This month marks the publication of a most welcome volume by English theologian and author Mark Townsend et al, Jesus Through Pagan Eyes (now available on Amazon).
I was delighted to contribute the following foreword welcoming this book and its honoring of the earth-based spiritual traditions, which have too long been stigmatized and sidelined. In a time when the planet is being systematically pillaged, fundamentalist sects are dividing the peoples of the earth through fear, and our only hope for survival lies in deeply listening to the wisdom of all faiths, this is a much-needed and long-overdue voice for a deep ecumenism that includes - to quote Thomas Aquinas - not only the Peoples of the Book, but the Peoples of the Book of Nature. Highly recommended!
Foreword: Welcoming this Book
I very much welcome this volume by Mark Townsend and his friends that celebrates the wisdom and the practice of so-called “pagan” ancestors. I say “so-called” because paganphobia has dominated for so long in the West and those who identify with earth-based or pre-Biblical religions have endured the opprobrium of the dominant religious culture for so long that they may well find the term “pagan” suspect insofar as it is more a title given by the dominator culture. Indeed, the very invective that so often accompanies the term “pagan” belies the hatred of all things earthly that goes with it since, as we all know, paganus simply means rural person. Why are those close to the land so threatening to those who no longer are?
Ernest Becker observed that “ancient man—unlike modern man—had not yet lost his awe of nature and being.” There lies the depth of the gift of pagani, those close to the earth. Awe is as good a synonym for “mysticism” that I know of. In our times of a shrinking globe and a rapid communication network world-wide and the rise of interfaith or what I call “Deep Ecumenism” it is more important than ever that we listen to each other’s religious journeys and hear from various religious lineages including especially those who have not lost the awe of nature and of being. Our very survival as a species depends on deep listening and learning. As the Second Vatican Council put it in the sixties, the Holy Spirit has worked through all cultures and all religions through the human epoch. Instead of making war in the name of our gods or God or goddesses, it is wise to catch one’s breath, breath deep (in the Bible and many other languages around the world the word for “breath” and “spirit” are identical) and learn rather than judge. It is often scandalous how “ecumenism” for some religious types means only sitting down with persons of the Book and ignores sitting down with persons of the Book of Nature.
One thing we are learning is how much Jesus had in common with earth-based religions. Scholars now agree that the historical Jesus came from the wisdom tradition of Israel but this tradition is not book-based but nature-based. He grew up in Galilee, the green belt and farming area of Israel and his closeness to nature and her animals and her seasons and lessons is everywhere manifest in his parables and teachings. Wisdom is feminine and she is cosmic and all about generativity and creativity in the Hebrew Scriptures. She is also a “friend of the prophets” and the prophetic tradition also spawned the historical Jesus who dared to take on religious hypocrisy and privilege in his day.
But Jesus’ relationship to earth-based religions runs even deeper than that. No less a Biblical scholar than Bruce Chilton, author of Rabbi Jesus and Rabbi Paul and Mary Magdalene: A Biography makes the point that Jesus can rightly be understood as a shaman. Like shamans everywhere, Jesus withdrew periodically into the wilderness where, we are told in Mark, the oldest of the Gospels, he wrestled with spirits and the wild beasts came to succor him. (Mark 1:12, 13) His mentor, John the Baptist, with whom he probably spent his formative years as an adolescent, was very much a man of the wilderness.
Nor is Chilton alone in this assessment of Jesus as shaman. The late poet and ex-Dominican, William Everson, (also known as “Brother Antoninus”), thought deeply about shamanism and he felt that Jesus “was perhaps the greatest of all shamans….Forty days in the desert, the carrying of the cross as a Sun Dance” and more.(1) He goes on: “The link would seem to be the Animal Powers. Christ would relate to the animal Powers that preceded our more sophisticated religious impulses….Now when you press back, beyond this point, and try to bring those forces—the Animal Powers—into focus, it seems like it’s whittling down even more on the Divinity of Christ, except that the infra-rational has its own Divinity, and it is by maintaining that continuity that the problem can be solved, I feel.. In the arts, it will come in largely through the imagery.”(2) Everson observes that the shaman descends into the “primordial wound,” to recover a redeeming spirit.
