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Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Missionary Zeal–Ayahuasca, The Angel Of Death, And Jesus Christ

Santa Inez is a small town in the Ecuadorian Amazon not far from the Napo River and 50 miles upstream from one of the last indigenous tribes of the region, the Jivaro.  The town serves as a trading post for the Jivaro and mestizo settlers from the altiplano who had intermarried with Spanish colonialists a century after the great era of exploration, had lost touch with their indigenous roots, found themselves betwixt and between cultures and settled for the accommodating life of the jungle.  The town was no more than a collection of shanties, thatched roof bars, whore houses, and saloons, and mud streets – not uncommon in the Peruvian, Bolivian, and Brazilian rainforests. 

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A well-known ethnologist had heard of a curandero, a traditional healer, who as part of his herbal pharmacy, dispensed ayahuasca, a potent hallucinogen used by the Jivaro as part of their religious ceremonies.  Ayahuasca, unlike peyote and psilocybin, was reported to have a unique and unexplained effect – all who took the drug said that they had seen the Angel of Death.  The ethnologist who had written extensively on traditional medicine, especially the hallucinogens like ayahuasca, had not doubt of its extensive use and its important role in native culture, but he was skeptical of the stories of uniform vision.  He assumed that because of the myth of the Angel of Death and her association with the drug, those who too it were primed for a foregone conclusion.  He and a journalist friend took a motorized pirogue down the Napo to the Indian village where the curandero was said to live.

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After a short trip downstream – the Napo at Misahualli is wide and fast – and after two hours walking through the jungle, they found the curandero who lived in a thatched hut a hundred feet from the banks of the river.  His dwelling was filled with dried herbs, tied at their stems and hanging from the the simple crossed, low rafters made from foraged teak.  The curandero had heard that the two Americans were coming – no chance for dollars was ever a secret and the ethnologist was not the first to visit.  Savvy despite his isolation and cultural limitations, the curandero brewed ayahuasca for the first visitors, but only in a mild form.   He neither wanted to share the Angel of Death with uninitiated foreigners, he wanted them to come back; and the transformational experience of the Angel of Death might well send them insane into the forest.

The ethnologist knew of these stories and had met a number of young Americans from Quito who had been to the curandero.  They had hoped to see the Angel, but had only had a pleasant acid-like trip with no side effects, no insights or epiphanies, and little desire to return.  Similar drugs were easily available in the Haight and the East Village. The ethnologist insisted on the full, tribal dose and despite warnings from the brujo persisted.  While he did not see the Angel of Death, he saw many angels and devils; and writing in his journal two days after his return to Misahualli, he could only recount the most frightening images he could never have imagined.  No Durer, Goya, or Medieval scenes of horrific possessions, decapitations, and disembowelments could even begin to describe what he saw under the influence of the drug.  There was no trace of any childhood fears or fairly tales; not even a glimmer of recollection of adolescent or adult horrors or distortions.  What he saw and experienced had to have come from another world – there was no way that he, from a traditional, modest, secular family from Vermont could have imagined what he saw. 

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What did it all mean? he asked himself.  What of ethnological or anthropological interest could come from his experience? Would he have to repeat it again and again until he saw some coherence?  At least he might be able to decipher his visions, make some kind of sense from them and apply what he learned to a wider universe.  Or would he have to recruit volunteers from his university to take the drug under controlled circumstances?  Perhaps, but that would eliminate the particular and peculiar environment in which he had taken the drug – the one-string violin of the curandero, the Napo, jungle sounds, the full moon.,

At the same he questioned what, if anything he had learned from the experience.  Were any of his questions about faith, spirituality, and Christian belief itself answered?  Had he been fundamentally changed by the experience, convinced at least that there was a world beyond service, forgiveness, and repentance? As in the case of other hallucinogenic experiences little remains or can be recalled back home – fragments at best but hardly substantial enough or numerous enough to make an understandable whole.  Yet there was something unmistakable and certainly unforgettable – the angels of death, a horrific vision that was far from the peaceful transition from death to everlasting life promised by Jesus Christ.   Death was not peaceful at all but a fearsome, horrible, horrific event, and the afterlife was a place of demonic terror.

Far from Misahualli, the Napo, the Jivaro, and the curandero were the Carpenters, Americans  who had volunteered as missionaries to the Indians, mestizos, and white Catholics of the Amazon.  They, as their pastor had explained, was a particularly important mission.  When Paul and Jesus’ disciples went out to spread the good news, they were preaching to those who had a recognized, established and even logical religion.  While Jews had chosen the wrong path, arrogantly retaining a uniquely Hebrew view of God and his world, they still were monotheistic believers.  The diaspora Greeks had their cosmology and well-ordered Platonic universe; but the Amazonian Indians had nothing but the most primitive, soulless, paganism and idolatry as ‘religion’.  The Carpenters had a far more difficult task than even Paul, for they were asked to bring these primitive souls out of total ignorance and backwardness to the light.

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The Carpenters lived in a house that would be familiar on the Iowa plains – white frame, simple Victorian, with a garden, a front porch, a swing, and the kitchen smells of home.  Fruit pies, bread, and Sunday roast.  As exaggerated a caricature as this might seem it expressed the very nature of American evangelism.  Culture and faith co-mingled.  One could not have one without the other.  The Carpenters’ belief in home, family, love, charity, and goodness was indistinguishable from the Christian gospel they were preaching.  If they did their job well, the Indians would have a vision of Our Lord and Savior, would take him as their own, would be saved, and would have been introduced to American liberal values.

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Where do the axes cross? Where is the intersection between pagan instinctive belief and the logical, rational Christian faith of the Founding Fathers?  Haitians easily incorporate Voodoo within Catholicism or rather the other way around.  Catholic scholastic doctrine is all well and good for explaining the logical basis for the divinity of Christ, the Trinity, and the doctrine of suffering; but there must be a place for human sacrifice and the animistic worship of things.  Mesoamerican religion is a reasonable accommodation.

Yet, the ethnologist reasoned, how can one accommodate the Angel of Death within the compassionate Christianity of Jesus Christ.  There must be a right and wrong, a one or the other.  There cannot be any hedging of bets in this metaphysical game.

If the story ended there – with the doctrines of Origen, Tertullian, Augustine, and Aquinas and the presumptive existence of animistic forces beyond human logic and experience – there would be no more narrative; but evangelism change the simple calculus. Whereas the shamans, curanderos, and brujos of the Amazon make no claims on truth, Christian evangelicals do.  Christian missionaries  presume right and righteousness; and in so doing distort and deform the principle doctrines of Christianity.  The shamans facilitate an encounter between the known world and the spiritual, and ask no questions and demand no answers from  supplicants.

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In an ironic way modern ecstatic fundamentalism is very close to shaman paganism.  The Protestant pastor is no different from the Amazon curandero – both are facilitators, one to the Angel of Death, the other to Jesus Christ.  What is out of the ordinary is evangelism from one religion to another; for in so doing, the assumption of right cannot be ignored.  As much as charismatic preachers urge a personal relationship with Jesus Christ to the aspiring faithful, their message to the unschooled, the primitive, and the pagan is presumptuous, self-serving, and misguided at heart.

Iowa missionaries in the heart of the Amazon forest are anachronistic, irrelevant, and sad.  Evangelism itself is anachronistic, irrelevant and sad.  Let charismatic preachers preach to their faithful – their manipulation is at least held within cultural limits – but pull them out of the forest where real religion is practiced – or rather, experienced.

Amazon shamans are the true priests of a true religion.

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