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Sunday, April 08, 2012

EASTER AS A STAIRWAY


The text for this little Easter post is a video from TED. How hip is that?

http://www.ted.com/talks/jonathan_haidt_humanity_s_stairway_to_self_transcendence.html


Remember “Harmonic Convergence,” the idea that a lot of forces would come together and change the world? Well, I guess that’s about as good an explanation of Easter as any. I’m reading in several different “domains”: brain theory, cosmology, sexuality, ecology, and a few others. I’ll post the list of thinkers later on, but this TED talk by Jonathan Haidt is where I want to begin today.


The way to handle so much info is often by using an image, which is what Haidt, a good teacher, does very well. His controlling metaphor is a staircase that goes up from a door and on the other side is a flood of light, presumably transcendence or “heaven,” which might be either a state of mind (bliss) or a real “place” of some sort. It’s a reward and it seems sacred. It’s a variation on Jacob’s Ladder.


George Macdonald, Universalist minister and children’s book writer, used it in “The Princess and the Goblin.” There is a castle on a mountain with a stairway that winds up to the tower dwelling of the many-times-great-grandmother. That’s where the Princess goes. Under the castle is a passageway that winds down through the mountain in coal mining tunnels. Haidt’s stairway that goes up is matched by Orpheus’ passageway into the earth, an image that often appears in Cinematheque’s video work. For Haidt, the sacred is “up,” but there are also cultures -- going back to neolithic times -- that find the route to the sacred is “down” into a cave. That’s where Curdy, the brave miner’s son, goes to confront the goblins.


Stairs going up into an unsuspected space is sometimes said to be a woman’s dream and certainly I dream it a lot. The stairs I dream about are always barn stairs, open 2 X 12 steps, dusty with chaff. Sometimes they rise from an old grist mill or threshing floor (I can hear the water wheel and the grindstone) and sometimes an empty church with no pews, old board floors, and a simple lecturn on a low platform. What I find upstairs is most often an Edwardian hotel corridor. Sometimes a greenhouse atrium with sunlight flooding in.


There are some concepts where I would depart from Haidt. I think he misinterprets memes to say they are “parasites,” implying they are outsiders and toxic when in fact, they are small units of culture that operate in a genomic way: triggering potentials that were already there, part of the creature as well as the culture. Of course, a bad match can cause as much trouble as a mutated gene.

More dubious is his illustration of evolution as “big ‘uns eat little ‘uns.” That reinforces the idea that “fitness” is about “power over” rather than the value of “fittingness” which is about reaching accommodations and coexistence in the same ecology. We used to have a fish pond at the entrance to the Scriver Museum of Montana Wildlife. In the spring we’d go catch trout to put in there. By August there was only one big fish because he ate all the littler ones, but then, unless we added food, the big fish starved to death. Haidt’s green blobs that eats all the blue blobs had ought to hope for blob food arriving from elsewhere. Blob God? Blob manna? In truth, survivors are those who fit the ecology and who can change when the ecology changes -- learn to eat something new or find ways to trim their appetite or leave.


Maybe Haidt is somehow contaminated by his context, which is a university campus. He worries about “free riders.” People who don’t pay their way or earn their keep. I think this kind of thing is what leads to the locked doors, the airlock that keeps new ideas from creeping in. The idea becomes even more evil when it begins to advocate the elimination, punishment and criminalization of whatever categories the current authorities define as unnecessary.


In the end, Haidt put aside, understanding and supporting the operation of the brain in its currently evolved state, which is meant to give us connections to each other through compassion and understanding, should also give us a “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe” in which we learn that it is our participation -- the going to and fro, the climbing up and descending down -- the motion through the universe that gives us our sense of the sacred. If glorious columns of light strike us on the head and light our way, it’s of no use unless we open our eyes to see. The most precious chalice is the face of a beloved person. On the other hand, if we are in the pitchy dark even deep beneath the sea, if we open our eyes wide we might see the bioluminescent bacteria outlining a diving sperm whale. Best of all is when you reach out a hand in the dark and find another hand to clasp.


They say our brains have evolved to handle the social challenges of a group of about 150 to 200. That’s about the size of an old-time Blackfeet band or a comfortable church congregation. The present researchers say that brains are double and in conversation with themselves. This is a different kind of split than sacred (up) and profane (down). The brain side that controls writing (opposite to the side of the hand with which you write) has a centre called by some “The Interpreter.” It accepts all the sensory information sent to it, sorts it according to what it knows (rules), and tells the person what to do. Somewhere else in the brain, evidently on the other side, is “The Confabulator.” It is a story teller and its challenge is to explain what happens in terms of stories. Easter is on this side. The Interpreter (theological religion) knows that now is scientifically spring, knows the sun is coming up earlier, knows that there is birth all around and has received dogma about it. This is where the New Atheists pick their quarrels. The Interpreter can get stuck in schism.


But the Confabulator (spiritual poetry) says it is sacred, it is reason to rejoice, there is meaning to life (join the dance) and it is beautiful. Why get stuck in one story when there are so many wonderful tales? Haidt says it's “self-transcendence” and calls it ecstasy. The Confabulator embraces us all. Glory hallelujah!

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