Sunday, July 03, 2016


Only recently have we realized that our fixation on writing is a limitation on our evidence of the world.  First we had to see that existence is an ongoing process that never reaches an end.  Then since there is constant mutation of the interactions that produce life, this produces evolution which is one thing coming out of another.  Humans are an emergent property of the planet, transient but somehow able to perceive and reflect, not just on what is written but through interpreting all the evidence around us, stretching back into the past far beyond ourselves and even the planet.

Fossils, DNA, the sedimentation and striations of stone, the isotopes of water and air, the infinite waves of ancient starlight, are all forms of “writing”.  What we call “religion” is as changing, recording, and predicting as anything else.  It is “emergent,” a species of birthing as it pushes against the world.  Some scientists are proposing that as many as two hundred species of physical/animal humans have come into being over the hundreds of millennia, some of them recent and nearby enough to share genes, their formulas responding to the conditions of time and place.  Only “we” have escaped to tell each other.

So the smoke and blood of the original hunter-gatherer bands coming out of Africa to settle around the Mediterranean gradually became what we call “Western Civilization” which has now just about reached the limit of all the resources we can exploit to maintain our existence.  Which means we will either transform again or die.  What is emerging from us?  

The proposition is that the withdrawal of the last glaciation a little more than  ten thousand years ago somehow created a possibility for modern humans to travel north out of Africa and settle around the Mediterranean (the fertile crescent) where someone discovered that the climate and fertility allowed the growing of the “founder crops” which are three cereals (emmer wheat, einkorn wheat, barley), four pulses (lentils, peas, chickpeas, and bitter vetch) and flax.  These joined meat and milk from herding domesticated animals.  Tubers (potatoes and peanuts) came later from the New World.

One could say that the history of religion is the history of food.  Our early Old Testament stories of the easy-eating Garden of Eden, Cain and Abel quarrelling in the fields, Jacob and Esau quarrelling over proper sacrifice (meat or grain) and transfer of ownership (pottage) across generations, are about food and land.  But most of all, the development of food that can be stored — in a way that milk and meat cannot — meant the emergence of granaries and towns.  

The concept of “containers” in the broadest sense arose both as thought systems that could contain meaning and as institutions maintaining those systems.  The environment began to be “built” by humans as dwellings, passages, walled defences, and religious structures, first as shrines and piles of stones to mark places of importance, then eventually expanding into temples where the wealth of food supported a class of people specializing in thinking out systems and designing thoughts and acts that supported their ideas.  There are early emerging separations from nature in the form of laws.  But the people were still at the mercy of climate (drought and flood, freezes), geology (earthquakes and volcanoes), and disease (the rise of zoonoses from the domestic animals).  These are also written about in the Old Testament, demanding sacrifice, prayer and obedience.

“The span of recorded history is roughly 5,000 years, beginning with Sumerian Cuneiform script, the oldest discovered form of coherent writing from the protoliterate period around the 30th century BC.

“Ancient history is defined in different manners, and can be defined as occurring from the beginning of recorded human history to:
The Early Middle Ages (the end of the 4th century AD)
The Postclassical Era (200-600 AD and 1200–1500 AD, depending on the continent)

“Although the ending date of ancient history is disputed, some Western scholars use the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 AD (the most used), the closure of the Platonic Academy in 529 AD, the death of the emperor Justinian I in 565 AD, the coming of Islam or the rise of Charlemagne as the end of ancient and Classical European history.”  (This is from Wikipedia.  It makes no mention of Jesus — I don’t know why.)

As nations formed, so did what are called the “Axial” religions, the mega-institutions that overlay governmental borders: Catholic Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, each with their emergent sub-divisions and resulting written doctrines.  The behavior and fortunes of their adherents varied.  But now, laying aside writing and institutions, we enter a new understanding that is much broader than anything written.

25 Beacon Street

Relying on written history, I propose to look back closely at one sub-sub-sub-division of European religion, the contemporary Unitarian Universalist Association which ambivalently claims to be a denomination or not, with congregations who claim to be churches or not (fellowships).  In some ways continuous with the effort to renew by going back to the earliest Christian groups when there were still many “species” of dogma, it tries to claim pluralism which has meant it is open to the larger culture.  If something happens in the Western world, it also happens in the UUA.  

One could characterize it humorously as a response to coffee, an adaptation of Early Greek forums inventing democracy.  As a personal indulgence I’m going to trace out the history of UU worship, this specific group which began as revolution against Calvinist Protestantism and has since hosted other revolutions such as Transcendentalism or Humanism.

First Unitarian Church of Rochester, NY

At first considering itself Christian, in the way that the first Christians considered themselves Jewish, the denomination continued as all denominations do in the pursuit of prosperity which is an attempt to guarantee survival.  It is a “denomination” (named Christian subgroup) that is dependent on writing.  It is also vulnerable to politics of law, but only covertly devoted to wealth and status, while pretending to be populist.  The coherent dynamic is education, which has until now been controlled by institutions.  Sometimes there is an impulse of “leveling”, mistaken for equality.

Contemporary Western culture is so dominated by public media and the Internet that it has somehow returned to a nearly pre-literate but highly sophisticated technical state.  Sources of wealth are shifting away from material resources and becoming a virtual system based on capital rather than materials.  Religion is leaving institutions, which means leaving stabilizing systems.  Populations are leaving the places that gave rise to their unique adaptations, which don’t necessarily work in new locations.

We are looking at apocalyptic times as global warming submerges whole islands and plagues sweep through our populations.  All our institutional systems are challenged and doubted.  Something is trying to emerge through the new systems, possibly a whole new kind of human being.  But it also clear that whole categories of people will disappear as though endangered and extinct species — maybe already have, taking their languages with them even if they were written down.  What will this do to our sense of what is sacred?

The sense of the sacred is a human attribute that emerges with the other senses when the blastophere develops in the womb.  As nerves gradually develop, connecting to muscle and viscera and centering a dashboard in the brain, each of us learns the world in two aspects: that which is inside their own skin and that which is outside their skin, transmitted to them in an electrochemical code.  The second part of this second book of a trio (I don’t want to say trinity.) will begin at this point in the discussion.  Next post.

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