Tuesday, January 04, 2011


Over the weekend I was taken with the programme 'Arctic' (Jan. 2; available on iPlayer) in which Bruce Parry visited endangered peoples in post-Soviet Siberia. His purpose was not only to explore the changing Arctic and the effect on indigenous peoples, but also to satisfy his interest in shamans. So there was a low-key and very well integrated religious theme that blended seamlessly into the narrative. Although curious, for the most part he allowed the practices to reveal themselves in the ordinary course of things, and while he was part of the narrative, he was never the centre of it, a hugely refreshing shift from the exoticism, voyeurism and sheer ridiculousness of Peter Owen-Jones.

The Soviets got rid of the shamans. Parry didn't say how; one assumes they were liquidated or perhaps went underground and died out. Shamanism was not an unmixed blessing: some of the old shamans terrorized and exploited their communities and competed with one another in outrageousness. One deeply attractive young man presented himself as a 'healer' and suggested that he was part of the people's efforts to try to recover some of the tradition; but far from being loaded with outrageous antique (or pseudo-antique) kit, or engaging in eccentric behaviour, he had an admirable, profound, self-effacing peace about him. (In one of the rituals he used a mouth-harp that illustrated the point about musical vibration in the December 17 post, "Who Sings Prays Twice".)

Parry then moved farther north from the horse people to the reindeer people whose way of life had almost disappeared under the Soviets. The reindeer people apparently had no shamans left, or even healers such as the young man of the horse people, but their spiritual sense and their rituals continued, thoroughly integrated into their lives which were themselves integrated with the staggeringly beautiful landscape. They were getting along just fine without clergy, thank you very much. These were people acquainted with science and technology who saw no conflict with this knowledge and the offerings left along the way, or the customs of the household, for example, the requirement that a newcomer throw a vodka offering to the spirits into the fire. Their attitudes drove home the point again of how limited and crude Western ideas of 'spirit' or 'spirits' are.

This programme (there will be two more) dovetailed with some vague ponderings on exoticism I'd engaged in over the Yule break, for example, the seemingly insatiable appetite people have for 'signs and wonders' even at the expense of their own happiness and well-being. Of course a lot of religious leaders exploit this tendency, finding it irresistible to augment their position and power, even if it means that the people they supposedly serve suffer in consequence. But the notion of signs and wonders is not limited to religion: it extends to the culture generally. Why do we glorify ugliness and squalor? why do we expose ourselves to extreme violence as entertainment? why do we put up with increasing pace and noise? what is the attraction of celebrities, either being them or idolizing them? why does 'having fun' now seem to be more important than meaning or significance or the well-being of oneself and the wider community? In asking these questions I'm showing my age, I suppose; but I grieve over the world that seems destined for further entropy of its own making in this New Year.

Exoticism and beauty are not the same. Parry rather foolishly (and out of character as he seems sensitive) asked about depth while attending a rather ordinary-looking festival picnic. The depth was there, his host assured him; it took time to recover the traditions—but one had the sense that it was in the very simple feast itself that the traditions were being recovered and the mystery was celebrated, that when the traditions were recreated for this very different world, they might not have the elements of the fantastic but would rather be more low-key; they would not centre on phenomena but on transfiguration. The schizophrenic life under the Soviets was destructive to the communities: the television programme did not say anything about a life in which no-one could be trusted, where you could not say what you thought, where simply being able to feed your family meant having to adopt ways of being in the world that were repugnant to you—but all of this was implicit in the remarks of the young man. Simply to recover the life of the community and be once again in the landscape touched the deepest mysteries of all. One wonders if their tribal languages are gone forever, as they incorporated the full continuum of experience in the multiple meanings of a single word. (see, for example, In the Empire of Ice by Gretel Ehrlich).

My research today, Tuesday, is not so far from the situation in the Arctic. It centers on the shift from the ancient and medieval understanding of the practical psychological underpinnings of theology to an emphasis on the merely theoretical, words building on words; a faith that centers on personal crisis and the contrariness of appearances with an eye on judgement, rather than the transfiguration of the whole person in this life. Reformation figures mistake the imagined self for the reality; begin to develop the modern sense of the word 'experience', discarding its experimental, provisional, and more objectively accurate) medieval sense. There is a retreat into the merely theoretical.

Once again I am struck by how very much a late-medieval person Luther is, how much he incorporates his personal crisis and the abusive monastic system he came out of into his reform; and even more how quickly this shift took place—Cusa's death (1464) being the end-marker of integrated practical spiritual knowledge as far as institutional Christianity is concerned. I can't help but wonder what the future holds for contemporary Christianity in the West: there are a lot of movements, but they all seem to want followers, repeating the hierarchical patterns, as opposed to enabling spiritual maturity and an integrated, ongoing transfiguration. And they all want money and fame.


Blogger it's margaret said...

You said, "In asking these questions I'm showing my age, I suppose..."

No, dear sister. Only wisdom.

Many blessings.

1:42 am, January 14, 2011  

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