“For you will have a covenant with the stones of the field, and the wild animals will be at peace with you”. - Job 5:3
Reconciliation With the Old Ways
In North American Mainline Christianity there’s been a steadily growing desire over the past fifteen years to work towards reconciliation with the indigenous peoples of the United States and Canada. In particular, the revelations during the last two decades about the horrific residential school systems has many people understandably seeking to atone for and help heal this terrible history. The recent revelations in Canada about mass graves of children’s bodies at these residential schools, long rumored but now confirmed, has created another layer of deep anguish and pain about this dark past, and an even stronger desire to somehow right this wrong and restore relations.
I applaud this impulse and the actions that many congregations have already been taking in their local communities. Practicing reconciliation is a consistent biblical teaching, and the open wound of colonial trauma- which continues generationally as we now know- will need very serious healing if a new and more harmonious future is to emerge. One thing that I’ve curiously not heard in discussions about reconciliation and how to bring it about, although it might be out there, is talk about taking the indigenous worldview seriously in our own lives. There’s often talk of “indigenous thinking”, but that’s something ‘they’ do not us. We remain in our disenchanted rational-materialist worldview, while the indigenous other lives in close relation to place in a world animated with spirits. In this four-part series, I want to make the case that one important form of reconciliation that non-indigenous Western peoples can partake in, is to actively take the indigenous worldview metaphysically and ontologically seriously. This would mean an embodied integration of things like animism, magic and the paranormal, all terms that I’ll define later in this article. It would also mean a renewed understanding of the reality of evil, which will be the subject of Part 3.
There are already gestures toward this happening in the world of ‘progressive’ Christianity. The liberal theologian Richard Beck has a new book entitled Hunting Magic Eels- Recovering an Enchanted Faith in a Skeptical Age. Greg Boyd has foregrounded the reality of spiritual warfare (and thus evil) in his work over the past decade. Mark Wallace has recently forayed into the possibility of a Christian Animism. Further afield Michael S. Heiser has explored the ‘supernatural’ dimensions of the Bible in his book The Unseen Realm- Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible. And in the broader field of Religious Studies, Jeffrey Kripal’s work has carved out space for a post-taboo discussion of the paranormal. This multi-part series will be working with and within these broader currents that are already at play in the culture.
The point of taking an indigenous worldview seriously, is not as some gesture of kindness and solidarity towards indigenous peoples. The reason to reexplore and reintegrate the realms of animism, magic and the paranormal is because they’re real. It’s only our recent Western materialist worldview that has deemed them the childish superstitions of a less evolved age, as though all humans that’ve ever lived until two hundred years ago were living a totally deluded life. Our severing from these ways of being with and knowing the world have come at a great cost to us, from environmental destruction to depression, addiction, and widespread nihilism. What’s worse, as I’ll attempt to show in Part 3, the ruling elite don’t share this scientistic materialist worldview (but they do promote it). They have a thoroughly enchanted worldview and are active and adept practitioners of the occult, and we’re sitting ducks to their machinations, no longer believing in powers that are actively being wielded against us. A strong and reenchanted Christianity (which will be unpacked in Pt.2) is needed as a bulwark against these dark purveyors of the long trauma war. This re-enchantment would also I believe bring meaning and depth and peace into people’s lives in general, whether practicing Christianity or not. Our own reconciliation with the more-than-human world, and a return from our current profound state of exile, can bring about a generalized healing which can make further layers of reconciliation possible.
The last twenty years has seen a growing revival of interest in animism, magic and the paranormal, including in academia. This site is partially dedicated to swimming in those reemerging ontological waters. I’ll give a summary of that revival in section three of this piece. But first, I must address a concern that might’ve already arisen in some reader’s minds, and that’s the problem of universals.
