Monday, December 10, 2007

#26. Help From Uncle Louie

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In the 1980s, when I made a mid-life vision quest-- questing for a vision of what I should be doing with the second half of my life-- I was given the name "Scavenger." In the main part of the vision I was a cinnamon-colored black bear digging through trash cans in the parking lot behind a restaurant in a spectacular natural setting something like Yellowstone National Park.

The full earth-name I was given is "Scavenger of the Sacred Mystery." I was told that I "was not to mourn the Mystery's loss nor hate those who damage it" but to scavenge for those good things relating to the sacred which have been ignored, damaged and discarded by our culture.

The name stuck; this blog is part of that calling. I started the blog, with the help of my techno-savvy daughter, to share the results of my scavenging-- particularly, as the title says, to share with anyone interested "thoughts with about the convergence of science and religion," my two life-long interests.

In the more than two dozen blog entries I've posted so far, I have stressed that by "science" I mean not the science of 19th-century rationalism but the late 20th-century perspectives of contemporary science, and I've repeatedly emphasized the great value of the little-known movement from the human sciences in the 1970s, Biogenetic Structuralism, which attempts to combine the perspectives of biological evolution with cultural anthropology and studies of the brain and nervous system in its scientific quest to understand the mysteries of our existence.

I've also emphasized that by "religion" I am not referring to its dying institutional forms, but to the growing-edge thinking coming out of those traditions in their attempts to recover their ancient roots. In each posting I offered a comparison between those growing-edge religious ideas and similar contemporary scientific concepts.

So far, the most radical example I've offered is in post #20, where I compared the neurological concept of consciousness (as expressed by Biogenetic Structuralism's jargon term cognized environment) with an understanding of the ancient religious doctrine of the resurrection of the dead (as expressed in the writings of the Russian Orthodox Sophiologist, Sergius Bulgakov).

Needless to say, the language of these two perspectives is quite different, but both seem to be saying something very similar about the connection between mind and body (or more generally about the relationship between human consciousness and the physical universe). There really does seem to be an amazing convergence of religious and scientific thoughts going on there-- at least to me.

I did not offer an example of that type of convergence in the previous two postings. I had enough to do in trying to describe Biogenetic Structuralism's understanding of ontogenesis and of the role of symbol, myth and ritual in the third stage of personal development.

It's important to keep in mind that "ontogenesis" is a scientific understanding, essentially from the combined fields of neuro-physiology and cultural anthropology, of the growth and development of human consciousness as it takes place in the context of a culture's cosmology and happens via the three stages of belief, experience and participation.

In this entry I want to offer some similar ideas from a religious perspective about the role of symbol, myth and ritual in the participatory phase of our personal conscious development.

You may well ask whether such a religious perspective exists. The fact that "contemplation" is one of the names given by Biogenetic Structuralism to the third stage of ontogenesis provides a hint that there may be. In fact, there's help from Uncle Louie.


In his religious order, Thomas Merton officially was called "Father Louis, OCSO." But among his fellow monks he was known by the (I think, affectionate) nickname, "Uncle Louie." Merton was one of the most significant persons in 20th-century American Catholicism and was greatly respected worldwide for his many contacts with religious thinkers in Islam, the Asian traditions and the secular world. In an introduction to Merton's Contemplation in a World of Action (Doubleday, 1971) the famous scholar of Medieval thought, Jean Leclercq, ranks him "with the Fathers of the early church and those of the Middle Ages."

If you are thinking that Merton is an unlikely source for a convergence from the world of religion with concepts coming from cultural anthropology, I agree. But in fact he has a very significant essay where there is an amazing agreement from his religious perspective with the kind of scientific ideas about the role of myth, ritual and symbol in our personal development that I spelled out in the three previous blog entries. That's what I want to share in this posting.


Merton died in 1968, a half-dozen years before the appearance of the first of the Biogenetic Structuralists' three books, Biogenetic Structuralism. As far as I know, he had no science background and no contact with those pioneer research scientists. But in a major essay dealing with the relationship between religion and literature, written sometime in the early 60s, Merton talks about some very similar ideas.

I find the essay valuable not only because it offers an especially good example of the convergence of some significant contemporary scientific and religious perspectives, but also because it provides an excellent introduction to a much deeper understanding of religious experience than has previously been commonly available in western culture. Most of what follows deals with Merton's thoughts specifically with regard to myth, symbol and ritual in connection with what he calls the "religious elements" in literature. I hope to talk about that further idea, the "deeper level of religious experience," in the future.


