Ever since I started really thinking about the split between a “feeling of the sacred” (which goes back to Eliade in 1978), and began to think about “religion” as institutions complete with bureaucracies, internal hierarchies, and a lot of other trouble-making aspects, like war-mongering, I’ve put my energy into the question of how to summon the feeling of present holiness.
As we put it in seminary, “Can you call the Holy Spirit?” Mostly, as the tradition says, it bloweth where it listeth in that big metaphor of wide open spaces like deserts, prairies and skies. Now and then someone describes it as being like struck by lightning, but many have told about lesser versions of the same thing, more like turning on a light in a dark room. Evidently the spirit appreciates a little space and time, but can also interrupt.
Out of fairness I should think more about religious institutions, which often claim they “own” Sacredness and have it in a bottle. Plainly they don’t. What do they have? Advantage. Privilege.
To what end? Survival. As a generalization, belonging faithfully to a religious institution that has a good plan for survival, a way of life that is likely to keep you happy, whole, and in the midst of friends, will keep you alive.
Unless the larger conditions change radically. In that way, a religious institution is just a species, an arrangement that will serve a specific ecological niche. Sometimes the times change so radically that the institutions are no longer an advantage. We seem to be in one of those times.
Bob Scriver used to tell a story about the difference between farm chickens and prairie chickens, a kind of grouse. If you came around a corner and there was a flock of, let’s say, buff orpingtons, in the road, they would stick together so that you would either miss them or run over them en masse. This is because when you feed a flock of chickens, they all run together to get the food. The ones that don’t will die of starvation. But with prairie chickens, the idea is to scatter to find their food independently and to scatter to avoid predators. If you’re driving a car, it will be hard to avoid crushing at least one of them, but the species will survive.
The strange thing about Christian institutions is that they insist that they are ALL Christian, each in their own way, scattered to suit their circumstances. To avoid outright war, our unspoken agreement is to just call them denominations. In fact, some will assert that Judaism, Native American beliefs, Hinduism, and whatever else you’ve got are actually kinds of Christian, denominations. A distinction becomes so inclusive it is no longer distinct.
“Lefties,” liberals, democratically based institutions, free thinkers, non-conformists, and other labeled “species” of people are prairie chickens. The biggest problem is that they scatter. The Unitarians go in and out of Universalism, the Unitarians go in and out of just about every sub-category of life-styles there are, the Humanists go in and out of super-rational Unitarianism, but the Pagans, Feminists, Blacks, Gays all build adjunct institutions though few of them ever achieve critical mass big enough to get recognition as religious from the uber-institutional government. Like “tax-free”.
This is like the special treatment of NA tribes who struggle over the profits of gambling. Strangely few American Indians get very invested in free-thinking organizations. Maybe they prefer the spiritual side. Maybe they just don’t have a tradition of individual thought and academic/written culture. Most of the “left” religionists tend to be individuals and print-based, neither of which is very good for building a consensus group, much less a functioning institution.
The forces that hold a liberal group together are compassion, justice, a canon from the past, socio-economic norms, and aesthetics, though the last is much neglected recently. Indeed, it appears to have been captured by the commodifiers.
The commodifiers are now so powerful that they subsume everything else, even owning people to one degree or another, the extremes becoming destroyers of survival. I’m talking about trafficking, oppressive labor, famine, and war. No longer do they bother much about dressing-up these practices with supernatural spirituality. They just want what they want and the rest of us are yard chickens, walking dollar bills on the bookkeeping lists.
You’d think that the liberals/free thinkers/minority-justice people would find this so atrocious that they would band together against such predators. But they don’t. They turn away. To survive.
Because the very thing that gave them freedom to read, travel, learn, qualify for good jobs, establish quiet safe homes, is now too precious to give up. It’s easier to just not know. I always think of the year we spent re-writing the Portland, OR, animal control laws. Though the enforcement agency had to deal with cases of bestiality, there were no legal guidelines because the people who wrote the law didn’t conceive of such acts. It was hard for the more tender members of the panel to face such things. Today the inconceivable acts are as likely to be against children as animals. (The tough among us have known this all along.)
But now we realize — thanks to science and thinking that escapes the suppressive mega-corporation commodifications — that humans are not privileged unless they fight for it. And if the environment around them, their anchors in cultural and environmental ecology, are destroyed, then humans will be eliminated. Our survival is no longer about family, about institutions, about nations (which are institutions), but about our ability to understand and accommodate the whole planet, because we’re connected to the whole shebang — to the depths of the sea, to the thinnest layer of atmosphere, to the far reaches of the solar system. Even the butterflies count.
Though commodification has protected science to some degree, and though many groups have found more than enough critical mass to work for survival of the many through the few, it’s hard work. (I think of Medicins Sans Frontieres) Restoration of the spirit is key and real, or the inspired will exhaust themselves.
Dominant cultural institutions will try to control containers of the Sacred but they can’t put the wind in a bag, nor can they prevent the Spiritual from turning demonic. If they could, they would have by now. The Demonic is gaining, strong among us. But the spirituality of the Demonic is not necessarily a bad thing — it can crack the walls of prisons. This takes us back to the individual versus the group — add the element of Evil and it’s easy to see that an Individual against a group is defined relatively, according to whether one privileges the group or single human. Sometimes one and many are aligned. Then we survive.