Friday 21 October 2011

A Christian shamanism?


There is a strand of spirituality in modern culture sometimes called neo-shamanism.

This aims at altered conscious states in order to have contact with the spirit world to get knowledge, healing, or pleasure. Or perhaps to get relief from the endemic alienation of modern life.


On the whole, neo-shamanism is anti-Christian (or, at least, non-Christian) in motivation and in effect - it is a part of New Age spirituality, which aims at personal growth or gratification - nothing to do with salvation.

My impression is that - by and large - neo-shamanism is bad for people, makes them worse people, more-selfish, prouder etc.


Fr Seraphim Rose wrote about the problem with New Age type spirituality in Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future.

From Fr. Seraphim's traditional perspective, neo-shamanism comes from an attempt to have spiritual, religious, supernatural, miraculous experiences.

The big problem is that it works - however, the spiritual experiences come from demons not angels; and serve the demonic agenda.


For the modern convert to Christianity there is the first step of conversion then the second step of 'what next'.

After the 'honeymoon period' (granted to many converts) where all seems easy and pleasant, problems emerge - one of which is the dryness of modern Christianity, and that the alienated state (which is the primary modern self-perceived spiritual malaise) is not helped by many or most forms of Christianity accessible to most modern converts.

Is there any possibility of using any kind of shamanism within the context of Christianity, to re-connect with the spiritual world, and heal alienation?


At one level the answer is a plain: yes!

This does not refer to the adoption of specific shamanic practices, but to the basic animistic perspective.

For a traditional, orthodox 'catholic' (small 'c') Christian, the world about them is alive with spirits, just as for the (real or imagined) native shaman; the difference being that Christianity recognized Good spirit (angels) and evil spirits (demons) - engaged in 'unseen warfare' over souls.


Further, the world is alive with intelligence for the Christian as the for shaman - as in the medieval view of the night sky, which sees the firmament as God's handiwork and the heavens as his province.

Rupert Sheldrake's morphic fields provide a language by which the animism of childhood and indigenous hunter gatherers can be conceptualized by moderns.

Anyone who lives by this traditional catholic type of Christianity gains the essence of that which the 'spiritual seekers' of neo-shamanism' hope for, insofar as the search is based on reality and not a self-gratifying fantasy.


The big difference between this kind of orthodox, traditional catholicism and neo-shamanism is that of motivation. Shamans, whether indigenous or 'neo' are seeking power and to use the spirit realm; Christians are (should be) seeking for truth and to love and worship God.

The snares of shamanism relate to power and pride; but worship and humility are some defense.

The lesson of traditional Orthodoxy strongly emphasizes the spiritual hazards of spirituality, meditation, altered states of consciousness, ascetic disciplines - that the fallen nature of humans and the world means that evil spirits are more numerous and likely to be encountered than good spirits.

Shamanism before or without repentance is the problem. Easy spirituality is evil spirituality.


Recommended practice is that all spiritual seeking should take place under supervision of an Elder (a spiritual 'Father'). Yet such supervision is not available for most people in most places.

Does this mean that modern Christianity - lacking a structure of spiritual supervision, must Christian life necessarily be dry and feeble and unambitious?

If the answer is yes - then will a dry, feeble and unambitious life be enough to support the near-solitary and unrewarded Christian against the temptations and deceptions of the world?

Let us therefore hope that the answer may be no - that there may, potentially, be such a thing as solitary and genuinely-Christian shamanism.



Wurmbrand said...

My Pentecostal acquaintance* would say that what you're really getting at is the need for a Christian life that is strongly experiential, and that this means Pentecostalism, not an ideology but the ongoing experience of the Holy Spirit and of spiritual knowledge that includes certain dreams, etc. He is a great advocate of what he calls a "sacramental" understanding of life, especially of marriage.

He would find my orthodox Lutheran way of live, even thought it includes weekly Eucharist. just as you say "dry" and (probably) unbearable.

*For anyone who reads this message and for whom a stereotype of excitable, right-wing, fundamentalist, culture-aversive Pentecostals is evoked, I should mention that this fellow is one of the brightest people I know (e.g. Fulbright scholarship to study the Kalevala in Finland, editorial position at a university and now managing editor of a daily newspaper in a state capital; introduced me to outstanding central European authors such as Krudy and Marai; deeply involved personally with Sibelius and later classical music....).

Daniel said...

Sometimes I think you are speaking directly to me, Bruce. But then, that's pretty selfish thinking, now isn't it? ;)

Bruce Charlton said...

@Dale - I'm glad you mentioned the Pentecostal churches, since they are supposedly the fastest growing Christian 'denomination'.

But Pentecostals are among the type of groups specified by Fr Seraphim Rose as being exceptionally prone to the hazards of early (immediately on coversion), almost compulsory, unprepared and incautious spiritual experience - which (if it is real) is more likely to be demonic rather than divine, and lead to spiritual pride.

