“Spirit is the life that itself cuts life.” This Nietzchean statement puzzles and challenges. What might a spirituality that cuts life -- rather than just skimming over its surface -- look like?
Spirit is More than Property
In the first article for this blog I mentioned the Löwenmensch, a 32-35,000 year old mammoth tusk carving found in Germany. Archaeologists assembled this beautiful statuette of a lion-headed human from hundreds of fragments. And in recent years it has become the eye of a storm of debate about the gender politics of Stone Age shamanism.
Although heavily critiqued in the last forty years, the notion that Europe's first human denizens were socially and spiritually matriarchal is still popular. Some proponents of this view argue that the Löwenmensch is in fact a female, not a male. And inferring from this theory, a few of them have gone so far as to argue that shamanic practice in the distant European past was practiced exclusively by women.
This is an incredibly strained inference. To make a statement about thousands of years of spiritual culture based on a theory about the gender of a single archaeological find seems rather farfetched. After all, though it seems likely, we cannot even really know if it held a religious significance to its makers. Nor can we know whether it was in any way representative of broader trends or patterns, being as it is a unique find.
In any case, new fragments of the statue have recently come to light. It is possible that with more repairs, a definitive answer about the statue’s gender will emerge. At first, this might seem like a satisfactory way of solving the controversy about the spiritual practices of Europe circa 32,000 years ago.
But regardless of the statue's actual gender (how funny it would be if it were neuter or hermaphrodite!), I think all sides of the debate share a subtle assumption: that spirituality is property, to be owned only by men, or women, or whatever. I'm going to question that notion, because it is common even among supposedly liberal-minded sorts.
When we see spirituality as property, two things occur. First, we assign ourselves the right to speak, decide, and control. Our opinion – regardless of plausibility – becomes a vehicle of domination. In expressing it we seal off the possibility of uncertainty, of discovery. We become the redoubtable defenders of Truth and abandon the hesitation and curiosity that characterize reverence.
Secondly, we pass over the meaning of the forms and trappings of spirit; we conceal the very thing we claim to be defending. In losing ourselves in a likely irresolvable debate about the gender of the Löwenmensch – and by implication about who has more “right” to shamanic practice, men or women – we cease to put before ourselves the real question: “how can this artifact deepen our existence?”
As I see it, the trappings of spirituality – symbols, art, tools, stories – are a door. What lies beyond that door? Experiences which confound, renew, and transform our lives. They often upset our carefully assembled self-images, and they often lead us in directions much more positive than anything we might have thought of for ourselves. Spiritual experience is wonderful but also dangerous; in many ways it is fortunate that it dwells beyond the door of spiritual trappings.
Unfortunately, when we reduce spirituality to the state of property – something we can own, fight over, dominate, exclude others from sharing – we also block ourselves from stepping through the door those trappings provide. In fact, all too often we risk worshiping the door as though it were an end in itself and not a means. This, to make a very crude sketch, is why much of organized Christianity has entered a slow decline.
But! You say. What about self-important white people ripping off traditional cultures? Surely you're not saying that Native Americans, for example, should just lie down and let their heritage be watered down by materialistic and humorless outsiders?
Reducing spirituality to property may cut us off from accessing its riches. But we still need to preserve the integrity of the doors through which spiritual experience is accessed. It is probably a mistake to make sweeping statements about shamanic practice on the basis of the gender of a single archaeological find. But that doesn't mean we can ignore the context of the culture that produced the artifact in question. In fact, it emphasizes the importance of that very circumspection.
In other words, the forms and trappings of spirituality are not truly opposed to the experience of the same. They are a necessary facilitator; they in-form our experience. If we think we can get far without respect for forms then at best we’ll be humbled. At worst we’ll stumble about ignorantly, getting more and more mired in foolishness even as we think ourselves more and more profound.
In recent years the “anything goes” mantra of spiritual practice has become widespread, and in some respects this is a good thing. But it easily lets us forget that a little discipline can paradoxically be liberating. Without a sheltering context for our spirituality – without the doors and houses of tradition, research, self-education – there is little enough for us to grasp, to ground the volatility of our experience. There is no point traveling to the Otherworld for wisdom if we do not have a structure for crystallizing that wisdom on our return.
These debates, of course, are rife in contemporary Heathenry, and there is plenty of confusion circulating about them. The fear that historically-grounded research will destroy spontaneity of expression is widespread. Yet in my experience, individuals who try to keep themselves “free” of the “oppression” of traditional forms often suffer a lack of texture and depth to the spiritual work they do. The forms pull us out of habituation; they want us to step through them.
If that is so, why is it that spirituality is so often reduced to the status of property to be haggled over? Because religion (meant in its widest sense) contains two possibilities: it can liberate us and it can shackle us. After centuries of materialism progressively expanding across human culture, it is very hard not to secretly carry reductive prejudices into our spiritual life, and this makes the danger of the property mentality more pressing.
Yet there is also a deeper reason. As I have alluded, on the other side of the door of spiritual tradition await experiences which threaten our egos. Which threaten to confront us with mystery, with the all-pervasive limits of our power and consciousness.
This is scary. It is what Nietzsche means when he says that “spirit is the life that itself cuts life.” Spirit is not always cuddly or safe. It is often exhilarating and frightening. In the face of this amoral power we are tempted to cling to what seems solid. Thus we are tempted to reduce spirituality to the status of property alone.
If there is a place for the objectification of spiritual trappings, it awaits for us on our return from voyaging through the door. Coming back from the liminal realms, we can seek to invest worldly things with new meanings. Mementos and reminders of the experience of needed truths. In other words, we can only redeem our objectification of spirituality by first surpassing the objectifying will.
It might seem that these considerations coil around one another, like the loops of the World Serpent. They do. Human experience – and spirituality especially – is an endless hall of self-referring mirrors. We need to be careful in our treatment of evocative symbols like the Löwenmensch, the living significance of which can easily be buried beneath endless clutching and empty conviction.
So what do I think? Is the lion-headed figure a male or a female? Regardless of the answer, I hardly think it tells us much about just who was allowed to practice shamanism in ancient times. After all, grave excavations tell us that cross dressing has been part of shamanism for millennia. A female Löwenmensch could still be a man in spiritual drag, and vice versa.
In other words, we need to be at least a little conscious of our tendency to project contemporary anxieties about gender – or power, or property – onto past peoples. Doubtless their hang-ups would make little sense to us, either.
We cannot abandon spiritual forms, but we cannot uncritically enslave ourselves to them either. Navigating this vital tension, this Heideggerian strife of World and Earth, is the heart of life itself. There are no simple answers; part of the challenge is learning to be comfortable with the discomfort of uncertainty.
This thought leads me to my next sign-post in this attempt to cut life through words. How is it with Loki, that locus of endless controversy?
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