Thursday, December 31, 2009

Jesus as the Archetype Shaman (Part 4b): Descent by crisis or struggle

This particular series was begun under the assumption that God has spoken and is speaking into all cultures of people. Could it be that ancient (and even more recent) shaman are experiencing God dynamics? If so, is it also possible that Christ models the search, the experiences, and the utopian hopes wrapped up in the vocation of the shaman?

Now from the sixth hour until the ninth hour there was darkness over all the land.  And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, "Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?" that is, "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?"  Some of those who stood there, when they heard that, said, "This Man is calling for Elijah!"  Immediately one of them ran and took a sponge, filled it with sour wine and put it on a reed, and offered it to Him to drink.  The rest said, "Let Him alone; let us see if Elijah will come to save Him."  And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, and yielded up His spirit. (Mt. 27:45-50)

In the case studies of shamanic trance travels there is an oft repeated theme of crisis and shamanic travel being combined.  In some cases this crisis accompanies an initial journey which beckons a neophyte into a lifetime calling of service to others as a shaman or medicine man.  In other cases danger is part of the trance journey, and challenges the shaman even before he completes a descent into the under/other world.

Black Elk's initiation into his life as an Oglala Sioux Medicine Man outlines a 12 day struggle with sickness when he was a young man.  For those 12 days he laid sick in his parent's teepee.  In his dreams, or in trance-like state Black Elk traveled to distant places, and heard sacred things.  Upon his recovery the medicine man who was credited with healing him declared that he had a special thing to do in his life, because he was "sitting in the sacred manner."

Black Elk would go on to serve as a Holy Man for nearly 50 years.  During his time he joined a Messianic movement called the "Ghost Dancers,"  and became a Christian who served God and his tribe in a uniquely native American manner, which included dreams and trances with messianic visions.

The Altaic shamans speak of underworld journeys with dangerous bridges to be crossed on path down, and visions of shamans trapped in the underworld who could not make it because they were sinners.  Evil beasts are met on the path, and must be fought or avoided.  These stories retold in Eliade's book Shamanism underscore a oft repeating motif in shamanic underworld journey:  It is frequently met with difficulty.

Jesus' entrance to the underworld began in the greatest of human struggles: death, and not any death, but a violent, tortuous death met at the painful hands of betrayal.  His journey, which would end up victorious begins on this deadly note, and appears to have no hope for redemption.

Part 1 of the series
Part 2 of the series
Part 3 (thoughts on shamanism and glossalalia as it relates to Christians)
Part 4a of the series


cern said...

Some interesting thoughts there. I'd say this is looking more like a way of seeing Christ in the role of the shaman than Christ actually fulfilling the role of shaman.... although parallels have been made in the past. :)

Journeying can indeed include some challenging encounters. :)



Pastor Phil said...

Hi Mike,

Yep, spot on observation. That is the direction I have been taking with this long delayed continuation of the series.

cern said...

A useful differentiation for people to note. :)



Kieran Conroy said...

Good stuff. I was just reading Black Elk today, in fact, his "Great Vision" which happened during those 2 days and is one of the most incredible glimpses into Native American religious perspectives we have (there are some critiques/questions about is author's own editing of some of his oral material, including clearer Christian overtones in some of the interviews that aren't included-- but that does not diminish its power or beauty, in my mind. Christian/pre-Christian boundaries aren't clear for many Native people either).

Its a very different world-- 6 Grandfathers and an entire universe of spiritual powers which, together evoke the "Great Mystery" or Wakantanka in Lakota that is often translated as Great
Spirit or Creator. Flowing helpers, herds of horses, birds, and shapeshifting beings filling the sky instead of angels, but described in such vast numbers that one feels a dizzying kinship to the medieval painters who struggled to grasp the hosts of heaven. And, powerfully a prophetic, apocalyptic message of hope but also coming trouble for an indigenous nation, in the voice of its own people. All too often , white people used passages of the Israel's own sometimes apparent xenophobia towards other cultures to assume their religious vision backward or satanic, and worhty of being stamped out-- yet here we have a vision of a thriving culture which loves its lands, people and spiritual life as much as Israel the Temple on Mount Zion-- and yet which also sees in its particularity, as the Old Testament does in its more universal moments, a place and respect for the greater circle of ALL nations, ALL peoples (near the end, Black Elk is taken to a great mountain, in the Black Hills/Lakota sacred center of the world which comes most parallel to Israel's Zion, and sees the vastness of all human families in their struggle for life/healing).

Know this gets a bit off of your original topic-- but reading Black Elk for the first time in a while brought alot up. Its an incredible book and, despite possible influences of Christian thought on its telling, decades after the Holy Man's vision, still speaks to an indigenous worldview that remained against all odds.

I've caught hints of similar themes, of respect for the vastness of Creation and willingness to incorperate not just middle-eastern angels and demons, but fey, spirits, playful animals and the sun and stars into a Christian, yet deeply culturally incarnated vision in the fragments we have of the ancient Celtic traditions. Just stumbled upon, in fact a 4-directional form of prayer from Gaelic-speaking Scotland which stunningly mirrors the way indigenous people pray in the Americas. (includes invocations of the Trinity in each direction, but grounding one's prayer on the Earth in a very indigenous way).

I'm grateful for these bits of the diverse human vision of the divine and creation which have survived, despite all odds and attempts to stamp them out.

