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Kate McClendonKate McClendon

Kate McClendon: Silk Road: Religion's Melting Pot

We often think of Eastern and Western religions as being worlds apart. But, as religious and classical studies major, Kate McClendon '05, recently found, they have borrowed traditions, doctrine and even holidays and celebrations from one another, creating a sort of religious melting pot.

"I've always been interested in points where East and West come together and blend," says the Willamette University senior, who wrote a proposal for a $3,000 Lilly Grant to pursue a project she calls "Journeys of the Spirit: Shamanic Influences on Silk Road Religions." "Because I'm a religion major, I'm interested in how religions have blended together throughout history."

McClendon's hypothesis was that shamanism, the traditional religion of Siberia, acted as a foundation for both major Eastern and Western religions and influenced many of the similarities and seemingly contradictory traditions found in Buddhism, Christianity, Middle Eastern and Hellenistic religions. Shamanism combines animal worship (animism) and the concept of a wise man or medicine man, similar to traditions found in Native American religions. The shaman or wise man receives special knowledge that allows him to travel through various levels of heaven and hell, often battling demons or meeting spiritual helpers, to gain knowledge to guide his people to salvation. According to McClendon, the Silk Road, the historic, 4,000-mile network of trade routes that connected Europe and the Middle East with Asia from 500 B.C. to 1500 A.D., acted as the conduit that spread shamanism's ideas and traditions across the world.

Being exposed to shamanism along the Silk Road, changed the religions of other regions. "Indigenous groups develop their beliefs, practices and collections of stories," explains McClendon. "Then a wider tradition, like Buddhism or Christianity, comes in and sweeps over the culture. The people adopt the new religion, but they map it onto their own indigenous traditions, so the meaning and the imagery changes a bit. That's what shamanism did to all these religions."

The influence of shamanism, says McClendon, can be seen in the artwork of various religious. "I studied art, especially art from the Silk Road, in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Anthropology. I looked at Buddhist art, Middle Eastern art from Babylon and Sumer and Greek and Roman art as well as original Gnostic Christian texts. I found lots of imagery that suggests shamanic influences such as angels and ecstatic trance dancing that essentially have nothing to do with the belief systems."

Shamanism can help explain beliefs and traditions that seem uncharacteristic. For instance, some Buddhist sects believe in Pure Land, a heaven-like place filled with jewels, angels and dancing. "It's all very shamanic and certainly doesn't have much to do with Buddha's original message or with the concept of Buddhist detachment."

McClendon points to shamanic influences in Christianity too, particularly Gnosism, an early form of Christianity. "The main element of Gnosism is that the practitioner receives specific and secret knowledge from a messenger of God. The first shamanic element is that of a messenger. In shamanism, the shaman is the messenger. In Gnostic Christianity, Jesus is the messenger. In both, it's the knowledge the messenger brings, not the messenger himself that brings salvation."

McClendon's research, she admits, doesn't fit in with mainstream academic avenues of research. "I was surprised that other academics and curators were so skeptical," she says. Often, the academics she spoke with at universities didn't know what she was talking about. Curators at museums told her they didn't have any shamanic-influenced art. "I'd go into the museums and there would be a tremendous amount of material. They just weren't seeing it with eyes open to looking at the art in that way."

McClendon's project is just another step in challenging and defining her own religious beliefs. "I was raised Mormon and Baptist. In high school, I realized the more you know, the more you don't know, which has made me want to study everything. It's really fulfilling for me to study the origins of Christianity to see what Christianity could have been and consider what its possibilities can be."

Her work isn't an end, she says, but rather a beginning. "I know this project has been a springboard for me into a lifetime of research," she says, her eyes shining with excitement. When she graduates this May, she plans to pursue a master's degree in classical archeology at Florida State University. "I know Greek and Latin and I'm studying Sanskrit. Now I want to learn Chinese so I can go to the Buddhist caves in China and read the Gnostic texts there. I've come to understand that there doesn't have to be one answer; you can be open to all types of spiritual experience."