It is interesting that Otto Rank talks about humans all being born with an “original wound” (as distinct from an “original sin”) and if Rank is right, then we see a powerful link between the very meaning of redemption and the work of the shaman. Rank also perceptively identifies our “original wound” as the separation from the womb that we all undergo and that is triggered again whenever other profound separations touch us. Wisely does Rank prescribe the medicine for this original wound as the “unio mystica”, the mystical union that love and art restore.(3)
Everson talks of “the wounded buck” in one of his poems but of course the psalms also offer similar imagery. The animals in their wild habitat easily “become a part of the religious persona because it invests us with a sense of the sacred.” Shamans heal. They heal this visible world and the invisible one, they heal “the breach between sacred and profane, between divine and mortal, between eternal and contingent.”(4) They heal because they have journeyed into their and society’s wounds. David Paladin, a Navajo artists and healer, was tortured for years as a captured soldier in World War II to the point that when found he was comatose and a paraplegic. Years later his elders told him that this suffering was his initiation into shamanhood and he exclaimed: “Shamans know that those wounds are not theirs but the world’s. Those pains are not theirs but Mother Earth’s. You can gift the world as shaman because you’re a wounded warrior. A wounded healer and a wounded warrior are one.” The warrior-shaman rises above his own dead body and says, “I have died, too. Now let’s dance. We’re free. The spirit is ours because we have died. Now we are resurrected from the ashes.”(5)
Paladin’s wife explained to me that on more than one occasion dead artists would come to her husband in the middle of the night and request he paint something in their name. She showed me for example a painting signed Paul Klee that looked exactly like a Klee painting—“I remember the night he came to him,” she told me. Yes, shamans live in several worlds at once.
One of the techniques shamans use to heal is the beat of the drum and the beat and rhythm of chant. Much of the shaman’s work is to put people into a trance state. “The idea of trance [is] the basic psychological function of the shaman,” notes Everson.(6) Silence also leads us into trance. The shaman we might say takes us deeper than language (left brain) into that area of the unconscious that is closer to animal communication, into what Eckhart calls “the soil, the ground, the source of the Godhead.” Into the Godhead, not just into God. Into the lower chakras, where so many Westerners in the name of false religion and false education are afraid to journey. The first chakra is about our link to the earth after all; all animals have feet that connect them to the earth. The second chakra is about our sexuality which we share with all animals. And the third chakra includes our anger and moral outrage—it is there that we are grounded in the groundless Divinity and it is there that compassion takes root. This is what shamanism evokes in us.
It is not only Everson who saw this but also the great nineteenth century prophet, Walt Whitman. Whitman reinvented poetry by taking it out of the classic European models of rhythm and rhyme and opening it up to the beat and to every day language again (no compulsion to rhyme). He himself was aware that he was doing with language a shamanistic thing. He called his breakthrough the “breaking up of the crystalline structure of the classic mould.”(7) His verse-technique was a method that liberated poetry itself. A telling story is told of how, when he was ten years old, Whitman heard a Quaker preacher named Elias Hicks who was half black and half Native American. His words and cadence put Whitman into ecstasy. I am convinced that his shamanistic vocation began at that time and notice—it did not come from books but from masters of oral traditions, an indigenous and black preacher. To this day and in its latest reincarnation as rap, the black religious impulse, like the Native American drum, beats its message which is as much about sound and vibration as it is about content. It appeals to the lower chakras, not just the rarefied atmosphere of heady rationality.
