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Exploring African Shamanism and White Sangomas in South Africa

In this episode, Dr. Maxinne Connolly-Panagopolus asks Dr. Ullrich Relebogilwe Kleinhempel how we might better understand and engage with South African Shamanism and Mysticism. Beginning with Sangomas or spiritual mediators, Dr. Kleinhempel introduces some of the types of Shaman which exist in the South African context such as the herbalist, who learns mystical powers from plants; the diviner, who uses oracles such as bones as objects for mediumship; and the seer, who relies on inspiration from dreams, telepathy and intuition. Turning to the complex configuration of race, heritage, and culture present in South Africa, the conversation moves to a discussion of  white Sangomas, and how these individuals are perceived by their community. Finally, within the region’s diverse religious landscape, Kleinhempel shares how Sangomas sometimes navigate multiple religious identities. Listen in for a discussion that encourages scholars to reflect on how they will negotiate the demands of critical inquiry alongside their own personal experiences or competing worldviews.

For more on Sangoma, Umbanda, and other specific elements of this conversation, please consider the following resources:

• Hall, J. (2009). Sangoma: my odyssey into the spirit world of Africa. Sterling Publishing Company, Inc.
• Kleinhempel, U. R. (2017). Covert Syncretism: The Reception of South Africa’s Sangoma Practise and Spirituality by “Double Faith” in the Contexts of Christianity and of Esotericism. Open Theology, 3(1), 642-661.
• Kleinhempel, U. R. (2017). Spreading an Arcane Religion on the World Wide Web: Paradoxies of Transmission of the Contemporary Mysteries ‘Cult of Umbanda. Mistiko-ezotericheskie dvizhenie v teorii i praktike-mistitsizm i ezoterizm v mire teknologii, VIII mezhdunarodnaia nauchnaia konferentsia. St. Petersburg, 60-71.
• Kleinhempel, U. R. (2018). White Sangomas: the manifestation of Bantu forms of shamanic calling among whites in South Africa. REVER-Revista de Estudos da Religião, 18(1), 143-173.
• Contemporary Mysteries’ Cult of Umbanda – video lecture, 8th ASEM conference https://www.academia.edu/26147179/Contemporary_Mysteries_Cult_of_Umbanda_-_video_lecture_8th_ASEM_conference
• Mbiti, J. S. (1990). African religions & philosophy. Heinemann.
• Mlisa, N. L. R., & Nel, P. (2010). Ukuthwasa the training of Xhosa women as traditional healers: Ukuthwasa initiation of amagqirha and identity construction. Lap Lambert Academic.


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Exploring African Shamanism and White Sangomas in South Africa

Podcast with Ullrich Relebogilwe Kleinhempel (2 June 2020).

Interviewed by Maxinne Connolly-Panagopoulos.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/exploring-african-shamanism-and-white-sangomas-in-south-africa/

Maxinne Connolly-Panogopoulos (MC-P): Hello, Ullrich! And a very warm welcome to the Religious Studies Project. Today, we’re recording between Glasgow and the edge of the forest in West Nuremburg. And even though we could do many podcasts on your body of work, from orthodox spirituality and theology, esotericism and syncretism, today I’d really like to focus on your 2018 article on white Sangomas and the Shamanic calling in South Africa. So, for the Listeners who are unfamiliar with this topic, might you start by explaining a little bit about what a Sangoma is?

Ullrich Relebogilwe Kleinhempel (URK): Sangoma is basically a Bantu shaman. The word is used quite generically. It’s a Zulu word. Bantu – that’s the name for all the black African people who live in the land from West Africa – the end of Africa, where Cameroon is – in a straight line to East Africa – the Horn of Africa – to Kenya. And, south of that, the people are all related linguistically. The Bantu people emigrated to this realm from Nigeria. About four thousand years ago they began to migrate there. There were farmers and herdsmen and blacksmiths. And before they came there were hunter-gatherers, the Khoi-San, there – also known colloquially as Bushmen. They lived with other archaic peoples like pygmies and others who have vanished. The Khoi-San have a very well developed practice of mediumism and trance. The Khoi-San, the Bushmen, they engage in out-of-body travels of soul, calling of rain, calling of animals, relating to nature spirits, to ancestors souls, and the like. Quite a loose people, but with a well-developed culture in that way. They visit spirits at special sites like rock pools or water falls. They also do trance dance and spiritual healing. Now the Bantu people who came into that area learnt a lot from them. They intermarried and took up their spirits, respected them for what they are, and that distinguishes the Bantu people from other African people as West African. Now my sources are especially from the South African . . . the people of the amaXhosa: the people of Nelson Mandela. There are about as many people as there are Swedish people. And they have observed most from the Khoi-san – even the clicks in the language. You can (clicks) . . . six clicks. Now what is Bantu shamanism? There are basically three types of Bantu shamanism. The distinction and the combination varies from one people to the next. The first is the herbalist. They learn the medical powers of herbs from the tradition and by mediumism. They’re called iZinyanya iXhwele. You may be a bit surprised to find the herbalists enlisted here, but just imagine how many hundreds of medical plants are known to the shamanic people in South America, and in Africa. And these plants have never been found by experimental trials. Most of the patients would have died that way, because many plants are poisonous. And amongst these tens of thousands of plants there are in the wild, the plants that have curative powers have been revealed to the diviners in dreams. They dream of a patient who has a certain illness, like malaria. And then, all of a sudden, they’re shown in the dream where to go, and which plant to take, and how to treat it to make a medicine out of it. And that store of knowledge is vast. And medical companies, even to this day, send their scouts to those indigenous people to learn from their medical knowledge. And the second role is the diviner. The diviner who uses oracles like bones or similar objects in Bantu cultures. They are called the iSangoma. There are oracles in other cultures too, like West African Ifá – the oracle of the Yoruba people – or the European (audio unclear). And these oracles are quite sophisticated. It takes intuition; you must seek endowment; also some psychological knowledge and training to read them properly. Then there are the seers. Those are people who really, completely on their own, inspire dreams, premonitions, telepathy, visions, intuition. They’re called iSitunywa. And the African indigenous churches who integrate the African heritage, they regard them as prophets and have adopted that role completely. To talk meaningfully about these things you really have to set aside the positivistic and materialistic approach, maintain an acute scientific mind-set, be very clear on phenomenology, and basic research, and documentation, and listening to people, and be prepared to change your own concepts of reality. If you’re not prepared to do that but stick to a reductionist view, which says, “Oh, this is all cultural imaginations and constructions,” and so on, it’s like telling people “The moon is just a cultural construction – you can see that from mythology.” (5:00) and, “The moon is just some kind-of delusion to adapt in the course of evolution.” It’s wasting your time, and it’s wasting the time of readers and you won’t end up anywhere. So, just a fruitless exercise in ideology. If you engage in these things, be prepared that the people who have developed this kind of shamanism have been acute, intelligent people like you and me, over the centuries, over hundreds of years. And they have very fine powers of discernment. And maybe we are just, in a way, daft at these things, and just say, “Oh, well these things don’t exist!” Just to give a really brief comparison, just imagine you were a person who can’t hear. You go to study music, and read all these notes, and say, “Oh this is a wonderful cultural construction. But something like sound, you know, that doesn’t exist. Do you hear anything, I don’t.?” Ok. Now we have to accept that these things are real, because otherwise we are just getting nowhere. Now if you are interested in this topic, of course, at some point you will ask yourself, “Well, how can one become a Sangoma?” Well to say, “Ok, I’ll train to become a Sangoma”, that’s about to say, “Ok, I’ll be an opera singer one day.” Now, without perfect hearing, a good voice, a fine sense of music and harmony, you’re not going to get anywhere. You may study, study, study but you’re not going to end up being an opera singer. Now someone may say, “OK, I’ll be a musician and I’ll learn three chords on my guitar and say I’m a musician”, you know? These things, unfortunately, happen with Sangoma too. Because Sangoma is not a protected title at the moment, and the controls for who can call himself a Sangoma –mostly herself, as Sangoma is very much a female profession – that is at present not in the best condition. In traditional societies these things have been very regulated. There are boards of control, of education, of training, of examination – most arduous exams, comparable to an opera singer – before you would be qualified and accepted as a Sangoma. Now unfortunately, at present, this has been weakening. So a lot of quacks with a sense of money put up a shop sign, “I’m a Sangoma” and charge you a lot of money and “You will believe me, and I will do something for you.” And that’s ruining the profession, and it’s harming it very much. Now the first requirement to become a real Sangoma is a real mediumistic endowment. That usually shows up in childhood already. The child will dream of things in advance that will happen later, or may know, intuitively, that things like . . . or see spirits of familiar people who have just passed away. That child knowing, and saying “Mama, I saw our neighbour walking up the stairs!” And mama says “You can’t have, you must be dreaming. That person died two weeks ago.” That’s the kind of mediumistic endowment that turns up in childhood already. Now you need that mediumistic endowment, and then you need a calling. And that calling can turn up even pretty late in life. Strange dreams, recurring dreams with a sense of urgency. Strange accidents and incidents happen. All these kinds of things. And the person may feel they’re going mad, you know, getting insane, fearing for their sanity. This is quite a crisis. And if you decide . . . you may have to make a decision. They will either say, “Well, I have the means, and the time, and the willingness, and I’m prepared to follow that call, regardless of what it’s going to demand of me and cost me – that’s usually severe, this direction in life. Or you say, “No I can’t follow it. I’ll just have to reject it.” And you say then, “The calling will go away.” But usually it goes away at a price. So it leaves some traces in your soul. Some hurt. Now, if you heed the call, then you can experience that the spiritual field takes over, or as the Bantu people say, “The Spirits begin to take over.” They send you things, things are happening, meeting things, rare things and occasions which are just, you know, out of the normal. Then, if you’re in training, that’s a complex structured process. It’s been described quite a lot by two authors who have got long traditional training. The one is an academic psychologist, in South Africa, Dr Lily-Rose Nomfundo Mlisa. And she wrote her dissertation, entitled, Ukuthwasa Initiation of Amagcirha: Identity construction in the training of Xhosa women as Traditional Healers. And the other is the American accomplished writer, many books. He wrote a book about his own calling which sent him to Swaziland for over three years. And his book has the title Sangoma: My Odyssey into the Spirit World of Africa. Just to remember the first author is Lily-Rose Nomfundo Mlisa and the second is James Hall. You can find them both on the internet. The state of being in this process of training is called Inthwasa. This is feared, as Dr Mlisa explains and she writes: “It is inkathaz – madness – indeed, since it involves syndromic illness and a conglomerate of factors that culminate in various afflictions (10:00). . . . Sometimes ukuthwasa involves signs that resemble madness, such as hallucinations and illusions. . . . Entering into the ukuthwasa initiation heals the person.” And she states that the process of training is often feared as time consuming, expensive, disruptive to family life and employment, also involving obligations to heed the inspiration of ancestral spirits perpetually. Yet the afflictions suffered by someone who experiences signs of spiritual calling are so severe that people sometimes feel they can’t avoid that call. They just have to follow it, may it cost what it does. It could be possible but to reject it a high price. Now Mlisa defines seven stages of the training process. The first is the prediction stage, igqirha. The igqirha, this is the manifestations of mediumism at an early stage. Then the second stage is the calling comes, which is called ubizo. At this stage dreams affect them, troubles intensify, and serious action has to be undertaken. Then comes this stage of intense afflictions, when things get really into a crisis. And when this happens, usually the master Sangomas will say, “Ok this is a sign things are getting serious. We can take that person for training. We will accept that person. These things are genuine and are powerful.” And then comes the stage which actually lasts the whole time: confusion, resistance or acceptance. You have regrets, you say, “Oh, I’m maybe not suitable, I don’t have the abilities to do it, maybe it’s all just an illusion, maybe I have psychic problems”, and so on, and so on. And that may go right up to end of exams, or the day before examinations. And all of us who have passed examinations, I think, know these kind of feelings

MC-P: Absolutely.

QRK: Then comes the real stage that is Ukuvuma Ukufa – that’s where intensified training begins. And this training involves a series of rituals like the formal beading and donning of the attire of a trainee. Now you’re visibly a trainee. Then rites of cleansing, acceptance of death – because transformation is also a kind-of death of your previous ego and the person you were – illness, suffering, and you have to be baptised, at that stage, as a trainee. Then comes cleansing rituals of the body, the homestead environment. Also sacrificial rituals. This is a side where not everybody will be happy with, but sacrifices are done because the blood is perceived as a substance bearing the power of life and spiritual quality, too. Then comes the rights of acceptance, with sacrifice and prayers for the initiate. And the initiate has to learn quite a lot. That comprises, for instance – I will quote Mlisa again: “The trainer is entirely convinced that umkhwetha has a calling and she has committed to it. She has to demonstrate skills and abilities in the divining system – assessments, diagnosis and preparing treatments – then exclusion from family life and social life intensifies and new restrictions are introduced. Her food restrictions differ markedly from the previous stage.… She must also help in mentoring her juniors. Most of the time, umkhwetha is expected to work independently, but under the strict guidance of the trainer. She becomes an assistant to her trainer. She can also lead certain procedures and rituals under the guidance. Moreover, she must demonstrate more expertise and knowledge in understanding how various herbs are collected, stored and used.” End of quote. Then comes Ukuphuma – that’s the last stage of intensive training. Again, certain rituals adjoin to it. But that includes: long times of isolating and seclusion; ritual pilgrimages and rites; special sites in nature, sometimes shown in dreams where to go; spiritual retreats; sacrificial rituals; public proofs of mediumistic prowess – like, for instance, the trainee is called into a room. And in the room, somewhere, a coin is hidden – under a bookshelf, or wherever. That person who enters has to find that coin and find it quick. And things like that. These are really demanding tests. And if you pass them sufficiently, then you do a name change to show your new identity. And there comes the rites of public investiture, and public acceptance as a new role as they progressed to Igqirha or Sangoma. Then comes the stage of being accepted into the communities of Igqirhas or Sangomas as a full member. That is a really dignified ordination. And then you’re still expected to go for lifelong learning. As long as you are, there maybe somebody who knows more, maybe in a certain field and you go train with him or you go for seclusion and pilgrimage. All these things. This is a life-long process. And at present, professional boards of Sangomas and traditional Igqirhas are organising, and have organised already, and are getting legally recognised and integrated into the healthcare system, to safeguard the proficient standards and protect from imposters and quacks (15:00).

MC-P: Brilliant!

URK: So this is a way to give you an overview of this.

MC-P: Yes. Thank you for that, thank you. That was a really, really great overview, as you say, about the whole process. And it’s wonderful to hear those clicks again and your pronunciation is fantastic! I’m really quite interested, as well, especially in your paper regarding the white Sangomas, you speak about them having to, of course, have the same process. And I wonder, how are these individuals received in their communities? And maybe what are some of the cultural or religious tensions surrounding white Sangomas?

URK: Well, this is a complex issue that has to be taken quite seriously. Because it touches on the issues of collective and cultural identities, and respect for culture, and all of these things. Now, we have this concept of “cultural appropriation”, which means, basically, you cannot take something from somebody else’s culture. Although by those standards, if you apply them strictly, we as Europeans or Africans would not be allowed to read and write because the Phoenicians invented the alphabet, and then that’s their cultural property. Of course, we read and write! So this has limits. But from a philosophical point of view of African culture and the worldview, there is a quite clear answer to that. And this provides a basis of how to do things legitimately. Also, for people coming from outside like whites. Because in the acceptance and the manifestation of a Sangoma’s divination, you connect with spirits. Now these spirits are, firstly, those who actually guard the whole process and are the masters of the process. Now in this process you connect to you own family’s ancestors, spirits that turn up in dreams – like, you may dream of your great-grandfather who you never saw, but you know it’s him. And you know this person has a message for you. Or maybe he will guide you, and accompany you. So your own family’s ancestral spirits, first of all. And then, secondly, essentially the ancestral spirits of the master Sangoma with whom you do your training. Some of – usually her, it’s mostly a female profession but there are some males – her, or his, own mentor spirits will also become part of your own spiritual realm. And they will begin to exert authority over you. So this is the point where inevitably, African, black African spirits, Bantu spirits will enter into the realm, consciousness and sub-consciousness and the spiritual realm of a white trainee. Then there are the spirits of the land where you do your training, especially where you were born. You are perceived to be connected, spiritually, to the place you were born. That makes a black person born in Europe a European spiritually, in a certain way, and a white person born in Africa an African, in a certain way. Because you’re connected to the spirits of the land. And you may visit that place, and connect there spiritually, and feel you are connected, and things like that. Then also, the spirts of your place, land of origin, where your people come from. And then, also, spirits of other people, objects, or places – like, you stood in front of a painting and the person who was depicted, all of a sudden that person would turn up in your dreams. So close, emotionally close, significant connections can also connect you to spirits maybe of a long, long time ago. And those spirits in these classes that have taken abode in you, and guide you, and are revealed to you by dreams, intuitions, special occurrences, most of all in trance. Also positon trance – and even there’s a type of position trance dance where the spirit enters your body and expresses itself by certain movements before you begin to recognise that spirit. So these spirits come to you, and some of them become important for you. They will stay with you and connect with them. And you get their powers and advice. Also healing powers, divinatory powers. And then you have an assortment of individual spirits: obviously, if you are a white person, your European ancestral spirits, your family spirits, and the African spirits of the land, and the trainer. If you gather these spirits you also take in their fate. They may have experienced much suffering in their life and you may experience bouts of anguish or sorrow that you can’t explain from your own life. But you feel a desperate fear, sorrow, anxiety which is that of a mentor spirit. So you live part of their life again. It sensitises you to certain things, so that means you also have certain price, you live with those spirits intrinsically (20:00). They also guard you. And James Hall observed, him being a Catholic, that these spirits are similar in a way to the saints of Catholic piety. A saint also was a person that lived, and the saint is, in a way, a spirit in the other world who will still guard you. So things can also happen like, if a black Bantu African mentor Sangoma has some white person up in the ancestor line, that Bantu may also have a white spirit in his own family spirits. Because in South Africa, there was intermarriage all through the centuries. Now the acceptance in communities, the institution of Sangomas or Igqirhas is a very respected profession. It’s like the social status of a psycho-analyst. These people are respected. Sangomas are really revered persons. And this institution has made the transition from rural society into modern South Africa. It’s also made the transition from the pagan culture into Christian culture. And today, if you look up on the internet, you will find professionals in many fields such as psychologists, teachers, academics, medical doctors and so on, who also trained and graduated as Sangomas. The majority of South Africans, statistically, have consulted with a Sangoma at some point in life, like myself, and sometimes in addition to a medical doctor or psychotherapist, and that’s a very special experience. The institution of Sangomas has successfully made the transition into Christian realm, first through the African indigenous churches, to integrate the African spiritual heritage and its forms. They created the offices of the prophet, praying for healing, praying for any of these things. The mainline churches are gradually beginning to accept that. There are some Evangelical churches who will say . . . or fundamentalist Catholics who will say, “Oh, this is all of the Devil.” But still they have some form of recognition of it. Whites, especially in rural areas, at all times consult with Sangomas if they knew no other counsel, or had special powers, but that was usually done in secrecy.

MC-P: I just wanted to pick up on that. So you mentioned the movement from pagan to Christian, and then you also, in your outline of what exactly it takes to become a Sangoma, you mentioned some sacrificial aspects. And so if we think about Sangomas more broadly, thinking about this identification as a Christian as well as the darker side of some African Shamanic practice – for example, the use of human body parts in rituals – how is this navigated by the Sangomas, who practice spiritual healings but they also see themselves a Christians?

URK: That’s an important question for both the Christian Sangomas and the African traditional pagan Sangomas, because Sangoma powers are magic powers, apart from the divination. And magic is a neutral thing, it’s like fire: you can heat the fireplace with fire, you can light the candle, but you can also burn the house, or burn the countryside. Powers can be used in both ways. And if you can use them . . . it’s like telepathy: you can send a good wish to a friend or a family member, “Hope you will pass your exams”, or whatever. But you can also send harm. And this is the inherent ambivalence in the magic powers. Now as to the bodily aspects – and we have things like wedding rings, or we have photos of special objects of our parents, and gifts which we won’t drop on the floor, we’ll treat them with reverence, we have the idea in Christian European culture of blessed objects that you treat reverently accordingly. And this is a strong point of African traditional culture and philosophy, that the different realms of mind, and matter, and the intermediate realm, these are interconnected and the one works in the other. So you work with objects. But these objects are blessed or have some inherent power. They also have a spiritual and cultural aspect to it. And if you apply that to a body, we talked about the blood as being a substance of life. The body parts are perceived as having the powers of a person, like a person’s brains, a person’s heart, and kidneys and so on. And unfortunately, those who practice dark magic, who do magic for harm, they will kill people just to obtain the powerful parts of the bodies (25:00). And there is a special department in South African police, specialists. And this is a pest, it’s an African pest. People all over Africa get killed for magical purposes. It’s a real, real violent, evil thing. And it’s been treated with contempt and horror in African traditional culture already. But unfortunately, those people who do this kind of thing, often for a lot of money, they will promise you can get rich, you can kill your foes and things like that. So this is the darker side of it. As to sacrifice and ritual objects, this is something we share in European culture too.

MC-P: It’s interesting, that. So, if we just move away from thinking about just the general practices of the Sangoma, and thinking more about how academics might engage with this: could you, maybe, outline some of the ways in which this has been engaged with from an academic perspective? And you mentioned earlier about sort-of that balance between keeping an open mind, along with your scientific mind-set. So, thinking about academic approaches, do you think there are some who have aided in the understanding of Sangomas?

