Posts Tagged ‘The Civilizing Process’

SERMON: “Resisting Reason” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, August 15th, 2010

I’m wondering if our relationship to our own rationality isn’t a tense one.

Imagine what must have been the shock (during our human evolution) of that first moment of self-awareness: of being separate from nature and other animals; of being different, and differently endowed?  Can you not easily imagine (If you had been that early human) stopping in your tracks as if you’d been smacked between the eyes by an elephant femur?  Your world would never look the same again!

Imagine further that the moment occurred before you had a verbal language to express your shock and awe?

Of course we can’t know when that “moment” arrived in our ancestry, whether before or after language.  Or, for that matter, whether it was any different in kind or quality then what other sentient animals experience (for it seems certain that other primates, whales, elephant and dolphins, for example, have some sense of the world that they might happily share with us if they had a functional alphabet).

The acquisition of verbal language must be key, for before that we had all the same feelings we do as  modern humans, but no way to reference them, to THINK about them.  In the same way that we cannot access the memories (that must surely exist) of our own time in the womb and our first years of life, we would have had no way of cataloguing thoughts or evaluating concepts.  Verbal language was the operating system that made our minds the existential computers they have become.

Along the way we learned to cook our food, which supercharged our physical evolution (downsizing our primate guts and enlarging our human brains).  So that, in the end, we had these busy, fertile brains that were able to function as language-based filing systems for all of the emotional impulses and sensory inputs of our heretofore purely animal existence.

I wonder if our animal natures didn’t respond to the imposition of language (and the resultant organizing system it allowed) a bit like the early peasant who threw his Sabot (wooden shoe) into the big, modern machine.  For (as with any sort of progress) each new invention spells the end of a previous way of life, in ways small or large.  Each step we made into language and conceptual thought took us that many steps further away from our animal nature.  Even today, we humans have a stubborn tendency to look backward to a romanticized idea of our innocent past, be it the Biblical Garden of Eden, the small-town life of 19th century middle America, or an earlier version of Photoshop.

For whatever reasons, I have hitched my intellectual wagon to my reason, and have given it the authority to act as gatekeeper to my mind.  I have decided that I want the clearest view of reality I can get in the time I have.  And it seems more than a touch ironic that this would set me at odds with so many of my fellow hominids.  For we are prone to believing all sorts of things that we have carried with us — without question — from our deep past.  There are entire swaths of our modern American society that think nothing of judging the world by some interpretation or other of an ancient holy text.  We are loathe to let go of our beliefs in aliens, or miracles or communications from the “spirit” world.

We would judge none of these things too harshly were we to discover them among a “primitive” tribe, yet we find them among us modern (and civilized) people, who in the same breath can make a casual reference to DNA, or evolution or the latest discovery of modern medical science.  In a sentiment I attribute to Norbert Elias book “The Civilizing Process”, we carry a thin layer of modernity laid upon our (much deeper) ice-age psyches.

Each step into rationality is a step away from magical thinking.  And believe me, I understand the fear that each of those steps can dredge up from the primitive soul.  But I’m a curious type, I guess.  It’s in my genes, a general trait of our species.  At the same time, we are like any other animal that craves safety and predictability.  Perhaps the tensions that exist between our adventurous, aggressive natures and our contemplative, fearful animal selves are like the electrical bonds that keep neutrons and protons spinning around their nuclei.  (They spin at incredible speeds, ever at risk of flying off into space, which, if they could think about it, and talk about it, might freak them out a bit).

Every step into the unknown is, obviously, a step further away from what is known.  So for each truth of science I acquire, I will likely weaken the bond of a religious or mystic belief.  (Even the incurious understand this on an instinctive level, I would say).  And so, even in modern society, with all of its benefits, there are thousands who mistrust or even resist the new product, discovery, or truth.

There are, in short, a lot of us who are yet to be convinced that learning to talk and to reason was such a good idea in the first place.

t.n.s.r. bob

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: The “Great” Books in my life.

Sunday, May 2nd, 2010

Call it hubris or foolishness, but I thought I had the time to read two books in parallel this week.  Wrong.  So maybe this is the time to answer a request from one of my friends to list the books that have made a difference in my journey from young Christian to middle-age pretend minister to a fake church.

Having read so many books in only the last five months, I notice that several of the most recently read want to elbow their way onto my “Great Books” list.  But it is the books that stand out in my more distant past that hold the better claim to my attention on this occasion.

So here they are, The IMPORTANT books in the life of Bob:

“Mere Christianity”, by C.S. Lewis.  I became a Christian at 13, and found this book at 15, while a sophomore in High School.  Lewis spoke to my temperament, and his habit of using multiple analogies to explain his reasoned approach to belief in Christ assured that I would grasp at least one of them (it also had the effect of making me an habitual user of analogy).  I was one of those that needed to understand, to know why I believed what I believed (even if I couldn’t have expressed that at the time).  I read a lot of Lewis’ books after this (though managing to avoid The Chronicles of Narnia, seeing them as a pale imitation of Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy).

