THIS PLACE, RIGHT NOW
On the east slope of the Rocky Mountains where the prairie begins high and slopes low to the east, one can stand in the grass with the sky shifting light overhead and feel the mysterium tremendum et fascinans that is the classic phrase describing the felt meaning of being in a sacred place.
Not everyone can feel this, partly because of preoccupation with work or travel or because they simply haven’t evolved enough or because they have been culturally taught it’s not real. For a person who has been taught that “religion” is a matter of buildings, dogma, authorities, and so on, this part of the world strikes them as “nothing there,” just “flyover country.” Others open to their feelings use the word “spiritual.” What can we say about that without getting into the territory of ghost-hunters and fortune tellers? What does science say about spirituality?
One of the handicaps has been lack of vocabulary for anything but the consensus. Another has been the disregard for anything thought to be “emotional”, thus escaping the control of those invested in logic or tradition as sources of authority. Some cultures, like those that emerged in this mystical place, simply accept the deep dimensions as natural.
Advanced scientific technology has surprised us all by endorsing quantum mechanics as a reality underneath the Newtonian reality we all know. This defends awareness of deep dimensions of reality and invites new thought about what some call spirituality and others call mysticism. The thought from the Asian side of Eurasia accommodates this more easily than the European side of the continent.
This small narrative is an account of how a person finds theories and actions in this context of “felt meaning”, even using the formal Western thought of the University of Chicago Divinity School, even when they pushed back against what they saw as “phenomenology” susceptible to hallucination. A few worried that locating spirituality in human bodies would make God and the angels vanish.
But I have stories to tell, including this one from my childhood. At dawn on a summer day when I was very small, just past being a toddler, I woke in my upstairs bedroom earlier than anyone else. Going downstairs, I went to the backdoor and managed to open it. We left the keys in the doors with a jingley little attachment to keep them from being pushed out or turned, but I figured out how to detach it. My hands were barely big enough or strong enough to open the back door.
The backyard was on the west side of the house and I had never been out there so early before. Nearby was the shadow of the house, but across the yard all the trees and hedges were brilliant with rising sun. A “mock orange” tree, a bush really, was blazing with gleaming white blossoms. I was transfixed.
I don’t remember more than that. The screen door had a hook on it too high up for little kids to reach. Maybe someone heard me and came to get me. The indelible moment had the elements of approach and preparation, finding the threshold. (though it was going downstairs when important buildings more commonly present the entrance at the top of an impressive flight of stairs one must climb). The little ritual of unlocking the door, a bit of material culture, also affected my mindset. Then came the revelation of opening the door into a place I knew well, though now it was quite transformed.
This was not a full-scale epiphany as described and depicted in accounts by “saints” who seem prone to such moments. But it speaks to the capacity of even some undeveloped humans to experience something numinous. Events in the rest of my life have reinforced the recent high technology of neurological explanations.
This is not confined to one place or culture, but explains how it is that certain humans everywhere can be “struck by lightning,” the metaphor used by some. Not everyone welcomes it and no one seems to be in control of it. Diminishing nterpretations by others may challenge the honesty of the experiencer.
During the decade when I was serving UU congregations as minister, I often used these principles of going across a lintel into a creative space to design special services, though without the theories explored here. I was drawing on training in theatre, Blackfeet ceremony, and psych knowledge but when people asked me how I managed to organize access to felt meaning, I didn’t know how to explain it or even how to define “felt meaning.”
A book by Quentin Smith called “Felt Meanings of the World” (1986)
“In a critical dialogue with the metaphysical tradition from Plato to Hegel to contemporary schools of thought, the author convincingly argues that traditional rationalist metaphysics has failed to accomplish its goal of demonstrating the existence of a divine cause and moral purpose of the world. To replace the defective rationalist metaphysics, the author builds a new metaphysics on the idea that moods and affects make manifest the world’s felt meanings; he argues that each feature of the world is a felt meaning in the sense that each feature is a source of a feeling-response if and when it appears. The author asserts that we must synthesize our two ways of knowing-poetic evocations and exact analyses-in order to decide which mood or affect is the appropriate appreciation of any given feature of the world.”
Outside of definition Smith doesn’t really affect the materials I’m using. Suzanne Langer comes closer because these are essentially aesthetic theories, based on the sensory, and organized by experience. To her, music was close to religion and this idea is confirmed by others. Music could tie religion to math. My experience in theatre ties it to performance.
Clearly what we call “religion” is a composite of interacting factors. This account is meant to focus on just one point of view: how to trigger intense experience. Maybe it will identify more ways to talk about it.