Jesus the cosmic shaman for our times
In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus says: “I have cast fire upon the world, and look, I’m guarding it until it blazes.” This is what it means for the global collective to be baptised by fire, and Christ — beyond the dimension of time and space — is guarding us still as we finally awaken into rapturous flame.
The Gospel of Thomas is one of the so-called non-canonical gnostic gospels discovered near Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in 1945. It contains the ‘hidden’ or esoteric sayings of Jesus.
Above: Baptism of Christ by David Zelenka
W When Jesus anointed during his healing ministry, he didn’t use ceremonial perfumed oils but something quick to hand and always available. Jesus used his own spit. It’s a shamanic image, the Nazarene wandering the shores of Galilee with his motley band of followers, initiating and sanctifying any willing soul with his own saliva.
Christ, of course, means, ‘the anointed one’. It’s a title that became a name and then a promise. Until then, anointment in the ancient world was reserved for recognized kings and prophets. The image of Jesus smearing his spit on the foreheads of any wiling soul is charged with a universally inclusive spirit (catholic in the true sense).
The over-sentimentalised image of Jesus is in stark contrast to the initiate who came to John the Baptist on the banks of the Jordan river. John himself comes across as a wild man of the desert. Dressed in a camel-hair coat and subsisting on a diet of honey and locusts, John the Baptist is a frightening figure for anyone invested in comfort and safety.
John, in the same vein as a shaman, stands on the fringes of society. Neither can afford to be seduced by its trappings, which dull the faculties that allow them to perceive beyond time and space.
While John baptised with water, he foretold of the one who would baptise by holy spirit and fire. These are men tuned into the elemental forces of nature. In the same shamanic spirit, nature is called upon as a eucharistic sacrament in its own right: our blood is the water, our bones the rock, our sinew the gathering vine, our breath the spirit that animates all living things. When John baptises Jesus, about to become as much shaman as preacher, he offers the ritual bridge into the upper world, and the upper world descends into Jesus.
As non-dual teacher Adyashanti writes in Resurrecting Jesus: Embodying the spirit of a revolutionary mystic, this is the moment of his awakening. When John baptises people he takes them to the mythic boundary between the ordinary and non-ordinary worlds. “But the one who’s coming after him — the one who turns out to be Jesus — is the one who can pull them through, because he lives on the other side of that imagined boundary,” Adyashanti writes. “John shows the way, but Jesus is the way.”
James Tissot: Français : Jésus tenté dans le désert English: Jesus Tempted in the Wilderness (between 1886 and 1894).
Insiders and outsiders is a theme in the life of Jesus. The best critiques of embedded systems come from outsiders. If we are alienated from that dominant system, we have no investment in sustaining its illusions. That’s why the meek inherit the Earth, and blessed are the poor. Outsiders are ‘chosen’ to carry the message. Outsiders are anointed with spit on the salt-cracked shore of the Galilee.
“I have come to set the world on fire, and I wish it were already burning!” Jesus declares in Luke (12:49). The motif of fire symbolizes total transformation, not incremental change. This is a man who came to tear down the established order. To reduce him to a rule-maker, a moral custodian, is to fail to catch fire ourselves. To reduce him to a healer is to mistake the means for the end. Tricksters can do magic, but miracles are of a different order altogether.
Shamanism offers a lens through which Jesus is freed from the projected limitations that keep us comfortable.
This Jesus is the cosmic shaman, who sees beyond and through and abides where others can only visit. His 40 days and nights in the desert was a vision quest that set him upon a new momentum. He travelled to the upper world to see how his story ended and he said yes. He travelled to the lower world where he was tempted by the devils of power and fear, and his yes never wavered. That is the same affirmation being asked of us, as we face our own temptations to certainty and control in the face of inexorable global change.
It takes an outsider with no inherited loyalty to the system to open our eyes to what has been here all along — both inside and outside. Inside is the “kingdom of heaven”; outside were the priestly cast trading in the holy. The money-changers at the temple were a precursor to the Church of the Middle Ages selling indulgences for the remission of sins. That’s a good scam: selling tickets to heaven. The most radical messages of Jesus were either misunderstood or misappropriated.
Cecco del Caravaggio: Christ driving the money–changers from the Temple.
When Jesus encounters a possessed man, who the people had tried and failed to tie down and who cries at night among the tombs, cutting himself with stones, he orders the “unclean spirit” out of him. First, though, he asks the man his name, and gets a surprising answer: “My name is Legion: for we are many.” Regardless of whether these many spirits were aspects of a fractured psyche, or demons or entities, I believe Legion represents the dangers of group think: when the sovereignty — and responsibilities — of one is subsumed by the collective mind.
When we give up our right to think critically, question the assumptions on which culture is grounded, and dehumanise those “others” who don’t share the same worldview, insiders becomes a pathological category. Through exorcism, Jesus exercises and then surpasses the key responsibility of the shaman. He restores the individual to their true nature and thereby brings harmony back to the group or community; because the one and the many are inseparable.
In modern Western culture, the priestly cast have been replaced by spin doctors, ideologues, technocrats and media machines, still selling indulgences; still selling security where there is none.
