Tuesday, January 12, 2010

#62. "Let Us Attend"


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In the two previous posts I talked about the half-dozen words I think are needed to make sense of religious ritual in an evolutionary context: symbol, myth and meaning in post #60 and wisdom, cosmology and creativity in post #61.


It seems like an awful lot of words. I'd like to be able to say what I have to say with fewer, but I don't think I can. Some of the words are more familiar than others; some mean something different in an evolutionary context than they do in the old static-dualistic worldview; and some simply are words which our culture (western civilization, American society, Judeo-Christian tradition) doesn't use at all.

In this post, I'd going to try to put them together. For easier reading, I'll skip referring to the two previous posts, but do check back if it looks like I'm not being clear enough. And do keep in mind the complexity of the topic; trying to spell out an understanding of religious ritual in the context of cosmic evolution is an ambitious project!

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Although "cosmology" is a relatively unfamiliar word to most people, it's probably the easiest of my six words to understand. It's simply how any group of people (a society or culture) understands its place in the vast scheme of things. Of course it's also how the individuals within any group understand their place in the world. 

It's what people take for granted-- for the most part, unconsciously-- about the question "Where do we fit in?"

The old cosmology said we don't fit in. We're aliens, strangers in a strange land. Our home is in heaven, our task is to get there. And we can't do it without outside help.

For those who still accept the dualistic cosmology, religious rituals are actions and words with the power to help us escape from the world-- and from hell. For that reason, many who no longer accept the old cosmology have written off any need for what seems to them to be simply magical words or superstitious activities.

But humans need rites. Religious ritual is far older than the Judeo-Christian tradition, so even if we don't accept a dualistic understanding of the western world's religious tradition, we're still in need of rites. They're part of human nature.

Ritual even presents a problem, however, for many who do accept the New Cosmology. The influence of the reductionist perspectives of 19th-century science remains strong even into the 21st century, so that still today many have a difficult time seeing what value there might be to the meaningless words and archaic gestures to which ritual is reduced when seen only from a rationalistic view point.

As I've said many times in these posts, we need a bigger picture. In this case, the bigger picture we need is about the workings of our conscious minds.

I hope to offer some thoughts about the relationship between consciousness and ritual in the next post. But long-time readers will probably guess what my main point will be: that our conscious minds can operate in more than one way.

The bigger picture that we need here is that our conscious awareness is not limited only to logical reasoning. Just as many in our culture are unaware of having a cosmology-- even though they do-- so, too, do many remain unaware that consciousness itself can function in several different ways.

It's easy to see, then, why ritual is so misunderstood in our culture which claims to value rationality so highly. (From the news, however, of what politicians have been up to with the health care debate, for example, it's obvious that our society doesn't really value rationality all that much.)

My point is two-fold: that the New Cosmology also includes a bigger picture of the human psyche than the one the old cosmology assumed, and that ritual can be much better understood when we are aware of our minds as capable of far more than only rational thoughts.

We also have to keep in mind a bigger picture of the New Cosmology itself. The evolutionary worldview includes not just an understanding of the physical world of matter or the biological world of living things, but also-- and especially-- of the mental-psychological-social world of human technology and global culture.

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My second term, "Wisdom," refers to the biblical perspectives within the Judeo-Christian world which have remained little known even to devoted followers of those traditions. It's a three part perspective: non-static in its view of the cosmos, non-dualistic in its view of anthropos and non-patriarchal in its view of theos.

The essence of the Wisdom tradition is that it doesn't see the world as an evil from which we need to escape; it emphasizes, instead, the presence of the divine at the heart of a dynamic creation-- from the very beginning. As a reader said in commenting on post #61, "Wisdom fills the world with beauty and goodness."

Wisdom has no place in the old cosmology. In the New Cosmology, the divine, the human and cosmic come together. Wisdom and the New Cosmology coincide, and it's here that I see most clearly "the convergence of religion and science."

Recovering our roots in the world-- and, indeed, coming to awareness of our roots as the world become conscious of itself-- allows us to see that neither religious dualism with regard to the Earth nor the patriarchal domination and exploitation of the children of the Earth is acceptable in our day.

The Wisdom perspective emphasizes the role of all humanity in the world's continuing development beyond patriarchy and dualism. The whole New Testament is about that cultural transition; the gospels speak of it on every page.

The Wisdom perspective also helps us to have a better understanding of the very nature of the cosmic process itself. Just as we call the body's self-healing the "wisdom of the body," so we can understand that there is a "wisdom of the universe" oriented toward the healing and completeness of the whole world.

From the Wisdom perspective's practical point of view, our personal and communal growth beyond patriarchy and dualism is only half the story. The other half is actually living in communion with the cosmic healing process.

In this practical perspective, each of us can understand ourselves as a unique personal expression of the Mystery behind the universe and so as a free, co-creative participant in the world's evolution. Creativity is the key to our self-understanding.

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Surprisingly, "creativity" isn't so easy to talk about. It means "making newness," but even "newness" is an odd word in our culture. A clearer way to describe creativity might be something like "engaging in on-going transformation." (Which is, of course, what the wisdom of the universe is all about.)

In the old static context, the word "creation" was a noun which referred to what was or is now-- to all that has been created; and "creativity" in that perspective was a characteristic only of the Creator.

In contrast, "creation" in the New Cosmology is a verb. It refers to the on-going emergence of new and more complex things-- at the cosmic, biological and human levels. In this sense, "creation" is precisely what's meant by the word "evolution."

And it's precisely because we know ourselves in that evolutionary context as the universe become conscious of itself that we share-- both as individuals and in our communities-- in the creative activity of the cosmic process. We know ourselves as co-creative participants along with the creative Mystery behind the universe.

