INTRODUCTION to “The Poetics of Liturgy”
This theory of liturgy is hopefully useful for all cultures, all human beings. It is not unique to any institution, dogma or tradition, but desires to uncover the actual phenomenon of feeling and managing the sacred, both “entering” and “leaving.” It could be called “spiritual technology.” This is theory meant as a tool for analysis, but also as a guide for creation. It is indebted to comparative religion but, perhaps more than that, the mystery of sensory feeling as the substrate of behavior, which involves new studies in evolutionary brain function. That is, culture as shaped by the strategies of the brain to receive and organize sensation in order to produce behavior.
This way of thinking is not the same as those that talk about the evolution of the physical brain from reptile to mammal to human. Nor is it the same as what is revealed by fMRI studies of where certain thoughts activate the brain. It is not available through internal reflection of one's own thoughts. Rather these are things like face recognition, empathy, deep universal taboos, and certain other identifiable performances that can be tested but not attached to physiology. Most of them are probably evolved fairly recently and are supported in the forebrain. They include the skills of art and would encourage social success.
This is not theory for the individual but for community gathering. It will define “theos” as merely ONE culture-bound concept of the spiritual: that is, this thought does not depend upon God or Christianity or any other form of “theos.” But they include “theos” -- they are not A-theistic. They could be used in a conventional small town mainstream church. (I’ve done it.) The original idea came out of a retreat workshop for Unitarian Universalists, solid citizens considered leaders.
My own bias is towards the extreme, which is often vivid enough to make a point sharply. I have a strong personal prejudice against the pretty, the facile, the accustomed, the bourgeois, which can diminish or even eliminate the feeling of sacredness. Though there is plenty of justification for respite in a harsh and tragic world, anodynes are not enough. Religion should be more than the opium of the people. What’s more, religion should not be just another commodity in a mercantile world. I take it to be an aspect of humanness that is not dependent on authority or wealth.
This approach privileges immanental ideas of sacredness -- that the holy naturally wells up from within the experienced world and is not the product of some other-worldly force. But that does not exclude a sense of the transcendent (which I believe is NOT the opposite of the immanental, but rather “her sister”) and, indeed, may give access to that feeling of being in harmony with some force far greater than human minds can grasp. Evasion of the dark side can mean diminishing the truly powerful energies for salvation, creation, and life-force that ought to be the artesian sources of immanentalist hope. If one looks at the origins of the big “Book” based religions, so institutionalized, so focused on preserving their own interests, so buttressed with dogma, it will soon be clear that the roots of them are “watered with blood.” To tie satin ribbons on them is bizarre and defeating. Yet we need some way to withstand the crushing forces of life.
Neither am I including the closely related field of study based on entheogens, substances that are mind-altering. I do not question or discredit them, but they are far beyond my expertise. I am agnostic about their use, but I am interested in what the brain does under their influence.
What I call the “structure” of consciousness is called the “architecture” of consciousness by Lida Cosmides and John Tooby.
(www.psych.ucsb.edu/research/cep/primer.html) I believe we are referring to approximately the same thing, the physiological basis of “feelings” which underlie both the un- or sub-conscious functioning of the brain and conscious rational thought. They are probably evolved ways that the brain works that were “invented” and “built in” during the long hunter/gatherer period of human history. They make us human. This is NOT the usual talk about reptile-mammal-human brains, but rather about unconscious mental strategies that were not possible before the cerebellum and forebrain developed.
The mechanism of the whole body is reciprocating and enmeshed binaries -- that is, when one goes up, the other goes down and vice versa. This is true of the way both the electrochemical nerve impulses work and the way the hormones in the lymph work. (e.g. epinephrine/norepinephrine, or testosterone/estrogen.) It’s an IO system like computers. But there are algorithms and overriding mechanisms. I am proposing that the sensation of “sacredness” in contrast to the ordinary (Eliade calls it “profane.”) is one of these evolved “domains” that begins to develop possibly as early as in utero and that it works on this seesaw principle.
