About this blog

This Blog is named after an ancient gnoseological riddle which hints hidden, disseminated, omnipresent wisdom.
I invite you to search, listen and observe with me for "the word of tree, whisper of stone, and humming together of the abyss and stars."

2017/10/18

Taxation Coin


This is denarius - a coin of Roman taxation.
This particular one was struck around the year 150 CE, in the relatively calm period of the rule of  emperor Antoninus Pius, about the time when the last parts of the New Testament were written.
Roman coins were certainly more than just monetary instruments. Coins also played an important ideological function. Even this standard and little boring denarius can help us understand.
This small coin is loaded with political imagery and imperial propaganda. And as small as these Roman coins might be, they were ubiquitous important financial instruments. And besides their main monetary value they functioned like political billboards or TV advertisements perhaps even like a social media “sponsored” or “pushed” posts. These coins, just like those social media posts, were also common and not appreciated for what they were actually “pushing”. This Sunday we will hear again the famous Jesus pronouncement “Give to the emperor the emperor’s and to God what belongs to God” – a beautiful, clever and powerful rejection of the economic exploitation and imperial ideology in the name of Creator’s sovereignty and grace.
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And for those who read this far, here is a description of this particular denarius.
On the obverse of the coin is the head of the emperor with a laurel - a symbol reserved for gods, victors and emperors. Around it is the emperor’s name Antoninus and his titles Augustus (worthy of veneration) and Pius (dutiful in affection) and Pater Patriae (Father of the Fatherland).
On the reverse of the coin is a standing figure of Pax (goddess of Peace - mind you, it was the Roman peace, which was achieved by conquest and subjugation) and around her are further Antoninus’ titles - Tribunicia Potestas (with the powers of the Tribune - originally a defender of the Roman poor - but in reality bestowing great unchecked powers) and Consul IIII (Consul for the fourth term).

2017/10/11

A Proverbial Snub

Deep in dark shelves of the Rutgers Church library we discovered an ancient folio with relatively well preserved uncial writing. Upon closer paleographic and exegetical examination of its archaic Manhattonite English we became convinced we happened to find another fragment from the author of the Manhattan Gospel of Henry Rutgers offering us important insights into some biblical mysteries:

ONCE THERE WAS A POTENTATE WHO WAS ABOUT TO BE INSTALLED INTO HIS POTENTATY OFFICE.  HE WAS KNOW AS EXCEEDINGLY VAIN AND NASTY. THUS EVEN THOUGH HE INVITED MANY FAMOUS ACTORS AND SINGERS AND ARTISTS TO HIS CELEBRATION, ONE AFTER ANOTHER THEY STARTED TO EXCUSE THEMSELVES. ONE PROMISED A CHARITY CONCERT ON THE SAME DATE, THE OTHER HAD PLANS TO TAKE KIDS TO DISNEYLAND, AND YET ANOTHER NEEDED TO CLEAN HER FISH TANK. AFTER A LOT OF EFFORT SOME CELEBRITIES AND DIGNITARIES DEIGNED TO COME. THEN THE DATE ARRIVED BUT EVEN AS THE POTENTATE TOOK OFFICE ONE OF THE IMPORTANT GUESTS (BY THE WAY FROM THE SAME POLITICAL TRIBE) COMMENTED ON HIS ACCEPTANCE SPEECH “WHAT WEIRD S**T!” THE WEATHER WAS NASTY AND IT DID NOT STOP DRIZZLING. THE CELEBRATION WAS SPARSELY ATTENDED AND ALONG THE PARADE PROCESSION ROUTE THERE WERE MORE GUARDS THAN GUESTS. ROWS AND ROWS OF STANDS WERE EMPTINESS EMPTY. THE POTENTATE WAS ANGRY. HE LIED AND DENIED WHAT EVERYONE COULD SEE AND THREATENED THOSE WHO MENTIONED THE TRUTH. TO ADD INSULT TO INJURY THE NEXT DAY AFTER THIS CATASTROPHIC CELEBRATION PEOPLE GATHERED ON THEIR OWN ACCORD AND FLOODED THOSE VERY STREETS WITH THEIR OWN FESTIVAL OF COLOUR AND RESISTANCE AND CREATIVITY AND FREEDOM. 
AND NOW, DEAR READER, YOU KNOW WHY THE EVANGELIST LUKE REJECTED MATTHEW’S VERSION OF THE PARABLE OF THE BANQUET AND WROTE HIS OWN VERSION WHILE PROUDLY WEARING HIS PUSSYHAT.       


