Sunday, October 06, 2013


Sweetgrass Hills

If a person were determined to get everything into labeled boxes, they might call my approach to designing intense experiences an atheo-anthro-bio-geo-sophy.  The label is coming out of a double understanding of bio and geo studies that is much like the reframing that has emerged for Christians, originally geographically located in the Holy Land and focused on supra-anthro-theological matters, especially separating the three mega-institutions that have emerged in the modern world from a welter of forces.  This is a dynamic understanding of existence, always changing but always connected.  (You know about the Bioneers?)

When I say this set of interacting disciplines is “emergent” I mean that it is coming out of increasing and interacting understanding of the world and ourselves as we scientifically explore and propose -- never conclusively because the point of science is always to keep an open mind about possible future developments.  The study of “religion” is also a scientific enterprise, though it does not address the supernatural.  It is not A-religious or A-theistic -- it simply directs its attention elsewhere to the study of religious institutions and the human response to them.  Studying worship is not worshipping.

One of the deepest sources of guidance about human life is the idea that we can understand the creator by studying “his/her/its” creation.  Therefore, one of the most troubling challenges to the idea of a theos is that living creatures suffer so much.  “If God is good, he is not God; if God is God, he is not good,” said Archibald Macleish in his play, “J.B.” based on the book of Job.  I am accepting the idea that creation is a “book” in which we can read about our sources and nature, but I am turning aside from suffering the same as I turn aside from the supernatural.  Not because I don’t care, but because that’s not my focus.

Often the relationship between the theos and the anthros is the basis of study of ritual, liturgy, worship, ceremony, prayer and so on.  Rarely is the bio noted, except to note that mountains tend to have gods living on them and that springs are associated with renewal and insight.  

In two ways assumptions about the evolution of ways of addressing the sacred have begun to be explored apart from the mega-institutions of the world.   One is biogeography and the other, which is related, is molecular systematics, the study of interacting genomes as they guide the creature in its environment. 


“Biogeography is an integrative field of inquiry that unites concepts and information from ecology, evolutionary biology, geology and physical geography.   Modern biogeographic research combines information and ideas from many fields, from the physiological and ecological constraints on organismal dispersal to geological and climatological phenomena operating at global spatial scales and evolutionary time frames.”  (Since this is from Wikipedia, I cannot credit the author.)  Biogeography is what gave rise to Darwin’s ideas, based on observations of island animal changes.

Molecular systematics has developed from the study of DNA, which allows the study of the essential biological molecular cell nucleus formulas of animals and how they unfold across time and place.  It is a second source of theory about human beings.

A third scientific force is coming to bear now, which is the study of neurology, an extremely close (molecular, electrical, neuronal) study of the human sensorium (not limited to the five senses) and to its management by the brain in order for the creature to act in the world so as to survive.  This includes the study of malfunctions and lesions that impose deficits, but also the detection of the newest evolved senses, like mirror cells which are a source of empathy, the arts and compassion.  The pre-frontal cortex is the location of much human identity.

When Mircea Eliade wrote “The Sacred and the Profane,” he could not have had any idea about most of this material since it wasn’t developed yet, but somehow he went directly to the capacity to feel the Holy.  It’s clear that most people can sense a place or time that is Sacred, not because of some institution or authority and not necessarily anything they can put into words, and not confined to the times, places and people they know best.  What is happening when they feel these small, often unexpected epiphanies?  Can such a moment be created?

Prairie Fire

In "Constructing Local Theologies," Robert Schreiter put aside his own focus on Catholic devotion enough to point out that the material culture that is the basis of one ritual, like the bread and wine of the Mass, cannot be transferred directly to another place and time that has no experience of such substances.  To an Inuit, what can bread and wine possibly mean?  Theirs is a world of snow and meat!  Maybe their communion is the burning lamp, an occasion for being together, sharing.  Schreiter points out that the missionary must go to the culture of the people to find out what material objects and their associated acts can express the concept that is symbolized in Communion.  But that means that the missionary must explore at a deeply felt level his/her own assumptions, psychology and material culture in order to know what the bread and wine mean to him or her.  And probably there ought to be a bit of accounting for why and how the bread and wine have changed over the centuries, from the peasant loaf to the commercial wafer and from daily table wine to grape juice.

People studying theatre and acting are aware that Greek drama was meant to be an acted narrative that explored great moral dilemmas like the killing of family members.  They also know that modern “Method” acting is a way of kindling the sensorium in ways that transmits emotion through empathy in the audience.  Ray Rappaport says homoeostasis means keeping oneself or one’s group inside the limits that, if crossed, would destroy life.  Starvation, violence, exposure are the basic animal requirements of existence.  But a human needs to know what is right, to be passionate about something, to be intimate with others, to be at peace with oneself. These are what worship supplies.  One of the most difficult survival situations, common to both Greek drama and contemporary serious drama, is those in which the individual and the group are at odds, one surviving at the expense of the other, or possibly one saving the other.  Greek drama explores it.  Deep experience justifies it.

What remains is the theory of Von Gennep and Victor Turner, who found that most rituals are in three parts which consist of what they called “crossing the liminal, being in liminal time/space, and returning to ordinary life.”  A limen is a threshold.  This liminal “space/time” is a special brain space or connectome (pattern of neural connections among hubs that manage identity and memory).  Mysterious as it is, the state is detectable on instruments.  It’s main characteristic is that it allows the kind of free state that some report is the result of ingesting lsd or being hypnotized or in extremis, either due to distress or joy.  It allows transformation, new insight, and confirmation of one’s belonging in the world.

Entering liminal time/space as a result of a designed experience (call it worship, liturgy, ceremony, epiphany, devotion, or fine art), is what I’m seeking to understand better.  What I have so far is evidence of reported experiences, of anthropological place-based ceremony, and of experimental worship services.  It is only a beginning, but it attempts to coordinate  the study of humans (anthro), living creatures (bio) and the places that give rise to them (geo) in a way that simply does not address God or gods, nor institutions, nor the supernatural one way or another.  It helps us ride the continents to survival.

The continents today and long ago

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