URK: Sure. Well actually, South Africans have been pioneers in this endeavour. And they remind me of something which Dr Lily Rose Nomfundo Mlisa told me. After her dissertation was published on the internet, a Jungian psychoanalyst associated with the CG Jung Institute in Zurich – that’s the headquarters – visited her. And the Association of Jungian Psychoanalysts of South Africa have invited her regularly, and continue to do so, for lectures. Last year, the international association of Jungian psychoanalysts held their world council in Vienna. And she was invited as a keynote speaker and there were over a thousand participants, 1400 participants and, at the end of her lecture, she received standing ovations from many of the participants who had tears on their faces. And that may illustrate the impact of her work. Now, those not too familiar with psychotherapy, Jungian psychoanalysis is the most expensive and prestigious form of psychoanalysis. It takes a long training. About 150-200, 000 Euros, just for the training. You need a broad basis in culture and knowledge of myth and so on. And that makes it an arduous and demanding and very rich form of psychoanalysis. And she was invited into that world congress there. Some decades ago, that relationship was the other way round when Cape Town Jungian psychoanalyst, Vera Bührmann, had long talks with the Sangoma from the Eastern Cape, and she recognised some similarities that fascinated her. However she tried to reduce the spiritual worldview of the Sangomas to the “collective unconscious“ in Jungian terms. Even a bit more reductive, in Freudian terms. And that, however, by doing so, eclipsed many features and phenomena. She misinterpreted them. However, she was a door-opener. And her booklet about these encounters is still worthwhile reading. Now this form of reductionism, fortunately, is on the wane. And when I studied Psychology in South Africa, there was a part called African Traditional Psychology. So there is a certain acceptance in academia that certain symptoms and experiences are culturally bound, and they have to be taken and accepted for real – whatever that is. Sort-of put into brackets. But the medical profession is also a practical and pragmatic profession. Because to do what heals is acceptable, even if you don’t know why that heals. But if it heals, it is good. And this is a door-opener. And then somebody else that we have to mention is JBF Laubscher. Laubscher was a trained psychoanalyst and psychiatrist in the early- mid twentieth century. And he worked at psychiatry hospital in the Eastern Cape, and befriended the local Sangoma there, and wrote about that friendship and about all the things he learned, and how it resonated with European spiritualistic worldviews at the time. And his book The Pagan Soul is available online. It’s quite good to read. Laubscher is the person’s name. That doctor’s name. The field of studies of esotericism, that field is not defined by a method, but by its subject. And at present, many scholars in the field regard Sangoma practice and its concepts as religious, which it is certainly not (30:00). Sangoma art and its cosmology and anthropology are not religious but divinatory. And that’s important. But cognitivism is the order of the day. And if you try to frame things in a cognitive way, like those constructions and imaginations, and so on, you can be sure that many people will applaud you before you even have said a sentence or two. But this is just reducing. Now there is another tradition of phenomenology. And the phenomenologists they are quite acute about exploring this field, and say, “Ok. What irregularities, what are patterns that recur? What is the logic of the whole thing? What of the phenomenon, the experiences? What is the transformation of that person? And some scholars in anthropology, like Victor and Edith Turner, have gone that way and have revived their initial approaches in epistemics to find epistemics that are suitable to cover the phenomena that they encounter. They’ve written about that. And the Turners are quite influential in anthropology. So there are traditions which one can connect to. Well more could be said but that’s in brief.

MC-P: Thank you. I think that’s really fascinating. And I really agree that when we’re as researchers, when we’re looking onto things such as this, it’s so important to avoid that reductionism, and absolutely, as you said, to keep an open mind as well as our scientific minds sort-of parallel. Well, that’s my approach anyways! But just in closing, I wanted to ask you . . . you sort-of covered it a little bit, but how would you encourage future researchers who were interested in something such as Sangomas or African Shamanism to explore this topic? And in what directions do you think this field might be moving into?

URK: Well, I believe it’s a promising field. It’s a promising field for various reasons. One thing is, in North American and Western European culture, there is a certain stage of post-secularism that we have arrived at. And sociologists of religion are quite unanimous in this diagnosis of a post-secular age that we have entered. Which means that we have the materialistic tradition still very strong and powerful in academia. But we also have a certain awareness that the world is more complex and that we are entering into post-secular stage. This goes along with a certain decline in Christianity, and some people have passed from Christianity into being “nothing at all”, materialists. And then they’ve found that this is not satisfying, they’re looking for something spiritual, and they might be especially fascinated by these various forms of divination and things like that. There are also traditions like that in European culture, and American culture from the mid-nineteenth century. Spiritualism and psychic research – that’s a great field! You will find much resonance between Sangoma culture and those submerged and sometimes lost European traditions that are re-emerging, too. Then it is interesting to research, how does the institution of Sangoma make the transition into urban South Africa? There are professionals who announce that on their websites that they may be a psychotherapist and also trained Sangoma. Those could be people who would be willing to share these things. You could do research on that: how had the training been conducted into the conditions of a modern industrial society? Which transformations are happening? This is a promising field of research: how does it interrelate, and what are the effects with the medical professions, psychotherapy and so on, and so on? How does the one maybe influence the other? Then, if you are a student of medicine, how does psychiatry, and the diagnosis of psychotic conditions, or schizophrenia in African traditional cultures, how does that fit with our present Western knowledge, or European/American knowledge of psychological disorders? And how does the impact of the spiritual aspects, how does that interrelate with that psychological sphere? This is a promising field, too. And there is quite a bit of research going on in South Africa, too. Then you might do research on regional forms of Sangoma practice: which people emphasise this or that aspect? How is the role defined in this culture, that culture, that culture? And if you have knowledge of Romance languages, if you know Portuguese, if you know French, there are vast fields of studies in that way. And, by the way, that said, some of the Sangoma heritage has flourished in Brazil, too. Over the past five centuries that’s very much alive, in a reduced form compared to the African complexity (35:00). But it is quite alive and it has been connected to an Afro-Brazilian religion, in whose fold this is practiced. This is Umbanda and it has certain aspects of Sangoma practice and divination, too. Then, to enter that field, read, read, read! There are works of Placide Tempels on African philosophy and worldviews; John Mbiti – he was a theologian and philosopher, who wrote about African traditional religion, philosophy and worldviews. Then, Axel-Ivar Berglund, Gabril Setiloane and quite a few others could be mentioned, too. I’ve mentioned some about the experience of training as a Sangoma. That gives you a good idea of the cultural frame, and the philosophy and epistemics that go along, in which these Sangoma practices are embedded. Then visit and consult with trained and properly graduated Sangomas that may be willing to share. And also be prepared to accept that many rites are guarded by secrecy. Nomfundo Mlisa more than once told me: “You’re a white man. You’re not supposed to know anything about these things. How do you know them? And I said “Well, the thing just comes to me.” “OK, so I’ll tell you come more.” But this is an ancient tradition, archaic secrecy. You just have to respect that sometimes doors are closed, and sometimes they open at another point. And somebody will be prepared to share with you.

MC-P: Absolutely

URK: But this is just respect for the things. Some rituals are simply not divulged unless you enter yourself. And then train your own mediumistic perceptions – all of us can to some degree, you become sensitive to that, and you can relate to that field in a different way. If you observe that somethings happen to you that shouldn’t happen, or you have premonitions and that, that sensitises you and you can relate this really intuitively to that field, which is quite important, too. And then let yourself accept that the phenomena can teach you a few things. And this sort-of turns the tables. And be prepared, if you enter that field, that field is going to work on you, sometimes quite suddenly, sometimes over long periods of time, but it does perceptibly work on you. And you are transformed in that way, too. And this is something quite beautiful to experience, if it happens. You cannot control it, but you can rejoice if it does happen to you. And so this is personally fruitful, apart from the vast and quite intellectually challenging field, and quite interesting field from various perspectives: philosophy, psychology, medicine, psychiatry, anthropology ethnology, cultural studies, and so on, and so on. Even music, embodiment studies, ritual studies. So there are quite a few perspectives to engage in this field.

MC-P: Absolutely and the list is quite endless! And you’ve certainly given us a few golden nuggets to take away there. And I’m sure, if there’s any students listening, that you might see a couple of dissertations. And I absolutely have to agree with you. I think any research that we’re doing into religion, or psychology of religion, or anthropology of religion, it has to change us. But I will definitely be sure to link your work – especially you mention Umbanda. I’ll definitely be linking that in the description on our Religious Studies Podcast webpage. But I really just wanted to thank you so, so much for sharing your knowledge, and sharing some of these experiences, and helping me to bring a subject that maybe isn’t known too broadly, to bring that to light as well. So I just end that by saying: thank you so much for your time.

URK: It’s been a great pleasure. Thank you, too.

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcription, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

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Doctors and Stigmatics in the 19th and 20th centuries

Stigmata are a special kind of miraculous event. They involve the physical manifestation of Jesus’ wounds as depicted in the Bible Gospels. Though many people in history have claimed to bear these marks, they have also been used as proof of the existence of God or to build legitimacy for a religious community. Those who have studied stigmata include investigators from the Catholic Church, religious skeptics, and medical professionals.

This week’s podcast with Gabor Klaniczay focuses on the final group, doctors. In his research on stigmata during the 19th and 20th century in Europe, Klaniczay analyzes how the medical discourse has tried to establish authenticity for stigmata cases. Discourses differed based on religious affiliation with Catholic doctors were more prone to credit them as proof of the supernatural, while Protestants ones were more skeptical, often trying to attribute them to hysteria, self-suggestion, or plain forgery.

Throughout the interview, Klaniczay refers to the social context in which stigmata occurred, as in the cases of Louise Lateau in 19th century Belgium and France, and Padre Pio in 20th century Italy. The first corresponded with a time of intense social change and secularization during the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune, while the second found correspondences with World War I and major processes in Italian politics. In this way, Klaniczay’s approach reflects Jesuit historian Michel de Certeau’s  research on the 17th century Loudun Possessions: miraculous or mystical events are the language in which the symptoms of social change take form.

This podcast was recorded and produced in the context of the 17th Annual Conference of the European Association for the Study of Religions (EASR), “Religion – Continuations and Disruptions” held in Tartu, June 25 to June 29, 2019. We kindly thank the EASR Committee and the University of Tartu scientific committee, organising team, and volunteers for the support provided during this process.

 

 

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Doctors and Stigmatics in the 19th and 20th Centuries

 

Podcast with Gábor Klaniczay (18 November 2019).

Interviewed by Sidney Castillo

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

Download a PDF of this transcript here.

Sidney Castillo (SC): Well, here we are again at the Religious Studies Project Podcast. It’s the fifth and last day of the EASR conference 2019, in Tartu Estonia. And now I am here with Gábor Klaniczay from Central European University. Gábor – it’s very nice to have you here.

Gábor Klaniczay (GK): I’m pleased to be here, too. Thank you for interviewing me.

SC: Thank you for joining us. Would you be so kind as to introduce yourself, please?

GK: OK. So I’m a university professor at the Central European University in the department of Medieval Studies. I’m dealing mostly with medieval religious history, late medieval Christianity. That’s my field of expertise. Within that, the problem of the cult of saints, popular religion, witchcraft, beliefs. And also another aspect of my research is, a little bit, to situate central European religious culture in the whole European or even broader context.

SC: Excellent. Now your talk in the conference, at the EASR, has been about miraculous stigmata in the 19th and 20th century. Could you speak a little bit about that, please?

GK: Yes, well that shows that I’m not only dealing with a medieval things! Actually, I’m also very much in favour of historians dealing with the results of neighbouring disciplines. And there is interdisciplinary research, where I’m actually dealing with history but also anthropology, religious studies, psychology. A lot of these things are necessary for understanding phenomena like miracles or stigmata or something – the relationship to the supernatural. There is also one other type of inter-disciplinarity which is not very much practised, and that is that medievalists should know the results of modernists and vice-versa. So, on the one hand, one says that history is, of course a long train of traditions and one should know about this. But everybody specialised in one’s own age and says “Oh that’s modern. That’s no more my field of expertise.” And I think this is wrong – especially if one deals with phenomena which are basically very similar. So an individual’s relationship to miracle and to the supernatural experience, that has something very common and it’s not by chance that modern people are reaching back to the prophets or the Bible or ancient church fathers. So one cannot, of course, put an equality sign to the experiences. One has to know its historical context and one should not be anachronistic. On the other hand, religious history has to deal with the longue durée. So this is how I started to deal with medieval miracle belief and, within that, a special type of miracle: the stigmata. The stigmata which is a bodily miracle, the most famous initial miracle. Not the first one. But actually the start of the cult of stigmata was with St Francis of Assisi, the thirteenth century saint – a major medieval saint and founder of the Franciscan order – who had a vision in 1227, and got stigmatised . . . at least this is what we got to know after his death in 1227. Actually it happened before his death – two years before his death, as his legend writer, Thomas of Celano, says – during a vision where a seraph, a crucified man, appeared to him in the air, when he was in hermitage. And after this experience the result was that the wounds of stigmata, Christ’s wounds, appeared on his body. And this was discovered after his death. Now this is stigmata. And many Franciscans maintain that this is the only unique example where a human being becomes like Christ. St Francis was venerated like another Christ, an alter Christus, and the stigmata were actually signs of his being so important and working as much for the redemption of humanity as Christ – or almost as much – in the middle ages (5:00). Now other saintly persons, or other religious persons, men and women – mostly women, by the way – were also claiming to have stigmata, like St Francis. And this was a very long-term history, which started in the middle ages. In the middle ages there was another very famous stigmatic woman, Catherine of Siena, who belonged to the Dominican Order. And her stigmata appeared also during a vision, but did not appear visibly on her body because she wanted them to be invisible; not to pretend that she had that high honour. She wanted only the pain. She wanted the experience. And then there were up-to-the-present stigmatics. And my paper here was about 19th and 20th century stigmatics. And the topic that I was dealing with was actually how medical experts, physicians, related to this miracle.

SC: Right.

GK: Because this miracle was very special, in the sense that the stigmatics have these wounds in their bodies, sometimes for year, sometimes for decades. These wounds bleed periodically. These wounds do not get infected. So this is very special type of bodily miracle. And the religious people – mostly Catholics, because this is a Catholic type miracle – are taking it as a very important proof for the existence of God: that such a God can work such wonders in the human body on earth, which cannot be explained rationally, by scientific or medical or other thought. And of course, doctors were challenged, and wanted to examine, and there was a lot of criticism and disbelief, and there were very interesting cases, debates. And I was presenting some of these cases.

SC: That’s really interesting. And I think you gave a very broad description of how stigmatics happen from the middle ages towards modernity. Just thinking about what Michel de Certeau said about how mystical phenomena corresponds to the social contexts – what is happening in those centuries – and particularly the 16th and 17th century were very prominent for many, many mystics. I don’t about stigmata?

GK: There were also stigmata. But some of these mystics have stigmata.

SC: How can we understand the social contexts of the 19th/20th century to explain the stigmata?

GK: Well, one very important social context is that the 19th and 20th centuries are centuries of secularisation. Also after the French Revolution, Napoleon for example, dissolved many religious orders. And there was- against the Enlightenment, and against the rational thinking which wanted to sort-of make the disenchantment of the world, as Max Weber said, happen – well, there was a re-enchantment. In the 19th century there was a Catholic revival. Chateaubriand, the Génie, The Genius of Christianity, and many other movements. And the church, and certain popes, were very strongly fighting against the separation of Church and state. And also there were certain social classes which were in support for that. In France there was a royalist movement. But also the churches’ positions in Italy, for example, which was a place where many of these prophets and stigmatics came. . . . Italy was living, at that moment, the unification, or Risorgimento (10:00). And at the same time there were a lot of resistances of local vested interests of churches, and a lot of contrast also between Rome and the Vatican, and the southern region or northern region. So each time there was a conflict situation. And in some conflict situations the church had its own policies. And one of the policies was indeed to bring proofs for the existence of God, with very spectacular miracles. The most spectacular miracles were visions like La Salette in the 19th century- or Lourdes. These were the appearances of the Virgin Mary – Marian miracles. But there were other miracles also related to the Sacred Heart the Sacré Coeur. And besides these visionaries there were these living saints, the stigmatics, who had new revelations. So one of the stigmatics, for example, that I was speaking about was living in Northern Germany. Now, Northern Germany was a place were already big contrasts were there between the Protestants and Catholics. Catholics were in the minority in Northern Germany, in Westphalia. But they were there. And now secularisation brought another thing in. So there was an Augustinian nun, called Anna Katharina Emmerick, who had these bleeding wounds, these stigmata and also the crown of thorns. At least, she had the vision where Jesus was placing the crown of thorns on her head. And they were regularly bleeding, the place of the crown of thorns. And later, bleeding wounds also appeared on her hands and also a cross on the chest. And then a debate started. And this was an interesting case. Because it belonged to Prussia. Prussia was a secularised and Protestant monarchy with a lot of important scientists, among them medical scientists. And they formed a commission to examine these things. Some were saying, “Oh, this was just self-inflicted wounds.” Others said that the spiritual advisors were using her as a kind of medium, were telling her that her headache was actually from the crown of thorns, and were influencing her. And indeed that was a 19th century thing, this medium related to Mesmer, and mesmerism, and magnetism. Now all kinds of explanations came up, but at the same time there was also a very famous romantic poet, Clemens Brentano, listening to her and writing down her visions as new revelations. And these visionaries were telling an alternative history of what happened to Jesus, and the Bible, or details. And the collected works of Clemens Brentano are the visions of Anna Katharina Emmerick. He didn’t even . . . he couldn’t even publish the whole thing during his life. He died and his brother continued to publish it. So, this is the social context and the role of religion in 19th century. And of course we can go on. Let me just switch to the end of the 19th century, to the 1870s. It was the moment of the French commune, it was the French and German War, the defeat of France. And in France and in Belgium there were a lot of prophets. So first prophesying the death of Napoleon III – he did indeed die! But such prophesies are not very difficult, to say that somebody will die at some point. But also they wanted to bring back, after the commune, monarchy to France. There was a candidate, Chambord. So these were actually the questions. And there was a stigmatic called Louise Lateau in France, and also another stigmatic, Palma Mattarelli in Italy(15:00). And these stigmatics were also related to an Ecclesiastic kind of . . . . There was an informal network within the Church, which still exists today, that there is the official Church and then there is a grassroots level contact among the charismatics, who are cultivating supernatural phenomena. Today it is Medjugorje, and all these things. In the 19th century the stigmatics were there. And there were some doctors . . . there was a doctor that I was talking about. He was from Clermont-Ferrand. He was a royalist, a doctor, a professional, called Antoine Amber Gourbert. But he went to the stigmatics to explain that these phenomena are indeed unexplainable. And he, as a doctor, says, “I know about everything about dermatology, everything about all kinds of illnesses, speaking about it as a rational explanation. But it is wrong! These explanations are unfounded.” And actually, he was publishing books just to support the stigmatics. So that’s the interesting thing. That besides the doctors who wanted to have doubts in the stigmatics, there was a group of believer doctors who wanted to defend the stigmatics with the argument that these phenomena are actually beyond our capacities of explanation. This is why it is coming from God. And it is true that many phenomena are impossible to explain. So today the TV shows X Files, for example. Today’s supernatural beliefs are related to UFOs or other things. But the riddles of nature are indeed a good point where belief, and belief in the supernatural, starts. And stigmata is a long tradition, and this is also a riddle. So in many cases, in the first place, what I want to say is that these persons are truly religious persons. And persons who really concentrate on the suffering of Christ, and want to understand with great compassion the suffering of Christ. And even acting on . . . . So most of the stigmata appear in Holy Week, when Christ is . . . so before Easter. And on Holy Friday, mostly. And many of these stigmatics are acting out, on Holy Fridays, the crucifixion. So just like a mystery play. And their wounds start to bleed on Fridays. That’s a very particular thing, just in memory of Christ. And at the same time, they think that they are suffering the same way as Christ for redeeming humanity from its sins. So helping humanity. So it is a kind-of psychological disposition which is also becoming a bodily disposition. So many things are psychosomatic, certainly. And in some cases it’s clear that there is fraud in it, and they are . . . but in other cases it is difficult to say. And these persons are also having very sincere mystical texts and dimensions. So it’s a very complicated thing. You mentioned Michel de Certeau, for example.

SC: I was going to ask you about that, yes the Loudun possessions.

GK: Yes. Well there is a stigmata… not stigmata but actually Jeanne des Anges also had some wounds, which were actually stigmata from the devil. She was showing it in the royal court and it was there. She had also a very complicated personality. So Michel de Certeau could analyse that this is a very strange and very complex psychological phenomenon when one lives religious experience to that point.

SC: He would say, “These eyes have seen. These hands have touched” . . .

GK: Yes.

SC: Kind-of providing a factual experience towards the stigmata (20:00). One of the things I wanted to ask as well is . . . and you mentioned this in your presentation, that there was Catholic doctors that were giving confirmation that it was in fact a miraculous event and therefore it cannot be explained. But you also mentioned that there were Protestant doctors that were more incisive towards desecrating this phenomenon. So will you elaborate more on that divide within the same medical discourse: how this was different?

GK: Yes. Well basically, yes, as you said, it’s not by chance that Protestant doctors . . . . One Protestant doctor was, for example, one of the critics of this 19th-century stigmatic, Louise Lateau. Louise Lateau, who lived in the second half of the 19th century in a small Belgian village, and got stigmata at the age of eighteen. And a big medical debate started. And while the Catholic doctors were describing her stigmata and then a very famous authority, Rudolf Virchow – from Germany, from Berlin, a Protestant doctor – was writing a long study, Uber Wunder, On the Miracle. And the Protestants were . . . they did not deny a miracle absolutely. But they denied this type of massive production of miracles that the Catholics have been relating to the saints and to the stigmatics. So they were more for a rational explanation of these phenomena, saying that if one does not have the explanation yet, one should not immediately say it is a miracle. But one can sort-of explore it further. So there was a Protestant discourse which was more rationalistic. But that does not mean that they were refusing miracles on the whole. So they were reaching back to St Augustine, who also said that, actually, the small miracles are just to convince the disbelievers. But the only two big miracles are the creation of the world and the resurrection of Christ. And these are actually the big miracles. And the rest is just . . . it can be explained rationally, just as well. Also the Protestants . . . the 19th century polemics on miracles were a good field for continuing this debate. But actually the debate started already in Luther’s time. And the Protestantism refused a lot of the things in Catholic beliefs, among them the cult of the saints, and the cult of the relics, as something which they labelled superstition. And there was a long set of debates related to that. So one good authority who examined this in England, for example, was Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic. A big monograph, where he pointed out how Protestantism was kind-of refusing what they considered to be the magic of the medieval church, and wanted to bring in more rational arguments.

SC: Excellent. Well we are almost out of time, but if you could give us some further remarks about your presentation, I think that will be a good way to wrap it up.