It is very likely there will be again misgivings about the authenticity of this document from the treasure chest of the Manhattan Gospel of Henry Rutgers. It, nevertheless, makes some insightful points. The "PUSSYHAT" worn by the evangelist Luke is a clear anachronism, but even among serious biblical scholars there is no denying that Luke was, what we would call, a feminist among evangelists. It is also a well known fact that Luke lifted this parable from  Matthew’s context of the dark Middle-Eastern despotism (most likely the First Jewish-Roman War) and transplanted it into his gentler Hellenist city culture. Thus both Matthew and Luke give us permission to read the parable in our own times and context.

Be it as it may, come this Sunday to remember and celebrate.

2017/10/04

Animated world

This Summer we received a surprise visit. Several tomato plants sprung from our balcony earthworm composter. It was a delight to observe them growing, blooming and finally bringing forth little delightful tomatoes. All what they needed was a little bit of water now and then. An old friend commented that she calls them “volunteer plants.” I started to call them “companions”. They gave us so much joy!
      This experience opens my mind to perceiving even plants as living creatures even with souls, just like animals. Our English word for “animal” is derived from the Latin name for a soul - ANIMA. And a biblical testimony also hints to the presence of soul in other creatures. Psalm 104 speaks primarily about humans and animals but in a broader context includes also plants. This is how the psalmist speaks to God about living nature:
   When you take away their spirit,
   they die and return to dust.
   When you sent out your spirit again,
   they are created anew,
   thus you renew face of the earth. 

And there are other biblical instances of animated (having anima, having soul) nature.
      This weekend we will welcome our 2017 autumn speaker Dr. David Abram. He is an interesting author, thinker, philosopher and environmentalist. He will share with us his insight on how respecting other creatures’ souls can lead to a healthier, happier and more spiritual living for us and entire planet.
                   
Saturday: Lecture at 10 am, and Seminar at 1:30 pm
Sunday Worship at 11 am

2017/09/27

Honeycomb Communion

There has been hardly anything more contentious in the Christian history than the simplest meal which Jesus bequeathed to his disciples. Every aspect of it and even aspects imagined and fabricated beyond it have been a source of bitter and often bloody controversies. Arguments flared up, heretics were burned and wars were waged over the precise interpretation of that simple meal. Disunity starts right with the name - is it to be called Eucharist or Holy Communion or Lord’s Supper? Is it a sacrament or sacrifice or memorial? Is the Lord present in it or at it? There are centuries of bitter struggles about arcane terminology of transubstantiation, remanence, transignification, consubstantiation, utraquism, memorialism, centuries of splitting hair and cutting heads. It is difficult to imagine that thousands upon thousands of people died in conflicts over these arcane questions, and there are still some for whom it is the ultimate supranatural question of salvation.
     As we celebrate World Communion Sunday we will try to put all this bitter history behind us and discern this special meal in the context of a Hebrew legend from the book of Judges and its sweet mytho-poetic riddle. Come to celebrate with us a honeycomb communion. 

 

2017/09/21

Grammar of Happiness

In Hawaii there is a running joke about their two systems of time. There is a Haole (American) time and Hawaiian time. While Haole time is about plus minus five minutes, Hawaiian time is only suggestive and can mean almost anytime. These different concepts of time reflect different cultures, but they are in fact growing from the deeper and more profound linguistic roots.
   English sentence is unthinkable without indicating its temporal position - past, present or future. Any time we open our mouth, our sentences are chained to a definite position in time. Hawaiian language on the other hand is virtually tenseless. Hawaiian is rich in nominative clauses (sentences without verbs) and even verbal sentences communicate primarily the flow of action (grammatical aspects). Thus, while our European languages value punctuality, the tenseless languages highlight validity and fullness of time.
   Why am I writing all of this? Because the Biblical Hebrew is also one such starkly different and almost magical language. It is hardly ever mentioned and difficult to convey in translations. In the Biblical Hebrew tenses are almost an afterthought – time is relative, but aspects are important.
   This Sunday we will let the ancient Hebrew teach us a new grammar of happiness, or at least we will let Hebrew open our minds to a spiritual reality beyond and above our modern dictate of time.

 

2017/09/14

Church Familia

The word for family came to English from the Latin FAMILIA. It originally meant the entire household. It denoted several generations and even servants living together under one roof. Similarly, the Greek word for family is οἶκος - OIKOS. The original and most common meaning of OIKOS is a house, but soon it metonymically started to mean also the family as all those who live in that house.
    From a slightly different angle the Hebrew word for family מִשׁפָּחָה - MISHPACHAH or for instance Hawaiian ‘OHANA both describe larger kin groups connected by common ancestry. However, both names were naturally expanded to include even a larger circle of relatives by blood but also by marriage, adoption even friendship.
    This Sunday at Rutgers we will celebrate homecoming - the coming together of our Rutgers Church Family. In the center of a large vibrant cosmopolitan city where we can often feel lonely and alienated in the middle of crowds, we form our intentional community, our MISHPACHAH, our OIKOS, our ‘OHANA our FAMILIA, our adoptive family of faith.

 

2017/09/06

REFUTATIO

The Nashville Statement is built on erroneous theological, hermeneutical, and epistemological premises. Thus, this statement is unfair to people and communities whom it is singling out, insulting and abusing. But it is also intrinsically unfair to the treasured religious texts and customs which it is misrepresenting and abusing. In a very blurred and foggy way it is referencing Biblical tradition and divine authority of the Creator to promote likes and dislikes of the authors of the Statement.

     In 1906, in the opening part of the epochal study “Quest of the Historical Jesus”,  Dr. Albert Schweitzer clearly demonstrated the limits of all our human hermeneutic endeavor (particularly our attempts to understand and interpret ancient texts or historical figures). He showed that, absent stringent scholarly approach, we always have tendency to project into the Bible our own biases, prejudices and desires.
    The end of the Nashville preamble “...witnessing publicly to the good purposes of God for human sexuality revealed in Christian Scripture, we offer the following affirmations and denials” is the prime example of what I have just stated as it calls upon the authority of the Scripture, in a foggy way as it does, to support the personal prejudices and resentments of the authors.
     Thus, this whole document is unfair to the Bible and Jesus Christ to use their message and authority without humble yet thorough and thoughtful consideration. It is doubly unfair to use them as absolute prescriptive and proscriptive answers for human culture and behavior thousands of years later.

     We do not use the Bible and divine authority, as much as we value them, to inform our understanding of physics, mathematics, biology, geology, astronomy or any other science. In the same way it would have been futile to use the Bible as direct model for our social structures such as the forms of government, jurisprudence, racial or international relationships, organization of work, healthcare, or as the statement does, to model for us our gender identities or family structures. To do such things (albeit selectively) betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the function and the role of religion and religious texts in our faith and the life of society. The Nashville Statement does not reveal anything about divine will, it only betrays prejudices of its authors.  

2017/08/30

ORA ET LABORA

“ORA ET LABORA” - or in English, “Pray and work” is the old Benedictine maxim combining spirituality and work. In fact, it is a common principle in many religions and especially in their monastic orders. True spirituality and productive, creative life cannot be separated, they belong together. I found the strongest expression of this principle while learning Hawaiian language and studying its original culture.
    Hawai‘ian word KAHUNA (abbreviated KAHU) means “a priest”. Thus a church minister would be called Kahuna pule - a priest of prayers. But based on common language designations many occupations were also viewed as priestly. Here are some of them: a boatbuilder was Kahuna kalai wa‘a - a priest canoe builder. An architect was Kahuna kuhikuhi pu‘uone - a priest drawing (plans) in sand. A chief farmer, perhaps an agronomist, was Kahuna ho‘oulu‘ai - a priest who is making food to grow. A physician is called Kahuna lapa‘au - a priest of cures, a school principal was Kahu kula nuia priest of high school. Even a person taking care of refuse, perhaps sanitation engineer in our idiom, was Kahu moka - a priest of excrement.
I like this cultural and linguistic insight. Truly any form and any kind of work, when done properly, with dedication and as a service to others or God indeed is a priestly occupation.
    Come this Sunday, on labour day weekend, as we continue searching for new or rediscovered spirituality -- in three New Testament parables we will witness how Jesus combined and fused spirituality and work.