Whitman scholar and Jungian therapist Steven Herrmann says that for Whitman “the drum-beat works for him as a transport to the Divine.” Whitman’s journey is a journey of ecstasy, “an embodied sense of Ecstasy,….he also sinks down into the bodily regions of soul, where body and soul cannot be distinguished: where soul is the body and body is the soul, and he speaks out of this oneness of the soul’s body—out of the language of the body which is the soul-language.”(8) Back into the lower chakras. (This is also what makes rave so enticing to the younger generation. It brings the first chakra into play. Our Cosmic Mass has demonstrated the power of this return to the body for worship, to dance as prayer.) Whitman, in a pre-modern way of seeing the world, celebrates how “everything without exception has an eternal soul! The trees have, rooted in the ground! The weeds of the sea have! The animals!”(9)
Whitman also celebrates the second chakra, our sexuality, for he sees sexuality “as the root impulse underlying all creation. He saw it ultimately as the means to spiritual development and union with the Self. It was from the animal heat generated during such a summer morning [of love making] that he became a bridge between the known and the Unknown, the ordinary experience of ecstasy and the shamanic state of Ecstasy, which cannot be symbolized.”(10)
Whitman also sings of the sacred dance and how it leads to sacred trance: “I am a dance…Play up there! The fit is whirling me fast.” He tells us he beats his “serpent-skin drum” and again, “I hear the dance music of all nations…bathing me in bliss.” (11) He is deeply ecumenical in his appreciation of putting the lower and sacred chakras to work when he calls explicitly on the music “of all nations.” Herrmann summarizes Whitman’s contribution this way: “Whitman’s methods of vocalism and free verse are patterned on a shamanic technique of ecstasy that is archaic; its archaic function is to lead the reader to non-ordinary states whereby inflections from the Divine can be made imminent, and where the origin of all poems can be experienced. His religious vision is an outgrowth of shamanism; yet it cannot be limited to shamanism, or any established religions, for it is essentially contemporary, post-scientific and new.”(12)
Whitman called for a “spiritual democracy” that would culminate a political and economic democracy. In his way he was calling for “deep ecumenism” or the gathering of all religious tribes, none greater than the other. He also called for recognition of sexual diversity and indeed of homosexual marriage, an archetype now awakening all over the globe. In his appreciation of the mystical role of sexuality as well as spiritual democracy he was standing in opposition to “the Puritan myth [which] was based upon an unconscious projection of evil onto indigenous peoples, the lifeways of the two-spirits, and a bi-erotic image of the soul’s wholeness.”(13) His call for a New Religion and a New Bible seems more real today than ever before.
Thomas Berry talks this way about the Shaman while comparing prophet and shaman. “While both Prophet and Shaman have special roles in their relation to the human community, the Shaman is more comprehensive in his field of consciousness. The prophet speaks somewhat directly in the name of God, the prophet is a message bearer, the prophet is interpreter of historical situations, and the prophet critiques the ruling powers. The Shaman functions in a less personal relationship with the divine. He is more cosmological, more primordial, personally more inventive in the source of his insight and his power.”(14)
To bring earth back to religion and spirituality is to bring the body back and vice versa. It is also to bring sexuality back with its intimations of mystical encounter, the theophany of human love reconnected to divine love and the body. It is to take sexuality beyond the realm of mere moralizing into the kingdom of God-experience. Jesus would recognize this movement; it is the teaching of the “Song of Songs” in the Hebrew Bible. It is at the heart of a wisdom-based spirituality. Call it pagan if you must. The Creator and those who claim to worship the Creator have no need to apologize for the ecstasies of creation, the re-emergence in the sacred wilderness that is ours to remember, ours to celebrate, ours to share. Those who do not dare to make the journey into their own depths or into the collective depths of the unconscious are today, as yesterday, standing on the sidelines shouting and throwing stones. But such fundamentalism has never been the religion of the future. It is a crutch for the fearful and Gandhi warned us that a religion based on fear is no religion at all.
Part of the gift that indigenous peoples and the hunting-gathering religious genius brings to current spirituality is a profound sense of sacred ceremony. As Barbara Ehrenreich points out in her study, Dancing in the Streets, the ancient rituals brought a “kind of spiritual merger with the group” that both healed and awakened joy. The dancing and the masks, the marking of the seasons and uniting with cosmos via the equinox and solstice, the painting of the body and the wearing of costumes inspired by the animal spirits all brought alive the human challenge and condition. It also brought defense insofar as many rituals were enacted to strengthen the hunters before they went out to risk life and limb on behalf of gathering food for the community.(15) Ritual was not just theater or piety—it was a survival mechanism. The great work of building a Stonehenge was motivated by the ancient realization of our necessary interdependence with the cycles of the cosmos. Macrocosm becomes microcosm and microcosm macrocosm in valiant rituals. While early Christianity saw itself in cosmic terms, the Christian church gradually lost that cosmic sense which indigenous ceremonies to this day still reenact and bring alive.