GK: Yes. So I told many things already which were in my presentation. One thing I haven’t mentioned yet, that I added, was the famous 20th century stigmatic Padre Pio. Padre Pio, who was a Capuchin friar in South Italy, who was stigmatised in 1918. That was also a typical historical moment – a moment of the First World War, with a lot of horrible experiences that European people and Italians also went through (25:00). And the stigmata was also interestingly related to the South Italian situation and history. There were strong clashes between a triumphant Socialist movement and the Catholic Church. Padre Pio himself was also an interesting individual. He was an ailing person with a lot of illnesses. That’s why he was exempt, he was drafted as a soldier but was exempt from military service because of his illnesses. And he became a friar in a very remote Capuchin convent in San Giovanni Rotondo– a place where a lot of miracles happened because it was just behind the Monte Gargano where the famous miracles of Saint Michael the archangel came. So Italy, in general, was very favourable to miracles. And the old places where miracles used to happen made it kind-of common knowledge that miracles do happen. And this is how the stigmata came out from Padre Pio. And the story itself is a very interesting story. Because from the point of view of medical debates, his stigmata were very debated. They were debated. Because a pharmacist denounced him, saying that he had some iodine tinctures to disinfect his wounds. And some doctors accused him that this was actually to perpetuate the wounds which could have happened out of illness or other reasons. Because, for stigmata, it’s very important that the stigmata should happen by divine intervention, not by self-infliction. That can also have devotional background, but it is not a miracle. So stigmata should be miraculous. And then the debate started and there was a long inquisition, an examination of Padre Pio with all the witnesses and everything. And there was a very important Catholic person, a Franciscan friar, Agostino Gemelli, who later was the founder of the Milan University, the Catholic University, and he was very . . . he had many doubts. He was also not only a Franciscan friar, but also a psychiatrist and a doctor. And he thought that Padre Pio was doing a fraud. But other supporters of Padre Pio were defending him. And there was a long, long debate. He was sentenced to isolation for ten years and also that he should not have – because he was also a pre-consecrated priest, Padre Pio – but he should not confess and give public sermons. He gave the public sermons with stigmatic hands, like Christ, so that was very impressive. But some others said that this is just a fraud. But then in the 1930s he was a pardoned. And then his cult was starting in his life. And actually, he lived with those stigmata for fifty years. And he had some very poplar actions. He built a huge hospital in San Giovanni Rotondo, in a very, very background region, where he was really bringing a lot of good things to his surroundings. And he was later on very much venerated by some popes like Pope Giovanni, John Paul II – the Polish Pope, who was doing pilgrimage to him already, from Poland, from the 1940s. And when he became Pope, one of his aims was to canonise Padre Pio – which he did, actually. So he started the veneration of Padre Pio. And now, Padre Pio is the most popular saint. He is a kind-of saint of the people (30:00). And the notion was also that the people wanted him to become a saint, and the Church – the high priests – resisted for a while. But then they gave in, and now they have canonised him.

SC: Now he is part of the institutionality.

GK: Yes. But there are some others still have doubts. So in any case, he’s one of the most remarkable saints of the twentieth century. And all his life course is related to 20th century Italian history. And there are very good books on him. There is one good Italian historian Sergio Luzzatto who wrote a wonderful monograph on him, where he’s portrayed Padre Pio really as somebody who represents 20th century Italian history – with all its contradictions.

SC: Very, very interesting. I think it’s like all the mystical phenomena are related to society, in one way or the other.

GK: Yes, certainly.

SC: I think that’s a very good take-away for our interview. We thank you once again, Professor Klaniczay, for being here on the Religious Studies Project and we hope you’ll come here again, soon.

GK: Yes OK. Thank you very much.

SC: Thank you very much.

 

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

Drone Metal Mysticism

In this interview, Owen Coggins joins us to talk about the use of religious (and sacrilegious) language and imagery in Drone Metal, a genre which stretches metal to low, slow, repetitive extremes. Drawing on the work of Michel de Certeau, he tells David Robertson that the prevalence of language relating to mysticism and “spiritual experience” may be due to the genre’s focus on the physicality of the musical experience. Expanding out to discuss other forms of popular music which exhibit these modes of engagement, the conversation moves to consider how this case-study might open up new ways to engage with religious ideas in popular culture, and in other practices involving extreme states of bodily consciousness.

This interview was recorded at the Open University’s Contemporary Religion in Historical Perspective: Publics and Performances conference in Milton Keynes, Feb 19-21 2018.

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A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.

Drone Metal Mysticism

Podcast with Owen Coggins (16 April 2018).

Interviewed by David G. Robertson.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Coggins – Drone Metal Mysticism 1.1

David Robertson (DR): I’m here in Sunny Milton Keynes for the Open University’s Contemporary Religion in Historical Perspective Conference where I’m lucky enough to be joined, today, by Owen Coggins, who is an Honorary Associate of the Religious Studies Department here.

Owen Coggins (OC): Hello

DR: Welcome to the Religious Studies Project. We’ve been talking about this interview for quite some time. But we’ve finally managed to get it organised – luckily, just as your book comes out! Let’s start, then with drone metal. What is it that we’re talking about here?

OC: OK. I guess I often describe it as an extreme form of heavy metal that’s characterised by extremes of repetition; distortion; extension; tracks that go on for thirty minutes or forty-five minutes – I went to a concert that was three hours long – and feedback and other kinds of sonic characteristics. But it’s also characterised in the sort of discourse that surrounds it that’s produced by musicians but also by audiences – lots of talk about mysticism and ritual and religious experience and transcendence and so on. And so that was the starting point for me wanting to investigate it for my PhD research.

DR: Now this isn’t the first kind of study we’ve had of religious imagery . . . . Well let’s start with metal, particularly. There’s a long history of fairly obvious religious imagery . . .

OC: Yes, and so I think from Black Sabbath – who are often understood as the originary starting point of heavy metal – and you’ve obviously got kind-of crucifixes and press photos taken in graveyards, and accusations about Satanism and various kind of imagined occult practices. And I think that a real interest in the power of religion and its symbols – and perhaps new or sometimes oppositional repositioning of that kind of symbolism, images and languages and even sounds – has, I think, been a really important part of metal from its beginnings. I think, perhaps what seems to me to be slightly different about this particular form – certainly in the way that academics have approached it – is that religion in metal has often been kind-of approached through the lens of Christianity and metal, whether that’s Christian heavy metal itself, or a discourse of anti-Christian sentiment in metal – burning down churches in Norwegian black metal, and so on – and more recently, sort-of more focus on various other sections of Satanism and paganism in metal. But it’s often kind-of approached in terms of a religious tradition and metal, whereas what I was really interested in is the sort of bricolage and sometimes kind-of orientalist appropriation and redeployment of a really vast range of different kinds of religious symbols and sounds, in this particular form of music.

DR: Now the use of religious imagery in metal, particularly – it’s a very deliberately transgressive kind of discourse. Although obviously it varies how serious they are. That’s not entirely what we find with drone, is it?

OC: I think the issue of seriousness is quite an interesting one. And I think humour in metal is often misunderstood as perhaps one optional counterpoint to seriousness. And so I think that’s an interesting way to look at these things. Because, in some ways, there are things which are done very, very seriously which are at the same time completely ludicrous and absurd. And one example is the classic 1996 record by Sleep which has two alternate titles: “Jerusalem” – which references these ideas of the Holy land, pilgrimage – and also “Dopesmoker”. So “Dopesmoker” and “Jerusalem” are two alternative titles for this one single, hour-long dirge classic of stoner metal riffs. And it’s often kind-of referenced by listeners in terms of the lyrics being simultaneously ultra-serious and completely ridiculous at the same time. And I think, that is an interesting way to think about how some of these symbols might be mobilised and ideas might be responded to, which in the book I talk a little bit about and the idea of “listening as if “. And I think, in some ways, drone metal allows . . . in the ways that audiences talk about it, are going to concerts or listening to recordings as if they are ritual, as if they are mystical, as if they are somehow related in an ambivalent way to religion. And that kind of language sometimes shifts around. So the record I mentioned is often described – even in the space of a short 500 word review for example – as like a pilgrimage, or as a pilgrimage, as a sonic pilgrimage, as sounding like the music that pilgrims might listen to at the end of the pilgrimage. And so I think this kind of ambivalence that I talk about as “listening as if” it’s ritualist, allows people to explore and investigate a kind of imagined religiosity without having to necessarily commit to certain kind of identity statements or dogmas or beliefs. And I think that’s part of where the power lies. And I think that also is part of the real value of music in this kind of exploration. Because it affords a sort of imaginative space for people to sort-of explore that.

DR: And that’s something that’s not unique to music, of course. That kind of mode is familiar in other forms of art that have got . . . there are visual artists and painters who specifically design their work to be experienced in these kind of contexts. You made a nice distinction in the book about different modes of engaging with . . . Certain kinds of music are engaged with in a different way and I think you’d distinguish like your pop and rock, the mainstream musical forms, that there’s a different register of engagement with it.

OC: Yes, I think that was really . . . I mean, I don’t really want to make big claims about the specialness of drone metal against other forms of music. But this was really responding to the ways that my research participants talked about it. And there was often a very . . . listeners often made a very strong distinction between drone metal and other forms of music. And often even drone metal and other forms of metal. Just in . . . partly because of the sort-of abstract nature of this very droning dirge-like music and the practicalities, such as how long the tracks last. The real interest in vinyl as kind-of recreating a separate space and time in which to listen. Often people preferred to listen on vinyl rather than digital formats because it created a certain kind of special space and time through which to listen. And I think that really spoke to the construction of ideas about ritual and mysticism: that there was a deliberate attempt to separate drone metal in space and time, but also conceptually as something kind-of set apart. And obviously, there’s an implied construction of the sacred in there.

DR: Yes, that notion of specialness is something that I’ve actually come across in a few places. And it’s quite interesting when you . . . even for students talking about the study of religion – they want it to be something a bit set apart. Even the discourse itself is something separate. Yes, I like that you mentioned the material culture, and there’s a number of interesting intersections here. I mean the vinyl aspect of it is one we’ve already talked about, but there’s also, you know, a particular aesthetic that goes along with particularly drone metal. But we also have material culture in terms of sensory experience.

OC: Yes, and I think, firstly, it was great to speak to people about this certainly quite extreme form of music, and read thousands of reviews and things, just because of the creative and unusual ways that people talked about it. And that was one of the ways that came up a lot was people talking about going to concerts and the air becoming solid, or having a real, physical bodily experience of the sound. And so I thought material culture was actually a really helpful way to think about that. Because it was almost like sound becoming physically mobilised for people, or them kind of engaging with sound in a very physical way. And I think that was an interesting way to think also about mysticism in terms of the ways that people kind-of use, or interpret, or operate on a particular kind of tradition – in this case heavy metal, I suppose, as well as the surrounding discourses about transcendental experience and mysticism and so on – that it was almost a kind of a way to experience sound as sound, or what sound itself sounds like, or what sound itself “feels” like, as some participants put it. Which, I think, connects up to other aspects of the aesthetic in other quite interesting ways, such as the interest with black letter or Fraktur typography, like the sort of gothic script that’s familiar in a lot of metal cultures as well as drone metal. And what I loved about that was it’s a real visual manifestation of the distortion and amplification of a sign that’s so important in the sonic characteristics of the music.

DR: I found that really interesting: the idea of the sort-of fetishisation of amplification. That is noticeably different than most other forms, even mainstream rock and metal where there’s much more concern on the drum kit or the guitars, rather than in drone where it’s the amplification particularly. And what I found interesting, having been a rock musician, was that when you started talking about this, I was thinking, “Well the first stage of amplification you need in rock is that you have to be louder than the drums. Because you have to play the drums loud to make them sound good! So there’s a level of amplification you need, to get your guitar to there, for your band to sound like a rock band, right? But in drone, that bit becomes the bit that’s of interest. And you go up a whole other level, so that it’s the amplification itself that becomes the act. It’s no longer something that you’re doing in order to get to point A, it becomes point A itself.

OC: Yes, I think I’ve suggested that this is the first or, at least, the only musical culture that I know of where the most important musical instrument, broadly conceived, is the amplifier rather than the guitar or, as you say, anything else that’s being amplified. Although, interestingly, there is a real focus on amplification and speakers in dub reggae and certain forms of electronic dance music, which I also discuss. Because those forms of music have also attracted really quite sort-of prevalent discourses of religious experience and mysticism. But yes, definitely, the amplification . . . sort-of amplification of amplification is the thing that’s really at issue. And I think that’s an interesting way to think about that is that it’s about an interrogation of transmission itself. And amplifying kind-of symbols themselves in order to kind of investigate what their possibilities are rather than, for example, to kind-of communicate particular kinds of musical semantics or structures.

DG: Yes, you mentioned dance music- I immediately pictured the front of “3am Eternal”, by The KLF, where it’s an altar and the sides of the altar are huge amplifiers. Of course The KLF were enormously influenced by situationist theory and the kind of post-hippy, kind-of early cybernetic idealism – you know, Tim Leary and those people. And they were very sort-of consciously creating a temporary autonomous zone. But they were using a lot of religious imagery in doing it. Even the idea of time, you know – so it’s 3am, but it’s 3am eternal. They have a lot of these similar kind-of languages.

OC: And I think that the idea of drone itself is very much about . . . or it affords ways of talking about time which kind-of do similar things. They’re physically and bodily experienced in a particular moment, but they open out onto those kind-of ideas about archaic experience and forms of social organisation. And so, in one of the chapters of the book I talk about those: the ways that audiences talk about drone metal being kind of about elsewhere, and drone metal being given access to these elsewheres. People discuss being transported to outer space or to kind-of imagined empty deserts and so on. And I think that’s a really powerful and important way that people respond to it. Not to say that there’s anything inherently connected in the music, but just that those are conventional ways of talking about the music which have sprung up around it, which seem to have a certain validity for people who are communicating about their engagement in this music.

DR: Nonetheless, I found that really interesting. And we really are thinking about utopias – in the original sense of the word – of nowhere, of places that are idealisations or imagined spaces, in some sense, that there’s almost an attempt to achieve through these kind of trancian and drone ideas.

OC: Yes, and I think in dub, and psy-trance, and in drone metal which, as I said, there are different kinds of utopias. And I think you can also, working backwards from there, think about the reasons why there’s such a strong impulse to try and construct these utopias in a very kind of temporary way – just over the course of half an hour recording, or an hour or so of a live concert. So, for example, for dub, in terms of a black Atlantic diaspora wanting to kind-of construct certain ideas about an Afro-centric religion, for example. And I think, perhaps, for drone metal it’s interesting to speculate about what the construction of utopias might say about the social situation of audiences . . . as a response to alienation and disenchantment.

DR: And interestingly as well, almost pre-modern – despite the fetishisation of technology. There’s a lot of wildernesses and distant places. It’s almost away from modernity.

OC: Yes, there was an interesting example when one of the best-known drone metal bands, Sunn O))), performed at the Royal Festival Hall a couple of years ago. The support act was a group from Russia called Phurpa who’ve supported Sunn O))) on a number of occasions, who style themselves as supporting authentic Bon Tibetan traditional chanting. And so when you see these two things juxtaposed, the Tibetan Bon ritual – where there’s bowls of incense and figures in black robes doing vocal chanting – and then you go out and have your glass of wine at the break time and then you go back and there’s a very similar performance with the Sunn O))) band members in their black robes . . . . But it’s a very kind-of consciously up-dated version of this, with these extremes of amplification, but sonically quite a similar palette, I suppose, they’re working with. And I think that’s a very deliberate association that they’re trying to make with a certain kind of imagined archaic ritual.

DR: Let me give you a deliberately provocative question. So we’ve got a kind-of sense of sacredness or specialness, or temporary autonomous zone – however we want to put it – and we have quasi-religious musical forms: which comes first? You know, in which direction is the movement? Or is it mutually reinforced?

OC: Yes, I think it’s a good question and it’s one that I’ve tried very hard to skip!

DR: (Laughs) I said it was deliberately provocative.

OC: But in order to skip it, to focus instead on trying to . . . . Put it this way, there was a lot of claims about – in my interviews and in reviews about this sort of music – that drone metal really does hark back to ancient – in quotes – “tribal religious forms”, and so on. And I think this is kind-of deliberately played-on by some musicians. And it’s certainly picked-up-on by parts of the audience. But my interest wasn’t so much kind-of proving or disproving whether this really, genuinely had ancient connections to these kind of religions. And in the same way that the group performing the Tibetan ritual music that I mentioned – I’m not so interested in the historical accuracy of their early music production. What’s more interesting to me is how those ideas are mobilised, and why people find them important, and to draw on that. And I think, in part, it’s to make an authority claim. Or to recognise and, after the fact, legitimate something that they felt was quite a powerful engagement. And then, in order to kind of situate that for themselves and the listening community, to sort of connect it to these older imagined forms.

DR: Tell us, then, about how this relates to mysticism – and this is a large part of the book, obviously. I mean, I presume we’re building from the kind-of idea that this is music which is deliberately experienced rather than passively heard?

OC: Yes. So, following on from what we’ve been discussing, there’s also quite a strong discourse of perennialism that you find in Aldous Huxley and so on, in the way that people talk about it – that it’s accessing this kind-of universal underlying form of religious experience. Now that, to me . . . there are some troubling consequences of that idea, that just erases all specific differences. And there are some issues with a kind of orientalist grabbing of bits and pieces from all religions and kind of presenting them as if they were referring to a similar thing. So, for me, what was really valuable in trying to understand these kind of discourses of mysticism and ritual – given that so many people who are coming from different kind of backgrounds and so on are using words that are notoriously difficult to pin down, such as “it was a spiritual experience”, or “this music is mystical” in some way – for me, it was really valuable to look to the work of Michel de Certeau. He both kind-of provides a really valuable way to look at the uses that audiences make of texts in popular culture, and also his work on mysticism. And so this approach to mysticism: instead of trying to look behind the texts for this unitive experience, which the scholar imagines is the same behind all of these instantiations, Michel de Certeau, by contrast, wants to look at the texts which are designated mystical and then identify certain procedures, or gestures, or operations on an inherited language that take place in these texts. So, for me, that was really valuable – for a start because it kind of resolves, or displaces, a kind of division between text and experience which has been quite influential – and quite problematically so, in my view – in the 20th century study of mysticism, where mystical experiences are “ineffable”, they’re “indescribable” and then you have texts which sort-of fail nobly to describe them. So the problem with that is that the experience that’s suggested as being the same – there’s not really any evidence for that. And then the actual kinds of differences in texts are just attributed to the cultural differences in which these same experiences take place. Michel de Certeau, by contrast, allows us to look at the particular mechanics and moves and gestures that take place in these texts. So, for example, talking about how a language of the body emerges in the mystical texts – or texts designated mystical in the 16th or 17th centuries – how they’re interested in the materiality of signifiers. And how mystics are seen by themselves as ultra-orthodox, but by outsiders as heretical in some way, for their treatment of their inherited tradition. And so I think there was a number of these kind-of gestures that de Certeau identified in mystical texts, that I also observed in not only the ways that audiences spoke about their engagement with drone metal, but also in the sound itself. So we had similar . . . in the ways that people talked about going to concerts, you find these very similar and familiar gestures of talking about mysticism and ritual. But I also thought it was quite a good description of what drone metal does to the tradition of heavy metal. So it, for example, takes on lots of signifiers from Black Sabbath but kind-of over-extends them, and pushes them to their breaking point. So, for example, the Sleep album I mentioned earlier was described memorably by Julian Cope in a review, as if a bunch of California teenagers had found Black Sabbath’s first four albums in the desert and started a religion, based on it.

DR: I love that, yes.

OC: And so you can see that just even in the sound. It’s almost like taking a Black Sabbath song and extending it for an hour – sort-of almost pushing it to its limits. And I think this almost fits with de Certeau’s idea of mysticism as an operation, or a performance, in a text which does something to an inherited tradition.

DR: So using drone metal, then, are you using it . . . . You’re not so much using it as an example of mysticism, but as an example of how the language of mysticism is operated. Am I understanding . . ?

OC: Yes.

DR: And does that have ramifications for other . . . like, more widely for how we talk and think about mysticism?

OC: Yes, I think so. I think that it helps to avoid some of the pitfalls of mysticism which it has – as we’ve described before – about conjuring this sort-of fiction of an essentialist, universalist experience, which actually relies on particular ideas about subjectivity which are rooted in a Western academic episteme, I suppose. And I think that’s particularly important in our contemporary political moment where we hear references to the 20th century study of mysticism growingly in political discourse. So, for example, Steve Bannon and Richard Spencer making mention of Julius Evola. And that’s a very, very problematic imagination or depiction or mobilisation of ideas about mysticism: Evola kind-of wanting to forward – as he described it – “a racism of body souls and spirit”, and his sort-of involvement in the school of Fascist mysticism. So I think these ideas can certainly be taken in some very troubling ways. And I think, at root, they’re often based on a kind of essentialism and universalism which can be found in relatively benign forms in ideas of Huxley and Eliade and others. But I think de Certeau gives a much more both ethically and epistemologically-grounded way of approaching mysticism. In addition to saying, “If we look at the mechanics of what happens in the texts which are called mystical, then that’s actually a much more empirically-based way to look at mysticism than kind-of imagining these kind-of supposedly pure visionary experiences.”

DR: Great. So what’s next for you? Where do you take this next?

OC: Good question. I’m really interested in – as I start to talk about in the final chapter – how this kind-of relates to anthropological ideas about ritual, and how that might be connected to ideas about the connection between music and various forms of social structure and imagining social structure. So Jacques Attali’s ideas about noise, for example, which I think, given that this form of music is very much about distortion and feedback and noise, I think there’s maybe some interesting connections that can be made with ideas; Mary Douglas, for example, about the importance of dirt and the positioning of those things in ritual. I’m also really interested in wading into debates about heavy metal and mental health. And it’s often been associated with delinquency, both in popular media moral panics, as well as a certain kind of academic literature.

DR: Except, in fact, heavy metal fans are statistically happier and healthier than the norm, I believe – according to a recent survey!

OC: Yes, well I think you’ve got to take all of these things with a pinch of salt. I think that’s perhaps why it’s so interesting. Because I think the debate is so polarised. But I’d actually kind-of want to make room for the fact that maybe some kinds of music can be good for you, and other kinds of music can be bad for you, and maybe the debate’s a bit more nuanced and complex than some of these polemic positions have suggested.

DR: We love nuance, here at the Religious Studies Project, so thank you for taking part!

OC: Thanks for inviting me. It’s been very interesting.

DR: And before we go, I just want to remind the listener to rock hard, rock heavy and rock lobster!

.Citation Info: Coggins, Owen and David G. Robertson. 2018. “’Drone Metal Mysticism”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 16 April 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 10 April 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/drone-metal-mysticism/

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcribing the Religious Studies Project archive, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

The Supernatural and the New Comparativism

Jeffrey J. Kripal tells David G. Robertson about his approach to studying “paranormal” and “supernatural” phenomena.

The conversation begins by explaining how Kripal came to be studying figures like Charles Fort and Whitley Strieber from a background in Hinduism. He then argues for a New Comparativism within the study of religion that will put “the impossible” back on the table again, and encourage a more even conversation between the sciences and the humanities. His suggestion is that we should put consciousness at the centre of studies in religion, suggesting a new approach to the sacred, and opening up new theoretical avenues.

