectives share animism, but differ in the role they allocate to animism in the scheme of things.

By and large, pagans intend to use animated nature, to increase their life satisfaction whether physically or psychologically.

Christians, by contrast, revere or venerate animated nature, since the world has intelligence and of high status - but Christians also fear animated nature on earth and in time, since some of these high intelligences are malign.



The Crow said...

There is another angle to all of this:
Not to use nature for one's own gain, but to disappear into it, thus becoming one with it.
This may be seen as gain, for it delivers huge rewards, but it does so without costing anything, either from oneself, or from nature.
The human way seems always to be about taking from life, at the expense of life. In a way, putting oneself above life, and thus failing to actually live it.
The crow way, is about contributing oneself to life, and being sustained - and completed - by it.
There's nothing pagan about this. It is as natural as anything could be. And its results speak for themselves.

Anonymous said...

Dear Sir,

I recently found your blog and am slowly reading backward, as time permits. Your thoughts give me pause; the more substantive issues of life are too easy to ignore.

Thank you,

Kristen from Colorado

Bruce Charlton said...

@Crow - I regard paganism as natural - the spontaneous form of human spirituality. Its essence is everywhere the same, although the details are different everywhere.

However, if Christianity is true, is is not Good to disappear into nature, because nature is not Good but mixed with evil (extremely mixed) - indeed some naturalists (and doctors) are driven almost to despair by contemplation of the horrors of nature - animals devoured alive, parasites etc.

And cancer is natural, psychotic depression is natural (which is perhaps the worst that a human can suffer).

Furthermore, if we believe in purpose (and we seem born to this) then surely it makes no sense that humans should disappear into nature?

This would mean to stop being human - and indeed this strikes me as what (for example) Zen Buddhists are trying to do, and sometimes succeeding.

A frontal lobotomy is a surer short cut to the same goal - I am not joking. (Except of course that is not the end of the matter: the soul survives.)

Bruce Charlton said...

Kristen - Thanks, that's very encouraging.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Crow - btw thanks for not taking offence at some of my robust/ rude comments. I hope you know I regard you as one of the good pagans - a much better pagan than ever I was!

The Crow said...

Bruce: having lived in total wilderness for extended periods, I, too, was often horrified by the antics of nature.
But this, I conclude, was my human reaction to the sights I saw, interested as humans are, in living forever and in complete comfort and safety.
The truth, I now feel, is that life as we know it, is a transitory state, and not at all the one-and-only experience.
Everything dies. Why do we make such a song and dance about death? Is it fear?
Fearing the inevitable is a strangely human condition, wouldn't you say?
As for your being rude: well yes, I suppose you were, but I fancy I understand it was never for the sake of rudeness, but rather about exasperation that: this damned crow just doesn't seem to get it!
Crows were never the favourite of God's creatures, in the eyes of men :)

L{DiracDelta(t)} said...

Dr. Charlton,

Completely unrelated to this _specific_ post, but I wanted to mention another cerebral, Christian blogger that you might be interested in glancing at -- John C. Wright.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Crow - "Everything dies. Why do we make such a song and dance about death? Is it fear?"

It is, I think, that the soul severed from the body is to that extent maimed; which is a bad thing. The state of being a dis-embodied soul has been generally assumed to be a miserable state (aka a Ghost, Sheol, Hades, some conceptions of Hell).

People vary in how much they fear death. In so far as I am immune to this I suspect it is due to a deficiency in me, to 'stark insensibility' on my part (as Sam Johnson called the phenomenon, in a different context, when Boswell confused courage with stupidity); rather than to my being more spiritually advanced than those who do fear death and its outcome (like Sam Johnson himself).

The Crow said...

The soul doesn't get severed from the body, so much as it becomes free of the steadily ageing, steadily less-capable body, able, once more, to join with the whole creation.

The body never allows the soul to do this, in physical life, except in rather rare cases: Jesus, Buddha, Krishna, and others usually unheard-of.

