Building Your Own Theology (BYOT) II:
My Experience in the October 2005 Building Your Own Theology Class
By Jane Weaver
In BYOT 1, I clarified what I believed at a specific point in time. I took a close look at concepts such as “belief,” “faith” (vs. “blind faith”), and “worship.” I came to grips with the reality that social justice can become a tyranny itself if misused. In BYOT 2, I found myself going much deeper.
In one exercise, each of us was assigned a sacred book to examine. I found myself assigned to the bible, which at first seemed quite “ho-hum,” “been there, done that”–and I even attempted to switch with someone else who didn’t want her assignment. Reverend Don was adamant that we stick with our assignments(!), so I decided to make the best of it.
I approached it by stepping back, and trying to get a meta-view (seeing the big picture within which it exists–and including it) of this ancient collection of writings. I envisioned people gripped in a dance with their environment–mysterious, sometimes deadly, and sometimes joyous. As one individual in a group emerged who apparently had more insight–or at least claimed to–I can see these ancient people listening, enthralled, to the latest story about some aspect of the world. Imagine finding something that stops bleeding from a simple application–or something that cures a headache by just ingesting it. It was magic! A gift!
It must have been as close as ancient people could come to attending a Stephen J. Hawking (a leading scientist) or James R. Beebe (a leading religious philosopher) lecture. The stars and planets, the weather systems, the activity of the earth itself, the behavior of living things–all of these must have been puzzling–and sometimes very frightening–and anything that helped others recognize a pattern or gave them some control over their environment was magic. Where did this knowledge come from?
I imagined being the first one to recognize the relative movement and positioning of the sun and the moon–to realize the regularity, and come to associate it with seasons and times of day. I can imagine being present as humans first developed tools and simple machines. I see the rejoicing as the group comes to understand what these insights will mean for them! Spears to take down large prey or kill off dangerous predators! I can actually see what we today call “thankfulness” forming. Dancing, grunting, chanting, singing with joy! But, where did it come from?
Imagine the first rhythmic dance–when something clicked and one person introduced a regular pattern of movement that could be copied! Today I can listen to chanting and drumming of American Indians and I hear that primordial voice. The Great Spirit! And such a spirit is recognized worldwide, and called by many names and perceived in various visions–sometimes personified and sometimes not. We hear it called our higher self, or creative energy.
As common knowledge expanded, I imagine how this played out. As cultures came into contact with other cultures, and as instinctive human behaviors played out based on genes and memes, groups of people shared, copied, assimilated, and adapted ideas and behaviors. The genes pass down a code that manifests as physical attributes and behaviors. Where religion is concerned, the memes carry cultural ideas–creations like the Great Spirit, totems, magic, goddesses and gods.
Language became more complex, and humans learned to use symbols. Lakoff and Johnson’s research found that all cultures share about 12 basic metaphors as they develop in early childhood. I can imagine people worldwide learning to form analogies based on these shared metaphors.
Imagine how storytellers and healers were revered in their tribes. They knew the secrets–they had the power! Think of the eureka (I found it!) experience of individuals as ideas formed and they recognized they were now bearers of scarce knowledge. Imagine how they must have felt when they realized that some individual power existed solely on the basis of knowledge. Although the tribal leaders may have achieved their power through might, the clever ones also recognized the value of those who could hold power through exceptional knowledge. I can see leaders and the wise ones choosing to keep their knowledge secret as a source of power and awe. I can imagine the storytellers traveling from village to village and passing on what they’ve heard. I can visualize the change from pictures to symbols to written words.
Imagine the Genesis writer or writers writing the words of the legend that had been passed down by word of mouth for generations. When the printing press was developed, the bible happened to be the book that powerful leaders most wanted to produce and spread. Here is what was chosen to document the history, mythology, folklore, legend, and wisdom of a people–with political motives, of course. It is a lovely piece of literature, a moral primer, and the desired cultural beliefs chosen by those in power at a given point in time. Its writers attempted to put into words what we call spiritual, even magical, today, with a purpose of educating, indoctrinating, and controlling people.
Many books were excluded and even destroyed. The keepers of the secrets had come to recognize at a very deep level, the power of holding the knowledge and carefully spreading belief. Politics and power were the context of Nicea.
Daniel Dennet has claimed that the bible is the most successful book ever written–because it actually hitches a ride and spreads from brain to brain through those who are “infected” by its contents. These infectious ideas, or “memes,” might be seen as analogous to viruses. Not only do ideas spread from brain to brain, but they form critical masses of infected brains, which then form organizations that even more effectively spread the ideas. So here is a book that is very effectively spread by those who read it.
As I completed this exercise, I realized a close look at the bible had carried me to memetics, which was an idea that had already infected my own brain!
I’ve concluded that my belief has always been an evolving theory. That’s part of who I am that hasn’t changed over the course of my life. Building my own theology continues to be a key aspect of my life’s work.