2017/08/24

Spiritual time

This Monday early afternoon I stood in the open farmland on the border of Kentucky and Tennessee anxiously waiting for an event which I wanted to see for as long as I can remember. I tried to observe this event three times before, once in Hungary, once in Easter Island and most recently in Australia, each time something came up and I could not go. Now, after years of waiting, and many months of studying, planning, training and rehearsing, it was for real! We were waiting for the total solar eclipse! In our family we prepared three different major projects and several smaller observations and tasks. Partial phase took an hour and half, but then totality came. In the place where we were it was just a brief two minutes and thirty-three seconds, 2' 33" short or long. This “short or long” is the point of our perception of time, it felt as fast as lightning and at the same time as significant and long as almost nothing else. Physically it was short but spiritually that moment changed my perspective of time. In biblical times, and in ancient times in general, the Sun and Moon were the only way of telling time. It certainly worked for me this week; the Sun and Moon together opened my mind for the spiritual dimension of time. Come this Sunday as we regard and celebrate the mystery of time.

Andrew's project - solar eclipse photography
Solar eclipse on August 21 in southern Kentucky, ten minutes before totality.
A sunspot AR2672 is still clearly visible.

George's project - solar eclipse projection through binocular
Results were surprising, we could observe even faint solar spots.

Martina's project - solar eclipse pinhole projections
Projecting a message from heavens.












2017/08/09

Scripture Fetish

The fetishisation of the scriptures is an interesting and dominant feature of monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Sikhism). And please, understand that I am using here the word FETISH not in its later sexual meaning but in its original religious significance. FETISH is defined as “an object worshiped by an individual or a group because it is believed to possess special spiritual powers and is often used to exercise spiritual power or control.”
    Phenomenologically, the holy scriptures of these religions fit quite neatly this definition of fetish. The Guru Granth Sahib in Sikhism has its own throne under baldachin and is treated as royalty up to being kept comfortable with a special feathery fan (Chaur Sahib). Before Al Qur'an is touched and read, a ritual hand washing is in place. Every written or printed copy of Al Qur'an and any of its parts are protected against desecration by severe cultural and legal penalties up to executions. The Bible in churches is brought in special processions, often adorned and sometimes kissed and in many protestant homes the Bible was never to be put under any other book or object. The Jewish scrolls of Torah are kept in special places, dressed and adorned like priests, are not to be touched by the naked hand only with pointer (Yad in Hebrew or Hanat in Yiddish). The disposing of the holy scriptures, especially in Islam and Judaism, is to be done by proper burial.
    Even small parts, quotations, from the holy texts are treated as fetishes. Many Muslims (especially in Africa) wear protecting amulets with scrolls inscribed with Quranic verses. Jewish Mezuzot, small boxes on the frames with a quotation of the Shema resemble house protecting talismans. Prayer tefillin/phylacteries, containing Torah quotation, are by their very name and definition amulets. And as for Christianity, I would never forget when I first saw a John 3:16 tattoo in the NYC subway.
    The holy scriptures are treated and they function as religious fetishes. It just might be an interesting and colorful folklore and cultural peculiarity. Unfortunately, it has profound religious and spiritual consequences. It certainly helped the spread and depth of literacy in the given societies. But it also led to a strong tendency towards literalism, fundamentalism and religious legalism. Theologically we can speak about a strong tendency to worship a book rather than God.
    Please, understand me well, I have nothing against Holy Scriptures of any religion. I also deeply respect our own Judeo-Christian scriptural tradition. In fact, I earned my doctorate in the area of the study of ancient religious texts and Biblical theology. But for that very reason I also know how scriptures could be misquoted - torn from their historical, geographic and cultural context and their original intentions.
    As much as we respect the Scriptures, it is also good to remember, that human religiosity predates our ability to write by thousands of years. There were devout religions long before we learned to write and also many current religions never embraced a notion of normative religious texts.  Furthermore, all the religions of the Book, Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Sikhism, predate their own scriptures, being first expressed and passed on orally, only later they were recorded and codified in written form. Come this Sunday as we continue our quest for new or rediscovered spirituality. This time seeking the surprising riches and spiritual wealth of oral, narrative, unscripted religion.  