People are always afraid of "ghosts" and the like. But people are afraid of many things. Fear, you might say, defines the average Joe.
I know for a fact, that fear is useless. Many disagree, but only because they have never arrived at a workable alternative.
Dispensing with fear moves one outside of linear time. The moments become eternal. This, I conclude, is the nature of immortality:
One does not die for as long as one is alive. And so living each moment endlessly, provides an endless life.

How do I know this stuff?
Crows know all sorts of things, while being unaware that what they know could ever be called "knowledge" :)

Bruce Charlton said...

@Crow - My feeling is that what you 'preach' reduces to amoral, selfish hedonism in the here-and-now, which is a deadly doctrine; but you don't live by this (thank heavens!); *therefore* what you practice *must* include other elements, implicit but perhaps not conscious.

The Crow said...

I make use of what is to hand, Bruce. I fully engage with being alive, while giving careful consideration to the coming state of no longer being alive.
As for being amoral: you have a knack for misunderstanding me :)
A more moral man you'd be hard-pressed to find. But my morals are my own, tried and tested by me. They intersect with Biblical ones, but are not advised by them.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Crow - read again what I wrote!

The Crow said...

I did. I read it several times. Before deciding on my response.
It was, as you are aware, ambiguous.
And ambiguity is the constant challenge a writer faces.
A challenge to which there exists no reliable answer.
For the exact same words will be understood differently, by everyone that reads them.
The more words there are, the greater the ambiguity.
Did I ever mention the Bible?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Crow - no ambiguity intended:

"My feeling is that what you 'preach' reduces to amoral, selfish hedonism in the here-and-now, which is a deadly doctrine;

but you don't live by this

(thank heavens!);


what you practice *must* include other elements,

implicit but perhaps not conscious."

Your doctrine is amoral - yet you are moral - ergo your doctrine is *not* a full and accurate explanation of your actual beliefs and behaviours.

Or, what you *say* you live by, and what you *actually* live by, are not the same.

That's my impression, anyway, for what it is worth! (Not much.)

The Crow said...

I have never met a Christian who lived his own doggerel.
Yet I am what I say I am, and live the way I see things.
You seem to suggest I am a liar, and so - alas - it must be pistols at dawn.
Nothing out of the ordinary...

But, whether you see it, or believe it, or not, there is no borderline, for me, between what I know is true, and the way I live my life.
"Amoral" is not in my worldview, nor in my behaviour. I observe the world and its many creatures. I see what is. And fit myself as seamlessly as I am able, into the natural way, becoming what I see. Becoming what I am.

You're an interesting chap, Bruce. Might it be possible that all you think you know may be flawed?
This is not unusual. Most people are flawed, in their thinking, until they discover that thinking is not the tool for every facet of living.
I believe, for example, that in order to make sense of The Bible, one's thinking must first be suspended and made subservient to the soul. Soul has no need of thought: it has a broadband link direct to The Source.

baduin said...

"I have never met a Christian who lived his own doggerel."

That is the purpose of the Law: to make people aware that it is impossible to follow it. It is a fundamental doctrine of Christianity that all except God (and therofore, Christ) are sinners.

In fact, if a Christian were not to sin - even a little bit - he would be a heretic. In practice, anyone who claimed that would lie, of course - because, as you rightly remarked, no Christian obeys the Law.

That is why Bruce Charlton not quite believes that you are entirely moral - he, similarly to you and me, has never such a person before.

The Crow said...

"Doggerel" was completely the wrong word, but I like the way it sounds :)

Are Christians supposed to sin, then? Is that what Jesus preached? I thought he was telling people not to. My own moral code advises me not to sin, and if I do, then to do better in the future. I don't see it ever being OK to sin.

True: people most often respond to an entirely honest and true person as if that were proof of them being liars and deceivers. I find this puzzling.