“The Pursuit of God”, by A.W. Tozer.  I recall that this book was recommended by an older Navy man who led the young people’s group I became involved in at a Baptist Church in Alameda, California while I was stationed there in the U.S. Coast Guard in 1978/79.  I can’t recall if the book is set up to be read one chapter a week, or one a day.  These were ground-shaking chapters, each of which required of the reader a spiritual action or release of some kind.  The one I recall most  vividly is the chapter entitled “The Blessedness of Possessing Nothing”, which instructed me to picture the possession I most loved, and let it go (because if I was holding something too close and didn’t let it go, God would find a way to take it away from me).  In my case, it was an original Civil War saber.  I wept as I gave it up to God.  Whatever I might think of this book were I to read it today, that night of spiritual exercise altered my attachment to belongings ever after (in a good way).

“A Place for You”, by Paul Tournier.  I read this book when, in my mid-twenties, I entered counseling with a Christian Psychotherapist.  As therapy is looked on with cultic suspicion by Evangelicals, I needed Christian perspective on the process.  Tournier is a Swiss Psychologist, and a Christian.   The most powerful passages described growth in  life as a search for a place to belong, finding it, enjoying and occupying it, and then willingly leaving it for the next place.  I, it turns out, have always been searching for a sense of “place”, so this book spoke profoundly to me.  One image stands out in my mind still, where he describes us as individuals lost in a forest, where we call out waiting for a reply and, when it comes, running toward the sound until it is lost in the noise of our own running.  At which point we stop, and call again.  And so on and on it goes, until we eventually find the source of the call — the “place for you”.

“He: Understanding Masculine Psychology”, by Robert Johnson.  This is not really a great book by any stretch.  But it brought me a long way toward beginning the long process of my own self-acceptance, specifically as a man who came of age during the massive gender re-alignments of the “Women’s Liberation” movement of the sixties and seventies.  Johnson gave a series of lectures at a Unitarian Church in California, I think, and cobbled together this book using the myth of Parsifal and the Holy Grail as an allegory of male spiritual and emotional development.  For the longest time I wished any woman I might meet would read it.  (Johnson also wrote a book called “She” and “We”, neither of which were near as good).

“Rediscovering the Teachings of Jesus”, by Norman Perrin.  This book was recommended by my first heartbreak for (what I assumed was) my betterment.  I had just returned from a three month volunteer “Bible smuggling” mission to Eastern Europe, during which I had decided that the answer to my troubles and questions lay in focusing solely on the words of Jesus.  This, it turned out, was the perfect set-up for this book which — though written by a “believer” — exposed me to the “form critical” method of textual criticism, which (if you’re not familiar with it) is sort of a morphology of language, enabling scholars to determine if different texts were written by the same person or not.  The upshot of this book (which landed like a silent A-bomb in my chest) was this: only a handful of words, and fragments of sentences, could reliably be attributed to the historical Jesus.  This book, it turned out, was the final nail, the last straw, the end of the line.  Within months, the last frail sticks of the edifice of my Christianity quietly collapsed.

“Men in Love:  Men’s Sexual Fantasies: The Triumph of Love over Rage” by Nancy Friday.  A woman turned me on to Nancy Friday’s popular books (mainly about women’s sexual fantasies).  This book was a great help toward alleviating those feelings we all have that “we’re the only one”.  Of course, not every mens fantasy was one I’d entertained, but I saw enough of myself in there to relax that much more with my own sexual self.  But what sticks with me is the tenderness and understanding towards men that the author displayed in her introduction to the book.  It opened the door to seeing how I, like many men, had only the channels of sex and anger open through which to express an entire range of emotion.  That knowledge helped me on the journey toward changing that restricted state.

“The Civilizing Process”, by Norbert Elias.  This book was originally published in Germany before World War 2, I believe.  It chronicles the transition of human culture (and human behavior) from the isolated barbarism of the “dark ages” into the ideas and practices of modern humanity.  In short, it showed me that our dark and violent past was not that far behind us!  I once heard it said that mankind made his last great evolutionary leap during the last ice age, and this book added to my understanding that everything about us humans adds up to a vast depth of strata of varying ages, accumulated over eons upon which our modern, civilized behavior is but a thin veneer.  This is a great book.

“Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon”, by Daniel C. Dennett.  This is the only book from my recent reading list I’ll include, only because I had a palpable shift in my inner architecture while reading it:  I felt that “thing”, or presence that I had always talked to (either as God, Jesus, my Higher Self, or my non-physical spiritual self) shift from something outside of me back to it’s rightful place as an integrated aspect of my own human consciousness.  Dennett’s book did, indeed, break a long-standing spell and — in a sense — gave me my soul back.  Though written as a scholarly argument for setting up Religion as a field of natural studies, it is really much more subversive than that.  For that reason, I like it.  (This book has been reviewed on the boblog — just look under “REVIEWS” on the right).

So. These are the “great” books.  Over the years there were countless self-help books, histories and biographies.  Among them: The Road Not Taken, Shame No More, The Great Cosmic Mother, The Courage to Heal, Letter to a Christian Nation, God is Not Great, and a great Time-Life sort of book on European Mythology that I have not been able to find again at the Library!  Looking back I have think, “Not bad for a kid who rarely finished his reading homework in school!”.

t.n.s.r. bob