I came to Union Theological Seminary to study the relationship between science and religion. I was committed to the idea that history would give the proper context to understand this difficult relationship. After that, I wanted to pursue a PHD in psychology to continue William James's and Maslow's project: to describe religious experience in what I considered a "universal, scientific language." This conviction was rooted in my assumption that reason and natural science must be the universal, foundational arbiters of knowledge; all other ideas and experiences must be integrated into and through the language of reason and natural science.
However, over the course of my first year in seminary, four events dramatically transformed my worldview. I moved from my certainty in Western epistemology to a much more contextual, embodied, and non-doctrinal worldview. I define Western epistemology as a framework that privileges certain modes of thought over others in the name of technoscientific control: reason over affect, quantity over quality, regular pattern over irregular pattern. The alternative contextual, embodied, and non-doctrinal worldview will be explored as the blog post is developed. The focus of this post is threefold: 1) to introduce my personal background as it relates to Haitian Vodou 2) present the interview, 3) and explore how visual art music demonstrate the socio-political resistance of the religion in the face of national crisis.
In this part, I will extensively introduce the experiences that brought me to study Haitian Vodou and its significance to my development. First, I experienced an existential crisis caused by my rationalist alienation from my body in the name of power and control. Second, through the physicist Thomas Kuhn, philosopher Michel Foucault, and physist Karen Barad, my historical study of science and religion led me to see the contingency or situatedness of science. Third, Toni Morrison's piece, "Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination" really shook my faith in liberal, scientifically-literate worldviews (i.e. Schleiermacher) and I viewed it as legitimization of a Eurocentric and instrumental rationalist ideology. And fourth, I began to date a Dominican-American Brooklynite; through music, dance, and spirituality, she helped transform my puritanical, repressive, and rationalist Protestant consciousness to one that was more embodied, holistic, and celebratory of the body and its intuitions.
After my disillusionment with Western rationalism and natural science, I struggled to relate to a science that I still saw as indispensible to our society; from penicillin to vaccines, automobiles, heart transplants, and Internet technology, natural science has ushered in a reality unimaginable to medieval society. Thus, I struggled to articulate alternative modes of being because they clashed with hegemonic technoscientific practices and discourse of today. This led to an intellectual confusion and paralysis.
My Encounter with Haitian Vodou
My encounter with African Religions in the Americas began to reveal concrete, embodied modes of being that challenged Eurocentric beliefs and practices with Afrocentric ones. I felt that Santeria and Rasterianism challenged Western epistemology and domination by sustaining the Afrocentric embodied intuition of spirit. However, through their ties and political and religious coexistence with European Catholicism and Christian literalism (in the case of Rastefarianism), they seemed to lack socio-political subversion. This continued to be so until I studied Haitian Vodou.
Through the work of Margarite Fernandez Olmos and Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert, I uncovered how the enslaved Africans of Haiti sacrificed a wild boar and made a sacred pact to overthrow their European masters. This war of independence was completed under the political and military control of Toussant L’Ouverture in 1803. Through Latin America and the Caribbean, it would become the first country to gain independence. As Fernandez Olmos and Paravisini-Gebert write, “The ceremony represented the consolidation of the connection between Vodou and the Haitian spirit of resistance which, together with the appropriation of Catholic ritual that became part of the rites of liberation, remains a powerful repository of subversion today.”
Furthermore, Haitian Vodou was also powerful practical, concrete resource for socio-political revolution. As argued by Margarite Fernandez Olmos and Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert, “The revolution’s early leaders—Boukman and Makandal—were reputed to be powerful oungans whose knowledge of the powers and poisonous properties of herbs had helped mount a campaign of terror and death among French planters in Saint Domingue.” The nature and function of Haitian Vodou in society seemed to sustainably challenge and transform Haiti across the board. It allows the 1) embodied, 2) the ecological, 3) the socio-political, and the 4) cosmological to symbolically express themselves on their own terms as an ongoing conversation of various and powerful spirits: the lwa. These spirits are consolidated in private altars at home and communal rits of spiritual transformation. Not only did the religion maintain and celebrate the Afrocentric embodied, sexually liberated, and spiritually transformative elements of life, but it also insured that the most pervasive and vicious slave-run sugar industry in the Caribbean was destroyed. From this holistic subversion of reality, Haitian culture may flourish.
Haitian Vodou and My Own Development
In regards to my intellectual and spiritual life, Hatiain Vodou’s commitment to the inner spiritual as well as socio-political subversion demonstrated what Carl Jung described as the “evidence of inner, transcendent experience.” I felt that Haitian Vodou, by securing independence, demonstrated a mode of being that functioned without the impulse or demand to be interpolated or integrate itself into any outside structure or discourse. Again, as Carl Jung argues, only individual experience may provide the “extramundane principle capable of relativizing the overpowering influence of external factors.” Thus, for me, the history of Haitian Vodou helped me see that in order to sustain a more holistic, embodied mode of being, you need an epistemological framework that allows itself to function. This means that there is no need to work within the language and constraints of empirical evidence and logical argument.
