Friday, September 29, 2017


Sometimes flipping phrases over is useful.  What if, instead of Magic Realism, we considered Real Magic?  What we’re really considering, I will say, is a tension between rationality and emotion.  (This is putting aside the contrast between practical and aspirational.)

This issue is now made more problematic by science leading us to the admission that everything we “perceive” is only a coded reflection of whatever it is outside our individual bodies that provokes our sensory world into creating thought patterns.  The amazement is over our ability to share them, to believe that when I see "green", I see the same thing you do, even though you can see for yourself that one eye sees "green" as a slightly different shade than the other eye does.

We’ve also come to understand that language in the form of spoken or written words are what make consciousness possible, what IS consciousness (we talk to ourselves), except that the arts constantly use wordless sensory information in the form of paintings, symphonies, dances, and so on — all of them shaped by consciousness or by whatever it is in our bodies that is just below consciousness, maybe defined as emotion,”felt thought”.  (To some, that’s another oxymoron, but not to me.)  Does what makes me happy also make you happy?  Often enough.

For decades I’ve been trying to understand deep non-institutional “religious” or spiritual phenomena by using the terms of words and rational thought.  This is “rationalized magic.”  It all began with a seminary exercise that asked, “Can one call the Holy Spirit?”  Certainly some people thought this was part of congregational ministry, alongside social action, moral guidance, historical continuity, compassion and other ecclesiastic business.

When I first found and joined the Unitarian movement — as expressed at First Unitarian Church of Portland in 1975 — the members were very much focused on rationality and public thought, the major books of the Seventies about religion in Western terms.  Then it went off into two channels that seemed to feed back and forth into each other: narcissism (self-help) and something I would call feeling except that I want to reserve that term for a concept more dignified; anyway, a kind of feel-good emotional state.  This is related to the culture-wide shift from the New England Puritanism so focused on rationality that they were mocked as “God’s frozen people,” to a kind of California hot-tub approach, everyone in the soup together.  I left.  Others left because they felt the elitism of some was approaching fascism.  I agree that this is “real” and a good reason to either fight or leave.

Denominations (“named Xian Protestant institutions” that front for congregations) are reflections of the larger secular culture.  Roman Catholics are a little less so, and the same for Jewish institutions.  But in the end I don’t care about any of that formal stuff because they all have factions and fractions that cling to variations.

David Breeden is the “Senior Minister, First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis. Poet. Translator. Humanist.”  He is squarely in the classic academic category of the rational: a translator of Greek, but with degrees in the arts.  He has the same degree of MDiv from Meadville-Lombard that I have, but too recent to have the internal MA from the U of Chicago Div School as I do.  Not his fault -- the rules changed.  

Breeden is a good representative of the classical historical version of Unitarianism.  He posts on Medium, that trendy platform that I left because they tried to tell me what to say, and his most recent post is “History Is What You Do.”  He’s quoting Camus in a useful and timely way.
Breeden’s penultimate thought is: “I’ve seen enough of people who die for an idea. I don’t believe in heroism; I know it’s easy and I’ve learned it can be murderous. What interests me is living and dying for what one loves.”

Notice he doesn’t say “for who loves you”.

What or whom one loves is emotional, sometimes unconscious, perhaps not chosen or reasonable, but always describable by some metaphorical coding of consciousness as explored by George Lakoff, always drawn from whatever is outside one’s skin.  On fire, rising up, enlightened. That is, rational thought about experience, made emotional by the body’s physical response.  Those responses might be in terms of heart beat or eye blinks, might be about guts, might be controlled by the molecular response-loops of the hormones and nerve synapses.  Emotions are the “realest” things we have and they are “whole body” — not just brain “thought” according to the coding rules of one’s culture and the conditioning of one’s experience so far in life.

Some of the roots of emotion are reptilian in origin.  In-skin responses that helped the lizards survive.  Some are mammalian, which are closer to us and therefore more recognizable, but no less uncontrollable or there would be no addicts, much less violence, and maybe less obsessive sex.  But until recent hominins, no mammal could say anything with language (unless you consider “meow” a word) and therefore they had to think in art-sensory concepts.  Going back to that level is often helpful, as therapists know.

In fact, when one thinks about the state of all institutions that are supposed to manage culture and bind people into societies, it’s important to preserve a grip on the simple maintenance of hominin occupations: keeping warm, preparing food, creating order, pleasing and being pleased by other people, wearing clothes and ornaments, making things.  All sustained by habit patterns generated inside the body, and using material objects from outside the body but available to be acted upon.

Our times are so confusing that people just shut them out and do whatever they must or ride on the other fellow’s agenda or react to some kind of false signals from advertising, or deep dive into chemical dependence.  Some of us — diabetics, HIV-infected, dialysis patients, aging and so on — have been forced into a dependence that will kill us if lost in the wake of hurricanes, earthquakes, wildfires, war, greed.  Technology that can save lives will end them if the technology is removed. (Oh, Puerto Rico!) And yet technology is our most effective “magic.”

Notice that Breeden’s ministry is not with a "church" but with a “society” which is a very New England term for groups of people — maybe literary or scientific — who gather to consider ideas.  Maybe not saying “congregation” or “church” would excuse them from some of the supernatural elements of Xianity.  I’ve participated in discussions when UU groups, called “fellowships” because they were too small for ministers  (and maybe too defiant), began to think about calling themselves “churches” after all, for the sake of presentation to the public as “religious.”  Maybe they were too big to be fellowships, wanted to call a minister, thought being a “church” would help them grow and participate in the civic pan-organizations of congregations.  They were emotional discussions with a thin veneer of rationality.

Recent national events vividly illustrate mammal hominin emotions (“anyone not like me is an enemy and must be eliminated or enslaved”).  It’s an open question whether Greek philosophy emerging from an historically specialized and privileged body of thought has much to say about the interpenetrating and constantly shifting multi-species on a planet with few, if any, safe places.  

Whether or not we can call the Holy Spirit, we CAN call poesis to abide with us.  That'll do.

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