Tag Archives: Robert Bellah

Robert Bellah (1927-2013)

I found out this morning that Robert Bellah, one of America’s premier sociologists of religion, died on July 30 from complications after heart surgery. Bellah’s magnum opus, Religion in Human Evolution, has been foundational in my understanding of religion, and I am deeply saddened to hear of his death.

Read obituaries of Bellah from The New York Times, The Christian Century, Religion Dispatches, and Religion and Politics.

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Paul and Antony the Great: Christian Shamans

I’ve become convinced that early Christian mystic practice is, at root, shamanistic. Compare the initiation ritual of Siberian shamans with Paul’s conversion narrative and the story of how Antony the Great became a monk:

The shamanic vocation can be directly conferred on someone by the spirits, or it can be a family inheritance. Yet even when it is inherited, Siberian shamans are still supposed to undergo individual initiation in order to obtain knowledge and acquire supernatural aids. Visited by the spirits, the shaman initially goes through a period of deep psychic depression and illness; these only subside when, having crossed the desert of death, he or she comes back to life and learns to control personal spirits in order to perform ecstatic journeys whose purpose is usually healing through exorcism.

Ioan P. Couliano, Out of This World: Otherworldly Journeys from Gilgamesh to Albert Einstein (Boston: Shambhala, 2001), 40.

The initiation experience of the Siberian shamans above closely parallels the sanctification process for early Christian (monastic saints) — a protracted period of struggle against sin, the flesh, and sometimes demons and/or Satan; followed by a complete mastery of his/her own actions and the ability to work miracles and/or have ecstatic experiences.

For example, the New Testament records that Paul, after his conversion experience, fell deathly ill, was healed miraculously, then lived in seclusion in Arabia for three years, before returning to Jerusalem to become a Christian missionary. Paul implies that his years in Arabia were marked by mystical experiences, and even in his later life he had ecstatic, mystical experiences, both during worship services and at other times, and is reported to have been able to heal the sick and resurrect the dead.

Another example is St. Antony the Great, the first of the desert monks of Egypt. After his conversion experience, he lived as a hermit in the Egyptian desert, where he fought the demons, Satan, and against his own temptations to sin; each of these struggles left him deeply wounded, but God would revive him. Eventually, he conquered all of his spiritual adversaries and gained miraculous abilities, like clairvoyance and miraculous healing.

So, both Paul’s and Anthony’s experiences fit the pattern for initiation into shamanic practice: they underwent a serious mental/physical struggle, followed by a full recovery, which was accompanied by spiritual ability and ecstatic adeptness. Their stories provide evidence that shamanism is not limited solely to mimetic or mythic religions, like those of tribal hunter-gatherer societies, but also is a part of theoretic religions like Christianity, where beliefs are usually separated from ritual and mythos.

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Mimetic, Mythic, and Theoretic Religion

Robert Bellah has an interesting and eminently useful way of classifying religions, adapted from Merlin Donald’s description of the evolution of culture. Donald classifies cultures into three stages: mimetic, mythic, and theoretic.

In a mimetic culture, which could possibly go back as far as 2 million years ago, members of the genus Homo acted out events with their bodies; that is, communication was predominantly gestural. However, these cultures were by no means silent, and they likely involved music and even simple, pre-linguistic utterances. Not surprisingly, music, dance, and ritual behavior are also the most basic forms of religious practice. So, religious physical enaction and ritual can be called mimetic religion.

Speech developed later than gestural communication — 250,000-100,000 years ago, as opposed to 2 million years ago. With speech came complex narratives, which, in some forms, were cultural and religious myths; hence, mythic culture. In the religious sphere, these complex narratives are religious myths, and they serve to augment — not replace — ritual practice. Myths allow ritual to enact more complex subjects than were previously possible. So, ritual religious enaction accompanied by a complex narrative can be called mythic religion.

Finally, in the 1st millennium BCE, theoretic cultures emerged. They subject the old controlling narratives to rational scrutiny, changing them into new forms, reorganizing them, and/or replacing them. These cultures argued in favor of ethical and spiritual universalism, rather than tribal parochialism. Their religions followed suit, calling the old myths and rituals into questions and changing them into, or replacing them with, something more acceptable. These religions did not abandon ritual or myth altogether, though; instead, they created new rituals and myths, based on their scrutiny of the old forms. These religions can be called theoretic religions.

I find this framework both concise and fair, and I think it’s worth adopting, as a way to study diverse religions without casting value judgments on them.

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Robert N. Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap, 2011), xviii-xix.

Merlin Donald, Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991).

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