Wednesday, December 30, 2009


My view of religion is probably best called “emergent” or “immanentalist” or “experientially based” or “up-welling” -- some category that so far is poorly defined though the actuality is always around. Institutionalized religion wants dogma, scripture, priesthood, history . . . funding. What many call “spirituality” doesn’t need any of that. The hardest thing is bringing it up to the level of words, since most of it exists in us as pre- or sub- verbal concepts.

The human brain begins to develop months before birth and, if electrochemical activity is an indicator for thinking, babies think right from that beginning. They are aware -- react to -- movement of the mother, sound, some level of light. The thinking is “filamental,” meaning recorded in the growth of axons from nerve cells making connects and also susceptible to something like mood, supplied mostly by the hormone and enzyme status of the mother, which can affect the way the axons join up. Genetic developmental patterns also pertain. These connections are preserved to some extent lifelong, though they tell us that in the first years all the potential connections that go unused are edited out. The very first months and years of experience after birth shape the way the brain thinks.

These early pre-verbal concepts are the most basic and deepest of our psyches and, I would suggest, are what we access with what we call “spirituality.” They are interacting dualities: being lifted and being dropped; an uncomfortable temperature (burning or freezing) and being blood temp warm; blinding light and total darkness; and maybe a few others like too much noise versus quiet. These sensations are prominent in the accounts of mystic visions. “Jesus” or “God” is to some Christians the state of being in the best pre-verbal categories: embraced, warmed, enlightened, surrounded by music. To other religious systems, those same states will exist because they are so deeply human, but they will not have the same names, because language is from culture.

Language develops from the need to describe, ask, answer, indicate, command -- speak to someone else. It is necessarily developed out of that world where the speaker resides (and a baby comes to language) and since slightly different things are important or simply emphasized accidentally, the words for the environment will not be uniform. Maybe twenty words for snow and maybe twenty words for sand, because the people in that place observe carefully and make distinctions that people in other places can’t perceive and don’t have to, since probably the tiny differences don’t indicate anything useful where the outsider is.

So Jesus speaks of grapes and lambs. His key ceremony, communion, is expressed in wine and bread, which are meant to evoke blood and flesh, the original sacrifice that ties the lamb imagery to Jesus’ crucifiction [sic] because human blood and flesh is universal to all human speakers, but lambs are only there for sheepherders. Thus one of the ways to approach my idea of religion as being a specific local interpretation of a human universal (and I mean REALLY universal, not just Christians) is by looking at the big difficulties missionaries have confronted when they tried to take communion to cultures that had no bread or wine. Rice and saki don’t quite make it. And what is bread to a culture (Inuit) that eats only flesh? What would the significance be of a communion of Twinkies and Coca Cola? Or think of the woman who was prevented by her denomination from serving communion, though she was studying in a seminary and was asked to serve communion in her turn: she served a bread and water communion, which calls out for interpretation as punishing imprisonment and the denial of nourishment.

If these local versions of human universal pre-verbal concepts are strong enough and ingrained early enough, people have a hard time stepping away from them. When others who have other ways suggest that their own way is wrong and they must give it up, the “believer” concludes that the outsiders are wrong, must be converted, eliminated or at least kept out. It’s a temptation to interpret everything in terms of what is already known, like the old Navajo man to whom the Peace Corps volunteer was trying to describe the Empire State Building. The old man asked, “How many sheep can you put in it?” The same with a 747 airplane: the old man asked again, “How many sheep can you put in it?” This is not different from asking about every religion, “what is their god like?”

I interpret deep psychological analysis -- or universalizing poetic instinct -- as having the capacity to take people to the pre-verbal level where such seeming contradictions can be reconciled. I take intense liturgy as also having this capacity, when as in Victor Turner’s theories, people are taken over the limen (threshold) into the virtual place in the mind where pre-verbal concepts exist (play, art, devotion, dream) and are susceptible to revision as well as reinforcement. But much of today’s Christian worship is about words: dogma, theory, mantras, defined terms. Asians do better. Autochthonus people probably the best, so long as they are still living on their original lands. It’s being removed that drives people out of their gut feelings and up into their heads. Christianity has been removed from the original homeland many times, and -- even if you went back -- it’s not as it was 2,000 years ago.

It is living in contact with one’s environment that causes the upwelling of pre-verbal ideas. This is why material culture can be so important. Before being mapped into words, ideas usually are held in our minds through sensory memory, which is the raw material of the arts, play and liturgy. This is why there is so much overlap. I would even suggest that the child’s play is what becomes art -- that art is deep and serious play -- and that liturgy is art that addresses the deepest human concerns. All three can be guided by basic principles, such as entering the liminal state, feeling for the most intense concepts, and then leaving the liminal state into ordinary (profane) life. “Art is the communication of the relationship between a human and the universe.”

We venerate religions based on books. But what would it be like to touch a spirituality based on a Vook of images, music, movement, speaking humans? It would mean a whole new level of art and play.

No comments: