Tag Archives: Spirits

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.


IMG_2059Last week a facebook friend sent me a greeting through chat, and I didn’t answer. Since I never want my friends to feel that I don’t notice their messages, I was looking for an excuse to give when I would feel like answering again. There was no deep or serious reason for my silence, I was just preoccupied. I started pondering that word – for the English language is native neither to me, nor to that friend. Unhinging the prefix from ‘occupied’ I wondered why I would not just say that: I was occupied, I was busy. But that would not have been true, literally. I would have had time for a message. It was just that I did not want to be engaged in conversation for some days. My mind just asked for some un-occupiedness – not being busy communicating, but having its capacity for itself.

Then I wondered, as I did more often, whether ‘for itself’ really can be said – meaningfully? In that mood that one doesn’t feel for communication, is one not, actually occupied in that other sense? Busy like a telephone line can be busy? Posessed even by something? The mood I am talking about is the one that often leads to creativity – it seems you are doing nothing, thinking nothing, not communicating – and after some time, seemingly from nowhere, new ideas pop up. A philosopher friend who died nine years ago, and who loved to play with words, called this the ‘incubation period’. Comparing an outburst of creativity to the breakthrough of illness. Silence before a storm, so to say. The bored, empty days one needs to let something unexpected present itself.

What happens when one is preoccupied in this sense? Creative people used to claim that they were inspired by their ‘muse’, a goddess supposed to breath creative insights into a person. Later, when such spiritual powers were not so much in fashion anymore, the muse was often the name for the adored mistress of an artist. But also then, the reference was to the spiritual side of a sexual relationship: the being in love, the passion. In all cases the mind, or whatever other seat of ‘me’, is not with itself, it is occupied by something which draws it away from the everyday. The everyday, the laundry, the dishes, the car, the garden can take care of itself. The facefookfriends, even real life friends too. When you are preoccupied you are in a sense ‘out of your mind’.

My beloved, referring to knowledge he got in his West African upbringing, explained me once that especially creative people are ‘followed’ by the spirits. My answer, a question, was: ‘ah, that is because  with them the spirits can have more fun?’ He continued that the spirits help the creative mind, they are actually part of that creativity. The flip side of this being that they can also stir things up too much, and get someone into trouble. That would be the reason that we see so much creative people struggle with drugs, depression, paranoia, and things like that. Those troubles are just the spirits gone out of control.

So how is it? It is true that when I write, or paint, I am not consciously constructing what I make. There is what we nowadays call ‘the flow’. A form of rapture that makes me wonder about some of the sentences I wrote when reading them back. And again. What ‘I’ do is make preparations. Cleaning the room, laying the books or brushes ready. Making sure that I will not be distracted by communication or chores that have nothing to do with the creative task. And then there is that boredom, that emptying, perhaps, to make it possible that ‘the creative spirit’ will come over me and do its work. It has to be treated with kindness, but also with discipline. Yes, it should not be fed with an excess of pride or excitement – that will summon up it’s dark side: loneliness, depression, dissatisfaction that can come and haunt.

The spirit of creativity thrives best on a simple diet, and appears when there is some good old boredom around – the pre-creative silence, that precedes this spirit occupying the creative human being. Could that be the deeper meaning of us saying of the human being in this preparatory phase that he or she is pre-occupied? I do not claim to know how it works, so I value different descriptions of what happens. And to any of my friends I would like to say: when I am ‘not available’ it could be just me being preoccupied.

After I published my book on Spirits, in november 2011, I was invited a lot for interviews in philosophical cafés. It was winter and during my walks in the dark and cold night back to the train station I considered, confused, the most frequent question that I was asked by my audience: ‘do you believe yourself that spirits exist?’ I was confused, as this question was not addressed by me in the book, and did not seem very relevant to me either. Not because I would think it to be a private matter what I believe, but because I did not deem it philosophically relevant. It is a question that creates – as it were – a short circuit in my head, being a nonsensical question for a philosopher. My answer to those who pose it is usually: ‘do you ever ask yourself whether you believe that your loved one exists?’ Which means: when you are in a relationship, the question of whether the other partner in the relationship exists is nonsensical, since you already live the relationship. And asking whether one believes that he or she exists is even more weird, as if my belief would be in any possible way relevant for the existence of someone or something.

Let me elaborate on this here. I will take a perhaps unexpected approach – not the direct one of trying to prove that the discussion of belief in existence is nonsensical, but the indirect one of asking why one would want to ask that question in the first place? Why is the question ‘do you believe that spirits exist?’ important to so many people (at least among the visitors of philosophical cafés)? When considering why people would bother about existence, on one of these dark wintery walks the thought came to me: they are concerned with a problem that is a survival (in the historical sense: a survival is a thing that has lost the function it had in another time but that is still around) from ancient Greek philosophy. For the ancient Greeks (and I will not try to explain why) one of the most important questions evolved around the phenomenon of change, or rather, decay: how can we be certain of something durable while everything changes constantly, and life forms that have originated and grown wither and disappear again? The concept of existence refers to this need to understand that anything whatsoever could endure this constant change: it means that some things withstands change and decay – at least temporarily. To say that this animal, say, exists, means that is has a certain durability as an individual, that we can trust it to be not only here in this moment, but in the following ones as well, and depending on its species, even for years or decades.

The concept of existence lost its importance when modern science entered the stage: a manner to understand and research the world that is interested in active force and effect. Science does not ask in the first place how it is philosophically possible that there are durable things in a world of change, it asks what things do, how they work, what effects they have on other things. Philosophically, modern science introduced the pragmatist outlook before pragmatist philosophy formulated what this is about. Within the pragmatist outlook the existence of things is irrelevant. ‘True is what works’ wrote William James, and he meant that our perception is focused on how things influence other things, how they effect them. So, when we talk about spirits, for a modern person (and the postmodern one is also still modern in my view), for one who lives in the framework of modern science and technology, the only interesting question is whether we experience some effect from those entities, not whether they endure among constant change. Constant change has transformed from being a problem, as it was for the ancients, into the steady background of our lives. We have accepted it, so to say, philosophically.

This leaves us with the question of ‘belief’ in existence. Why would it be interesting whether a philosopher, Angela Roothaan for instance, believed in the existence of spirits? One could only answer this question affirmatively if one does think a) that existence of some things (spirits) should be argued for, and b) that a philosophical argumentation for it cannot stand on its own, but needs the affirmation of an actual philosopher – which would seem a wobbly foundation to me. I do not think one wants a foundation for the existence of spirits (as I do not want one for the existence of my loved one). To my view the sceptical doubt which drove the reasoning of the ancient philosophers is no longer ours. We can still put ourselves in their place to some extent, as it is done in philosophy classes, when students are invited to think through the ancient texts. But their questions do not reflect our interests. We are not so much interested in explaining how some thing can withstand decay (an actual person, or a spirit as the remaining essence of a dead person), but in the force that emanates from some thing that has appeared in the world. The thing may wither, its force does not, as it has already effected everything with which it has been in contact. I do not believe in the existence of spirits, I see the effects, the trails if you wish (not trails that are dead reminders of some thing that has passed, but effective trails, that keep on influencing, like the waves in a pond hit by a stone) of some thing having appeared/disappeared.

A happy 2014 (a year that has appeared, although I might doubt its existence) to all my readers!