African-American Christian spirituality ― especially in relation to the Holy Spirit ― cannot be understood without understanding the phenomenon of “spirit possession” that was predominant in native African religion before the slave trade brought blacks to North America, a leading scholar said here recently.
“Christians have not discounted the reality of spirits but theologically evaluated them as evil or, at best, impediments to full conversion…” said the Rev. James Noel, speaking at the annual T.V. Moore Lectures sponsored by San Francisco Theological Seminary. Noel is professor of American religion and African-American spirituality at the seminary.
“This evaluation forecloses any comparison between the religious phenomenon of spirit possession and the Christian doctrine of the Holy Spirit or pneumatology,” Noel said. “However, because this was the mode through which many West Africans encountered the unseen prior to enslavement and conversion to Christianity … it behooves anyone attempting to construct a pneumatology from a perspective of Black Theology to acquire some sort of comparative analysis and understanding of spirit possession.”
Though anthropologists once considered cultures practicing spirit possession as “primitive,” more recent scholars have “laid the groundwork for appreciating the inherent logic of the ‘primitive mind’ and understanding spirit possession as inherent in the way some people view their relationship with nature,” Noel said ― what the sociologist Tambiah calls “a participatory mode of consciousness.”
This phenomenon, Noel said, “was part of a larger world view that regarded the cosmos as an interconnected whole wherein God and God’s intermediaries and humans and nature are related spiritually and spiritually.”
It was invaluable to the arriving slaves because it enabled them to maintain a sense of social cohesion despite having all that they had known in Africa taken from them, he added. “The slave trade’s ravishes created a condition of extreme anxiety and uncertainty for vulnerable groups throughout West Africa,” Noel said.
Though spirit possession was practiced in many different ways in African cultures, “in the Americas, Africans had a more intense encounter with European notions of the Holy Spirit,” Noel said, “but certainly their involvement in the local religion of their place of origin affected how the first African arrivals interpreted whatever they heard about the Holy Spirit.”
And “given the fact that so few Euro-American Christians have a correct understanding of the Holy Spirit as spelled out by the church fathers,” Noel said, “it is right to assume that this same reality would have brought about what Anne Bailey calls ‘a subversion of the sacred.’”
The doctrine of the Holy Spirit grew out of the church’s efforts to distinguish itself from Judaism, Greek thought and Roman influence, Noel said.”In the gospels, Jesus is presented as being constantly under the Spirit’s influence and dunamis, or power.
“In the Old Testament, bands of prophets called nabis attributed their ecstatic utterances to the Spirit’s influence …. This ‘ecstasy’ with its consequences derives from a direct irruption of divine power (ruah) which overwhelms people and makes them prisoners,” Noel continued. “Thus nabism amounts to a form of spirit possession …”
According to scholar Abraham Eichrodt, part of the nabis’ power was focused not on individuals “but exhibited a strong pre-occupation with national concerns,” Noel said. “The spirit was part of the drama unfolding on the stage of the Middle East’s geo-political history … We can discern, then, a tension in Christianity over whether the Holy Spirit is to be treated as an experiential and subjective or a conceptual and objective reality.”
In contemporary American religious life, this leads to competing views of the Holy Spirit, Noel said. On the one hand are those, like Martin Luther King Jr, for whom the spirit is a powerful force for justice, he said, “but historically, for the most part, it has been a site of avoidance, wherein the church convinced itself that the matters most relevant to the issues of peace, freedom, justice and equality lay in the sphere of politics and not religion.”