Skip to main content
Humanities LibreTexts

3.9: Notes

  • Page ID
  • \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \) \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)\(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)\(\newcommand{\AA}{\unicode[.8,0]{x212B}}\)

    1. When they are not kept separate, confusion results. Some examples will heip to make clear my point.

      Until relatively recently, shamanism as a religious phenomenon has almost solely been the object of anthropological study. Anthropology has focused its research primarily upon nonliterate, small-scale, tribal cultures-where shamanic phenomena are remarkably widespread. Although shamanic phenomena may be found in virtually all of the great religions too, their occurrence in local, unsophisticated, non-text-oriented, "folk practice" contexts has frequently led scholars to exclude them from "mainstream" accounts of the great religions and to suppose them to be the result of the infusion of indigenous and "primitive" religious elements. Some scholars, impressed with the deep similarities between shamanic phenomena around the world, have as a result proposed that shamanism be identified as a religion unto itself. Drawing on these anthropological accounts, popularized accounts of shamanism found in New Age Religion literature portray shamanism as a phenomenon more or less independent of its specific cultural-religious, theological' context and thus as a practice that can be appropriated by persons outside that context. (See for example, Shaman's Drum: A journal of Experiential Shamanism [P.O. Box 430, Willits, CA 95490]. See also the fall1990 [Vol. 13, No.2] issue of ReVision: The Journal of Consciousness and Change [4000 Albemarle Street, NW, Washington, DC 20016], which was dedicated to the topic, "Shamanism: The Transpersonal Dimension.") Some New Age "shamans" and "gurus" now presume to teach and initiate followers into this "religion"-an eclectic hodgepodge of elements from diverse shamanic traditions, taking as authoritative texts the works of anthropologists! Sometimes they are anthropologists themselves--e.g., Michael Harner, The Way of the Shaman: A Guide to Power and Healing (New York: Harper and Row, 1982). What all of this amounts to, I suggest, is taking a generic structure, abstracted from any specific symbol system, and treating it as if it were a specific practice-sort of like taking the category "mammal" and treating it as if it were a species, and then creating a new species modeled on the generic category. For another angle on this phenomenon, see Ronald L. Grimes, "Parashamanism," in his Beginnings in Ritual Studies, rev. ed. (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1995), pp. 253-268.

      Another example of the same sort of confusion is the recurrent idea that mysticism is not many things but more or less a single thing in all of its instances in the many religious traditions of the world, and a further development of the idea that takes mysticism to be the true and authentic core of all religions, once one peels away all of their outward and largely inauthentic trappings. A third example is the proclivity of several Enlightenment thinkers to identify morality (or the approximation to a universal morality) as the true and authentic core of all religions-along with a pared-down, minimalist philosophical theism-and the correlative presumption to call it "natural religion" (as distinct from presumably unnatural "revealed religions") and attempt to practice and teach it as Deism. Still a fourth example is an aspect of the work of the great scholar of the comparative study of religions, Mircea Eliade. Among his many accomplishments, he is certainly to be credited with opening up and making generally accessible a basic understanding of what I call the way of sacred rite as that can be found in virtually every religious tradition in human history, but especially in so-called "archaic" traditions. No other single scholar that I am aware of has done so much to clarify in a comparative way the kind of sensibility that accompanies this way of being religious. However, not invariably but at times in his writings, the way of sacred rite-or, as he puts it, the effort to participate anew in original, archetypal forms of the sacred--comes across as the inner core of all religion and as virtually the same theme with endless variations from one religious tradition to the next. As a result, one gains little sense from his work of the integrity and distinctive "other world to live in" of any specific tradition, and one is left with the implication that it is ultimately only the comparativist (belonging to no one tradition) who can know the meaning of religious phenomena.

      The inverse category mistake, treating the specific as if it were generic or constructing generic categories out of specific traits, is just as widespread though perhaps less encountered outside of academic study. One example is found in the academic discipline of the philosophy of religion. Th~ basic categories, themes, and questions dealt with in this discipline have related almost exclusively to Western theism-at least until very recently-yet the discipline has presumed to draw conclusions that are supposed to hold for religion universally. A similar confusion-taking forms specific to one or two traditions to be characteristic of religion as such-flaws most major modern critical theories of religion, such as those of Feuerbach, Marx, and Freud. Many early efforts in the comparative study of religion similarly defined religion as involving some sort of belief in and worship of a god or gods, which generated unnecessary controversy as to whether Theravada Buddhism, Confucianism, and so-called Philosophical Daoism-which involve no such belief or practice--qualify as religions. Another less problematic example is the effort to classify religions according to the nature of their specific conceptions of ultimate reality as, e.g., monotheism, polythe-ism, pantheism, and atheism (possibly including, in addition, henothism, panenthism, and other more refined categories); or traditions that take ultimate realityo to be transcendent to the natural order versus traditions that take ultimate realityo to be immanent within the natural order. I say these classifications are less problematic because they are useful for certain limited purposes and need not lead to significant misunderstandings. However, if they are taken to imply that a religious tradition has little or nothing (or nothing significant) in common with religions not in the grouping into which it has been placed, they serve as blinders to comparative study.

      There are some very good surveys available of the diversity of generic forms of religious life that may be met with. (One of the very best is Roger Schmidt, Exploring Religion, 2nd ed. [Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1988]. A few have attempted to identify generic ways of being religious. But only one writer, Frederick Streng, has previously attempted in a sustained way to clarify just what such ways involve in practice. (See the recommended readings for this chapter.) It was some of his early work that originally inspired the conception of the framework presented in this book.

      My own account owes a great deal to Streng's account, yet our two accounts differ in many respects. The major differences between our two accounts stem from my interest in identifying truly generic ways of being religious that are effectively differentiated from the specific religious traditions in which they are exemplified and particularly from theologicalo convictions as to the nature of ultimate realityo. Streng's categories, on my reading, do not completely differentiate generic ways from specific theologicalo convictions.

    2. Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (New York: Macmillan, 1925), Ch. 3.
    3. See Chapter 2, note 8.
    4. Although the theory of archetypes of Jungian psychology may seem to be suggested here, I do not wish to invoke it. Carl Jung's theory of archetypes no doubt draws profoundly on the experience of archetypal forms in the way of sacred rite. (Plato's theory of forms, for that matter, does too.) However, Jung's conception of psychological archetypes as truly universal and not specific to the symbol systems of particular traditions (let alone his theory of the collective unconscious to account for them) goes far beyond what the description here offered presupposes. Though I do not rule out the possibility of truly universal (or generic) archetypes, I refer here specifically to archetypal forms specific to particular religious traditions.
    5. "Supernatural" is placed in quotation marks here in respect for those traditions that regard the spirit world and the extraordinary powers that may be found there as part of the natural order of things. For such traditions, shamanic powers are super-natural only in relation to the narrow conception of a purely material nature in the modern world view.
    6. This possibility will be discussed further in Chapter 6.
    7. As readers become more familiar with actual examples of each way, it is possible to gain a feeling for the similar skeletal structure underlying each. Thereby a reader may come to a slightly different formulation that is more useful and does more justice than the one I offer. Should that happen, I will have achieved more of my goal than had the reader simply accepted and appropriated my formulations without question.

    This page titled 3.9: Notes is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Dale Cannon (Independent) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.