“The Bone Chalice” is a metaphor for the “container” with a fire in it. It is represented in UU meetings by an actual bowl or chalice that has some kind of fire in it: candle, can of Sterno, kerosene wick. The idea was a celebration of thought as in “what makes us human” as well as “what gives us access to the world.” For some, it symbolized John Huss, a too-early Protestant burned for heresy, evoking the individual right to think for one’s self.
The problem is that if one leaves the prescribed (written) litanies of the dominant religion, one also leaves structure behind. Or the flame is changed, but not the container. (Several Protestant denominations have kept the Catholic mass for their worship services.) The consequences can be either that the flame is not consolidated enough to keep burning, or the flame can escape, become damaging or go out. This, of course, is of concern mostly to the Abrahamic religions, which were built around the experience of the oasis or campfire. They could as easily be symbolized by a fountain of water in a container, though the implications would be a little different.
Euros didn't realize they were devising the discipline of anthropology to reflexively study the "anthropocene" forces. Nor did they realize the danger of them escaping their containers, the homeostasis of life. When first confronting the sacred kindlings of the indigenous peoples of the world, they solved their unfamiliarity by ruling that they were not religion. Indeed, if religion is a matter of institutions with hierarchies, boundaries, dogmas, and built structures, the practices of Native American Indians or tribal Africans or Australians were not religion.
But these people obviously had a sense of the Sacred, Holy places, objects that signified, and practices that uplifted the people. The general public — meaning writers for television series — has still not realized this is a problem. They can barely distinguish the Protestant plate tectonics from the personality of Pope Francis. Unless something is written, logical, and historical, most people think it’s not religious. (But then they drag in the morality of pee.)
If “belief” defines religion, then the contemporary version will reject anything they can’t see. “Proof” means seeing, whether it is seeing Jesus crucified or seeing hands with sympathetic stigmata or seeing archeological evidence of the buildings in the Bible. Evidence means something written (the Book) or eyewitness testimony. Educated contemporaries are a legalistic and optically obsessed people. For some simpler folks, the image of the Virgin Mary rusted into a screen door is more convincing than two thousand years of scholarly dogma. If smell is the sense that developed first, sight is the one that defines worship now: architecture, embellishment, reading, making signs with the hands and arms, precious objects.
The most important sight one sees at church is each other, the congregation, the people who count to you because they know you. But possibly, in a hierarchical style, one can step back to wanting to see one person, the way a child wants to see the one nurturer. It’s biological. So in that situation the people sit in pews facing the pulpit, and their yearning for one beloved is symbolized by the worship leader or by statues, maybe a way of seeing God in terms of human relationship like “love”.
But that’s far from the only option. A few decades ago, resisting any hint of domination or departure from equality, there was a movement rudely called “unscrewing the pews” which literally meant unfastening them from rows and putting them in a circle. Or some congregations went to chairs that could be arranged in many patterns, so that one not only is looking at people but also seeing a different angle on the space. Some went to carpet, like Islam.
When I was in seminary, each student was responsible for creating a vespers ceremony on Friday evening in the little side-chapel of the First Unitarian Church of Chicago. The space was separated from the great stone sanctuary by a kind of proscenium with a fire-wall that could be lowered, as in a theatre. But it was cranky, aging, and often stuck, so it was mostly left open. We normally faced our chairs towards the wood paneled wall opposite the space. But I got to thinking about the “Void,” the “Abyss,” “Kenosis” and the other doctrines of darkness and emptiness. I thought about how we fill that space with ourselves.
So I set up a low table in front of the arch to darkness and backed it with the biggest mirror I could find. We were forced to contemplate symbolic representation of an abstract idea. Of course, by Friday evening we were usually empty and exhausted — our homeostasis was one of pulsing energy through the seven days of study and worship. It wouldn’t seem as though staring at a black space and our own bodies would be helpful, but it was a case of “naming the Devil.” That is, like Rumpelstilskin, once named, the power was gone. But it was more felt than a matter of proper nomenclature. It worked.
“Visual Literacy” is defined thus: “Visual literacy is the ability to interpret, negotiate, and make meaning from information presented in the form of an image, extending the meaning of literacy, which commonly signifies interpretation of a written or printed text.”
One interpreter is David Howes, “professor of anthropology and the director of the Concordia Centre for Sensory Studies at Concordia University, Montreal. He holds three degrees in anthropology and two degrees in law. His research focuses on how senses are formed by culture and what the world is like to societies that emphasize touch or hearing rather than sight.” Because he approaches through the paradigm of reading, he is confined to the ideas of language, like grammar and vocabulary. I find that a bit old-fashioned in an age of video and hyper-realism. But he is only describing and tabulating, not actually trying to summon the Holy. He looks at the container and what might be incised or embossed or painted on it.
But he tries to see the organic emergence of the objects and rituals. The difference between a skull and a chalice is that the former is built by itself, formed by processes spontaneously guided by molecular DNA blueprints that developed over millennia of evolution, long before the brain found symbolisms of alphabet.The soft cartilaginous globe of a fetus forms by the twelfth week of gestation and continues to develop and translate into bone at least into the person’s twenties and possibly through a lifetime.
In infancy, the skull can be shaped by simple pressure and some tribes have done this on purpose. Otherwise, the baby’s head needs to be turned occasionally so the pressure of the bed doesn’t flatten it. Of course, it usually has been deformed by birth and needs a bit of time to become round. We are about to learn much more about Zita and the lack of the brain's pre-frontal cortex so that there is no forehead bulge. And we already know about the brain swelling to the point of crushing itself against the inside of the skull. One can run away with metaphors, but it might be useful to think about this in terms of religious systems, where the institution has become a crusher of the Holy or has simply deleted it.
A skull, of course, once developed into a person and then de-fleshed by death, is a powerful symbol and often used in actuality or depiction for the sake of our feelings when confronted with the eye holes and grinning teeth.
The central idea of this post is two-fold: first that the sense of the Holy is a felt phenomenon that is a natural part of the living human body, accessible to everyone, even the most rigid “prove it” person. No need for an evangelist or a miracle. No need for an institution. It develops by itself according to internal directions. It is a time-related development. It may vary between persons the same as any other physiological feature.
Second, that though this experience is quite apart from conventional historical systems of worship and prescribed liturgy, it is still possible to invite Sacred experience and to shape it in ways that obey the organic laws of homeostasis: too wild and damaging will snuff the fire, and the same goes for too faint or incoherent, a lack of fuel. We suffer from both. Right now, fear is rocket fuel exceeding any crucible.
This is a “humanist” way of thinking that involves no supernatural elements, but it MUST be responsive to the environment, which has much to do with the way the fire burns. Our ecologies shape our being and inform our poetries of the Sacred, which we enact as part of our identities and survival.