I don't have any real knowledge about the Pentecostal movement, bit I would want to see a very explicit awareness of the possibility, indeed probability, of spiritual hazard from religious experience - the less awareness of the hazard, the more likelihood of harm.

The Orthodox ascetics are very aware of this matter - the classic account (which in fact originated in the Roman Catholic mystical tradition) is Unseen Warfare by Nikodemos.

The assumption is that pretty much all religious mystical experience which is not disciplined and cautious and incremental is likely to be demonic (when it is not self-deluded or faked).

Wurmbrand said...

My Pentecostal acquaintance would say that you're excessively suspicious of, or guarded or prejudiced against, Pentecostals and that the proof is experiential. He would probably say that Pentecostals who come from other Christian traditions feel that they are knowing and loving Jesus as never before, that they are better able than before to love and serve the brethren, etc.

Myself, I don't know. Well, I'm sure that some of what happens in Pentecostal circles is of wholesome origin and is valuable. But a lot of emotionalism seems to be mixed in. And I remind myself that the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Truth. Although "Truth" here is more than dogmatic propositions, it is not less. It seems strange to me that, if Pentecostals are led by the Holy Spirit, they seem to be so slow to realize what the Holy Scriptures are saying about Baptism and the Eucharist, etc. But I would not want to judge them. I would not want to ascribe to the Holy Spirit phenomena that are of merely human origin -- or demonic. But nor would I want to ascribe to mere human feeling or to demons what was, in fact, the work of the Spirit.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Dale - well you and I both *do* judge Pentecostals, because if we believed their claims surely we would join them? We would be foolish not to.

As you know, I have decided that Fr Seraphim Rose is the wisest spiritual guide that I have encountered and whom I feel I understand; so I believe him rather than most other sources.

I believe, therefore, that one should be careful not to seek swift and easy positive advanced spiritual experiences.

It seems highly unlikely that our glib, hedonistic and depraved era would be more readily granted such experiences than much holier eras of the past.

So I don't really believe that Pentecostals have genuine positive mystical experiences, at least not as a rule.

On the other had the experiences they have may not necessarily be harmful.

But the thrust of this posting was that such possibilities may be available with due caution...

So, what am I saying?

Answer: whatever you do, first read Fr Seraphim Rose's Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future!

Anonymous said...

I've never read Rose, so I'm speaking out of ignorance, but it seems as if life has phases: at some phases, a more experiential sense of God's presence is desired, and at others, a more cerebral "sense" of God is more than sufficient. Needing an experiential faith seems most important during those transitional moments in life -- between childbearing and childrearing, death/divorce of spouse, occupational uprooting, etc. At those times, one clings to God, demanding, perhaps cajoling him, for some sort of sign ... a "real" presence.

But there are times, too, when faith hums in the background, when life seems smooth or predictable. Perhaps then, one is secure enough to step back from experience and think a bit more radically, as if one is able to pull the camera back to gain a wide-angle perspective on life.

Honestly, and I speak here only autobiographically, my life has been progressed more from bump to bump, with few smooth interludes. Still, during the worst times, such as now, God seems distant. Perhaps, as a middle-age woman, I've learned to endure these dry spells without demanding some sort of sign, or "fleecing" the Lord for confirmation or his love.

Interestingly, at this stage in my life, I find the dry ol' Anglican book of prayer quite comforting. I cling to the prayers and readings, even when my heart seems cold. My mind remembers.

Thank you for this blog, Mr. Charlton.


Anonymous said...

I knew Catholics who were eager to crush my personal experiences of spirituality, because they did not recognize anything comprehensible.

Theoretically, these Catholics could have referred me to a Catholic spiritual director, who could have overseen my asceticism.

However, it was easier for the Catholic church to focus on a social gospel and to ignore seekers of spiritual experiences.

As a result, many people of my acquaintance, having been turned away by Catholics, sought out New Age spirituality.

Regardless of whether our spiritual experiences are demonic or not, they are definitely outside the Catholic Church!

Kristor said...

The liturgy of the Mass is Christian shamanism. In the Mass, we join our voices with those of the Heavenly choir of saints and angels. The church is a physical representation of - and participation in - the throne room of Heaven. The priest is vicariously Christ Himself, the Angel of the Most High. When we eat the Logos, the book of life, we join in the flight to Heaven of the shaman and the Temple mystic. It's all right there in the words of the Prayer Book. At Mass, we take on new and unending life, and may if we but tune ourselves aright apprehend that in our ingestion of God the whole world of which we are products has ingested Him, and has been sanctified to Him. Nobody is an island. The world is a communion - communion is the only way to get a world in the first place. If we truly and earnestly repent, so that we may approach the altar of our sacrifice with clean hearts, then may the vision be vouchsafed to us.

