Sunday, September 11, 2011


In all the railing and wailing about “religion” -- which most people erroneously define as a mix of dogma and institutions -- we lose church attendance as a way of managing consciousness.  And yet it has always been powerful, no matter what kind it was or what you did there, and I’m including most kinds of devotion, including private prayer or meditation.  Any scheduled, repetitive, habit-supporting act in a predictable environment, esp. with compatible others, can help to strengthen one’s inner life, one’s identity.  A regular walk in the park, a faithful exercise routine, can work in much the same way, but the presence of others with affinities is helpful, even if it IS peer pressure.  And then there’s meaning.
What I’m going after in the book I call “Poetics of Liturgy” is the patterning of ceremonial experience, for which I use van Gennep’s three-part schema of liminal space:  crossing the threshold to a space of equality and safety in which one can change or confirm, and then leaving again across the threshold.  But I add another double element that I found in the traditional Christian mass where they call it “Confession of Sins” and “Assurance of Pardon.”  It happens when everyone is present and ready to begin whatever else will happen -- but it is preparation.  I take its purpose to be one of “framing,” or “setting the stage,” or, more pretentiously,  “Dilation of the Spirit.”   The goal is to defeat narcissism and anthropomorphism.  This is radically out of sync with a lot of what goes on in contemporary churches that are based on market research.
The idea is to confront the evil (human centered) and tragedy (far beyond human intentions or control) and then, in the face of that, get a firm grip on whatever it is that gives life meaning, persistence, nobility  (a human quality).  This is not cheerleading.  It is about the holocausts, the tsunamis, AIDS, malaria, crazed shooters  -- the abyss.  Not, as one intern minister proposed,  “Saturday night without a date.”  
The Assurance of Pardon in Christian terms is usually God/Jesus and the afterlife.   I take a far more Buddhist point of view: release from the confinement of identity into a merging with existence.  But the Buddhists value calm and acceptance.  This two-part sequence can be more like a hardcore S/M confrontation, passionate and arousing to the point of pain.  A Distention of the Spirit.  Neither will this confrontation build a conventional church, cheerful and prosperous.  In fact, the danger would be Jonestown frenzy for the sake of what should be means, not end, not goal.  The “Dilation of the Spirit” is only preparation.
Suppose one successfully takes a person or group through the wrenching and then calming experience this should be.  Suppose the consciousness of the people in the pews is now judgment-free, willing to consider and change who they are.  What should they be asked to regard?  What message could change the world?  Or is the world changing too much to live in already?  When I was in seminary (‘79-’82), no one else seemed to be interested in these matters.  But the still inscrutable post-modern philosophers who were just beginning to be known have had their impact and the tide has come in my direction, lifting my little boat.  
I’m going to cheat in the way that blogs can.  Here’s an announcement of a conference about exactly this subject, except secular.  Religion has left the space.
Paradoxes of the threshold : literature, place and the environment in 19th-21st century literatures
Université de Louvain (Belgium)
25-26 october 2012
Human beings continuously experience the threshold space between what separates them from and what connects them with the world.  Literature and theatre have never ceased to question this dimension, which fore and foremost involves words, discourses and representations. Immersed in their environment, human subjects however maintain with the latter a relationship that is fundamentally problematic, as exemplified in the multiplicity of forms this relationship can take. Between radical solutions of inclusion (when humans fit in with the world in a mode that is significantly utopian) and exclusion (when they attempt to separate from it) appear a whole range of possibilities: humans colonize the world, denature and even destroy it, convert it,  inhabit it, build it, respect it, submit to it, venerate it ; they fear it to the extent that they feel persecuted by it. The present conference will attempt to highlight specific paradigms (mastery, hospitality, reverence, engulfing, e.g.) that structure human experience (eminently cultural) with what surrounds us, an experience that is inherently paradoxical since it calls for a balance that can not be achieved.
If this paradoxical relationship with the world is considered as an anthropological permanent feature, one can argue that it has been dramatically reinforced since the beginning of the industrial era to the extent that is has lead to aporia. How do literature and theater testify to this crisis? How do these artistic endeavours enable us to rethink these questions? What kind of responses do they offer? These are some of the questions this colloquium will address.
If you’re going to attend, you’ll have to google for time and place.  sent the announcement to the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment.  The simplest summary of the subject is “what the hell are we doing?”  and “where in God’s name are we going?” but without any reference to religion, which may be necessary in order to escape the near-universal lack of understanding now that the old contexts are rubble and the new ones are unbuilt.  Rather than trying to propose some universal content to answer this question, I’m going to the structure of our consciousness.  If we rely merely on content, we will only find conflict.  I find some of these “conferences” are merely prosyletizing for a foregone conclusion.
But if you really crave content, I recommend Huxley’s “The Perennial Philosophy.”   According to Huxley himself, the perennial philosophy is: "the metaphysic that recognizes a divine Reality substantial to the world of things and lives and minds; the psychology that finds in the soul something similar to, or even identical with, divine Reality; the ethic that places [hu]man's final end in the knowledge of the immanent and transcendent Ground of all being; the thing is immemorial and universal. Rudiments of the perennial philosophy may be found among the traditional lore of primitive peoples in every region of the world, and in its fully developed forms it has a place in every one of the higher religions" (The Perennial Philosophy, p. vii).   This is NOT about God or heaven.  Nor the Devil and Hell.  Nor is it about prosperity, being well-adjusted, or getting a date for Saturday night.  Not everyone is up to this much consciousness.  These comments are for those who are.
I hope your liturgist will return you over the threshold much renewed and expanded.

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