Wednesday, October 01, 2008


So Dawkins can take his love/hate quarrel with God away with him. (It’s an old spat and we’ve heard better versions.) This line of thought will start somewhere entirely different.

We start with the ground under our feet and Mircea Eliade’s observation that we can “feel” the difference between a sacred place and a profane place. Someone who wants to write a paper could look at what would be implied by saying “sublime and secular” instead of “sacred and profane,” but I’m sticking to Eliade. It’s practical. The book is “The Sacred & the Profane: the Nature of Religion.” It is a classic that many people know in French, German and English versions.

The feeling of sacredness is something most of us recognize when in a specific place or at a specific time, sometimes on purpose and sometimes by surprise. Eliade’s idea was that extremes and transitions are especially likely to feel sacred -- high places and low places, gates and stairs, extraordinary places both constructed and natural, sundown and dawn, high noon and midnight, extraordinary times like revolution or the moment of falling in love or when a comet stands in the sky. One can elaborate at length and there is a personal dimension: not everyone finds the same times and places to feel “sacred.”

This approach is not prescriptive, normative or proselytizing, which are exactly the dynamics I’m trying to escape. It either happens for you or it doesn’t. It’s possible that it happens and you don’t notice because you’re thinking about something else. A few people may simply never feel that anything is sacred -- or be motivated to say so. The sacred can be familiar and welcome or it can be terrifying and unexpected. There are plenty of examples in literature. C. S. Lewis is on the train going home in evening, comes around a bend, and sees a little cottage with lights in the windows against a wild mountain. This, he says, is sublime. A poet (was it Wordsworth or Thoreau?) one night borrows a rowboat to go out on a lake by a similar mountain and is overwhelmed by terror. So it’s an interaction between the feeler and whatever seems to be felt.

Therefore, I am interested in how a brain feels the sacred. The new field of neurotheology, supported by fMRI research and our growing knowledge of the molecular functioning of small brain structures, particularly in the limbic system, gives us confirmation that something is happening. Things light up in there when one is remembering the sacred or praying. If experimenters use electrical stimulation to “turn on” these structures, the result may be emotion or images or music or simply a feeling of Presence. These structures are the ones that interface betwen brain process and the external world through the senses, including senses of the internal state of the body that are subconscious or maybe felt as emotion.

But I am simply NOT going to address the question of whether there is something supernatural that is being contacted, whether saints, angels or Martians. The whole question of whether humans, who “know” things through virtual constructed worlds that their brain uses as a template, can ever really make “raw” and unprocessed contact with “the world” -- whatever it is -- can’t be answered now, so I’ll just ignore it.

I propose that all institutional religions arise in their primal forms from specific places and times: ecologies. These ecologies shape individuals and societies in the same way that brains form themselves from active neurons. What is reinforced by success remains; what is ignored dies away. So the pre-contact Inuit at the North Pole never thought about vegetables because there were none in his world -- the same as a child in Nebraska can only think of a walrus by looking at pictures and reading stories. More subtly, human bodies over millenia adapt to the foods at hand, so an Inuit given broccoli or Wonder bread will have some difficulties with digestion and so will the Nebraska kid confronting muk-tuk.

Likewise, but more subtly that that, the Inuit child learns a certain kind of “map of the world” will let him find his way, while the Nebraska child grows up seeing the world in quite a different way. For one thing, the hunter-mentality versus farmer-mentality split that some (like Paul Shepard) have been exploring is based on a physiology (the hunter) that evolved into humans from the very beginning (eating meat), while the ag-mentality (eating crop grain) only dates back about ten thousand years or so-- not enough time for physiology to really catch up. Those who stayed in one place and grew accustomed to a certain diet and climate appear to do better than those who go someplace else or import a diet from someplace else. Newly invented or chemically altered foods (Twinkies) can have drastic consequences in terms of cell function feedback loops. We are resourcefully adaptive, but not infinitely so.

There’s a parallel in religious systems. New Guinea religions have very little in them about the moon, sun, and stars because the people live under thick foliage in jungles. They obsess about cassowaries, one of their few sources of protein. Plains Indian religions have a lot about stars as well as thunderstorms, so dangerously impressive on prairie, and focus on bison. The tribal dynamics of Mediterranean people in the times of dwindling resources that encouraged walled cities are IMHO at the root of the Abramic paradigms: capure the well, wall the granary, my chieftain is better than your chieftain, convert the heathen to obey us. It’s all in the Old Testament.

However, the Abramic religions (in that birthplace of geometry) were able to abstract that lived-out pattern by moving it from tribe to family triangle: your chief is your Father in Heaven who sends His [sic] Son to lead you to salvation (home) with the inspiration of the Holy Mother. That’s the beginning of a new kind of theology (the New Testament) and is universal enough to have translated a place-bound set of ideas to the world. (Some might say, alas.) An interesting exploration of these ideas is “The Birth of the Living God” by Ana-Maria Rizzuto, M.D. who is a psychiatrist/psychoanalyst.

But the next key book for me is “Constructing Local Theologies” by Robert J. Schrieter, C.PP.S., a world -class theologian and professor at the Catholic Theological Seminary in Chicago where I had the delight and challenge of taking a class from him. The book confronts the problem of explaining Catholic doctrine and Mass to peoples of totally different ecologies. How does one explain “the blood of the lamb” to an Inuit? How does one explain bread to people of a rice culture? His position was that one had to go to the very heart of what that concrete gesture meant: not just to claim that sharing sarvisberries soup in a Thunder Pipe Bundle ceremony was the same as Communion because both are about a group eating together, but to find what the deepest meaning of the acts were to those people in that ecology. What did sharing sarvisberry soup really mean to the original people who did that? We already know that Communion comes out of the Jewish Passover -- it’s not meant to be cannibalism, but rather a remembrance of being spared, saved, though Jesus was not spared because He took the role of the sacrificial lamb.

It’s a lot to think about.

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