2017/08/03

Neighborhood Geology

This is a picture from Riverside Park. It is a rocky outcrop called Mount Tom next to W83rd Str. Somewhere I read that Edgar Allan Poe liked to come here and observe the Hudson River.
    Yet this rocky knob itself has an even older and more interesting history to tell. It is made of rock called Manhattan Schist. It formed 270 million years ago under the mountains which were at that time taller than today’s Himalayas. Those mountains are long gone; only their roots remain in the form of this rounded rock and bedrock under half of Manhattan.
    This Manhattan Schist is composed of nicely folded layers with occasional intruding veins of quartz. Yet here, and in a few other places, you can clearly see some straight grooves going perpendicular to the natural layers and folds in the rock. These groves are called glacial striation and are in fact about twenty five thousand years old wounds and scars left behind by the Wisconsin glacier. These scars were made by stones embedded at the bottom of glacier as it slid towards the ocean.
    This is just one rock from our neighborhood relating ancient stories. This Sunday we will open the Bible and let it speak to us about Geology. We will initiate a trialogue between Bible, geology and spirituality hoping it will open and deepen our faith and also our understanding of ourselves and of us in the world.

2017/07/26

Spiritual Landcapes

Do you have places of deep spiritual meaning in your life? Do you have places where you go to find calm, strength or to remember the loved ones or some important events in your life? I do have a number of such places and I hope you have them too. Interestingly the Bible is full of such locational references.
    Then Gideon built an altar to the LORD, and called it, “The LORD (is) Peace” and it stands at Ophra to this day.
    This is just one of many dozens of geographic pointers in the Bible. Altars, towns or hamlets together with many other human structures as well as springs, hills, gulches and rocky outcrops are named and connected with biblical matriarchs, patriarchs, Jesus and his disciples often with similar reminders that those places are there to this very day.
    Unfortunately, when we read the biblical stories these days, we often thoughtlessly skip over these verses. But if you study other religions and folklore of other peoples, you soon realize, that these geographical anchors are very important. These locational references are often the very reason for the existence and survival of such stories. They connect the faith and spiritual life with the world around.
    This hill was visited by King Arthur, in this pond the princess Libuse /goddess Lada took her bath, this rocky outcrop in the river is a remnant of the hero Maui’s stone canoe and this puffing volcanic Aeolian Island is a chimney directly from Hephaistos’ workshop.
    But what can we do when our religion became global, when the original geographic spiritual roots in Palestine are thousands upon thousands of miles away? What to do with this alienating disconnect between our faith and our surroundings?
    Mormons fabricated completely new addenda to the old religion in order to build connection between their faith and their new homes. Other fundamentalists hop these days on jetliners and go for religious pilgrimages, overwhelming those fragile original places in distant lands and turning them into tourist traps and religious Disneylands. While others resign on any connection and create their new, secular, fictitious frames of references lifting them up from modern fictions of films and TV - for instance this is Seinfeld’s diner or there is that deli where Harry met Sally...
    I believe there is a better way than such fabrications. It consists not in translating and locating those old biblical places, it consists in recognition of special places for our own spiritual journeys. Come this Sunday as we continue our search for new spirituality (or revived spirituality) this time connecting our faith with special meaningful places in our own lives.

This is Kīlauea erupting under the Milky Way (and even some shooting stars) - my personal place of spiritual awe and recharging.