Speaking as a Christian who has been deeply blessed by undergoing indigenous rituals such as sweat lodges, sun dances, vision quests and more, I know what these ceremonies bring to a psyche and a culture that is too cut off from the earth’s ways and sounds.(16) The spirits of the animals are crying loudly today on behalf of mother earth with all her citizens in such peril. We need our shamans. We need our earth spirits. We need a vital exchange between those who honor the God of the Book and those who honor the God of the Book of Nature. There need be no split. Union and communion are beckoning us and this volume is part of that invitation and calling.
A profound invitation to reconnect with Nature in our spiritual practices has everything to do with honoring the Divine Feminine. The goddess, as Marija Gimbutas reminds us, “in all her manifestations was a symbol of the unity of all life in Nature.”(17) Native American religion has been called “aboriginal mother Love.” Again, Wisdom, who is feminine, is speaking loudly today. Gaia is the new Christ being crucified by excessive Yang forces (consider BP’s assault on the Gulf waters this past summer) of empire and corporate rape. The goddess is rising up in resistance and part of that resistance is incorporating (or re-incorporating) the Divine Feminine in all of our God talk and God action, including worship and education worthy of the name. The Divine Feminine deserves a worthy consort, however, and for that reason I believe the Sacred Masculine must also return—cleaned up and detoxicated. Only thus can we entertain again the Sacred Marriage of Divine Feminine and Sacred Masculine.(18)
It is not enough that we merely return to the past however to renew the relationship of self to nature and to the Universe. For our understanding of the universe has altered profoundly thanks to contemporary science. As Thomas Berry puts it, “the small self of the individual reaches its completion in the Great Self of the universe” but we are not there yet. None of our religions are there yet. “To move from this abiding spatial context of personal identity to a sense of identity with an emergent universe is a transition that has, even now, not been accomplished in any comprehensive manner by any of the world’s spiritual traditions.”# Our work is cut out for us. This is why all traditions, earth based and book based, must work together and with science to forge an effective spiritual practice and rituals if are species is to become sustainable. Ceremonies that truly inspire and transform, that lead us from greed to community and from ravishing the planet to celebrating and healing it are required. Can these fit into current ecclesial wine skins? I doubt it.
For this awakening to take root and for the Divine to truly become flesh again, we welcome earth-based and ancient ways of wisdom. We—that is our species--need all the help we can get.
As a person who has been received from my original Christian faith tradition by a welcoming Episcopal (Anglican) Church that offered me religious asylum when forces in Rome were hounding me, and now after sixteen years as an Episcopalian I would like to offer a couple of observations apropos of the present volume. First, I became Episcopalian to work with young people (originally of the Planetary Mass in Sheffield but after their sad and untimely demise exclusively in the United States) to reinvent forms of western worship. Those forms, borrowed from rave, were also taken from pre-modern or indigenous, earth-based traditions for they are primarily about dance and the beat of the “urban drum” that lead us into our lower chakras. We have sponsored over 90 of these “Cosmic Masses” as we now call them in various cities in North America from Vancouver to New York, from Houston to Boulder, from Kansas City to Portland and especially in Oakland, California. We have learned much from this pilot project and it is all positive—healings of a physical, religious and psychic nature have occurred during these Masses which were appreciated not only by the young but by people of all ages. One 18 year old said to me: “I have been attending raves every weekend for five years and I found here what I have been looking for: deep prayer and community and a heterogeneous community (rave is all one generation).” An 84 year old woman said to me while dancing away: “I have been waiting 82 years for someone to connect my love of prayer with my love of dance.” We have proven that when you connect the genius of rave to a liturgical tradition one does not need drugs to get high. Artists galore tumble out of the woodwork from vj’s to dj’s, from people on stilts to altar builders and rappers. We have also learned that people of all faiths including pagan traditions feel at home worshipping together in such a form of worship. So I praise the Anglican Church for welcoming this connection between earth-based and liturgically based rituals. I would like to see much more of it happening.
