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Sacred Art and an Artful Sacred

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book cover Philosophy in the FleshWe humans think along particular cleared paths through the forests of our minds. Yes, that’s a metaphor—actually a couple of them—one way we go about thinking. Another way, among Westerners (an example of what I’m about to say) is dichotomies and opposites: hot/cold; alive/dead; abstract/concrete; sacred/profane; spiritual/material. 

All ways of thinking are good ways of getting some kinds of thinking done, but we often forget that we’ve walked down one of those pre-cleared paths and think we’re thinking of . . . well, the whole forest . . . . 

Alright, forget that metaphor. We think our thinking is . . . covering the waterfront. 

The cognitive linguists and philosophers George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in their book Philosophy In The Flesh write,

The mind is inherently embodied. Thought is mostly unconscious. Abstract concepts are largely metaphorical.


Embodied. Unconscious. Metaphorical.

Our thinking is most likely never (but how would we know?) actually covering the entire waterfront—or the whole forest, or the many paths, or whatever—though sometimes it’s possible to feel as if we are thinking big, encompassing thoughts. Those times are called by such names as mystical experiences, flow experiences, and inspiration (a word coming to us from Middle English and meaning “divine guidance”).

Religious traditions are ways of talking about, triggering, and containing mystical experiences. These are the “invitations to transcendence” that are offered by religions. Sufism in the Islamic tradition is the easiest to see, though the Hindu and Buddhist traditions have samadhi, and Christianity has its theosis. And the list goes on, all the way to glossolalia and doodling.  

We should call these experiences what they are: “aesthetic.” Art is one of those things that is ubiquitous and timeless among homo sapiens and, most likely, to previous species as well. With big brains comes big art.

Sure, we all know about “religious art,” but it’s useful to think of religions and religious experiences as works of art in and of themselves. After all, we Humanists tend to think that art, religion, and those mystical experiences—whatever they’re called–they are a function of the human body and brain.

From this perspective, religious thinking as it is traditionally done doesn’t appear all that creative. With so many people thinking artfully, shouldn’t religions be lots more fun?

The hoary old Transcendentalist tradition contains resources for thinking that is . . . well . . .transcendent. Way back at the beginning of the tradition, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his essay “Nature:” 

Our age is retrospective. It builds the sepulchres of the fathers. It writes biographies, histories, and criticism. The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe?

Hammock in a backyard

Photo by Steph Q on Unsplash

Quite a question, that: “Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe?”

Imagine it: Having the experience of samadhi, theosis, inspiration and the rest all by yourself without paying any dues to any of the clubs we call religion.

It’s why poets keep writing; musicians keep playing; runners keep running. It’s art. It’s aesthetic creation. It’s the feeling of possession that has been called divine.

“Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe?”

A darn good question. Summer is a good time to recreate your religious thinking. It’s a little more challenging than horseshoes, but also more rewarding, to realize that it’s art, all the way down. Always has been. Each of us is an artist and a technician of our own sacred. 

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