This mass seduction into group think veils a collective will not to see. We might call this sorcery, and the great feat of Western sorcery is to have made the process autonomic: we don’t need to be ‘attacked’ by demons to give up our sovereignty, to lose our sight, when we have already internalized the dynamic. Like a disease, it has become auto-aggressive.
Lest this sound at odds with our modern sensibilities, we might remember that superstition belongs to the unconscious where the stain of our original uncleanness dwells. Scarcity begins with believing there’s not enough God to go around; domesticating God through law-making and feeble morality. Then we’re always behind the game, trying to prove our worth through acquisition and status and one-upmanship over the many. Then we cling to failing systems as if our lives depend on them. We are blinded to where our original goodness got perverted to prop up a system of constant craving.
In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus says: “I have cast fire upon the world, and look, I’m guarding it until it blazes.” That’s a promise. If we have been convinced that we are free, we will defend the same system that shackles us. No need to watch for rebellion, when repression has gone in-house. Jesus came to unmask the false powers, within and without. In our world today, the embers have burst into flame.
A pencil illustration by Spencer Alexander McDaniel that was started on 26 April 2020 and completed on 7 May 2020. It depicts the scene from the Gospel of Mark 5:1-20 in which Jesus exorcizes many demons from a man at a location described as “the country of the Gerasenes”.
The last true outsider
The shamanic world is full of light and dark magic, and what can heal can just as easily cripple. The gift of healing power itself is impersonal. Jesus never confuses its source with his identity. When he warns against “false prophets”, it includes those who abuse the gifts of charisma, those who trade in doom, and the medicine of the non-ordinary realm, for their own ends.
All neat categories are confounded in the shamanic realm, which, to the uninitiated, is truly a wilderness.
Even among the disciples there are insiders and outsiders, those ready for wisdom that will explode the pillars of their understanding, and those who are not. As Thomas says, after being given some esoteric knowledge privately by Jesus: “If I tell you one of the sayings he spoke to me, you will pick up rocks and stone me, and fire will come from the rocks and devour you.”
Mary Magdalene was the insider who became history’s outsider. It’s from Mary’s gospel that Cynthia Bourgeault poses the stunning hypothesis that Mary, firmly in the visionary realm, accompanied Jesus through the bardo states after his crucifixion where he encountered the seven realms of power. The Gospel of Mary Magdalene states: “These are the seven powers of wrath and demand of the soul, ‘Where do you originate, man-slayer? Where do you think you’re going, space-conqueror?” (8:19-20)
Jacopo Tintoretto (1519-1594): The Descent into Hell
Man-slayer? Space-conqueror? These terms derive from the mythic traditions of the hero’s journey to the underworld and the Near Eastern shamanic traditions of the time, writes Bourgeault in The Meaning of Mary Magdalene: Discovering the woman at the heart of Christianity. “The powers recognise him as a sky walker: one who has transcended the conditions of physical space and time and healed the sickness of humanity by going to its roots,” she writes.
In this and other reckonings, Jesus descends into the realm of the dead — the so-called “harrowing of hell” — in order to plant the cosmic seed of love at the deepest level of the collective unconscious and remove forever the stain of unworthiness. He knew the task and what was coming. That’s why he likened himself to Jonah who was in the belly of the whale for three days and nights.
In the “grave of the Earth” Jesus addresses the original mistake, the error in perception about who we are, at its source. The stakes couldn’t be higher.
Right from the start, Jesus didn’t fit the mould. The prophesied messiah broke all the rules, including the ones about how prophecies work. He showed that the role of the anointed one is to embody the prophecy as a dynamic, living story and field. That’s how he tore up the fatalistic template and started anew. Jesus could have talked himself out of the crucifixion, but at the critical hour refused to yield his sovereignty not just to the political and religious authority structures, but the whole broken apparatus of action and reaction.
“[The kingdom] will not come by watching for it. It will not be said, ‘Look, here! Or ‘Look, there!’ Rather, the Father’s kingdom is spread out upon the earth, and people don’t see it,” Jesus says, again in the Gospel of Thomas. It is by training our focus on the Real, while the many permutations of the unreal bid for our loyalty, our outrage, and our fear, that the ‘kingdom’ becomes visible.
Jesus did not die for our sins, but offered his life as the template of redemption in an act of self-emptying generative love. Symbols speak to the unconscious directly, and address patterning at their root cause. By “defeating death”, Christ affirms the immortality of our souls and resolves both the horizontal and vertical planes of opposites. He becomes the universal human, the homo luminous of our collective dreaming and a field of original virtue itself.
Now Jesus is doing the work of a meta shaman, though that name is barely sufficient; he’s transcended all categories, collapsed the many into the one. He has become the last true outsider and mashiah, king of the world, because he set humanity on an entirely new foundation. Christ exorcises the division between all outsiders and insiders on a pyre of flame. This is what is means to be baptised by fire, and Christ – beyond the dimension of time and space — is guarding us still as we finally awaken into rapturous blaze. This Cosmic Christ abolishes all opposites, throws open the doors of all institutions to living spirit, ends both cyclical and linear time. He is the Alpha and the Omega, and the end of history.