2017/07/19

Organic Spirituality

    Last Friday was a rainy day and I received a special gift.  On my balcony in three small boxes I grow taro plants. I love taro’s heart-shaped leaves gently waving and quivering in every slightest breeze. And when it rains or drizzles, raindrops adorn my taro’s leaves with strings of shiny pearls and sparkling diamonds.
    If you pay attention you can spot taro quite often in NYC planted here and there for its decorative properties. (There is a large planter in front of a grocery store just across from the Holy Name of Jesus RC Church on Amsterdam Ave.) I personally got enchanted by this plant several years ago when visiting a picturesque Hanalei valley in the island of Kauai.     
    Later I learned that taro (or Kalo, as it is called in Hawaii) has a deep spiritual significance for the people who grow it. Deep in the Hawaiian creation story kalo is an older sibling of the humankind. Kalo, as an older brother, is feeding people while people, as younger siblings, are responsible for caring and cultivating kalo. Kalo and people are together children of the Land and they are bound together by the deep mutual love and obligations.
    The natural and religious duties transcend individual lives. Just as kalo tuber is harvested, the plant lives on through its replanted stalks, so the people live on through their offspring, and thus carry on the god-given duty of love and care for one another and for the land.
    This is just the roughest abbreviation of this beautiful and meaningful myth. Yet the study of this distant myth made me aware of some surprising biblical parallels, stories and metaphors, which also intertwine divine, human and plant realms. Come this Sunday as we continue our search for new spirituality by re-connecting our faith with plants. 

 

2017/07/14

Solar Eclipse 2017

This is a cuneiform text and transliteration of the first recorded total solar eclipse. It was observed in Ugarit, an ancient city on the northeast Mediterranean shore and it took place in early afternoon on the first day of month Ḫiyaru with planet Mars in conjunction. Thus we know it took place on what we would call the 5th of March, 1223 BCE at about 13:20 local time. I wrote a little more about it earlier on this blog. 


Now we are in luck! There will be another solar eclipse visible over North America on the 21st of August.

Unfortunately NYC will not be in the path of totality, yet the Sun will be almost 72% eclipsed which itself will be a spectacular celestial event. The sky will substantially darken and the Sun, covered by the Moon, will look like a crescent. BUT DON’T LOOK EVEN INTO THE ECLIPSING SUN UNLESS YOU HAVE PROPER EYE PROTECTION! Normal sunglasses do not provide sufficient protection; also do not use exposed films, CD and DVD discs or similar DIY contraptions.
    For safe observation of the Sun you need either proper sun-gazing glasses, professional filters or high grade electric welding shields. As spectacular as the solar eclipse might be, you do not want to fry your eyes and thus seriously and permanently harm your eyesight!
    An excellent and easy option is to make your own pinhole camera - make a small hole in the center of a larger size cardboard and cast a shadow on a flat white surface. Then you can observe the projection in the middle of the shadow. (Never look through that pinhole directly at the sun!). ALWAYS SUPERVISE CHILDREN TO ENSURE THEY ARE NOT LOOKING AT THE SUN WITHOUT PROPER PROTECTION.  Here are some further safety tips from NASA: https://eclipse2017.nasa.gov/safety
    I made measurements for our church’s roof garden (coordinates 40.77950N and 73.98231W). The disk of the moon will make the first contact with the Sun on Monday, August 21st at 17:23:14.7 Coordinated Universal Time (which is 1:23pm Eastern Summer Time), the maximum eclipse will arrive at 18:44:54.4 UTC (2:44pm EST) and the eclipse will end at 20:00:36.9 UTC (4:00 EST). 
    Plan, prepare and enjoy! If you have any questions, contact pastor Andrew. astehlik(a)rutgerschurch.org

2017/07/13

Biblical Emojis

This Sunday we will encounter biblical emojis. If you not know this word - emojis are those small pictograms used in emails, text messages, Facebook and other social media. Predominantly they are used to express, communicate and share emotions. Interestingly, many emojis use different depiction of faces.
    This Sunday, in our Summer search for new spirituality, we will attempt to reconnect our faith with our bodies and our emotions. In that endeavor, the "biblical emojis" can offer us helpful insights.
    Of course, don’t look in the Bible for cellphones, tablets or other electronic gadgets. They did not have those little colorful pictures either. But what they had were special colorful and meaningful words which were as good as emojis.
    Take for instance biblical Greek word for anger - ORGĒ. Its original literal meaning was up-welling or swelling just like the emoji of an angry red face.
    A different Greek word for anger was THYMOS and it originally meant heavy breathing, steaming or puffing (with anger), just like the emoji with a steamy nose.
    On the other hand the Greek word for patience, MAKROTHYMIA, can be literally translated as long breath.
     Indeed, our emotions are one of the oldest and deepest structures of our psyche connected intimately with our bodies. Purely rational control of our emotions is only marginally successful. Often the most efficient way of understanding, cherishing as well as cultivating our emotions is by reconnecting them with our bodies and controlling them through moderating our bodies’ reactions - for instance one can remember countering rising anger with proverbial few deep breaths.
    Come this Sunday, when we will search for even deeper and more profound biblical "emoji words" from the treasure throw of biblical Hebrew helping us in reconnecting our faith with our bodies and our emotions.

