Isaiah is a book of the Old Testament and the first of the various writings of prophets collected in the Bible. Modern scholars find that the book is in three parts, first a part about the danger to Jerusalem in Judah; the second, after being conquered, a promise that there will be a return to prosperity; and the third a poetic account of the struggle for a new life. It is, in short, about salvation. It is no surprise if it speaks strongly to people today.
In the Christian Mass and therefore in many derived EuroAmerican orders of service, there is -- just after the call to worship -- a double part called “Confession of Sins” closely followed by “The Assurance of Pardon.” Von Ogden Vogt felt that this was derived from Isaiah. Tillich might have felt that it was a way of addressing ultimacy. Properly handled, the sequence blocks personal anxieties and preoccupations that take us around and around in obsessions with small issues. The task of the brain is to accept information -- guided by sensory input -- and to decide what to do about it. Liturgy, as I am presenting it, is a way of evaluating in order to act, but also a way to experience the deeply felt Holy.
Schreiter, one of my key thinkers, says that one must always look at a culture on its own terms, but in fact Isaiah was pressed into a later template, that of the early Christians who wanted it to prophesy the coming of Jesus, the promised Christ. Thus, the writing found in Isaiah -- often beautiful and resonant -- had an original meaning coming out of what I will say are “contingent circumstances” that has been obscured for ideological reasons by editing and inserting in much the same way that Fundamentalists of all sorts today still edit and insert their ideas into Biblical writing or any other religious writing they can find, from the Book of the Dead to the Rig Veda. Old Testament thinking is agonistic or, as the comment in my New English Bible translation puts it, a lawsuit between the people and God. Jesus wanted to end that.
Things were not going well for Judah in the seven hundreds BC. The Assyrian Empire was pushing Egypt, disrupting the balance of power -- sound familiar? So the first part of Isaiah is saying, “What have we done to deserve this? Is this as bad as it will get?” (Confession of Sins.) And then the second part, sometimes called “The Book of the Consolation of Israel,” offers hope. (Assurance of Pardon.)
In short, this pattern is for the community of memory and hope that is the spine of specific faith theologies drawn from specific times and places and often recorded in writing. It is dogma. It says, “Do what we say and you’ll be okay.” But it is universal enough in structure, that if you fill the abstract two-step with the sensory specifics of the people who are present, it will set the dimensions of worship beyond little daily worries and special interest groups.
Mostly we are accustomed to “the People of the Book” (the Abrahamic traditions) using words for worship, but there is access to much more intense meaning -- before, under, through words -- in the parts of the brain that support the cerebrum’s love of language with feeling and image from earlier anatomy, esp. the limbic system. The work of the liturgist is to find those deeper forces and put them in motion. If this is done successfully, the result will be an experience of holiness.
Among my books is one by Clarence Skinner . a man of the early 19th century, http://www25.uua.org/uuhs/duub/articles/clarencerussellskinner.html , notably “Worship and the Well-Ordered Life,” a slender little volume hardly more than a pamphlet, full of revolution when you read it thinking of fMRI evidence and other neurotheory. Skinner is even more unexpected when one understands that both Unitarianism and Universalism as well as many other mainstream Christian denominations value “learned ministries” so much that ministry and university (both full of words) are nearly joined and, like Skinner, many clergy go back and forth professionally. Skinner surprised me by locating worship in EXPERIENCE, which is what the “enthusiastic” (inspired) clergy claim. Of course, in their revulsion from Calvinism, Unitarians used their minds and Universalists used their hearts.
Conservatives don’t want human “felt experience” in the equation: they want written law that will prevent change and hold boundaries. The learned ministry -- and many of the professors at the University of Chicago Divinity School were in this category -- are capable of producing marvelous words. Do read a good translation of the Book of Isaiah! It will make you tremble and laugh, rage and dream. BUT it is only words, a terrific story, not your own physical sensory world, which professors call -- pejoratively -- “phenomenology” to imply that only they have the written formulas for something magically transcendent. That’s what they “profess.” The writing is meant to enjoin obedience to the rulers of a world long crumbled. We can learn good lessons from books, but they will not put you in touch with the holiness of the here and now.
Our contemporary problem is that so much of our information is mediated by instruments. We could not detect the dark matter of the universe, the forming and progression of hurricanes, the electrochemical structure of a living cell, or the waves and traces of our own thought without instruments. But we can’t worship microscopes and oscilloscopes -- nor even computers. We CAN transmit sights and sounds without words, so that some could argue that programs like Planet Earth ARE liturgies. There have always been those who insist that nature is the truest access to the sacred, though snake-handling is probably what the philosophers call “the error of misplaced concreteness.”
Still, the patterns that will create what one might call a “landing pad” for the Holy Spirit are known and can be traced across cultures. Clear a safe space. Focus. Move your mind -- which includes body, gut, spine, all parts of the brain and maybe awareness of others -- to that place you recognize as accepting, and then just get out of the way. Open up. Be a chalice and the flame will come.
You might be alone. You might be in an ashram. You might be on top of a mountain ridge. You might be in a circle of drummers. You might be attending a symphony or sitting on a bench in an art gallery. You might be holding a lover or a baby. You won’t be thinking about where you are.
We suppress our feelings, fearing they will be scary or scandalous or embarrassing. One way we block, evade and disguise is with words that prevent us from remembering what touched our fingertips, what wreathed our noses. Borrowing words from other cultures or from the past will not help in this case. One must “Be Here Now” but, curiously when one is stretched full-length against the galaxies, that phrase has no meaning. You can read the book some other time. I wonder where my copy went.