Wednesday, September 22, 2010

worshipful movements of humans through space: a preface to the essay

Self portrait based on
the ancient Egyptian hieroglyph
for man in adoration

After the terrible earthquake in Iran in 2003, a photograph appeared on the front page of the paper. You have probably seen, if not this exact photograph, a photograph almost like it: a man kneels on a pile of rubble, rubble which once was his home, sitting back on his heels, half screaming, half crying, shaking his fists at the sky. A similar photograph appeared after the recent earthquake in Haiti: a woman on a pile of rubble, aiming her open mouth and her hands toward the sky. The gesture struck me as uniquely human, an instinctual response to epic devastation. It was more than emotion. There was an upward quality to the gesture suggesting a conversation with the sky or with something in the sky. It felt like God had dragged a giant rake of destruction across the garden of the Earth and in response to this calamitous scratching, humanity stretched its arms and its voices heavenward like seedlings to the sunlight. What was this universal gesture and what did it mean, if it meant anything at all?

I began to collect more examples of gestures of this sort – the bowing of the head, the genuflection, the joyful raising of hands – and I tried to make sense of them. I came to refer to them collectively as worshipful movements. Exploring the world’s religions, both ancient and modern, I discovered that the purposeful shaping of the human body is central to the religious experience. Although ultimately expressed in the particularities of a time, a culture and a place, these worshipful movements seem to spring from a shared, perhaps innate, repertoire of bodily movements.

Charles Darwin in “The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals” elucidated the “intimate relation between almost all the emotions and their outward manifestations,” tying a variety of felt emotional states to their expression in muscular movements, the movements of the face that form the mouth into the shape of a smile or a frown, for example. Could something similar be accomplished with the expression of worship in man and animals? As it turns out, there is a good deal of overlap between expression of emotion and expression of worship, although in the ape family, worship, like weeping, seems to be uniquely human. William James in “The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature” explored the worshipful human from the perspective of the mind, laying out a framework for the valuation of religion. This essay is a cross between the two approaches. Part anthropology, part how-to, it attempts both to catalog the varieties of worshipful movements expressed by the human species and to motivate their occurrence from a neurological perspective. In doing so, I hope to shed light on what it means to be a worshipful human animal.

“Expression in itself, or the language of emotions as it has sometimes been called, is certainly of importance for the welfare of mankind.”

Charles Darwin

“It is true that we instinctively recoil from seeing an object to which our emotions and affections are committed, handled by the intellect as any other object is handled. The first thing the intellect does with an object is to class it along with something else. But any object that is infinitely important to us and awakens our devotion feels to us also as if it must be sui generis and unique. Probably a crab would be filled with a sense of personal outrage if it could hear us class it without ado or apology as a crustacean, and thus dispose of it. ‘I am no such thing,’ it would say. ‘I am MYSELF, MYSELF alone.”

William James