Merton was a highly talented writer with a life-long interest in art and literature. The thoughts that follow come from his introduction to a collection of essays by various writers dealing with the connections between religion and literature. The book is Mansions of the Spirit, Essays in Religion and Literature (Hawthorn, 1967). His introductory essay is entitled "'Baptism in the Forest': Wisdom and Initiation in William Faulkner." The essay also was printed in a later collection: The Literary Essays of Thomas Merton (New Directions, 1985).

It's a long essay of several dozen pages. The first few pages are devoted to comments about religion and literature in general and to the ideas of the many authors of the essays found in Mansions of the Spirit. He eventually gets to talking about two books by 1950 Nobel Prize author William Faulkner, Go Down Moses and The Wild Palms. (Merton wrote a master's thesis on Faulkner while at Columbia University.) It's in that section that he introduces some extremely significant ideas about the "religious elements" to be found in literature.

He begins by noting that there are a number of contemporary authors in addition to Faulkner in whom such "religious elements" can be found; among the more familiar names he mentions are Boris Pasternak, D. H. Lawrence, William Butler Yeats and William Carlos Williams.

But Merton's view of literature is global: he compares Faulkner's work to Greek tragedy in western literature and to things like classical Japanese No drama in Asian cultures.

One of his main points is that in such literature there are "specifically religious elements which come not from any specific cultural or confessional expressions of religion but from human nature, the human psyche, human experience." And this is already a convergence, in that Merton is looking at the religious elements in world literature in exactly the same way that anthropologists look at rites and ceremonies in world cultures.

His language is so close to that of the Biogenetic Structuralists that I keep thinking: "Maybe Merton did have some contact with them." But that's highly unlikely, so the similarity between his thoughts and theirs serves as an even stronger example of a contemporary convergence of religious and scientific perspectives.

He notes, for example, that the religious experience available via literature is neither inborn nor based on "acquired beliefs and attitudes" but is the result of personal experience at a deeper than rational level, and he calls this deeper level "the highest form of cognition."

With this kind of emphasis-- on the fact that the specifically religious elements in world literature are not genetic but cultural and that they are not at the level of beliefs but at the trans-personal level of conscious development-- Uncle Louie sounds just like a Biogenetic Structuralist!

And he sees "literature" in a broad sense as having the same kind of potentially profound transformational effects that Biogenetic Structuralism attributes to symbolic myth and ritual.

He says Greek tragedies and performances like the religious dance-dramas of Bali, for example, were "not merely presentations which an audience sat and watched" but "religious celebrations, liturgies, in which the audience participated."

He observes that they were in fact so powerful that if we-- "our twentieth-century selves"-- had been "present then, in those days, for instance in the theater at Delphi during the festival of Apollo," we might "have undergone the same kind of thing that happens now to people who take LSD." (He was writing, remember, in the Psychedelic 60s.)


I find five major ideas in Merton's understanding of the religious elements in literature that seem to me a convergence with the scientific perspectives of Biogenetic Structuralism. They are all interrelated, so it's not easy to sort them out and describe each separately. But here's an attempt....

One. The first big idea is Merton's emphasis on the "participatory" character of the kind of experience he's talking about: it is, he says, "something we can participate in, at a deep level."

He notes that what makes the Greek myths "classical" is that they are universal: "they speak to our human nature and we find ourselves involved in them." They are "not just a spelling out for ourselves of a religious or metaphysical message." Rather, they deal with "the drama of human existence" and "have a direct impact on the deepest center of our human nature." In myth and ritual "our conflicts are not explained, not analyzed, but enacted."

By "conflicts" he means our human condition: the issues and problems we have to deal with as human beings. Note that he uses the term "enactment" in the same way Biogenetic Structuralism does and that he says that it is precisely the creative power of enactment which "brings us into living participation with an experience of basic and universal human values."


Two. A second major idea of Merton's is that these profound participatory experiences happen "via ritual and symbol language." Here, too, as in the Biogenetic Structuralist understanding, myth and ritual are the stories, while symbols are the language-- the means or tools-- by which the stories are told and enacted.

