Friday, September 27, 2013


The concepts and language of people who study spirituality and religious experience are not very well-known to the general public.  There are a lot of reasons for that, but let’s put them off for now and just look at some terms that are useful.  Most of them are terms used by scholars and then popularized to some extent.   These terms are considered investigations into mysticism as well as spirituality, but the definitions overlap.  Another term for experience-based feelings is phenomenology, which concentrates more on the actual internal state of the person than on the “phenomenon” that caused it.  The slightly condescending term is a way of belittling human experience so as to capture the “magical" quality of it in an institutional dogma that explains the source.  The institution then claims to be the only route to that source.  But there are many ways up the sacred mountain.

Mircea Eliade talked about the different “feel” of the sacred as compared to the profane and described the sacred as “valorized,” means valued but also something like “energized” or "charged."

Freud spoke of the “oceanic feeling,” the sensation of having no boundaries and merging with the cosmos in acceptance, beauty and the way things ought to be.

Literary scholars speak of the Sublime,  "the quality of greatness, whether physical, moral, intellectual, metaphysical, aesthetic, spiritual or artistic. The term especially refers to a greatness beyond all possibility of calculation, measurement or imitation."  It is associated with the Romantics.

Otto used the term "the Mysterium Tremendum and Fascinans" -- which would translate in English to the “tremendous, fascinating mystery.”   It can be consciousness of overwhelming Otherness, maybe an entire different world, quite supernatural.  The term captures the mystery of contradiction: being both attracted and fascinated, but also terrified and repelled.  In the Bible there’s a story of a man who wanted to see the face of God, but God told him it would destroy him and warned him to hide in a crack in rock so he couldn’t see.  The man looked and got a glimpse of God’s backside, which had a powerful effect on him.  This little story mixes the incredibility, the secrecy, the blindness, the danger and the near ridiculousness of some mystic experience.  The revelation has to be on human terms, but humans don’t have the ability to perceive and understand the overpowering Other.

Abraham Maslow spoke of “peak experience” which was at the tip of his pyramid, or as Mike Lafromboise would have it, the top of a tipi, which means his diagram locates peak experience right where the Blackfeet put a “dream moth” which is thought to bring the spiritual inspiration of the dream.

Numinous is a useful world that comes from the Latin “numen” which means spirit, but the word also has a nice echo with “luminous,” meaning giving off light.  In movies and plays, the spirit is often portrayed as a shaft of light shining on the upturned face of the perceiver.

Two terms refer to the source of religious energy:  the Transcendent is that which comes from “across” (trans) to us from the Other realm of power and light.  The Immanent is that which unfolds from within the world and the person.  Institutions like the idea of Transcendence because -- again -- they can claim to have privileged access to the Other world.  They like to imply that Immanence is a lesser form of mysticism, a kind of nature worship and a temptation to worship “things.”

Tillich tried to speak of “ultimacy” as a way of leaving earthly ordinary preoccupations behind.  He meant the BIG questions of whether we exist at all, whether there is a God Power in any sense, in any way "Other" than the humans, and what we must do to be fully human.  Ultimacy is not about prosperity, happiness, domination, or even love.  

One description of the mystic state is being ecstatic, filled with light, lifted up.  But many accounts of mystic states are contradictory, saying that they were lifted up but also felt they were falling; warmed but also frozen; suffused with light but also in the darkness, and so on.  It may be that the contradictions are due to the limits of human perception of something inhuman.  Bernini portrayed Saint Teresa in the grip of what she described and to us it looks like sexual orgasm, which some call “the little death.”  The overwhelmed brain shuts down.

A specific kind of mysticism is kenosis, the emptying out.  It is related to the “dark night of the soul” that we now know drove Mother Theresa.  It was not her faith, but her doubt that she lived with.  The “dark night of the soul” is punishing, suffering, confused and questioning.  Kenosis is nothingness.  Just no concepts at all, no feeling, just space.  It is often a valuable emptying out in order to allow something new to arrive. 

One of the most useful concepts for designing liturgy has three parts and comes from two anthropologists: von Gennep and Victor Turner.  They looked at ceremonies and found that they were organized around the beginning (getting into the proper frame of mind by going to a special place, singing, smudging, and so on);  then, while in that special state experiencing in a different way than daily life, more intensely and in a way susceptible to changing one’s convictions; and third re-emerging to ordinary life, but changed.  They described this metaphorically as going over a threshold (limen), being in a liminal space, and then returned over that same threshold.  Baptism could be seen this way, esp. adult immersion baptism.  One is changed, transformed, converted.

The Blackfeet put a high value (valorized) on mystical experience and sought it out, but they had no tradition of ingesting substances whether alcohol or peyote.  Instead they went to that liminal “place” through ordeals: sweatlodge, torture (Sun Dance), thirst/starving and isolation (the coming of age “dream bed”).  Their immanence was from the land itself and their transcendence was in the classic terms of the Sun, Natoosi.  Their worldview saw life and death as a continuum, only divided by a kind of dissociation, which they thought of as being in the Sand Hills.  But they worried about the dead coming back across the divider and meddling in living human lives.  This was not about morality -- punishing evil-doers -- but more about intense human emotion: jealousy, resentment, revenge, and love.

The land of the Blackfeet is high altitude grassland with deep coulees and mountains.  Relating to this land by knowing it, traversing it on foot, drawing one’s food from it, and symbolizing one’s life in terms of its animal fellow-dwellers is the essence of their religious systems, but they were not written out in books.  Doing so makes a lot of translation necessary and finding equivalents in English means that most of the translation will be into Christian terms since the English speakers involved are likely to be Christian.

Until the continents divided to create the Pacific Ocean, the land mass of the American high plains and the land mass north of China (Mongolia and Siberia) were connected enough that many of the plants and animals are the same: peonies and grizzly bears, for instance.  Scientifically, the indigenous People of the Americas carry the basic genome of Asian people rather than Europeans.  There’s not much difference.  The cultural “memes” of Asians are also basic to what is now called Blackfeet spirituality.  That is, closer to Buddhism or Shinto (which is based on veneration of ancestors and family) than it is to Christianity as it developed in the Middle East and then was carried through Europe by the Roman Empire.  I don’t know of scholarly works that address this, but I’m on the lookout for them.  I don’t even know of any Buddhists who have visited the Blackfeet.

This quote is from Wikipedia.  “Spirituality can be sought not only through traditional organized religions, but also through movements such as liberalism, feminist theology and green politics.  Spirituality is also now associated with mental health, managing substance abuse, marital functioning, parenting, and coping.  It has been suggested that spirituality also leads to finding purpose and meaning in life.”
The danger of seeing spirituality or mysticism this way is that it gets reduced to “feel good” optimism and warm fuzzies that neglect the necessary skeleton (often broken) within the bloody flesh.  (This has what has happened to many liberal Christian denominations.)  People who work with contemporary mental health issues need to be tough and real.

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