[OK my readers!! I decided not to wait. Here is my first installment on Religion. I have no doubt there will be more later. Note: we are leaving to return to the USA for the summer, so I will respond to you all in a few days, on the other side.]
We are told that history begins in Sumer, near the Persian Gulf, where the first civil laws were instituted roughly fifty-five hundred years ago. Coincident with this founding, there emerged entirely new ways of thinking, acting, and interacting with one’s fellow citizens. With those first social laws, citizenship was born. The overwhelming evidence from anthropology, archeology, paleontology, ethnography and the history of religions strongly reinforces the view that a new set of problems arose with the transition from an egalitarian kinship-based, predominantly nomadic hunting/gathering lifestyle characterizing the Paleolithic, and autonomous villages representative of the Neolithic, to more sedentary, hierarchically structured life ways, based primarily on intensive plant and animal domestication economies, that erupted onto the scene at the close of the Neolithic period.
This transformation had an incalculable impact upon human consciousness over the ensuing centuries, producing entirely novel categories for understanding and manipulating the world. Reality was constituted differently after the birth of civilization than it had been previously. This would have resounding reverberations for all generations to follow, entrenched as they now were in new hierarchies and institutions that would appear — including formal institutions of religion. Borrowing terminology, I will call this new model according to which reality was thereafter constituted, the curriculum of the West. The burgeoning temperament for this new way of seeing the world affected every dimension of life as civilization spread, and cities continued to populate the globe over subsequent millennia.
This new set of problematics was directly related to our changed relationship to nature. The world was emptied of any inherent significance aside from that which we humans attributed to it. And it was this proto-scientific and early scientific objectivization of the world – destroying the power and thickness of a pre-objective present – that led initially to the de-animation of the natural world and subsequent theoretical constructions of some transcendent religious powers – gods, goddesses, or other supernatural beings from beyond. All of the major world religions have this erroneous conception as their common denominator, whether it is called Allah, Brahman, God, or Yahweh. Even those polytheists, the ancient Romans and Greeks, fell victim to the same errant ways, the only difference being that they had numerous gods, as did the Hindus before them. The philosophers for their part also sought out a true reality beyond the phenomenon in some “noumenal” realm, again reinforcing this fundamental assumption about some immutable “Being” which gives life or meaning to the world of “becoming.”
Like its first cousin, natural science, and its bastard brother, the human sciences, historical religion has lived off of this fundamental dualism that has haunted human conception since the birth of history. Pre-historical humanity on the other hand experienced the world as alive, having a power and motility that it shared with all sentient beings. It is for this reason that pre-historical consciousness was a participatory consciousness; tribal members actually could fuse with their totem animal, for example, because from their perspective there was no substantive difference between them and the totem: they were essentially of one substance or consubstantial. We must not be confused here. It is not as if they thought like us, only with incorrect judgments; they didn’t think the way we do at all!! It was essentially a different mode of perceiving and thinking all together. They did not see things from a detached objective perspective; indeed, we cannot say that they saw any “things” at all in the sense that we speak of things in space. Rather they participated things. The way they configured their world was different naturally from the way we configure the world.
Martin Heidegger understood this as well, that the modern conception of pure extension and duration, and so our commonsense conceptions of space and time, represented abstractions, transformations and perversions of a more primal and overwhelming experience of being — perhaps what the Pacific Islanders referred to as “mana.” For the Islanders, there was apparently no such thing as empty space or simple, objective material extension, as was the documented case among many other pre-urban tribes and hunter-gatherer societies; their world was filled with living, animate, sentient and powerful subjectivities lurking everywhere and residing almost anywhere – in the wind, the water, the stone, or the bush. We first-worlders call it, condescendingly, animism.
As well, there is good reason to suggest that indigenous tribes had no genuine concept of pure linear duration either, no time, as we have come to know it, flowing from past to future (e.g., Dorothy D. Lee, Freedom and Culture). The natural cyclicality of life breathed around, through, and within them: the rising and setting of the sun, the lunar cycle, seasonal changes, the repetition of ritual archetypal behavior. In Heidegger’s terms what happened with the emergence of thought from these auspicious and pregnant beginnings was a “flattening out” of an originally uncanny and overwhelming primal moment.
The fundamental error that underlies [modern sciences, natural and human] is the opinion that the inception…is primitive and backward, clumsy and weak. The opposite is true. The inception is what is most uncanny and mightiest. What follows is not a development but flattening down as mere widening out… a perversion of what is great, into greatness and extension purely in the sense of number and mass. The uncanniest is what it is because it harbors such an inception in which, from over-abundance, everything breaks out at once into what is overwhelming…. (Introduction to Metaphysics, 165)
To this day there are some excellent studies that correctly point to the spread of agriculture and the birth of cities as the principal focus of our changed material relations with the world. Yet even these analyses typically make the underlying and pre-thematic assumption that the perceptions and consciousness of our preliterate, pre-civilized predecessors were roughly identical to our own; that we perceive the same world and experience our place therein as did our “primitive” forebears. But to infer that primal humans reasoned and conceptualized as we do today would be an unsustainable inference (see Owen Barfield, Saving the Appearances). Indeed, the opposite assumption is more likely the case; that they reflected quite differently on the plenum of existence and on themselves than we do, and that this was in large measure a result of how differently they perceived and felt themselves within the world. There is certainly nothing in the anthropological, paleontological, or ethnographic record that would contradict such an assumption. In fact, there may be much, both in mythology and ethnography, to recommend it (for example, Mircea Eliade, Cosmos and History, Daniel Everett, Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes).
But, it was with Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s work in the modern era that the locus of human dwelling was rediscovered philosophically, recovered from the oblivion of Western rationalism, scientism and religious metaphysics. It was his relentless focus on le corps sujet (the body-subject) that broke open that mysterious chiasm, the foundational “intertwining” of my body with the world-as-lived (my flesh, the flesh of the world), affording the very possibility of sentient experience — of touching and being touched, of seeing and being seen, of hearing and being heard, of smelling and being smelled, of tasting and being tasted (The Visible and the Invisible). It is here, in the natural intertwining of the lived-body-world that the primal intuition of the animistic experience lies. It is here that my flesh and the “flesh of the world” are one; my outline, the inline of the world; my totem an instantiation of the same power that animates me, the forest, the river, the sun, the moon and the stars. It is here, in the “animistic” concept of mythic participation that the recognition of mutual influence has its foundation: the world and the tribe, mutually influencing one another.
If one is prepared to accept the theories of modern physics concerning the composition of matter (in whatever theoretical flavor you prefer) than you must also be prepared to agree that the familiar world we see around us (objects in space-time) is just a system of collective representations upon which we all agree. We must never forget that this is the case, and that these collective representations are reinforced by training and dedicated indoctrination to the curriculum. But if we ever do forget that, and begin to concretize a world as objectively present to us, forgetting there is a primal connection between my embodied-subjectivity and the world-as-lived-by-my-body, at that moment our collective representations become reified, they become idols before which we bow, whether those are the Idols of modern science or religion.