My seminary thesis, still unfinished, has turned out to be the root of a whole line of thought, partly because of a steady concatenation of unfolding research and theory that has nothing to do with me or religion except that it is changing the terms of the cosmos and the assumed nature of hominins as the pinnacle of progress.
My collection of evidence has grown into file drawers and bookshelves as well as hard drive files and notes — all without academic constraints, expert advice, or anything else vaguely institutional, not even my original UU commitment. In another time and another publication venue, I would be approaching the completion of a 500 page tome few would read because of politics. For a while now I’ve been challenging received thought vital to institutions, abandoning the whole metaphor of “God”. Now I’m thinking in terms of three fairly small books, roughly following the developments of my thinking over time.
The first is the most conventional: “The Bone Chalice,” based on the idea of the flames of thought burning in the human skull, as in the UU symbol. It traces out the origins and present state of that conventional and familiar (to Abrahamic/Euro-Mediterranean people) thing we do on Sunday mornings even when it’s Saturday or Friday. Beginning as a day of rest and introspection, Judaism added the first Words for study and Christianity followed by adding its own writings, plus Communion. Islam has the Koran and the constant call to prayer. The keynotes are print, authority, and introspection.
Elaborating from prayer, reading and reflection on the reading, worship has developed into a formal sequence called the Mass. Adding and subtracting, Protestants created Quaker circles of silence and African-American shouts of praise. In the fermenting Aquarian Age came experimental services drawing in all kinds of writing, performances, near-therapies, and indigenous practices. Now we seem to be rising and departing from the pews.
This first third notes lineage, with emphasis on UU thinkers just to make it more immediate and manageable, but also with careful attention to structural theory: Dix’s “The Shape of the Liturgy,” which is a durable old wineskin that accommodates many ferments. Kenneth Patton with his Universalist love of galaxies and Von Ogden Vogt with his idea of progress as the steam engine in the Cathedral. The Abraxan experiment, Vern Barnet’s related founding of the Community Resource for Exploring Spirituality (CRES) in Kansas City — all based on historical comparative religions by quoting their writing. Uniting these materials with literary themes was assumed to be inclusive, never wavering from the idea of rational, male-centered, belief-and-dogma-defined ideas as the highest order until the feminists and New Agers came along. Until a body of liturgy and theory developed around them, they didn’t exist. This was the predicament of all oral (mostly indigenous) “religion”.
But the anthros were up to the challenge, at least Victor Turner and his idea of the “liminal,” going over a threshold into a specific virtual state, and returning from it, ideas that he developed in Africa with indigenous tribes. The Viennese hyper-theoretical psychoanalysts countered with the one-hour introspection, which then simplified itself into a kind of congregational religion concerned with therapy and political correctness. That brings us up to the experimental designs of the PNWD-UUA that got me fired up for seminary.
So far the second book has no name. Since it leans on the 3-stage liminal idea, how about “Come Through the Door”? This second book contains all the ceremonies that shocked my advisor. It’s an exploration of theory in terms of the most intriguing and unusual examples of people in a liminal experience, whether or not it was seen through a Christian lens (the Uruguayan athletic team that crashed in the Andes or a bride who insisted on marrying her groom though he was killed on the way to the wedding) or something based directly on the need to survive in a limited environment (the Umeda cassowary ceremony). Many indigenous ceremonies (Blackfeet Bundle-Opening ceremonies) have been reduced in the thinking of the curious to mumbo-jumbo superstitious rigamaroles, so need to be restored to their ecological origins and survival value for celebrants.
This book hopes to restore the sensory-mediated, memory-empowered nature of what can’t be called religion exactly but is not really spirituality either. Something like “poetic deep experience” that comes suddenly without warning — not everyone, but to enough people that every time I ever preached about this someone was sure to linger afterwards to ask about it. The question raised was whether such an experience could or should be made to come through gorgeous scenery or drugs or bungee-jumping or intense sex. (Clearly it can — but is that second-class cheating? And what about addiction? Can one be addicted to spiritual experiences?) The old Blackfeet used thirst, starvation, isolation.
The third book I’m calling “Patterned Tumult,” and tries to rethink whatever order lies between dogma and delusion, the implications of dawning thought about the evolving and composite brain, social empathy, handling paleolithic built-in emotions and strategies that can destroy the world even as they energize and drive it, how to find the sacred in a world that ends every life, how to see the holiness in all these other forms of life and the resources they depend upon for existence, how to create and nurture new human beings while laying the old ones to rest.
This form of seeking is for me motivated by a specific but universal group, boys at-risk, thrown out of families, stigmatized, infected with HIV that makes them vulnerable to every disease, selling their bodies in order to survive, and yet able to respond to arts that used to be celebrated by the humanities: music, dance, painting, photography — expression of all sorts. Thus, the “patterned tumult”. Their lives may be short and brutal, but they are unmistakably part of the weave of existence. They may not become model citizens but they can form new societies, growing edges of culture.
In this section I will try to address the rituals used by African terrorists to create zombie soldiers from pre-pubertal boys, the ceremonies of luxury that permit boys to be sexually used by powerful educated people (even sacrificially killed), the risky and extreme sexual practices used by the traumatized in a search for relief.
How do we find sacred meaning for these people? What do they already know? The culture often denies that they exist except for the marginal insistence of film-makers like Pasolini or poets like deSade or the French-speaking philosophers who introspect and deconstruct to the point of incoherence, harrowing us all, tearing off the disguises of sex and death.
It seems clear that everyone needs affinity groups, intimate relationships, inspiration and reassurance, safety in the face of inevitable violence, and sheer beauty in our lives. Do any of our institutional religions provide that now? CAN an institution provide those basics?