I’ve talked elsewhere about the universal nature of Spiritism, but I thought it might be appropriate to look more closely at the topic of Spiritism’s relationship to religious traditions. In this article I will be using quotes from the 1893 edition of The Spirits’ Book, as translated by Anna Blackwell.
Early Spiritists came mostly from a Christian (specifically Catholic) background. Researchers would say this is for the simple reason that Kardec and his associates just so happened to be Catholic, and I would tend to agree with them, but for the fact that I believe what helped the Spiritist cause early on was growing from religious traditions that more emphasized mysticism than others. Many French Catholics, for instance, joined the Spiritist ranks under Kardec as a way to expand their already profound experience with the divine. With their doctrine of the Saints and angels who often intervene on human affairs, it was much easier for Catholics to reconcile a much broader spirit world than what is normally taught by religion.
Quakers, or members of the Religious Society of Friends, were also among some of the first participants in what we might label “Spiritualism,” although the practices are as varied as there are practitioners. Since the beginning of the religious movement the Quakers have put an importance upon a continuing revelation and avoidance of reliance upon outdated texts. I think this could be one of the reasons why so many became quickly interested in Spiritualist and Spiritist thought. It can be connected to this idea of receiving sacred information directly from a divine source, rather than second or third hand. This belief is built into the religion itself, and even today participants in Quaker worship services often act as mediums for sacred messages.
As Spiritism grew as a movement, it slowly enveloped many of the occult movements of the time, including members of the Theosophical Society, Freemasons, Rosicrucians, etc. Without a doubt, many of the same influences upon the forming of these societies also influenced the codification of Spiritist beliefs, especially those of the Theosophical Society with their emphasis upon reincarnation and karmic debt. Nineteenth century Europe had an abundance of new occult societies, many already using the techniques of Spiritualism as a basis for their beliefs and practices. What Kardec brought to the table, among other things, was a more rational approach to the spirit world, based heavily upon an inward form of spirituality, less emphasis on what might be considered “strange” or “fringe” practices, and a more conversation-based practice of mediumship without the need for a spectacle.
Some of the more interesting varieties of Spiritism come when we look at how this philosophy spread to the French colonies (or other areas influenced by French culture). These are areas of the world that still to this day have high numbers of Spiritists. One of these is Brazil, which has the highest concentration of Spiritists in the world. There are a few ways traditional Spiritism manifests in Brazil today. First is by way of indigenous religious traditions like Umbanda. It’s interesting to note that the areas of the world that still have a large Spiritist presence are areas where Spiritism and indigenous spiritual traditions have mixed. In the case of Brazil, Umbanda is the tradition most influenced by what we might call “traditional” Spiritism, as opposed to traditions like Candomblé. I should note here that I’m by no means an Umbandista, or an expert on most of these traditions I’m going to talk about, so if you have an interest I would seek more academic research. Currently, the majority of Brazil’s Spiritists follow the teachings of Chico Xavier, a prolific writer and medium who authored over a hundred books with his spirit guides. Xavier was heavily influenced by the traditional Christian side of Spiritism, with an emphasis upon a personal relationship with Jesus as messiah and divinity. As a non-Christian myself, I can say that Xavier’s works, while interesting in the scope of modern Spiritism, are hard to read for those not aligned with Christian faith. His works, however, are massively popular and have greatly influenced many other modern mediums and writers.
Throughout Central/South America and the Caribbean, Spiritism is known by the name Espiritismo, of which there are hundreds, if not more, varieties. In Brazil, as I’ve already mentioned, Espiritismo is mostly seen in the indigenous-based religions of Umbanda (as well as its cousins, Quimbanda and Macumba) as well as in a modern form of Christian Spiritism as taught by Chico Xavier. In Cuba and Puerto Rico the tradition of Espiritismo has also merged with indigenous beliefs to form the tradition of Espiritismo Cruzado, or “crossed” Spiritism, referring to the mixture of European Spiritism with indigenous beliefs and traditions. This also gave rise to Espiritismo de Cordon, another area of research for those interested in Espiritismo. In Venezuela, Spiritism has taken on a fascinating form in the Maria Lionza religion, another mixture of European Spiritism and indigenous traditions. Unlike other varieties of Espiritismo, Maria Lionza mediums channel not only indigenous figures and folk heroes of South America, but also Vikings, European Saints, and even East Asian philosophers.
Another religion that I couldn’t possibly avoid mentioning is Đạo Cao Đài or Cao Dai (often called Caodaism), a Vietnamese religion founded in the early part of the twentieth century. As with other traditions we’ve mentioned, Cao Dai is a highly syncretic religion that combines indigenous Vietnamese beliefs with Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism, holding everything together with the philosophy of European Spiritism. The religion itself was founded during an automatic writing session held by three Vietnamese spirit mediums well versed in the works of Kardec. Since the beginning, all of the major texts and revelations for the religion have been provided by mediums, a tradition that continues even today. Cao Dai mediums have famously channeled such spirits as the Jade Emperor, Joan of Arc, and Victor Hugo, which might seen like an odd combination, but it fits perfectly within the Spiritist worldview.