Obviously, this understanding of human creativity has no place in the old cosmology. There, we humans are only passive recipients of our life and existence.

And it's obviously this passivity that's promoted by patriarchal authorities. In our day, the abuse of authority by Christian priests and bishops, for example, has come to such clear light that no one can miss it. But creativity is no less suppressed in the secular world as well. Serious artists can hardly make a living, while "famous for being famous" celebrities make millions.

Closer to home, when school budgets get tight, the first thing to go is the art or music department. When the mayor of Philadelphia, a decent person, recently needed to save money he suggested closing many of the city's libraries.

It's easy to be negative. My main point is that in the non-static, non-dualistic and non-patriarchal perspectives of the New Cosmology, creativity is the central focus.

Creativity refers both to our personal efforts at transformation and to the on-going efforts of all human societies to make a better life for the Earth's children. The personal and communal come together best, in my view, in the understanding that we make the world better primarily by our own efforts at personal transformation.

Transformation is at the heart of the New Cosmology, and creative transformation--of our individual selves and our global human culture-- is the very meaning of our existence. On-going creative transformation is our "myth" in the most positive sense, and creativity is the very essence of our "meaning."

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Probably the most difficult of those six ritual-related words to be clear about are the two I used just above, "meaning" (how we understand things) and "myth" (how we express that understanding).

In the evolutionary context, "meaning" refers especially to our understanding of the patterns of the universe's workings and "myth" to our expression of those patterns.

All this is especially confusing because we call those expressions of our understanding by many different names. Besides "myths," we also talk about the "principles of science," the "laws of physics and chemistry," the "patterns of biological growth," the "wisdom of the body," the "functions of consciousness," and the "workings of the unconscious psyche," for example.

As "myths," they are not so much facts and ideas as they are expressions of the phenomenological apprehension of the designs inherent in the processes of nature. They are expressions of our experiences of the intelligible patterns of the world's workings at the various levels of matter, life and mind.

And all of these "myths" have to do with health and wholeness in the broadest sense. Whether we call them the rules of quantum physics, the principles of natural selection, or stories about stealing fire from the gods, they are all expressions of our experiences of the wholeness-making patterns of the evolutionary process.

Of course "myth" and "meaning" in the New Cosmology have to do especially with own human self-understanding; creativity is our meaning in that dynamic context.

In the New Cosmology, our efforts toward personal development and our social-communal efforts to make a better world-- in terms of justice, equality and ecology-- are the most central aspects of our own self-understanding.

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And this, finally, is where ritual comes in. Ritual empowers our efforts.

The essence of ritual is our intentionally plugging into the energies of the cosmic process for the purpose of our empowerment to participate in the evolutionary cosmos.

I have never been able to come up with a better phrase for describing ritual than "plugging into the energies of the cosmic process." But I can't say those words (and you probably can't hear them) without having in mind the image of the prongs of an electrical plug being inserted into a wall outlet.

Less mechanical-sounding phrases-- like "tuning into the cosmic process" or "aligning ourselves with the evolution of the world"-- just don't express as clearly the energizing and empowering effect of ritual.

The problem is that what we're talking about here is momentous: nothing less than those simple human actions by which we intentionally unite ourselves with the life-giving dynamis (pneuma, spiritus, breath, wisdom) of the universe. So it may just be too big a thought for anything more than a grossly mechanical image.

(However, if you have a suggestion for a better descriptive phrase than the mechanical-sounding "plugging into the energies of the universe," I would love to hear from you!)

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A reminder: What I'm trying to do here is to put together the six terms-- wisdom, cosmology, creativity, symbol, myth and meaning-- which we need to understand ritual in a evolutionary context. I think what best integrates all these complex ideas is our understanding of symbol.

The Greek word "sym-bol" literally means "puts together." Its opposite is "dia-bol," "pulls apart." The diabolic is whatever separates or alienates us from ourselves.

While in our culture the word "symbol" can also refer to the conventional designation of arbitrary markings to represent something-- the way we use "H2O" and "water," for example, to represent water-- that's not what's meant here.

The symbols we use in ritual are those natural things, like water and fire, which grab our attention so powerfully that they don't let us not pay attention.

It's these natural symbols which unite our minds with the energies of the cosmic process. We use them in religious ritual precisely because, when we give them our conscious attention, they unite us-- "put us together"-- with our self-understanding.

So an accurate definition of ritual might be something like this: Ritual is using natural symbols to intentionally pay attention to the meaning of our existence.

Symbols aren't ideas; they are tools. They can put us back together, heal us, make us whole, and thus empower us to be co-creative participants in the cosmic process.

Our words "rite" and "ritual" are ancient names for using symbols in this way. "Rite" comes from the Sanskrit term rita, which refers to the rhythms of nature.

The early Indo-European speakers of Sanskrit obviously understood that we are consciously linked to the energies of the world when we give our attention to the round of the seasons, the cycles of nature, the patterns of the cosmic process.

And it works the same way today. The powerful effect our winter solstice rituals at Christmas time have on us is experienced by almost everyone. It's a good example of the fact that rituals are most powerful at transitional times in nature.

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These are, as I've been saying, complex thoughts. See if you think this three sentence summary works: Wisdom orders the cosmic process. Ritual is our plugging into its energies. Symbols let us do that.

I know of one even briefer summary. During the liturgical rituals in the Eastern churches, the deacon frequently cries out, "Wisdom! 
Let us attend!"

That puts it all together in just four words. We probably can't do better than that.
















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.