ASC Experiences fill the Bible but are described in ways alien to Western understanding.
ASC—the altered state of consciousness—is a panhuman experience. All humans are capable of them. If humans wrote the Bible, and human characters litter its pages, we should expect to find ASC experiences therein. Indeed, remarkable ASC experiences are found everywhere in Scripture, from Genesis through Revelation.
In over 488 societies from all over the earth, including 44 from the circum-Mediterranean ethnographic region, 437 societies (90 percent!) people exhibit institutionalized, culturally patterned forms of alternate states of consciousness (henceforth, ASC). Of the 44 circum-Mediterranean societies, 80 percent regularly experience such ASCs. This includes the ancient Israelites. This research was done by Ohio State University anthropologist Dr. Erika Bourguignon.
But what are ASC experiences?
According to Dr. John Pilch, following Bourguignon and Dr. Felicitas Goodman, an ASC is a condition whereby perceptions, sensations, cognition, and emotions change (see “Flights of the Soul, Visions, Heavenly Journeys, and Peak Experiences in the Biblical World”). But more to it, such states transform the relationship a human person has to the self, the body, their sense of identity, and the whole environment including space, time, and all other persons.
Humans can induce ASC experiences in themselves and others. By modifying sensory input, whether directly or indirectly, ASC experiences are induced (see Bourguignon’s article “Altered States of Consciousness,” pp. 233-269 in “Psychological Anthropology: An Introduction to Human Nature and Cultural Differences”).
How Biblical Peoples Think
Again, ASC experiences are panhuman, found in all societies on earth. But different cultures interpret ASC experiences often in radically different ways. In the graphic above, the red data represents one possible and typical Western interpretation. In contrast, the blue data showcases that interpretation of ASC experiences the vast majority of people on earth share, including biblical peoples.
Looking at the graph, everything blue represents the results of Bourguignon’s research. Please note “Emic Perspective, Supernaturalistic Explanation.” You may recall from the last post how emic expression reflects experiences as indigenous subjects report them (e.g., the Bible as written). That’s due to Bourguignon’s respectful approach in her model. Emic data, representing 437 societies worldwide including biblical peoples, fills the blue boxes.
Now look carefully at the line of blue boxes immediately beneath the headings “Non-possession Belief / Possession Belief.” These boxes represent emic data about a variety of ASC experiences as reported by indigenous subjects. What is the emic or native explanation for these experiences? Repeatedly natives the world over give two explanations: either one is “possessed” by a spirit, or a native experiences something sometimes by encountering a spirit (see Judges 14:6; 1 Samuel 10:10-13; Mark 1:9-11; Matthew 1:18-20; Luke 1:35).
But the spirit of the LORD rushed upon Samson, and he tore the lion apart barehanded, as one tears a young goat.
1 Samuel 10:10-13
From there they arrived at Gibeah, where a band of prophets met Saul, and the spirit of God rushed upon him, so that he joined them in their prophetic ecstasy. When all who had known him previously saw him in a prophetic state among the prophets, they said to one another, “What has happened to the son of Kish? Is Saul also among the prophets?” And someone from that district responded, “And who is their father?” Thus the saying arose, “Is Saul also among the prophets?” When he came out of the prophetic ecstasy, he went home.
It happened in those days that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized in the Jordan by John. On coming up out of the water he saw the sky vaults being torn open and the Spirit, like a dove, descending upon him. And a voice came from the sky vaults, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”
This is the origin of Jesus, Messiah: when his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found with child through a holy spirit. Joseph her husband, since he was a righteous man, yet unwilling to expose her to shame, decided to divorce her leniently. Such was his intention when, look!—the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through a holy spirit that this child has been conceived in her.”
And the angel said to her in reply, “A holy spirit will come upon you, and power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the holy one to be born will be called son of God.”
Spirit-Induced Phenomena = ASC Experiences
Belief in spirit possession is reflected in all the passages just cited from Scripture. Pilch says that all of these experiences are basically positive (represented by “+” on the graph). Not all such experiences found in the Bible are, however. Some are negative (“-”).
Pilch differentiates these positive experiences from the other positive ASC experience Jesus and his followers had at the transfiguration (Mark 9:2–8 // Matthew 17:1–8 // Luke 9:28–36). Pilch says this experience, about four persons in communication with spirits, is an ASC that falls under non-possession belief.
Every blue society agrees in two important ways. The first is they all believe that invisible, other-than-human persons (“spirits”) exist around us, often in teeming numbers. The second is that they all have and pass on traditional, ritualized methods to interact with these “spirits.”