However, each dimension must be able to free itself from the hegemonic grip of Western epistemology that limits what kind of questions may be asked of the universe and how they may be answered. Below, this post will present the interview, visual art, and explore how Haitian Vodou still functions as medium of socio-political resistance in the face of crisis. The two crises I will explore are first the 2010 earthquake and the 1991 Haitian coup d'éta.
A Conversation with Dr. Nixon Shabalom Cleophat, professor and Asongwe, High Priest of Vodou
I spoke with Dr. Nixon Shabalom Cleophat, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and an Asongwe, high priest of Vodou. Cleophat was born in Port-au-Prince on June 18th, 1978. His grandmother as well as his mother practiced Haitian Vodou while Cleophat was a child. This experience involved her grandmother telling stories about Haitian Vodou at a bon fire and going to ceremonies where others were mounted by spirits. However, around the age of 16, Cleophat mother converted to Pentecostalism, rejected Haitian Vodou as evil, and required that he convert to Pentecostalism as well. Cleophat did not have a relationship with Haitian Vodou until his visit to Haiti in 2011. Here, Nixon reports his experience of Haitian Vodou on a public and personal level:
And that was very clear to me when I visited Haiti a year after the earth quake… It was July, 2011. Before my trip I was thinking “well, you know, Haiti was just devastated by this earthquake, you know, so Im going there and I will find a group of people who are miserable, who are destitute, in the worst situation. And then I went to Haiti and it was the complete opposite […]
I was like I don’t understand how these people can smile. I did not understand how people could wake in the morning and you know they would all gather in the morning, gathered in the community. And I’m like wow. And there were several happening at that time: there were Vodou ceremonies going on everywhere because they had to do special ceremonies for the dead, they had to pray, make offerings on behalf of the dead... the evangelical churches were busy condemning Vodou and in the meantime what was happening: Vodou was getting more and more attention as well as becoming more powerful.
So from that event on, I became very interested in what role Haitian Vodou played in my scholarship… and I realized it was not for me just an academic endeavor; it was very personal. I feel as if in my interaction with Vodou I was you know… that experience transformed my life completely, transformed my life to the point where I was able to receive the manifestation or the empowerment of Vodou deities…
Here, Cleophat explains the practical power of Haitian Vodou juxtaposed against the Evangelical impulse to condemn it as evil. Haitian Vodou took on mythical nature in the face of the what Hans Blumenberg called the “absolutism of reality;” in other words, Vodou provided order and meaning despite the destruction and death of the earthquake. This is something that Evangelicalism and even Pentecostalism cannot provide in the same manner because of the rationalist, hegemonizing nature of mono-centric, doctrinal, and other-worldly religion. Elsewhere in the interview, Cleophat compares the spirituality of Haitian Vodou against that Western-influenced religion where control is emphasized in the name of a monocentric faith. Below, he describes the experience of being mounted by the lwa, Damballa, the Sky father and primordial creator of all life.
So I felt as if I was mounted by the holy spirit. And all of the sensation was the same. My feet started to lose ground and I felt like I was going in and out of myself. And I was trying to hold on to everything that was in the sanctuary. And I was like oh my god, I think I am casting the holy ghost at a Vodou ceremony. And I wasn’t the holy ghost; this time it wasn’t. And I realized that the difference between the manifestation of what most people would call the holy spirit in Vodou is not much of difference. But I can tell you, the energy was probably stronger and more palpable when it comes to Haitian Vodou spirits mounting. In that ceremony I lost consciousness, but what happened in the Pentecostal church: I feel it was as if the spirits were controlled that they could not take over completely. But in the Vodou ceremony, there was so much spiritual freedom that I was taken over by the essence of the spirit.
In this experience described by Cleophat above, I began to see exactly how Haitian Vodou is able to function without circumscribing experience the way Western religion often does in the name of rationalist power and control. Nor is there any scriptural or institutional authority that prevented Cleophat from understanding the spiritual source of the holy ghost and Damballa as essentially the same; there is no need to pit one against the other. Further in the interview, Cleophat illustrates the powerful, embodied, and intuitive nature of Haitian Vodou:
It’s not a secret that it’s a magnet. The more you are studying these religions, the more you realizing you are learning about yourself, your own spirit, your essense, you are learning about your history, even if you are not Haitian and even if you are not africian, if you invest enough energy, if you invest enough time… its almost like this feeling… it doesn’t overtake you, but it empowers you so much…
This description of the nature of Haitian Vodou was illustrative of the embodied and open-ended nature of Haitian Vodou. It further reinforced the limited, unfounded Western epistemology which rejects the witness of inner, qualitative experience as inferior to the reliability of the scientific method. Again, the work of Jung is relevant here as it illuminates exactly how the unique insight of individual spirituality serves a socio-political function. Jung writes, that “the evidence of inner, transcendent experience” can protect one from submersion in the mass.
