[ by Charles Cameron — announcing a new blog for matters quasi-religious, poetical ]
The Church of the Open Question is the name of my church.
I have held this domain name, churchoftheopenquestion.com, for some years now, and a blog-church by that name should be coming online shortly — this is its first announcement.
My church bears that name because it expressly questions dogmatic formulations, while encourageing depthful exploration of the possible resonances of dogma that might go missing if all such formulations are dismissed out of hand.
Push open a question, leave it open, and what you have is possibilities.
The marvelous, beautiful, well-spoken Elizabeth Mattis Namgyel has titled her book on Tibetan Madhyamaka philosophy, The Power of an Open Question: The Buddha’s Path to Freedom, and I find myself to have come by a natural unfolding to a position very sympathetic to that which she has attained by the disciplined enterprise of Madhyamaka Buddhism under the tutelage of her husband, Lama Dzigar Kongtrül — a delightful homecoming for me.
I view my church — and the swing-doors that are its central feature — as offering a place where, for instance, Catholics who are leaving Catholicism may find certain doctrines illuminated as imaginative or poetic vehicles for wonder, which they can then carrry with them as spiritual values in an overwhelmingly secular and monteized societty, while those approaching the Church from outside it may find means of delighting in poetic or imaginative readings of texts that, stated in plain prose as definitive beliefs, are difficult indeed to swallow.
As an example, here’s a poem I wrote in this spirit, exploring the central symbolism of thr Christmas story..
Christmas for Buddhists
Suppose the full radiance inhabiting all things,
on the specific occasion we now celebrate,
finding itself as fond of narrative as of symmetry,
of emptiness as of fullness, decided
for the sake of teaching its selves a thing
or eight, to take on a newborn form,
while letting its nature shine forth visible
to its mum, sundry animals, three visiting kings
and an assortment of invisible winged beings —
what better place than the animal stall
outside an inn, where no room was available
for a pregnant visitor to give birth, could
that master of story, Original Face, choose,
to tell humanity: humility is the necessary virtue?
or it’s close cousin, exploring the Mass:
To suppose the Eucharist
Suppose the hypothetical all of everything
in unspooling itself chose to exhibit itself in
one human, suppose further all the sun’s
light were caught in wheat and baked into
bread, all the world’s pains and passions
crushed like grapes into wine, suppose the
one person took loaf and cup and with
word and gesture raised them blood, body
of his own self to be supped and sipped,
thus woven into his one flesh, blood, mind —
just when his flesh is torn, blood spills —
suppose then that his mind to love were to
entrain this new body of many bodies to
heal with all radiance each instance of pain..
That one certainly owes something to Teilhard de Chardin, as the first may to Thomas Merton — this, then, will be above all a gathering or congregation of friends..
I’m encouraged by Dr Jordan Peterson‘s claim that he “wanted to establish a church .. in which he would deliver sermons every Sunday” — although in my own case, every now and then will have to substitute for every Sunday.
I have a first sermon lined up, too, in which I want to ask “What did Mozart see as Christ‘s life” when chosing the words “Ave verum corpus natum” to set to some of his most wondrous music? The answer’s a bit surprising, and suggestive of the many devotional moods the contemplation of that life can give rise to..
Coming shortly.. Clapton, too. And Anthony Bourdain.
and these comments, which I’ve edited lightly for clarity and simplicity:
I emailed Mark Changizi, a theoretical neuroscientist who has done work on letterforms. He has been making a general argument that culture re-purposes, harnesses (his term), perceptual capacities our ancestors developed for living in the natural world. One of his arguments is that the forms used in writing systems, whether Latinate or Chinese (for example), are those that happened to be useful in perceiving creatures in the natural world, such as plant and animal forms. I told him that Jamie’s forms looked like “tree branches and such.” He replied that they looked like people. His wife, an artist, thought so as well, and also: “This is like early human art.”
You’ll see why that-all interests me — letters and life forms — below.
Yes, each is a convex polygon; each has several ‘limbs’. And each has a single interior line that goes from one side, through the interior space, to another side. The line never goes outside the polygon .. Why those lines? I don’t know what’s on Jamie’s mind as he draws those lines, but I’m guessing that he’s interested in the fact that, given the relative complexity of these figures and the variety among them, in every case he can draw such a line.
Two thoughts cross my mind.
The first is that one of these forms, Benzon’s Biomorphic Objects 6a, bears a striking resemblance to the letter aleph, with which the Hebrew alphabet — or better, alephbeth — begins:
There may be some connection there, I’m not sure — though Jamie also has a keen interest in alphabetic forms, as illustrated here:
But it’s my second point that interests me more.
