Tuesday, May 06, 2008


“There is no methodological process by which we can confirm the existence of an object independent of the confirmatory process involving oneself. The outside world is a void, there is only the inside. A person’s world, the inside or internal view, is all that can be known. The rest can only be the object of speculation.”

This statement was made by K.E. Weick in 1977 in an anthology called “New Directions in Organizations,” edited by Shaw and Salineck. It was written on a notecard in a handful of cards I’d saved in a little plastic sack from a gift shop called “Present Perfect” in Pioneer Place, a shopping mall in Portland, Oregon. (Good thing the little sack was made in China instead of Poland or Paris or we’d have had a plethora of alliteration, which the educated consider, um... YOU think of a word.)

The notes were collected in preparation for my D. Min. thesis at Meadville/Lombard in Chicago which was never finished -- partly because of issues like those above and partly because I just couldn’t stand Chicago one more minute and bolted for Montana with a little help from Russell Lockwood, the Mtn. Desert UUA District Exec.

But now that I’ve returned to these materials, twenty-five years later, I see that the terms of the discussion have changed a little bit, partly because our understanding of “understanding” has been lifted out of the “black box” of the mind, both by fMRI scans, which can “see” or at least record a person thinking while they are doing it, and because of new understandings of what we had defined as something like “soul” on one end of the continuum or IQ on the other end. That is, we thought in terms of unitary definitions that were invented terms for actualities that were really sums of multiplicities. That is, “soul” is not an immortal vapor and IQ is nothing but a score on a test. We had thought they were actual, not just concepts. The cry of our times has been like “Alice in Wonderland” at the tea party -- “Everyone move down! Clean concepts please! New concepts!” (I get tired of saying "paradigm shift" and anyway, it starts with a "p.")

But returning to the assertion of the quote, the problem of whether what we know (a map) really matches the territory (reality) is alive in the fields of counseling (unjustified assumptions about what others are doing) or accident theory (what were you thinking?) or organizational design (how can the goals and procedures of the business better match what would work). I met some of these ideas at Leadership School where the hope was that Organizational Design could improve some of the constant misfunctions in congregations. (For instance: separate groups like the choir or the religious education program spinning off from the main group; failure to connect with the need for people to pledge; the handling of divisive social issues; social needs of certain demographics like bossy older women or randy young people.)

This was not welcomed thought at the seminary, one of the most dysfunctional organizations I’ve experienced. (Since then they claim they’ve reformed.)

But I wasn’t quite “going there” anyway. What I wanted was to understand how a worship, a liturgy, a ceremony or WHATEVER you want to call it (everyone has a pat definition they like) actually worked to draw people -- heart, soul, mind, body, and all -- into harmony with their universe, whatever it might be. In fact, I’d go over to ecological theory here and say, “help people fit their ecology.” Which meant that I quickly had to make an aside to say that what Darwin meant with his theory was not “fitness for survival” in the sense of being the biggest, toughest, and most competitive creature in the ecology, but rather to be the most “fitting,” the one that took advantage of some things and evaded others so as to be there the next morning along with the children.

The trouble with our conventional religions is that unless they go to the deepest human levels of relationship and motivation, they are made “unfit” as the ecology changes, unless they change with it. Since human evolution is in large part cultural, rather than physical, and since religion’s culture is usually drawn from the surroundings where it originated, religion is constantly challenged to change or become obsolete, a fossil. (I was writing this in the midst of the uproar over John-Paul “modernizing” the Mass and so on in a church that has always insisted it was immutable, inerrant and everlasting, even as it went on creating new doctrines such as the Immaculate Conception or the celibate priesthood.) This is nowhere so immediately felt as in worship/liturgy as when the Mass went to English or Protestants abandoned their neat little Communion wafers for big loaves of rustic bread to be torn up by the pastor with his/her bare hands as we imagine Jesus did.

This was a sharp issue for me because of my time on the Blackfeet Reservation where Bob Scriver and I were included in Thunder Pipe Bundle Openings. (It’s just about time for them now. George and Molly Kicking Woman always opened their Bundle on Mother’s Day. But there have not been many thunderstorms yet, which is supposed to be the ceremonial trigger.) This graceful day-long event included a feast with special foods (berry soup), singing, dancing, socializing, and an exchange of goods and money. It was a little bit like an ethnic family picnic, but also tied closely to the east slope prairie and with hints of Catholic Mass. In short, it was about these people’s lives in this place. Even for white people who lived on the rez, it felt right, good and renewing. These were known people with known objects and familiar sounds and dances. For other people from other places, it was just fooling around -- men with blankets around their waists, painted faces, dancing with some little bit of fur, everyone sitting on the ground, four men pounding hand drums, singing mysterious falsetto sounds, -- not quite tunes. And for a few mystically-minded people, the very mysteriousness and inscrutability of the whole thing made it into magic. They would want to mimic the whole thing even though they’d never weathered a prairie spring or spent an hour watching a fox or badger.

Fifty years after I was with those people, the ceremony is still performed by the grandchildren, who are now grandparents. To them it is not an expression of their relationship to the prairie, but rather an expression of their relationship to their remembered ancestors. They are somewhere between mimicking and connecting to reality, which for them has much more to do with tribal housing, pickup trucks and television culture.

At seminary I set out to find the most outlandish ceremonies I could and to see how they might by their very strangeness reveal more about how people construct a “confirmatory process” so the “outside world” is NOT a void but a trustworthy ecology. The example I fell in love with was about cassowaries in New Guinea. More later.

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