As for this particular article, Jesus' journey into the desert is certainly also an interesting one. In some ways, on the surface it seems to echo the late-Jewish tendency to relegate all spiritual forces to angels or demons in a way that clashes with many deeply incarnational/indigenous worldviews. But we also see Jesus dwelling "with the wild beasts." Perhaps they were teaching him some important things too, as the vision quests of so many traditional peoples show is a very widespread tradition. That desert journey comes closest to a vision quest as anything we find in the Bible... and makea for an intersting counterpoint to the sort of death-journey we see at the other end of his ministry.

Kieran Conroy said...

Israel's "xenophobia" is a contriversal statement, though one I've been exploring in dialog with my indigenous studies here... Its impossible for me to read the genocidal/"wipe out" the nations part of the Old Testament as anything but... but there are other parts that bring out less violent, but still problematic tensions that have been evoked again and again in the history of Christian colonialists towards Jews, Native peoples and even the Irish to justify some very cruel things.

My working hunch is that Israel's religious vision, in all its holiness still grew up in a violent and challenging world-- one that contained forces that might have prevented the development of monotheism if not for some particularly strong boundaries. But the imposition of that vision on other peoples, without understanding or compassion has proved a stumbling block for followers of the monotheistic faiths time and time again. In forms, often that have quashed the possibility for a more dialogical encounter between faith traditions and allows for the possibility of the Spirit more incarnate forms of Christianity that don't necessarily destroy all that came before.

Been studying an interesting passage, Psalm 82 where the Bible explicitly has God talking to other gods, in a council, as beings that the Bible is actually acknowledging as "real". Later "tamed" as "angels" or "sons of Israel," but all the oldest manuscripts seem to have said gods. It seems to reflect a running theme in Judaism, that the Creator God assigned other beings- gods or angels, to look after the "nations," but kept Israel for himself. We see a strange moment in the Bible- where these beings are condemned to death for failing in their duty to uphold justice and protect the weak among their assigned peoples- forcing the Creator God to take over.

Its a strange passage, long overlooked/smoothed over in the Judeo-Christian tradition and as a result hard to reconcile with other voices that deny the possibility of other cultures having spiritual traditions that might have once been blessed in the eyes of the Biblical God. But the fact it is there, inspired Scripture makes for some interesting pondering. Especially among those of us who spend so much time trying to talk to, and understand the various "pagan" traditions of our brothers and sisters while remaining faithful to the Christian vision.

Psalm 82's key- of the standard of justice/compassion seems an interesting place to start a conversation across cultures and religious worlds.

Kieran Conroy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kieran Conroy said...

Sorry for this long post, though its the skeleton of some articles or stuff that may make it into a major project.

In short, I'm not suggesting any clear systematic approach based on any of this... but combining some interesting nuances of the Old Testament with growing voices among post-colonial peoples who are, in fact suggesting some of the various same things from different directions.

There does seem compelling evidence, in several portions of the Hebrew Bible that its earliest layers were not strict monotheism (1 God-- everything else is angelic, demonic sub-powers), but rather hints of henotheism (many POSSIBLE Gods, but worship of only one, for Israel). The fact that ancient Israel seems at times to have condemned other nations' religious practices, but in other cases offered an indifference, or even acceptance of the nations under the tuitalege of other beings in a divine "court" is an interesting one. It suggests that the Hebrew Bible is QUITE clear on the need for fidelity to Israel's Covenant for Israel-- but the possibility something else was going on for others.

This is, as a matter of fact exactly what certain theologians in the native american context are arguing for (Richard Twiss, for example)- recognition of the relationship of native people's to their land and spiritual universe as its own "Old Testament" or old Covenant, which can be part of an indigenous Christian worldview.

One need not see all of this a new phenomenon. We see places in VERY early Christianity where, at the edges of "Empire" the Christian message did not take the same combative pose on exactly the same terms as its conflict with the greco-roman religious system. From the Mar Toma church in India, to the Syriatic/Nestorian communities in China, to the Celtic churches which, so far as we can tell at once challenged, then sainted aspects of the druidic faith and pantheons, we see complex interplays between the wisdom, stories and creative treasures of different cultures as they met the Gospel.

Perhaps, now that some hope we are entering an era "beyond Christendom" and the gospel's captivity to Western cultural conflicts and imperial projects, we might see new movings of the Holy Spirit to incarnate the Gospel in new ways, rooted in the richness and complexity of the human family.

Certainly not a Christian polytheism... but hints of what might come out of a heno-sacrality, particular forms of Christian worship incarnated within different worldviews of the sacred that express the rich diversity of our world as God meant it to be. Naturally, of course in a world where, hopefully freedom of religion will remain, some non-Christian members of that culture may choose to always remain entirely within other traditions. But we could see a Gospel doing what Phil is doing among the neo-pagans and Celtic, Norse and other Euro-traditions in Salem, and some other folks I now are doing among their own Native communities-- seeking to be a healing presence, "bridge" persons that incarnate what the Gospel can look like when it truly speaks to, and out of the spiritual heart one's own cultural family.

For too long Christian "conversion" has assumed a completely new, "universal" identity. But in today's postmodern world, perhaps we can remember that to convert something, you must have something to begin with. An artist does not sculpt thin air, but unique diverse materials to create something beautiful.