Sunday, December 18, 2011


Working on the manuscript I’m calling “The Molten Chalice,” I found my notes for Robert Schreiter’s class: CTU T-300 “Structures of Religious Experience: The Primitive Traditions.” The file included two papers. I got A’s on both of them! I will take advantage of my ability to “publish” here, so I can brag. But also, I find that in the last thirty years since I took this class (Nov. ’80), I’ve changed my mind very little. I don’t know whether that means I’d struck on the Great Truths or whether it means I’m too stubborn to update. These excerpts will go into the manuscript.


Human experience consists of three levels: the concrete sensory world, the cultural world that is constructed by and shared with other people -- at least those of the same culture -- and the private pre- or sub-verbal world of the individual which is most real in sleep or reverie.

There is a special dimension to all these levels of experience: that of the Holy or the Other. When it is recognized in the concrete world, we describe the sensations involved as Sacred, giving access to a special depth. When the Holy is part of culture, we call it religion and often identify it with an institution, a structured group of people who agree on a description of what is Sacred. Weaving in and out of all these aspects is the private world of images, yearning, and identities that make a person uniquely human.

If all three levels of human experience are congruent, or at least complementary, the human being is freed -- though within the givens of the system -- to explore, to dare, to persist, to love, and to create. If the three levels are contradictory, or if there are double-binds within the levels, or if any level is confused (if any of the three levels is totally destroyed, the being will not survive), then the human being is exposed to a unique kind of anguish: a loss of meaning. Every resource will be thrown into an attempt to seek or create a new meaning, even if it is a limited -- even painful -- one. . . .

Secular art, however, deals with the symbolic intimate world of the individual, activating the images and dreams that lie hidden in all of us, and developing them into cultural conventions and structures. Art can come close to religious mysticism and a secular culture must reduce art to the “private” realm or else convert it to the uses of the state, as in Soviet tractor art. Secularity, then, is on the cultural level and may be circumvented either by going to the individual emotional level or by going to the sensory level: moments of great insight or poignance or beauty may become religious. . . .

The religious leader is a person who is sensitive to and skilled in gaining access to the holy on all three levels of human experience. S/he is a poet of experience. A religious leader is separated from the ordinary religious believer in three ways (these are based on the shaman model):

1. The intensity of the experience of the Other, the Most Holy. (There is no need to pretend this is a person.)

2. The special self-discipline and commitment necessary to handle this “charge.”

3. The special body of historical and technical knowledge about the art of gaining access to the Holy dimension of life on all three levels.

Ideally, the religious leader is able to reconcile conflicting systems, either by showing which is “right” or by synthesizing a new system (like Bahai or Konkokyo, which reconciles Christian elements with Shinto concepts). S/he is able to identify legitimate exceptions to a conventional system when it is “moral” to defy the laws of the prevailing culture. S/he is able to defend the system when it offers no explanation -- as when a child suffers for no reason -- and to seek ways of reforming the system when it has broken down or become outdated. The religious leader is not only able to mediate between cultural religious institutions, but also between the “religious” and the “secular.” S/he knows better than others how to activate the Holy dimension of any level of human life, though the Other cannot always be called at will. . . .

In a pluralistic, metaphorically overwrought world, the community of like-minded people becomes very important for the health of the individual. Continuity and rhythm in daily life, agreement and familiarity with the artistic elements of worship, caring and understanding between persons are the desiderata of a religious community in any culture. . .

In today’s religious community, particularly in a pluralistic and partly secular context, the professional leader cannot hope to be all things to all people, and to make such an attempt would be destructive all round. Rather, the minister calls out the ministry of the people to each other. This means it is necessary for all to take the time and make the effort to discover what Norman Holland (a literary critic with a bias to psychoanalytic method) calls the “poems in persons.” Each of us carries a paradigmatic metaphor at a nearly unconscious level which is the very heart of our identity. More than personal history, the physiological nature or the social situation of a person, this private poem is what can be reached, supported, or transformed by religious experience. [I am now identifying this with “liminal space” as well as the “workspace platform” in the brain.] It is the source of genius. It is the axis mundi of the individual.

If this human center can be seen as a “seminary,” a seed-bed for growing future nourishment and beauty, then around it stretches the fields, pastures and vineyards of the community, the “commons” where culture is shared and negotiated. And farthest away from this known land is the cosmic wilderness, the Mysterium Tremendum. Much of human life consists of a metaphorical quest out from the safe heart of the known, across the world shared with others, to that tangled “Unknown” and back again. The Other is most accessible at the secret point of most uncontrollable innerness, and the unknown periphery of numinous Outerness. . . .

When I was doing my CPE, the two questions dying people asked me in various forms were: “What has my life meant?” and “Who will remember me?” At the very least a religious leader must be able to see that meaning and promise to remember it.

No comments: