Sunday, May 24, 2009

Jesus as the Archetype Shaman (Part 3): Ascent into the Heavens

In my last post on this topic I briefly outlined the topic of humanity's yearning for a utopian spiritual experience. This "nostalgia for paradise," (a term coming from Mircea Eliade's landmark book on Shamanism, more recently used as a book title by Orthodox writer Dr. Alexander Kalomiros) reaches out to the histories, experiences, and myths of religions across the vast landscape of human experience. In religious revival after religious revival, in culture after culture, and in spiritual ecstatic experience after spiritual ecstatic experience humanity continues through the centuries to exhibit a deep yearning.

Among the stories which spark the hope for paradise, and gather people together in communities of faith, which exhibit this search for something better an oft repeated theme is a hero's ascent into the heavens.

The ultimate expression of heroic ascent into the heavens is found in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ. The repetition of this theme both prior, and following 1st century AD highlights the importance of a spiritually superior human having the capacity to access heaven either physically or spiritually and thereby guarantee a path toward paradise, or a potential from bring paradise down to humanity. Though ascension themes do not always entail bringing paradise down - as in the case of often turbulent Greek, Roman, and Nordic Pagan dieties, seeking a blessing or discovering a paradise still often remains a part of the search in the heavens.

The stories of Mohammed relate his ascension on a winged horse in the year 621. This ascension dream was filled with words from Allah declaring the truth and integrity of the messenger Mohammed. The winged horse ascension was used as a verification of Mohammed's position as a restorer of true, and unadulterated religion.

The story of Zoroaster/Zarathustra may include his ascension into the heavens to receive the law, and an ascension in the great flame.

The more recently developed mythology of the Ascended Masters includes a list of ascensions by numerous historical personages whose ascensions were marks of holiness, and supposed evidence of the restoration of true spirituality they brought during their time on earth.

There is debate about the place of ascension in the stories of the Siberian Shamans. Ronald Hutton suggests that Eliade placed a Christianized interpretation of the Siberian Shaman's ascents. Yet, the spiritual movement upward upon the world tree, or the ascent of the Cosmic Mountain (descent elements of these symbols will be addressed later) to communicate with a great god, or any number of spirits still speaks to the idea of ascent upwards and outside the realm of this visible world into the "heavens" for lack of a better word.

In this particular symbolic element of Shamanic journey Christ's story is of unique dramatic power. Beyond the ascent of the tribal Shaman, Christ goes on to be seated at the Throne in Heaven. His ascension follows the brutal death, and victorious resurrection story as Jesus shows Himself to be the conqueror over the greatest physical enemy of humanity - death. The ascent takes place in before the eyes of his followers, and He promises a return with paradise in his wake.


cern said...

I'm with Ronald Hutton on the ascent bit.
'Yet, the spiritual movement upward upon the world tree, or the ascent of the Cosmic Mountain (descent elements of these symbols will be addressed later) to communicate with a great god, or any number of spirits still speaks to the idea of ascent upwards and outside the realm of this visible world into the "heavens" for lack of a better word.'
But the otherworlds, be they the upper, middle or lower ALL involve journeying to an unseen spiritual realm. Indeed spirits will be encountered in all of the otherworlds and, unlike the Christian model, those spirits are not negative. The spirits in all of the otherworlds are often 'other', of a different 'nature' to humans and, therefore challenging to understand clearly. The reason why a shamanic practitioner might be 'separate'/'removed' from the rest of the community with regard to their shamanic work is because they have gained greater experience of those 'spirits' and have developed some ability to understand those spirits a little more clearly. That experience would have been gained under the guidance of their trainer. It's training and experience that separates the shaman rather than an innately special ability (although seeking and undergoing that training and experience is usually the result of some kind of 'calling' to the role).

The concept of death being the enemy of humanity.... that is a matter of perspective too. Is the death and decay of plant matter really something for plants to be concerned about when that decayed plant matter provides such rich food for future generations of plants to grow strong upon?

