Religion Writer

The study of religion is bound in the often uncomfortable tension between opposing positions and forces.  It seems we would need to know what religion is in order to study religions, yet how do we know what religion is without encountering religions.  How do we state what we know about religion without predisposing these definitional and categorical statements toward specific “prototypical” religions?  Indeed, I think it is fair to say that the current study of religion is based heavily on Christianity being the prototype, yet tacitly so.  Religion, in perhaps the most common sense experience, is loaded with non-language experiential bodily phenomena, yet the study of religion seems tightly bound, almost exclusively so, to language phenomena (scripture, philosophy, doctrine, description, history, and other academic studies).  Academic methods, including academic writing conventions, demand objectivity and scorn subjectivity and feeling and emotion.  Academic methods are restricted to the mind and ignore and discount the body.  Yet, extensive research during the last half century has increasingly supported the position that conceptual and propositional thought, even reason itself, is based in subconscious sensorimotor patterns, schema, and meanings.

Jonathan Smith stated this confusion thirty-five years ago in his now-classic essay “Map is Not Territory.”  Smith argued that the study of religion is to create maps of the territories of other men, but that we indeed do not have any defensible access to these actual territories, that is, access that does not perpetrate a projection of our own expectations.  We encounter other maps and we have “no place on which to stand” in order to make any defensible judgment about the maps of others.  He holds that maps are not territory, yet maps are all we have.  It seems a disheartening issue to grapple with; little chance to win.   While I have written that rather than attempting to resolve this issue by eliminating one of the other of the positions, we might better embrace this dilemma allowing the interplay of the opposing positions, yet I have another perspective I want to develop here.

I was inspired by my reading of Jonah Lehrer’s discussion of Virginia Woolf in his fun and engaging book Proust was a Neuroscientist (2008).  His discussion of Woolf centers on her search for the self as reflected in her fiction and how it anticipated contemporary neuroscientific findings.  The issue here is the classic issue of what is the self.  As we examine our thoughts as they seem to flow through our conscious minds, we recognize that they shift and stir seemingly without control, focusing on, holding, one thought for a maximum of ten seconds, and few thoughts rarely get even this attention.  With thoughts, the conscious content of the mind, seemingly under its own control, or better, seemingly under no control whatever and certainly rarely actually consciously controlled, the question is what holds all this together.  How do we avoid being simply a grab bag of disconnected ideas with no center or guiding principle or sense of wholeness?  Woolf said that “one must have a whole in one’s mind … fragments are unendurable.”  As Lehrer presents Woolf’s views he says that we invent a subject for our sensation when we sense something; we invent a perceiver for our perceptions.  The self is then “simply this subject; it is the story we tell ourselves about our experiences.” (169)  Woolf wrote, “We are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself.”  So the initial position is that the mind is a conglomeration of all sorts of thoughts and images and, indeed, a great many more images and schemas and meanings (as in about 97%) are unconscious yet inform those that are conscious.  The self is the narrative we create among this bricolage of chaos to provide coherence.  The self is emergent, it is processual, it is story.

Lehrer’s consideration of Woolf reminds him of Sperry and Gazaniga’s research in mid-twentieth century that was in some sense a byproduct of their surgical severance in the brain of the corpus callosum, the neurological superhighway that connects the two hemispheres of the brain, to treat certain types of seizures.  This procedure offered them the chance to study separately the two brain hemispheres, which had been known to function quite differently, even in opposition, from one another.  Lehrer cites one of my favorite examples where these two-brained people are shown two images, one to the right hemisphere via the left eye and vice versa.  Then they are shown pictures to match to these images.  For the chicken claw shown to the left brain via the right eye the subject selects, from among various options, a picture of a chicken, an obvious and logical matching.  However for a picture of a snow scene, the right brain selects a shovel.  This would seem a logical choice as well since one would shovel the snow, however, the image is chosen by the non-language, non-reasoning right brain hemisphere.  The insight comes from the surprising answer given by the subject when asked why the shovel was selected.  The subject says, “Oh that’s easy, you need a shovel to scoop out the chicken shed.”  This is the story, the narrative of coherence, created without actual basis, to resolve the tension that is experienced between the presence of the shovel (unconsciously selected to match a snow scene) and the discordance it presents to the conscious choice of matching chicken to chicken foot.  One would suspect that the subject would have made an effort and most likely a successful one to create a narrative of coherence no matter what image was unconsciously selected.  The self then emerges in the process of creating narratives of coherence incorporating disparate, indeed, otherwise incoherent images, thoughts, ideas, concepts, observations.

Lehrer shows that Woolf came to understand that the self emerges through the act of attention.  That is, we “bind together our sensory parts by experiencing them from a particular point of view.” (181)  That is, no matter where we happen to be, no matter where we choose to stand, the self emerges when we attend to the complexities and incoherencies of the stream of thought and image, conscious and unconscious, in which we are awash thus producing the story that is us.  The act of attention produces a narrative of coherence which corresponds with the emergent self.  “Now and again, attention binds together our parts, and the self transforms ephemeral sensations into a ‘moment of being.’” (182)

Scott Momaday once wrote, with Native Americans in mind, that people can endure anything so long as they can tell it in a story.

