Am stuck in airport on the way back from Colorado. Massive flight delays today. I want to take a moment, though, to note an interesting conversation I had in Boulder.
On the bus north from the Denver Airport, I sat next to a clean-cut young white guy, maybe in his early 30s, who was well dressed, in a business casual way. Turns out he was a trained shaman transitioning to a real estate career. “Six months ago, I had hair down to my waist,” he said. It turned out that his Indian spiritual master told him to leave the reservation and return to the world, and take up a normal career. “That is your path,” he quoted the old man saying.
Turns out this guy had spent many years in South America, studying in various shamanic traditions. He knows a lot about ethnobotany. I could have talked to him all day. The conversation was deeply fascinating. At one point I lad my cards on the table, and told him I was an Orthodox Christian, and though I very much disagree with his metaphysical and spiritual take on the world, I do agree with him about the profound mystery of our existence. I tell you, this neopagan was in some ways talking like an Athonite monk.
“You cannot put God, or reality, in a box,” he said. “You just can’t. So many people figure if you can’t prove it, or can’t conceive of it, it doesn’t exist. I don’t even argue with those people. It’s fine with me if they think this way. I know that’s not true, because I have experienced so many things.”
And he told me about some of those things. Here’s the part that stays with me, two days later: he said that most people in the Western world simply do not believe that matter can be charged with spirit. He talked about some of the things he had experienced living in shamanic communities overseas that proved otherwise. He knew very little about Christianity, because he grew up mostly overseas, and seemed surprised when I talked to him about what Orthodox Christianity teaches, and about classical (pre-modern) Christian metaphysics. It’s not the same thing as shamanism, not by a long stretch. But strangely enough, a traditional Christian would have more in common with this shamanistic wayfarer who looks like a real estate salesman than he would with most modern Westerners.
It puts me in mind of this C.S. Lewis quote:
The christening of Europe seemed to all our ancestors—whether as themselves Christians they welcomed it, or like Gibbon deplored it as humanistic unbelievers—a unique, irresistible, irreversible event. But we’ve seen the opposite process. Of course, the unchristening of Europe in our time is not quite complete. Neither was her christening in the Dark Ages. But roughly speaking we may say, that while as all history was for our ancestors divided into two periods, the pre-Christian and the Christian, for us it falls into three, the pre-Christian, the Christian, and what may reasonably be called the post-Christian.
This surely must make a momentous difference. I’m not here considering either the christening or the un-christening at all from a theological point of view. I’m thinking of them simply as cultural changes. And when I do that, it seems to me that the un-christening is an even more radical change than the christening. Christians and pagans had much more in common with each other than either has with the post-Christian. The gap between those who worshipped different gods is not so wide as that between those who worship and those who don’t.…
I find it a bit hard to have patience with all those Jeremiahs in press or pulpit who warn us that we are relapsing into paganism. What lurks behind such prophecies, if they are anything but careless language, is the false idea that the historical process allows simple reversal, that Europe can come out of Christianity by the same doors she went in, and find herself back where she was. That isn’t the sort of thing that happens. A post-Christian man is not a pagan. You might as well think that a married woman recovers her virginity by divorce. The post-Christian is cut off from the Christian past and therefore doubly from the pagan past.…
What that young man and I have in common is the conviction that the material world is not all there is. That living is an encounter with mystery. That most people, for whatever reason, cultivate deadness to that mystery, and to grace. Why? I didn’t ask him for his opinion, but my sense is that it frightens them.
I wish I had thought to share with the shaman on the bus this quote from Russell Kirk, which speaks for me:
I did not love cold harmony and perfect regularity of organization; what I sought was variety, mystery, tradition, the venerable, the awful. I despised sophisters and calculators; I was groping for faith, honor, and prescriptive loyalties. I would have given any number of neo-classical pediments for one poor battered gargoyle.