Ancestors and the Spirit World

Ancestors and the Spirit World October 23, 2014

A discussion of how Christianity views, understands and interacts with ancestors in terms of the Spirit world requires a fair bit of nuancing. This is due to the fact that there is no single position that one can call ‘Christian’ in this regard. There are multiple positions depending on one’s worldview, which for convenience sake I shall label pre-modern, modern, post-modern and, for lack of a better term, trans-modern.

There is no singular view of the ‘spirit world’ in the Bible. Rather, the Bible evidences a number of views that are determined and influenced by various cultural and religious worldviews. Archaic Ancient Near Eastern thought in Torah (at least in the earlier stages), Persian dualism in some of the Prophets as well as later pseudepigraphal writings, Platonism in some Wisdom literature, Egyptian influence, as well as combinations of the above all contribute to a rather mixed perspective in the Bible. In other words, there is no such thing as a ‘biblical teaching’ or a ‘biblical position’ when it comes to the spirit world.

Nor has Christianity as a religion ever had one singular position. At best one can speak of a certain kind of ‘worldview’ but even here writers throughout the centuries are influenced by local customs, beliefs and superstitions. Today Christianity evinces a mixture of positions with ‘Bible believing’ Fundamentalists and Evangelicals, as well as some conservative Roman Catholics holding to a very literal belief in ‘spirits’ while most modern and postmodern Christians have tended to relegate such belief to the History Bins of Antiquated Beliefs.

The influence of certain new age thinking has had its impact on certain progressive Christian circles but even here, the spirit world tends to be understood as ‘mysterious, vague or spooky.’

In short, Christians by and large do not communicate with their dead, or rather I should say, the dead do not communicate with Christians. Some Christian traditions may offer prayers and petitions to the dead, who are perceived of as living in the eternal presence of God, but ‘magical’ interaction is fairly tabu across the board.  The living simply do not communicate with the dead.

Where does all this leave us? I would suggest that the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox or even certain intelligent charismatic traditions have more to offer here than the Protestant or Anabaptist traditions. Being surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, as the writer of the epistle to the Hebrews puts it, is a great metaphor, but of what value is it if it is only for moral suasion? Is our fundamental acceptance of the dualism between matter and spirit so great that it cannot be bridged? Or is the distance between time and eternity so great it cannot be crossed? What is the line between popular superstition and genuine or valid religious practice? What are the criteria by which one determines actual encounter with the spirit world? Who authorizes such criteria?

I have already given an account of my own personal opinion on this topic in my autobiography Walking with Grandfather. There I sought to bring together my experience of aboriginal shamanism with my Christian faith. I am certainly not the first to do this nor will I be the last. So I will end on this note: the universe is far more beautiful and complex than we could dream or imagine. We humans also have a tendency to project ourselves out onto the universe and so see and hear what is already in our hearts and subconscious. We must, before anything, learn how to purify our minds of distractions and desires before we speak about things beyond lest we find ourselves seeking to control, abuse or misuse the spirit world. We are ‘spirits in a material world’ but we are not seeking to abandon the physical for the spiritual. True and genuine mysticism still seeks what is best for the other. So, also with regard for the dead. We may pray for them, we may pray to them, but it is never our place to use them for our benefit. The dead too are to be loved as our ‘neighbor.’



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