A Shamanistic Jesus

Philosophy is as such a secular profession, taking the attitude of wonder and reflection towards any phenomena it takes in consideration. Sometimes this is seen to create a tension with the search for wisdom that has been present in philosophical tradition over the ages – a tension which can bring thinkers to take religious, agnostic as well as atheist approaches. Whatever one’s specific approach or subject matter, however, the critical instruments provided by philosophical reflection, allows us to gain fresh insights. Also in matters of bible studies, religious studies and theology.

Two weeks, ago, on the 16th of November, I was one of four speakers who were invited to comment on two newly published books on religion in the Netherlands. Religion in the white, Christian section of society, that is – which sociologically gives a distorted image, of course – because while the traditional white protestant and catholic churches are in constant decline, black migrant churches, as well as mosques and islamic communities are thriving.

The traditional churches, however, see so much decline, the authors of both books think, because European christianity has emptied itself from most spiritual practices and experiences – having adapted itself to the stifling influence of the Enlightenment and its consequences. For theology these were either a focus on ‘belief’ as confessing something to be true, or on unearthing the historical basis of the bible from a secular perspective. In my contribution to the book presentation, I suggested, in line with an article I published in 2015 (see below for reference), to circumvent the Enlightenment, and baby-jesus-2reread the gospels as shamanist literature.

Such an approach tunes in with what post-Enlightenment Christians search for, often in non-European religious traditions, to wit: a reevaluation of intuitive knowing, of ritual practice, and religious trust or faith. My own path, which I now call shamanistic, has been inspired by experiences in my childhood that have led me to search to express  these three elements in words, in philosophy. One of the most important philosophers who provides a basis for stretching philosophical discourse to that intent is William James (1842-1910), most well known as the founder of the psychology of religion, with his work The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). He describes there how we live in a tangible, empirical world on the one hand, but experience (sometimes) that this is surrounded and influenced by a wider, spiritual reality.

Building philosophically on the work of James, and having studied anthropologists’ works on shamanism and on the shamanistic Jesus, I came to reread the gospels in a kind of direct manner, detouring the critical reflections that sprang from the heritage of Enlightenment rationalism. Although the term ‘shamanistic’ stems from Siberian language and originally refers to mediators between the everyday and the spiritual world in that region, the term has been globalized in our day, and is used as well for new spiritual movements that open up traditional knowledge for individuals in modern societies, as for spiritual practices of peoples that are still in touch with traditional ways of living accross the globe.

With respect to the gospels, several researchers have attempted to reread them in a shamanist framework. For instance the South African anthropologist of religion Pieter Craffert, who shows in his book The Life of A Galilean Shaman (2008) that shamanistic practices were alive and well in the society in which Jesus lived. Or theologian Marcus J. Borg, who in his Meeting Jesus Again For The First Time (1994), using a Jamesian language, describes Jesus as ‘a spirit person’ – someone for whom the ‘screens of consciousness’ that keep the everyday and the spiritual domain apart, are unusually permeable. And there is the theologian who practices trance journeys himself John J. Pilch, who in his book Flights of the Soul (2011), on spiritual experiences in the bible, describes the testing of Jesus by Satan, as fitting the traditional route of a shaman to be: ‘Jesus demonstrates that he has acquired the necessary ritual skills to deal with and control the spirit world.’ (Pilch 2011, p. 116)

In my article “The ‘Shamanic’ Travels Of Jesus and Muhammad: Cross-cultural and Transcultural Understandings of Religious Experience”, published in 2015 in the American Journal of Theology and Philosophy, I discuss this and other literature and go into some of the shamanistic events in the gospels. To just give some examples, we can read in Luke 4:1-14 that Jesus withstands Satan’s tests in the desert, filled with the Holy Spirit. After passing the test, that proves which of the two spirits, the holy one or the evil one, is strongest, he returns into society with the force of the Spirit. When he subsequently starts to tour the country, and console and heal people in spiritual and physical need, he shows shamanistic qualities all the time. He passes through an angry mob that cannot touch him (protected by the power of the Spirit) in Luke 4: 29-30, and has power over demons according to Luke 4: 33-36. Also in Matthew and Mark do we find a wealth of shamanistic stories, such as Jesus’ expulsion of demons from some possessed persons in Matthew 8:28-34, his healing of a possessed man in Matthew 9:32-34, a possessed girl in Mark 7:24-30, and a deaf and mute man in Mark 7:31-37). This last story, moreover, presents a description of specifically shamanist practices by Jesus, who puts his fingers in the ears of the man, and touches his tongue with his own spittle. Even today we can find practicing shamans to breathe or spit over a patient – as an exhalation or a secretion of saliva are understood to serve as a vehicle for the healing spirit that is called to assistance by the shaman.

