A Reflection on Spirit Animals in Advent

I keep thinking about the San rock paintings we were privileged to see a couple of weeks ago.

Of all the images painted there, the most dramatic, to me, were those of the San shaman becoming an eland, “empowering himself,” as our guide put it, with the spirit of the eland, the most important and powerful animal in the shaman’s world.

The shaman metamorphosed into the eland, bearing the eland’s hooves, horns, and fur.

I’m intrigued by these images because of their beauty, the immediacy and intimacy of glimpsing up close what was so meaningful to people who were here before me, and the strangeness, to me, of the idea of trying to take an animal’s power into oneself.

After all, I get to see on a regular basis the opposite: an animal’s power over a human.

Grace and her spirit animal. Through focus and cuteness she is able to capture and direct the human’s ability to scratch the places she is unable to reach by herself.

Okay, our affection for Grace and her hold on us does not correspond directly with the San shaman and the eland. But part of the fun of visiting with Grace is trying to imagine what she’s thinking and trying to tell us. And because of our affection for her, we do try to give her what she wants (not food and not letting her into our cottage, because neither of those things would please her owners). She doesn’t take our power, but we do find it hard to resist her when she wants a good belly rub.

So, besides being beautiful, intriguing, and mysterious, what can we say about the San shamans’ paintings from the point of view of a religious experience? That is, the paintings are not just art, they were part of a religious ritual, an attempt to do something religiously by the people who painted them. Are they simply quaint? Strange? Misguided? Or, from a different point of view, tapping into something we’re missing out on?

One of the fun and wonderful things about living with Joe Pagano is I get to learn from what he’s reading and writing. He mentioned in an earlier post that he is working on a book project on “Anglican Approaches to the Theology of Religions.” He’s just written a section about B.F. Westcott (1825-1901) and his “fulfillment” theology of religion.

Joe writes: “The central theme of Christian faith for Westcott is the incarnation. The union of God with humanity, and through Jesus’ humanity, with all of creation, is the central affirmation of the Gospel and the crowning response to all the yearnings of history, science, and religion. In his study of the world’s religions, Westcott sees a common desire for harmony with God, humanity, and the whole of creation. He writes [in Gospel of Life, 1892–note the date in case his language throws you], ‘All point to a harmony of being as the final aim towards which man reaches out as born for religion, and which religions seek to represent in some partial and yet intelligible form. Even the rudest demon-worship contains the germ of this feeling by which the worshipper seeks to be at one with some power which is adverse to him. It is a witness to something in man by which he is naturally constituted to feel after a harmonious fellowship with all that of which he is conscious, with the unseen, and with the infinite, no less than with the seen and the material.'”

In other words, BF Westcott might appreciate the shaman’s desire for “a harmony of being . . . this feeling by which the worshipper seeks to be at one with some power which is adverse to him.” He could see in the paintings a witness to people’s “desire for harmony with God, humanity, and the whole of creation.” And desire expressed not just in the sense of a heartfelt longing, but of people going to great lengths, taking action, for union with a power greater than themselves.

Westcott believed that the incarnation “completes and crowns the aspirations in a way that is also unique and new.”

Westcott wrote a commentary on John’s Gospel and reflects on the meaning of the “Word,” or Logos, from John 1, about whom we hear in the Gospel for Christmas Day, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:1-5, NRSV).

Joe writes: “Westcott’s reflections on the Logos’s relation to creation and the Logos’s manifestations in history begin to spell out the assumptions of his theology of religions.

“First, the Logos is the agent and the quickening presence of creation. All things have a relationship to the Logos through his creative activity and living presence.

“Second, the Logos is the life and light of all people both prior to the incarnation and after the incarnation. As Westcott says, the claim that the Logos was the life and light of all people ’embraces the experience of Judaism and Heathendom, of pre-Christian and post-Christian times. The truth which found its most signal fulfillment in the historical Presence of Christ, was established in various ways both before and after it.’

“Third, the light that shines in the darkness is not to be limited to any one time or place. Rather, as Westcott says, the light ‘is continuous from the creation to the consummation of things, though there have been times when it has flashed forth with peculiar splendor.’ Human beings ‘were not left alone to interpret the manifestations of the Light in the Life around them and in them. The Light from whom that Life flows made Himself known more directly. From the first He was (so to speak) on His way to the world, advancing towards the Incarnation by preparatory revelations.’

“And finally, the incarnation is the crowing revelation of the Logos, which completes all previous revelations. As Westcott says, ‘The announcement of the mystery of the Incarnation, embracing and completing all the mysteries of revelation, corresponds . . . to the declaration of the absolute Being of the Word in v. 1 ‘He was God;’ and ‘He became flesh’, eternity and time, the divine and the human, are reconciled in Him. ‘He was with God; and ‘He tabernacled among us: ‘the divine existence is brought into a vital and historical connexion with human life. ‘He was in the beginning;’ and ‘we beheld His glory:’ He who ‘was’ beyond time was revealed for a space to the observation of men.’

“In a remarkable reflection on John 14:6, where Jesus says, ‘I am the way, the truth and he light, no one comes to the Father except through me,’ we can see Westcott’s fulfillment theology of religions taking form. Recall, John 14 is one of the biblical passages most often cited in support of exclusive Christian claims that people of other faiths cannot be saved. But looked at
through the lens of Westcott’s Logos theology it looks different. As Westcott writes, ‘It is only through Christ that we can, though in God (Acts xvii 28) apprehend God as Father and so approach the Father. The proposition probably marks the agent (comp. i 3, 10, 17; I John iv, 9); but it is possible that Christ may represent himself as his ‘door’ (x, 1, 9). It does not follow that everyone that is guided by Christ is directly conscious of his guidance.’

“Kenneth Cracknell says of this passage, ‘The last sentence was to prove seminal for Anglican thought on the significance of other religions, for the idea that the guidance of Christ need not be ‘conscious’ functions as undergirding for all ‘inclusive’ Logos Christology when it is used to make sense of the faith of people who are not Christians.’ Westcott’s incarnational theology was foundational for the development of inclusive Anglican approaches to the world’s religions.”

I’m showing my colors as an inclusive Anglican when I express my appreciation for Westcott’s respect for the San shamans’ desire for harmony with the divine and the power present in creation and his idea that the incarnation “completes and crowns” human aspirations in a way that is unique and new.

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