Since the trial for James Arthur Ray has ended in his conviction for negligent homicide, something that has really popped up in my mind a lot is the idea of credentials. They can keep people safe, establish who has proper training in a discipline, art, science, etc., and who does not, and can communicate professionalism in an instant. When I think of credentials I think of licensing, such as what happens with counseling, or with medical disciplines. Having an M.D. or some other recognized credentials communicates a certain trust between the community and you, that you have had the training and experience necessary to qualify in the field you’re practicing. How do we establish such a thing in Paganism or modern shamanism?
Some places, such as Cherry Hill Seminary for Pagan ministry, and the Foundation for Shamanic Studies for neo-shamans, are trying to fill this requirement by giving classes, workshops, and a variety of training in disciplines and techniques for their path. I have many criticisms of core shamanism, as well as misgivings regarding the practice of shamanism without a core cosmogony or cosmology. That said, I find it laudable that someone is helping to set a standard of expectations, that neo-shamans to be answerable to some standard of expertise and training. Still, there is something that bothers me about the setting of standards regarding shamanism. I think it is something I was reminded of in this post by Kenaz Filan, that I worry regarding “the desire to reduce everything to one happy nebulous one-size-fits-all Truth.” I’m not about to say that people should not have standards regarding their spiritual workers; quite the opposite, in fact. The worry I have, is that we reduce the role of a Pagan priest or a modern shaman to a “one-size-fits-all-Truth”. Community standards, and standards of practice are one thing. Expecting the same thing out of every priest or shaman is quite another. That, perhaps, is my main point of contention with core shamanism itself: that it reduces a good deal of practices, techniques, and so on, down into a distilled form of core shamanism that is billed as shamanism without culture, when it merely replaces a mishmash of cultures’ spiritual tools and practices with its own culture.
This is why I worry about, but am not completely opposed, to credentialed spiritual leaders, mentors, and the like. That said, I have none. I am not certified by any body, religious or otherwise, to conduct the rituals I do, or to deliver the services I offer. I have only the blessings of my Gods, spirits, Ancestors, and those who believe in what I do. I have only the experiences I have had as a shaman, and priest of Odin and Anubis as my spiritual background. In a very real sense, it is a leap of faith for people who come to me for spiritual help or advice to trust me. I have no training from an accredited seminary, nor do I have a certificate from the modern neo-shamanic organizations. Am I still a priest and a shaman? I emphatically say “Yes”.
I am of the mind that, while you can go through all the varied and well-made training workshops and classes, the Gods and/or spirits are what designate you as a priest and/or shaman. Without the Gods and/or spirits, while you may have all the earthly credentials in the world, what does that matter if, when the time comes, you are called on to be a Divine mouthpiece and you cannot perform your function? When someone needs to hear the guidance of their God/dess, and you cannot communicate it, what did the seminary lessons matter? When a person is being bothered by spirits or Ancestors, if you cannot intervene and/or guide effectively, what good are all the workshops? Anyone can screw things up as a matter of simply being human, and no spirit-worker, priest, shaman, or oracle I know of does what they do without screwing up. I certainly have not. That, however, is not my point here. What is, is that the Gods and spirits with whom you work, in my view, are the ones that bestow the meaning, the core, of what it is to be a priest or a shaman. If you don’t have Them behind you in your function, while you may be a great facilitator or organizer, you are not a priest or shaman.
There is also, to me, a large difference between being a priest or shaman of a community, and being a priest or shaman of specific Gods or spirits. While the two need not be exclusive, they can be very different in their roles. Having been a priest for a community for a small time, the role required me to fill a lot of shoes, and do a lot of working with others’ Gods, successes, failures, and times of trial, as well as times of joy. There was a lot of work on communication, answering questions, writing lessons, and training that was done as part of that work. A lot of my daily work during this time was community-based, from daily work with people on their relationships with Gods, to working on rituals, classes and presentations. Being a priest of Odin and a shaman apart from a dedicated community, a lot of my work for the larger Pagan community consists of giving messages from Gods, spirits, and Ancestors, intervening when needed in spiritual crises, and being a go-to for people looking to contact Odin and other Northern Tradition Gods, spirits, and Ancestors. A lot of my work is individual-based, and I do a lot of more self-focused work, such as taking more time out for relaxation and meditation, and give more personal attention to the Gods and spirits I work with, whether it is working with my Ancestors, or working on deepening my relationships with my Gods.
Are credentials necessary? In some cases, yes. If you want to legally marry people, for instance, you need to have credentials that back up your ability to sign the marriage license. However, I and a very good friend of mine, performed a wedding for a wonderful couple, and though it is not legally recognized due to the laws in my state, it is a strong marriage blessed by the Gods. Are credentials beyond those for legal reasons a necessity? I’m still out on this. As someone who has dedicated his life to serving my Gods, I would say no. Yet, at the same time, I see how credentials provide comfort, a sense of security, and communicate professionalism. After all, I’m getting my degree in counseling for that reason, and when I’ve finished with that, I will go for licensing so I can practice what I’ve learned.
At this point I’m taking a middle road because Pagan priesthood and modern shamanism do not, by and large, have the background that professional counseling does, and beyond the two resources I’ve mentioned above, anything resembling professional training in either field is scant, or is specific to certain pathways, i.e. the Aquarian Tabernacle Church’s seminary. If we want more professionally-trained priests and shamans, whether for the wider Pagan or shamanic communities, or our own little branches in their trees, we will largely have to either a) support what is already there and increase its ability to be used effectively by its adherents, or b) invent these courses and methods of accreditation ourselves. I find that accreditation can be a powerful, stabilizing force, but it can also be one that can strangle peoples’ ability or willingness to explore, find new ways, be touched by the Gods or spirits, or respond in ways that establishments may find chaotic, destabilizing, or unwelcome. Here is hoping that as we move forward we can develop courses and accreditation that encourage individual and group responsibility, personal and transcendent experiences of our Gods, spirits, and Ancestors, while also providing a solid structure to build our faiths, roles, and communities on. Here is hoping that if credentialing gets in the way that we have the bravery and wherewithal to help it evolve with our communities’ growing needs, or if it will not, then to discard it.