Friday, March 28, 2014


This is an attempt to round up and list some of the ideas I’ve been chasing off and on.  They mostly come from thinking about Indian tribes (Blackfeet) and religious congregations (UU and Catholic).  The roots are in a little sermon I gave years ago that compared “bundles” with “boxes.”   Boxes are the way the Euro world has stored things as far back as the Ark of the Covenant (a box that carried the pieces of the stone Ten Commandments)  which links boxes to writing and to rules. The box keeps its shape no matter what.  Hard to pack on a horse, camel or donkey, but easy to lift into a wagon, which is a box itself.  Euro-style is a box.  "Box goods" are wooden square kinds of furniture, like beds, tables and chairs.  

Travel trunk for a ship, a wagon, a railroad.

The bundle is even older, going back to the swaddled child in a blanket.  Bundles, which are the way the Blackfeet transported things, take their shape from their contents, so they can change shape -- that is, adapt.  A tipi or tent is a wrapped flexible fabric surrounding a framework or object.  The most basic shelter is a person wrapped in a blanket or bison hide.  (Not counting the emotional shelter of someone's arms.)

A wrapped bundle of sticks.

There’s a relationship to the way journeys go -- winding paths or squarely-measured streets and blocks.  That links to the contrast between rural and urban, and also to the contrast I talk about sometimes between the way my father could find his way on the chess-board of surveyed fence lines and the way my mother could find her way along waterways and by landmarks.  We might think that rationality is full of right angles like a box, but that might not be a justified assumption.  Even some cities have sinuous streets, serpentine, labyrinthine.

Today we’re told that mammal cerebrums contain cells that monitor which direction you are facing, supply a grid overlying areas, and tells whether you are close to an edge of some kind.  I watch the cats choose where to hunker down: often at the edge of a shadow or a porch or the rug -- on the side where they are harder to see.  But those edges might be curved or complex.  There is probably something in the brain about what will cause a mammal to be camouflaged.  Most camo is in "organic" blob shapes.  Not being seen would be a survival advantage.   Being plainly graphed is a mathematical advantage.

Now I’m moving to talking about organizing principles that contrast:  those that gather around a center, a kind of concentric accumulation driven by attraction to the middle or pressure from outside the formation, biomorphic ; and those that are based on decisions that draw sharp edges, boundaries, barriers, a difference between one place or condition and another.

A pipe bundle but maybe not so sacred.

This defining difference lets me think about the difference between a pre-contact Indian tribe, which is a freely assembled group of people usually gathered around an admired leader or genetic nucleus and responding to the larger ecology by moving; losing individuals through war, misadventure, aging, disease or famine; but also gaining members by accepting visitors, marrying, capturing, and birth.  The group can change in size as well as its demographics, so that sometimes there is a high proportion of men versus women or a high proportion of young versus old.  If the group is too small, they can join with another group; if they are too many, they can split.  This is biologically and environmentally related so it can be true of pre-humans.  Cultural memes develop in response to all these factors.

Boxes can be locked.

The discoveries made in the “Cradle of Civilization,” the Middle Eastern countries, were originally driven in organic ways until certain new techniques were discovered.  One was geometry, which allowed the drawing of boundaries that were based on mathematics, drawn in reference to stars, mostly driven by the need to keep track of owned property, either land that could produce profitable crops or the exchange of virtual value: money, debts.  Soon towns formed -- with boundary walls to protect accumulations of value like granaries -- and that meant they offered an increase in safety inside the wall.  This hardened the relationship between those who belong and those who are “other” and also created value by controlling the gate.  People might pay toll in order to enter or leave, which means a “salary” for those who kept the gate.  

A woven sack.

It also enabled the creation of formal laws, written and recorded so therefore transcending any one person’s memory, leaving no arguable wiggle room.  Controlling those laws also meant a source of power and profit.  Enforcing the laws and enacting laws that benefitted one group or individual over the others led to the elevation of someone to being the “Decider,” as Bush liked to call it.  This is the beginning of class divisions and the discrepancies in prosperity that we speak of now as the super-wealthy 1%.  If it all becomes too harsh, too burdensome, the 99% will breach the wall and tear down the geometry of the town.  Smart rulers shelter their people.

Change categories.  At first Christianity was an organic religion based on a shift from understanding virtue as privilege to virtue as generosity and gratitude.  When the local religion merged with the Roman Empire, it was an attempt on the part of the Caesar and ruling senators to shift to those values, but instead it transformed Christianity into an INSTITUTION.  As soon as a population is organized around rules, boundaries, safety and prosperity, it becomes an institution.

Institutions like it best if there is a clear boundary between who is in and who is out.  As soon as a reservation was defined in contrast to the fluid moving back and forth of tribes, they had created an institution called a “tribe” and named according to Euro names (Blackfeet) which meant that a supervisor could be appointed, rules could be imposed, and resources could be managed.  At first the reservation was like a kingdom with the agent, at that time under the Department of War, having total power over the people -- ANY people, Indian or not, who were within that boundary.  What he did with that power was determined by Washington, D.C.  (too far away to know or or interfere -- operating only on theory and desire) or by his own conscience.

Religious institutions are subject to the same forces as any other human institution.  Spirituality and meaning form the way families form or the original Siksika bands found an organic form.  Though religious institutions try to be gatekeepers who build a wall around these organic forms, spirituality and human institutions do not exist in the same dimensions.  Spirituality does not respond to geometry or prosperity or safety.  It is “wild,” outside civilized writing and buildings, and always will be.

This did not prevent one arm of the most Euro of religious institutions, the Roman Catholic Pope’s “army” (Jesuits), from coming at once to the Blackfeet territory -- even before it was a reservation -- to compete with the newly formed reservation machinery.  They had their own networks and gatekeepers of great power and determination.  Many indigenous with destroyed lives responded to this as a way of surviving and finding a new meaning.

Miraculously, in spite of rigidity and a punishment mentality, spirituality seeped back in.  Today we see a Pope educated in the Asian spiritual traditions, a Jesuit who studied Zen and Tao, leading us back to what had been walled out:  joy and the Gospel of generosity and gratitude.  Meanings without boundaries because they come from human sensory life.  Some feel that Buddhism was what converted Jesus to the Gospels.  

But those who have done well with the Procrustean forts, commodities, and railroads -- cling to the patriarchal ideas of the Old Testament which justified the destruction of the vulnerable, the defiant, the rule-breakers and the “other”.  Strangely, China has joined the Old Testament believers, maybe through Shinto, the worship of family ancestors, the use of genealogy to justify power and status.  But then, they always believed in Great Walls and emperors.  These are impulses that arise from too many people, too few resources, but enough prosperity for some people to become mathematicians, lawyers and . . . uh-oh, scientists.

But scientists ask why, why, why?   So do artists.  They are always escaping from the scouted territories, the maps and therefore the blueprints.  The reason that is a GOOD thing is that it leads to new resources, new ways of being in the world, and more world than anyone living inside a wall according to the past can ever imagine.  But the easiest way to drive people inside confining walls is fear.  Surveys now are saying that people are valuing security more than prosperity.

Why, Why, Why?

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