ESSENCE OF DESIGNED EXPERIENCE
Jonathan A. Anderson, whose lectures are on YouTube. http://open.biola.edu/authors/jonathan-a-anderson, teaches at a fundamentalist school that believes in Biblical inerrancy but he talks about the most avant garde kinds of art with full comprehension and insight. Here is an example of his designed sacred experience, a “proof of life.”
"Put a chilled piece of glass in front of you. An oscillating fan should be running in the room. Lean forward in your chair and breathe on the glass. Observe your breath as it clouds the glass. Lean back. Watch as your breath clears from the glass. This is seeing your life."
"Get a friend to sit on the other side of the chilled glass. Put two oscillating fans in the room. You lean forward to make a cloud while your friend sits back. Then you lean back and he leans forward to breathe on the glass. Observe carefully. You are looking at each other's lives.”
If one is to work at the level of the body that kindles a feeling of the sacred, one must be aware somehow at the level of the 200 kinds of one-celled perception that is posited to have developed to guide us since the beginning. To a rat it is clear that these cells perceive whether we are next to and following a wall, or approaching a drop-off; whether it is daytime or nighttime even if there is no light; the approach of some living thing bigger than us; whether we are being watched; and many other subtle things most of us pay no attention to. Worship design is like any other art form except that the focus is survival.
The trouble is that the survival of the group and of the individual can be opposed. Groups don’t like the atypical. Individuals do. The tension between them is either creative, triggering evolution, or deadly, destroying one or the other. We are sharply aware of that right now. Worship experience can help reconcile the conflict.
There are three concepts from Paul Tillich that I accept.
1. If two things are in direct conflict, the remedy is to find that which includes them both. His key is “being” versus “non-being”, overarched by “the ground of being.” Be careful to avoid Manicheism, which tries to make every binary into an evil versus good.
2. Symbols cannot be “assigned” rationally. They are “emergent,” forming when the situation provides the force that produces them. They might not be nice; they can certainly not be controlled. One can learn to recognize them.
3. Worship and religion can only transcend the politico-economics of a specific time and place by relating to what he calls the Ultimate, consciousness of belonging and participating in something on the edge of conceivability: cosmic, inscrutable, impossible to describe. It is what we come out of and what we go into. It has NOTHING to do with religion and includes science as a kind of religion. It has nothing to do with institutions. It’s the “is-ness” of being even before it’s divided into time and space. We are submerged and connected in being.
Victor Turner provides basics by defining the experience of ceremonies in time as though it were in space, like a room with walls, a door, and a threshold, called a limen.
The beginning is entering over the threshold which might actually be physical. But it could be anything that affects the level of consciousness, which could also be defined as reorganizing the connectome, if you know what a connectome is.
A connectome is the pattern of neuron connections at a given time. It can be seen on fMRI sorts of instruments and will shift as the task of the brain changes. It’s like an old-fashioned operator’s board for a telephone, plugging in the acoustic-processing center for sounds or the math rules for arithmetic. If one is trying to think something in one realm with a connectome patterned for another realm, a lot of things will just go blank. The result might be creative, but also might be an incoherent mess.
What shifts a person’s consciousness into the connectome for an event meant to be sacred? How the event is thought of will make a difference: a litany, traditional to a denomination, will mean activating memory, habit, association with a certain kind of place, maybe giving attention to a leader.
Sometimes this entry into the sacred “room” can be seen as a task of “entrainment” or “concatenation”, basically getting everyone on the same page. A song by the group; an entry procession as in a wedding; the literal tuning up of an orchestra, the lights go down, the curtain goes up, the candles are lit, the orchestra conductor raises his arms. But also walking up stairs and opening an impressive door, or greeting and being greeted by people. In some ways a sacred event is not that different from an arts performance.
If the limen is crossed in the connectome of those attending, then they are ready for the body of the event. Turner’s theory is that the people should be separated enough from their daily life to temporarily give up hierachy — everyone is equal in the sacred time and place. One is released to accept change or to reconfirm their commitment. It is both a very safe place, and the very most dangerous because of what might be realized.
At the end of this, the task is to send people back over the limen into the real world, but renewed. Some of the same acts, words, songs, will work. When this is done powerfully, it will be hard to explain, but people will feel those who were present were changed.
Beginning, Middle, End are the trinity of all time experience, but when they are envisioned as a space, it’s easier to see them as a progression across time. That doesn’t seem logical, but there it is.
There is another strategy that comes close to the beginning, after the people have justified their attendance (knocked on the door) and sat down together (entrainment). I call it the Dilation of the Spirit. You could relate it to what Tillich has said about “ultimates.” That is, disengaging the mind from the teeny-tiny quotidian and taking it to the absolute limit of imagination.
First, one thinks of the most ghastly, evil, disastrous things and how we are not at all safe from any of them. In fact, chances are someone in the group has just been diagnosed with cancer, just lost someone dear, just watched the news of another predator drone attack that killed an innocent family. With lots of prompting from the media, most of us don’t find it hard to envision Evil, but “nice people” who are surviving on denial and fantasy while they walk on the crust of the volcano, will usually banish it, simply not allow it. This reduces religious experience to a cotillion, a pleasant night at the card table.
Institutional religion promises protection. When the dogmas don’t deliver, the people leave the pews. The Creedal belief in life after death is just about exhausted. Few of us can sustain the vision of rising out of the grave restored. Our efforts to believe end up with movies about zombies and White Walkers. Gruesome and ridiculous.
I go instead to the idea of inclusion, which is simply a bald fact. Every particle of existence is connected to every other particle and if one is changed, so are the others. Every tiny thing matters. That is, life matters. What you do matters. You may have just manufactured in your organs a molecule that will change you and therefore your life and that you might pass on to your children, altering their lives and all the lives around you. Hey, I’ve seen it happen. Survival is the same thing as participation. Even if it were possible to separate from everything else, that would be death. No sensation, no nurturing, no connectome.