Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Prophet, Sage, and Shaman

A Taxonomies for Religions Post

In the last post, I noted Chaotic Shiny’s
Religion Generator and the sorts of fields it gave describing the religions it generated. A number of these involve its clergy, and what they do. For instance, clergy might be community leaders, spiritual protectors, healers of the sick, judges, inquisitors, or a connection to spirits and the deceased; they may be monastic, celibate, or rich; and they might study to become clergy, be raised from birth for the role, or elected by the people.

Looking at a religion’s religious specialists is not a bad way of getting a quick handle on some of the deeper orientations of a religion. In my undergraduate program I took a course on the Religions of Native Peoples, and the professor described the Prophet-Sage distinction often made between Western and Eastern religions. Western religions, the story goes, have prophets, who receive divine wisdom from above; Eastern religions have sages, who look within to achieve enlightenment. On a more immediate level, Western religions have priests (or rabbis, or imams) who mediate or facilitate the people’s relationship with a higher being; Eastern religions have monks (or gurus, or masters) who guide people as they look within, whether they look for emptiness, the Way, or God. Indigenous religions tend not to have either prophets or sages, she went on to observe, but shamans, who communicate and negotiate with the spirits around the community. The different roles the clergy perform in relation to the divine or the spiritual reflect a fundamental orientation on the part of the religion as a whole: prophet-based religions look upward, sage-based religions look inward, and shaman-based religions look around them.* Those are the directions they look because that is where they expect to find reality, or the part of reality that is not accessible through more mundane means.

It strikes me as interesting that role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons contains some sense of this distinction when it offers cleric, shaman, and monk classes, as though its creators had some intuitive (or explicit?) sense of these distinctions. One of the other notable divine classes, the paladin, is an especially interesting addition: a religious specialist who is not so much clergy as a guardian of the faith. (To clarify, I think of barbarians as primal paladins: guardians not for the guards but for the spirits.) I’m still not quite sure what to make of the paladin: it seems almost like the mundane dimension of religion.

Of course, there are problems with this framework. First, not all sages are alike, as not all prophets are alike and not all shamans are alike. A Hindu guru, a Buddhist monk, and a Daoist priest expect to find very different things when they meditate. Second, and more importantly, traditions rarely have only one type of religious specialist. Christianity, for instance, has had its share of monks and mystics who look within for God—Teresa of Avila comes to mind—while Buddhism has its share of priests making petitions to the bodhisattvas. Alexis Seniantha was a Christian shaman, using Dene Tha’ dreaming to receive messages from God; dispute Seniantha’s orthodoxy or authenticity if you like, but the point stands that Christianity as a sociological phenomenon has occasionally had shamans. Moreover, I might suggest that exorcists and others talking about spiritual warfare operate as a mix of priest and shaman. Meanwhile, shamanic traditions have had prophets and a number of their practices bear a resemblance to meditation. So, first, we cannot stop with these roles when looking at a religion and, second, it would perhaps be more helpful to identify which kind of religious specialist is most prevalent in a tradition, and then identify the extent to which the others play a role.

Of course, a final consideration is what role religious specialists even play within the religion. For some religions, clergy are central: Roman Catholicism, for instance, requires ordained priests for most sacraments. The Baptist churches, however, talk of the priesthood of all believers, arguing that Christ fulfils the priest’s role of mediating between God and the believer; clergy perform many of the same functions as Roman Catholic priests, but do so on behalf of the congregants. But I think a clearer example might be the distinction between Inuit and Dene traditions. Inuit traditions rely heavily on a shaman (or angakok) to mediate with the spirit world; the Dene have no specialized religious profession, however, and all Dene are expected to engage in some level of shamanic activity (such as dreamwalking).** A shamanhood of all practitioners, I suppose.

There are of course lots of other fine distinctions between religious specialists, worth looking into. For instance, Max Weber distinguishes priests from prophets: priest’s claim to authority comes from his service to the sacred tradition, such as ordination and the maintenance of rituals; the prophet’s claim to authority comes from revelation and personal charisma. Priests, according to Talcott Parsons, tend to maintain the status quo and stabilize society, while prophets tend make religion a force for dynamic social change. In the view of Victor W. Turner, prophets are in fact more like shamans than like priests, since prophets, shamans, and mediums all perform ceremonies on an occasional basis, according to needs that arise, and all communicate with the divine or spiritual directly, while priests perform ceremonies according to a calendar and communicate with the divine or spiritual through ritual or ceremonial language. So that might be another distinction: occasional versus calendrical ceremonies, and static versus dynamic. And while these divisions would seem to suggest something about the religious tradition itself, they might say more about the particular religious specialist and the particular community they serve within that religion.

When making this chart, I first tried to use examples of actual religions and religious sects, and I ran into a serious problem: I felt like most of my assessments were unfair. In particular, I wanted to put Roman Catholicism and Baptist churches under Static rather than Dynamic, but I recalled that certain of the Baptist churches were incredible forces for change in the United States during the 50s and 60s; Martin Luther King Jr. was a Baptist preacher, after all, and to divorce his politics from his religion would seriously mischaracterize both. Similarly, nuns and laywomen from the Roman Catholic Church have played significant roles fostering peace and resisting military regimes in Latin America and, again, to divorce their religion and their activism would mischaracterize both. Furthermore, trying to assess this for something like Daoism or Buddhism proved difficult because 1) I knew perfectly well that there have been multiple kinds of both and 2) I knew perfectly well that I knew neither well enough to make an accurate assessment. So I used fictional examples in the interests of not misrepresenting anyone real. But my inability to use this chart for its stated purpose is an important warning: such attempts at classification work better for a well-defined subject (black Baptist churches in the United States in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s) and a subject about which you are relatively knowledgeable. Questions are great—really, questions are very important—but you need to think about how to address them in responsible ways, too.


* And, indeed, it might be more accurate to cut to the chase and stick with prophet-based, sage-based, and shaman-based rather than rely on generalized geographic or demographic designations.
** This is according to the religious studies professor mentioned above.
† These are all from Game of Thrones.



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