Lehrer directs our attention to the complex issue of stereopsis.  We have two eyes that literally see separate images, yet we experience vision as a single coherent image.  This is how the body works.  The visual singular image we see, the narrative we understand as our emergent self, are fictions that make sense of our reality, of our existence.  Otherwise, surely we would go mad.  We might extend this to handedness, footedness, and so forth.  What Lahrer does not discuss is that in stereopsis we gain the dimension of depth.  It is in the gap between the images that the dimension of depth arises.  I’ve discussed the consequences of depth, “pure depth,” in another work. (Dancing Culture Religion)  And this needs to be developed to fully appreciate the proposition I am working towards in terms of the religion writer.

We are bifurcated creatures experiencing endless streams of conflicting information, images, demands, and positions and it is of the nature of our brains to create stories, to construct fictions, to interpret and to provide a sense of unity, a sense of self, a sense of meaning in our lives.  From a neuroscientific perspective this pertains even to the level of synapses, those gaps between axons and dendrites that allow and enable the most fundamental of neurological functions.

But what of the issues of accuracy, of truth, of objectivity that we so desperately seek?  As Lehrer reveals, “The self is simply our work of art, a fiction created by the brain in order to make sense of our own disunity.  In a world made of fragments, the self is our sole ‘theme, recurring, half remembered, half foreseen.’ If it didn’t exist, then nothing would exist.  We would be a brain full of characters, hopelessly searching for an author.” (182)

Returning now to the provocative concept of “religion writing,” we inherit writing conventions that actually create tension among our perceptions, sensations, observations, and experiences.  The tension arises because we don’t ever actually observe our subjects as objects without the influence of our own bodily history with all its personal, cultural, and historical colorings; without the conditioning of our unconscious sensorimotor experiences; without the impact on reason of the shaping experiences of our moving experiencing feeling bodies; without the prototypes that we inherit that seem utterly unquestionably unassailably natural and obvious and universal.  The objective forced reasoning of academic writing conventions severely truncates, amputates, our subject to begin with and artificially attempts to resolve the dual option dynamic process of the subjective in play with the objective by the forced elimination of the subjective.  The results are at once interesting and odd.  The pursuit of truth, knowledge, fact, and conclusion, actually creates the lie, the disinformation, the anti-knowledge, the un-fact required of forced objectivity.  Seen this way, the objectivist writing conventions themselves constitute a genre of fiction that serves to create the illusion, the narrative of coherence, that to follow these rules will lead to truth, to final conclusion, to meaning; yet, it is only in the impassioned feeling visceral kind of knowing that we realize and experience our emerging self, the poetry that is us.

Perhaps this is why Noam Chomsky said “It is quite possible—overwhelmingly probably, one might guess—that we will always learn more about human life and personality from novels than from scientific psychology.” (In Lehrer 188)  Lehrer also quotes Wallace Stevens, “The final belief is to believe in a fiction, which you know to be a fiction, there being nothing else.”

How does this discussion inspire us as religion writers?  It seems we might propose that rather than wallowing in the frustrating tension of having no adequate place on which to stand, that we follow Smith’s advise and plunge into the subject, that is, attend to our subject from a particular place, a chosen perspective, to create a narrative of coherence, a fiction we know to be a fiction, and in so doing, we discover ourselves as religion writers (the narrative is itself an emergent identity) and to invent anew our field of study.  Smith called religion an invention, so let us celebrate it as such.  It is a means by which our selves, both personally and individually and as a field, emerge.  To shift to this perspective, this understanding, raises however other concerns.

The first is from whence do we take a stance?  That is, how do we come upon a place to stand to take the plunge into this endeavor of attention that precipitates a fictive narrative that is us?  I think that it is clear that this stance is determined for and by us in those unconscious bodily experiences of movement that create that enormous reservoir of schemas, images, prototypes, meanings (none effectively captured by language) that determines interest, passion, curiosity.

The second is how do we distinguish what we do from the writers of literary fiction?  The immediate self-deprecating answer might be that what we write is often not very interesting being weighed down by our stodgy conventions of objectivity.  But a serious reflection is necessary.  As I have written before the religion writer’s subject is identified with a reality that is independent of the scholar and actually exists apart from the scholar’s attention to it.  We presume to write of “the worlds of other men” even as we admit that all we have are maps that do not correspond with any territory.  Religion writing must be constrained, in some senses, by the maps that we examine even if we cannot rely upon them to reflect any real territory.  This is our determining distinction.  It is notable that Jonah Lehrer, whose work I have relied on in this essay, learned this the hard way.  When it was publically discovered that, for another book, he had made up some of his sources, he was forced to resign his job and suffered humiliating public discrediting.

Yet, embracing literary fiction, the novel, as an inspiration, we can be inspired to acknowledge that it is through our attention to our subject in the endless process of creating stories, and narratives of coherence, that we exercise our cultural contribution and gain some measure of personal satisfaction.

We must then recognize that what we do as scholars of religion, as religion writers, is not different than the enterprises of “other men” we call religious.  They too are creating story, narratives of coherence, to put some sense and meaning to the chaotic streams of their thoughts and their experiences.  Once we recognize this there is a connection and a camaraderie we hold with our subjects and our colleagues.

Should we care to embrace these ideas, we should quickly realize that current academic writing conventions amount to writing by formula, as in romance novels and sitcoms; the results are utterly predictable and eventually not very interesting.  The conscious setting aside of these conventions may well lead us to frustrating experiences, yet the stories that come from this frustration, from the stances taken to allow self and identity and knowledge to emerge will be decidedly more interesting and rich.  Passions will be acknowledged, bodily meanings will be valued rather than ignored, and even the compatibility between ourselves and our subjects may be more fully realized; we are all about the same thing . . . the emergent self, the winding process of the meaning of our lives and the worlds in which we live.

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