About the Name of this blog

This blog's title refers to a Dani fable recounted by Robert Gardner. The Dani live in the highlands of New Guinea, and at the the time he studied them, they lived in one of the only remaining areas in the world un-colonized by Europeans.

The Dani, who Gardner identifies only as a "Mountain People," in the film "The Dead Birds," have a myth that states there was once a great race between a bird and a snake to determine the lives of human beings. The question that would be decided in this race was, "Should men shed their skins and live forever like snakes, or die like birds?" According to the mythology, the bird won the race, and therefore man must die.

In the spirit of ethnographic analysis, this blog will examine myth, society, culture and architecture, and hopefully examine issues that make us human. As with any ethnography, some of the analysis may be uncomfortable to read, some of it may challenge your preconceptions about the world, but hopefully, all of it will enlighten and inform.

Monday, December 31, 2012

The Divine Supplement


In my last blog post, I introduced the concept of the Divine Supplement, which I briefly described as an object that represents God, but is not of God.  In creating this term, I am abstracting from  Rousseau’s idea of the Dangerous Supplement.  I am not literally reframing his argument to religious terms, instead, I am paralleling it with this term.

The Dangerous Supplement describes an inferior thing that becomes more significant than the real phenomenon that it is a substitute for.  Rousseau initially came up with this theory because he recognized that masturbation could become a damaging replacement for sex.  He later evolved the idea into the concept that writing was the dangerous supplement to speech.  Writing, in Rousseau's philosophy, was removed from direct connection to thoughts, and therefore a poor substitute for the speech, which was more directly connected to the mind.  In terms of Rousseau, the Dangerous Supplement can be broadened to explain any situation where the less authentic thing becomes superior to the more authentic one.

This idea creates a framework for the Divine Supplement, which, as I have introduced, is where a semi-sacred object can become a substitute for the authentically Divine.  I will address the issue of the authentically Divine in another post, because it is too complex to present in a brief space.  For now, I ask the reader to accept the idea of authentic Divinity.  This concept first appeared in human history in the Book of Joshua, where the Tribes of Israel, who lived on the east bank of the Jordan River, erected a substitute altar to connect them to the true altar in the Tabernacle.

This altar was a representation of the true one, but still had the spiritual power to bind the people to God.  As such, it was the first religious object in history that was not truly sacred, and yet it was also not profane.  I am using the word profane in Eliade’s sense of the word, where the profane means that it gives man no pattern for his behavior.  The Sacred, according to Eliade, is the space where man “conforms himself to the Divine” and it demands from him a certain defined response.  An example that Eliade uses to describe the sacred is that of Moses and the Burning Bush, where Moses halts and removes his shoes.

By this definition, the altar in the Tabernacle was truly sacred space, because it housed the Ark of the Covenant, which in turn housed Yahweh.  Further, that space was the only location where the priests could perform the rituals to invoke their Deity.  From the encounter between Moses and Yahweh, up until the events in Joshua, Jewish ritual and consequently, connection to God, could only occur in the Tabernacle.  After Joshua, connection to the Divine could occur at least in some form through the substitute objects of the replicated altar. 

This concept would revolutionize religion in the Western World.

As I stated in the last blog post, it detached God from a specific location or object and allowed religion to become a non-localized phenomenon.  In fact, none of our modern religions could exist without this dislocation.  If it had not occurred, the Jews could never have maintained their faith outside of the Holy Land.  Further, neither Christianity nor Islam could have become world spanning religions, because there would have not been an ability to connect to the Abrahamic God away from the places where His presence was made manifest.  All three religions would have been bound inexorably with the Promised Land.  (And since Mohammad was from Makkah not Israel, he may never have become a Prophet because he would not have been a part of the Abrahamic Tradition.)

But the impact was even more profound than just that singular idea of deities without borders.  It also allowed for religious experience to occur through objects that came from the hand of man rather than God, and it allowed those objects to connect people back to God.

Prior to this, the only genuinely sacred things were the Fetish Objects of the religions.  As I stated before, a fetish is an object that houses the spirit of Deity, and is an actual physical manifestation of the Divine.  In Judaism, the prime fetish was the Ark of the Covenant, which not only held the fragments of the Tablets given to Moses, but also was the physical dwelling place of Yahweh.  In order to perform the rites of the Jews, the priests had to be in the presence of the Ark.

But the idea of the Divine Supplement changed this.  As it evolved, some religious experiences could occur in the presence of a substitute.  People no longer needed the presence of the Fetish in order to worship or give devotions.  To the modern mind, this does not even seem to be that significant; we are completely used to the use of symbolic objects.  But remember, to the ancient mind, these objects were not symbolic, they were authentic.

