Friday, December 28, 2012


Those who wrestle with the kind of publishers who think narrative is the ONLY way to get readers involved and who believe that poetic image or metaphor is just frippery that can only justify itself with shock content, are busy with only one corner of the “how to write” world.  In fact, there is a whole mozaic.  At seminary I discovered a schism within the nonfiction category between rational deduction and the analysis of emotional truth.  (Reflecting the division between Ph.D. professors and D.Min. ministers.)   It was particularly problematic because traditional theology is a kind of offshoot of mathematics with theorems that must be proven with deductive evidence not necessarily drawn from life -- but ministry is about life itself.  No footnotes available.  Sometimes mistaken for “self-help” instead of true inquiry.

When I realized this and understood that this assumption could prevent me from achieving my MA from the U of Chicago Div School (which has a Ph.D. skew), off I went to the Seminary Co-Op Bookstore and bought an armload of books about how to think, most notably by Stephen Toulmin, like “The Uses of Argument” and “An Introduction to Reasoning.”   And that took me back around to Dean Barnlund’s “The Dynamics of Discussion” and “Language and Thought” from my undergrad years in the School of Speech at NU.  Without this crash course I could not have survived, but it was not because I picked up so much skill.  It was that I realized what the Div School meant by choosing your method and stating it clearly.  No muddling.

One of the main reasons that public conversation about religion consistently ends up in a tangle, knotting up emotions so impossibly that no one can get sense out of it, is that it rules out emotion.  “Feelings” are defined as a kind of irrelevant fantasy.  How on earth did we get this way?    The way to clear thinking is NOT to eliminate emotion, though that’s been the premise for a couple of thousand years.  Rather it is to really FEEL the emotion as fully and as accurately as you can.  Emotion is evidence.  It is valid.  It is not recreational.  

Since my basic undergrad training was in theatre/acting, I knew this, and I went to a thinker who took it into account as “feelings” or “felt meaning:”  Suzanne Langer, “Feeling and Form.”  Since she was female, she offered no advantage -- couldn’t even save herself, much less me.  I hung on tight to Richard Stern, the novelist, with his love of “modernity” which means psychoanalytical-style unconscious poetic concepts and their investigation in narrative.  Those who are devoted to what they take to be “objective” rationality, enforce their point of view by mocking anything outside rationality as either deluded fantasy or contaminated personal interest -- both of which are taken to be weakness and over-sensitivity (lack of tough-mindedness) that justify stigmatizing and walling those folks out.  Money, of course, can buy one’s way back “in,” even if it is acquired through the use of that same “over-sensitivity.”  There is also a quiet willingness to pay for therapists to care for the victims of barren relationships that come from preoccupied rationality.  

All this is outside what is discussed in Quentin Smith’s “felt metaphysics.”  Smith, writing in 1984, is also outside the conversation powered by the relatively recent understanding of how brains work, both as pre-conscious complex organs and on the molecular/neuron level.   He was too late for me at the Div School, but too early for today’s neurology discussions. In fact, there is so much to talk about, so many distinctions to be made, such a hunger to convert this all to practical uses in the search for bliss, that it’s necessary to constantly exclude this or that.  Over and over I find myself searching for definitions and divisions, having to ask myself what it is I’m really try to understand and to what extent I’m only justifying my pre-existing self.  Smith is clear that not everyone wants to think about metaphysics -- they have enough to do to keep up with the mundane tasks of their practical world.  But also I find that people have a nagging worry that if someone (like me) really concentrates on metaphysics and thinking, that it’s a kind of access to power or somehow a “put-down” of their own choices. 

Again, money is the enforcer.  There’s no money for dreaming.  Even on a campus the funding goes to the effective (technological) and the edge is cut off, unfunded.  People in minority studies find this out the hard way.  What was once an attempt to be “rational” and objective has hardened now into a callousness and intolerance.  Or rather, the other way around, the amazing uprooting of boundaries that once justified the invasion of campus authority-figure offices, has now been ruled childish madness.  Those in charge pit what they claim is reasonable conservation of resources against the demands of humanities.  Confusingly, the real and verifiable limits of resources become a justification for the hoarding of them, further limiting them in the name of preventing waste.  Students are told they are precious (a feeling) and then urged to go into five-figure debt (a fact).

My mother-in-law had a fine collection of family silver which she kept wrapped and stored, never finding any occasion grand enough to justify its use.  In other words, it was the same as though she had no silver at all.  Just so, in the minds of some academic administrators, feelings are an extravagance and therefore feelings are suppressed, even as sources of energy.  As one of my classmates used to say,  “This seminary would be a great place for learning if we could just get rid of all these pesky students.”    (They’ve figured it out now:  they call it “distance learning.” ) So our churches rule out-of-order all differences of opinion on grounds that they will lead to heresy; they suppress tragedy in the name of order.  This, of course, can be so frustrating that the result is enough anger to overthrow the standing order, one of the practical uses of emotion now familiar to Middle Eastern authorities.

My key guide to my reading about ritual is whether the ideas are helpful to liturgical design for nice Christians, free-range Unitarians, and the oldest Blackfeet Bundle Keepers I ever knew -- the whole range.  It’s a practice, therefore practical, combining emotion and reason.

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