Archive for the ‘eric gunther’ Category

Church is Our Classroom: Part II Trinity Church

Monday, April 20th, 2009

Easter Sunday, 2009
Trinity Church, Boston
Episcopalian

It was Easter Sunday and we wanted to be blown away. So we chose Trinity Church. It is a Boston landmark, doubled in stature by its crumbling reflection on the side of the Hancock Building, the tallest skyscraper in the city. My fellow anthropologist, a non-practicing Jew, had never been to a Catholic mass and so I was looking for something to knock his socks off. My girlfriend advised me that Episcopalian mass would be a close approximation, and Trinity is the biggest, badest cathedral in these parts.

Upon exiting the vestibule into the main cathedral, I could not help but fall awestruck. I kept imagining the experience of a peasant coming in from the field, into the most grandiose ornate structure—maybe the only piece of architecture—for hundreds of miles. How could this building not be a miracle-birthing womb? Even today, among modern feats of architecture, a cathedral of such enormity can evoke chills in the heart of the most frigid atheist. Believer or not, that curious vibration of fear and awe gets you in the bones.

It was Easter and the orchestra was pumping. Horns, chorus, and the seat-rumbling pipe organ, all in step. I got to thinking about the holiness of reverb. Could the spiritual-visceral pleasure it induces come from its being a sign of open space, of fortified shelter? A sort of emotional echo location. That led Jeff to ponder our emotional reaction to echoes as related to the acoustic fingerprint of caves.

Really, what would it all be without music? The positive feedback loop of art and religious ritual, about which I have been reading, is so apparent. It’s an impressive cycle; music inspires, inspired by the music of inspired believers. And so on.

As the church slowly filled up and we sat waiting for mass to begin, I panned the pews of backs of heads before me. Shiny white bald-domed daddy, kid, kid… kid, mom. Church—especially Easter—is a family affair. One by one, hair gave way to face and heads began to turn toward the back of the Church. Had we been impalas grazing in the pews, our heads would have turned like dominoes after the first few. But no, this wave of head turning was trickling and tentative. An amazing little demonstration of the interplay of epigenetic and cultural forces. I really want to turn my head, but it might be rude to stare at the guy behind me or I don’t want to be a sheep and do like everyone else, but wait, I can’t resist, what are they all looking at

The clergy and posse entered with pomp. The entire congregation stood and sang Hallelujah in unison. It had an almost chummy, Das Boot feel to it. It was one of those tunes that everyone knew real well. The orchestra screamed and the rafters shook. One of the altar girls held a twenty foot pole with streamers on top, which she moved in a figure eight pattern high above. I felt a quiet comfort in her patterned geometric movements.

Part way through the mass came a moment where half the congregation remained standing while the other half sat, a divergence in the details of ritualistic practice among worshipers. Subtle as it was, this split was telling of the evolution of ritual within a religion, of its temporary status.

Reverend Anne B. Bonnyman gave the homily. I realized the power of this ritual, to interpret the ancient texts of the bible in contemporary terms. It is a descendant of the most ancient story telling traditions; this is how myth is spread, via the mouths and ears of people. She incorporated humor, poetic repetition, metaphor, and abstraction in her speech.

Shortly after I whispered to Jeff that receiving Communion might be overstepping our bounds as unbelieving visitors, he pointed to the page in the bulletin proclaiming all visitors welcome to receive the Holy Communion. So we joined. I suddenly flashed back to that self-conscious march to the altar from my youthful Catholic church-going days. In my zeal to drink the Lord’s blood, I accidentally sipped from the dipping cup. (Catholics don’t dip, they just sip.) It tasted like a port, but could have just been what wine tastes like after three hundred people dip their fingers in it.

There is a curious lack of emotion in the sound of a thousand Episcopalians reciting prayer. This has always been a strange aspect of mass for me. Group prayer can sound oddly like a lifeless going through of the motions. This quality is reminiscent of the trance-like chants of some American Indian cultures. At the same time, this is not the case with the more boisterous houses of worship of certain Christian sects.

The strongest flashback came for me at the end of mass. The exit was always my favorite part. Not so much that it was a sigh of relief because it was finally over, but a pleasantness in the weekly ritual of walking out past the girls I had crushes on in their Sunday dresses, the jovial look on my dad’s face, the shaking of hands, the act of passing from the solemn darkness of the church out into the warm Sunday sun, an exhalation and return to life. The communal bonds sewn by the mass were so visible in this moment.

This visit convinced me that we were on the right track, that just showing up to Church is rewarded with deeper understanding; that religious details read in a book will never jump off the page and inhabit the imagination like these same details experienced in the first person.

Church is Our Classroom

Friday, April 17th, 2009

If we ever want to turn our classrooms into churches, we must first make church our classroom. Before you vehemently counter that our classrooms should not be turned into anything like a church, allow me to explain. We are at a point in history not only where the scientific method can shed light on the origins of religion, its adaptive value in our species’ evolution, the efficacy of its rituals, its neurological bases, and so on, but where religious fruits can grow in scientific soil.

Religion is often called upon by scientists to adjust its theology to new scientific discoveries. This bending process happens at a snail’s pace, so slow that most of the time it doesn’t even look like it’s happening. It is time for science to step into the classroom of religion; not just to empirically take note of its place in cultural life, its modes of teaching and dissemination, its leveraging of emotion, and it’s long journey from evolutionary origins to culture, but to apply the knowledge gleaned to itself.

The pursuit of turning science and evolution into a new religion is easy to misconstrue. Jerry Coyne writes, “Scientists fear that if evolution became anything like a religion, it would be abandonment of its main tool for understanding nature: the resolution of empirical claims with empirical data.” There are strategies, however, for attaching emotion to scientific empiricism and for making it special by leveraging our innate aesthetic response, without compromising its core principles.