Further, Jung sees the danger of collective belief: “Anyone who has once leanred to submit absolutely to a collective belief and to renounce his eternal right to freedom and the equally eternal duty of individual responsibility will persist in this attitude, and will be able to set out with the same credulity and the same lack of criticism in the reverse direction, if another and manifestly ‘better’’ belief is foisted upon his alleged idealism.” Jung’s emphasis on individual experience seems to demonstrate exactly how Haitian Vodou resists the impulse for collective, doctrinal belief and why faiths like evangelicalism and Pentecostalism feel threatened by them: they are often arbitrary and driven by dualistic labels of “us” versus “them.” By affirming the unique, inner experience, Haitian Vodou is able to sustain a deeper, genuine culture of solidarity that may always survive and struggle against external claims of power.
Finally, Cleophat spoke about the pervasiveness of Haitian Vodou throughout the fabric of Haitian society, particularly the arts:
You cannot be a Haitian, an authentic Haitian without being a Vodouist because you find Vodou in the arts, you find Vodou in the songs, and you even find Vodou in the church. So, Vodou is so pervasive. So for us Vodou is not just a religion; Vodou is a way of life. Um… and that’s way there is a saying a Haitian can be a Pentecostal by religious affiliation, but by culture that person is a Vodou-ist.
Given that Haitian Vodou has such an extensive role in Haitian society, it is necessary to explore visual art itself to see how they function on their own terms.
In order to explore the socio-political resistance of Haitian Vodou art, I will turn to Karen McCarthy Brown’s article, Art and Resistance: Haiti's Political Murals. Before I begin to explore the nature and function of visual art in Haitian Vodou, I will turn to Historian of religious art, David Morgan. In his book, Visual Piety, Morgan summarizes the view of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi:
According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, artifacts invest the human self with a degree of objectivity in three ways: by displaying power and social status; by securing the continuity of the self over time in terms of focal points in the present, traces of the past, and indications of future expectations; and by providing material evidence of our position in the web of social relations. In each case material things assert our identities and maintain them in the face of an ever-present flux of sensation and mental activity.
Another word I will use for the art of Haitian Vodou is cultural fabric. However, while accepting the identity approach of Csikszentmihalyi, I will maintain that the art of Haitian Vodou does not only remedy the “an ever-present flux of sensation and mental activity,” but is a medium of perseverance and resistance in the face of national catastrophe. As Brown argues, “In the fall of 1994, art was a primary response to liberation. It mediated between terror, a powerful force that had shaped daily life in Haiti for three long years, and the sudden absence of terror. Art helped to restructure life toward normality…”
In 1990, Haiti was celebrating the first democratic election of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Catholic priest, liberation theologian, and social activist. However, Aristide served less than one year as President before being placed from office by a coup d'etat. During the three years that the coup leader, General Raoul Cedras, headed the government, Haitians lost freedom of expression. Not only so, but the Haitian people received nothing from the de facto leaders. They found that they were interested in nothing more than power. This was all until 1994 US invasion. In the image below, a Haitian artist has created a portrait of Aristide, one of many murals on National Route 3 outside Cap Hatian.
For many people in Haiti, this image, accompanied by the creole word “libete,” may serve as a more durable, visual place marker that claims Aristide as a symbol for liberation. This portrait is all the more meaningful because it is painted on a wall, asserting the power and meaning of human agency on a public space. This automatically holds socio-political implications. However, the power of the art of Haitian Vodou is that it is not static, but perceptively and powerfully responds to changing reality. After the military coup, the Haitian national consciousness was in terror and under government censure. In response to this terror, the work of art below was found on a fence in the city of Gonaives, a site of resistance against Haiti's many corrupt leaders.
The image below is a veve, a creole word for Vodou symbol. This veve represents Ogou, a Vodou warrior lwa (or spirit) of the righteous use of aggression. According to Fernandez Olmos and Paravisini-Gebert, Ogou is a “tutelary god whose worship dates back to mythical African wars and the Haitian Revolution, an ‘old veteran from the time of bayonets’…” I argue that this symbol functions according to Csikszentmihalyi’s idea of art by “securing the continuity of the self over time in terms of focal points in the present, traces of the past, and indications of future expectations.” For Haitians, and the larger Afrocentric consciousness, this symbol transcends time and carries a much more longer view of history where they ultimately endure. For the repressive leaders of the coup, the image would not only discredit their legitimacy, but carry the threat that the righteous use of violence is looming. This does not necessarily translate into terrorism, but instead a visual sense of socio-political power.
Haitian Vodou, above all, works for its inclusiveness and holism of experience. It allows the 1) embodied, 2) the ecological, 3) the socio-political, and the 4) cosmological to symbolically express themselves on their own terms as an ongoing conversation of spirits: the lwa. This expresses itself through the culture: visual, musical, sexual, and political. This hybridizing and lack of Western monocentric epistemology is a sustainable movement that adapts. This fullness of reality is the greatest anti-dote to political domination for it opens space for artists as culture creators where there can be a move from disharmony and ignorace to awareness and harmony.