Interesting observations, Baduin. It would explain why I am unable to be a Christian. I take full responsibility for every aspect of my behaviour. And I've never met anybody else that does this.

baduin said...

Christianity, despite very pleasant PR, is in reality rather cruel religion.

Christians are supposed to obey the Law - however, they do not. And not because it is too difficult - but because they really do not want to obey it. Reading some book does not make you really want to obey the rules you have read in it. A literal miracle is necessary for Christians to even partially follow the law.

Also: do not beat up yourself so much; you are a passable Evangelical, or at least Evangelical pagan. There are plenty of such people: Evangelical Buddhists, Evangelical Catholics, Evangelical Orthodox, Evangelical Obamaists.

They key phrase is: "I believe, for example, that in order to make sense of The Bible, one's thinking must first be suspended and made subservient to the soul. Soul has no need of thought: it has a broadband link direct to The Source."

This goes straight back to Johannes de Fiore with his Evangelium aeternum (it is exactly what you said), Master Eckhart, Jacob Boehme, Pietists and Evangelicals. You won't find such thinking outside Europe.

Outside Europe, there were very many forms of esotericism: Sufism, Neoplatonism, some traditions Orthodoxy, and also Hasidism. There were also important esoteric trends in Hinduism and Buddhism, eg Zen. What all those forms had in common was the system of masters. Only very rare people are able to reach the enlightement on their own, or at all. All others must obey absolutely and without hesitation the words of their masters, who received their enlightement from their masters etc. Contrary to the exoteric religion, which gives clear and accessible rules, esotericism demands absolute obedience, even in defiance of common moral or religious rules.

In Europe, every man has a direct link to the Source and does his own thing - starting with Joachim.

His disciple Olivi wrote:

"Therefore in the third age the Holy Spirit will reveal himself as a flame and furnace of divine love, cellarer of divine inebriation, a storeroom of divine aromas and spiritual unctions and unguents, and a dance of spiritual jubilations and jocundities, through which all truth concerning the wisdom of the incarnate word of God and concerning the power of God the Father will be known, not only by simple understanding, but also by gustatory and tactile experience."

The Crow said...

I wasn't aware, Baduin, that I was "beating myself up".
A passable evangelical? What's that? I have no idea.
And yes: a miracle is what it took to wake myself up, and that's exactly what I experienced.

If nobody else has been able to discover what I have, without somebody else leading them around, well that's too bad, for them. It's all there, for the sincere seeker. There's no great secret to any of it. After all: somebody had to be the first to come up with what later comes to be known to all.
This is what stuns me about philosophy aficionados: the belief that the only things that can ever be known are those things posited by some long-dead philosopher or spiritual figure.
Current lifeforms - those still extant - are the ones who carry on traditions and add to them, as they go.
Evolution, I think it's commonly called.

What a zany, weird world we moderns inhabit!

baduin said...

The Shorter Oxford Dictionary (Fifth Ed.)

2. Tolerable; satisfactory; adequate. (...)"

I wanted to say that you would make an adequate Evangelical, ie modern spiritual Christian.

This is the reason for my perhaps unfortunate quip about "beating yourself up", since you continuously disclaim Christianity, while professing views which are unique for modern Christianity.

Although you use different words, in the most essential point you agree with the specific Western spiritual tradition, which is now best exemplified by Evangelicalism.

Namely, you say:

"If nobody else has been able to discover what I have, without somebody else leading them around, well that's too bad, for them. It's all there, for the sincere seeker. There's no great secret to any of it."

That is the specific difference of the Western esotericism and mysticism: the belief in the universal enlightement by the Holy Spirit.

The ancient and modern non-Western pagans and especially esotericists did not believe any such thing. They believed that although there can be many roads to truth, they cannot ever be found alone. One MUST follow a guru.

In the West only Traditionalists such as Guenon and Evola said such thinks.