These “biomorphic objects” with “single interior line that goes from one side, through the interior space, to another side” remind me of nothing so much as the Native American style of representing animals with a “heart line” — best illustrated, perhaps, by this Acoma Pueblo Polychrome Olla with Heartline Deer:
One generally associates the use of heartline deer with pottery from Zuni Pueblo and that is most likely the origin. The fact that it appears on Acoma Pueblo pottery has been explained in a number of fashions by a number of contemporary Acoma potters. Deer designs have been documented on Acoma pottery as early as 1880, but those deer do not feature heartline elements. Some potters at Acoma have indicated that Lucy Lewis was the first Acoma potter to produce heartline deer on Acoma pottery. She did this around 1950 at the encouragement of Gallup, New Mexico Indian art dealer Katie Noe. Lewis did not use it until gaining permission from Zuni to do so. Other potters at Acoma have stated that the heartline deer is a traditional Acoma design; however, there is no documented example to prove this. Even if the heartline deer motif is not of Acoma origin, potters at Acoma have expressed that it does have meaning for them. It is said to represent life and it has a spiritual connection to deer and going hunting for deer.
Here’s a “heartline bear” from David and Jean Villasenor‘s book, Indian Designs:
And here’s an equivalent Mimbres design for a rabbit with heartline, in which the line passes completely through the body from one side to the other, as in Jamie’s biomorphs:
When the prehistoric Mimbres Indians of New Mexico looked at the moon, they saw in its surface shading not the “man in the moon” but a “rabbit in the moon.” For them, as for other early Meso-American people, the rabbit came to symbolize the moon in their religion and art.
On the morning of July 5, 1054, the Mimbres Indians arose to find a bright new object shining in the Eastern sky, close to the crescent moon. The object remained visible in daylight for many days. One observer recorded the strange apparition with a black and white painting of a rabbit curled into a crescent shape with a small sunburst at the tip of one foot.
And so the Indians of the Southwestern United States left what archeologists and astronomers call the most unambiguous evidence ever found that people in the Western Hemisphere observed with awe and some sophistication the exploding star, or supernova, that created the Crab nebula.
That would be the sunburst right at the rabbit’s feet!
The second of my five religions, Zen Buddhism, came about entirely as a consequence of a famous tale you allude to in your wonderful letter.
After quickly rocounting the tale in question — about the Zen patriarch Hui Neng and the “finger pointing at the moon” which should not be mistaken for the moon itself, he went on:
I spent a great deal of time that night meditating upon the gloriously full moon, a little about my finger, and a great deal about the space in between. Space. The space between. The space beyond. When I could be any or all of these, I went to bed. I thought to myself: How arbitrary it is that we should see ourselves as the finger, and as not-the-moon, when we might just as well consider ourselves the spaces in between – since without that, we could never be not-anything!
This lunar encounter served me well until about five years later I hit a terrifying crisis of identity when I lost faith in any ability to use words to communicate at all. I began to fray at the edges… If everyone’s words were their own symbols, how could we ever manage to communicate? Did we? Or were we just braying at each other at random, each one watching a different play on the stage we had been thrown together upon?
That phrase “the spaces in between” is particularly interesting when you think of it as referencing the space between word and what it refers to, the word “moon” and the up-there orb, the moon. You might think, “there’s no such space between, they’re in different realms, is all” — but there is a between, it’s the relationship. And that’s what all my HipBone & DoubleQuote Games are about — the relationship (mapped along a linking line, aka an “edge”) between two concepts (“nodes”). Because relationship is the essence of their antecedent, Hesse‘s Glass Bead Game. And of all relationships, perhaps those between name and thing, finger and moon, map and territory, moon and enlightenment, are among the most fascinating.
Consider, though, the relationship between person (genetically understood) and person (memetically understood), as in the case of persons of genius or great charisma.
Hermann Hesse played the Glass Bead Game himself, he tells us, in his garden, while raking leaves into the fire, and it consisted of figures he admired, talking across th4 centuries — “I see wise men and poets and scholars and artists harmoniously building the hundred-gated cathedral of the mind.” In his book, the Game does not consist of these people, but of their ideas — disembodied, if you will.
The genetics / memetics difference shows up elsewhere in intriguing ways. Should Peter, the closest disciple, lead the church after Christ‘s death, or James, his blood brother? — that’s the Jerusalem vs Rome controversy that plays out in the background to the New Testament. Should his followers follow Brigham Young, his closest disciple, after Joseph Smith‘s death. or a family member? When Kabir, the poet-saint of India died, his Hindu followers wanted to cremate his remains, his Muslim followers to bury him — when they uncovered his body, they found (so the tale is told) that it had turned to roses, and were thus able to divide his remains and perform both ceremonies.
Family has a claim to the person, discipleship has a claim to the inspiration. Funny, that.