Studying Non-Ordinary Realities, and Religious Studies and the Paranormal.

Sufism is a paradox?

In his interview with the Religious Studies Project, Milad Milani gives a thoughtful overview of the tradition of Sufism, answering big questions such as: what is Sufism, how did it emerge historically (see Milani 2013), and how is it configured in contemporary Western discourses? As Milani astutely indicates at various points throughout the interview, the complexities of Sufism (if one can even speak of Sufism in the singular) make it quite difficult to pin down straightforward answers to these questions. In other words, there is no single set of doctrines and practices that define Sufism as such; there is no single figure, group, or place in which Sufism emerges; and, there are a number of different contexts in which Sufism is being deployed in contemporary discourses. However, by attempting to unpack some of these complex questions Milani provides substantial insight into how the population in general ought to think about Sufism, how scholars can approach the academic study of Sufism, and how Sufism relates to the Islamic tradition as a whole. Perhaps most importantly in my opinion, his continual recognition of the multiplicities of Sufi traditions is critical for the academic study of Sufism insofar as it counters many of the popular narratives of global and universal Sufism, and provides a context for considering the plurality of the Islamic tradition and the contestations that continually constitute it.

As with most discussions of Sufism, the interview begins with the question ‘What is Sufism?’ Milani’s answer is that, primarily, Sufism is a form of Islamic mysticism that emphasizes central aspects of the Islamic tradition and seeks to cultivate an experience of ultimate unity or oneness with the divine. From this definition we can derive two important features of Sufism – one doctrinal and the other practical. In terms of doctrine, this notion of oneness was most clearly elaborated by the twelfth-century Andalusian mystic Ibn al-Arabi who proposed the concept of wahdat al-wujud (‘oneness of being’). The basic premise of this doctrine is that all created things are essentially reflections of God and that therefore God (or Truth – al-Haqq) is present in all things in this world. Today we may call this a kind of pantheism and this affront to the transcendence of the Divine was a main point of tension with normative Islam at the time. However, I highlight this doctrinal component here not because I want to suggest that all Sufis upheld it or interpreted it in precisely the same manner. Instead, I point to it in order to bring out some of the key doctrinal components underlying Sufism because I felt that perhaps too sharp a line was drawn in Milani’s interview between ‘mainstream’ Islam as doctrinal and Sufism as experiential. In other words, there are complex theological doctrines within Sufism, making the doctrinal-experiential differences difficult to render in any straightforward manner.

The second component is the practical dimension, and by that I mean the spiritual techniques for experiencing the divine, which Milani discusses briefly in relation to the ‘aesthetic’ components of Sufism, as well as what might be called the ethical ‘technologies of the self’ (to borrow a term from Foucault). With regard to the former, we have the primary practice of sama’, that is, a ritual practice of ‘audition’ that generally involves the recitation of poetry, the invocation of the names of God (dhikr), and rhythmic bodily movements performed in groups that lead people to an ecstatic experience in which one experiences the dissolution of the self in the face of the Divine (see Frishkopf 1999, Shannon 2006). The actual details of this practice vary greatly across Sufi orders (tariqa), but this is a central practice in much of the Sufi world. In relation to the ethical side, the ethical techniques are critical to Sufism and function not only to develop one’s relationship to the Divine, but also to develop one’s relationship to oneself and one’s community (see Silverstein 2012, Waugh 2008). This practical dimension of ethical Sufism is important because many discussions of Sufism revolve solely around the individual’s relationship to God, a tendency that I heard in Milani’s interview as well. My point, however, is not to criticize him for omitting a discussion of Sufism as an ethical tradition since there is only so much that can be said in such a limited amount of time. Rather, I want to stress that in many ways Sufism is not merely a form of asceticism, i.e., not simply a rejection of the material world, because embedded within the ethical tradition is the need to be involved in an ethical community in order to reach ‘perfection.’

The emphasis on community can then be connected to the formation of Sufi orders called tariqat (sing. tariqa), which in many ways defined classical or medieval Sufism. The tariqa is named after a particular founding saint or ‘friend of God’ (wali Allah) who often gains his/her status through esoteric knowledge, performing miracles (karamat), receiving God’s blessing (baraka), and a spiritual genealogy (silsila) (on sainthood see Ewing 1997, Stauth 2004, Sedgwick 2005). Individuals then enter into discipleship with these types of figures who guide the apprentice along his/her spiritual path, and the group of disciples that enter into this relationship constitute a particular manifestation of the tariqa at a given time, though at any point in history an order can be several generations removed from the founding figure. Some contemporary scholars have argued that, especially in the modern context, the tariqa has ceased to function as it did in the premodern times and that therefore modern Sufism has taken on such a distinct character that it is possible now to speak of ‘Neo-Sufism’ (see Rahman 1979, O’Fahey 1993, and Voll 2008). The details of this debate and the utility of the term aside, it does point to the question of how Sufism articulates with discourses of modernity (see van Bruinessen 2007, Weismann 2003, Johansen 1996). For instance, are Sufi practices and beliefs commensurate with the sensibilities of modern Muslim life, however that might be defined? The relationship between Islam and modernity is a significant question posed by scholars of Islam and I feel that Sufism provides a useful focal point for these studies, but the issue I want to bring into relief here is that discussions of the communal constitution of Sufism are central to how we define Sufism, and therefore an attempt to articulate what Sufism is ought to include the topics of sainthood and tariqa, in addition to individual experience.

While the tendency to think of Sufism as a kind of individualized or more private form of Islam is quite prevalent, the representation of Sufism as a form of ‘peaceful Islam’ or as a ‘solution’ to the ‘problem’ of radical Islam is equally pervasive (see Muedini 2012, Villalon 1994). These conceptions of Sufism are quite popular in the West, but they have also entered the rhetoric of countries like Morocco, for instance, where the government patronizes many Sufi activities as a means to combat the influence of radical Islam in the country. In this context, Sufism is presented as both apolitical and peaceful, and is therefore a non-threatening method for confronting extremism. (An interesting counter-example is contemporary Egypt where the President has actually ordered the closing of Sufi prayer spaces due to supposed connections between Sufi groups and terrorist groups in the country). However, as Milani indicates, many of these formulations of Sufism decontextualize it and overlook the fact Sufi groups have initiated and been intimately involved in various militant movements throughout history. For example, early Sufis were often the ‘frontiersmen’ of Islam, bringing a new religion into hostile territories and were therefore forced to participate in military conquests (see Green 2012). More recently, Sufi leaders sparked many anti-colonial movements and the tariqa system was used as a recruiting mechanism. Examples can be found throughout the Islamic world, but as my own work focuses on the North African context I would point to Algeria, Libya, and Sudan as prime examples of what Milani called ‘militant Sufism’ (see Heck 2007). It is in this sense that I think we can begin to think about Milani’s statement that, “Sufism is a paradox.”

By this phrase I take Milani to mean that Sufism confounds our thought in a number of different ways. It is said to promote peace and tolerance, yet has often been deployed in contexts of violence and militancy. It is claimed to be apolitical and disinterested in worldly affairs, yet Sufi orders have held tremendous economic and political power throughout history (see Cornell 1998). It claims to be Islamic, yet Sufis have continually been criticized as un-Islamic by Muslims. It promotes a kind of universality, yet the myriad forms of Sufism emerged from within specific cultural contexts and retain that cultural character. It is often seen as an esoteric tradition, yet for many centuries was considered ‘popular religion.’ Finally, it emphasizes the individual’s relationship to the Divine, yet this experience is made possible through bodily practices and involvement in a community (for more on the body in Sufism see Kugle 2007, Bashir 2011). These tensions, however, provide incredibly fruitful areas for both historical and ethnographic investigation because it is precisely how individuals and groups navigate these tensions at particular places and times that will enable us to speak about how the different forms of Sufism connect with one another. Such investigations will also give us a better sense of the enduring impact of Sufism on the Islamic landscape as a whole (see de Jong 1999), and allow us to better understand the processes through which visions of normative Islamic identity are constructed.

References

Bashir, Shahzad. Sufi Bodies: Religion and Society in Medieval Islam. New York: Columbia UP, 2011.

van Bruinessen, Martin, and Julia Day Howell (eds). Sufism and the “modern” in Islam. London: I.B. Tauris, 2007.

Cornell, Vincent. Realm of the Saint: Power and Authority in Moroccan Sufism. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998.

Ewing, Katherine Pratt. Arguing Sainthood: Modernity, Psychoanalysis, and Islam. Durham: Duke UP, 1997.

Frishkopf, Michael Aaron. Sufism, Ritual, and Modernity in Egypt: Language Performance as an Adaptive Strategy. PhD dissertation: UCLA, 1999.

Green, Nile. Sufism: A Global History. Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.

Heck, Paul L. Sufism and Politics: The Power of Spirituality. Princeton: Markus Wiener, 2007.

Johansen, Julian. Sufism and Islamic Reform in Egypt: The Battle for Islamic Tradition. Oxford: Clarendon, 1996.

de Jong, Frederick and Berndt Radtke (eds). Islamic Mysticism Contested: Thirteen Centuries of Controversies and Polemics. Leiden: Brill 1999.

Kugle, Scott Alan. Sufis & Saints’ Bodies: Mysticism, Corporeality, & Sacred Power in Islam. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina, 2007.

Milani, Milad. Sufism in the Secret History of Persia. London: Routledge 2013.

Muedini, Fait. “The Promotion of Sufism in the Politics of Algeria and Morocco.” Islamic Africa 3.2 (2012): 201-26.

Sedgwick, Mark. Saints and Sons: The Making and Remaking of the Rashidi Ahmadi Sufi Order, 1799-2000. Leiden: Brill, 2005.

Shannon, Jonathan Holt. Among the Jasmine Trees: Music and Modernity in Contemporary Syria. Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 2006.

Silverstein, Brian. Islam and Modernity in Turkey. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011

Stauth, Georg (ed). On Archaeology and Sainthood and Local Spirituality in Islam. Yearbook of the sociology of Islam. Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag, 2004.

Villalon, Leandro. “Sufi Rituals as Rallies: Religious Ceremonies in the Politics of Senegalese State-Society Relations.” Comparative Politics 26.4 (1994): 415-437.

Waugh, Earle H. Visionaries of Silence: The Reformist Sufi Order of the Demirdashiya Al-Khalwatiya in Cairo. Cairo: AUC Press, 2008.

Weismann, Itzchak. Taste of Modernity: Sufism, Salafiyya, and Arabism in Late Ottoman Damascus. Leiden: Brill, 2001.

Sufism

Like any religious tradition, the Islamic tradition is made up of countless groups and subgroups that interpret, enact, and commit to the materials of their tradition differently. Although focus is often placed on divisions between Sunni and Shi’a communities, one of the most fascinating modalities of belonging within Islam is that of Sufism, all the more interesting because Sufi sensibilities can extend across the full spectrum of Muslim identities. Sufism is often defined as a “mystical” tradition that shares similarities with forms of mysticism from other traditions in the way that in conceptualizes the nature of divinity and the nature of human understanding.

In this interview, Milad Milani discusses the basic orientation and history of Sufi thought. He also speaks about the diverse national variations of Sufism, particularly with respect to Iranian (or “Persianate”) Sufism. The interview concludes with a few critical remarks on the questionable appropriation of Sufism in contemporary Western discourses on religion.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, rubber ducks, vacuum cleaner bags, and more.

It’s the Fruits, not the Roots: A Response to Ralph Hood

IMG_1422-1Hood’s approach has no flaws from the standpoint of an observing scientist; but, on the personal level, one may have trouble distinguishing between the cause and the consequence.

It’s the Fruits, not the Roots: A Response to Ralph Hood

By Joshua James, Henderson State University

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 22 May 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Ralph Hood on Mysticism (20 May 2013)

When I began outlining my response to this interview—which is an intriguing psychological look at mystical experience through the filter of one of the most insightful minds dealing with the subject today—I wanted to remain as objective as possible and remove the influence of my personal experience. I found it nearly impossible. One method for addressing the intersection between lived experience and academia is through reflexivity.  In the article, “On Becoming a Qualitative Researcher: the Value of Reflexivity,” by Diane Watt, the author notes the importance of juxtaposing one’s self in relation to their research interest. By the researcher or author stating their worldview (or in some cases bias) the reader has a better understanding of not only the structure of inquiry but also the interpretive frame of the author’s position. In the case of Watt (2007), her experience as a school teacher informed her paradigm of inquiry.

Watt’s argument for reflexivity relaxed my reluctance. Watt kept a journal of her experience and combined her reflexive exploration with quantitative research to construct an academic product with multiple layers of depth in inquiry both in terms her research interests and in self-reflection of perceptions in analysis. Watt found her journal quite helpful: “Through the writing process, I was able to excavate memories of my own classroom practice.” I realized that when I listened to the interview with Ralph Hood, that I had “excavated” memories of my own. Thus I decided that not only would including my first-hand experience be helpful to my argument, it would be ill-advised not to include it, possibly even irresponsible.  This paper is written in relation to my own reflexive experience of understanding mysticism and the profound themes posed by Dr. Ralph Hood’s podcast.

When I first read William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience, a text to which Dr. Ralph Hood refers liberally, I strongly connected with an account given by an agnostic man during a lecture entitled “The Reality of the Unseen.” James identifies him only as “a scientific man of my acquaintance.” A portion of the account follows:

Between twenty and thirty I gradually became more agnostic and irreligious, yet I cannot say that I ever lost that ‘indefinite consciousness’ which Herbert Spencer describes so well, of an Absolute Reality behind phenomena…I had ceased my childish prayers to God, and never prayed to It in a formal manner, yet my more recent experience show me to have been in a relation to It which practically was the same thing as prayer…I know now that it was a personal relation I was in to it, because of late years the power of communicating with it has left me, and I am conscious of a perfectly definite loss.[1]

While at the time of the writing, James’ acquaintance was over twenty years older than the age I am now, his early experience virtually mirrors my own.

I’m a skeptic. However, like the man to whom I refer above, I have, rarely, turned to prayer in times of desperation, and I have always had a sense that there was someone else involved with the world; someone to whom I owed thanks for undeserved good fortune, someone who heard my thoughts, someone who compelled me to feel guilty or embarrassed even when no human could possibly have known the mistake I made. I have had, in spite of my agnosticism, an experience that could be classified as a “mystical experience,” the details of which I shall not go into, but I did experience a degree of transcendence in the sense that I lost emotional control and it seemed as if someone else had this control. It occurred during a period of temporary desperation which prompted me to pray to whom I do not know for the first time since my childhood (which was spent in a Pentecostal church).

Hood makes clear in this interview that what he is interested in, with regard to spiritual experience, is the interpretation of an experience rather than the cause of an experience. That is to say that regardless if one’s spiritual experience occurs during prayer, deep self-reflection, or after swallowing a couple hits of blotter acid, the consequences and interpretation of the experience, usually involving a transcendence or “loss of self,” validates the experience. Hood’s approach has no flaws from the standpoint of an observing scientist; but, on the personal level, one may have trouble distinguishing between the cause and the consequence.

I will refer to my own experience to demonstrate my point. I could interpret my experience as evidence, or even proof, for the more fundamentally-minded reader, of the existence of God, and as confirmation of the validity of the scripture. It could have been the reassurance I had been looking for to readopt my faith.

But because I understand, or more appropriately, believe I understand the cause, my interpretation is different. I neither pretend to be an expert in the field of psychology nor do I deny that the human brain is still a mystery to those who are, but I know enough to know that the brain is powerful. And to know that suggestion is powerful. Therefore, given that I was in a state of desperation and asking an invisible, unknowable presence for a mercy of which I felt unworthy, my brain created the experience. My complexly constructed brain used overtly simple logic to rationalize a scenario where something special had happened to me: I asked someone—and I deeply hoped this someone existed—for something and I had received it, therefore that someone must have given it to me. Furthermore, as I previously stated, I felt undeserving of the mercy I received. Because I felt undeserving, it was natural to feel gratitude, and I don’t think I’m being too presumptuous when I suggest that it is the nature of human mentality to focus our gratitude or blame, anger or affection onto a person, or Supreme Being in this instance.

Make no mistake, Hood’s argument is not lost on me, neither do I disagree with it. Hood would likely argue that whether I had chosen to view the experience as faith-affirming or to view it in terms of Freudian reductionism, the experience occurred and I had interpreted it, therefore the experience is validated. The very fact that it happened makes it real, regardless of its roots. I am simply arguing that the roots are sometimes related to the “fruits,” as William James calls them.

Hood’s approach holds so long as we reject the possibility of objective truth. Take, for instance, the example given in the interview regarding psychedelic drugs. Hood argues that the experience should not be dismissed simply because it was caused by synthetic means, that is to say, only the cause is synthetic, the consequence is very much natural and real. On the one hand, if, while on an acid trip, one realizes through a transcendent experience that he or she has become angry and short-tempered recently, and as a result modifies his or her behavior, then the roots of the experience should not nullify the lesson learned. On the other hand, if, while on an acid trip one has, through a transcendent experience, become convinced whole-heartedly of the existence of God, then the validity could be called into question. Hood would argue that if one arrives at this conclusion through mystical experience, it should not be dismissed simply because the cause was hallucinogenic drugs rather than prayer. To his point, if one gained this same certainty through experience caused by other means, I would lend it no more validity; but, it becomes more difficult to distinguish the cause from the consequence.

Despite the rejection of my childhood religion, I have always wanted for the supernatural world of heaven and spirits to exist. The fact I want to believe only adds to my skepticism; I wish there was a heaven, therefore it becomes easier to convince me it is so, and thus I remain wary. If you have ever watched an episode of Ghost Hunters on the Syfy network and seen how disappointed people appear when they discover that their house is not haunted, then you understand what I mean. People would rather be in danger than be wrong, and we would choose almost anything over being alone and insignificant. If we have a heaven, or even a suggestion that there is something after death, say a spiritual experience, then we do not have to fear the loneliness of death. For centuries, the West believed unquestioningly that God created the Earth and all the plants and creatures specifically for us and that it was the center of the entire universe. This arrogant insistence upon being special has been deeply embedded in our collective unconscious for some time. The discoveries made along the road to the present were increasingly more difficult to deal with until we finally became the most dominant animal on one of many billions of rocks in a universe too big for us to even begin to measure. It is no surprise we want to believe. Thus even today any experience of some transcendence must be interpreted as special conversation between the individual and God himself, or whatever entity or realm in which one believes.

For Hood, my cynical interpretation only proves his point: the consequence of the experience is all that matters; the religious among us will interpret it religiously, and the non-religious among us will interpret it non-religiously. A spiritual world exists because people continue to experience it. It is a post-modern and pragmatic philosophy, and it serves him well. Take Hood’s and Paul Williamson’s work with the Lazarus Project for example. The addicts replace the drug experience with a spiritual experience, and if it benefits them, who could question its validity. And of course, if someone manages to reveal the spiritual world to be an objective part of the natural world, it will undoubtedly be discovered through the mythological agnostic approach used by scientists like Ralph Hood who refused to be limited by presumptions.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author

IMG_1422-1Joshua James is in graduate school at Henderson State, Master of Liberal Arts with an emphasis in social science in progress. He received his B.A., major in History from Henderson also, and has worked in the restaurant business for years. Recently he has become passionate about writing and just this semester has taken an interest in journalism, something I never attempted as an undergrad.

References

  • James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience. New York: Penquin, 1982.
  • Watt, Diane. “On Becoming a Qualitative Researcher: The Value of Reflexivity.” The Qualitative Report. 12 (2007): 82-101.

[1] William James. The Varieties of Religious Experience. (New York: Penguin, 1982), 64-5.

Ralph Hood on Mysticism

HoodRalph2012_10One of the primary interests of scholars and researchers from diverse academic disciplines has been in exploration of mysticism. Mysticism has been observed within a variety of traditions and philosophies from Neo-Platonism to Hinduism and Christianity. Mysticism as a field of study is pregnant with possibilities for academic inquiry, both cross-disciplinary and discipline specific. The field of psychology is one of those disciplines which have sought to explore the richness of individual claims of mystical experience. This has been done with theoretical depth and methodological sophistication and is centralized within a variety of tools of empirical inquiry.

The study of mysticism necessitates addressing issues of ontology and epistemology, relating to the methodological processes for studying direct personal experiences. Within the psychological perspective, some of these concerns are mediated through what both Porpora (2006) and Hood, Hill and Spika (2009) describe as methodological agnosticism. While Silver (2011) argues that there is no such thing as true objectivity in research, certainly academics and researchers can strive for a post-positivist paradigm of objectivity where they attempt to remove bias and subjectivity from their research or hermeneutic inquiry.

While there is plenty of hermeneutic and observational potential in the study of Mysticism, more needs to be done in exploration of the experiential and psychological correlates related to personal experiences. Dr. Ralph W. Hood Jr. has extensive experience in the field of psychology of religion and particularly in the study of mysticism and mystical experience. As an early pioneer in the renaissance of the field of psychology of religion, Hood’s work is extensive and prolific exploring a variety of research topics in the social sciences of religion. Moreover, much of his collaborative work extends beyond the field of psychology to include sociology, religious studies, medicine, and a variety of other disciplines in the social scientific study of religion. In this week’s podcast, Chris SIlver is joined by Ralph Hood to discuss in detail his work on mysticism and the benefits and disadvantages of this academic exercise.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us, or use our Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com link to support us when buying your important books etc.

HoodRalph2012_10

Ralph W. Hood Jr. is professor of psychology at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. He is a former editor of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, and former co-editor of the Archive for the Psychology of Religion and The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion.  He is a past president of division 36 (psychology of religion) of the American Psychological Association and a recipient of its William James, Mentor, and Distinguished Service awards. He has published over 200 articles in the psychology of religion and has authored, co-authored, or edited numerous book chapters and eleven books, all dealing with the psychology of religion.