Merton says symbols are "signs which release the power of imaginative communion." He calls them "efficacious sign-symbols": "basic archetypal forms" which "have arisen spontaneously in all religions and which have everywhere provided patterns for the myths in which [we] have striven to express our sense of ultimate meaning." Symbols "put us in communion with our deepest selves via images, not by concepts and ideas."

Merton emphasizes that symbols are "signs which do not arbitrarily signify something else but which release the power of imaginative communion": they release in the reader "the imaginative power to experience what the author really means to convey." (It helps to read "imaginative power" as "the power of images, in contrast to concepts.") It is this "creative power of enactment" which "brings us into living participation with an experience of basic and universal human values [which] words can only point to but not fully attain."


Three. A third major idea is Merton's note that the depth of awareness evoked by these archetypal symbol-signs is "beyond the rational and analytical."

"Our conflicts are not explained or analyzed," as he has said; "we're not spelling out a message but being directly impacted, via signs and symbols, on the deepest center of our human nature." He describes this deep center as "a certain depth of awareness, beyond words and explanations, in which life itself is lived more intensely and with a more meaningful direction."

He calls this depth of consciousness beyond rational knowledge the "highest form of cognition," just as Biogenetic Structuralism does: it "initiates us into higher states of awareness, an intuition of the ultimate values of life and of the Absolute Ground of our life."


Four. A fourth big idea is Merton's emphasis on the transformative power of myth and ritual. The "religious elements" in literature and ritual performances, he says, "have power to evoke in us an experience of meaning and direction." The "power of enactment" works by bringing us, via signs and symbols, "to living participation in an experience of basic human values: it leads us to imaginative communion with meaningfulness."

By "imaginative communion" he obviously does not mean "imaginary" but the fact that the communion happens via images. Merton says these archetypal patterns are "capable of suggesting and implying that [human] life in the cosmos has a hidden meaning which can be sought and found." The transformative power of images is just the opposite of 'imaginary': myth and ritual are "not an initiation into a world of abstractions and ideals but deepen our communion with the concrete." They put us in communion with the real world.

And it is this concrete imagery which he says "makes possible a change of heart and can restore us to an awareness of our limitations and our nobility." Through their therapeutic effects, myth and ritual enable us to "a more real evaluation of ourselves, a change of heart" which brings us to "an awareness of our place in the scheme of things."


Five. With his reference to "our place in the scheme of things" Merton is saying that myth and ritual provides us with a meaningful cosmology: "The meaningfulness it takes us to has to do with the why of things: ultimate causes and the ultimate values." This "highest form of cognition" is not "knowledge about things but a living out and possessing this meaningfulness in everyday life."

And this sense of meaningfulness and significance allows us nothing less than participation in the evolution of the universe: "This extraordinary shift in consciousness is called initiation, enlightenment, regeneration, rebirth, becoming an heir, being in harmony with world and its energies." (All of those words are italicized in Merton's essay.)

And Merton names our participation in the evolution of the world "salvation." It is, he says, "salvation in the sense of freedom from isolation from the natural world and thus communion with the ground of our being." Because it is the "acquisition of understanding of life's purpose and the decision to live in accordance with it," it gives "a privileged status as a conscious participant in communion with the energies of the cosmos."

Big ideas, indeed!


I noted in the previous post (on the third phase of ontogenesis) that myth, ritual and its symbol-language was dismissed by 19th-century rationalist materialism in what came to be known in academic circles as the "disenchantment of the world" and was considered to be a sign of progress.

In our day, we have a far better understanding than our 19th-century ancestors of our place in the scheme of things. That's why we call it the "new cosmology."

But we are still in the process of recovering an understanding of the means by which we take our place as conscious participants in the cosmic process. It's not easy for western people, victims of the 19th-century "disenchantment of the world," to accept the idea that we enter into communion with the energies of the cosmos by way of symbol, myth and ritual.

But the recovery is in process. This Scavenger sees it as coming thanks especially to the anthropological and neurological perspectives of Biogenetic Structuralism. And with help from Uncle Louie.

1 comment:

Sam said...

While trying to eliminate numerous spam comments, I inadvertently deleted all comments at the END of the posts up until #90. BUT... they are still preserved in the collections of comments found in posts #32, #67 and #83.

One set of comments, however-- for posts #84 to #89-- has been completely lost. If you happen to have copied any of them, I'd much appreciate your sending a copy to me so I can restore them. Thanks.