What exactly is this worldview? While some critics have claimed that Kardec made Spiritualism dry, stuffy, and unappealing to anyone outside of academic circles through his codification, this is far from the truth. In his works, Kardec sought to address directly what he considered to be the faults of Spiritualism, mainly mediums (or so called mediums) tricking people out of their money to talk with dead loved ones, and needless rituals and prayers plucked from different traditions without discernment or understanding. Spiritism as it is defined by Kardec isn’t a religious tradition at all, it’s a philosophy. Some modern writers like to think of it as a “path” or “way,” much like Sufism, which is traditionally thought of being beyond religion and at the same time contained within all religions. This is why Spiritism has easily been translated and merged with so many indigenous traditions. Spiritism provides a framework for viewing human relationships with the spirit world, a notion lacking in many mainstream religious traditions. It defines the form of the spirit, its function as we know it, and how the existence of our own immortal spirits affects the way we see our purpose in the universe. This framework is universal in nature, meaning it appeals to and can be translated into many different religious and spiritual traditions. While Kardec often wrote from a very Christian-centered worldview, his works are also filled with universalist ideals. His overall message is for the unity of humanity on the forward progression through the Spiritual Hierarchy.
Kardec’s message (or I should say the message of the spirit entities as channeled by Kardec and his associates) emphasizes the mystical experience of the individual. When he asks the question whether worship (adoration in this edition of the text) is dependent upon external manifestations he receives this answer:
“True adoration is in the heart. In all your actions remember that the Master’s eye is always upon you.” The Spirits’ Book, entry 653
And again, when he poses the question differently:
“Does God accord a preference to those who worship Him according to any particular mode?
“God prefers those who worship Him from the heart, with sincerity, and by doing what is good and avoiding what is evil, to those who fancy they honour Him by ceremonies which do not render them any better than their neighbours.” The Spirits’ Book, entry 654
And perhaps one of Kardec’s more direct answers of universalism:
“Do not ask, then, if any form of worship be more acceptable than another; for it is as though you asked whether it is more pleasing to God to be worshipped in one tongue rather than in another. Remember that the hymns addressed to Him can reach Him only through the door of the heart.” The Spirits’ Book, entry 654
Kardec presents a very specific form of monotheism in his works. In this system God represents a sort of formless, distant creator who doesn’t require any sort of worship. Prayer then is for the benefit of the individual, not the deity. Underneath God are a host of spirits that fit into various positions on the Spiritual Hierarchy. These spirits act as guides and intermediaries for disembodied spirits and incarnated spirits, helping them to advance and elevate. Kardec addresses this belief when talking about Polytheism:
“As phenomena attesting the action of spirits have occurred in all ages of the world, and have thus been known from the earliest times, may they not have helped to induce a belief in the plurality of gods?
“Undoubtedly; for, as men applied the term god to whatever surpassed humanity, spirits were, for them, so many gods. For this reason, whenever a man distinguished himself among all others by his actions, his genius, or an occult power incomprehensible by the vulgar, he was made a god of, and was worshipped as such after his death.” The Spirits’ Book, entry 668
That is to say, that in the past humans have confused what are called Higher Order spirits for deities, when in fact these spirits are on the same hierarchy as incarnated humans. This idea is similar to those found in Buddhism, where even deities, as powerful as they might be, are still bound by the wheel of life, death, and rebirth. In traditional Spiritism, the ultimate goal is to learn and advance to the point of absolute nearness to God. This idea is still held by many Spiritist groups around the world, but has also been transformed by others. Personally, I choose to think of the “ultimate goal” as a form of supreme altruism, a transformation of the individual spirit into an entity of pure love, similar to the bodhisattva in Buddhism. For me, this belief requires no supreme deity.
While traditional Spiritism has often been viewed in light of Christian values and ideals, it isn’t inherently Christian at all. In fact, as I’ve said before, Kardec himself discouraged readers from taking Spiritism as a religion in and of itself, or even as a representative form of any religion. While Kardec himself might have been Catholic, as well as his early followers, Spiritism itself teaches a universal philosophy that can be utilized alongside countless religious and spiritual viewpoints. The deep connection with the spirit world, coupled with a commentary on humankind’s purpose in the cosmos, has made Spiritism abundantly popular not only to adherents of what we might call “traditional” religions, but also those seeking to deepen their expression of indigenous spiritual beliefs. Some researchers have even described Spiritism as a revival of European animistic beliefs in a modern age, a sort of modernistic European shamanism. I wouldn’t go that far, personally, but it’s indeed interesting to look at the potential of this system in creating and maintaining a sense of continual sacred revelation for a people so often bound to static texts and unwavering religious dogma. In this way, Spiritism itself can be used as a tool of religious or spiritual reform, not just for the individual, but perhaps for society as a whole.