The Problem of Universals
One objection to what I’ve written above could be that what I’m talking about is essentially a form of cultural appropriation. That indigenous knowledge and ways of knowing are not available or possible for us non-indigenous Westerners. For an example of this view, “In a research paper prepared for the Canadian government in 2002, Indigenous education scholar Marie Battiste argued that Indigenous peoples possess a “cognitive system” that is “alien” to Europeans”. I’ve heard this argument a lot, particularly from those within the woke left. I think it couldn’t be more wrong. It’s also one of the most profoundly alienated beliefs that I’ve ever heard spoken. It’s like someone with legs saying, “It’s not possible for me to have legs!” Let me make the case that indigenous ways of knowing are available to all.
First, the lineages of all human cultures stretch back to indigenous peoples. Europeans didn’t just pop forth into being in the age of the Enlightenment. Go back far enough into the traditions and ancestors of any culture, and you’ll get to hunter-gatherers of some sort, who lived close to the land and believed that the world was populated by persons, only some of whom are human (animism). This past we all share was discovered by the depth psychologists and structuralists of the early 20th century. They realized that our past ways of organizing and understanding our world don’t disappear as cultures change their operating worldview. Instead, the past ways stay latent within us. As Charles Taylor put it in A Secular Age, “Our past is sedimented in our present”. One important scholar in this domain was the Swiss philosopher Jean Gebser, who argued in his opus The Ever-Present Origin that humans evolve through structures or mutations of consciousness, each one constituting its own way of knowing the world. One early structure that Gebser identified he termed the magical structure of consciousness, which is more or less the domain of what we’re discussing here.
What’s extremely important about Gebser in the context of this article series, is that Gebser did not see the new historically emergent structures of consciousness as hierarchical or necessarily better than the ones that came before. They are all valid and important ways of knowing. So much of European colonialism was justified using the developmental models of thinkers like Auguste Comte and James Frazer, who also recognized that humans had developed through different stages or worldviews, but who judged the older ways of knowing as childish and underdeveloped compared to the rational scientific worldview that came after it. Geber’s integral view short circuits this chauvinism by acknowledging that not only are the older ways of knowing still latent within us, but they’re also unique, valid, and important ways of understanding the world. But Gebser also short circuits the opposite impulse, which is to reject the modern world and “get back to the garden” before we supposedly lost our way. We’ve seen this call to board the way back machine in the philosophical movement Traditionalism and in parts of the New Age movement for instance, but the Gebserian integral view is that modern science and reason are also universal ways of knowing that are valid (granted it doesn’t come to dominate or reject other ways, which happened in the modern age).
Through the lens of structuralism and developmental psychology we see that access to indigenous ways of knowing are embedded within all people. Tyson Yunkaporta, author of Sand Talk- How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World, echoed this in a recent podcast interview with Rebel Wisdom. After being asked to describe what indigenous thinking is, and giving several examples, he said, “All that knowledge is just human knowledge” (19:10). Although he did add a rather interesting qualifier- “All that knowledge is just human knowledge inherent to undomesticated humans”. Yunkaporta seems to be saying that once we’re reimmersed in the relational web of the more-than-human world, this knowledge becomes much more accessible to us.
The notion that indigenous ways of knowing are somehow totally “alien” to European or Western consciousness also doesn’t tell the full story of the Enlightenment and the fierce reaction to it within the West itself. The first line of Isaiah Berlin’s essay ‘The Counter-Enlightenment’ reads, “Opposition to the ideas of the French Enlightenment, and its allies and disciples in other European countries, is as old as the movement itself”. Many artists and intellectuals in Europe thought that important ways of knowing and understanding the world were being lost in the Enlightenment’s promotion of reason and rationality as the gold star of epistemological practice. Listen to this lament by the German poet Novalis- “The old world began to decline…The gods vanished with their retinue – Nature stood alone and lifeless. Dry Number and rigid Measure bound her with iron chains” (1801, Hymns to the Night). Not only were there the revolts of the Romantics and the German Idealists, but there also remained a strong tradition of panpsychist thinkers, who are very aligned with an animist worldview. In his book The Myth of Disenchantment- Magic, Modernity and the Birth of the Human Sciences, Jason Josephon-Storm writes, “Panpsychism has been a persistent counter-current in philosophical circles as well-known thinkers – including Spinoza, Leibniz, Goethe, Schopenhauer, Thoreau, William James, Henry Bergson, John Dewey and Alfred North Whitehead- all argued that the material universe should be thought of as thoroughly animated or possessed of mind and awareness. Mechanism has long had establishment enemies” (p. 305). Furthermore, Josephon-Storm also argues that “Historians have shown that for generations of scientists, scientific and magical worlds were often intertwined”, that the scientists “alchemical experiments, magical preoccupations, mystic visions, and grandiose sense of prophetic mission” were central to their practice of science and their discoveries (p.43). My colleague Son of Korg has written an excellent piece on this topic called Limited Scientistic Hangouts, where he shows how the high priests of modern science do their best to obscure this dimension of the scientistic endeavor. As Korg sums it up, “Keep the science, hide the magic”. John Fleming’s book The Dark Side of the Enlightenment- Wizards, Alchemists, and Spiritual Seekers in the Age of Reason is also good on this subject.
