Wednesday, December 09, 2015


The Flesh Made Word

Two books, which are related, have flung open the doors to a paradigm shift that I welcome.  (Also they are the entering edge of a new field of thought.)  They come out of an interaction of several forces:  the new exploration of pre-writing history that reaches unbelievably far back to include “hominins” via traces  -- just like CSI! -- dependent on intense technology analyzing clues never available before, and something like the same examination of the morphology, evolution, mutation and response to environment of the human body.  We now see that it is best to understand the neurology of the whole body as “thinking,” not just the brain.  It’s so new and strange that many well-educated people just can’t get their heads around all this, let alone their "gut."

The two books are “Origins and Revolutions: Human Identity in Earliest Prehistory” by Clive Gamble  (Cambridge University Press, 2007) and “On Deep History and the Brain” by Daniel Lord Smail (University of California Press, 2008).  To some thinkers the ideas here are seen as destructive, tearing down convictions the academic community has felt were absolutely “true”.  Learning those ideas is what justified their Ph.D.  But this is mistaken or at least not eternal.  The new ideas ought to be seen as extensions, exploring underlying assumptions to challenge social contradictions we badly need to resolve.  It does ask the prevailing authorities to consider a broader understanding of hominins, history, and the canon.
Neubauer Collegium

It’s rather ironic that this material, which is EXACTLY the direction I’ve wanted to go for many decades, came to my attention because of Smail’s interval at the Neubauer Collegium where he gave a talk on “Containers,” in the broadest and most metaphorical sense.  The Collegium is housed in what was once “my” seminary, Meadville/Lombard Theological School, which is now leasing in the Chicago Loop.  

In my day (’78-’82) Eliade occupied an office on the top floor and lived next door.  There was a kind of “force field” around him.  People who see religious subjects in terms of “belief,” “dogma,” “prescribed ritual”, and so on -- not just as phenomena to study but as required faiths -- will have trouble with Eliade, myself, and maybe others too tactful to say so.  We operate on “feelings” but “feelings” have been classically defined as ephemeral, possibly neurotic, and unreal.  Every time I raised the issue, it was defined away as Phenomenology, trivial.  Then came post-structural analysis.  Now every phenomenon is a potential metaphor, possibly with great social power.  Like the metaphor of “God.”

UU “principles” are vague enough to evade quarreling, but there is still dogma despite protestations.  It takes a while to pick up the near-subconscious prioritization of academia, publishing, British Empire class systems, prestige and so on.  Inordinate valuing of eminent persons and national or ideological victories have caused neglect of all the post-structuralist revelations.  UU’s are just realizing it themselves, but now what?  Multi-national reconciliation?  The adjunct faculty these days is not the usual old white guys.  But the new people are too assorted to gel into a coherent entity.  And minorities often make progress by accepting the standards of the majority, a strategy of assimilation.

Smail is nimble enough to go around all that to the physiological basis of psychotropic mechanisms that influence our behavior and identity though rarely revealing the dynamics in the blood and organs where we base our thinking.  If the “dashboard” of thought were visible as dials and gauges exhibited on our chests, we could see thinking as clearly as with a brain fMRI, though in a different dimension, revealing the molecules in liquid that are messengers.  (We assume that nerves are like wires carrying info and the brain is a hard-drive.  There’s no good simile for blood molecules.  I use "soup" teasingly.)   

Smail is among new thinkers responding to research.  Many naive people consider “consciousness” to be the verbal description of one’s awareness and reasoning, but the “real” thought is underneath, not conscious.  If words are the pinnacle of human-ness, one must admit it’s a small footing that depends upon deep, broad and unseen forces which as plate tectonics, which are what throw up mountains in the first place.

I do not underestimate the anguish of being forced to give up sources of identity because new research and social forces have dispersed what previously was key.  Once I attended a “peace” conference in which the main address took as theme, “Abba,” Father, and explored the idea that a loving father was protective as a religious truth.  It was very nice, so long as you were actually remembering a loving father, and I suppose the supposition that a father would take a child on his lap for other purposes than protection would not be “nice” and therefore should not be considered.

Being mischievous, in the following discussion I asked the speaker what advice he would give a child who had been raped by the father.  How could that child see God as other than a rapist, or -- slightly better -- a vengeful punisher for wrong-doing.  What of the child who loves the rapist in the bonded way that children do, which is normally a protection?  The speaker said I didn’t “play fair” and avoided me for the rest of the conference.  But I was serious.  All metaphors carry significance that believers may not recognize -- may not want to.  Maybe some abused children do not want to be lambs.  Maybe a better God image for them is a protective wolf pack. 

This quote is from page 113 in Smail’s book:

“ . . .The large human brain evolved over the past 1.7 million years to allow individuals to negotiate the escalating complexities posed by human social living.  This is still what we use the brain for today -- most of the time, at least.  And then there are all the noncognitive features of the brain.  Many of the things we do are shaped by behavioral pre-dispositions, moods, emotions, and feelings that have a deep evolutionary history.  These body states are not ghostly things flitting mysteriously through consciousness.  Recent work in neuropsychology and neurophysiology has shown that they are physiological entities, characteristically located in specific parts of the brain and put there by natural selection.  some of them, including emotions, are relatively automated, no different  from the other areas of life governance -- basic metabolism, reflexes, pain, pleasure, drives, motivations -- that are routinely handled by the brain in all hominoids.  

Most, perhaps all, are also associated with an array of hormones and neurotransmitters such as testosterone and other androgens, estrogen, serotonin, dopamine, endorphins, oxytocin, prolactin, vasopressin, epinephrine, and so on.  Produced in glands and synapses throughout the body, these chemicals facilitate or block the signals passing along neural pathways.  They induce the somatic states revealed on and in our bodies and help determine how feelings actually feel.  We share virtually all of these chemicals with other animals, though the nervous system of an iguana, say, will not necessarily use testosterone in the same way ours does.  In a sense, each of these chemicals has its own natural history.”

Some people are distressed that I have no faith stance that I can describe as doctrine, except the provisional map my path has suggested so far.  But though I insist on staying put in a place I’ve known a long time, it’s because it’s not my body that travels -- just my mind and heart.  But then it turns out that they ARE my body! 

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