Commonly it is assumed that the sacred is impossible to perceive by science because it is unaccountable, mystical and magical. Of course, there have always been those who thrill to math and find meaning in formulas. I want to take an idiosyncratic path through all this. I am as interested in “show” as “tell.”
Begin with the eukaryote, the tiny one-celled creature with a nucleus that can “have sex,” that is, share genomes with another one-celled creature. No longer dependent on budding, thus producing clones, the little critter has laid a pseudopod on creation. In the beginning was the Code. (A Word is only a Code.)
The one-celled creature could only respond. (That’s an actor’s word.) It could go towards things that were good for it, and avoid things that were bad for it, including any molecules dissolved in the fluid in which the creature floated and motivated. (This became our sense of smell.) There were no organs, so substances were taken in or thrown out by pushing them through the wall of the cell. (The image in my mind is always a medieval housewife emptying a chamberpot out the window!)
Over the millennia, things got more complicated but it still all came down to intake and outflow. Complexification demands more clever “engineering.” This was emergent structure -- there were no engineers, not even one great big engineer in the sky. So -- notochords, tubing for carrying concentrations of fluid with special ingredients like oxygen, and little pumps to drive it. (Do you know an angleworm has nine hearts?)
Sensation became routed, matrixes developed to specialize, and a laparoscopic head-end developed at the top of the notochord. “Mesenchymal cells migrate from the primitive knot to form a midline cellular cord known as the notochordal process.” [DO look it up! http://www.google.com/search?client=safari&rls=en&q=notochordal+process&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8] Something very parallel happens as a persona develops. We say in acting, “What is the SPINE of this person?” meaning motives, yearnings, aim in life, the coherent spear of intention. But the action is always back at the boundary, the skin that separates the creature from the milieu, that prevents it from dissolving. Every sense evolves from that skin, but now the tip of the spear, the brain -- originally only a knob at the top of the spine -- is the guide sorting out the two actions: go forward/ingest, retreat/avoid.
On top of the neural tube things form: diencephalon, proencephalon. telecephalon. It’s all just fancy talk to most of us. But the point is, as it gets more complicated, the creature takes in more information from outside the skin and therefore must do more sorting and classifying, and therefore can allow more measured and subtle responses -- maybe just a tightened lip, a tilted eyebrow, a clenched butt muscle. Now we’re performing our anatomy. Our persona is our performed body as we take in sensation and release “response.” In a good actor, one sees the taking in, the quick-sorting, and the decision to act. We call that “inevitability.” Authentic. The differences in the way we sort information and act on it, we call “personality.”
One creature can see these things happening in another creature. Your dog sees what you’re thinking. (Your cat sees, but figures what does it have to do with her?) Even a fly or ant can try to avoid your swatting hand. Some humans are better at it than others. Some humans signal more than they think, often mixed signals -- hands saying one thing, feet saying another.
I once stood just outside a shark’s aquarium (hoping the glass was at least six inches thick) about two feet away from the shark’s eye. It did not see me. It did not care. It did not know i was there. Sharks sense only things in the water with them, possibly through subtle electrical charges or dispersed molecules of blood. The starring night sky as seen from a dark place can seem as inscrutable and uncaring as that shark. Or you can be that shark, cruising, always cruising the stars in case of something meaningful -- meaning edible.
“Meaningful” to a human is more than food. Meaningful is what supports survival as individuals and as species. We ingest ideas/ideals and excrete the ones that don’t work. Mostly we take huge amounts of information in through our senses, sort and discard much before the real import of the pattern gets up through the brain stem, the reptile brain, the limbic system, the cerebrum and eventually to the frontal forebrain where our clearest and most intense humanity is focused, the little camera at the tip of the fiber-optic. But it happens in a flash.
If something is strong and clear enough to make it to that level, maybe with the help of arts or scientific ideas or just another human creature, then it may be intense enough to be “Sacred.” It shakes and shudders us, fills us with light, paradox, epiphany. When you’re a little kid, a powerful movie can do it. Some of us search all our lives without ever feeling it -- the membrane between us and the universe may be too thick, too guarded, too quick to censor and filter. Or our self may be clenched against pain and starvation. Our curiosity atrophies because our lives are too safe -- we are sessile in our shells, letting the bits of sustenance come to us on the tide.
What Performance Art can crack open an adult oyster, well-anchored? Ritual? Violence? Sex? Drugs? Threats of burning in Hell? We keep trying to find out. These days it takes a good deal of study and skill. Atrocities don’t seem to move us much anymore. Injustice? Personal danger? Combat? Poverty just dulls us. Therapy? How much can we absorb from a fellow creature? Can you get an oyster drunk? (Is there anything more phallic than a geoduck?) What paroxysm of epiphany will wake up a Wall Street banker who doesn’t even work on Wall Street anymore?
Or let’s look at it the other way around. For a child who has been abused and sexually taken to climax by a well-loved adult, in a storm of pain, ecstasy, love and terror, ever be content with an ordinary life? Can a person tortured to the edge of death and forced into gratitude by the tiniest respite, ever reach out? Can a man captured by terrorists and forced to choose which leg will be shot off, ever stop making choices in his head? We are our bodies, we are our minds, and we are both -- there is no boundary. The boundary is at the skin. Wonder in the front end; boredom out the rear end -- the result is AK’s “astonishment of living.” Life is stalking us. The Sacred is dangerous.