During the Enlightenment at the end of the 17th century and the start of the 18th, a disparate group of intellectuals in Europe and the United States engaged in a long-distance discourse that became know as the Republic of Letters, or Respublica Literaria. It was one of the first transnational movements, and scholars have endlessly debated its relevance and influence upon the dramatically proclaimed Age of Enlightenment it heralded. Personally, I feel no need to explain this in terms of cause and effect – the Republic of Letters was simply the written discourse of a movement that was changing the way people thought about their relationship with the world.
It is a seldom noticed fact that while anyone who can read and write could write a letter, very few actually do – and fewer still in our current era, what it is tempting to call the Age of Distraction. Letters, rather than say postcards and other friendly waves expressed in writing, involve a kind of engagement that has become rather rare these days. A letter invites a response, asks us to think about something, requests insight from another perspective… Letters are conversations at a slow enough pace to allow the correspondents to think a out what they are saying. I would like to suggest that it takes a particular kind of introvert to engage in letter writing in this sense – a quiet soul not content to bury themselves in just their solitary activities, but willing and able to reach out in words to another, similar person. I love a good conversation in a pub or bar, or at a conference, or even on a long journey, but as enjoyable as these forms of discourse may be for me they cannot adequately substitute for the pleasure of the letter.
For Chris, blog posts are the current equivaoent of letters, and what he terms The Republic of Bloggers is a latter day equivalent of the Republic of Letters of yore.
It is similar in spirit to Col. Pat Lang‘s Committee of Correspondence, Sic Semper Tyrannis, except that there all the correspondents correspond on the one blog.
The Republic of Letters is a concept I very much appreciate, and I have tried to embody it both here and in my time at the Skoll Foundation’s Social Edge platform a decade ago.
Look at the still-life at the top of this post. What do you see? If you tell me you see the Virgin Mary and the Mystery of her giving birth to the Christ, either you are already familiar with the painting, made famous in this era by Morton Lauridsen’s explanation of how it inspired his version of O Magnum Mysterium. Or you are steeped in the symbolism of the High Church and/or the use of Christian symbols in art.
I’m sorry but the symbolism is so abstract that those are the only ways to read Mary and the Virgin Birth into a painting of fruit, a flower, and a cup of water, although I’ll concede the symbolism could have been understood by well-educated Christians centuries ago in Europe.
Lauridsen himself did not understand the symbolism of the painting when he first saw it — a point he does not make clear to readers in his 2009 article for The Wall Street Journal about the painting It’s a Still Life That Runs Deep, and its role in inspiring his version of OMM.
That post was in response to something I’d sent her, recommending Lauridsen’s work. More “Republic of Bloggers” style communication!
Chance reading the other day brought me to Jacob Mikanowski‘s piece, Camera-phone Lucida, in which i found:
The first society to experience the problem of having too much money and too much stuff, the Dutch had multiple genres of food-related still lifes, each dealing in a different level of luxury. They began with the humble ontbijtjes, or breakfast paintings, to the slightly more elaborate banketjestukken or “little banquets,” and on to the kings of them all, the pronkstilleven, from the Dutch word for “ostentatious.” The “little breakfasts” were the domain of simple food: a plate of herrings, a freshly baked bun, a few olives, maybe a peeled lemon for a bit of color. The atmosphere in these canvases is orderly and Calvinist. By contrast, in the pronkstilleven, the prevailing mood is one of jubilant disorder. Lobsters perch precariously on silver trays. Tables are strewn with plates of oysters, overturned tankards, baskets spilling over with fruit, scattered nuts and decorative cups. Cavernous mincemeat pies jostle with lutes and the occasional monkey.
For a century scholars have sought a deeper meaning in these and other still lifes. A half-eaten cheese stood for the transubstantiated body of Christ; walnuts represented him on the cross — the meat of the nut was his flesh, the hard shell was the wood of the cross he died on.
And so — inside or outside th Republic of Bloggers — the conversation flows..
And if Morten Lauridsen can wring such beauty from a reading of symbolism in Zurbarán, let him do so!
[ by Charles Cameron — two focal texts for Landmines in the Garden plus the matters of just war / peace ]
Herewith two quotes, one (upper oanel) from the Bhagavad Gita, the other from the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas — each of which expemplifies the notion that someone, in the first case Arjuna, in the second, Abraham — has divine authorization to kill:
It is noteworthy that Arjuna does in fact kill those he has been ordered to kill, and that in contrast Abraham is reprieved from the necessity of killing his son by the same divine authority which had first demanded that extraordinary sacrifice — but God (the Father) in the Christian narrative goes on to kill his own Son in what is both the perfection and completion of sacrifice..
And from the perspective of military chaplains blessing members of the armed forces on their way into battle in a just war, the same divine approval presumably holds.
Zenpundit is a blog dedicated to exploring the intersections of foreign policy, history, military theory, national security,strategic thinking, futurism, cognition and a number of other esoteric pursuits.