People ask me whether I believe in God. I say no. Then they try to talk me out of it. Finally they talk themselves into my point of view. Then they go back to asking me whether there is God. They can neither accept that there is not nor that there is. For them it is an unresolvable problem. For me it is simple.
They think: Minister = God. Church = God. Morality = God. Love = God. Since they don’t want to do away with any of those fine things, they do not -- CAN not -- do away with “God.” Also, they believe that God protects them because if they didn’t believe that, they would be paralyzed. They can’t think of an alternative. Atheism is so stigmatized it is unthinkable.
I’m not really talking about God. I’m talking about my manuscript about liturgy which was generously read by an expert in the field. He decided not to publish it and pointed me back at the UU’s since most of my examples came from there because that was the denomination in which I was ordained and spent a decade. He did not point me back at the Blackfeet ceremonies since to him what counts are denominations. Denominations, academics, prestige, conferences, endorsement. That’s what counts. So I don’t. Count.
In the past when I worked on this paper, I was following my own line of thought. Now it is clear that my task is to go back and rewrite it in a way that others can assimilate. It will be like trying to persuade people who don’t WANT to believe there is a God, that there is no God while all the time they can’t help thinking that there is. That is, I’ve got to see it from their point of view and figure out where the blockages are.
The first one is the constant use of word etymology to define worship/liturgy/ritual/ceremony. Over and over I read the roots of these words ("worth-ship", "to bind", "the work of the people"), and yet they are not that enlightening. Not even entirely consistent since the roots are so old their meanings have worn and shifted.
There are two BIG problems with word etymology. One is that what I’m trying to do is to escape words, to get away from the dominance of book, sermon, lesson, commandment because they are the methods of institutions. In the West, religions are all by definition from a revelatory historical book, which are mostly accumulations stolen from each other. Important as written laws and principles and stories might be, they are NOT what I’m trying to talk about. I want to focus on the EXPERIENCE of the Holy which I believe is in the human brain, a phenomenon that can be a far more enlightening guide to reality. If there is anything we can call reality.
The second thing is that our word etymology is always based on the Indo-European heritage. I am trying to escape THAT. I want to think about the raw up-against-it sensory experience of specific ecologies. NOT one more rehash of historical interpretation and records of begats, that worship of genealogy, that justification by inheritance.
So, I’m repeating: I’m against the word-etymology approach to liturgy because it is embedded in institutions and it is predominantly indo-European, which excludes all indigenous and most Asian thought-systems, to say nothing of spontaneous accidental events. WORDS and their definitions and origins are a big part of what is keeping spiritual experience so pot-bound/root-bound.
There’s another force which is not that of the priestly scholars who own the Book but a competing understanding of what spiritual experience is about. It is the conviction that there is a supernatural world or force and that liturgy/worship/ceremony IS access to it, direct experience (possibly control) with something beyond human beings. This is directly opposite to my premise that the experience of the holy is in the human being and its relationship to the sensory world. NOT access to some mystical source, though that’s what it feels like, like an empowerment. I do not want to let magic into the conversation. At this point some become worried that I will accidentally call down the Wrath on us.
This worry emerges especially in New Age discussions of religion among indigenous people. They believe SO strongly that they are touching another world rather than experiencing a molecular phenomenon in their own brains, even when they have taken drugs they call “entheogens.” Every mention of a shaman, sweat lodge, a Bundle Opening, and they go off in pursuit of this conviction of supernatural access, which they consider an indication of virtue and value. If there is no evidence of this connection, no honoring of it, they are deeply hurt. Even Grimes’ gentle nudging about “parashamans” devastates their sense of value.
They are not slow to make healing old grandfathers, special guides who help them, out of sorcerers and charlatans in cultures no modern person can understand. They have a little problem with Incan priests plunging obsidian knives into breasts and dragging out hearts, so they just don’t think about that part. Although, there is a certain kind of person who likes fiddling along with Satan much better than singalong with Jesus. The clothes are better, for one thing, and who wouldn’t rather have a black panther on a leash instead of having to lug around a lamb. It’s also interesting that Lucifer welcomes women a lot more easily than the temple priests do.
Everyone agrees with the Turner/von Gennep idea of stepping over the limen into liminal time and then back out. As a theory. Some even have an idea how to do that. But they CANNOT grasp that it is a shift of consciousness in the brain -- not a special building or terrain dedicated to religion. You can’t OWN a consciousness, but you can own a church and insist that it not be taxed because it is special. This is what religion IS to most people: an institution with a building.
Harder to explain and justify is the two-part piece that has been in the Christian Mass from the earliest days and that Von Ogden Vogt claimed he got from Isaiah: the thing about dimension that I call the “dilation of the spirit” -- usually presented as confession followed by pardon. Not personal absolution, but acknowledgment of the anguished tragedy of this world against the human evidence that life is sacred and ongoing. Tillich is good on this, insisting on the Ultimate, to counter what Annie Dillard called “little bitty statues to little bitty gods.” In short, golden calves.
In the end, then, in the end, it is a stream (a path, a way, a Tao) and if one stays in the stream of life doing what allows one to live and grow, doing what supports everyone else and the whole interwoven world in its ongoingness, then the chances are good of being struck by the holiness of simple existence. As one person put it, each creature should do what they are good at, because that’s what their purpose must be, and so the purpose of humans is to enjoy creation.
Wait a minute. someone just snuck God the Creator back into this. Cut that out!