Not only is indigenous thinking not foreign to the minds of Westerners (its latent capacity is embedded within), there’s been a long revolt against the scientistic materialist worldview from within the West itself. Moreover, many practicing within the realm of ‘science’ were also participating in magic and alchemy and other occult practices all along. The cold hard division of ‘indigenous people’ over there, and ‘Westerners’ over here, just hasn’t been the case. It’s been a messy and intertwined history all along the way. There’s no reason that we exilic Westerners cannot rekindle these types of understandings and practices if we haven’t already. And if we look at the current revival of open interest in animism, magic and the paranormal today, perhaps we see the damn of scientism bursting, as the thirst to reclaim our total selves finally breaks through the menacing watch of the skeptical gatekeepers.
The Return of the Repressed
In this final section of Pt.1, I want to define animism, magic, and the paranormal, and point to the current revivals of interest in them. It should be noted that these definitions can only attempt to capture the territory and will never fully do so. And as we’ll see, there’s overlap between all three categories, so there’s no precise clear-cut boxes to put these terms in. Nevertheless, we’ll begin with animism, and look at a few different definitions and weave them together. Erik Davis, in his book TechGnosis- Magic, Myth, and Mysticism in the Age of Information, defines animism as “A magical mode of thought that reads and experiences the surrounding world as a living field of psychic presences”. In an essay entitled ‘Everything You Need to Know About Animism’, Sarah Jane Lawless describes animism as “The belief that everything has a spirit and a consciousness, a soul, from the tiniest microorganism on earth to the great planets in the heavens to the whole of the universe itself…Animism is your personal relationship with nature and with the inhuman spirits who inhabit and compose nature. It is a relationship of respect and value for all things and all beings, visible and invisible”. These definitions are good, but according to several other voices the phrase “mode of thought” in the first definition, and the word “belief” in the second, aren’t quite right. Anthropologist Tim Ingold says that animism, “Is not a way of believing about the world, but a condition of being in it” (Being Alive, p.67). Gordon White, being interviewed about animism on the What is Magic? podcast, echoes this saying, “Animism is not a religion, it’s a way of seeing the world”. And Joshua Micheal Screi, in an excellent podcast presentation called “Animism is Normative Consciousness”, says that animism is “Consciousness in its natural dwelling place; it’s not an ism, it’s felt experience. It is the default somatic way of experiencing reality”.
It was the 19th century anthropologist EB Taylor who coined the phrase animism, and he thought it was a system of beliefs used by what he considered ‘primitive’ peoples to explain the world. But he was wrong that it was a belief system at all, as we see in the last three definitions above, it’s more a mode of being-in-the-world. This undomesticated awareness experiences the world as animate, alive with spirits and forces visible and invisible, with whom we can be in relation. EB Taylor, his mind deadened by the materialism of his day, was also wrong that it was a deluded or erroneous understanding of reality. This felt experience can be brought back online through the cultivation of intentional presence (and through a variety of practices; see Sarah Lawless’ essay above).