Kristen, I have said a prayer for you in your time of trial. Remember Daniel, and don't be worried.

Bruce Charlton said...



I am very fortunate indeed that the traditional Anglican liturgy has tremendous power for me, and I have access to a Church which offers this.

But I am aware that such conditions are rare and fragile - and the best that many can hope for from Church services is dead language, cheerful music and 'well-meaning' worldly concerns.

Wurmbrand said...

Dr. Charlton wrote: "Dale - well you and I both *do* judge Pentecostals, because if we believed their claims surely we would join them? We would be foolish not to."

I am not a Pentecostal not so much because I have judged their claims about ecstatic utterance, dreams, anointings, etc. -- matters about which I don't know quite what to think -- but because their milieu typically has no place for one of the things that matters very much indeed, namely the profound nature and centrality for Christian life of Holy Baptism and the Sacrament of the Altar.

These are non-negotiables. If there is no church available to me, someday, wherein these things are central and where the church testifies to what the Bible and Christian tradition say about them, then I will have no church. I might meet with other Christians to pray, though.

But I came to these things from a variety of Christianity (Arminian evangelicalism) where they were hardly understood and not appreciated. A door has now closed behind me. I will not open it and go back there, to a non-sacramental milieu. I either stay where I am as a Lutheran in the conservative Confessional tradition, or I go where the sacraments are even more central ... if there even is such a place. I am not so sure that there is, though of course Orthodox and Roman Catholics would say so.

But now I am diverging from the "shamanism" thread.

The Crow said...

My considerable experience of Pentecostalism was one of rampant emotion and sensationalism, coupled with an absolute decree to never, ever, go one single step further towards spiritual development.
A (holy) circus in a box.

As for shamanism: I am a shaman, I suppose, and consider it very compatible with Christianity, although demonstrably not the BGC brand of same.

Christians seem to find nothing compatible with whatever their specific belief-system entails. Very leftist, in that sense: if you don't agree with me, on every point, then you are evil.
That seems to me a great shame, but I am, by now, used to it.

Wurmbrand said...

Crow's comment is carefully phrased as referring to one person's experience -- and that is helpful. My Pentecostal's acquaintance's experience seems to have been different. It seems, in fact, to have been about as good as it gets, if my presumptuous and uninformed comment may be allowed for the little it is worth. Interestingly, despite a very low-church-Protestant background, this man finds himself interested in Roman Catholicism. And my sister, whose involvement in Pentecostalism brought her to the point of becoming a licensed minister in the Foursquare Gospel Church (founded by Aimee Semple McPherson), converted to Orthodoxy about 15 years ago. I think her take on her Pentecostal experience is basically that there was much that was good in it but that Pentecostalism lacks a basis in a sound tradition and so is prone to fall into problems.

But perhaps that means that Christians who are grounded in a relatively sound tradition could learn from the Pentecostals as opposed to writing them off as ridden with demons and so on?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Dale - I stand corrected.

@Crow - I'm not really sure what you mean by 'compatible' with Christianity. I had the impression that you did *not* regard Jesus Christ as the Son of God and your Lord.

But if you do, then of course you are a Christian (of some sort) no matter what *I* or anyone else might say about it!

The Crow said...

Bruce: in an inadequate nutshell:
Jesus being a perfected manifestation of God, which may well be described as "Son Of".
God being that which gives rise to every other being and thing.
Tao being that which is the context for the reality of God.
Jesus: Manifestation.
God: Mother.
Tao: Home.

Christianity, to me, is a framework to give context to something language can not represent, only misrepresent.

Anonymous said...

@Crow: Joshua Snyder has argued that the Tao should be considered equivalent to the Logos in Christian theology.

Snyder wrote: ...let us remember that the first Christians called their religion "The Way" and that the "Word" (λόγος) in the first verse of the first chapter of the Gospel According to John was first translated into Chinese thusly: "In the beginning was the Tao, and the Tao was with God, and the Tao was God."

Snyder also blogs at

and I suspect many people who read this blog would enjoy Snyder's writing.

Bruce Charlton said...

@postgygaxian - A nihilist is someone who denies that reality is real.

I get my understanding from Eugene (Fr. Seraphim) Rose's book, Nihilism:

SO, by this understanding the ruler of the universe is certainly a nihilist since he is a solipsist, believes nothing except his own thoughts, and indeed has no reason for believing his own thoughts, and mistrusts his own memory.

So the whole perspective is self-refuting, very obviously so.

That modern people are so often attracted by (or, at least, fascinated by) obviously self-refuting ideologies is a measure of our corruption.

I know what it is like, I spent many years wallowing in this kind of thing.

I think the reason is ultimately selfish self-indulgence - with nihilism/ solipsism/ relativism there is never any strong reason *not* to do anything you happen to *want* to do at any particular moment.

Spiritual Workshops said...

Thanks for the concise and alternative point of view, great post.