Wednesday, December 05, 2018


The great irony of the anthropocene is that it is based on the activity of humans (anthros), but that humans can have no real understanding of the meaning of it all, much less complete perception of everything.  We can barely realize that humans are not the center of the universe that has made us marginally able to see and feel that truth.  So what does this humility teach us about worship?  Part of the reason for the persistence of "theos" is the drive to relate a great big human, but if there is no such thing, what (not whom) do we worship.  Or is there another way to understand the concept with all its ties to hierarchy and dominance.

The idea of petitioning an all-powerful humanoid for favors seems naive and silly.  Rather we can see ourselves as responders to the universe with our limited biological carbon-based instruments.  The problem is that we are accustomed to an idea of human thought that dates to Greek and Roman written history, revived and elaborated as an endorsement and valorization of Enlightenment, or Science, as explored in various times and places for less than a dozen centuries.  It was an immensely successful strategy from our point of view -- hard to give up.

Christianity has in the past positioned itself institutionally (Not necessarily in terms of dogma or faith) as a competitor to the institutions of science, but it is the less conscious Christian endorsement of hierarchy and hegemony that has shaped our government and education.  In the struggle towards democracy (the best we can do so far) we still institutionalize the professions (doctors, lawyers, clergy) and law-makers.  It is the very nature of institutions to enlarge and aggrandize themselves, and in that tendency, they hold the seeds of their own discreditation.

Other challenging views of the world have finally become noisy enough to rival scientific rationality and philosophy.  Three sources are:
1.  indigenous systems of knowing,
2.  the arts, 
3.  Ironically -- science itself, which in its amazing work to understand the body has both expanded our awareness and chalked out our boundaries.

The science that carries the name "anthro" -- anthropology  -- uses the Enlightment ideas in force at the time of early world exploration and colonization to understand the indigenous systems of learning, we pushed aside their language, even those who had a written culture.  In doing so, we often distorted content, especially when dealing with oral culture which we barely recognized.  The arts (music, dance, dress, material culture) and the equivalences that ought to have been recognized in science, particularly natural science, were defined as superstitious and childlike.  No Latin names.  No professionals. No institutions like those of Euros.  Religious worship took hits from all three sides, particularly those who had no theory of theos.

Assuming that Christian categories were Platonic and sovereign, many anthropologists spent time trying to find equivalents to the Trinity, forgetting that the whole idea of three-in-one was a political compromise to satisfy an unanswerable question: was Jesus the Son of God physical or metaphorical/mystical?  It was a compromise of monotheism and generation-based morality, plus a way of squeezing the necessary human Mary out.  So the priests who got to the Blackfeet were forever saying that Star Boy or Blood Clot Boy were the same as Jesus, the Christ, who was a figure meant to save the community, possibly as a warrior.  Christ was a heretic against oppression, but the clergy quickly skipped over that part when they became part of the dominant.  Instead Jesus was pictured as meek and mild.

The reality of the cosmos is nothing of the kind.  Humans have no chance of controlling the world, so it's a necessity to turn to participation and Darwin's "fittingness" which is not at all about being big and strong, winning through belligerence.  The result is something like the AA prayer:  "May I understand what I should do, have the strength to do it, and the wisdom to be right but to admit that I might not be."

There is a "participation" story about butterflies that is meant to be about that small insect somewhere creating a perturbation of air that becomes part of a breeze big enough to have impact and then bigger and so on, until it is a hurricane that forces Puerto Rico to rebuild its island.  The idea is that everything is related and even the smallest part can be a participant in something huge.

Another butterfly story is entomological rather than meteorological.  Cell tracking and molecule identification have made it possible to understand how a caterpillar becomes a butterfly in its "black box" cocoon.  Unlike a transformer toy which causes a person to twist and bend into a truck, the caterpillar becomes a soup of cells which are then recomposed into a butterfly.  I may not have this story quite right, but I like it so much that I refuse to check it.  Choosing a mystery is a religious choice, which is often only represented as truth.

The Greek/Roman Enlightenment influence causes religion in the English-speaking Euro-based world to propose truth as singular and platonic, and to apply this standard to religion, causing problems since truth is quite impossible to know or find or even whether to determine as existing.  Often great profit comes from claiming "truth", especially in the three professions: true diagnosis and treatment, true trial verdicts, true religious categories.

Barring truth, what other criterion could guide us?  Turning away from rational reasoning and categories, what do we find to guide us?  Some, like Eliade or Otto, would suggest "feeling."  When is it valid and efficacious?  Will Darwin's idea of "fittingness" be helpful?  What if we are mired in a hegemony of mercantilism where only profit and prosperousness matter?  How do we get rid of simple preference?  Sentimenality?  Habit?

What we have been calling the "Middle Class" is a culture as much as a socioeconomic category.  Pulling in the Industrial Revolution from their point of view, the people of the Middle Class valued peace, prosperity, education, musical instruments, fountain pens (supplanted by computer gizmos), movies, travel, letters and journals, conferences, luxury cars, household appliances, and green lawns.  Some of it seems silly, perhaps the religious aspect most of all.

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