What’s interesting is that science is increasingly coming to see the world as much more alive and intelligent, which is one of the places that the revival of animist awareness is coming back into the culture. In a book called Brilliant Green, plant neurobiologist Stefano Mancuso writes that, “In the last several decades science has been showing that plants are endowed with feeling, weave complex social relations and can communicate with themselves and with animals”. The bestselling book The Hidden Life of Trees is another in this emerging category of literature. There are also several pioneering anthropologists who are finding creative and sophisticated ways of describing an animist understanding. Some standout books include How Forests Think- Towards an Anthropology Beyond the Human by Eduardo Kohn, The Relative Native- Essays on Indigenous Conceptual Worlds by Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, and Beyond Nature and Culture by Phillipe Descola. There’s been a concurrent track in religious studies sometimes referred to as the New Animism, with its most known voice being that of Graham Harvey.
This reemerging animist awareness is spilling into the arena of environmental activism as well, where parts of the natural world are being granted legal rights. In an article about the “rise of the new animism”, Robert Macfarlane writes in The Guardian about the Lake Erie Ecosystem Bill of Rights, “Embedded in the bill is a bold ontological claim – that Lake Erie is a living being, not a bundle of ecosystem services. The bill is, really, a work of what might be called “new animism” (the word comes from the Latin anima, meaning spirit, breath, life). By reassigning both liveliness and vulnerability to the lake, it displaces Erie from its instrumentalized roles as sump and source. As such, the bill forms part of a broader set of comparable recent legal moves in jurisdictions around the world – all seeking to recognise interdependence and animacy in the living world, and often advanced by indigenous groups – which have together come to be known as the “natural rights” or “rights of nature” movement”.
These are some of the many places that an animist understanding has re-emerged and broken through the scientistic glass ceiling of the modern age. As we’ll see in Pt.2, it has reappeared within Christianity as well.
Next, we turn to magic. We can build an understanding of the term and what it points to through a series of both overlapping and differing definitions. In TechGnosis, Erik Davis writes, “Both traditional magic and modern science are concerned with empirically understanding and manipulating natural forces and hidden universal laws” (p.181). Aleister Crowley’s definition of magick (he added a k) is similar to this- “The science and art of causing change to occur in conformity with will”. The theologian Michael Heiser defines magic as, “The idea of soliciting a deity through various ritual means to get the deity to do or not do something, or to get knowledge from the deity”. In all three definitions, we get the indication that through the many diverse practices of ritual magic, one can contact and interact with spirits, forces, and entities of the invisible (yet ontologically real) world, and that one may be aided and abetted by such forces. The practice of Christian prayer is very much in this territory.
When we turn to the definition given by chaos magic practitioner Gordon White, we start to get a little more granularity on some of the capacities and territory involved within the realm of magic. White begins with this definition of magic- “Magic is a culture specific way of using or interacting with the natural consciousness capacities of a particular human”. White unpacks this by saying [italics mine], “If you look around the world there are, sort of, what you might call ‘magical powers’, for want of a lesser dramatic term, a number of techniques that are reasonably conserved. So you have some method of seeing the future, or clairvoyance, you have some method of communicating across distance, so you have telepathy or whatever you want to call it, these are just modern words for capacities right? Then you have interacting or communicating with the spirit world and then you have some method, as a result of that typically, of what I would call probability enhancement or probability manipulation, which is, to make the things that you want happen more often than the things that you don’t want to happen”.
Much of what White describes has long been researched in the field of parapsychology as “psi phenomena”. In fact, in a Rune Soup podcast interview with the parapsychologist Dean Radin, author of the recent book Real Magic- Ancient Wisdom, Modern Science, and a Guide to the Secret Power of the Universe, Radin tells how he discovered that what was being described in the literature of magic, he was already studying in his psi research. Radin says, “I went through this whole business of seeing if I could synthesize, what are the basic magical practices and seeing if I could map it onto psi research and of course, it completely maps. It’s a 100% match. So then I was shocked at, “Well, how come I didn’t know this?” It’s virtually because no one ever talks about it, and then, well why is that? Well, we’re being scientists, that’s why”. The scientistic worldview has had a lock on the official scientific mind for many decades, but that levee has finally been broken, and now we're all down in the flood. These ‘magical’ capacities are being taken seriously once again and are increasingly being studied. And in Pt.2 we’ll see how Jesus could easily be seen as a magician, and was actually viewed that way in his own time, including by the early movement of his followers who built a movement from his teachings.