References

  • Hood, R.W., P.C. Hill, and B. Spilka. (2009). The psychology of religion: An empirical approach. 4th ed. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
  • Porpora, D. V. (2006). Methodological atheism, methodological agnosticism and religious experience. Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior, 36, 57–75.
  • Silver, C. F. (2011). Psychology and Religion: Explorations in paradigm, theory, and method. In Weathington, B. L., Cunningham,  C. J. L., O’Leary, B. J., & Biderman, M. D. (Eds.), Applied Psychology in Everyday Life (pp. 71-107). Newcastle upon Tyne, United Kingdom: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Podcasts

Exploring African Shamanism and White Sangomas in South Africa

In this episode, Dr. Maxinne Connolly-Panagopolus asks Dr. Ullrich Relebogilwe Kleinhempel how we might better understand and engage with South African Shamanism and Mysticism. Beginning with Sangomas or spiritual mediators, Dr. Kleinhempel introduces some of the types of Shaman which exist in the South African context such as the herbalist, who learns mystical powers from plants; the diviner, who uses oracles such as bones as objects for mediumship; and the seer, who relies on inspiration from dreams, telepathy and intuition. Turning to the complex configuration of race, heritage, and culture present in South Africa, the conversation moves to a discussion of  white Sangomas, and how these individuals are perceived by their community. Finally, within the region’s diverse religious landscape, Kleinhempel shares how Sangomas sometimes navigate multiple religious identities. Listen in for a discussion that encourages scholars to reflect on how they will negotiate the demands of critical inquiry alongside their own personal experiences or competing worldviews.

For more on Sangoma, Umbanda, and other specific elements of this conversation, please consider the following resources:

• Hall, J. (2009). Sangoma: my odyssey into the spirit world of Africa. Sterling Publishing Company, Inc.
• Kleinhempel, U. R. (2017). Covert Syncretism: The Reception of South Africa’s Sangoma Practise and Spirituality by “Double Faith” in the Contexts of Christianity and of Esotericism. Open Theology, 3(1), 642-661.
• Kleinhempel, U. R. (2017). Spreading an Arcane Religion on the World Wide Web: Paradoxies of Transmission of the Contemporary Mysteries ‘Cult of Umbanda. Mistiko-ezotericheskie dvizhenie v teorii i praktike-mistitsizm i ezoterizm v mire teknologii, VIII mezhdunarodnaia nauchnaia konferentsia. St. Petersburg, 60-71.
• Kleinhempel, U. R. (2018). White Sangomas: the manifestation of Bantu forms of shamanic calling among whites in South Africa. REVER-Revista de Estudos da Religião, 18(1), 143-173.
• Contemporary Mysteries’ Cult of Umbanda – video lecture, 8th ASEM conference https://www.academia.edu/26147179/Contemporary_Mysteries_Cult_of_Umbanda_-_video_lecture_8th_ASEM_conference
• Mbiti, J. S. (1990). African religions & philosophy. Heinemann.
• Mlisa, N. L. R., & Nel, P. (2010). Ukuthwasa the training of Xhosa women as traditional healers: Ukuthwasa initiation of amagqirha and identity construction. Lap Lambert Academic.


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Exploring African Shamanism and White Sangomas in South Africa

Podcast with Ullrich Relebogilwe Kleinhempel (2 June 2020).

Interviewed by Maxinne Connolly-Panagopoulos.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/exploring-african-shamanism-and-white-sangomas-in-south-africa/

Maxinne Connolly-Panogopoulos (MC-P): Hello, Ullrich! And a very warm welcome to the Religious Studies Project. Today, we’re recording between Glasgow and the edge of the forest in West Nuremburg. And even though we could do many podcasts on your body of work, from orthodox spirituality and theology, esotericism and syncretism, today I’d really like to focus on your 2018 article on white Sangomas and the Shamanic calling in South Africa. So, for the Listeners who are unfamiliar with this topic, might you start by explaining a little bit about what a Sangoma is?

Ullrich Relebogilwe Kleinhempel (URK): Sangoma is basically a Bantu shaman. The word is used quite generically. It’s a Zulu word. Bantu – that’s the name for all the black African people who live in the land from West Africa – the end of Africa, where Cameroon is – in a straight line to East Africa – the Horn of Africa – to Kenya. And, south of that, the people are all related linguistically. The Bantu people emigrated to this realm from Nigeria. About four thousand years ago they began to migrate there. There were farmers and herdsmen and blacksmiths. And before they came there were hunter-gatherers, the Khoi-San, there – also known colloquially as Bushmen. They lived with other archaic peoples like pygmies and others who have vanished. The Khoi-San have a very well developed practice of mediumism and trance. The Khoi-San, the Bushmen, they engage in out-of-body travels of soul, calling of rain, calling of animals, relating to nature spirits, to ancestors souls, and the like. Quite a loose people, but with a well-developed culture in that way. They visit spirits at special sites like rock pools or water falls. They also do trance dance and spiritual healing. Now the Bantu people who came into that area learnt a lot from them. They intermarried and took up their spirits, respected them for what they are, and that distinguishes the Bantu people from other African people as West African. Now my sources are especially from the South African . . . the people of the amaXhosa: the people of Nelson Mandela. There are about as many people as there are Swedish people. And they have observed most from the Khoi-san – even the clicks in the language. You can (clicks) . . . six clicks. Now what is Bantu shamanism? There are basically three types of Bantu shamanism. The distinction and the combination varies from one people to the next. The first is the herbalist. They learn the medical powers of herbs from the tradition and by mediumism. They’re called iZinyanya iXhwele. You may be a bit surprised to find the herbalists enlisted here, but just imagine how many hundreds of medical plants are known to the shamanic people in South America, and in Africa. And these plants have never been found by experimental trials. Most of the patients would have died that way, because many plants are poisonous. And amongst these tens of thousands of plants there are in the wild, the plants that have curative powers have been revealed to the diviners in dreams. They dream of a patient who has a certain illness, like malaria. And then, all of a sudden, they’re shown in the dream where to go, and which plant to take, and how to treat it to make a medicine out of it. And that store of knowledge is vast. And medical companies, even to this day, send their scouts to those indigenous people to learn from their medical knowledge. And the second role is the diviner. The diviner who uses oracles like bones or similar objects in Bantu cultures. They are called the iSangoma. There are oracles in other cultures too, like West African Ifá – the oracle of the Yoruba people – or the European (audio unclear). And these oracles are quite sophisticated. It takes intuition; you must seek endowment; also some psychological knowledge and training to read them properly. Then there are the seers. Those are people who really, completely on their own, inspire dreams, premonitions, telepathy, visions, intuition. They’re called iSitunywa. And the African indigenous churches who integrate the African heritage, they regard them as prophets and have adopted that role completely. To talk meaningfully about these things you really have to set aside the positivistic and materialistic approach, maintain an acute scientific mind-set, be very clear on phenomenology, and basic research, and documentation, and listening to people, and be prepared to change your own concepts of reality. If you’re not prepared to do that but stick to a reductionist view, which says, “Oh, this is all cultural imaginations and constructions,” and so on, it’s like telling people “The moon is just a cultural construction – you can see that from mythology.” (5:00) and, “The moon is just some kind-of delusion to adapt in the course of evolution.” It’s wasting your time, and it’s wasting the time of readers and you won’t end up anywhere. So, just a fruitless exercise in ideology. If you engage in these things, be prepared that the people who have developed this kind of shamanism have been acute, intelligent people like you and me, over the centuries, over hundreds of years. And they have very fine powers of discernment. And maybe we are just, in a way, daft at these things, and just say, “Oh, well these things don’t exist!” Just to give a really brief comparison, just imagine you were a person who can’t hear. You go to study music, and read all these notes, and say, “Oh this is a wonderful cultural construction. But something like sound, you know, that doesn’t exist. Do you hear anything, I don’t.?” Ok. Now we have to accept that these things are real, because otherwise we are just getting nowhere. Now if you are interested in this topic, of course, at some point you will ask yourself, “Well, how can one become a Sangoma?” Well to say, “Ok, I’ll train to become a Sangoma”, that’s about to say, “Ok, I’ll be an opera singer one day.” Now, without perfect hearing, a good voice, a fine sense of music and harmony, you’re not going to get anywhere. You may study, study, study but you’re not going to end up being an opera singer. Now someone may say, “OK, I’ll be a musician and I’ll learn three chords on my guitar and say I’m a musician”, you know? These things, unfortunately, happen with Sangoma too. Because Sangoma is not a protected title at the moment, and the controls for who can call himself a Sangoma –mostly herself, as Sangoma is very much a female profession – that is at present not in the best condition. In traditional societies these things have been very regulated. There are boards of control, of education, of training, of examination – most arduous exams, comparable to an opera singer – before you would be qualified and accepted as a Sangoma. Now unfortunately, at present, this has been weakening. So a lot of quacks with a sense of money put up a shop sign, “I’m a Sangoma” and charge you a lot of money and “You will believe me, and I will do something for you.” And that’s ruining the profession, and it’s harming it very much. Now the first requirement to become a real Sangoma is a real mediumistic endowment. That usually shows up in childhood already. The child will dream of things in advance that will happen later, or may know, intuitively, that things like . . . or see spirits of familiar people who have just passed away. That child knowing, and saying “Mama, I saw our neighbour walking up the stairs!” And mama says “You can’t have, you must be dreaming. That person died two weeks ago.” That’s the kind of mediumistic endowment that turns up in childhood already. Now you need that mediumistic endowment, and then you need a calling. And that calling can turn up even pretty late in life. Strange dreams, recurring dreams with a sense of urgency. Strange accidents and incidents happen. All these kinds of things. And the person may feel they’re going mad, you know, getting insane, fearing for their sanity. This is quite a crisis. And if you decide . . . you may have to make a decision. They will either say, “Well, I have the means, and the time, and the willingness, and I’m prepared to follow that call, regardless of what it’s going to demand of me and cost me – that’s usually severe, this direction in life. Or you say, “No I can’t follow it. I’ll just have to reject it.” And you say then, “The calling will go away.” But usually it goes away at a price. So it leaves some traces in your soul. Some hurt. Now, if you heed the call, then you can experience that the spiritual field takes over, or as the Bantu people say, “The Spirits begin to take over.” They send you things, things are happening, meeting things, rare things and occasions which are just, you know, out of the normal. Then, if you’re in training, that’s a complex structured process. It’s been described quite a lot by two authors who have got long traditional training. The one is an academic psychologist, in South Africa, Dr Lily-Rose Nomfundo Mlisa. And she wrote her dissertation, entitled, Ukuthwasa Initiation of Amagcirha: Identity construction in the training of Xhosa women as Traditional Healers. And the other is the American accomplished writer, many books. He wrote a book about his own calling which sent him to Swaziland for over three years. And his book has the title Sangoma: My Odyssey into the Spirit World of Africa. Just to remember the first author is Lily-Rose Nomfundo Mlisa and the second is James Hall. You can find them both on the internet. The state of being in this process of training is called Inthwasa. This is feared, as Dr Mlisa explains and she writes: “It is inkathaz – madness – indeed, since it involves syndromic illness and a conglomerate of factors that culminate in various afflictions (10:00). . . . Sometimes ukuthwasa involves signs that resemble madness, such as hallucinations and illusions. . . . Entering into the ukuthwasa initiation heals the person.” And she states that the process of training is often feared as time consuming, expensive, disruptive to family life and employment, also involving obligations to heed the inspiration of ancestral spirits perpetually. Yet the afflictions suffered by someone who experiences signs of spiritual calling are so severe that people sometimes feel they can’t avoid that call. They just have to follow it, may it cost what it does. It could be possible but to reject it a high price. Now Mlisa defines seven stages of the training process. The first is the prediction stage, igqirha. The igqirha, this is the manifestations of mediumism at an early stage. Then the second stage is the calling comes, which is called ubizo. At this stage dreams affect them, troubles intensify, and serious action has to be undertaken. Then comes this stage of intense afflictions, when things get really into a crisis. And when this happens, usually the master Sangomas will say, “Ok this is a sign things are getting serious. We can take that person for training. We will accept that person. These things are genuine and are powerful.” And then comes the stage which actually lasts the whole time: confusion, resistance or acceptance. You have regrets, you say, “Oh, I’m maybe not suitable, I don’t have the abilities to do it, maybe it’s all just an illusion, maybe I have psychic problems”, and so on, and so on. And that may go right up to end of exams, or the day before examinations. And all of us who have passed examinations, I think, know these kind of feelings

MC-P: Absolutely.

QRK: Then comes the real stage that is Ukuvuma Ukufa – that’s where intensified training begins. And this training involves a series of rituals like the formal beading and donning of the attire of a trainee. Now you’re visibly a trainee. Then rites of cleansing, acceptance of death – because transformation is also a kind-of death of your previous ego and the person you were – illness, suffering, and you have to be baptised, at that stage, as a trainee. Then comes cleansing rituals of the body, the homestead environment. Also sacrificial rituals. This is a side where not everybody will be happy with, but sacrifices are done because the blood is perceived as a substance bearing the power of life and spiritual quality, too. Then comes the rights of acceptance, with sacrifice and prayers for the initiate. And the initiate has to learn quite a lot. That comprises, for instance – I will quote Mlisa again: “The trainer is entirely convinced that umkhwetha has a calling and she has committed to it. She has to demonstrate skills and abilities in the divining system – assessments, diagnosis and preparing treatments – then exclusion from family life and social life intensifies and new restrictions are introduced. Her food restrictions differ markedly from the previous stage.… She must also help in mentoring her juniors. Most of the time, umkhwetha is expected to work independently, but under the strict guidance of the trainer. She becomes an assistant to her trainer. She can also lead certain procedures and rituals under the guidance. Moreover, she must demonstrate more expertise and knowledge in understanding how various herbs are collected, stored and used.” End of quote. Then comes Ukuphuma – that’s the last stage of intensive training. Again, certain rituals adjoin to it. But that includes: long times of isolating and seclusion; ritual pilgrimages and rites; special sites in nature, sometimes shown in dreams where to go; spiritual retreats; sacrificial rituals; public proofs of mediumistic prowess – like, for instance, the trainee is called into a room. And in the room, somewhere, a coin is hidden – under a bookshelf, or wherever. That person who enters has to find that coin and find it quick. And things like that. These are really demanding tests. And if you pass them sufficiently, then you do a name change to show your new identity. And there comes the rites of public investiture, and public acceptance as a new role as they progressed to Igqirha or Sangoma. Then comes the stage of being accepted into the communities of Igqirhas or Sangomas as a full member. That is a really dignified ordination. And then you’re still expected to go for lifelong learning. As long as you are, there maybe somebody who knows more, maybe in a certain field and you go train with him or you go for seclusion and pilgrimage. All these things. This is a life-long process. And at present, professional boards of Sangomas and traditional Igqirhas are organising, and have organised already, and are getting legally recognised and integrated into the healthcare system, to safeguard the proficient standards and protect from imposters and quacks (15:00).

MC-P: Brilliant!

URK: So this is a way to give you an overview of this.

MC-P: Yes. Thank you for that, thank you. That was a really, really great overview, as you say, about the whole process. And it’s wonderful to hear those clicks again and your pronunciation is fantastic! I’m really quite interested, as well, especially in your paper regarding the white Sangomas, you speak about them having to, of course, have the same process. And I wonder, how are these individuals received in their communities? And maybe what are some of the cultural or religious tensions surrounding white Sangomas?

URK: Well, this is a complex issue that has to be taken quite seriously. Because it touches on the issues of collective and cultural identities, and respect for culture, and all of these things. Now, we have this concept of “cultural appropriation”, which means, basically, you cannot take something from somebody else’s culture. Although by those standards, if you apply them strictly, we as Europeans or Africans would not be allowed to read and write because the Phoenicians invented the alphabet, and then that’s their cultural property. Of course, we read and write! So this has limits. But from a philosophical point of view of African culture and the worldview, there is a quite clear answer to that. And this provides a basis of how to do things legitimately. Also, for people coming from outside like whites. Because in the acceptance and the manifestation of a Sangoma’s divination, you connect with spirits. Now these spirits are, firstly, those who actually guard the whole process and are the masters of the process. Now in this process you connect to you own family’s ancestors, spirits that turn up in dreams – like, you may dream of your great-grandfather who you never saw, but you know it’s him. And you know this person has a message for you. Or maybe he will guide you, and accompany you. So your own family’s ancestral spirits, first of all. And then, secondly, essentially the ancestral spirits of the master Sangoma with whom you do your training. Some of – usually her, it’s mostly a female profession but there are some males – her, or his, own mentor spirits will also become part of your own spiritual realm. And they will begin to exert authority over you. So this is the point where inevitably, African, black African spirits, Bantu spirits will enter into the realm, consciousness and sub-consciousness and the spiritual realm of a white trainee. Then there are the spirits of the land where you do your training, especially where you were born. You are perceived to be connected, spiritually, to the place you were born. That makes a black person born in Europe a European spiritually, in a certain way, and a white person born in Africa an African, in a certain way. Because you’re connected to the spirits of the land. And you may visit that place, and connect there spiritually, and feel you are connected, and things like that. Then also, the spirts of your place, land of origin, where your people come from. And then, also, spirits of other people, objects, or places – like, you stood in front of a painting and the person who was depicted, all of a sudden that person would turn up in your dreams. So close, emotionally close, significant connections can also connect you to spirits maybe of a long, long time ago. And those spirits in these classes that have taken abode in you, and guide you, and are revealed to you by dreams, intuitions, special occurrences, most of all in trance. Also positon trance – and even there’s a type of position trance dance where the spirit enters your body and expresses itself by certain movements before you begin to recognise that spirit. So these spirits come to you, and some of them become important for you. They will stay with you and connect with them. And you get their powers and advice. Also healing powers, divinatory powers. And then you have an assortment of individual spirits: obviously, if you are a white person, your European ancestral spirits, your family spirits, and the African spirits of the land, and the trainer. If you gather these spirits you also take in their fate. They may have experienced much suffering in their life and you may experience bouts of anguish or sorrow that you can’t explain from your own life. But you feel a desperate fear, sorrow, anxiety which is that of a mentor spirit. So you live part of their life again. It sensitises you to certain things, so that means you also have certain price, you live with those spirits intrinsically (20:00). They also guard you. And James Hall observed, him being a Catholic, that these spirits are similar in a way to the saints of Catholic piety. A saint also was a person that lived, and the saint is, in a way, a spirit in the other world who will still guard you. So things can also happen like, if a black Bantu African mentor Sangoma has some white person up in the ancestor line, that Bantu may also have a white spirit in his own family spirits. Because in South Africa, there was intermarriage all through the centuries. Now the acceptance in communities, the institution of Sangomas or Igqirhas is a very respected profession. It’s like the social status of a psycho-analyst. These people are respected. Sangomas are really revered persons. And this institution has made the transition from rural society into modern South Africa. It’s also made the transition from the pagan culture into Christian culture. And today, if you look up on the internet, you will find professionals in many fields such as psychologists, teachers, academics, medical doctors and so on, who also trained and graduated as Sangomas. The majority of South Africans, statistically, have consulted with a Sangoma at some point in life, like myself, and sometimes in addition to a medical doctor or psychotherapist, and that’s a very special experience. The institution of Sangomas has successfully made the transition into Christian realm, first through the African indigenous churches, to integrate the African spiritual heritage and its forms. They created the offices of the prophet, praying for healing, praying for any of these things. The mainline churches are gradually beginning to accept that. There are some Evangelical churches who will say . . . or fundamentalist Catholics who will say, “Oh, this is all of the Devil.” But still they have some form of recognition of it. Whites, especially in rural areas, at all times consult with Sangomas if they knew no other counsel, or had special powers, but that was usually done in secrecy.

MC-P: I just wanted to pick up on that. So you mentioned the movement from pagan to Christian, and then you also, in your outline of what exactly it takes to become a Sangoma, you mentioned some sacrificial aspects. And so if we think about Sangomas more broadly, thinking about this identification as a Christian as well as the darker side of some African Shamanic practice – for example, the use of human body parts in rituals – how is this navigated by the Sangomas, who practice spiritual healings but they also see themselves a Christians?

URK: That’s an important question for both the Christian Sangomas and the African traditional pagan Sangomas, because Sangoma powers are magic powers, apart from the divination. And magic is a neutral thing, it’s like fire: you can heat the fireplace with fire, you can light the candle, but you can also burn the house, or burn the countryside. Powers can be used in both ways. And if you can use them . . . it’s like telepathy: you can send a good wish to a friend or a family member, “Hope you will pass your exams”, or whatever. But you can also send harm. And this is the inherent ambivalence in the magic powers. Now as to the bodily aspects – and we have things like wedding rings, or we have photos of special objects of our parents, and gifts which we won’t drop on the floor, we’ll treat them with reverence, we have the idea in Christian European culture of blessed objects that you treat reverently accordingly. And this is a strong point of African traditional culture and philosophy, that the different realms of mind, and matter, and the intermediate realm, these are interconnected and the one works in the other. So you work with objects. But these objects are blessed or have some inherent power. They also have a spiritual and cultural aspect to it. And if you apply that to a body, we talked about the blood as being a substance of life. The body parts are perceived as having the powers of a person, like a person’s brains, a person’s heart, and kidneys and so on. And unfortunately, those who practice dark magic, who do magic for harm, they will kill people just to obtain the powerful parts of the bodies (25:00). And there is a special department in South African police, specialists. And this is a pest, it’s an African pest. People all over Africa get killed for magical purposes. It’s a real, real violent, evil thing. And it’s been treated with contempt and horror in African traditional culture already. But unfortunately, those people who do this kind of thing, often for a lot of money, they will promise you can get rich, you can kill your foes and things like that. So this is the darker side of it. As to sacrifice and ritual objects, this is something we share in European culture too.

MC-P: It’s interesting, that. So, if we just move away from thinking about just the general practices of the Sangoma, and thinking more about how academics might engage with this: could you, maybe, outline some of the ways in which this has been engaged with from an academic perspective? And you mentioned earlier about sort-of that balance between keeping an open mind, along with your scientific mind-set. So, thinking about academic approaches, do you think there are some who have aided in the understanding of Sangomas?