Further, I’m proposing that the most fundamental perceptual dyad concepts are the most primal, the first formed in the brain: light/dark, hot/cold, dropped/secure, distant/near. These pairs can be found in the testimony of mystics, such as St. Bernadette, and are often described as paradoxically present at the same time. Often they are attached to an Entity, identified as God, a parent and lover. (We know that infants are born with “face-seeking” though it can be triggered with a Mr. Smiley drawn on a paper plate.) These earliest domains or processes may be what reappear in dreams and death. Perceiving them or even approaching them, sensing them, may be what gives us a feeling of the holy.
In the beginning I was reflecting on my own moments of intense “valorization” to use Eliade’s word. When I preached about this, people would come up after the service to tell me about their own moments. They wanted to know what they meant. Now and then I would manage a liturgy that seemed to connect people to that feeling. What was going on? A classmate asked me, “How do you DO that?” Thus the need to develop a “technology of the spiritual.” This is a bare beginning.
Feelings are recorded in the brain by attaching them to the sensory impulses in that moment of the Felt. This is why a sense impact (smell, musical phrase) can call up a whole emotional moment from the past. It’s the coding, the filing for later access in the brain. The newest theory is that this happens by something called “quantum tunneling.” I won’t even attempt to explain but you could look it up. Try looking for theories about the sense of smell that use the ideas of Luca Turin. It's at the level of individual cells, their internal structure and ability to link.
Consciousness shifts all the time, adjusting to new perceptions coming in -- new decisions about behavior bring more information. Much of these perceptions are processed below our awareness. Stephen Pinker suggests that the importance of consciousness in evolution is that it supports language so that perceptions can be shared with other people. I would assert that any patterned sensory construct (e.g. art form -- whether it’s spoken, sung, printed, painted or sculpted, danced, architecture, film or even some games) can convey a consciousness or persuade a person to enter a consciousness domain that taps underlying assumptions about the world: the architecture of the brain. The “floor” and “foundation” might be acquired by the brains of all humans. Others will depend on the individual circumstances of the person in their culture. Liturgy, then, is a patterned sensory construct that reaches deep levels of brain processing, evoking felt meaning.
If someone’s architecture of consciousness -- their developed construct of what goes on, how and why -- is challenged by change or realization of discrepancies, there will need to be a bringing to consciousness or possibly a re-experiencing of the area needing to be reinterpreted. Liturgy, like play or psychotherapy or theatre or other designed experiences, can do this. Memories, even sub-conscious ones as in PTSD, can get stuck in repetition, triggering the same behavior over and over. This set of theories is not meant to stipulate harm versus healing. Torture can be a liturgy. Pain is a sensory experience.
Human material cultures, which supply the sensory content of liturgy, evolve out of ecologies. Communion in the Christian sense is not universal because not every culture provides bread and wine -- these substances are specific to their ecology. An Inuit cannot be a religious vegetarian, nor can he worship trees: there aren’t any. Nor is eating bread (“This is my flesh which you should eat in remembrance of me.”) the same thing as eating whale blubber. Jesus was not a whale. Nor is communion really understood without the long cultural background of flesh sacrifice and the necessity of giving it up that accompanied the relatively recent leaving of hunter/gatherer material culture in order to accept a grain and vineyard culture. But communal meals are nearly universal.
Both the strength and vulnerability of the Christian paradigm is in the centrality of the family: father, mother, child, which is potentially universal to all humans. Those faces. Also, it uses the very early domain of community (people eating together) and the evolved capacity to support and participate in a group of about a hundred people, a congregation. These are not unique. Other cultures have equivalents, but there is not always an exact match. The Blackfeet Napi or Ninah are not the same as Jesus or God, though they have come to be conflated over the centuries in the interest of assimilation. Sharing sarvisberry soup is not the same thing as communion. We need to understand why this is true without accusations of heresy or paganism. This analysis should help to accept what seems bizarre and unreasonable, separating what is valid from what is just adventurism.