Thursday, October 18, 2012


Somehow, though I was at the U of Chicago in a very fertile time (’78-’82) for the investigation of phenomena like liminal, paradigm, structure, and flow, I never linked up with the principle thinkers who were there.  Mind you, no one thought of them as very relevant to preparation for the ministry.  And I probably could have gone looking for these men (all men) if I’d thought of it enough.  But my seminary didn’t seem to have any awareness of them and the Div School was reacting against “phenomenology,” which is to say, observation of the world and its contents rather than faith, which they understood to be their territory.  And it was.  (Never mess with your franchise if your funding depends on it.)  So I squirreled away books from the Seminary Co-op bookstore where, like many, I sat cross-legged on the cement floor, warmed by the pipes just overhead.  Now I’m really using those books.

It’s just that I thought of the planet as my Jesus.  I felt no single “human being” could mediate between me and the Great Mysterious Unknown.  Oddly, it was Jim Gustafson and Robert Schreiter, both strong Catholics, who were willing to entertain that notion.  They were aware of (in the first case) a thread of natural theology that stretches back through the centuries on grounds that the creation must contain many clues to its creator; and (in the second case) that missionaries can’t afford to be literalists since many cultures have neither bread nor wine, so one must approach Communion in another way: what is the equivalent to Communion in that culture?  It may not involve food at all.  And if Christians can’t agree about what Communion means, what are we looking for anyway?

This chapter by Turner in the anthology “Performance in Postmodern Culture” gives some specifics about “flow” that I hadn’t remembered.  “Flow” is another version of achieving a kind of high, though a calm one.  It is the experience of becoming so absorbed in what you are doing that time and ego disappear into the interaction itself, that liminal space between the actor and the action.  Here are the six specifics he lists.

1.  Action and awareness are experienced as one.
2.  Attention is centered on a limited stimulus field, created by framing as in rules of a game.
3.  Loss of ego: the “Self” that is ordinarily the black box of decision-making between the incoming sensations as they organize for the mind and then the resulting decisions about what to do works without self-consciousness.
4.  The actor finds himself (herself) in control of actions and environment, a close match between abilities and demands.  Either being too skillful or not skillful enough will break the spell.
5.  In the end one must know one did well by the rules of whatever culture frames the activity:  “rock-climbing, surgery, chess, polo, gambling, ‘prescribed liturgical action‘ (as in a missal or the Book of Common Prayer),  miniature painting, yoga exercises.”  (Turner’s list)  One must either accept the assumptions of the culture involved, or be able to achieve willing suspension of disbelief.  I would point to vid games and immersive novels.
6.  I quote:  “Finally flow is what Czikscentmihalyi calls ‘autotelic’”:  It is self-rewarding, an end in itself.  

Someone sent me information about a newly identified “feeling state” that is attracting attention.  It is called Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response and refers to those people (not everyone has this response) who respond with a physiologically deep pleasure to a whispering, nurturing face in close proximity.  Try YouTube to find out more.  It seems like the way we approach babies and lovers.  No doubt there will be a book soon.  It doesn’t work on me.  I feel threatened, intruded upon, in danger of capture.  I DO respond to Tim’s tough, grim reality advice, up close and personal, but not this warm fuzzy way.

What interests me is that people really “get off” on these various experiences like flow and ASMR in the way that religious response used to be described.  Yet they are quite secular and certainly various.  So now I’m confirmed in the idea that the place to start, the ultimate common denominator, is the human response to the universe.  It is not the institution, not the statement of beliefs (rules), not the ritual framing, not the content of the ritual structure, not faith -- though they can all matter -- but somehow triggering the whole person response that we sometimes call “from the heart” and that is sometimes transfiguring.

Where are the hot buttons and how do we push them?  To what degree are they personal and unique and how much is dictated (framed) by the culture?  Is the “kind” of liminality involved different between, say, ASMR and “flow”?  What would an fMRI show?  Are some people incapable of ALL these responses and therefore impossible to touch with spirituality?  Or might they simply need “triggers” so specific, intense and possibly dangerous (S/M between powerful men; combat veterans; extreme sports) that they fall outside any category we consider?

Let’s dump the idea that spirituality means trailing around in a phosphorescent nightgown with praying hands and flowing hair.  Why can’t the spirit have more life, juice, and rhythm than that?  (Oh, hello, autochthony!)  Lugubrious, spooky, social framing is left over from two centuries ago.  (The nineteenth.)  Not that the spiritual needs to be weird, casting off clothes and inhibitions, indulging in self-torture, deprivation to the point that one’s brain “flow” sputters and gutters and nearly goes out.  That was twentieth century.  Nor is spirituality rigid box-instead-of-frame forced compliance.  (Oh, hello, Taliban.)  Back to the idea of dance, music, moving process that responds to the world.  Get one’s capacities adjusted to the tasks of survival and you’ve got flow, possibly “spiritual.”

So now my premise is that in order to provide a liminal liturgy for a person or a congregation or oneself, it is necessary to pay attention to the things denoted as framing (structure, prescribed script) in order to focus on the things connoted as the content of ritual, whether words are included or not.  This is my bone chalice container/contained guide.  

To provide a familiar example, the Euro-American liminoid pattern of Sunday worship:  call to worship, confession of sins, assurance of pardon, consideration of issues, dispersal in peace.  The content can be completely “secular” in traditional terms, and still deeply move the congregation IF the frame is understood (fitting the culture) and the content is meaningful to the people present.  In a “perfect” (or maybe just “good enough”) service, flow will emerge.

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