Church is Our Classroom: Part V Harvard-Epworth United Methodist Church

Harvard-Epworth United Methodist Church
May 10, 2009 (Mother’s Day)

Looking at the small cavern above the altar for the organ player, it occurred to me that organists were some of the original DJs. Up there in their little chamber, fingers jamming on the keys, looking out over the crowd, putting the pedals to the metal, dropping bass lines.

Jeff couldn’t make it this week, so initially I thought I’d skip Church. But I actually wanted to go. I’m noticing that it is becoming less of burden to wake up on Sunday for church. I was looking forward to this structured time set aside to think about things. What new connections would I make? What previously recorded material would be accessed, unhinged, and layed down anew in my brain?

By the way, there is this amazing, somewhat controversial, theory of memory reconsolidation. The idea is that after someone calls up a memory, it has to be stored in the brain anew. During this process, the memory is in a changeable state. They’re treating post traumatic stress syndrome by remapping emotional parts of memory. The subject simply recalls the story, and is subsequently given a epinephrine blocker, which alters emotional response.

The significance of this is mind-jumbling. Frederick Turner talks about “those fantastically complex and swiftly evolving inner ecologies, the nervous systems of higher animals.” In a stroke of “nested complexity”, each nervous system is in turn an ecosystem. We are walking ecosystems, with a lightning speed mutation rate. Memories are ever-shifting elements in this inner ecology. Some are strengthened, replicated, selected for, others become extinct.

This leads me to another article in the same Technology Review issue, about synthetic biology exploring the early origins of life. David Deamer identifies several crucial steps in the formation of life, one of which is the “self-assembly of compartments and protocells”. After rewetting a meteorite sample, he found that “not only were lipidlike molecules present in the mix, but they readily self-assembled into cell-size vesicles.”

Our brains and skulls are the self assembling compartments, encircling and enclosing a random collection of information inside. And the walls of the church assembled to encompass yet a higher level of complexity. And so on. It’s a powerful way to view our shared history with the universe.

At the opening of the mass, the minister invited all the children to join him on the altar. He sat among them, turning the altar into a scene out of Romper Room. He asked them questions about their mothers. After proclaiming that “all females in the church are mothers”, he asked them to walk around and pass a flower to each and every woman in the Church. As the youngest of the lot waddled around, I wondered what features were most salient in their female-identification algorithms. The children were then dismissed to partake in kid church.

There was a choir in this service. They were dressed in red and white robes and sang four-part harmonies.

In talking to various people about this project, I keep coming back to the idea of emotional tagging of memories, the idea that memories and ideas can be tagged with emotions in the brain. Newberg and D’Aquili talk about this in the context of myth generation—rational beliefs being strengthened by and linked to simultaneous emotional experience.

We can read about rituals and religion in books until our eyes bleed. However, our relationship and trajectory with the material is vastly deepened by the focusing power of emotion. In fact, it is not simply tagged, but animated and guided. Granted, my heartbeat can speed up a bit and I can get fidgety in my seat while reading an exhilarating book. The level of excitation, however, is far greater in the physical presence of the building, people, smells, and sounds, of the church.

The exciting thing for me, the source of impending mutations, is that we are generating new ideas from these emotive cues. The prescribed emotional states of the religious ceremony are merely a seed for our emotional/rational trajectories. As Natalie puts it, church is an “awe-generating” machine. What we do with that awe is up to us.

In his post, Jeff talked about the techniques of communication that have evolved in the ritualistic program. And how they allow us to oscillate between individuality and group experience. The rhythmic oscillations between group / individual, formal / informal, clergy / plebian, etc, raise some strong analogies with the play of tension and release in music. Like a symphony, the entire religious ceremony is an elaboration of natural oscillations.

As a child, Catholic mass always felt so formal, up until the exchange of hand shakes and peace-be-with-yous. That sense of release was so strong. Looking back, that is what made it one of my favoriate parts of church. You could see that emotional release in everyone’s face; the serious countenance of worship giving way to smiles and congeniality. The more grave rites of communion would begin shortly after, and formality would resume.

These metered oscillations are epigenetic extensions of our biological evolution. Turner attributes the roughly universal three-second meter of poetry to the audio processing time-constants in our brains. Culture and ritual are part of the same massive feedback loop as our brains and thus shaped by them. Dissanayake paints a picture artistic artifacts used in ritual improving the efficacy of the ritual, which in turn improves the quality of the artifacts and so on.

Definitely something to explore: the coevolution of music and religious rituals. As temporal arts, music (and dance) have particular relevance. Could the structure of these group rituals have evolved directly from the compositional structures of music and dancing?

Near the end of mass, first time visitors were asked to stand, say their name, where they were from, and why they were here. As I stood, the minister approached me. My usual public speaking body tension was absent. My reply was, “Eric Gunther. I’m originally from New York, but I live in Cambridge now. And I’m here to learn.” The minister shook my hand, welcomed me, and handed me a brochure on the church. Two other people stood, both parents visiting children at school. I was struck by the openness of this incident. It seemed quite forward, singling out people in the pews. It was a powerful moment, though. This exercise served to openly identify me as a newcomer, to formally welcome me into the church, and to immediately give me a voice in the congregation.

Accompanied by his mother, a cute little boy approached my aisle with the tithe basket. I was alone in the pew. I sifted through my wallet—motivated only by my desire to not let down the kid—but found no small bills. When they arrived, I politely smiled and nodded, which the mother understood as “I’ll pass this time.” I am still undecided about giving money to the Churches we attend. Jeff always does, as a kind of ticket price for the show. I’m not sure. Perhaps these institutions should be allowed to disappear if the financial support is not there of if they cannot adapt. Just like the the banking and auto industries. What, I wonder, would be the repercussions if the Churches weren’t bailed out? Would the spiritual economy crumble?

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4 Responses to “Church is Our Classroom: Part V Harvard-Epworth United Methodist Church”

  1. Alita says:

    “theory of memory reconsolidation” - if they produce this into pills…i will with no doubt or consequences…would want it in my first aid cabinet.

    what about dark and painful memories? can we change that with the theory above? if memories are so powerful, why they sometime allure a complex level of confusion? [between right and wrong, black & white,etc...]

    to answer the last question, economically they will never allow any sacrifices when comes to the religion and spiritual issues. Maybe you feel that you are not ready to give your contribution but there will always be generous people among us to make sure that spiritual connection won’t blow the last candle as they are the last hope when all hopes are dead and gone.

  2. eric says:

    I also think the answer to that last question is ‘no’. But maybe for a different reason. I think that the spiritual connections between us and and each other and the universe will never burn out. I do think they will—as they have done for the last hundred thousand years—continue to change shape.

    It is this process of changing shape that keeps them vital, makes them alive. By hugging old, possibly fading, traditions too tightly, we do a disservice to ourselves and our shifting spiritual form. This is probably the source of my doubts when it comes to putting money in the basket.

  3. Seth says:

    So were you there when the church burned down the following week?

  4. eric says:

    If you’re referring to the Church of the Latter Day Saints on Mt. Auburn St., then unbelievably, yes. We were there. Our post about it is on the way…

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