Compare the following fragments from various definitions of Hinduism:

"Sri K. Navaratnam,
Sri Lankan religious scholar of Southern Saiva Agamic tradition
6) A belief in the indispensable guidance of a guru to guide the spiritual
aspirant towards God Realization.
9) A belief in graded forms of religious practices, both internal and
external, until one realizes God."

Sri Pramukh Swami Maharaj
of the Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam
Sanstha (Swaminarayan Faith)

6) Guru-shishya sambandh - master-disciple relationship: guidance and
grace of a spiritually perfect master, revered, as the embodiment of God,
is essential for an aspirant seeking liberation.

Bruce Charlton said...

@baduin - I would prefer to drop the specific line of trying to define my valued penpal Crow! (assuming our Corvid commenter is agreeable to this? - you may, of course, have the last word...) but I am impressed by this general point you make, which I have seen confirmed from many independent sources.

In Eastern Orthodoxy, the tradition is very similar - that spiritual advancement (e.g. Hesychasm) *almost*-must be pursued under spiritual direction, not solo.

This is not an absolute thing, but more quantitative, I think; that if you go it alone then it is *probable* that you will go off the rails - be overcome by spiritual pride, become misled by demons (instead of God or angels) and so on.

Also the EO seem to believe that spiritual advance must (for the same reasons) be gradual and incremental, with checking and testing of each step - never instant - with a timescale of years, even decades.

Hence the Orthodox suspicion of things like the Pentecostal / Charismatic denominations - where advanced religious experiences (visions, speaking in tongues, healings) becomes virtually mandatory and must be rapid, maybe even the conversion experience itself.

This is a distinction between Eastern paganism and Christianity - for pagans the danger is only of spiritual pride; for Christians the danger is of spiritual pride and in addition of falling into actual evil as well as pride.

baduin said...

You are right; it is easy to forget that besides the name on the screen there is an actual man, and one should behave politely even when posting under a pen-name.

Moreover, it seems to me that the favourite game of modern intellectuals is not so much to really understand and learn something from your opponent, or even to really dispute him or persuade him, but rather to ANALYZE and DEFINE him - and not to be analyzed and defined in return.

At least, I like this very much - but although fun for the one defining, it does rather detract from meaningful discussion, and feeds the irritating trend towards irony and slippery expressions - since one tries to avoid being catched and defined.

I would expect also that it is rather irritating for the one being analyzed and defined.

Therefore, I will avoid doing this publicly, unless in extremis.

The Crow said...

Well, this is certainly an unusual conversation. Not one that is to found, anywhere else.
Did Jesus need a guru? Did Buddha? Did the first guru need a guru? Someone must be first. In any field of endeavour, and of realization.

In taking on board the learning of others, one may never find one's own voice, one's own talent, one's own unique way.
I've always been a loner. But I've rarely felt alone.
As my wife has so often said:
"There is nobody on earth anything like you, and you're all mine!"
So, as Bruce says: there's not a lot of point in attempting to define me.
He also speaks of spiritual pride, and this is a valid point. It is to be anticipated. However, as a prerequisite to enlightenment, one must decide one's honesty and truth is never again to be compromised, thus becoming what one has never been before: a being of incomparable integrity. By definition: beyond definition.
If there is a secret to any of this, then this is it:
Utter, impossible, absurd simplicity.
The meaning of life, is to live it.

The Crow said...

A revelation to share with you (all):
You are (all) students of The Way. Engaging your minds to study this hypothetical thing.
Thus inserting a remove, between yourselves, and it.
Jesus said: I Am The Way...
He did not study it, or remove himself from it. He was it.
The mind is a problem-solving tool. Engage it, and you presuppose a problem. Thus Baduin uses the term "opponent", where in fact, there is none.
This is the nature of my immense difference to others: I live The Way. I am it. I do not study it. I do not study others who study it. I am become it, become me, become what I am in the complete sense: Created in God's image.
As I said: so utterly simple that nobody gets it.