Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Jesus as the Archetype Shaman (Part 1)

Ascent to the heavens, descent to the underworld, an experience of death and resurrection, acting as a psychopomp to the lost souls of dead humans, story-teller, cultural icon and outcast, healer, exorcist...these are the works, and the personal experiences of a Shaman.

These are also the things which set Christ apart as unique in human history. These are things of which He is an exemplary model, and humanity's ideal for spiritual excellence and success. These elements are identified by religious historians as the signs, and activities of a Shaman. It is the contention of this post (and any following posts on the subject) that the Nazarene was the ideal of shamanic power and practice, and therefore The Archetypal Shaman.

This concept is not a new one. Others such as Peiter Craffert, and John Pilch have already done studies along these lines. Their ideas have been considered revolutionary by some, and heretical by others. Both Craffert and Pilch have appeared to have cast Jesus as the Galilean Shaman, at the expense of the orthodox Christian position of Messiah, and resurrected Lord of Heaven and Earth.

In contrast I understand Jesus to be the Savior of all humanity by means of His death and resurrection, and the unique Son of God. My position here in this post, and those that might follow is that Jesus carries many characteristics of the ideal Shaman, and exemplifies the power aspects, and ecstatic experiences of shamanism. In a shamanistic culture Jesus would have been viewed as the greatest of all Shamans, and both previous and subsequent Shamans would be a viewed as a diminishing of shamanic power, but coming from Jewish culture he was obviously held as the greatest of all prophets (and even more than that) to those who would follow Him.

By saying this I am not saying that all Christian ministers should become shamans, nor am I saying that Jesus saw Himself as a Shaman. This is a simple presentation suggesting only that the things Jesus did are things shamans all over the world have attempted to do throughout history, and that Christ is the exemplar of the experiences of the Shaman, and the goals which the Shaman seeks to accomplish. Deeper concepts, and further conclusions, which the reader may come to are their own surmisings, and not those which I am presenting here.

The Shaman is a type of medicine man who works for the community to bring healing, and prosperity. He battles evil spirits seeking to trouble humanity. Usually through ecstatic experiences of trances and soul travel the Shaman will discover healing remedies known only to God, or the gods. The Shaman may also lead the souls of those who have died to paradise through the same ecstatic soul journeys.

Eliade Mircea's landmark book "Shamanism" published in 1951, held this as a central theme: That the diminished powers of shamans were an oft repeated mythos across the continents and islands in which elements of shamanism could be found. Somewhere in the stories of ancient shamans there was an archetypal shaman whose powers far exceeded those of more recent history.

The degradation of power and also of an open and clean communication with the unseen realm of gods, goddesses and spirits is a repeated theme in the mythic stories in shamanistic cultures. This mirrors the story of the Fall in scripture. Once humanity walked in complete confidence before God - without shame, and in open and direct communication with Him. The hunt for a return to paradise underlies the story of our Christian scripture, and underlies the traditional stories of shamanism as well, and so the worlds of shamanism and Christianity meet at a common place.

"More than once we have discerned in the shamanic experience a "nostalgia for paradise" that suggests one of the oldest types of Christian mystical experience." wrote Eliade in the epilogue of the English edition of his book.

I am convinced Jesus answers the "nostalgia for paradise," and by doing so becomes the archetype of the Shaman.

More to come. Follow me as I follow Christ through the world of Shamanism. ;-)


Beth said...

In the 80s I spent 4 years in the (Episcopal) church of a priest who was very into the shaman role. We used the term a lot, and I was pretty convinced by it at the time, as were many other people. Sadly he had so many personal agendas wrapped up in it and had become so revered for his spiritual power, prophetic gifts, and holiness that when he gradually went off the rails, turning prayer/counseling sessions into spiritualized sexual journeys, etc, it took about 10 years for those who were supposed to be holding him accountable to take the complainants seriously enough to call him to account. I still don't think I've completely resolved that experience, but it's certainly left me with an interest in developing clarity and transparency among the ordained about what our power is and isn't.

evan said...

Phil, this is interesting stuff. I'll enjoy seeing where you go with it.

Wow, that's horrible, strange and sad. I had not even begun to make the connection (which is a logical next-step) between Jesus as arch-shaman and clergy as shaman. I'll be interested to see if and how Phil addresses this, especially since he comes from a low church community where priest is (theoretically) used exclusively to refer to "all believers". This makes even more clear your teachings on what a priest isn't doing when celebrating the Eucharist.

Pastor Phil said...

Off the rails is right! I know Shamans of the Pagan variety who will cringe at such a thought.

Which of course, is why this is a simple presentation - not making the leap to suggesting that Christian leaders should take on the role of Shamans.

There are people taking on a shamanic role in the church today though they do not necessarily recognize it. Most notably in the New Mystic circles.

These lines get crossed when the terms are used as points of personal identification instead of cultural identification for missional purposes. Service to others is generally a decent guideline against these deceptive activities, but obviously as your case points out even that should be monitored.

Pastor Phil said...

Hey Evan,

Not sure how far I will go with this. At this point Jesus a an archetype of what the Shaman has come to be is the simple presentation. Beyond that it is a jump to conclusions I am not comfortable making yet.

Anonymous said...

Mind-stretching stuff here. Thank you.

cern said...