Natural & Supernatural
Notice that Bourguignon calls this emic understanding “supernaturalistic” (a problematic term) because spirits usually (by Westerners) are associated with “supernatural realm,” rather than the “natural.” In contrast and quite typical of red societies (a mere ten percent of worldwide societies, including mainstream Americans) is the “naturalistic” explanation of ASCs.
But is it really useful to make the distinction between supernatural and natural? Where in any honest reading of the Bible, writings of the Patristics, or any of our earliest liturgical texts is “supernatural” to be found? Read everything Christian from the fifth century back to the Jesus Movement. Careful readers won’t discover anything theologically significant as far as “supernatural” goes until Pseudo-Dionysius! Besides this, scholars like Pilch are highly critical of naturalistic biases and assumptions that dismiss or attempt to entirely explain paranormal events as produced by data found in the red boxes.
Emic and Etic Help Against Immaculate Perception Delusions
The red part of the graph is not an example of immaculate perception—an impossibility for anyone. So emic and etic, terms introduced by anthropologist K. L. Pike, help us escape from believing we have achieved immaculate perception. They present two different viewpoints through which human behavior can be studied. The etic view comes from outside the system being investigated whereas the emic view is that from within the system being observed. Cross-cultural psychology cannot exist without a marriage of both. Neither can respectful reading of the Gospels or any other Scripture.
Just as with every scholar researching another culture different from her own, American readers of the Scriptures must begin from their own perspective steeped in their own cultural world. Could there be any other way to start? Not at all—and this explains why comparative anthropological disciplines are essential to Scripture study. Most Bible readers are just like most biblical scholars at least in the sense that they are both cultural outsiders to the Mediterranean world of the Bible!
So what happens if you neglect the comparative approach of ASCs in your Gospel reading of visions, sky journeys, wonders like Jesus on the Sea, the Transfiguration, the voice from the sky at Jesus’ baptism experience, the post-Resurrection appearances and so on? A whole lot of anachronistic and ethnocentric garbage will pollute your interpretation of what the ancient Mediterranean evangelist is really trying to communicate.
Getting Red with ASC Experiences
Look over that graph again, and all that red. This red model comes from psychologist E. Mansell Pattison (“Psychosocial Interpretations of Exorcism” in “Magic, Witchcraft, and Religion: An Anthropological Study of the Supernatural.” 3rd edition). It is a more or less typical Western approach to the panhuman phenomena of ASC experiences.
Recall how psychologically-minded we Westerers are. We assume that our psychological mindset is held by all peoples everywhere. We love flexing our psychological muscles and analytical tools that work well at home in the red but not so much in the blue societies. American Bible readers need to get to know very well the underlying assumptions of our cultural values AND those of biblical peoples. Otherwise misunderstanding and distortion of the Sacred Texts will necessarily result.
So the 21st century Western investigator of Scripture, whether scholar or average reader, opens up her Bible to Revelation. Imagine she encounters Revelation 1:10; 4:2; 17:3; and 21:10. What is she to make of that? If she respectfully allows John, the author of Revelation, to be John the Mediterranean, then she will acknowledge what he is saying honestly and fairly. She will say that he recorded down his experiences of communicating with the spirit world, having visions, and taking sky-journeys (see “On the Genre and Message of Revelation: Star Visions and Sky Journeys,” by Brice Malina).
Do you know what our respectful Western Bible reader won’t say about these reports in the Book of Revelation? She won’t say of his experiences any of Pattison’s data found in the red boxes. Nor will she impose any other possible red boxes, such as John was hallucinating. Or that he was writing “apocalyptic literature” and other Germanic post-Enlightenment concepts. Nor will she, like Father Richard Rohr often does, attempt to find and fix John into a Myers-Briggs profile or the Enneagram, untenable for ancient Mediterranean persons.
All the red above or any other potential red models are incorrect etic applications. Impose them onto Scripture and you’ve done violence to the Bible. Goodbye understanding.
What is the Same?
However, again let me reiterate that ASC experiences are panhuman. Part of being human is to be capable of possibly as many as over 35 different ASC experiences. What is being described by John in emic ways we might rightly call altered state of consciousness experience in a wise etic choice. This is also true for the emic descriptions of biblical dreams, visions, episodes of seeing God and angels, marvels like Jesus’ baptism and the transfiguration, stories of walking on the Sea, and even the resurrection appearances.
Let’s explore more later…