 

2017/07/06

Fragrant Memories

A few weeks ago, as part of my study of American religiosity, I visited the Shaker Village in Hancock, just across the boarder between Upstate and Massachusetts. The true Shakers had been gone for generations, but local enthusiasts and sympathizers keep the memory of this interesting American protestant commune alive. Now it is a living museum with a small working farm and ongoing practice of traditional shaker crafts.
 
    The first building which I entered was a wood workshop. I stepped in and the smell of that place arouse in me a strikingly vivid memory of my grandfather’s woodshed. It must have been some specific combination of drying and aging woods. It was as if I was suddenly transported across thousands of miles and a number of decades in time to the time when my grandfather taught me how to split wood.
    That is the magic of our human olfactory memory. I think I can speak for almost everyone when I say that we all have had such flashbacks triggered by a smell of freshly cut grass, pealed apple or some other fruit, or just a gust of a salty air. Almost any specific smell can suddenly and surprisingly bring forward vivid memories to us. And unless we are professional taste tasters, we would have a hard time putting into words those  special smells. Similarly we might have difficulties actively recalling memorable smells. We need to wait until our memory is triggered and then we are surprised with vivid, almost palpable memories which go far beyond just smell.
    Olfactory memories are clearly more direct, vivid and elemental than words, sounds or sights. Come this Sunday as we continue our search for post-cartesian spirituality –  integrating, uniting and rejoining body and spirit, our physical and spiritual selves. We will rejoice in the often overlooked, forgotten or neglected fragrant and tangible spirituality at the center of our faith. 


2017/06/29

Scary Theater

The original illustration from Descartes' Treatise on Man
This Sunday I would like to take you to a special and and also somehow scary place. It is called Cartesian Theater after René Descartes (Renatus Carteius in Latin). Yes, it is that french philosopher famous for postulating Cogito ergo sum - "I think, therefore I am."
    Cartesian Theater is a modern name for an important part of Descartes’ philosophy just as Plato’s Cave is important part of his. The Cartesian Theater was supposed to be a place of interaction between the immaterial, intelligent soul and the physical body. Senses were picking up perceptions and transmitting them along the nerves to a place in the brain where they were presented to the soul. The immaterial intelligent soul then analyzed these inputs, made freewill decisions and sent neural commands back to the body. The Cartesian Theater was supposed to be an essential function of a brain mediating between these two realms, spiritual and physical.
    This radical body-mind dualism had major and far reaching consequences. It demisticized, secularized, even desecrated the world. The only mystical and sacred element in existence (beside God) was the intelligent human soul. Anything and everything else in the world was just secular “stuff” fully available for rational, scientific study. This worldview greatly accelerated the development of the modern science and modern technology.
    But this radical body-mind dualism also led to an alienation of the mind from the body and alienation of reason from emotions. Most importantly it led to the alienation of humans from the rest of nature. Inevitably, the human intelligent mind (often quite narrowminded) became the measure of everything. This secular worldview greatly contributed to our modern ecological crisis. The Cartesian Theater morphed into a scary haunted castle of human hubris.
     This Sunday and all the following summer Sundays in a special worship series we will seek to heal our alienation and modern self-centeredness. Come this Sunday to be assured from the fountains of our faith that we are more than thinking machines. Come this Sunday to rejoice in the spiritual wholeness growing up from the deep roots of our faith tradition.

And for those who read this far:
René Descartes situated the interface between a soul and a body to the pineal gland. Of course, it is not its true physiological function. But even if we take the soul-body interface not anatomically, but instead metaphorically, there is a remaining logical problem. In this picture a person fries an egg and every new inner observer creates a new need for a next and deeper interface - ad infinitum et ad nauseam. This was most clearly pointed out by the American philosopher Daniel Dennett.