Thursday, October 02, 2008


Normally I try to vary the topics from one day to the next, but I want to keep following this thread about religion a little longer. I need to get into examples, but that can come later and more episodically.

For now I want to look at some diagrams. The first is the Christian cross and the second is my own little schema: a circle with a dot in the middle. Those who study brains say that we tend to think of abstract ideas in topological ways. Evidently the amygdala and hippocampus feel skillful in terms of left/right and up/down, which must be one of the earliest concepts a baby in the womb forms, so they think of other things in those terms, too.

The Christian cross is simple, can be gestured, looks almost like a person with arms outstretched, and can be made from two sticks. This is all advantageous. Paul Tillich suggests that the cross-piece stands for our ordinary lives on the surface of the planet. Then the vertical stands for the transcendent, access to the supernatural realm of the Sacred as well as maybe the immanent God, Who dwells at the heart of introspection. The Sacred is “up” to most of us. (Bob Scriver used to say that it’s clear we came from outer space, because we’re always looking into the sky for our ultimate home.)

Rather than reading Tillich’s hard-core theology, my advice is to read the biography of Paul Tillich, “His Life and Thought, Vol. 1, Life” by Wilhelm and Marion Pauck.

He was a man who stood right at the boundary all the time, equally pulled by the Circle of Inclusion that was Christianity and the “beyond the circle” of seeing an entirely other world. That’s why I value him. He can often come up with a way of reconciling both the inside of the “believer’s circle” and the beyond for Christians with a sense of adventure.

There is also an anthropological way of looking at the horizontal, which becomes a circle if you turn around while standing at the axis of the vertical so that you face in turn the four compass points. Sometimes these dimensions are acted out in ceremonies, with an actual tree going up in the middle, or a ladder or a carried pole. In many Blackfeet ceremonies, one perambulates the perimeter or circles the lodge. I love to look at these symbolisms in a playful “slap pack” sort of way, though they are deadly serious to the people who developed them. Joe Campbell is the guy who brings up more interesting stuff than almost anyone else. (I’m told that I must call him Professor Joseph Campbell to show respect, but that idea undercuts him, I think. His stories are strong enough to learn sitting alongside a campfire with him.)

Anyway, if you can accept this idea of the circle with a dot in the middle, which pops up in various places and versions, then maybe you can take in my own version. In my interpretation, the circle is the horizon -- it’s the outer limit of what you know and what you can see. The limits of your consciousness. After that, there be unknown dragons. Even Prince Valiant would hesitate to go find out about it; he’d have to be taken there by a storm or a hijacker. Still, once you’re out of your comfort zone (home town) you find amazing things, you learn and you grow. You might go mad! (PSTD in Iraq.) Then, Joe Campbell tells us, eventually you come home like Odysseus to teach others what you have learned. This is the core of “The Hero with a Thousand Faces,” a book that has been a revelation to many.

The adventures themselves: monsters, tests, treasures, tend to be similar. What happens when you get home -- the faithful wife, the greedy suitors, the growing son -- makes every story unique. Maybe, like Marco Polo, people simply won’t believe you. Maybe they’ll elect you president. Versions of this story are in every culture. In the OT, it’s Joseph. In the NT, it’s Jesus. On the rez it might be the gal who goes to college or the guy who enlists. I see the story over and over, in all its variations.

The center is home -- not just a house but also the people who are closest and most loved and the place where one’s heart is at peace. This is all symbolic, so it might not even be a physical place, but a state of mind. It is your “axis mundi,” your psychological umbilicus where you are connected to the energy. Campbell is eloquent about this. A culture, a religious system, also has an axis mundi: maybe Jerusalem where the Temple was, maybe Bethlehem where Jesus was born (a stable in a cave), maybe the top of Chief Mountain where Star Boy led his friend off into the Sky Realm. Almost always gods are connected to a place, often a high place, a mountain. Or a cave.

So the next thing is what gives a person the courage to go out in search of life, what draws them back in the end, and what steadies them on their trip. This is where I “locate” liturgy. Because I’m taking a playful approach, I now call on the “teddy bear psychologists,” especially D.W. Winnicott and his attachment theories, his ideas about how a teddy bear (or “blankie” or “binkie”) can give us the courage as toddlers to leave mother’s lap and grow up. I recommend “Playing and Reality,” by D.W. Winnicott.

(Dare I suggest the teddy bear as Jesus? Probably not. No one would stand for a crucified baby bear. When these ideas get pulled up from deep within our culture, sometimes they are like the sea creatures pulled up from the depths: they explode.)

The next book I’d use would be John Bowlby’s work on “attachment.” (I can’t find my copy right now. It’s also closely related to Harlow’s work on baby monkeys with stuffed “mothers” where he demonstrated that the infant attaches to the mother for her comforting and shelter, not for the milk. I gave that book away.) People attach to other people, but also places and things and their homes and all the sensory things that create the world in their head. Liturgy should help people do two things: locate their center so as to remain attached to it, and find the idea -- the one a teddy bear stood for -- that will give them the courage to explore the edge of their circle. It is going back and forth between the edge and the center, I maintain, that makes a human being strong.

Winnicott talks about a toddler on his mother’s lap at some event -- maybe a potluck supper somewhere -- who gets curious and leaves the safety of his mom (taking along his stuffed bear as a kind of replacement), venturing out into the space until he or she is startled and suddenly realizing how far away he is, hurrying back to bury his face in his mother’s lap. You’ve seen that many times. One of my cats was like that as a kitten -- she’d venture out to the back of the yard, then panic and come back mewing to be reassured. It’s a very deep pattern, not needing words. Not needing words. Hang onto that.

If this were a real academic thesis, I’d have to carefully reread these books, note the pages where I found these ideas, and specify exactly how I think they fit together. Right now I’m just blazing a trail for later work. Also, if these were a real thesis, I’d have to find advisors who knew and understood these works, but I’m working in a cross-disciplinary way that would make it very difficult. This will be even more true when I get deeper into brain theory and Plains Indian religious assumptions. If you aren't following exactly, that's okay.

1 comment:

Art Durkee said...

Another very ancient symbol is the quartered circle: the circle with a cross in it. This shows up in petroglyphs in the desert Southwest, but it also shows up in the chalk markings in England, and in some other regions around the world. it's an ancient motif in Indian art, too.

Various meanings given, depending who you ask: the four directions; the medicine hoop or wheel; a solar symbol; etc. It's a symbol that for me has almost as much resonance as the labyrinth.

Symbols are energetic and/or spiritual maps, as you know. They encapsulate in a visual, tactile way, the way the soul moves through the world of light. (Of course, according to the quantum theory, it's all light: matter is just slower energy.)

The circle with a dot in the middle I have seen given the meaning of Earth, of the four elements, as well the ones you're talking about.