“The Bone Chalice” -- which began as my D. Min. thesis proposal -- now appears to be a lifework, morphing and splitting as it goes. Partly because it began as an academic exercise in hoop-jumping, it has been necessary to pry open a chrysalis of assumptions, footnotes and previous books by experts to get at the soft and potential larva within. It appears that -- for me at least -- that takes a long time. While I was in seminary, a fellow student who was a nun (it may have been the one David Loehr tried to pick up at Orientation, the sort who wears skirts and cardigans) told me I was post-Christian. I went with that idea for quite a while. Now I have a new idea.
I’m saying I’m “pre-theological.” Previously when others responded to what I proposed, partly because I defined it as about “liturgy,” it was usually seen in terms of that person’s institutional liturgy: the mass or baptism or a communal meal. People can’t be blamed for categorizing new things according to what they know already. At first even I was looking at prescribed rituals, almost always in a written script. But actually I was trying to discover principles that apply to “emergent” and particularly land-based (autochthonous) experiences.
What I’m after is what I might call “deep experience,” moments of intensity that can reorganize the mind -- and heart. This takes me close to the people who use substances or other short-cut mind-altering strategies, but that wasn’t what I wanted to think about either. It could also take me off onto a side trail about electroshock therapy but I’ll resist. It could tempt me onto the rather shaky ground of the quest for the Big O, orgasm as the best experience there is. In religious terms “deep experience” might be called hierophany (that’s Eliade) or theophany (more specifically a direct experience of God/theos) or maybe epiphany or conversion (Saul into Paul) and so on. I was more interested in the sort of thing like the old days when Blackfeet young went up on the mountain to fast and meditate until their protective totem visited them. Some people claim that voluntary torture will do it (Sun Lodge) or any high-adrenaline situation (combat). As you see, vocabulary is a big problem -- there are not enough useful words.
It remains to say that Czikszentmihalyi and his ideas about “flow” are valid and approach “deep experience” but there is still another step to make it “spiritual” -- a word that has become so trendy that I’d like to go back to the more traditional “sacred” or “holy.” This approach is “instrument-based,” the instrument being the human body (not just the brain but including the brain) in every sensory and skill dimension, producing a harmony that is probably expressed in brain waves, a kind of music, a sort of harmony with the cosmos.
Part of the reason I kept getting re-captured by traditional or even experimental institutional liturgies became clearer when I looked back through the centuries: since writing was invented (let alone the printing press) it has controlled religions. Theology is a creature of written words. When the focus of development moved to written dogma and specific words language became overwhelmingly important. It was all code and laws. Among the UU’s, at one point the hymnal was revised to throw out all the “God” talk and then later it was revised (often by hand, women sitting in pews after church with stacks of hymnals alongside) to take out all the man/men. The tunes lingered .
The Reverend Lillian Daniel
A UCC minister and religious writer, the Rev. Lillian Daniel, one of those honey-haired, blue-eyed good girls (only lacking wings), made a popular furor by declaring that she was bored by “spiritual but not religious” people who find God in the sunsets, whom she claims are invariably seated next to her on airplanes. I don’t fly these days, so maybe that’s why I only find gorgeously diffracted light in sunsets (very red right now because of forest fires) but that doesn’t keep me from “feeling” it with a sense of heightened perception. I just give the same thing a different name.
But Rev. Daniel wants that person in church. She says, “There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself.” She says you must, “dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself.” Though she attended the U of Chicago Div School, she resisted the call of Bibfeldt ("both/and"). www.ucc.org/feed-your-spirit/daily.../spiritual-but-not-religious.html I did not. She’s welcome to her academic and institutional bias, but I find in those same sources what we might define as “the devil,” stuff that doesn’t work and actively hurts people.
Reflecting on Rev. Daniel’s assertion, I haven’t had many deep experiences in church with the exception of congregational singing, though there’s a great deal of suffering in the words of traditional hymns, so it must be the communal sound. Nor do I find that solitude is an obstacle to personal deep experience. It’s not that I’m just roaming around in my subconscious with no reference to the world -- it’s more like the earth itself and my going to and fro on it is my text rather than the secondary interface of words -- with the exception of stories and some poetry. I never have had an ecstatic reaction to dogma or morality.
I decided that I would chuck out any word-based liturgies, which means all those Middle-Eastern institutions that so love their books and transcribed rules and all the bookkeeping -- the numbers written in Saint Peter’s Pearly Gates no-fly book.
Luckily, the recent scientific study of neurological brain function reveals that brain cells remember and think by patterns of molecule interaction supplied by the senses -- not just the five basic holes in the head (sight/sound/smell/taste/feel) but the whole body’s constant information loops from gut, feet, main organs, fingertips, orientation to gravity, state of arousal and so on. The brain is only the sorting and settling bridge of the ship, where the monitoring thermostat and rheostat readings are managed and course corrections are issued. It is in the brain that intense, passionate (deep) experience is determined and then experienced. Remember that the brain is part of the body which need not be accessed through words.
Put simply, the place to start is not the sheet music but with the instrument: the singer, the wordless song, and the dance. If the body is responding to place, time and other beings, and has formed categories of thought that do not censor or distort, and if the body is expressive in sound and movement, then it is likely that the harmony of the pattern will yield the “deep experience.” Felt, not defined.
To summarize, this bottom-up approach to “deep experience” does not depend on intervention from above, via a book-based institution, but rather on holistic experience through the entire sensory body (guided by the management of the brain), allowing concepts to emerge from immediate experience, and expressing engagement with them through movement, including utterances. This is an immanent theory of the sacred, even autochthonous since the world is taken as the ground of being. It is therefore local, but unified by the capacities of the human body as an instrument of perception and expression. Therefore it is in divergence from print-confined, pew-confined, pulpit-confined religious methods. Some would say, "heresy." I rule that irrelevant.