URK: Sure. Well actually, South Africans have been pioneers in this endeavour. And they remind me of something which Dr Lily Rose Nomfundo Mlisa told me. After her dissertation was published on the internet, a Jungian psychoanalyst associated with the CG Jung Institute in Zurich – that’s the headquarters – visited her. And the Association of Jungian Psychoanalysts of South Africa have invited her regularly, and continue to do so, for lectures. Last year, the international association of Jungian psychoanalysts held their world council in Vienna. And she was invited as a keynote speaker and there were over a thousand participants, 1400 participants and, at the end of her lecture, she received standing ovations from many of the participants who had tears on their faces. And that may illustrate the impact of her work. Now, those not too familiar with psychotherapy, Jungian psychoanalysis is the most expensive and prestigious form of psychoanalysis. It takes a long training. About 150-200, 000 Euros, just for the training. You need a broad basis in culture and knowledge of myth and so on. And that makes it an arduous and demanding and very rich form of psychoanalysis. And she was invited into that world congress there. Some decades ago, that relationship was the other way round when Cape Town Jungian psychoanalyst, Vera Bührmann, had long talks with the Sangoma from the Eastern Cape, and she recognised some similarities that fascinated her. However she tried to reduce the spiritual worldview of the Sangomas to the “collective unconscious“ in Jungian terms. Even a bit more reductive, in Freudian terms. And that, however, by doing so, eclipsed many features and phenomena. She misinterpreted them. However, she was a door-opener. And her booklet about these encounters is still worthwhile reading. Now this form of reductionism, fortunately, is on the wane. And when I studied Psychology in South Africa, there was a part called African Traditional Psychology. So there is a certain acceptance in academia that certain symptoms and experiences are culturally bound, and they have to be taken and accepted for real – whatever that is. Sort-of put into brackets. But the medical profession is also a practical and pragmatic profession. Because to do what heals is acceptable, even if you don’t know why that heals. But if it heals, it is good. And this is a door-opener. And then somebody else that we have to mention is JBF Laubscher. Laubscher was a trained psychoanalyst and psychiatrist in the early- mid twentieth century. And he worked at psychiatry hospital in the Eastern Cape, and befriended the local Sangoma there, and wrote about that friendship and about all the things he learned, and how it resonated with European spiritualistic worldviews at the time. And his book The Pagan Soul is available online. It’s quite good to read. Laubscher is the person’s name. That doctor’s name. The field of studies of esotericism, that field is not defined by a method, but by its subject. And at present, many scholars in the field regard Sangoma practice and its concepts as religious, which it is certainly not (30:00). Sangoma art and its cosmology and anthropology are not religious but divinatory. And that’s important. But cognitivism is the order of the day. And if you try to frame things in a cognitive way, like those constructions and imaginations, and so on, you can be sure that many people will applaud you before you even have said a sentence or two. But this is just reducing. Now there is another tradition of phenomenology. And the phenomenologists they are quite acute about exploring this field, and say, “Ok. What irregularities, what are patterns that recur? What is the logic of the whole thing? What of the phenomenon, the experiences? What is the transformation of that person? And some scholars in anthropology, like Victor and Edith Turner, have gone that way and have revived their initial approaches in epistemics to find epistemics that are suitable to cover the phenomena that they encounter. They’ve written about that. And the Turners are quite influential in anthropology. So there are traditions which one can connect to. Well more could be said but that’s in brief.

MC-P: Thank you. I think that’s really fascinating. And I really agree that when we’re as researchers, when we’re looking onto things such as this, it’s so important to avoid that reductionism, and absolutely, as you said, to keep an open mind as well as our scientific minds sort-of parallel. Well, that’s my approach anyways! But just in closing, I wanted to ask you . . . you sort-of covered it a little bit, but how would you encourage future researchers who were interested in something such as Sangomas or African Shamanism to explore this topic? And in what directions do you think this field might be moving into?

URK: Well, I believe it’s a promising field. It’s a promising field for various reasons. One thing is, in North American and Western European culture, there is a certain stage of post-secularism that we have arrived at. And sociologists of religion are quite unanimous in this diagnosis of a post-secular age that we have entered. Which means that we have the materialistic tradition still very strong and powerful in academia. But we also have a certain awareness that the world is more complex and that we are entering into post-secular stage. This goes along with a certain decline in Christianity, and some people have passed from Christianity into being “nothing at all”, materialists. And then they’ve found that this is not satisfying, they’re looking for something spiritual, and they might be especially fascinated by these various forms of divination and things like that. There are also traditions like that in European culture, and American culture from the mid-nineteenth century. Spiritualism and psychic research – that’s a great field! You will find much resonance between Sangoma culture and those submerged and sometimes lost European traditions that are re-emerging, too. Then it is interesting to research, how does the institution of Sangoma make the transition into urban South Africa? There are professionals who announce that on their websites that they may be a psychotherapist and also trained Sangoma. Those could be people who would be willing to share these things. You could do research on that: how had the training been conducted into the conditions of a modern industrial society? Which transformations are happening? This is a promising field of research: how does it interrelate, and what are the effects with the medical professions, psychotherapy and so on, and so on? How does the one maybe influence the other? Then, if you are a student of medicine, how does psychiatry, and the diagnosis of psychotic conditions, or schizophrenia in African traditional cultures, how does that fit with our present Western knowledge, or European/American knowledge of psychological disorders? And how does the impact of the spiritual aspects, how does that interrelate with that psychological sphere? This is a promising field, too. And there is quite a bit of research going on in South Africa, too. Then you might do research on regional forms of Sangoma practice: which people emphasise this or that aspect? How is the role defined in this culture, that culture, that culture? And if you have knowledge of Romance languages, if you know Portuguese, if you know French, there are vast fields of studies in that way. And, by the way, that said, some of the Sangoma heritage has flourished in Brazil, too. Over the past five centuries that’s very much alive, in a reduced form compared to the African complexity (35:00). But it is quite alive and it has been connected to an Afro-Brazilian religion, in whose fold this is practiced. This is Umbanda and it has certain aspects of Sangoma practice and divination, too. Then, to enter that field, read, read, read! There are works of Placide Tempels on African philosophy and worldviews; John Mbiti – he was a theologian and philosopher, who wrote about African traditional religion, philosophy and worldviews. Then, Axel-Ivar Berglund, Gabril Setiloane and quite a few others could be mentioned, too. I’ve mentioned some about the experience of training as a Sangoma. That gives you a good idea of the cultural frame, and the philosophy and epistemics that go along, in which these Sangoma practices are embedded. Then visit and consult with trained and properly graduated Sangomas that may be willing to share. And also be prepared to accept that many rites are guarded by secrecy. Nomfundo Mlisa more than once told me: “You’re a white man. You’re not supposed to know anything about these things. How do you know them? And I said “Well, the thing just comes to me.” “OK, so I’ll tell you come more.” But this is an ancient tradition, archaic secrecy. You just have to respect that sometimes doors are closed, and sometimes they open at another point. And somebody will be prepared to share with you.

MC-P: Absolutely

URK: But this is just respect for the things. Some rituals are simply not divulged unless you enter yourself. And then train your own mediumistic perceptions – all of us can to some degree, you become sensitive to that, and you can relate to that field in a different way. If you observe that somethings happen to you that shouldn’t happen, or you have premonitions and that, that sensitises you and you can relate this really intuitively to that field, which is quite important, too. And then let yourself accept that the phenomena can teach you a few things. And this sort-of turns the tables. And be prepared, if you enter that field, that field is going to work on you, sometimes quite suddenly, sometimes over long periods of time, but it does perceptibly work on you. And you are transformed in that way, too. And this is something quite beautiful to experience, if it happens. You cannot control it, but you can rejoice if it does happen to you. And so this is personally fruitful, apart from the vast and quite intellectually challenging field, and quite interesting field from various perspectives: philosophy, psychology, medicine, psychiatry, anthropology ethnology, cultural studies, and so on, and so on. Even music, embodiment studies, ritual studies. So there are quite a few perspectives to engage in this field.

MC-P: Absolutely and the list is quite endless! And you’ve certainly given us a few golden nuggets to take away there. And I’m sure, if there’s any students listening, that you might see a couple of dissertations. And I absolutely have to agree with you. I think any research that we’re doing into religion, or psychology of religion, or anthropology of religion, it has to change us. But I will definitely be sure to link your work – especially you mention Umbanda. I’ll definitely be linking that in the description on our Religious Studies Podcast webpage. But I really just wanted to thank you so, so much for sharing your knowledge, and sharing some of these experiences, and helping me to bring a subject that maybe isn’t known too broadly, to bring that to light as well. So I just end that by saying: thank you so much for your time.

URK: It’s been a great pleasure. Thank you, too.

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Protected: Doctors and Stigmatics in the 19th and 20th centuries (classroom edit)

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Doctors and Stigmatics in the 19th and 20th centuries

Stigmata are a special kind of miraculous event. They involve the physical manifestation of Jesus’ wounds as depicted in the Bible Gospels. Though many people in history have claimed to bear these marks, they have also been used as proof of the existence of God or to build legitimacy for a religious community. Those who have studied stigmata include investigators from the Catholic Church, religious skeptics, and medical professionals.

This week’s podcast with Gabor Klaniczay focuses on the final group, doctors. In his research on stigmata during the 19th and 20th century in Europe, Klaniczay analyzes how the medical discourse has tried to establish authenticity for stigmata cases. Discourses differed based on religious affiliation with Catholic doctors were more prone to credit them as proof of the supernatural, while Protestants ones were more skeptical, often trying to attribute them to hysteria, self-suggestion, or plain forgery.

Throughout the interview, Klaniczay refers to the social context in which stigmata occurred, as in the cases of Louise Lateau in 19th century Belgium and France, and Padre Pio in 20th century Italy. The first corresponded with a time of intense social change and secularization during the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune, while the second found correspondences with World War I and major processes in Italian politics. In this way, Klaniczay’s approach reflects Jesuit historian Michel de Certeau’s  research on the 17th century Loudun Possessions: miraculous or mystical events are the language in which the symptoms of social change take form.

This podcast was recorded and produced in the context of the 17th Annual Conference of the European Association for the Study of Religions (EASR), “Religion – Continuations and Disruptions” held in Tartu, June 25 to June 29, 2019. We kindly thank the EASR Committee and the University of Tartu scientific committee, organising team, and volunteers for the support provided during this process.

 

 

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Doctors and Stigmatics in the 19th and 20th Centuries

 

Podcast with Gábor Klaniczay (18 November 2019).

Interviewed by Sidney Castillo

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

Download a PDF of this transcript here.

Sidney Castillo (SC): Well, here we are again at the Religious Studies Project Podcast. It’s the fifth and last day of the EASR conference 2019, in Tartu Estonia. And now I am here with Gábor Klaniczay from Central European University. Gábor – it’s very nice to have you here.

Gábor Klaniczay (GK): I’m pleased to be here, too. Thank you for interviewing me.

SC: Thank you for joining us. Would you be so kind as to introduce yourself, please?

GK: OK. So I’m a university professor at the Central European University in the department of Medieval Studies. I’m dealing mostly with medieval religious history, late medieval Christianity. That’s my field of expertise. Within that, the problem of the cult of saints, popular religion, witchcraft, beliefs. And also another aspect of my research is, a little bit, to situate central European religious culture in the whole European or even broader context.

SC: Excellent. Now your talk in the conference, at the EASR, has been about miraculous stigmata in the 19th and 20th century. Could you speak a little bit about that, please?

GK: Yes, well that shows that I’m not only dealing with a medieval things! Actually, I’m also very much in favour of historians dealing with the results of neighbouring disciplines. And there is interdisciplinary research, where I’m actually dealing with history but also anthropology, religious studies, psychology. A lot of these things are necessary for understanding phenomena like miracles or stigmata or something – the relationship to the supernatural. There is also one other type of inter-disciplinarity which is not very much practised, and that is that medievalists should know the results of modernists and vice-versa. So, on the one hand, one says that history is, of course a long train of traditions and one should know about this. But everybody specialised in one’s own age and says “Oh that’s modern. That’s no more my field of expertise.” And I think this is wrong – especially if one deals with phenomena which are basically very similar. So an individual’s relationship to miracle and to the supernatural experience, that has something very common and it’s not by chance that modern people are reaching back to the prophets or the Bible or ancient church fathers. So one cannot, of course, put an equality sign to the experiences. One has to know its historical context and one should not be anachronistic. On the other hand, religious history has to deal with the longue durée. So this is how I started to deal with medieval miracle belief and, within that, a special type of miracle: the stigmata. The stigmata which is a bodily miracle, the most famous initial miracle. Not the first one. But actually the start of the cult of stigmata was with St Francis of Assisi, the thirteenth century saint – a major medieval saint and founder of the Franciscan order – who had a vision in 1227, and got stigmatised . . . at least this is what we got to know after his death in 1227. Actually it happened before his death – two years before his death, as his legend writer, Thomas of Celano, says – during a vision where a seraph, a crucified man, appeared to him in the air, when he was in hermitage. And after this experience the result was that the wounds of stigmata, Christ’s wounds, appeared on his body. And this was discovered after his death. Now this is stigmata. And many Franciscans maintain that this is the only unique example where a human being becomes like Christ. St Francis was venerated like another Christ, an alter Christus, and the stigmata were actually signs of his being so important and working as much for the redemption of humanity as Christ – or almost as much – in the middle ages (5:00). Now other saintly persons, or other religious persons, men and women – mostly women, by the way – were also claiming to have stigmata, like St Francis. And this was a very long-term history, which started in the middle ages. In the middle ages there was another very famous stigmatic woman, Catherine of Siena, who belonged to the Dominican Order. And her stigmata appeared also during a vision, but did not appear visibly on her body because she wanted them to be invisible; not to pretend that she had that high honour. She wanted only the pain. She wanted the experience. And then there were up-to-the-present stigmatics. And my paper here was about 19th and 20th century stigmatics. And the topic that I was dealing with was actually how medical experts, physicians, related to this miracle.

SC: Right.

GK: Because this miracle was very special, in the sense that the stigmatics have these wounds in their bodies, sometimes for year, sometimes for decades. These wounds bleed periodically. These wounds do not get infected. So this is very special type of bodily miracle. And the religious people – mostly Catholics, because this is a Catholic type miracle – are taking it as a very important proof for the existence of God: that such a God can work such wonders in the human body on earth, which cannot be explained rationally, by scientific or medical or other thought. And of course, doctors were challenged, and wanted to examine, and there was a lot of criticism and disbelief, and there were very interesting cases, debates. And I was presenting some of these cases.

SC: That’s really interesting. And I think you gave a very broad description of how stigmatics happen from the middle ages towards modernity. Just thinking about what Michel de Certeau said about how mystical phenomena corresponds to the social contexts – what is happening in those centuries – and particularly the 16th and 17th century were very prominent for many, many mystics. I don’t about stigmata?

GK: There were also stigmata. But some of these mystics have stigmata.

SC: How can we understand the social contexts of the 19th/20th century to explain the stigmata?

GK: Well, one very important social context is that the 19th and 20th centuries are centuries of secularisation. Also after the French Revolution, Napoleon for example, dissolved many religious orders. And there was- against the Enlightenment, and against the rational thinking which wanted to sort-of make the disenchantment of the world, as Max Weber said, happen – well, there was a re-enchantment. In the 19th century there was a Catholic revival. Chateaubriand, the Génie, The Genius of Christianity, and many other movements. And the church, and certain popes, were very strongly fighting against the separation of Church and state. And also there were certain social classes which were in support for that. In France there was a royalist movement. But also the churches’ positions in Italy, for example, which was a place where many of these prophets and stigmatics came. . . . Italy was living, at that moment, the unification, or Risorgimento (10:00). And at the same time there were a lot of resistances of local vested interests of churches, and a lot of contrast also between Rome and the Vatican, and the southern region or northern region. So each time there was a conflict situation. And in some conflict situations the church had its own policies. And one of the policies was indeed to bring proofs for the existence of God, with very spectacular miracles. The most spectacular miracles were visions like La Salette in the 19th century- or Lourdes. These were the appearances of the Virgin Mary – Marian miracles. But there were other miracles also related to the Sacred Heart the Sacré Coeur. And besides these visionaries there were these living saints, the stigmatics, who had new revelations. So one of the stigmatics, for example, that I was speaking about was living in Northern Germany. Now, Northern Germany was a place were already big contrasts were there between the Protestants and Catholics. Catholics were in the minority in Northern Germany, in Westphalia. But they were there. And now secularisation brought another thing in. So there was an Augustinian nun, called Anna Katharina Emmerick, who had these bleeding wounds, these stigmata and also the crown of thorns. At least, she had the vision where Jesus was placing the crown of thorns on her head. And they were regularly bleeding, the place of the crown of thorns. And later, bleeding wounds also appeared on her hands and also a cross on the chest. And then a debate started. And this was an interesting case. Because it belonged to Prussia. Prussia was a secularised and Protestant monarchy with a lot of important scientists, among them medical scientists. And they formed a commission to examine these things. Some were saying, “Oh, this was just self-inflicted wounds.” Others said that the spiritual advisors were using her as a kind of medium, were telling her that her headache was actually from the crown of thorns, and were influencing her. And indeed that was a 19th century thing, this medium related to Mesmer, and mesmerism, and magnetism. Now all kinds of explanations came up, but at the same time there was also a very famous romantic poet, Clemens Brentano, listening to her and writing down her visions as new revelations. And these visionaries were telling an alternative history of what happened to Jesus, and the Bible, or details. And the collected works of Clemens Brentano are the visions of Anna Katharina Emmerick. He didn’t even . . . he couldn’t even publish the whole thing during his life. He died and his brother continued to publish it. So, this is the social context and the role of religion in 19th century. And of course we can go on. Let me just switch to the end of the 19th century, to the 1870s. It was the moment of the French commune, it was the French and German War, the defeat of France. And in France and in Belgium there were a lot of prophets. So first prophesying the death of Napoleon III – he did indeed die! But such prophesies are not very difficult, to say that somebody will die at some point. But also they wanted to bring back, after the commune, monarchy to France. There was a candidate, Chambord. So these were actually the questions. And there was a stigmatic called Louise Lateau in France, and also another stigmatic, Palma Mattarelli in Italy(15:00). And these stigmatics were also related to an Ecclesiastic kind of . . . . There was an informal network within the Church, which still exists today, that there is the official Church and then there is a grassroots level contact among the charismatics, who are cultivating supernatural phenomena. Today it is Medjugorje, and all these things. In the 19th century the stigmatics were there. And there were some doctors . . . there was a doctor that I was talking about. He was from Clermont-Ferrand. He was a royalist, a doctor, a professional, called Antoine Amber Gourbert. But he went to the stigmatics to explain that these phenomena are indeed unexplainable. And he, as a doctor, says, “I know about everything about dermatology, everything about all kinds of illnesses, speaking about it as a rational explanation. But it is wrong! These explanations are unfounded.” And actually, he was publishing books just to support the stigmatics. So that’s the interesting thing. That besides the doctors who wanted to have doubts in the stigmatics, there was a group of believer doctors who wanted to defend the stigmatics with the argument that these phenomena are actually beyond our capacities of explanation. This is why it is coming from God. And it is true that many phenomena are impossible to explain. So today the TV shows X Files, for example. Today’s supernatural beliefs are related to UFOs or other things. But the riddles of nature are indeed a good point where belief, and belief in the supernatural, starts. And stigmata is a long tradition, and this is also a riddle. So in many cases, in the first place, what I want to say is that these persons are truly religious persons. And persons who really concentrate on the suffering of Christ, and want to understand with great compassion the suffering of Christ. And even acting on . . . . So most of the stigmata appear in Holy Week, when Christ is . . . so before Easter. And on Holy Friday, mostly. And many of these stigmatics are acting out, on Holy Fridays, the crucifixion. So just like a mystery play. And their wounds start to bleed on Fridays. That’s a very particular thing, just in memory of Christ. And at the same time, they think that they are suffering the same way as Christ for redeeming humanity from its sins. So helping humanity. So it is a kind-of psychological disposition which is also becoming a bodily disposition. So many things are psychosomatic, certainly. And in some cases it’s clear that there is fraud in it, and they are . . . but in other cases it is difficult to say. And these persons are also having very sincere mystical texts and dimensions. So it’s a very complicated thing. You mentioned Michel de Certeau, for example.

SC: I was going to ask you about that, yes the Loudun possessions.

GK: Yes. Well there is a stigmata… not stigmata but actually Jeanne des Anges also had some wounds, which were actually stigmata from the devil. She was showing it in the royal court and it was there. She had also a very complicated personality. So Michel de Certeau could analyse that this is a very strange and very complex psychological phenomenon when one lives religious experience to that point.

SC: He would say, “These eyes have seen. These hands have touched” . . .

GK: Yes.

SC: Kind-of providing a factual experience towards the stigmata (20:00). One of the things I wanted to ask as well is . . . and you mentioned this in your presentation, that there was Catholic doctors that were giving confirmation that it was in fact a miraculous event and therefore it cannot be explained. But you also mentioned that there were Protestant doctors that were more incisive towards desecrating this phenomenon. So will you elaborate more on that divide within the same medical discourse: how this was different?

GK: Yes. Well basically, yes, as you said, it’s not by chance that Protestant doctors . . . . One Protestant doctor was, for example, one of the critics of this 19th-century stigmatic, Louise Lateau. Louise Lateau, who lived in the second half of the 19th century in a small Belgian village, and got stigmata at the age of eighteen. And a big medical debate started. And while the Catholic doctors were describing her stigmata and then a very famous authority, Rudolf Virchow – from Germany, from Berlin, a Protestant doctor – was writing a long study, Uber Wunder, On the Miracle. And the Protestants were . . . they did not deny a miracle absolutely. But they denied this type of massive production of miracles that the Catholics have been relating to the saints and to the stigmatics. So they were more for a rational explanation of these phenomena, saying that if one does not have the explanation yet, one should not immediately say it is a miracle. But one can sort-of explore it further. So there was a Protestant discourse which was more rationalistic. But that does not mean that they were refusing miracles on the whole. So they were reaching back to St Augustine, who also said that, actually, the small miracles are just to convince the disbelievers. But the only two big miracles are the creation of the world and the resurrection of Christ. And these are actually the big miracles. And the rest is just . . . it can be explained rationally, just as well. Also the Protestants . . . the 19th century polemics on miracles were a good field for continuing this debate. But actually the debate started already in Luther’s time. And the Protestantism refused a lot of the things in Catholic beliefs, among them the cult of the saints, and the cult of the relics, as something which they labelled superstition. And there was a long set of debates related to that. So one good authority who examined this in England, for example, was Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic. A big monograph, where he pointed out how Protestantism was kind-of refusing what they considered to be the magic of the medieval church, and wanted to bring in more rational arguments.

SC: Excellent. Well we are almost out of time, but if you could give us some further remarks about your presentation, I think that will be a good way to wrap it up.