Efforts are underway. The science museum. The integration of art into the classroom. Sesame Street. 321 Contact. Seed Magazine. Carl Sagan. Discovery Channel. Time Warp. PBS. Unweaving the Rainbow. (Stay tuned for links.)

It is not the monotheistic conception of God that we must find in evolution and science, but the spiritual realities that our hominid ancestors discovered. Perhaps it is better phrased as finding spiritual realities in science or imbuing science with a mystic glow. Einstein felt it. Carl Sagan felt it. Francis Bacon, too. E.O Wilson sees it.

In ethological terms we realize that science is a baby, born only 500 years ago. On top of that, it is one of the most unintuitive modes of thought. The first stirrings of religion can be seen as long as 100,000+ years ago. It was in this early period that the myth was born as an effective compressor of emotional information.

The new myths must tell the awe-inspiring stories of science. The new hymns must breathe the true depth of our history into our bones. Religious rituals incorporated artistic activities into a highly effective positive feedback loop. The new rituals can use art in the same way to create emotional involvement in science; not to incorporate emotional involvement into the scientific method, but to link emotion -  to quote E.O. Wilson, the modication of neural activity that animates and focuses mental activity - with the mental activities of science.

In our personal efforts to understand religion, we recently embarked on a church tour. Each Sunday, we will visit a different church in the Boston / Cambridge area. Part anthropologist / part student, we enter with open minds, observe, and participate in holy rituals. It is a vital piece of our conversation with religion, art, and science.

Can science assuage the existential anxieties that religion has so adeptly adapted to deal with? If it is to ever come close, science and evolution must be made to inspire the deep sense of mystery and wonder that the world’s religions have articulated for thousands of years. The way to find these spiritual realities in science is the same way religion found them, through art and ritual.

Not Art for Art’s Sake, Art for Life’s Sake

Thursday, March 19th, 2009

It’s been a century and a half since Darwin dropped the E bomb. It’s taken long enough, but people are starting to connect the dots of our gene culture co-evolution. Seventeen years ago, Ellen Dissanayake wrote a book called Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes From and Why in which she offers a species-centric view of art that digs deep into our evolutionary origins for answers.

She proposes that art, or what she calls making special, was an evolutionary adaptation. She frames art as a collection of activities that, by leveraging our innate aesthetic response, attached emotion and hence assured special attention to those things most vital to our survival as a species.

Art was a means of coping with an onslaught of existential anxieties that acccompanied consciousness. Artistic activities were a means of elaborating and shaping participants’ thoughts and emotions, providing an illlusion of control. In the context of ritual, making things special created a wildly positive feedback loop of group efficacy and cohesion.

There has been a hoopla of media attention surrounding Denis Dutton’s new book The Art Instinct. It’s heartening to see these ideas entering the popular sphere. Read Homo Aestheticus first, though. I will go so far to say that it is the most important art book ever written. Regardless of its pending verification by the scientific community, it opens our eyes to a deep trove of answers and understanding of the arts and emphasizes their integral place in the fabric of our species.

I Supposedly Wrote This When I Was 18

Monday, March 16th, 2009

The couch has become an impotent helm and the television, an empty sea unfit for exploration. As society gives us more external means of entertainment and exploration, we must look inward. We must unlock our potential for growth and search for an understanding of our world. In dealing with the various demands placed upon us by our schools, occupations, friends, parents, and most importantly, ourselves, we must also find constructive ways to vent our anxieties.

With the rapidly increasing power of the computer, electrical technologies are manifesting themselves in every aspect of our lives. There is no doubt about the benefits we receive from this technology. With the computer comes knowledge and power. The globe has become a smaller place where information spreads at unimaginable speeds.

As we increase our contact with the often commercial and generic nature of electronic media, there are things we must not lose sight of. We must not let the information age slowly devour our imagination. We must always have ways to express ourselves and strengthen our individuality.

In this spirit, and observer of advancing technology once noted, “One machine can do the work of 50 ordinary men, but no fifty machines can do the work of one extraordinary man.” One of the most important characteristics that distinguished a man as extraordinary is his ability to deal with the problems he encounters through spiritual means and this re-evaluation of himself.

The epitome of this spiritual evaluation is art. I have found artistic media to be the most effective outlets for emotion whether it is through music, writing, sculpting, painting, or design, art holds the keys to self-expression and a shaping of individuality. Art is a means by which to convey your ideas without limitations or restrictions.

In his relation of art to morals, Ruskin writes, “Life without industry is guilt, industry without art is brutality.” His statement describes the need for art in a technological society. It implies that without artistic distraction from the monotony of our daily routines, our lives will be filled with tedium and the void of civility. As Shakespeare once wrote, “Art is the imposition of order on chaos.”

Art has an enemy called ignorance. With its philosophical and sometimes quirky personality, are has been known to elicit ignorance. It is ironic that art also has the wonderful ability to make people aware of their society’s diversity by exposing them to new and foreign ideas. As we enter the next stage in our lives, we must keep an open mind to the unique experiences are can offer.

Art stares us in the face under its masks and churns within our minds under its chains. I cannot stress enough the importance of unlocking the creativity you all possess. Even for those of you who have already discovered constructive and satisfying means of venting your emotions and expressing yourselves I urge you to exercise your minds and unlock your potential through some artistic medium.

As states most simply by Longfellow, “Art is Power. Art is the power of understanding. It is the power to exercise the soul. It is the power to open your mind and speak you mind. It is the power to overcome ignorance and celebrate diversity.

(That was my Valedictorian speech from high school graduation.)