To illustrate this, let’s look at the phenomenon of seeing the image of Jesus or the Virgin Mother in an object.  From a modern religious point of view, this is a symbol of God’s presence, but we don’t necessarily view the image as true manifestation.  In the ancient world, they would believe He was actually present in that picture.  (I am not going to address the fact that humans are pattern makers and find images everywhere.  That is a topic for another day.)

To further this point, let’s examine the idea of the Altar.  In the Torah, the only true Altar was the one that existed in the Tabernacle, because upon that Altar rested the Ark.  God’s physical presence was required to make the Altar holy.  After the Temple was built, it was sanctified by the Ark.  In the period of the Second Temple, the altar held a replica of the True Ark, the original having been lost with the destruction of King Solomon’s Temple.  Still, that substitute was holy enough to allow the rites of the Temple to occur in its presence. 

Today, every synagogue has an Ark, which instead of housing Yahweh; it holds a copy of the Torah.  The Ark of the modern synagogue is Divine Supplement that symbolically ties the assembly to their history.  This object is not an altar, but it is an object that connects the worshiper to the worshipped.  The copy of the Torah is yet another Divine Supplement; it is only made in Jerusalem and in a highly ritualized fashion that evokes and connects to the one true Torah written by Moses.  Though this, both the space and the text are symbolically connected back to antiquity.    

As we move into Christianity, we stretch the idea of the Divine Supplement even further.  It is interesting to see how it evolved in the various Christian sects.  In the Roman Catholic tradition, churches typically had a relic of a saint, or if they were truly wealthy and important, a relic of Jesus himself.  These objects are directly venerated, as were the fetishes of antiquity, and they are important to the sacridity of the church, used rituals and rites that made the space sacred.

Like the Torah Scrolls in Synagogues, these objects are a spiritual linkage to God.  They are not in and of themselves divine, as they are either the remains of saints, or physical objects connected to Biblical events, but they represent a connection to God.  Again, we see the idea of the Divine Supplement; the semi-sacred relic that is purely human substituting for the Divine Fetish.  On a side note, the Roman Catholic Church required the presence of a relic in all altars prior to 1969.
This process of development of the Divine Supplement takes an even larger step in the Protestant faiths.  Their churches are consecrated through a ritual process that makes the space sacred, there is no need for a fetish object or even a relic to sanctify the space.  Rites, which Eliade would describe as hierophanies, have taken the place of the fetish objects that were necessary in antiquity, and they have become an alternative to the concept of theophany, which is a literal manifestation of God.

The very concept of the hierophany is the utlimate exemplar of the Divine Supplement.  In the ancient world, experience of God required a theophany, in other words, He had to physically manifest, either in form or in action.  Examples of this are Moses and the Burning Bush, the Pillar of Fire, or the Fiery Chariot that carried Elijah bodily into Heaven.  Yahweh in the Pentateuch was known through his actual physical presence.

A hierophany, on the other hand, is a substitute for the physical appearance of the Divine.  It is an ideal model presented in lieu of an actual manifest Deity.  This ideal model, according to Eliade, is a system of laws, commandments, and rituals which create value, direction and purpose.  This system is what creates the Sacred, eliminating the need for an actual physical connection to God.  Connection to God, in the hierophany model is spiritual, not material.

By creating this ideal model, connection to God becomes both ritualized and internalized.  I will examine the internalization of this connection in my next blog, for now, I want to explore the ritualization of connection.

I began to address this in my last post, when I discussed how the Laws of Leviticus and Deuteronomy set the Jews apart from the rest of the people of the Middle East.  The Covenant became the basis for being Jewish, as opposed to a physical location.  It created an identity separate from nation and allowed the Jews to remain Jewish regardless of where they lived.  As long as they held to the Covenant, they were tied to God. 

But this concept goes even further as we move forward in time.  In the ancient world, only priests could participate in the rituals that tied the people to the Gods.  The non-ordained could not even set foot in the temple precincts.  This held true in almost all of the lands around the Mediterranean.  Common people could watch certain rites, like the parade of the statues in the Opet Festival, but that was the absolute limit of their participation.

This contrasts sharply with the Jews, who in keeping to the Laws, participated in a number of the rituals that tied them to Yahweh.  Some rites, such as the Burnt Offering, could only be performed by the priests, but many other rituals, such as the Bar and Bat Mitzvah, had the participation of all of the people.  Further, unlike the Greek and Egyptian Temples, all Jewish men could enter the Temple itself.  This ability to participate in the rituals created a sacred connection between man and God.

This ritualized connection increased in the early Christian traditions.  In the Roman Catholic Church, for example, all people participated in Mass, received Communion, and many of the Sacraments of the Church.  Even though the Priest acted as an intermediary and led the rituals, every member of the congregation had a role to play.  It took an entire community to create the sacred space of the Divine Supplement.

In the Reformation, the Hierophany of the ritualized connection became supplanted by that of the internalized connection, and this is where I will pick up in the next Blog. 

The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, Los Angeles

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