The final category in this reenchanted worldview that is native to indigenous peoples, is the paranormal. This category holds a host of different phenomena, including ghosts, poltergeists, hauntings, orbs, and angels and demons. It also includes the ‘elementals’, beings found in folklore across the world, such as faeries, elves, goblins, dwarfs, gnomes, tree people, earth or nature spirits, and spirits. These beings have been seen for centuries, and according to a 2013 article in The Atlantic, many Icelanders still believe in elves. The paranormal also includes cryptids, such as bigfoot, or the owl-man that was seen by many people in Chicago in 2018. There are a huge variety of cryptids who have been encountered around the globe, including the Jersey Devil, who was seen by Napoleon Bonaparte’s brother, and shot at by the US Navy in 1909. The paranormal also includes UFOs and the surrounding phenomena, and psychic abilities such as clairvoyance, telepathy, mediumship and animal communication. As my co-writer Son of Korg says, this stuff is all real, in that it’s experienced by humans cross-culturally. What the exact ontological and metaphysical status of all these phenomena are is a whole other discussion however, and an important and rich one (I’d recommend Korg’s writings for deeper inquiry on the topic). But as Son of Korg writes in The Universe is Like Portland: Keep it Weird, “Whatever may be the case, this [paranormal] weirdness is intrinsic…The paranormal is simply normal. It maybe an intensified form of “normal” but it is normal, if by normal we mean again something essentially akin to natural/the real”. Why then is it so shunned by science and the current epistemological establishment? Son of Korg again- “All of this evidence [of the paranormal] runs directly counter to the philosophies of materialism and scientism that dominate our world. It doesn’t run counter to science per se—if by science you mean the scientific method of investigation. That process itself should actually be at root a very agnostic one. But it absolutely blows a (w)hole under the water line of reductive materialist philosophy”.
We can see in the description of the paranormal that there’s overlap with the other two categories of animism and magic. For instance, the anthropologist Jack Hunter, who created the field of paranthropology, says that the paranormal assumes an animist worldview. There are also experiences of telepathy in the paranormal, which Gordon White put under the rubric of magic, and the practice of ritual magic may invoke beings such as demons, as described in Aleister Crowley’s rather hairy encounter with one in the deserts of Algiers in 1909. So there’s overlap as we said at the beginning. There are several good podcasts dealing with the realm of the paranormal these days, a few standouts being Strange Familiars, The Confessionals, Mysterious Universe, and Where Did the Road Go?
We might be asking, “What does all this paranormal stuff have to do with indigenous people?” Indigenous peoples are well familiar with all of this territory. For evidence of this we can listen to an episode of Rune Soup called Talking Indigenous UFO Encounters with Dr. Ardy Sixkiller-Clarke, a scholar who has been “collating contemporary UFO encounters within an indigenous American context for many years”. We can read about ‘The Creepiest Native American Legendary Creatures’, or the Native American Paranormal Project. Then there’s the deep indigenous traditions around bigfoot and Skinwalkers, and the list goes on. Indigenous peoples are no strangers to the paranormal.
How about Christianity and the paranormal? There’s a surprising amount of that in the Bible too, as we’ll see in Pt.2. Angels and demons are obvious ones of course, and Jesus is a master exorcist, but he’s also frequently portrayed as clairvoyant (Mark 10:32-34), among other paranormal powers that will be discussed. We’ll also see that Jesus can be seen as a magician, a shaman, and that he has a deeply animistic worldview, as does the Bible in general. All that is coming in the next installment of this series, entitled Even the Rocks Will Cry Out- Towards a Magical Christianity Pt.2.