Sunday, May 11, 2014


In seminary my views just didn’t fit because seminaries in the Western world assume all “religion” is theology, the knowledge of Theos, God.  Therefore it is about a relationship though some will protest that God is not a person, hoping thus to skirt the problem of every personification, which is that it will take the form of previously known personal relationships: child to mother, subject to king, lover to lover.  It is a “felt” phenomenon, and this feeling of relationship comes with baggage, like sacrifice, bargaining, gifts, requests, praise, and dependence.  The view I am taking is that personification should be resisted -- therefore none of this baggage is useful.

Though my seminary was supposed to be conciliatory towards science, it was not really able to shift from a model that separates the holy from the human, in that old divide that assumes the goal of life is to reach some other “place” or state which is either a punishment or a reward.  If one did not accept God as a “something other” -- like “love” (whatever that is) -- existing on a different plane -- then the possibility of immortality on any plane disappeared.  One believed in God or one believed in death as the end of one’s existence.  There was a lot of talk about “worth-ship” and liturgy as “binding the people together,” but in the end the best some of those people could do was to replace the idea of a God with a desire for success on this planet which would supply a kind of immortality by reputation.  Maybe an impact for the betterment of people in the future, including one’s children.

Ralph Burhoe

Mircea Eliade

Victor Turner

By contrast, the most salient characteristic of science-based philosophy is simply the nature of existence right now, in the moment.  Existence in science is a matter of participation -- waves, atoms, molecules, life, creatures.  Not connection-to, but identity-with the whole complex everything-that-there-is.  There were two thinkers specifically connected to Meadville/Lombard when I was there 1978-82.  One was Ralph Burhoe, who tried mightily to connect science with religion, mostly the institutional form of religion.  He won the very first Templeton Prize for the reconciliation of science with religion.  The other was Mircea Eliade, who worked cross-culturally through myth and religion in the sense of spirituality.  He needed no awards.  This second approach is the one I take.

There is an internal state which Victor Turner, a U of Chicago prof, called “liminal,” going over a threshold (limen) into a felt place that is different.  It is an experience that is spoken of metaphorically as a “place”, a state of mind that can be intensely meaningful or relieving but is hard to symbolize except in graphic terms.  

My assumption is that it is a particular “connectome” pattern of the brain.  One makes a shift into this brain-state, something changes deeply while you are there, and then one shifts out of it at the end, ready for a new action.  It feels like entering a holy space that is both safe and terrifying.  When the saints try to express their more intense versions of this, they speak in the paradoxes of contradiction about the earliest sense memories:  fed/starved, held/falling, warm/cold, bright/dark.  Accompanied/deserted is probably the kernel of the idea of relationship to some Big Being, but it can also be defined as embedded/estranged.  They are the first concepts of the infant experiencing the world.

a rite of passage

The purpose here is to discover how to design experiences that will take willing people  over the threshold into the liminal state without drugs, or running magnetism or electricity through their heads.  What difference might it mean to the person?  The four levels of “brain” that I have been describing become helpful ways of organizing the design of ceremony that will be intense and meaningful.  What material culture marks the entrance and holding environment of the liminal space?  What thought processes will be in the liminal?  What actions are likely to result?  How does the individual relate to community in this three-part process?  All these questions and strategies are not much different from what artists explore every day.

“Embodied cognition” is a new but formal and research-based school of philosophy that denies that the mind is separate from the body.  The even newer neuroscience demonstrates that the brain is the dashboard of the body/mind which extends even into other people as community.  This fourth level is where it may become connected to institutional religion, which embeds spiritual experience into dogmas, morality, hierarchies and physical creations like temples. (The kind that is a building.)  

Institutional content can become destructive, even self-destructive, so that we now have the spectacle of Roman Catholic priests dying of AIDS at four times the rate of the general population.  Clearly their institutional training did not satisfy their basic human needs.  No matter how carefully and gracefully they performed Mass, it did not save them from themselves.  Nor did it teach them basic epidemiology.

professional model

I am indebted to Tim Barrus and the complex of young artists backed by Rachel Chapple at Real-Stories Gallery -- not for content but for motivation.  Boys who are or have been reduced to owning nothing more than their own bodies -- and surviving only by allowing sexual access to their bodies -- are now reaching out with art and video.  I learn from them.  

My writing does not and will not tell the stories of the boys, but much of the thinking is the result of stretching hard to find something to help them in the face of despair, isolation and death.  Not that I'm even in contact, but that they are the measure.  It’s easy to design “deep experiences” for upscale educated Unitarians who love that sort of thing.  The traditional ceremonial practices of Blackfeet that originated in a world now gone compel respect.  But to tell a despairing boy why he should not kill himself -- in a way that he cannot discredit -- demands extraordinary thought, near shamanic.  It makes me try harder.

A religious and moral issue of urgent importance is not so easy as talking about “resilience” or “healing.”  Whatever cannot reach priests is useless, ineffective.  History shows this is not a new problem.  Abstinence, denial, avoidance, do not work.  The body insists and the male body specifically insists on sex.  Spirituality is no match unless it has something better to offer than celibacy or rote ritual.  Punishment-based morality, arbitrary rules, fail in the reality.  What I work on is not a formula, a protocol, a system or any other rigamarole:  it is a new way of thinking.

Father Robert Schreiter

In a happy surprise, it is a priest, Father Robert Schreiter, who offers encouragement to seek the primal metaphors on which we build our identities, our societies, and our institutions -- religious or not.  The primal concepts and liminal transformation are the wellspring for Christianity and many other thought-ways.  My conviction and my experience tell me that when the “four levels” of mind (the sensorium that gives us our basic evidence, the brain structure that processes and recommends what to do, our actions of work and art, and the embracing layers of community) are reconciled and inter-operating to create a whole person, the felt experience of the person is energized, protected and delighted.  Fully participating.  Fulfilled.

No comments: