Profits of the Sacred

Sunrise in Taos, NM

I am in Taos, New Mexico. I had never been here before I decided, almost at random, to get myself into the mountains before I lost it in the lowlands. Mountain air is the best therapy I can get. I really like this place.

As I was walking to get some breakfast this morning, I noticed a middle-aged man, thin dark-haired talking loudly, gesticulating, and peering at something only he could see, something only he could hear. In 21st century America, we have a label, or several, for this type of behavior which usually invokes a professional of some type to formally label the “disease” and prescribe the proper medication to normalize the behavior of the individual. Because that’s what it’s about, right, making people normal so they fit in the social order smoothly and do not disrupt our comfortable reality. And, to the point, don’t make us normal people uncomfortable, because the abnormals are disrupting our social flow which interrupts our spending capacity.

It wasn’t always like this. There was a time when everyone had a place and a function in the social order. Even those who talked to trees or listened to the wind and heard something, they were valued and included in a positive way as seers, shamans, holy women and men; they were not discarded as useless disruptions in need of normalization. They were individuals sensitive to the changes in the environment and were worth listening to.

So, what changed? How did all human societies transition from inclusive acceptance to exclusive rejection and normalization? Now, don’t get me wrong, there were outcasts aplenty in those days. But the reasons were related to the survival of the group, the individual having acted in a way that jeopardized the common well-being. Again, what changed?

Statistical Interlude

No set of parameters, objective or not, can predict the behavior of a single individual in a particular instance. Statistics just doesn’t work that way. What we can do is set an expectation within a certain probability of error that, in the aggregate, people will act a certain way given a certain set of inputs. Statistics is a mirror that reflects the social order and assumptions back at the observer but coated with the patina of objectivity and thus scientific legitimacy. When we look at the behavior of the individual, we do so with the prejudices of scientifically collected information that describes aggregates based on the expectations of the existing social order. When we say “X causes Y” in regards to human behavior, we have egregiously misused statistics to the point of failure.

In the beginning…

All that said, predictive analytics and applied statistical analysis are the latest manifestations of the issue at hand. To explore this, we have to go back to the careless use of the word “dominion” as translated from Hebrew to Greek to Latin to English, etc. The carelessness isn’t exclusively the province of Judaism, but reaches a peak in the European-Christian interpretation of it. By the time Christianity reached the American shores, the notion of its Truth, absolute and unquestionable, was extremely well developed, considerably bolstered by the application of Aristotelian logic to its particular theology. Thus, our explorer friends arrived on this continent with two indomitable forces: a sense of absolute Truth justifying their actions and gunpowder backing it up. When you show up to the party with an absolute foundation to the notion that you have a right to dominion over all you see, and you have a technology that renders opposition largely ineffective, you probably aren’t going to make the best decisions for the future of humanity.

Hier stehe Ich, Ich kann nicht anders.

So, you’ve done some nasty things, colonially and domestically, in the name of God. The infallibility of the Church notwithstanding, you shouldn’t be surprised when this guy shows up and nails 95 theses to the door of your cathedral in big FU to the powers that be. Martin Luther radically reconceptualized Christianity in a way that set the stage for significant social changes. One of the most profound changes, in this context, was the elimination of the rich symbolic tradition of the Catholic Church. Stripping everything down to bare walls, bibles, an unadorned cross; essentially, no ornamentation to distract the sinner from his unmediated relation to God and all of His power to throw your butt in Hell without provocation or cause.

With the downfall of Catholic symbolism, the profanation of the natural world soon followed. Up to that time, sacred stream, springs, forests, and all manner of natural phenomena were protected because they were sacred to one saint or another. Lacking this protection, all of nature became a resource to be exploited by those willing and strong enough to do so. Max Weber remarked on this turning point and its importance in the development of Capitalism under the auspices of Calvinism, the extreme sport of Protestantism.

This shift bulldozes all considerations of the sacred out, in nature and in humans, under the blade of pursuit of profit. Everything under the sun, including humans (and the sun as well), must be used to create profit with no considerations for anything else. Such a focus gives rise to all kinds of social adaptive mechanisms, psychology, medicine, incarceration, asylums, etc., to control the abnormal in pursuit of a smoothly functioning normality that turns a profit. There is no longer a place for the seer, the shaman, or the holy women and men. This process of dominion over the lands was soon married to an empirical world-view, so anything a person experienced that could not be objectively replicated was discounted as false and in need of normalization.

No one expected the hippies to grow old.

Now that the capitalist machine was humming along, producing outrageous profits for a few people and crumbs for the rest, the internal contradictions of the system began to show themselves. Racism and sexism were the most visible and the counter culture movement of the 60’s and 70’s was a systemic reaction to that type of control. You can not have a democracy where all people are created equal, then treat a large swath of the people as if they are less equal than others. So, while they were at questioning a social order that did these things, the hippies started questioning other things, things deep in the Victorian closet of the American mind: sexuality. The obsessive concern for what consenting adults did with their naughty bits had a rude awakening when the hippies and other love-children ripped the covers away and showed the staunch deacons of the church how the cow ate corn. Or something like that.

One of the signature research pieces in Sociology, at the time, was by Laud Humphreys. He studied the Tea Room trade, publishing his dissertation on the topic in 1970. Basically, he was the lookout in public restrooms while men had sexual encounters with each other inside. He would then follow them to their cars and get their license plate numbers. There wasn’t protection on that information at the time, so he was able to find out that over 50% of the participants were married men presenting as heterosexual. That rather blew the lid off the assumptions of a heteronormative social order and, in conjunction with the other “free love” movements, called a lot of assumptions about “normal sex” into question.

As one would expect, because of the close alliance between the Defense Department and some scientific/engineering disciplines, the validity of science began to be called into question. Thomas Kuhn’s book “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” published early 60’s, highlighted the political aspects of the growth of scientific knowledge, revealing that it wasn’t just purely objective inquiry grinding away at nature, forcing her to give up her secrets. The fact that changes in objective knowledge about the universe were not themselves objective played a major role in dethroning expertise.

Full Circle

We’ve come full circle back to the agitated man with no place in society because of a de-sacralized world where everything has to be put to the pursuit of profit. There’s an app for that. Or rather a service. As I walked around this beautiful village, there is a sign for a spiritual consultant on almost every corner. We have sublimated the sacred into a monetized industry, trading on the cultures we have exploited, over the course of our history, appropriating and white-washing ideas and rituals to fit the comfort necessities of the mainstream while allowing aging hippies to live their dream of an eternal Dead concert, selling the latest version of PBJ sandwiches and patchouli-heavy soap.

Align your chakras with sacred stones of the Hopi while immersed in the holy waters of springs sacred to Saint Brigid. Sip your fair-trade latte while enjoying a blue corn body wrap while clearing your aura of spiritual pollutants with sacred quartz crystals that are sacred because we say they are. You get it, we’re the spiritual experts and we demand a profit for our appropriated expertise.

Ok, so maybe this is a bit harsh. But, the connection from Genesis and the dominion over all life (plants, animals, etc. ok, I didn’t memorize that in Sunday School), through the colonial appropriation of Native American lands and cultures, through Protestantism and the de-sacralization of the world, through the counter culture and the rise of the hippie capitalist, creates a chain of events we see now: expertise is not something one works hard to earn, it is merely something one states, acts as if it is true, and trades off the desperation of the multitude to believe the self-bestowed expertise. Think of it as monetizing people’s need to believe in something. It is yet another version of “it’s my opinion, therefore it is true.”

And it’s not just hippies. I include most evangelical christians whose translations of scripture strain the very possibility that the word “translation” can maintain any meaning relevant to language. As Heidegger said, “tell me what you think about translation and I’ll tell you who you are.” Which kind of gets to the heart of that matter: if enough people agree on my expertise, regardless of how I got it, then my control over language and the things people think about regarding my area of expertise is greater, in some cases absolute, and that means more tithes.

The upshot of the 21st century, at least where we are now, is an everything-is-permitted-and-nothing-matters-but-profit mentality. We will take the things most sacred to us, both personally and socially, and warp them into something we can make a profit off of. Most, if not all, Christians would hold that the Cross is a sacred image, carrying with it in its symbolism not only the suffering of Christ for humanity, but all the suffering of all humanity eternally. That is a powerfully sacred image. Yet, it has been monetized in to curio items, customized to every cultural design specification, e.g., southwestern, Native American, Norse, Celtic, Chthulu, you name it, someone has adapted the Christian Cross as a decorative item. And the capitalistic ethic of more enters the fray and you see houses with a wall sporting dozens of crosses of many varieties. There seems to be a strange calculus working where more decorative crosses equals more faith? More Christianity? I’m not sure on that end, but I do know there are a lot of folks, not necessarily Christian, banking on it.

Coda

As with any new place, I see this one with beginner’s eyes; suspending, as best I can, any assumptions or expectations and just letting the place be what it is. It is a skill I have been working on for decades and I’ve gotten pretty good at it. For the most part. I work hard not to be ethnocentric, to let things be as they are because they will work themselves out better without my interference than if I presumed to tell them how to live. That doesn’t mean I will keep my mouth shut. If you tell me something is valuable to you, there’s a good chance I’ll point out where your actions contradict that. But, do as you will, I’ll be sitting over here sipping my fair-trade coffee. Watching.

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No one in particular seeking to diminish ego and accentuate Self, partaking in life with a beginner’s mind. (He/Him/His) henry.lee.writes@gmail.com

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Henry Lee Butler

Henry Lee Butler

No one in particular seeking to diminish ego and accentuate Self, partaking in life with a beginner’s mind. (He/Him/His) henry.lee.writes@gmail.com

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