We humans have a great attachment to our current shape and form of existence. In small tribal communities each individual is important to the survival of the whole community. The smaller the community, the smaller the genetic mix in that community and therefore the easier it is for that community to fail. So numbers would be important for survival. Also, in smaller communities there are less people available to learn and specialise in skills important to community survival. Certainly in smaller tribal societies those points are still important. But they are less important for the modern ''neo'- shaman as the requirements for survival are quite different. That modern 'urban' perspective can lead on to a different perspective on death and afterlife which, in turn can lead to a different understanding of concepts such as 'heaven'. Death and ceasing to have the same individual identity after death becomes less important and becoming an unidentified part of some kind of 'whole' becomes possible. Ascent to 'heaven' to sit with God as an individual has less relevance, as does a concept of paradise to be individually experienced. :)



cern said...

Heh, having said what I've said about concepts of death and afterlife, it is important to note that a modern 'neo' - shamanic perspective might still have the concept of ancestor veneration and communication with the ancestors in the otherworlds.... a conundrum there. :)



Pastor Phil said...

Hey Mike - great thoughts,

I'm with you on the anthropological dynamics of this, in terms of recognizing that the other realms of shamans do not necessarily have malevolent, but sometimes just others beings. Of course, my Christian worldview does not hold to this position. Yet as I say this, it also has to be acknowledged that the others' realms do not necessarily negate malevolent spirits either. It can not be assumed that the idea of a potentially malevolent invisible realm lies only with Christian or Judaistic religious sources.

I think the shamanic archetype still holds to the Jesus pattern whether one sees the ascent as a more simply defined travel without benevolent or malevolent forces in the unseen realm, which in His case is still archetypal because it is viewed as literal and not simply ecstatic dreamtime/vision work; or if it is seen as an ascent into the heavens for the sake of attaining a place of prominence in the heavens, appeasing God, or battling malevolent forces. The second case presents a more radical/militaristic view of shamanism, but also defines the case of Christ. Both pictures have a archetypal dynamic to them, but they model different cultures of shamanism.

I think that the archetypal image applies differently to different cultures. The images can stand up in a healing culture and healing work, and in a battling culture and overcoming work. Of course, in saying this I am not saying that Jesus supports war, but I can only describe things simply, and without too much defining without being forced into writing a tome - which this has already become! :-)

Pastor Phil said...

CernyMike - again,

On death as the enemy. In my making this statement about death as the enemy I think that it can be viewed simply. Despite the fact that death can be viewed as a passage and not necessarily as our enemy - even if we hold this view, almost everyone struggles with sickness and cries out for help - typically because sickness leads to death and loss. In this sense, we have all experienced death as an enemy in a practical albeit temporal sense.

The work to the shaman is often to ameliorate this struggle with sickness and death whether through his/her work as a psychopomp in afterlife journey, or a healer on this plane of existence.

It is in this sense that I see Jesus as archetypal.

Sure do miss you bro,

cern said...

heh, on the otherworld spirits not necessarily being malevolent, but that not being excluded as a possibility, I'm reminded of a discussion on a forum where it was pointed out that direct contact with Angels might have a harmful effect.... too powerful. This was as part of a discussion about the fae. That 'Other' quality found in communication with spirit beings (regardless of spiritual tradition) may be perceived as harmful and interpreted as malevolent. In the case of Angels for example, they would be of a completely different nature to humans and may not function in a way that humans might appreciate. of course, in the Christian tradition, Jesus would be understood to be of a different magnitude again to Angels and humans. :)

On the 'Death as the enemy' bit.... a part of that role of amelioration incorporates the natural process of disease, death and decay. But agreed that the role of the shaman would be to try to seek a balanced response to illness etc. and perhaps Jesus as archetypal shaman might indeed work..... except Lazarus seems to fly in the face of that. (scratches head whilst pondering) :)

Miss you too and wondering you you guys ARE going to make it to the UK this year.



Matt Stone said...

I think the malevolence of Satan is sometimes exaggerated anyway, in a very dualistic direction. Though much of the Bible Satan is viewed as a kind of prosecuting atorney against the accused before a judge. Now I know lawyers can conjure up some fairly malevolence images but we can get carried away with ourselves. Satan is not ontologically independant of God. I think it is worthwhile deconstructing our presumptions about the Biblical underworld and looking at the Bible afresh.