Saturday, January 10, 2015


A template is anything that determines or serves as a pattern; a model. There are templates for things as big as society itself and templates as small as an attachment for a sewing machine that will make buttonholes. In the past templates have been used to control propaganda, manners, proper grammar usage, and the arrangement of furniture. They have been been seen in such a rigid and determining manner that someone in Dear Abby today had to ask whether it were “proper” to put a paper towel roll holder in her bathroom, since she’d never seen one in anyone’s bathroom. Note to paper towel advertisers: Make it absolutely essential to have a paper towel roll holder in every home bathroom. Actually I have one in mine. Many public bathroooms have them. Abby’s response was “go for it.”

We are at a point in higher levels of discussion where we no longer talk about the “propriety” of existing templates, nor question the usefulness of old ones, but try to think of new templates, try to understand how to fit life-to-template in new ways. Particularly when it comes to religious templates and specifically those that come out of the Abrahamic tribal/patriarch/chieftain patterns that now wreak so much havoc. This is what in grad school circles is called “post-modern” and even “post-post-modern.” I consciously challenge templates.

My poet/philosopher friend in the Netherlands puts it this way: “i think you're sketching "the new figure of speech" for "the new now". all elements of it, i.e. of "the case", are continuously shifting, interdependently but in (guattari:) "chaosmosis". so: no one topic; no linearity; no singular causality; no monoculturality; no chronoconstituency: all is momentaneous, contingent and simultaneously; overlapping multiplicities; if clarity is reached then at once, opaqueness; goal orientation is fictive; societies are loose collections of shortly adhesive or cohesive elements; secret agendas are buzzing along; "goodness" is present more in individual gestes than as a concept; i guess there is no "ethics"; naturality is a regulative shadow. yet my interest deepens as the core seems to evade.” If you can't figure this out, don’t worry. There will be no test.

Now I’m going to talk about templates for what happens when people come together, maybe on Sunday morning, maybe on some other day, to do something familiar as a group that sustains them. In seminary we were told that “worship” derives from “worth-ship,” which is focus on one’s highest values. We were also told that “liturgy” comes from “binding together” ("ligature") and is that which holds a group of people together in strength. When I read “The Shape of the Liturgy” by Dom Gregory Dix, he made it clear that what began in response to the emergence of written rules and wisdom in the Middle East gave rise to study groups who read and reflected on written scrolls in the way of Judaism and then was wrapped around by the rite of Communion, a shared meal of bread and wine, as Christianity. This is what we call the "Mass." 

Today in Unitarian Universalist and other semi-secular post-Christian groups, following the early Christian practice of bringing bread and wine from home to share for Communion, the people sometimes bring water or flowers, mix them, and share them. A “litany” is a pattern in which a leader alternates words with a repeated group response. Sometimes this is called “responsive reading.” Prayer may be as a group, using the same words in unison, as in the Lord’s Prayer, or may be an address by a leader to a higher being with the congregation listening, or may be silent -- each congregant thinking his own prayer. Foxhole prayers may not be in church or in the context of a congregation at all -- just an outburst of appeal to some higher power or cherished persona, whether mother or saint.

But there are less admired templates. One is that of “magic”, a kind of bribery of the fates by promising whatever the person thinks the gods want: maybe a fine new building, possibly a reform of character, or a promise of some kind of ordeal undertaken in thanks. The use of hierarchy to dominate ceremonies or interpose authorities between the ordinary people and what they understand to be their ultimate authority (God) is what the Protestants were protesting. On the other hand, the giving of alms or devotion to the poor and vulnerable are templates for religious ceremonies, though now they are performed by secular organizations such as Red Cross or United Nations or Medicins Sans Frontieres. 

What I’ve been working on in my own idiosyncratic way and without interacting with other people is a new template for intense and focused experience, possibly with a group, that will be deep and universal enough to be useful for anyone, even a person who has no “religious” identity. I don’t include other people because I find they can NOT give up their old templates, particularly if they have long-term affiliations with identity-providing named religions. In fact, to name a religion is to suggest a template. Can one be Catholic without a Mass? Come to that, can one be a Blackfeet in a spiritual sense without being a Bundle Opener, where the template is sitting in a circle and opening a collection of animal skins to honor the nature of each with prayer, song and dance? If one follows the pattern of that template but replaces the animal materials with something else, does it necessarily mean it is no longer Blackfeet? 

Can one participate in a Communion that does not accompany the study of Scripture (especially the Gospels) and does not consist of bread and wine? This is what my seminary class professor Robert Schreiter, a priest in religious orders and a mission thinker, asked us. (“Constructing Local Theologies.” is his book.) If you are a missionary to the Inuit in the first contact days, how do you express the story of Jesus in a place where there is no wood to make a cross, no bread, no wine? Schreiter says we must go to the most deep prompting of humans to find the equivalent of those things -- what they stand for.

With the insights of recent neuroresearch, it is clear that much of what our modern society sees as metaphors and templates legitimized by historical and institutional traditions are always the products of pre-frontal cortex word-and-rule-dominated thinking. But the deepest of devotions for all human beings in whatever time and place are emergent from the unconscious functions, beginning with song and dance. They have nothing to do with authority figures or institutions, but respond to what we call mystical or spiritual.

Authority figures and institutions emerge from and depend upon the language functions of the brain plus all the restraints and reflections of the pre-frontal cortex. But mystically-emerging felt experience comes from the rest of the brain: unconscious, inarticulate, without templates. Emergent practices that come out of human experience in desert, tundra, mountain, grassland, and verdant valleys along streams are powerful. To the humans who have those lived experiences, whatever is derived from them will be powerful, comforting and inspiring. They can also encourage the destruction of anything or anyone that seems to threaten them and what they value.

In a world of the mega-urban cacaphony [sic] what are the emergent values? Belonging, protection, survival. What are the templates? The old-fashioned defensive tribes in the desert gathered around their chieftains. The demand for “respect,” gangs, violence, destruction of the privileged, and orgasmic violent outbursts of terrorism. These are not unaccountable and surprising: the templates are there in the media and politics every day -- the insistence on “worthship” and “binding together” by the excluded, stigmatized, and desperate who have nothing to lose.

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