The “controlling metaphor” for this discussion is the idea that the form of an event is a container for what happens. The more intense the event, the stronger the container needs to be. Even a free-form improvised non-verbal event needs a container. The Catholic mass form is very strong with a long history. Basically, it is study of written material (derived from Jewish study of the Torah) followed by celebratory sharing of communion (a metaphorical form of sacrifice). Experiments with mind-altering substances in non-verbal cultures are always attended by adepts who can control what happens.
There is much to explore here. Are “forms” logical and rational? Is the content always passionate emotion? What happens if the same content is put into a new form?
My sources for this thinking about designed ceremonies were derived from Method Acting classes, Blackfeet ceremonies, myth, natural history, and comparative religion. When I entered seminary, it was clear that I was not functioning the same way as the more conventional people. To make this simple, they were all thinking like white male grad students aiming for a PhD: rationality, precedence, introspection and literateness. Once I realized that was the prevailing and natural context in most academic places, I was able to find the minority streams of thought, books that explained how to choose my own path while still functioning with others.
It is easy to shrug this position off as peculiar to the Unitarian Universalist movement, which allowed me space and something like camouflage. But Ethical Culture and humanist groups would have done the same thing. Particularly because the tradition I was in (Unitarian more than Universalist despite a merger in 1961) was relatively affluent, educated, and in 1978 still mostly male, everything was as professional as lawyers and doctors — that is, one’s vocation was meant to be professed, stated. Even the faculty at Meadville/Lombard had credentials meaning they were committed to a faith — though a broad one — and to an academic inheritance. We were expected to operate through logic, reading historical and theoretical materials, and conviction. My conviction was one of seeking. But my basic definitions were out of line, so how could they certify what I believed?
Their method left out some of the most religious people I knew: nonliterate, ceremonial, connected to the land and tribe, the Blackfeet tribe on their reservation in Montana and reserves in Alberta, united by location on the East Slope of the Rocky Mountains. Some people claim that because of the compression of the continents there, forced by the underlying plate tectonics, there are dynamics at work but unperceived. Others look to the sky, grass and buffalo that shaped the culture.
I never did connect with any anthropologists at the University of Chicago, though now I know that some work was being done that would have fit exactly with what I was looking for. My faculty knew nothing about anthropology. Indeed, if I’d gotten too interested in their indigenous work, it would have pulled me out of preparation for the ministry, which is the point of a seminary. The denomination was, after all, paying my tuition and they were my side admission gate, a subset of the U of Chicago mechanisms for keeping order and focus.
True to the idea of a university, a collection of thinking communities, there was forming at the time a group of people developing a complex of thoughts described by Mark Johnson in “The Meaning of the Body” as “the origin of meaning in organism-environmental coupling: a nonrepresentational view of mind.” The names of the people include Victor Turner, George Lakoff, Eugene Gendlin, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Suzanne Langer and more. They were labeled pejoratively “phenomenologists.”
Since the thinking that I did in Chicago and used in my ten years of ministry, the world and myself have moved on. I left parish ministry in 1989, but continue as an independent scholar. In 1999 I was able to move to a disintegrating little house in the village of Valier, next to the Blackfeet Reservation where I spent so many happy years. Since that time, some transformative new ideas have dawned.
DESIGNING SPIRITUAL EXPERIENCE
Mircea Eliade’s “The Sacred and the Profane” marks the study of consciousness with the felt distinction between the sacred and the profane. Many, but not all, people have had the sensation of sacredness. It is something real but not universal, and evidently not controllable. Like the Holy Spirit metaphor of wind, it “bloweth where it listeth,” a phenomenon of distinct but strongly emotional consciousness.
A science-based, verifiable and major shift in thinking about consciousness is from neurology where fMRI and other technological strategies have allowed us to see thinking as it happens — not implied results but actual ions moving in and out of neurons and so on, which has introduced a new language of “-omes” to describe the libraries of molecules and cells in potential and patterning, from the genome to the “mineralome.” We have new support for the idea of humans as evolved animals and new respect for what a cell or a neuron can do.
The connectome is the name of the dynamic process of impulses traveling between neurons and being processed in various small nodes of sorting, editing, triggering, and storing the coded impulses of sensory cells and organs. The shifting patterns of connection are physical evidence of consciousness accommodating our awareness of the world, the embodiment of our identities. Designing experience is a matter of arranging events that will shift that connectome to get the wanted effect.
Mysterious as that sounds, it is no more mysterious than the sensory preparation for church or theatre or court. A short list:
An impressive entrance with big embellished doors.
A wide and steep staircase.
A foyer meant to be an architectural transition, perhaps with
certain lighting like chandeliers.
The sight of familiar people, or people marked by costumes
The sound of an orchestra tuning.
Incense or smudging.
Incense or smudging.
On one hand we are tempted to think of ourselves as “meat computers” but on the other hand we are forced to admit that our more elegant experiences and empathies are far beyond anything a computer can achieve, even a self-taught OS able to play chess, a simply computational system cannot achieve embodied organism-environment coupling. Human awareness and action is an accumulation of functions that includes everything back to the first eukaryotic one-celled creature.
As the horizon of artificial intelligence moves outward, the dimensions of human experience also expand and elaborate. We can feel ourselves still mutating into new evolving creatures. This demands a different kind of spiritual life, one that will support individuals in a time when institutions of all sorts are confused and even failing. If the social containers of our lives are falling away, can the spiritual flame sustain us?