One of the definitions for the community of “faith” when it gathers is that they are doing worship. The naive “pop” version of worship is bowing down before something and obeying it. The “real,” smart definition (i.e. mine!) and also the seminary definition is “worth-ship.” What do we consider to be worth the commitment of our lives? An historical skein of systems had various convictions about that and the idea was more or less to choose one and commit to it — this was defined as “faith.”
On the cusp of 70’s to 80’s when I was in seminary, though I didn’t know it, the old system of theological systematics was dwindling and a new theory of human meaning was beginning. Most of these paradigm shifts are not so much innovation (the Word from outer space) as they were the expansion and deepening of a small theme thread that had been there all along. One of these was what Jim Gustafson, one of our professors, called understanding the Creator by studying Creation. Some called it “natural theology.” (I’m describing this from memory and in a very rough way.)
Since I was given access to this institutional discussion through the doorway of the small UU Meadville/Lombard seminary, I was more free to explore and question than those in the Div School where we took many foundational classes. We were “literate,” could speak religion. But I didn’t think of us as committed to one line of thought. The line of thought that evidently just been pushed out of the Div School was what they called phenomenology, which I suppose could be thought of as Creation without any Creator. The Death of God. Of course, the concept is necessarily a metonymy since no one has a mind capable of encompassing such an ultimate.
Maybe triggered by this resistance, there was a group of thinkers on campus that I only vaguely sensed. George Lakoff and others were exploring what Lakoff calls “embodiment cognition.” It’s my main focus now. This video is Lakoff explaining his version. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WuUnMCq-ARQ
In the rest of this post I’ll try to sort of diagram my theory of worthiness, which is the source of meaning for ceremonies. We cross the limen into a place where we can access this meaningfulness.
First of all, “embodiment” is no longer a literary trope but a literal description of how a person’s body, guided by the dashboard of their brain, is able to be in the world, not just surviving but also finding bits of glory. This means accepting the knowledge that the raw world outside our bodies can only be perceived through the senses, but also that there are far more than the five senses handled by specialized organs and their knots of interpretive neurons that convert vibrations, wavelengths, molecules, temperature and pressure into a code that can be sent to the brain for further sorting, integration, and memory. Some estimate hundreds of specialized cells, basically eukaryotic cell entities, organized proteins that participate in the cooperative whole entity we call a body. All contribute to a sense of direction orientation in the world, awareness of movement, molecular traces in the air, wave lengths hitting the eyes, and the business of capturing and digesting food — then discarding the unneeded remnant. These abilities are in the earliest one-celled beings -- we call them "living."
Eliade and other philosophers (Suzanne Langer, for instance) have said all along that the Sacred is something that can be felt, not reasoned out. But the invention of the Abrahamic religions, particularly those most influenced by the strand of Greek thought that took us to science and the Enlightenment, insisted on reason, both the collection of evidence and an adversarial method of sorting through it. This became theology. The “feeling” of the Sacred was pushed aside into the arts.
Material culture, the objects and uses of things, are the sources of metaphor, which according to Lakoff is the natural way of thinking. In fact, it is the physical connections among neurons, their axons snaking through the crowding lobes of brain tissue to make the connection real. It need not be words or conscious or logical.
Material culture emerges from the economics of survival: food, shelter, maintenance of health, transporting self and objects. What contributes these things is the ecology, which is how the things and forces in an environment fit together, the organization and mutual exchange of elements that create our political arrangements. The ecology is determined by the geology of the planet’s surface — resources, weather, altitude, and the living animal population. Jared Diamond explores this. It explains why religions and theologies can be so shockingly various and yet have some consistences. At this level, the world controls the culture.
At a more developed level (I won’t say higher) the culture controls the world, but by doing so it changes what happens (global warming) and therefore requires a change in the culture, with inadvertent consequences. Material culture does not itself cause the culture. Guns and drugs do not come from outer space to damage the culture, but rather the culture itself is creating these things through the craving for them, the need for them. One can remove every hallucinogen and source of drunkenness from the planet but addiction will remain until we figure out where that’s coming from. What need is it embodying?
I suggest that drugs are the struggle of people to control their consciousness, either numbing out the unbearable or trying to reach a higher plane of understanding. (These are “religious” issues, what theological systems address at heart.) And I would suggest guns and other weapons, including the organization and valorization of violence, are efforts to take control, to assure security through dominance. Religious systems that don’t address these issues are just air-theories, even the ones historical enough to have long histories with two powerful cultural inventions: writing and coinage that intertwine in bookkeeping systems of owing and owning more powerful and intoxicating than either drugs or guns.
(Later I will address the culture’s impact on our bodies themselves through sex, nutrition, embellishment, and so on. A very mixed subject.)
The content of worship services and the life of the institutions must address these forces in order to be useful enough to survive as itself, or the people will scatter, each on an individual search.
Lakoff speaks of “framing,” which is the development in each person of “sensibility”, a metaphor system that is our identity, more basic even than meaning and belief, so deep that it’s hard to bring to consciousness because it is our experience of the world. The Sacred touches it. But it can only be developed over time, through process and interaction, and it will be expressed in terms of the physical world as it becomes metaphor. And it IS physical, it IS our bodies. It is NOT the kind of denial of the body that leads us into cultural deadends, like Shakers with no descendants.
We come together physically for worship/worthship because of our capacity for empathy, carried in our bodies as the ability to experience other people’s experiences. A culture that denies this, deforms this, is a toxic culture that will lead to numbness and violence.
This post is an early attempt on my part to get this line of thought in order and clarified. It will improve, but I can’t imagine abandoning it the way I’ve had to leave behind old assumptions. I don’t have time to start from scratch again. But I’m not alone. My church is the prairie/the prairie is my church. This is where the content of worship reveals itself “over the threshold.”