Sunday, March 21, 2010


An email from a divinity school student came at just the right time. I was using my new bright orange, alligator hide, 3-ring binder to sum up my understanding of some of the stuff I work on and she was just the right person to tell about it. In case there are others like her out there, here’s what some of my notes look like.

DELEUZEGATTARIAN THOUGHT: I’m finding that people have been taught not to be ironic about theological stuff involving people with long names (especially when they’re two people’s names jammed together) so I’ll have to tell you outright that some of this stuff is funny and meant to tease. I have two official books by these two philosophical guys now, but if you want to read up, I would recommend starting with Rhizomes: Cultural Studies in Emerging Knowledge ( which is an online journal. Costs you nothing. The reason for reading up on the hard versions is so that I can write up Cinematheque, the Vooking and art group for boys at risk, for an article in their September issue.

HERACLITUS: Always a hero. So far back in history that much of his work is lost, but the main message is that all is change and process. Even change itself varies in rate and strategy. When a person accepts this, life goes better. When I preached about Heraclitus, I always talked “fire and honey”: the sweetness of the flow of time that burns things away even as it kindles new things. Poetic, eh?

BIBFELDT: This is a nonexistent theologian invented at the University of Chicago Divinity School as a reaction to too much emphasis on Kierkegaard’s unforgiving either/or. Bibfeldt’s name starts with B, which is traditional with many major German theologians on your educated ministers’ bookshelves. John Updike was fond of Barth. By now there is a body of work, some of which purports to be written by this “person” and some of which simply develops his principles, which turn out to be remarkably fruitful. There are Bibfeldt conferences and sometimes he actually appears, bearing a family resemblance to Martin Marty, beloved professor.

MIRCEA ELIADE: These days some feminists are mad at this man who loved women. He’s gone now so he’s a safe target. I don’t quite grasp the issues but it has something to do with the nature of shamanism. It might actually be JOE CAMPBELL they’re angry with. He was another man who loved women; at the women’s university where he taught, the co-eds are said to have leaned against his knees as they sat around him in a circle. Bill Moyers didn’t do this when he interviewed Campbell on PBS.

Eliade and Campbell are accumulators and sorters (aggregators and curators) of religious experience and do a lot of reconciliation among world religions. They dive for a very deep level of experience, like that duck (or muskrat -- depends on your tribe) that goes down to the bottom of the watery world to bring up the first Earth. Just the simple grasp of the idea that sacred experience feels different from “profane” experience and that such a thing can be as simple as standing in a doorway (transitional, liminal) gets a person off the dogma kick.

I think it was reading Eliade or maybe PAUL TILLICH that got me started on my own diagram of the spiritual universe. Instead of the Christian Cross -- which depends upon the intersection of the vertical (reaching for God) with the horizontal (living in the world) which creates a point that tempts some Christians into trying to fence off and charge admission -- my schema depends on a dot (which is really a pole, that vertical going both up and down) which is your own center point rather than an institution, and a circle which is as far as you can reach out into the unknown. The goal then is inclusion: to trek out to the edge of the known world (Do you know Tim Barrus?), always coming back to your center.

ROBERT J. SCHREITER, JAMES HILLMAN, and THOMAS MOORE extend and explain this sort of thing at length, though Moore recently had the bad luck to publish a book on the spiritual contributions of golf just as Tiger Woods hit the wall -- er, the fire hydrant. (There’s symbolism in that!)

CHAOS THEORY is something I need to go back and look at again. I need to read up on fractals, which are what make the northern lights and the map of a coastline look so beautiful. One of the ideas is that things are made up of a lot of small things and the small things often repeat the patterns of the big inclusive pattern. It’s paisley, really. But it also has a lot to do with narrative patterns, like life-stories.

There’s something in here that relates to Freud’s idea of “repetition compulsion,” that a person has to repeat a story until getting it resolved. A principle of symphonies, actually. I don’t find a great deal that’s helpful in Freud (indeed, after watching Adam Curtis’ 4 part series about Freud, Bernays, and what they invented ( ) I’m highly doubtful. The helpful idea is that much of what a human thinks is not accessible to the conscious mind. The demonic development is that you can control a human being, or even zillions of them at the same time, if you can make a shrewd guess about what’s in that unconscious part. No drugs or coercion necessary -- just advertising, really. Spin, you know.

So that brings me to the last set of thinkers I have room for: THIRD FORCE and OBJECT RELATIONS psychological systems. They’re like Christian denominations, each claiming a different variation on roughly the same themes. The two issues I address most often are boundaries and intimacy. They are universal human issues because they emerge out of our relationships with the people who raise us. (Not necessarily the people whose genes and womb-environment we had.) Some people call this the porcupine problem: how can porcupines get close enough to each other to keep warm (or make babies) without piercing each other with their quills? In the end (so to speak) the only way is through experience, which means you’re going to accumulate some wounds. But if you do a good job of processing, it WILL be possible to be intimate without being hurt.

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