I also praise the Episcopal Church for standing up for women priests, women bishops and gay priests and bishops and for fighting these battles for justice in the open and not behind closed doors.
But something else has transpired recently that should contribute to the Anglican Church taking on special leadership at this time in history. The Roman Catholic church, having abandoned so many principles of the Second Vatican Council under the past two papacies and so weighed down by the world-wide priestly pedophile scandal and above all its cover-up at the highest places of the all-boys club in the Vatican, is now purposely and deliberately raiding the Anglican church in search of all homophobic and misogynist clergy to take them on board, married or not, into their for-men-only priesthood. What a blessing and a lightening of the load for the Anglican Church! Like a vacuum cleaner, the Vatican is sucking in all the sexist and gay-hating clerics of the Anglican Communion. A blessing indeed. And one wishes them well.
But with every blessing comes responsibility and the Anglican church, I believe, should heed the lessons in this book. Now that it need not entertain sexist and homophobic clergy, and not pander to a Vatican that has turned very dark at this moment in history, it can and should turn itself with ever more vigor to the bigger issues of eco-justice, eco-spirituality, sexual mysticism along with sexual morality and deep ecumenism shared with those earth-based traditions that were so badly treated in the past. A new relationship with indigenous and pagan peoples is near. From this new and deeper alliance and from science whose sacred task it is to explore nature ever more deeply, much needed wisdom can arise.
These are just a few of the reasons I rejoice at the arrival of this book.
(1) Steven Herrmann, William Everson: The Shaman’s Call, Interviews, Introduction, and Commentaries (New York: Eloquent Books, 2009), 94.
(2) Ibid., 95.
(3) See Matthew Fox, “Otto Rank as Mystic and Prophet in the Creation Spirituality Tradition”
(4) Herrmann, 100.
(5) I tell the story in Matthew Fox, Creativity: Where the Divine and the Human Meet (New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher, 2002), 173. See also: Lynda Paladin, Painting the Dream: The Visionary Art of Navajo Painter David Chethlahe Paladin (Rochester, Vt: Part Street Press, 1992).
(6) Herrmann, 105.
(7) Steven B. Herrmann, Walt Whitman: Shamanism, Spiritual Democracy and the World Soul (New York: Eloquent Books, 2010), 255.
(8) Ibid., 255, 256. Italics his.
(9) Ibid., 256.
(10) Ibid., 42.
(11) Ibid., ix.
(12) Ibid., 258.
(13) Ibid., 287, 288.
(14) Mary Ford-Grabowsky, The Unfolding of a Prophet: Matthew Fox at 60 (Berkeley, 2000), 70, 71.
(15) Barbara Ehrenreich, Dancing in the Streets (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2006), 21, 22, 28, 29.
(16) I have described some of these experiences in Matthew Fox, Confessions: The Making of a Post-Denominational Priest (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996) and I have treated some of the intellectual gifts I have received from earth based spiritual teachings in Matthew Fox, Wrestling with the Prophets (New York: Jeremy Tarcher, 2003), chapters 6, 7, 8. So much of pre-modern Christian mysticism was creation-centered and earth based as well, thus Hildegard of Bingen, Meister Eckhart and Thomas Aquinas among others carry deeper similarities to earth-based religions than to heady modern anthropocentric theologists.
(17) Matthew Fox, One River, Many Wells: Wisdom Springing from Global Faiths (New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher, 2000), 119.
(18) I treat this subject at some length in Matthew Fox, The Hidden Spirituality of Men: Ten Metaphors to Awaken the Sacred Masculine (Novato, Ca: New World Library, 2010).
(19) Thomas Berry, The Great Work: Our Way into the Future (New York: Bell Tower, 1999), 190.