My reading of neuro-research, culture theory, and Alvina Krause’s 1933 thesis on creativity are converging on a new outline for my own manuscript: “The Bone Chalice.”
Liturgy/ritual are poetic, metaphorical ways of discerning, creating, and defending meanings strong enough to act on in our daily lives. So they are an art form.
Art forms come from the “ravenous brain” that seeks meaningful patterns everywhere and -- if it finds none -- invents them. The difference between art and liturgical enactments is that art is usually provisional, exploratory, and maybe transient, but liturgy is meaning that has been captured by institutionalized religion that will destroy variance in order to protect continuity. It can be enforced meaning.
Liturgy must be constantly recharged and re-enacted, so to some extent art is allowed within the religious establishment. Caravaggio can live a life outside of virtue so long as he keeps up the pretense of painting religiously admired subjects. Torture can be tolerated so long as the agony is interpreted as a demonstration of faith. Sex can be openly celebrated so long as it is seen as a metaphor for the erotic relationship with God.
When religious institutions are far too much of a mismatch to be compensated for by either art or theological apologetics -- as when priests become corrupt and lascivious -- then the establishment throws up a flurry of counter-accusations, moves to new populations, or just collapses. Their best defense is wealth, so that’s their biggest vulnerability. If the meaning of life is understood to be wealth, if it becomes clear that faith does not necessarily lead to prosperity, then one of the main supports of religious institutions is gone, then the search for meaning must look outside any established religion. Wealth is not meaning and will not yield meaning.
Deep meaning in the brain is complex and much of it is pre-human and subconscious. The concepts are there, but they are not recorded in words but rather in a consciousness best expressed as image and metaphor, defined as two images intersecting in thought. Words may result or words may evoke, but words are not the real content of the deepest meanings. If only words are valued, the deep meanings will cruise under the surface of consciousness like sea creatures, powerful but hidden.
Meaning is recorded in the whole body as sensory input from the environment. This begins as soon as there is enough brain formed in the fetus to begin registering its floating world and move its rudimentary limbs. As soon as this begins, the brain responds in its development to the sensory information. The brain is built molecule-by-molecule, neuron/axon by neuron/axon, by forming relationships according to a plan always shaped by reality. First and therefore deepest, sensory awareness is in binaries: heat/cold, moving/stationary, dark/light, sound/silence, alarm/calm. Much of it is transferred into the womb from the mother.
At birth the amount of sensory information explodes, which pushes the formation of input-managing nexuses for each sensory organ: ears, eyes, skin, nose, mouth. These are “educated” and grow according to the pressure of the new engulfing environment. But they are rarely, if ever, changed, partly because any of the potentially energized neurons at birth that are not used will die away, leaving the space they occupied open for more neuron growth specific to what is happening. A Saharan brain does not need to think about snow -- it needs the brain space for sand and wind. It has been proven that if a sense organ is missing, say, due to blindness, then the space normally allocated to seeing will be taken up by other senses, likely by hearing.
These levels of sense and pattern hold the deepest foundational meanings. All cultures, no matter how resourceful, are built on these first concepts. The saints who have visions talk about their experience in these terms, but also in terms of parenting: being fed, held, comforted, cleaned. This is the next constant in human experience: enough care for the baby to survive. The baby’s survival drive is the most basic urgency, with the goal of achieving the homeostasic needs of the body: to eat, to sleep, to excrete, to explore the body by moving. But also to seduce by snuggling and to express distress by struggling. That is, relationship is the second most basic task of survival and the source of emotion from the beginning. A successful religion must produce both.
MEANINGFUL LITURGY must relate to these basic needs, regardless of whether they are explicit in the service. Therefore, the liturgist ought to:
Explore the sensory information most valued by the congregation and what homeostatic (self-preserving) meanings they have, both for the individual and for the larger group -- possibly for larger categories like the nation or even the planet.
Find the limits of homeostasis: the symbolism of the worst destruction and the answering symbolism of how to preserve life.
HOW TO START: First of all there must be delineation of safety: a place, a time, a shield of some sort that should provide privacy, belonging, familiarity (even habit patterns), and probably relationship with a person or persons or personifications.
Second must be focusing: the call to worship, the concentration on the moment. Possibly there are words or actions: maybe a gesture, maybe an act like dipping fingers in water or lighting a candle or drumming or singing an anthem or processing.
These are the same ways that an artist begins. But an artist may have an intention or at least materials in front of him or her, even if only a computer screen. The artist has time to doodle, explore, wonder what would happen if . . . let the mind free-associate in almost the same way as the hypnogogic state before falling asleep. In short, let images rise up from the normally subconscious state. They may need to be triggered by making a mark, creating a sentence, blowing a note, making a gesture.
The context of liturgy as most people understand it is pre-determined by the institution, but if we can tolerate the open moment, which most people might call “meditation,” then deep meaning may rise from the subconscious. This might be easier done by individuals, but the Quakers and Buddhists have developed group meditation, each in their own way.
Human beings are defined by their responses to their environment, their ability to find the patterns that will preserve homeostasis. The guides they invent from their material culture are called liturgy, ritual, or maybe just “art.”