GK: Yes. So I told many things already which were in my presentation. One thing I haven’t mentioned yet, that I added, was the famous 20th century stigmatic Padre Pio. Padre Pio, who was a Capuchin friar in South Italy, who was stigmatised in 1918. That was also a typical historical moment – a moment of the First World War, with a lot of horrible experiences that European people and Italians also went through (25:00). And the stigmata was also interestingly related to the South Italian situation and history. There were strong clashes between a triumphant Socialist movement and the Catholic Church. Padre Pio himself was also an interesting individual. He was an ailing person with a lot of illnesses. That’s why he was exempt, he was drafted as a soldier but was exempt from military service because of his illnesses. And he became a friar in a very remote Capuchin convent in San Giovanni Rotondo– a place where a lot of miracles happened because it was just behind the Monte Gargano where the famous miracles of Saint Michael the archangel came. So Italy, in general, was very favourable to miracles. And the old places where miracles used to happen made it kind-of common knowledge that miracles do happen. And this is how the stigmata came out from Padre Pio. And the story itself is a very interesting story. Because from the point of view of medical debates, his stigmata were very debated. They were debated. Because a pharmacist denounced him, saying that he had some iodine tinctures to disinfect his wounds. And some doctors accused him that this was actually to perpetuate the wounds which could have happened out of illness or other reasons. Because, for stigmata, it’s very important that the stigmata should happen by divine intervention, not by self-infliction. That can also have devotional background, but it is not a miracle. So stigmata should be miraculous. And then the debate started and there was a long inquisition, an examination of Padre Pio with all the witnesses and everything. And there was a very important Catholic person, a Franciscan friar, Agostino Gemelli, who later was the founder of the Milan University, the Catholic University, and he was very . . . he had many doubts. He was also not only a Franciscan friar, but also a psychiatrist and a doctor. And he thought that Padre Pio was doing a fraud. But other supporters of Padre Pio were defending him. And there was a long, long debate. He was sentenced to isolation for ten years and also that he should not have – because he was also a pre-consecrated priest, Padre Pio – but he should not confess and give public sermons. He gave the public sermons with stigmatic hands, like Christ, so that was very impressive. But some others said that this is just a fraud. But then in the 1930s he was a pardoned. And then his cult was starting in his life. And actually, he lived with those stigmata for fifty years. And he had some very poplar actions. He built a huge hospital in San Giovanni Rotondo, in a very, very background region, where he was really bringing a lot of good things to his surroundings. And he was later on very much venerated by some popes like Pope Giovanni, John Paul II – the Polish Pope, who was doing pilgrimage to him already, from Poland, from the 1940s. And when he became Pope, one of his aims was to canonise Padre Pio – which he did, actually. So he started the veneration of Padre Pio. And now, Padre Pio is the most popular saint. He is a kind-of saint of the people (30:00). And the notion was also that the people wanted him to become a saint, and the Church – the high priests – resisted for a while. But then they gave in, and now they have canonised him.

SC: Now he is part of the institutionality.

GK: Yes. But there are some others still have doubts. So in any case, he’s one of the most remarkable saints of the twentieth century. And all his life course is related to 20th century Italian history. And there are very good books on him. There is one good Italian historian Sergio Luzzatto who wrote a wonderful monograph on him, where he’s portrayed Padre Pio really as somebody who represents 20th century Italian history – with all its contradictions.

SC: Very, very interesting. I think it’s like all the mystical phenomena are related to society, in one way or the other.

GK: Yes, certainly.

SC: I think that’s a very good take-away for our interview. We thank you once again, Professor Klaniczay, for being here on the Religious Studies Project and we hope you’ll come here again, soon.

GK: Yes OK. Thank you very much.

SC: Thank you very much.

 

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Drone Metal Mysticism

In this interview, Owen Coggins joins us to talk about the use of religious (and sacrilegious) language and imagery in Drone Metal, a genre which stretches metal to low, slow, repetitive extremes. Drawing on the work of Michel de Certeau, he tells David Robertson that the prevalence of language relating to mysticism and “spiritual experience” may be due to the genre’s focus on the physicality of the musical experience. Expanding out to discuss other forms of popular music which exhibit these modes of engagement, the conversation moves to consider how this case-study might open up new ways to engage with religious ideas in popular culture, and in other practices involving extreme states of bodily consciousness.

This interview was recorded at the Open University’s Contemporary Religion in Historical Perspective: Publics and Performances conference in Milton Keynes, Feb 19-21 2018.

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A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.

Drone Metal Mysticism

Podcast with Owen Coggins (16 April 2018).

Interviewed by David G. Robertson.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Coggins – Drone Metal Mysticism 1.1

David Robertson (DR): I’m here in Sunny Milton Keynes for the Open University’s Contemporary Religion in Historical Perspective Conference where I’m lucky enough to be joined, today, by Owen Coggins, who is an Honorary Associate of the Religious Studies Department here.

Owen Coggins (OC): Hello

DR: Welcome to the Religious Studies Project. We’ve been talking about this interview for quite some time. But we’ve finally managed to get it organised – luckily, just as your book comes out! Let’s start, then with drone metal. What is it that we’re talking about here?

OC: OK. I guess I often describe it as an extreme form of heavy metal that’s characterised by extremes of repetition; distortion; extension; tracks that go on for thirty minutes or forty-five minutes – I went to a concert that was three hours long – and feedback and other kinds of sonic characteristics. But it’s also characterised in the sort of discourse that surrounds it that’s produced by musicians but also by audiences – lots of talk about mysticism and ritual and religious experience and transcendence and so on. And so that was the starting point for me wanting to investigate it for my PhD research.

DR: Now this isn’t the first kind of study we’ve had of religious imagery . . . . Well let’s start with metal, particularly. There’s a long history of fairly obvious religious imagery . . .

OC: Yes, and so I think from Black Sabbath – who are often understood as the originary starting point of heavy metal – and you’ve obviously got kind-of crucifixes and press photos taken in graveyards, and accusations about Satanism and various kind of imagined occult practices. And I think that a real interest in the power of religion and its symbols – and perhaps new or sometimes oppositional repositioning of that kind of symbolism, images and languages and even sounds – has, I think, been a really important part of metal from its beginnings. I think, perhaps what seems to me to be slightly different about this particular form – certainly in the way that academics have approached it – is that religion in metal has often been kind-of approached through the lens of Christianity and metal, whether that’s Christian heavy metal itself, or a discourse of anti-Christian sentiment in metal – burning down churches in Norwegian black metal, and so on – and more recently, sort-of more focus on various other sections of Satanism and paganism in metal. But it’s often kind-of approached in terms of a religious tradition and metal, whereas what I was really interested in is the sort of bricolage and sometimes kind-of orientalist appropriation and redeployment of a really vast range of different kinds of religious symbols and sounds, in this particular form of music.

DR: Now the use of religious imagery in metal, particularly – it’s a very deliberately transgressive kind of discourse. Although obviously it varies how serious they are. That’s not entirely what we find with drone, is it?

OC: I think the issue of seriousness is quite an interesting one. And I think humour in metal is often misunderstood as perhaps one optional counterpoint to seriousness. And so I think that’s an interesting way to look at these things. Because, in some ways, there are things which are done very, very seriously which are at the same time completely ludicrous and absurd. And one example is the classic 1996 record by Sleep which has two alternate titles: “Jerusalem” – which references these ideas of the Holy land, pilgrimage – and also “Dopesmoker”. So “Dopesmoker” and “Jerusalem” are two alternative titles for this one single, hour-long dirge classic of stoner metal riffs. And it’s often kind-of referenced by listeners in terms of the lyrics being simultaneously ultra-serious and completely ridiculous at the same time. And I think, that is an interesting way to think about how some of these symbols might be mobilised and ideas might be responded to, which in the book I talk a little bit about and the idea of “listening as if “. And I think, in some ways, drone metal allows . . . in the ways that audiences talk about it, are going to concerts or listening to recordings as if they are ritual, as if they are mystical, as if they are somehow related in an ambivalent way to religion. And that kind of language sometimes shifts around. So the record I mentioned is often described – even in the space of a short 500 word review for example – as like a pilgrimage, or as a pilgrimage, as a sonic pilgrimage, as sounding like the music that pilgrims might listen to at the end of the pilgrimage. And so I think this kind of ambivalence that I talk about as “listening as if” it’s ritualist, allows people to explore and investigate a kind of imagined religiosity without having to necessarily commit to certain kind of identity statements or dogmas or beliefs. And I think that’s part of where the power lies. And I think that also is part of the real value of music in this kind of exploration. Because it affords a sort of imaginative space for people to sort-of explore that.

DR: And that’s something that’s not unique to music, of course. That kind of mode is familiar in other forms of art that have got . . . there are visual artists and painters who specifically design their work to be experienced in these kind of contexts. You made a nice distinction in the book about different modes of engaging with . . . Certain kinds of music are engaged with in a different way and I think you’d distinguish like your pop and rock, the mainstream musical forms, that there’s a different register of engagement with it.

OC: Yes, I think that was really . . . I mean, I don’t really want to make big claims about the specialness of drone metal against other forms of music. But this was really responding to the ways that my research participants talked about it. And there was often a very . . . listeners often made a very strong distinction between drone metal and other forms of music. And often even drone metal and other forms of metal. Just in . . . partly because of the sort-of abstract nature of this very droning dirge-like music and the practicalities, such as how long the tracks last. The real interest in vinyl as kind-of recreating a separate space and time in which to listen. Often people preferred to listen on vinyl rather than digital formats because it created a certain kind of special space and time through which to listen. And I think that really spoke to the construction of ideas about ritual and mysticism: that there was a deliberate attempt to separate drone metal in space and time, but also conceptually as something kind-of set apart. And obviously, there’s an implied construction of the sacred in there.

DR: Yes, that notion of specialness is something that I’ve actually come across in a few places. And it’s quite interesting when you . . . even for students talking about the study of religion – they want it to be something a bit set apart. Even the discourse itself is something separate. Yes, I like that you mentioned the material culture, and there’s a number of interesting intersections here. I mean the vinyl aspect of it is one we’ve already talked about, but there’s also, you know, a particular aesthetic that goes along with particularly drone metal. But we also have material culture in terms of sensory experience.

OC: Yes, and I think, firstly, it was great to speak to people about this certainly quite extreme form of music, and read thousands of reviews and things, just because of the creative and unusual ways that people talked about it. And that was one of the ways that came up a lot was people talking about going to concerts and the air becoming solid, or having a real, physical bodily experience of the sound. And so I thought material culture was actually a really helpful way to think about that. Because it was almost like sound becoming physically mobilised for people, or them kind of engaging with sound in a very physical way. And I think that was an interesting way to think also about mysticism in terms of the ways that people kind-of use, or interpret, or operate on a particular kind of tradition – in this case heavy metal, I suppose, as well as the surrounding discourses about transcendental experience and mysticism and so on – that it was almost a kind of a way to experience sound as sound, or what sound itself sounds like, or what sound itself “feels” like, as some participants put it. Which, I think, connects up to other aspects of the aesthetic in other quite interesting ways, such as the interest with black letter or Fraktur typography, like the sort of gothic script that’s familiar in a lot of metal cultures as well as drone metal. And what I loved about that was it’s a real visual manifestation of the distortion and amplification of a sign that’s so important in the sonic characteristics of the music.

DR: I found that really interesting: the idea of the sort-of fetishisation of amplification. That is noticeably different than most other forms, even mainstream rock and metal where there’s much more concern on the drum kit or the guitars, rather than in drone where it’s the amplification particularly. And what I found interesting, having been a rock musician, was that when you started talking about this, I was thinking, “Well the first stage of amplification you need in rock is that you have to be louder than the drums. Because you have to play the drums loud to make them sound good! So there’s a level of amplification you need, to get your guitar to there, for your band to sound like a rock band, right? But in drone, that bit becomes the bit that’s of interest. And you go up a whole other level, so that it’s the amplification itself that becomes the act. It’s no longer something that you’re doing in order to get to point A, it becomes point A itself.

OC: Yes, I think I’ve suggested that this is the first or, at least, the only musical culture that I know of where the most important musical instrument, broadly conceived, is the amplifier rather than the guitar or, as you say, anything else that’s being amplified. Although, interestingly, there is a real focus on amplification and speakers in dub reggae and certain forms of electronic dance music, which I also discuss. Because those forms of music have also attracted really quite sort-of prevalent discourses of religious experience and mysticism. But yes, definitely, the amplification . . . sort-of amplification of amplification is the thing that’s really at issue. And I think that’s an interesting way to think about that is that it’s about an interrogation of transmission itself. And amplifying kind-of symbols themselves in order to kind of investigate what their possibilities are rather than, for example, to kind-of communicate particular kinds of musical semantics or structures.

DG: Yes, you mentioned dance music- I immediately pictured the front of “3am Eternal”, by The KLF, where it’s an altar and the sides of the altar are huge amplifiers. Of course The KLF were enormously influenced by situationist theory and the kind of post-hippy, kind-of early cybernetic idealism – you know, Tim Leary and those people. And they were very sort-of consciously creating a temporary autonomous zone. But they were using a lot of religious imagery in doing it. Even the idea of time, you know – so it’s 3am, but it’s 3am eternal. They have a lot of these similar kind-of languages.

OC: And I think that the idea of drone itself is very much about . . . or it affords ways of talking about time which kind-of do similar things. They’re physically and bodily experienced in a particular moment, but they open out onto those kind-of ideas about archaic experience and forms of social organisation. And so, in one of the chapters of the book I talk about those: the ways that audiences talk about drone metal being kind of about elsewhere, and drone metal being given access to these elsewheres. People discuss being transported to outer space or to kind-of imagined empty deserts and so on. And I think that’s a really powerful and important way that people respond to it. Not to say that there’s anything inherently connected in the music, but just that those are conventional ways of talking about the music which have sprung up around it, which seem to have a certain validity for people who are communicating about their engagement in this music.

DR: Nonetheless, I found that really interesting. And we really are thinking about utopias – in the original sense of the word – of nowhere, of places that are idealisations or imagined spaces, in some sense, that there’s almost an attempt to achieve through these kind of trancian and drone ideas.

OC: Yes, and I think in dub, and psy-trance, and in drone metal which, as I said, there are different kinds of utopias. And I think you can also, working backwards from there, think about the reasons why there’s such a strong impulse to try and construct these utopias in a very kind of temporary way – just over the course of half an hour recording, or an hour or so of a live concert. So, for example, for dub, in terms of a black Atlantic diaspora wanting to kind-of construct certain ideas about an Afro-centric religion, for example. And I think, perhaps, for drone metal it’s interesting to speculate about what the construction of utopias might say about the social situation of audiences . . . as a response to alienation and disenchantment.

DR: And interestingly as well, almost pre-modern – despite the fetishisation of technology. There’s a lot of wildernesses and distant places. It’s almost away from modernity.

OC: Yes, there was an interesting example when one of the best-known drone metal bands, Sunn O))), performed at the Royal Festival Hall a couple of years ago. The support act was a group from Russia called Phurpa who’ve supported Sunn O))) on a number of occasions, who style themselves as supporting authentic Bon Tibetan traditional chanting. And so when you see these two things juxtaposed, the Tibetan Bon ritual – where there’s bowls of incense and figures in black robes doing vocal chanting – and then you go out and have your glass of wine at the break time and then you go back and there’s a very similar performance with the Sunn O))) band members in their black robes . . . . But it’s a very kind-of consciously up-dated version of this, with these extremes of amplification, but sonically quite a similar palette, I suppose, they’re working with. And I think that’s a very deliberate association that they’re trying to make with a certain kind of imagined archaic ritual.

DR: Let me give you a deliberately provocative question. So we’ve got a kind-of sense of sacredness or specialness, or temporary autonomous zone – however we want to put it – and we have quasi-religious musical forms: which comes first? You know, in which direction is the movement? Or is it mutually reinforced?

OC: Yes, I think it’s a good question and it’s one that I’ve tried very hard to skip!

DR: (Laughs) I said it was deliberately provocative.

OC: But in order to skip it, to focus instead on trying to . . . . Put it this way, there was a lot of claims about – in my interviews and in reviews about this sort of music – that drone metal really does hark back to ancient – in quotes – “tribal religious forms”, and so on. And I think this is kind-of deliberately played-on by some musicians. And it’s certainly picked-up-on by parts of the audience. But my interest wasn’t so much kind-of proving or disproving whether this really, genuinely had ancient connections to these kind of religions. And in the same way that the group performing the Tibetan ritual music that I mentioned – I’m not so interested in the historical accuracy of their early music production. What’s more interesting to me is how those ideas are mobilised, and why people find them important, and to draw on that. And I think, in part, it’s to make an authority claim. Or to recognise and, after the fact, legitimate something that they felt was quite a powerful engagement. And then, in order to kind of situate that for themselves and the listening community, to sort of connect it to these older imagined forms.

DR: Tell us, then, about how this relates to mysticism – and this is a large part of the book, obviously. I mean, I presume we’re building from the kind-of idea that this is music which is deliberately experienced rather than passively heard?

OC: Yes. So, following on from what we’ve been discussing, there’s also quite a strong discourse of perennialism that you find in Aldous Huxley and so on, in the way that people talk about it – that it’s accessing this kind-of universal underlying form of religious experience. Now that, to me . . . there are some troubling consequences of that idea, that just erases all specific differences. And there are some issues with a kind of orientalist grabbing of bits and pieces from all religions and kind of presenting them as if they were referring to a similar thing. So, for me, what was really valuable in trying to understand these kind of discourses of mysticism and ritual – given that so many people who are coming from different kind of backgrounds and so on are using words that are notoriously difficult to pin down, such as “it was a spiritual experience”, or “this music is mystical” in some way – for me, it was really valuable to look to the work of Michel de Certeau. He both kind-of provides a really valuable way to look at the uses that audiences make of texts in popular culture, and also his work on mysticism. And so this approach to mysticism: instead of trying to look behind the texts for this unitive experience, which the scholar imagines is the same behind all of these instantiations, Michel de Certeau, by contrast, wants to look at the texts which are designated mystical and then identify certain procedures, or gestures, or operations on an inherited language that take place in these texts. So, for me, that was really valuable – for a start because it kind of resolves, or displaces, a kind of division between text and experience which has been quite influential – and quite problematically so, in my view – in the 20th century study of mysticism, where mystical experiences are “ineffable”, they’re “indescribable” and then you have texts which sort-of fail nobly to describe them. So the problem with that is that the experience that’s suggested as being the same – there’s not really any evidence for that. And then the actual kinds of differences in texts are just attributed to the cultural differences in which these same experiences take place. Michel de Certeau, by contrast, allows us to look at the particular mechanics and moves and gestures that take place in these texts. So, for example, talking about how a language of the body emerges in the mystical texts – or texts designated mystical in the 16th or 17th centuries – how they’re interested in the materiality of signifiers. And how mystics are seen by themselves as ultra-orthodox, but by outsiders as heretical in some way, for their treatment of their inherited tradition. And so I think there was a number of these kind-of gestures that de Certeau identified in mystical texts, that I also observed in not only the ways that audiences spoke about their engagement with drone metal, but also in the sound itself. So we had similar . . . in the ways that people talked about going to concerts, you find these very similar and familiar gestures of talking about mysticism and ritual. But I also thought it was quite a good description of what drone metal does to the tradition of heavy metal. So it, for example, takes on lots of signifiers from Black Sabbath but kind-of over-extends them, and pushes them to their breaking point. So, for example, the Sleep album I mentioned earlier was described memorably by Julian Cope in a review, as if a bunch of California teenagers had found Black Sabbath’s first four albums in the desert and started a religion, based on it.

DR: I love that, yes.

OC: And so you can see that just even in the sound. It’s almost like taking a Black Sabbath song and extending it for an hour – sort-of almost pushing it to its limits. And I think this almost fits with de Certeau’s idea of mysticism as an operation, or a performance, in a text which does something to an inherited tradition.

DR: So using drone metal, then, are you using it . . . . You’re not so much using it as an example of mysticism, but as an example of how the language of mysticism is operated. Am I understanding . . ?

OC: Yes.

DR: And does that have ramifications for other . . . like, more widely for how we talk and think about mysticism?

OC: Yes, I think so. I think that it helps to avoid some of the pitfalls of mysticism which it has – as we’ve described before – about conjuring this sort-of fiction of an essentialist, universalist experience, which actually relies on particular ideas about subjectivity which are rooted in a Western academic episteme, I suppose. And I think that’s particularly important in our contemporary political moment where we hear references to the 20th century study of mysticism growingly in political discourse. So, for example, Steve Bannon and Richard Spencer making mention of Julius Evola. And that’s a very, very problematic imagination or depiction or mobilisation of ideas about mysticism: Evola kind-of wanting to forward – as he described it – “a racism of body souls and spirit”, and his sort-of involvement in the school of Fascist mysticism. So I think these ideas can certainly be taken in some very troubling ways. And I think, at root, they’re often based on a kind of essentialism and universalism which can be found in relatively benign forms in ideas of Huxley and Eliade and others. But I think de Certeau gives a much more both ethically and epistemologically-grounded way of approaching mysticism. In addition to saying, “If we look at the mechanics of what happens in the texts which are called mystical, then that’s actually a much more empirically-based way to look at mysticism than kind-of imagining these kind-of supposedly pure visionary experiences.”

DR: Great. So what’s next for you? Where do you take this next?

OC: Good question. I’m really interested in – as I start to talk about in the final chapter – how this kind-of relates to anthropological ideas about ritual, and how that might be connected to ideas about the connection between music and various forms of social structure and imagining social structure. So Jacques Attali’s ideas about noise, for example, which I think, given that this form of music is very much about distortion and feedback and noise, I think there’s maybe some interesting connections that can be made with ideas; Mary Douglas, for example, about the importance of dirt and the positioning of those things in ritual. I’m also really interested in wading into debates about heavy metal and mental health. And it’s often been associated with delinquency, both in popular media moral panics, as well as a certain kind of academic literature.

DR: Except, in fact, heavy metal fans are statistically happier and healthier than the norm, I believe – according to a recent survey!

OC: Yes, well I think you’ve got to take all of these things with a pinch of salt. I think that’s perhaps why it’s so interesting. Because I think the debate is so polarised. But I’d actually kind-of want to make room for the fact that maybe some kinds of music can be good for you, and other kinds of music can be bad for you, and maybe the debate’s a bit more nuanced and complex than some of these polemic positions have suggested.

DR: We love nuance, here at the Religious Studies Project, so thank you for taking part!

OC: Thanks for inviting me. It’s been very interesting.

DR: And before we go, I just want to remind the listener to rock hard, rock heavy and rock lobster!

.Citation Info: Coggins, Owen and David G. Robertson. 2018. “’Drone Metal Mysticism”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 16 April 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 10 April 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/drone-metal-mysticism/

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcribing the Religious Studies Project archive, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

The Supernatural and the New Comparativism

Jeffrey J. Kripal tells David G. Robertson about his approach to studying “paranormal” and “supernatural” phenomena.

