Making Use of Divination in the Classroom
by Michael Berman
Divination is defined in the Introduction to Loewe and Blacker’s Divination and Oracles (1981) as ‘the attempt to elicit from some higher power or supernatural being the answers to questions beyond the range of ordinary human understanding’. If we concur with the belief that such techniques enable us to catalyze our own unconscious knowledge’ (see Von Franz, 1980, p.38), then divination can also be claimed to be the attempt to elicit the answers to such questions from what is commonly referred to in New Age texts as the “inner shaman”.
The practice of divination can be traced back into the distant past and by biblical times it was clearly widespread. Despite the warning given to the people of Israel not to follow the “abominable practices” of neighbouring nations, which included human sacrifice, divination, soothsaying, sorcery, mediumship, and necromancy, (see Deuteronomy 18:9-11) we now know that ‘Israelite divination corresponded broadly in the range of its uses to the utilisation of divination in Mesopotamia and elsewhere in the Near Eastern environment’ (Cryer, 1994, p.324). And there is actually ‘no reason to believe that the various phenomena which the Israelites banned as “practices of the peoples” were actually derived from Israel’s neighbours’ (Cryer, 1994, p.326). Historical linguistics suggests that the forms of magic used in Israel were in all likelihood domestic (see Cryer, 1994, p.262). A good example of this is the goral-lot, for which there is no useful extra-Israelite etymology from the early pre-exilic period. So how come practices forbidden by God were not only utilised by the people of Israel but are also likely to have been domestic rather than the foreign imports they were previously believed to have been by scholars. The answer is simple. ‘The strictures against certain types of divination were probably a ‘means of restricting the practice to those who were “entitled” to employ it … to the central cult figures who enjoyed the warrants of power, prestige and, not least, education’ (Cryer, 1994, p.327). Cryer’s explanation makes perfect sense for if the practice had not been restricted to the chosen few, then the cult figures would no longer have been cult figures and would have had to look for alternative employment.
As Lama Chime Radha, Rinpoche points out, one can scarcely expect such a process
will be totally convincing to someone who has never experienced the reality of divination … and whose culture conditions him to an almost instinctive and unthinking rejection of everything relating to magic, mystery and the operation of forces and principles which are not at present recognised by modern Western science, [though] … Jungian psychology, with its concepts of the supra-individual reaches of the unconscious mind, and of intuition as a function of equal validity to that of reason, offers the easiest way for the modern sceptic to arrive at an intellectually respectable position (Loewe & Blacker, 1981, pp.12-13).
It can also be argued that if divination had not been sufficiently successful over the years, it would not still be practised so widely. There remains the possibility, however, that when people are desperate, as a last resort, they are prepared to try anything and that this is the real explanation for its appeal. Clearly more convincing arguments need to be found in order to justify its use.
Kim suggests that ‘Instead of trying to rationalize away the irrational nature of shamanism, we need to see that it is precisely its irrationality which gives it its value and its healing power. Irrationality is important in the field of misfortune, since the experience of misfortune does not really make sense to the sufferer in rational terms’ (Kim, 2003, p.224). The same argument could be applied to the use of divination. It would seem to me to be doubtful, however, that experience of misfortune or the results of divination would make any more sense were they to be explained in irrational terms, and that consequently the suggestion is not particularly helpful to our cause. So let us instead consider the “Jungian” position in more depth by turning to the work of one of his followers, the psychotherapist Von Franz.
She points out how the belief that a statistical truth is the truth is in fact a fallacy as all we are really handling is an abstract concept, not reality itself. And then goes on to add that if we make the mistake of imagining we are dealing with absolute laws in the field of mathematics, we can then be open to the criticism that we are identifying ourselves with the godhead (see Von Franz, 1980, p.32). On the other hand, people who live on the level of the magic view of the world, such as practitioners of divination, never believe that magic is like an absolute law (see Von Franz, 1980, p.37). Incidentally, nor do they talk about magic in such terms, unless they happen to be unprofessional charlatans.
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