Ouch Beth! Definitely off the rails. What a terrible abuse of a position of trust. That kind of behaviour would seriously fly in the face of the way I approach my shamanic work. How can that be considered as serving the community? But humans can and do twist things to their own agendas, using whatever hooks they can.

Phil, WAY cool blog post. I'm wondering if you should post my 'How to evangelise to a shaman' article as an aside. :)

The ecstatic trances bit is something that doesn't seem to have been identified in the Bible as something Jesus was noted for. But perhaps, were he indeed the son of God, he would not require an altered state of consciousness to perceive the otherworlds/spirit realm, and therefore would not need to enter into a state of ecstasy. :)



Pastor Phil said...

Hey Mike,

I knew Beth's comment would make a real Shaman like yourself cringe. Of course, we know that these bizarre behaviors are not limited to the church, but the whole of humanity seems to be periodically captured in these moments of downward spiral.

You are reading ahead in my posts! The issue of trance vs. Jesus' physical embodied experiences is yet to come.

Pastor Phil said...


Thanks! and thanks for checking in on blog comment day!

Anonymous said...


What you describe is, sadly, all too common in just about any spiritual tradition. Some people seem to get involved in such things for purposes of gratifying their own ego rather than serving (whether that service be to the divine, spirit, one's community, or some combination). Of course, that's not a mistake I'd personally want to make when it comes to shamanism. Shamanic allies tend to be all too happy to beat down one's ego if they feel its necessary, and they're not always picky about their methods of accomplishing that task.

Anonymous said...

Mike: I'd also note that it's possible to go into some altered states of conscience without going through a full ecstatic trance. When we do seances at our local shop, most of the mediums go into a light meditative state, from which they are still able to perceive and communicate with spirits. Such a state of consciousness wouldn't be deep enough to support a journey, mind you...

Anonymous said...

After reading some of the comments above, I just want to make clear that the case I'm writing about was actually statistically not at all common (it is kind of legendary in my denomination) because of the history and duration. The guy I am referencing lived out perhaps 15-18 years of very authentic, inclusive, missional servant ministry in the same college town before he began to experiment with considering himself immune to the usual norms, and then another 10-15 there still doing stellar work in some ways, while being increasingly spiritually abusive to counselees/directees in others, until he retired. (He was exposed and defrocked after retirement.)

It is inarguable that his work had an unbelievably positive impact on not just the spiritual lives of many individuals, but also the wider community and the local political structures. The spiritual community he helped build was widely considered an ideal by progressive thinkers, recommended all around New England, etc. And yet, in the end, we all discovered this massive betrayal of trust was going on.

This stuff ain't easy to explain.

Pastor Phil said...

Hi Beth,

Thanks for the clarification, but I have to say - it makes the issue even more grotesque.

These stories represent the kind of people who sit in positions of authority and oppress others all the while being good self promoters who hide their sicknesses.

I've been burnt by such people. Jude seems to write about them, as does Peter.

Obviously such stories make me step up the soapbox - sorry.

cern said...

Beth, It is also probably safe to say that positions of influence can corrupt even the good ones. maybe that is what happened to the guy you posted about. Sometimes, if people don't have some kind of 'reality check' in place before they become popular they can begin to feel they are beyond reproach. I suspect not everyone who 'turns bad' began bad.



Anonymous said...

Hello all,
This discussion is fascinating, and I thank you for the invitation. My thoughts on it are primarily as a result of a book which I recommend highly, entitled "A New Earth" by Eckhart Tolle. He describes the plight of all humans in this way: we identify with what our ego or false-self desires -- we are all held in a kind of bondage to our egos, and only break free into the Presence of our authentic selves at those moments in which we notice that we are doing/thinking according to the ego's demands. The priest in question, it seems to me, was doing something which is understandable according to this model -- that he had a very powerful role that he totally identified with, which is what we all do except for those times in which we suddenly see what we are doing. Clarity enters consciousness the more we have these moments of clarity. But most people, most of the time are completely identified with the roles the ego plays, and being unconscious, are completely addicted to playing the role the ego wants. I'm not referring to the role of priest or mother or choir member but the other roles such as 'victim' or 'perfect young body' or 'powerful'. Anyhow, if you haven't read Tolle, give him a try. The most practical and helpful book I've picked up in years. His ideas about inner freedom and his suggestions about ways to understand Jesus are so incredibly resonant.
Pastor Branwen
(I'm an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ -congregational, the "still speaking" church)

Anonymous said...

Oops, posting as anonymous was an error. Although she is one of my favorite Early Music composers:)

Unknown said...

I've always found Moses and interesting "shaman," particularly when God "condescends" to the level of both the Egyptions and the Hebrews through the use of Moses's staff.

Another gent I've identified with is Joshua, though I much prefer superimposing the Sufi Islam model of an "inner Jihad" (mystical) that driving spears through people, particularly when I consider spiritual warfare.

Finally, there's another favorite - Daniel and in particularly his three friends. "Our God, O King [Darius], is more than able to deliver us from the fiery furnance... But even if He does not, know, O King, that we will not bow down to the image you have set up..." --> To some this statement may seem like a cop-out, I'm finding it even tougher to "bend in the wind" of this world instead of being to rigid, and breaking, when it comes to the balance of "losing one's own life" to find it...

How do we live in the Matrix without being consumed by it?