At some point during the Quimbanda workshop at Viridis Genii, Jesse mentioned that Kalunga, the Kongo term for the great spiritual sea in which the dead swim, is generally thought to begin about handspan from the body. The dead are just that close, and during exceptionally dangerous times, even closer.
I had heard something like this before, but this time it settled against the Kabbalistic thoughts I had been posting (interesting trivia: one of the older strains of spiritualist work that feeds into Quimbanda was called, simply enough, ‘Kabbalah’). What else surrounds the material world, close but not identical with it? Chokmah and Binah, perhaps?
Kalunga has an especial sympathy with the ocean, which suggests more ties to the ‘water of the breath.’ Inversely, in the Kabbalistic material, there is a great concern for the Kabbalist to cleave to Jewish law for fear of losing their ties to the salvation wound into the ancestry. So much so, that there are discussions about an early death being a blessing when it protects a just man from committing sins heinous enough to sever him from that ancestral inheritance.
Heck, reading through the Zohar, I have noticed that it isn’t uncommon for one of the speakers to talk about being raised up (usually after some serious fasting) to one of the heavenly schools where they communicate with an esteemed (deceased) Rabbi who clarifies and corrects their philosophical ideas. Read Revelation and note that there is some of that in the background, too, forming the basis for what will often be called the “Communion of the Saints.”
None of these is meant to equate all of these religious practices. Rather, this suggests that we can differentiate these practices within a common spiritual world, the world in which ancestries are born, die, and intermingle. We are all in the waters like we are all within the earth, having a common horizon without being the same.
Which gets us back to the key questions that sit within the bailiwick of the ancestors: how are you going to live? Who are you going to live with?
Then we can also start to ask after the spirits that swim in those waters which are something else, who pact with the ancestral currents but aren’t of them.
Part of what I am trying to get at when I talk about spiritualism is this, too. There is a lived richness of spiritual experience which is quite different than the theological accounts given to it, and is very different than the more academic theoretical accounts given of it from an ethnographic or sociological or psychological perspective. I am coming to dislike the word ‘syncretic’ because it tends to carry with it too much academic baggage, putting too much weight in word and symbol and not enough in the experience both are deployed to illuminate; it puts fossil before organism.
Getting back to the question of American spiritualism, read Zora Neale Hurston’s Of Mules and Men again and you can see this particular mix of Biblical and Congo waters thumping along just out of sight, often without the terms but with all of the spiritual relations. Congo rhythms and Bible winding around each other. I don’t want to fetishize Zora overmuch, but she’s got such a voice for it.
And it isn’t just black culture in the Americas, it is American culture wholesale, because there isn’t one without the other, much as some folks would like to forget that. It isn’t even just American. As others have noted, the Bible-Congo dialogue is older than the European invasion of the Americas. It has occurred within and without the churches. The early encounters were actually quite interesting for how often ancestral spirits encouraged the Congolese to take up Christianity and for the transformations exerted upon Christianity from within those practices.
To my mind, some of the most interesting expressions have occurred outside of the churches, outside of the theological struggles that often force the work into artificial restraints rooted in respectability and state power, but I am willing to grant this may be a personal thing. It does mean, though, that we often overlook the dialogue when we see it because it isn’t talking all the time, but walking its walk.