Sunday, August 19, 2012

"REINVENTING THE SACRED" by Stuart A. Kauffman

My rather over-the-top endorsement of the biologically-based stream of thought that “natural theology” follows may not suit everyone because it displaces the mystery and wonder of a created world by morphing the creator from his traditional anthropomorphic form into a “force” that unfolds from within the world.  It is certainly potent for me, but there ARE alternatives that are just as modern.

One can be represented by Stuart A. Kauffman’s “Reinventing the Sacred: a New View of Science, Reason and Religion.”  (2008)  Until recently Kauffman was a little over a hundred miles to the north of me at the University of Calgary where he was the founding director of the Institute for Biocomplexity and Informatics.  Though he refers often to emergence and “bio” is in the title of his Institute, I was dismayed to discover that he is coming from what one might call the Pythagorean school of thought.  That is, math.  I am innumerant.  And as much as I’ve always been intrigued by physics, I can’t follow the math proofs.

Kauffman, like a lot of the most modern thinkers, doesn’t much like the C.P. Snow division between science and humanities, but the truth is that the division has much to do with math and the kind of mind that can do and enjoy math versus the mind that goes to image, narrative, metaphor, and so on.   The dustcover flap of Kauffman’s book claims:  “Complexity theorist Stuart Kauffman does not propose somehow to insert “god” into a cold, lifeless universe.  Instead he argues that the qualities of divinity that we hold sacred -- creativity, meaning, purposeful action -- are in fact properties of the universe that can be investigated scientifically.”

Much of Kauffman’s discussion is about economics and work -- the practicalities of being a cell or a creature.  That’s fine and entirely justified, but for me it’s all numbers and numbers have no experiential content.  I realize this is not true for everyone.  I worked with a cashier who loved numbers because, she said, they “danced,” each with its own personality and intentions.  But to me they were squiggles so my work performance was pretty bad.

I’m having a similar problem with “Game of Thrones,” which I’m reading just to find out why people like it so much.  I was surprised to discover it was just the same thing as the European history everyone claims to despise in high school:  repetitious patterns of generations struggling for dominance through sex, power and genetics.  True enough, there are charismatic megamammals and worry about weather, descriptions of medieval-type halls where Beowulf would feel at home and clothing that ranges from cotton to silk to fur.  Everyone has names that are slid versions of familiar ones -- a consonant changed, a syllable reversal.  And we understand that we are to identify with the oddball, the displaced, the “atypically advantaged.”

Likewise, without knowing the conventional chain of logic through European history of science (I will grant “English-speaking” as a partial synonym) and thus following the names put down as stepping stones -- even with coaching from Wikipedia -- Kauffman can’t really be appreciated.  I fear that, for me, the little flock of yellow finches that surrounded me in hopes of being sprinkled when I watered my underachieving tomatoes will be better clues to Creation.  The two approaches don’t conflict because they don’t have much to do with each other except that they are both the experiences of human beings.

Which is why my current iteration (version) of “The Bone Chalice” is even more emphatically based on human experience.  It is the intense and meaningful experience that is spiritual so then the spiritual becomes the life-blood of religion, though each religion claims to be able to provide the most intense and meaningful spiritual experience to its devotees.  Some of them can.

We often try to define religion as a moral discipline in the Abrahamic way:  the Ten Commandments and all that.  Or in the New Testament (which right wingers blow off) in a way recommended by Jesus that some think he found in a Buddhist context.  The Tao is the most poetic system, along with perhaps the Hopi.  The Aztec is the most savage and I won’t suggest any others of that ilk.  Check your newspaper.

I’m stepping away from math, history, institutions, and morality, in order to approach spirituality in a new way that is just now available, the beginnings of a science of experience.  There’s no sense in claiming we now know all about it, simply because certain areas of the brain light up when we think of high-flown concepts,  much less that we should try to describe experiments as given truths.  But the evidence that is coming in has encouraged us to turn from trying to find what caused the experience of the sacred in the “real” world -- which is a real enough experience as explicated by Mircea Eliade -- to a reflection on the instrument, the human responder, including mind, body and psyche in toto.  We have a new appreciation that the body and brain BOTH entwined are our “mind,” and that the receiver determines what can be received.

I won’t be able to use Kauffman’s ideas but that doesn’t mean they aren’t valuable for people who think in his way.  In this work about managing spiritual experience I don’t want to stop others from working on moral issues or history, or from functioning in the context of institutions, whether as enforcers or as reformers.  I don’t even want to recuse myself.  I just want it clear that I’m not addressing those things.

One of the things the University of Chicago (both Kauffman and I attended there) teaches is to define one’s method, one’s boundaries.  It’s harder to do when the “edge” cuts horizontally through the “silos” of university departments.  DeleuzeGuattarian thought explicitly addresses the need to do this, going sideways, calling it “rhizomous” thinking: a pattern of root nodes and connecting stolons, a familiar pattern in the garden.  Those dependent on their living and status in the silos of established departments will talk about “bricolage” (which is not considered a good thing) or will simply not be able to see what they’re looking at.

The best thing about spiritual experience is that it owes little to any historical or institutional body.  It is not confined to people with expertise or even literacy.  Wherever there have been human beings, there is spiritual awareness.  Even in outer space.  BUT not every human being can feel it.  I’m not sure why, which makes this enquiry interesting.  Somewhere between abiding peace and ultimate orgasm is the spirit.

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