Resurrecting Dionysus

Note the typically religious man — a form of decadence? The great innovations are, one and all, morbid and epileptic; but are we not leaving out the religious man who is pagan? Is the pagan cult not a form of thanksgiving and affirmation of life? Must not its supreme representative itself be a defence and deification of life? The type of spirit which is fully formed and rapturously overflowing … the type of action which incorporates and redeems everything in existence which is contradictory and questionable?

It is here that I situate the Dionysus of the Greeks: the religious affirmation of life, life in all its fullness, not life divided and disowned; it is typical that the sexual act awakens profound emotion, mystery and awe.

Dionysus versus the ‘Crucified’; there you have the contrast. It is not that their respective martyrdoms differ — but that each one has a different meaning. Life itself, life’s eternal fruitfulness and recurrence requires agony, destruction and the will to annihilation… In the other case, the suffering of the “innocent man crucified” constitutes an objection to this life, a formula for its condemnation. As one might have gathered, the problem is the meaning of suffering; whether it is to be given a Christian meaning or a tragic meaning… In the first case it is the way to a blessed existsence; in the latter, existence is sufficiently blessed already to justify an immense amount of suffering. The tragic man affirms even the bitterest suffering; he is strong enough, rich enough, deifier enough, to do so; the Christian denies even the happiest lot on earth; he is weak enough, poor enough, disinherited enough to suffer life in any form. ‘God on the Cross’ is a curse upon life, an indication that one should be delivered from it; Dionysus cut into pieces is a promise to life: that it will be eternally born anew, that it will return from its destruction.

In the early 2000s, after a year long custody battle between my parents, I went to live with my mother, part of a fundamentalist Pentecostal church in Alabama. There I was thoroughly indoctrinated into Pentecostal Christianity.

In this brand of Christianity there is a ritual referred to as “baptism in the holy spirit.” Most have heard of baptism in water; but this, the charismatics say, is a second phase of your path toward Christ — baptism in fire. It usually happens during “altar time,” or a period near the end of a church service when individuals march toward the altar to dance, pass out, sing, and generally experience a religious ecstasy. As a kid that whole period was a bit intimidating, but also fascinating. Shy and reserved, I stood in awe and wonder at the individuals who let loose completely, clearly experiencing something powerful. I wanted to experience it.

Then, at church camp one summer, I did. According to the Pentecostals, the sign of baptism in the Holy Spirit is the ability to “speak in tongues,” which to the uninitiated sounds like nonsense noise, but to the charismatics is the language of angels, or, sometimes, an actual language unknown to the speaker but understood by others who need to hear the gospel of Christ. When I descended the altar that summer, I experienced for the first time what scholars refer to as religious ecstasy. And regardless of your feelings on the existence of heaven or hell or spirits or God, it certainly feels real. My whole body shook and I couldn’t stop the tears from streaming down my face. Then my tongue started to flutter, my spirit groaoned. I was speaking in tongues. It was as if I had been possessed. I couldn’t control anything that was happening to me. I felt one with God.

Over the next few years I had many similar experiences. For example, sometimes during altar time, the pastor would walk down from the stage and pray, shouting, spitting, shaking over the individuals there. Then, he would scream a word — “Power!” — and touch their foreheads as lightly as a falling leaf touches your shoulder. Immediately the prayed-over person would fall down, often convulsing, to have a white sheet laid over them by the deacons. Like I said, I thought they were acting — until it happened to me. Pastor Danner’s hand seemed full of some kind of electric pulse that surged through my body and left my knees weak. I collapsed and, for a moment, convulsed. I laid there for a while after the effect subsided, a little embarrassed and not exactly sure what to do next. It all took my quite by surprise.

Meanwhile, I studied the Bible constantly, memorizing several small books and reading it through twice. Told I was a prophet with the gift of the “discernment of spirits” — or being able to tell other people’s spiritual states — I started using altar time praying over other people, sometimes causing them to pass out, and sometimes giving them advice about details of their personal lives that they, strangers, had never told me. I’m still not sure how I did it, and the seemingly magical ability influenced me greatly, one of the main reasons I considered returning to Christianity after I abandoned it. Eventually, though, I just dismissed it as a combination of confirmation bias and my own unwitting use of “cold reading” techniques, which magicians use to read minds, or law eforcement agents use for interrogation.

 

But a scientific explanation for these experiences need not mean a scientific dismissal. When I lost my Christianity at around 16 years old, I thought the only thing to do was to run from everything associated with it. But are not religious experiences like the ones above part and parcel of the human experience? Do they not express some need of the human spirit that seems to remain unfulfilled in modern society?

It is interesting to note that after I first experienced religious ecstasy, I started looking forward to it every Sunday. It seemed to give me a release from all the abuse I was suffering in my mother’s house. Framing it in the Pentecostal terms of “giving all to God” or “laying one’s heart down at the altar,” I would let out everything I had held in that week, and it helped me get through the next one.

And regarding the gift of “discernment of spirits,” the title of “prophet” — we should not dismiss these either! Are they not just an alternative way of describing an empathic or insightful person? Some are born with these gifts, and the modern inclination to stamp these gifts out in the name of “scientific rationality” only serves to keep man from living in his fullest capacity. A superior society would identify these gifts, through scientific means or not, and hone and develop them, allowing them to be a benefit in service to the individual’s social group.

 

Muir spoke of baptism in the mountains and a wilderness revival. How might we provoke a Dionysian nature religion linked to that wilderness revival so hoped for by Muir? How might we join together concerns for civilization’s domination of human nature, and civilization’s domination of non-human nature?

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