In the seventeenth century theologians in Europe turned against the belief in spirits as well as spiritual practices, like the Dutch pastor Balthasar Bekker, who proposed to read the bible in a rational manner in his work De betoverde weereld. Although his motive, to get people to take more responsibility for their own moral agency, instead of blaming their evil actions on possession, was in line with the teachings of Jesus too, who stress that those cured should turn their lives around toward the good and away from evil – the effect of centuries of rationalist theological works has been that European christianity has lost its appeal for many people, as they don’t find much spiritual appeal or healing there. So in my talk at the book presentation I proposed that, next to the inspiration the ex, or post-christians get from non-European religions, they might as well try to read ‘around’ the Enlightenment, and try to let the gospel stories about the shamanistic Jesus inspire them. This Jesus makes trance journeys, associates with spirits, heals people from his shamanistic inspiration, and shows them ways to more free, loving and just ways to live.

The photo is from the nativity scene my dear parents made, before I was born.

This post is a reworked version of my speech at the book presentation in Dutch, which can be found here.


  1. Lee said:

    Hi Angela,

    Thanks for a fascinating article!

    From a Swedenborgian perspective, traditional Christianity took many major wrong turns long before the Enlightenment that ensured its eventual demise, the first of which was the adoption of the Trinity of Persons at the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, and not the least of which were the adoption of Anselm’s Satisfaction Theory in the eleventh century and (in the Protestant branch) the adoption of justification by faith alone and penal substitution in the sixteenth century.

    All of these doctrines represented a shift away from love and goodness of life as the foundation of Christianity that Jesus Christ himself set with his two Great Commandments (Matthew 22:34-40) and toward correct belief (or in these cases, incorrect belief) as the foundation of institutional Christianity that distinguishes it from all other religions.

    Jesus emphasized that love would be the distinguishing feature of his followers:

    I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13:34-35)

    The various creeds and theological formulations over the centuries, on the other hand, excluded and anathematized anyone who did not believe certain dogmas—all of which we Swedenborgians think are mistaken and false precisely because their framers were more focused on correct belief than on love, and therefore, ironically, could not actually see genuine truth and formulate beliefs that were correct.

    Swedenborgians have seen the Age of Enlightenment as the end of the first Christian era (of traditional Christianity) ever since Emanuel Swedenborg published his theological writings in the mid-1700s, smack in the middle of the Enlightenment.

    What I find fascinating in your article is the identification of a major effect of the Enlightenment on traditional Christianity—which we would see as the coup de grace rather than the beginning of the end. That effect was to further push the Church away from direct experience of spiritual reality toward a rationalism devoid of a living sense of the real presence of God and spirit.

    In particular, as time has gone by Swedenborgians have tended to be shy in talking about Swedenborg’s own living sense and clear teaching that spirits and spiritual reality are present with us at all times, interwoven with our experiences both psychological (spiritual) and physical. And of course, Swedenborg himself recorded a very rich life of interaction with the spiritual realms over the final three decades of his life.

    My feeling for some time has been that we should not shy away from talking about these things, but rather put them out there loud and clear. Your article provides one more confirmation of what I have sensed for many years: that bucking the trend in traditional Christianity, and in educated Western society generally, of shying away from the presence of God and spirit in everyday human life and experience is a good thing (while not rejecting science and reason in its own proper realm). That we should not be scared away by the scientific rationality of our age from talking about realms of human experience that go beyond the physical, material, scientific, and rational. That in fact, the masses of people are hungering for that spiritual engagement precisely because it is an integral part of human life and experience that materialism, science, and rationality cannot satisfy—as wonderful as the tools of science and rationality are for expanding our knowledge of the material universe.

    • This is very interesting. Do you have any suggestions for a Swedenborg novice? Where should I start? I have known about him some time, and felt the need to explore his works, but have not yet done so. In part, I think, because of a feeling of overwhelm. How will I manage, with everything else I need, and am urged, to do? However I feel the need to explore Swedenborg, and a gentle push from spirit, thus my question.

      • Lee said:

        Hi thenaughtybun,

        Yes, Swedenborg can be a steep hill to climb for newcomers. A good place to start would be at the Swedenborg Foundation’s website. They have lots of different materials available. You’re also welcome to come over to my blog (just click on my name at the top of this comment), browse what I have to offer there, and leave a comment if you have particular questions or want more specific recommendations.

      • Thank you! And I obviously forgot to sign off… 😆
        Cheers, Berte

  2. Lee said:

    Curiosity question: Are you familiar with the book The Shaman’s Doorway, by Stephen Larsen (1976, Harper & Row)?

  3. Ahhh – now that’s an idea! Maybe I’ll finally manage to read the book then? At least the new testament. Any recs regarding which translation to get? In English, that is…my knowledge of Dutch is rather limited.

  4. Deb said:

    Jesus did his miracles by the Holy Spirits power not from any other spirit like shamans. Jesus is Gods son. He does nt need shaman power.

    • Thanks Deb, for your comment. Like you noted, in my article I wrote that Jesus gets his power from the Holy Spirit, according to the gospels: “To just give some examples, we can read in Luke 4:1-14 that Jesus withstands Satan’s tests in the desert, filled with the Holy Spirit. After passing the test, that proves which of the two spirits, the holy one or the evil one, is strongest, he returns into society with the force of the Spirit.” Thanks for reading too.

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