The conversation begins by explaining how Kripal came to be studying figures like Charles Fort and Whitley Strieber from a background in Hinduism. He then argues for a New Comparativism within the study of religion that will put “the impossible” back on the table again, and encourage a more even conversation between the sciences and the humanities. His suggestion is that we should put consciousness at the centre of studies in religion, suggesting a new approach to the sacred, and opening up new theoretical avenues.

Studying Non-Ordinary Realities, and Religious Studies and the Paranormal.

Sufism is a paradox?

In his interview with the Religious Studies Project, Milad Milani gives a thoughtful overview of the tradition of Sufism, answering big questions such as: what is Sufism, how did it emerge historically (see Milani 2013), and how is it configured in contemporary Western discourses? As Milani astutely indicates at various points throughout the interview, the complexities of Sufism (if one can even speak of Sufism in the singular) make it quite difficult to pin down straightforward answers to these questions. In other words, there is no single set of doctrines and practices that define Sufism as such; there is no single figure, group, or place in which Sufism emerges; and, there are a number of different contexts in which Sufism is being deployed in contemporary discourses. However, by attempting to unpack some of these complex questions Milani provides substantial insight into how the population in general ought to think about Sufism, how scholars can approach the academic study of Sufism, and how Sufism relates to the Islamic tradition as a whole. Perhaps most importantly in my opinion, his continual recognition of the multiplicities of Sufi traditions is critical for the academic study of Sufism insofar as it counters many of the popular narratives of global and universal Sufism, and provides a context for considering the plurality of the Islamic tradition and the contestations that continually constitute it.

As with most discussions of Sufism, the interview begins with the question ‘What is Sufism?’ Milani’s answer is that, primarily, Sufism is a form of Islamic mysticism that emphasizes central aspects of the Islamic tradition and seeks to cultivate an experience of ultimate unity or oneness with the divine. From this definition we can derive two important features of Sufism – one doctrinal and the other practical. In terms of doctrine, this notion of oneness was most clearly elaborated by the twelfth-century Andalusian mystic Ibn al-Arabi who proposed the concept of wahdat al-wujud (‘oneness of being’). The basic premise of this doctrine is that all created things are essentially reflections of God and that therefore God (or Truth – al-Haqq) is present in all things in this world. Today we may call this a kind of pantheism and this affront to the transcendence of the Divine was a main point of tension with normative Islam at the time. However, I highlight this doctrinal component here not because I want to suggest that all Sufis upheld it or interpreted it in precisely the same manner. Instead, I point to it in order to bring out some of the key doctrinal components underlying Sufism because I felt that perhaps too sharp a line was drawn in Milani’s interview between ‘mainstream’ Islam as doctrinal and Sufism as experiential. In other words, there are complex theological doctrines within Sufism, making the doctrinal-experiential differences difficult to render in any straightforward manner.

The second component is the practical dimension, and by that I mean the spiritual techniques for experiencing the divine, which Milani discusses briefly in relation to the ‘aesthetic’ components of Sufism, as well as what might be called the ethical ‘technologies of the self’ (to borrow a term from Foucault). With regard to the former, we have the primary practice of sama’, that is, a ritual practice of ‘audition’ that generally involves the recitation of poetry, the invocation of the names of God (dhikr), and rhythmic bodily movements performed in groups that lead people to an ecstatic experience in which one experiences the dissolution of the self in the face of the Divine (see Frishkopf 1999, Shannon 2006). The actual details of this practice vary greatly across Sufi orders (tariqa), but this is a central practice in much of the Sufi world. In relation to the ethical side, the ethical techniques are critical to Sufism and function not only to develop one’s relationship to the Divine, but also to develop one’s relationship to oneself and one’s community (see Silverstein 2012, Waugh 2008). This practical dimension of ethical Sufism is important because many discussions of Sufism revolve solely around the individual’s relationship to God, a tendency that I heard in Milani’s interview as well. My point, however, is not to criticize him for omitting a discussion of Sufism as an ethical tradition since there is only so much that can be said in such a limited amount of time. Rather, I want to stress that in many ways Sufism is not merely a form of asceticism, i.e., not simply a rejection of the material world, because embedded within the ethical tradition is the need to be involved in an ethical community in order to reach ‘perfection.’

The emphasis on community can then be connected to the formation of Sufi orders called tariqat (sing. tariqa), which in many ways defined classical or medieval Sufism. The tariqa is named after a particular founding saint or ‘friend of God’ (wali Allah) who often gains his/her status through esoteric knowledge, performing miracles (karamat), receiving God’s blessing (baraka), and a spiritual genealogy (silsila) (on sainthood see Ewing 1997, Stauth 2004, Sedgwick 2005). Individuals then enter into discipleship with these types of figures who guide the apprentice along his/her spiritual path, and the group of disciples that enter into this relationship constitute a particular manifestation of the tariqa at a given time, though at any point in history an order can be several generations removed from the founding figure. Some contemporary scholars have argued that, especially in the modern context, the tariqa has ceased to function as it did in the premodern times and that therefore modern Sufism has taken on such a distinct character that it is possible now to speak of ‘Neo-Sufism’ (see Rahman 1979, O’Fahey 1993, and Voll 2008). The details of this debate and the utility of the term aside, it does point to the question of how Sufism articulates with discourses of modernity (see van Bruinessen 2007, Weismann 2003, Johansen 1996). For instance, are Sufi practices and beliefs commensurate with the sensibilities of modern Muslim life, however that might be defined? The relationship between Islam and modernity is a significant question posed by scholars of Islam and I feel that Sufism provides a useful focal point for these studies, but the issue I want to bring into relief here is that discussions of the communal constitution of Sufism are central to how we define Sufism, and therefore an attempt to articulate what Sufism is ought to include the topics of sainthood and tariqa, in addition to individual experience.

While the tendency to think of Sufism as a kind of individualized or more private form of Islam is quite prevalent, the representation of Sufism as a form of ‘peaceful Islam’ or as a ‘solution’ to the ‘problem’ of radical Islam is equally pervasive (see Muedini 2012, Villalon 1994). These conceptions of Sufism are quite popular in the West, but they have also entered the rhetoric of countries like Morocco, for instance, where the government patronizes many Sufi activities as a means to combat the influence of radical Islam in the country. In this context, Sufism is presented as both apolitical and peaceful, and is therefore a non-threatening method for confronting extremism. (An interesting counter-example is contemporary Egypt where the President has actually ordered the closing of Sufi prayer spaces due to supposed connections between Sufi groups and terrorist groups in the country). However, as Milani indicates, many of these formulations of Sufism decontextualize it and overlook the fact Sufi groups have initiated and been intimately involved in various militant movements throughout history. For example, early Sufis were often the ‘frontiersmen’ of Islam, bringing a new religion into hostile territories and were therefore forced to participate in military conquests (see Green 2012). More recently, Sufi leaders sparked many anti-colonial movements and the tariqa system was used as a recruiting mechanism. Examples can be found throughout the Islamic world, but as my own work focuses on the North African context I would point to Algeria, Libya, and Sudan as prime examples of what Milani called ‘militant Sufism’ (see Heck 2007). It is in this sense that I think we can begin to think about Milani’s statement that, “Sufism is a paradox.”

By this phrase I take Milani to mean that Sufism confounds our thought in a number of different ways. It is said to promote peace and tolerance, yet has often been deployed in contexts of violence and militancy. It is claimed to be apolitical and disinterested in worldly affairs, yet Sufi orders have held tremendous economic and political power throughout history (see Cornell 1998). It claims to be Islamic, yet Sufis have continually been criticized as un-Islamic by Muslims. It promotes a kind of universality, yet the myriad forms of Sufism emerged from within specific cultural contexts and retain that cultural character. It is often seen as an esoteric tradition, yet for many centuries was considered ‘popular religion.’ Finally, it emphasizes the individual’s relationship to the Divine, yet this experience is made possible through bodily practices and involvement in a community (for more on the body in Sufism see Kugle 2007, Bashir 2011). These tensions, however, provide incredibly fruitful areas for both historical and ethnographic investigation because it is precisely how individuals and groups navigate these tensions at particular places and times that will enable us to speak about how the different forms of Sufism connect with one another. Such investigations will also give us a better sense of the enduring impact of Sufism on the Islamic landscape as a whole (see de Jong 1999), and allow us to better understand the processes through which visions of normative Islamic identity are constructed.

References

Bashir, Shahzad. Sufi Bodies: Religion and Society in Medieval Islam. New York: Columbia UP, 2011.

van Bruinessen, Martin, and Julia Day Howell (eds). Sufism and the “modern” in Islam. London: I.B. Tauris, 2007.

Cornell, Vincent. Realm of the Saint: Power and Authority in Moroccan Sufism. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998.

Ewing, Katherine Pratt. Arguing Sainthood: Modernity, Psychoanalysis, and Islam. Durham: Duke UP, 1997.

Frishkopf, Michael Aaron. Sufism, Ritual, and Modernity in Egypt: Language Performance as an Adaptive Strategy. PhD dissertation: UCLA, 1999.

Green, Nile. Sufism: A Global History. Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.

Heck, Paul L. Sufism and Politics: The Power of Spirituality. Princeton: Markus Wiener, 2007.

Johansen, Julian. Sufism and Islamic Reform in Egypt: The Battle for Islamic Tradition. Oxford: Clarendon, 1996.

de Jong, Frederick and Berndt Radtke (eds). Islamic Mysticism Contested: Thirteen Centuries of Controversies and Polemics. Leiden: Brill 1999.

Kugle, Scott Alan. Sufis & Saints’ Bodies: Mysticism, Corporeality, & Sacred Power in Islam. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina, 2007.

Milani, Milad. Sufism in the Secret History of Persia. London: Routledge 2013.

Muedini, Fait. “The Promotion of Sufism in the Politics of Algeria and Morocco.” Islamic Africa 3.2 (2012): 201-26.

Sedgwick, Mark. Saints and Sons: The Making and Remaking of the Rashidi Ahmadi Sufi Order, 1799-2000. Leiden: Brill, 2005.

Shannon, Jonathan Holt. Among the Jasmine Trees: Music and Modernity in Contemporary Syria. Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 2006.

Silverstein, Brian. Islam and Modernity in Turkey. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011

Stauth, Georg (ed). On Archaeology and Sainthood and Local Spirituality in Islam. Yearbook of the sociology of Islam. Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag, 2004.

Villalon, Leandro. “Sufi Rituals as Rallies: Religious Ceremonies in the Politics of Senegalese State-Society Relations.” Comparative Politics 26.4 (1994): 415-437.

Waugh, Earle H. Visionaries of Silence: The Reformist Sufi Order of the Demirdashiya Al-Khalwatiya in Cairo. Cairo: AUC Press, 2008.

Weismann, Itzchak. Taste of Modernity: Sufism, Salafiyya, and Arabism in Late Ottoman Damascus. Leiden: Brill, 2001.

Sufism

Like any religious tradition, the Islamic tradition is made up of countless groups and subgroups that interpret, enact, and commit to the materials of their tradition differently. Although focus is often placed on divisions between Sunni and Shi’a communities, one of the most fascinating modalities of belonging within Islam is that of Sufism, all the more interesting because Sufi sensibilities can extend across the full spectrum of Muslim identities. Sufism is often defined as a “mystical” tradition that shares similarities with forms of mysticism from other traditions in the way that in conceptualizes the nature of divinity and the nature of human understanding.

In this interview, Milad Milani discusses the basic orientation and history of Sufi thought. He also speaks about the diverse national variations of Sufism, particularly with respect to Iranian (or “Persianate”) Sufism. The interview concludes with a few critical remarks on the questionable appropriation of Sufism in contemporary Western discourses on religion.

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It’s the Fruits, not the Roots: A Response to Ralph Hood

IMG_1422-1Hood’s approach has no flaws from the standpoint of an observing scientist; but, on the personal level, one may have trouble distinguishing between the cause and the consequence.

It’s the Fruits, not the Roots: A Response to Ralph Hood

By Joshua James, Henderson State University

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 22 May 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Ralph Hood on Mysticism (20 May 2013)

When I began outlining my response to this interview—which is an intriguing psychological look at mystical experience through the filter of one of the most insightful minds dealing with the subject today—I wanted to remain as objective as possible and remove the influence of my personal experience. I found it nearly impossible. One method for addressing the intersection between lived experience and academia is through reflexivity.  In the article, “On Becoming a Qualitative Researcher: the Value of Reflexivity,” by Diane Watt, the author notes the importance of juxtaposing one’s self in relation to their research interest. By the researcher or author stating their worldview (or in some cases bias) the reader has a better understanding of not only the structure of inquiry but also the interpretive frame of the author’s position. In the case of Watt (2007), her experience as a school teacher informed her paradigm of inquiry.

Watt’s argument for reflexivity relaxed my reluctance. Watt kept a journal of her experience and combined her reflexive exploration with quantitative research to construct an academic product with multiple layers of depth in inquiry both in terms her research interests and in self-reflection of perceptions in analysis. Watt found her journal quite helpful: “Through the writing process, I was able to excavate memories of my own classroom practice.” I realized that when I listened to the interview with Ralph Hood, that I had “excavated” memories of my own. Thus I decided that not only would including my first-hand experience be helpful to my argument, it would be ill-advised not to include it, possibly even irresponsible.  This paper is written in relation to my own reflexive experience of understanding mysticism and the profound themes posed by Dr. Ralph Hood’s podcast.

When I first read William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience, a text to which Dr. Ralph Hood refers liberally, I strongly connected with an account given by an agnostic man during a lecture entitled “The Reality of the Unseen.” James identifies him only as “a scientific man of my acquaintance.” A portion of the account follows:

Between twenty and thirty I gradually became more agnostic and irreligious, yet I cannot say that I ever lost that ‘indefinite consciousness’ which Herbert Spencer describes so well, of an Absolute Reality behind phenomena…I had ceased my childish prayers to God, and never prayed to It in a formal manner, yet my more recent experience show me to have been in a relation to It which practically was the same thing as prayer…I know now that it was a personal relation I was in to it, because of late years the power of communicating with it has left me, and I am conscious of a perfectly definite loss.[1]

While at the time of the writing, James’ acquaintance was over twenty years older than the age I am now, his early experience virtually mirrors my own.

I’m a skeptic. However, like the man to whom I refer above, I have, rarely, turned to prayer in times of desperation, and I have always had a sense that there was someone else involved with the world; someone to whom I owed thanks for undeserved good fortune, someone who heard my thoughts, someone who compelled me to feel guilty or embarrassed even when no human could possibly have known the mistake I made. I have had, in spite of my agnosticism, an experience that could be classified as a “mystical experience,” the details of which I shall not go into, but I did experience a degree of transcendence in the sense that I lost emotional control and it seemed as if someone else had this control. It occurred during a period of temporary desperation which prompted me to pray to whom I do not know for the first time since my childhood (which was spent in a Pentecostal church).

Hood makes clear in this interview that what he is interested in, with regard to spiritual experience, is the interpretation of an experience rather than the cause of an experience. That is to say that regardless if one’s spiritual experience occurs during prayer, deep self-reflection, or after swallowing a couple hits of blotter acid, the consequences and interpretation of the experience, usually involving a transcendence or “loss of self,” validates the experience. Hood’s approach has no flaws from the standpoint of an observing scientist; but, on the personal level, one may have trouble distinguishing between the cause and the consequence.

I will refer to my own experience to demonstrate my point. I could interpret my experience as evidence, or even proof, for the more fundamentally-minded reader, of the existence of God, and as confirmation of the validity of the scripture. It could have been the reassurance I had been looking for to readopt my faith.

But because I understand, or more appropriately, believe I understand the cause, my interpretation is different. I neither pretend to be an expert in the field of psychology nor do I deny that the human brain is still a mystery to those who are, but I know enough to know that the brain is powerful. And to know that suggestion is powerful. Therefore, given that I was in a state of desperation and asking an invisible, unknowable presence for a mercy of which I felt unworthy, my brain created the experience. My complexly constructed brain used overtly simple logic to rationalize a scenario where something special had happened to me: I asked someone—and I deeply hoped this someone existed—for something and I had received it, therefore that someone must have given it to me. Furthermore, as I previously stated, I felt undeserving of the mercy I received. Because I felt undeserving, it was natural to feel gratitude, and I don’t think I’m being too presumptuous when I suggest that it is the nature of human mentality to focus our gratitude or blame, anger or affection onto a person, or Supreme Being in this instance.

Make no mistake, Hood’s argument is not lost on me, neither do I disagree with it. Hood would likely argue that whether I had chosen to view the experience as faith-affirming or to view it in terms of Freudian reductionism, the experience occurred and I had interpreted it, therefore the experience is validated. The very fact that it happened makes it real, regardless of its roots. I am simply arguing that the roots are sometimes related to the “fruits,” as William James calls them.

Hood’s approach holds so long as we reject the possibility of objective truth. Take, for instance, the example given in the interview regarding psychedelic drugs. Hood argues that the experience should not be dismissed simply because it was caused by synthetic means, that is to say, only the cause is synthetic, the consequence is very much natural and real. On the one hand, if, while on an acid trip, one realizes through a transcendent experience that he or she has become angry and short-tempered recently, and as a result modifies his or her behavior, then the roots of the experience should not nullify the lesson learned. On the other hand, if, while on an acid trip one has, through a transcendent experience, become convinced whole-heartedly of the existence of God, then the validity could be called into question. Hood would argue that if one arrives at this conclusion through mystical experience, it should not be dismissed simply because the cause was hallucinogenic drugs rather than prayer. To his point, if one gained this same certainty through experience caused by other means, I would lend it no more validity; but, it becomes more difficult to distinguish the cause from the consequence.

Despite the rejection of my childhood religion, I have always wanted for the supernatural world of heaven and spirits to exist. The fact I want to believe only adds to my skepticism; I wish there was a heaven, therefore it becomes easier to convince me it is so, and thus I remain wary. If you have ever watched an episode of Ghost Hunters on the Syfy network and seen how disappointed people appear when they discover that their house is not haunted, then you understand what I mean. People would rather be in danger than be wrong, and we would choose almost anything over being alone and insignificant. If we have a heaven, or even a suggestion that there is something after death, say a spiritual experience, then we do not have to fear the loneliness of death. For centuries, the West believed unquestioningly that God created the Earth and all the plants and creatures specifically for us and that it was the center of the entire universe. This arrogant insistence upon being special has been deeply embedded in our collective unconscious for some time. The discoveries made along the road to the present were increasingly more difficult to deal with until we finally became the most dominant animal on one of many billions of rocks in a universe too big for us to even begin to measure. It is no surprise we want to believe. Thus even today any experience of some transcendence must be interpreted as special conversation between the individual and God himself, or whatever entity or realm in which one believes.

For Hood, my cynical interpretation only proves his point: the consequence of the experience is all that matters; the religious among us will interpret it religiously, and the non-religious among us will interpret it non-religiously. A spiritual world exists because people continue to experience it. It is a post-modern and pragmatic philosophy, and it serves him well. Take Hood’s and Paul Williamson’s work with the Lazarus Project for example. The addicts replace the drug experience with a spiritual experience, and if it benefits them, who could question its validity. And of course, if someone manages to reveal the spiritual world to be an objective part of the natural world, it will undoubtedly be discovered through the mythological agnostic approach used by scientists like Ralph Hood who refused to be limited by presumptions.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author

IMG_1422-1Joshua James is in graduate school at Henderson State, Master of Liberal Arts with an emphasis in social science in progress. He received his B.A., major in History from Henderson also, and has worked in the restaurant business for years. Recently he has become passionate about writing and just this semester has taken an interest in journalism, something I never attempted as an undergrad.

References

  • James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience. New York: Penquin, 1982.
  • Watt, Diane. “On Becoming a Qualitative Researcher: The Value of Reflexivity.” The Qualitative Report. 12 (2007): 82-101.

[1] William James. The Varieties of Religious Experience. (New York: Penguin, 1982), 64-5.

Ralph Hood on Mysticism

HoodRalph2012_10One of the primary interests of scholars and researchers from diverse academic disciplines has been in exploration of mysticism. Mysticism has been observed within a variety of traditions and philosophies from Neo-Platonism to Hinduism and Christianity. Mysticism as a field of study is pregnant with possibilities for academic inquiry, both cross-disciplinary and discipline specific. The field of psychology is one of those disciplines which have sought to explore the richness of individual claims of mystical experience. This has been done with theoretical depth and methodological sophistication and is centralized within a variety of tools of empirical inquiry.

The study of mysticism necessitates addressing issues of ontology and epistemology, relating to the methodological processes for studying direct personal experiences. Within the psychological perspective, some of these concerns are mediated through what both Porpora (2006) and Hood, Hill and Spika (2009) describe as methodological agnosticism. While Silver (2011) argues that there is no such thing as true objectivity in research, certainly academics and researchers can strive for a post-positivist paradigm of objectivity where they attempt to remove bias and subjectivity from their research or hermeneutic inquiry.

While there is plenty of hermeneutic and observational potential in the study of Mysticism, more needs to be done in exploration of the experiential and psychological correlates related to personal experiences. Dr. Ralph W. Hood Jr. has extensive experience in the field of psychology of religion and particularly in the study of mysticism and mystical experience. As an early pioneer in the renaissance of the field of psychology of religion, Hood’s work is extensive and prolific exploring a variety of research topics in the social sciences of religion. Moreover, much of his collaborative work extends beyond the field of psychology to include sociology, religious studies, medicine, and a variety of other disciplines in the social scientific study of religion. In this week’s podcast, Chris SIlver is joined by Ralph Hood to discuss in detail his work on mysticism and the benefits and disadvantages of this academic exercise.

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HoodRalph2012_10

Ralph W. Hood Jr. is professor of psychology at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. He is a former editor of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, and former co-editor of the Archive for the Psychology of Religion and The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion.  He is a past president of division 36 (psychology of religion) of the American Psychological Association and a recipient of its William James, Mentor, and Distinguished Service awards. He has published over 200 articles in the psychology of religion and has authored, co-authored, or edited numerous book chapters and eleven books, all dealing with the psychology of religion.

References

  • Hood, R.W., P.C. Hill, and B. Spilka. (2009). The psychology of religion: An empirical approach. 4th ed. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
  • Porpora, D. V. (2006). Methodological atheism, methodological agnosticism and religious experience. Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior, 36, 57–75.
  • Silver, C. F. (2011). Psychology and Religion: Explorations in paradigm, theory, and method. In Weathington, B. L., Cunningham,  C. J. L., O’Leary, B. J., & Biderman, M. D. (Eds.), Applied Psychology in Everyday Life (pp. 71-107). Newcastle upon Tyne, United Kingdom: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.