In this series on Jesus-as-shaman, we’ve explored multiple dimensions, including Jesus as healer, exorcist, soul retriever and psychopomp. There are a number of other correlations we could make between classic shamanism and Jesus. For example, there is the shamanic practice of reading signs in nature to provide discerning insight:
Jesus also said to the crowds, ‘When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, “It is going to rain”; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, “There will be scorching heat”; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?
Luke 12: 54-56
Or think of the numerous parables of Jesus that derive from the earth and animal life: the birds of the air, the lilies of the field, the mustard seed, and so on.
There’s also Jesus’ practice of vision quest with prayer and fasting: ”He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan, and he was with the wild beasts and the angels waited on him.” (Mark 1:12. See The Four Vision Quests of Jesus by Steven Charleston for an excellent exploration of this theme.)
Jesus was with the wild beasts…this could be interpreted in shamanic lore as his connection with the animal world. In particular there are stories of shamans befriending wild animals – e.g. St. Francis of Assisi befriending the wolf. The angels waited on him can refer to spirit guides, helpers, and protectors (e.g. guardian angels in our own day).
There are still yet other connections I could point to, but for now I want to focus on one last important crossover between Jesus and shamanism: apocalypticism.
Recently I was on an interfaith panel at a local church. As an ordained priest I get asked to do this kind of thing occasionally. The panel that evening consisted of me, a Rabbi, and an aboriginal Canadian elder. The elder went into an intriguing rift at one point, almost a rant, and quoted a number of prophesies from his wisdom teachers concerning coming destruction for humanity. I had been thinking of this shamanistic lens in relation to Jesus for awhile at this point, but I had only been considering things like soul retrievals, healings, exorcisms, and so forth. At that moment, a whole other arena of Jesus-as-shaman opened up for me: Jesus the apocalpyticist.
As with the other arenas mentioned earlier – exorcism in particular – apocalypticism immediately makes liberal folk squeamish. The word immediately evokes images of fire and brimestone preachers raging about hell and damnation and the end of the world or being Left Behind. It brings to mind people like radio broadcaster Harold Camping predicted the end of the world on May 11, 2011 after finding the secret clue (he claimed) to unlock the book of Revelation. He follows in a long line of people who wrongly predicted dates and times of the end of the world (e.g. William Miller). [We at Presence know nothing about failed apocalyptic predictions! :v) – editor]
Whether it makes us uncomfortable or not, Jesus was an apocalyptic dude. Apocalypse has roots in shamanic indigenous traditions around the world. It was clearly on display that evening of the interfaith gathering. We saw it also when people taking ayahuasca have visions of the return of the Amerindian serpent god in 2012.
We also see it in Jesus. Jewish apocalypticism, the kind Jesus came from, grew out of mystical traditions of visions of the Chariot of God or the Throne of God (called hekhalot or Merkabah in Jewish mysticism). The hekhalot tradition consists of ascents by the mystics into God’s sovereignty over all creation – symbolized by the chariot or the throne. The mystical ascent of the Hekhalot Kabbalists parallels the journeys of shamans to the upper world. Both Judaism and shamanic traditions include the vision of the importance of a Tree: e.g. Yggdrasil the Cosmic Tree in Norse shamanism and The Tree of Eternal Life from the Garden of Eden.
By journeying to the highest heaven, the mystic is granted a vision of eternity, transcending space and time. From his heavenly perch, the mystic can see the whole plan of creation. Moreover, the mystic, one with The Divine, is helping to dream the world into being. The mystic partakes in a vision of God’s desire for creation.
Jewish seers had visions of God’s throne in The Holy of Holies – i.e. the innermost sanctuary of The Temple. Entering into that realm meant that one had been transformed into a son/daughter of God, i.e. was in full union with God. God was envisioned as rushing out from the innermost sanctuary of the temple (i.e. eternity) into creation (space and time) bringing liberation, healing, and restoration. The rituals of the high Holy Day of Yom Kippur and the traditions of the Jubilee (release of debt bondage) and Jesus’ apocalyptic vision of the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth all derive from this spiritual tradition.
By having a vision of all things being well in God, the mystic becomes an apocalyptic prophet, able to indict his/her age as having failed to live up to the vision of God’s restoration and true justice. Some theologians say that this kingdom of God is “already but not yet.” The Kingdom is always already the reality of God’s life, and everything in creation already exists, in its essence, within this heavenly substrate. And yet as a manifest form, creation does not fully manifest this reality. The gap between the Kingdom as already and not yet is seen in racism, sexism, ecological destruction, oppression, mass poverty, hopelessness, despair, cruelty, and violence.
Hence the painful, passionate words of Christ:
“I have come to bring fire to the earth and how I wish it were already burning.” (Luke 12:49)
Jesus understood his exorcisms and healings as moments when the Kingdom of God was breaking through into space and time. He said they were a glimpse into the rule of God.
The shamanic view is one in which our world and the other worlds are part of a continuum. What occurs in any world has effects in the others. As the ancient saying went, “As above, so below.” Or in the words of the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.”
Not all shamans are apocalyptic – for all we know most of them probably were (and are) not. But contemporary research has shown among shamanistic movements in numerous places around the world (e.g. The Americas, The Pacific Islands) the tendency towards apocalyptic thought when facing times of social and economic dislocation as well as political oppression – exactly the kind of conditions that characterized Israel under Roman imperial occupation during Jesus’ life (and Roman-executed death).
Apocalyptic language is the dream of a new world arising out of the ashes of an old. Apocalyptic seers often visions of both light and darkness – visions of hope that spring from the possibility of a new world:
“People will come from East and West, North and South, and will sit down and eat in the kingdom of God.”
– Jesus (Luke 13:29)
The flip side of his hopeful language is the nightmarish possibility of being left out of the new reality to come:
“Jesus went through one town and village after another, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem. Someone asked him, ‘Lord, will only a few be saved?’ He said to them, ‘Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able. When once the owner of the house has got up and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, “Lord, open to us”, then in reply he will say to you, “I do not know where you come from.” Then you will begin to say, “We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.” But he will say, “I do not know where you come from; go away from me, all you evildoers!” There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves thrown out.” (Luke 22: 22-28)
We live in an age of major economic dislocation and dispersion, an era of ecological despoliation. Apocalyptic language is rife in our society – some emphasizing more the vision of a renewed future, others more the destruction to come if we continue on the current path.
To employ traditional language, the apocalyptic is powerful medicine. In the wrong hands, however, it is quite dangerous. But there will be no substantial change without an apocalypse – without a disclosure of another reality. But that other reality will not come without intense resistance. The apocalyptic element, the prophetic critique of society, is what leads Jesus directly to the cross. In our own day we see many forces of violence amassed against the change so desperately needed. The apocalypticist has seen, however, that the order of violence and resistance is already defeated. It is already undone. It is just that we have not walked in that path yet – we have not incarnated its truth.
Jesus deployed his shamanic gifts to help give birth to his vision of a kingdom of heaven on earth. Just so, in our day we must learn shamanic modalities of healing and empowerment in order that we may help birth the more beautiful world our hearts desire and know is possible.
Chris Dierkes is a long time student and practitioner of the Christ-consciousness mystical path. After receiving his MDiv., Chris worked in parish ministry for three years (Anglican Church of Canada) and now maintains a private practice in interspiritual soul work. In addition Chris has studied energy healing, intuitive arts, and shamanic practice. He writes frequently on subjects of spirituality in the contemporary world. He lives in Vancouver with his wife Chloe and their daughter Sage. You can check out his writing and practice here.