Wednesday, August 10, 2016

HISTORY IS NO LONGER LIMITED BY WRITING

Trees and rocks have their own language.

Pressure from global climate change has stimulated much research on the history and process of the planet as a giant ecology, which has moved thought past the origin of human beings, past the origin of eukaryotic cells, past the origin of climate itself and how it has shaped the existence of biological creatures ever since.  We are cosmic.

This has revealed a shift in our understanding of the past, which was artificially limited by written records.  Once we reached back past the document horizon, we moved our thinking to the oral story and interaction society of the pre-contact Blackfeet.  Remnants of it remain, or did in the Sixties, and I had direct contact ceremonially.  This made me realize that what I was pursuing as “liturgy” was limited to institutional religion, circles of believers who needed to reinforce their community and worldview by repeating accepted writing.  Sometimes it was written down (The Book of Common Prayer) and sometimes it was learned by heart (The Lord’s Prayer).  But because it was words and writing, it was a “given”, both anchoring and walling in, co-opted by government and stamped on our money.

History defined by institutional writing is no longer a limit, so new thinking about ceremonies is needed.  One of my sources of inspiration all along had been experimental ceremonies at the Pacific Northwest UU Leadership School, where a gathered temporary community invented actions that would express more modern ideas: nurturing, gender equality, trust, and something that could not be called theology because it resented and shut out all notions of “Theos.”  Not just because of being angry at a big humanoid in the sky, not just because of damage to the concept of family, but because even redefining God as “Love” was a return to old ideas.  

Many of us defined our religious center as something like secular unity and progressiveness, a kind of patriotism and concern for governmental ideals.  It was still in writing, still preserving the institutional aspect of religion, but not the driving force of it nor the spiritual passion that can sustain it.  “The Pledge of Allegiance,” composed in 1887, was adopted in 1942 wartime.  “God” was added in 1954.  I was a nice Presbyterian high school girl, but I had ideas and I never have said the phrase.  I just leave it out.


Once the old ways of doing things are questioned and dropped, where is the replacement?  I think it comes like music, out of our daily lives, humming a tune until it catches on and begins to be a chorus.  Deliberation moves in and out of spontaneity, so that the Flower Communion — a Spring event to which people bring a flower, gather them up front during the service, and and choose a different flower to carry away — is a deliberately designed thing to do, but quite natural and capable of containing many thoughts.  (“The Flower Celebration was initiated in Prague on 4 June 1923 by Norbert ńĆapek, who was also the founder of the Unitarian Church in Czechoslovakia”.)  But I am NOT recommending UU as some kind of ideal.  This is NOT about being UU.  

Once the pattern of gathering/dispersal was familiar, women used it to bring and mingle water, then take away a bit of it — in the original feminist example using their emptied cosmetic containers.  By now people have used soils, seeds, or other symbolic bits, even sometimes declarations written on small bits of paper: regrets, sadness, and resolutions that are then burned.  Or possibly making “Stone Soup” by bringing ingredients to be cooked together.  In the earliest Christian congregations, something like “house churches,” the people brought the bread and wine to assemble and use ceremonially by eating together.  Potluck is a familiar practice, often associated with churches.


Once on a retreat I had asked everyone to bring a can of baked beans and a package of brownie mix.  I dumped all the beans together in a big pot to be heated, which caused some muttering.  These were people who prided themselves on their cooking skill as individuals.  The brownies went better.  It was interesting to discuss, but some people still resented any communalism, not on principle but because it worried them.  It felt wrong.

The Blackfeet use a gesture to express acceptance and appreciation of a speaker: they hold out their hands to the person, then cross their arms across their chests.  It means “all that you say, I take to my heart.”  Then one day when I explained and used the gesture in a small group, a man rose to extend the gesture.  He held out his hands, crossed them on his chest, repeated “all that you say I take to my heart” and then extended his hands again.  “All that is in my heart, I give back to you.”  It was as natural as many of the gestures of sign-talk, both the Plains Indians gestures of meaning and the language used by the American Sign Language community of non-hearing persons.

Now that video is as easily transmitted and stored as writing, a gesture language can exist without paper or spoken words and so can other acts of meaning.  Libraries already exist, not even counting YouTube, Tumblr, and so on.  The shared expression of feelings in this way allows a complete bypass of the logical, precedented, defined, emotionless writing, that we have given hegemony in the past.  Now we can go to the world of art, empathy, the “limbic” brain, the dreamworld, the autonomic nervous system, and limerence.  In fact, as populations mix and expand, more and more people are communicating this way anyhow, out of necessity without a shared language, history, or place.


Millennials and other younger generations speak to each other in music.  The dynamic of commerce, previously one of the great instigators of exchange and expansion, has become troubled, but music, liberated by internet access, is everywhere without payment.  Such communalism worries some, esp. those whose emotions are stirred by the great orchestras and operas of the elite, which are costly to produce  They are the products of institutions, which now often struggle.  But others take music as inspiration for the liberation of print.  We are barely conscious of the costs of institutional religion.  The issue is beyond what I’m doing here.

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