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Notes on Another Sociology of Religion Lecture by Robert Bellah, Spring Semester, 1996

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February 6, 1996

Rhoda Kellog and Scott O’ Dell, Psychology of Children.

Music has the power to reach into the body.

We have Verbal symbolization

Poetic symbolization

Narrative symbolization

and Conceptual language.

We take the latter for granted, especially in the university, where we are saturated with it all the time.

Linguistic symbolization.  The relation of a sign and the object to which it points is [said to be] arbitrary. E.g., ‘dog’ and ‘chien’. We turn to the cognitive development of a child to shed light on the fact that the word and object to which it refers is not arbitrary. Piaget is questioning a child: They are discussing a picture of the sun.

“How did we know its name was ‘sun'”?

“Because it was yellow.”

He questioned it over and over again and never could disconnect the sign from the object. They just said it was the sun. There was no understanding that the ‘sun’ is an arbitrary name. For the children the name is an essential part of the thing. The name of the sun entails it. For children the sun is not a concept but for them, the object itself.[1]

Wallace Stevens calls the poem “the cry of the occasion.” It is part of the thing itself, not about it. Conceptual language is always about something. Thus the poem collapses. What is essential is lost. Archibald MacLeish writes:

A poem should be palpable and mute

As a globed fruit.


As old medallions on the thumb….

Motionless in time,

As the moon climbs….

A poem should not mean

But be.

“A poem should not mean but be.” We should not ask, what does it mean? It is being at a different level of our consciousness. We have to be part of it. The quality of our participation gives poetry its particular force.

Performative language is not about something, but does something off in a ritual context. “I do” spoken in a marriage ceremony speaks the vows that make the action. Poetry is power. A metaphor can change the world. Unless we see speech acts and not descriptions, we won’t understand the force of the great sonnets of Shakespeare: sense and sensibility. Images and sounds reach into the body. This is accomplished by heightened language, condensed language does that too.

An example for what language can do: An urban pastor was called into the home of a dying mother by her daughter. The daughter explains that she does not know why she called the pastor. A friend had notified the pastor, because they had been estranged from the church a long while. She asked him to pray, but right there.

“Why not in your mother’s room?” the pastor asked.

“Because she has been in a coma a long time, and she would not hear you.”

The pastor insisted that the prayer should be said in the room where the mother lay dying. When the pastor began the Lord’s Prayer, the deeply familiar words reached into her body and pulled her back, because she started to pray the words with them. She remained conscious for a few days and could communicate with her daughter until she died.

Emile Durkheim speaks of a collective consciousness. These words had been said in unison 1,000 times together. 99% of the time speaking the Lord’s Prayer is routine. It is ‘ritual’ in a put-down sense. But 1% of the time, it does do it. Another mode of relating reached her.

Condensed language is the intimate language of a parent and a child, of lovers, words and expressions, unique, only in that relationship. In rocking a child, one says nonsense things, and some stick, become constitutive, trigger associations, touch the world of the shared experience, reach into the body.

In our rush to modernization, we have lost the art of memorization. Before its significance was understood. Foucalt said that it inscribed words on the body forever. Therefore we had a shared culture. Most of the culture any of us has is deeply rooted in the body, the way traditional cultures would have been.

Benedict Anderson speaks of reciting words together operating in forming national identity. They are banal words and times, but a commonality develops. That the words are spoken in unison is important, making the sounds together. This is an echoed physical realization of the imagined community.

In Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1913), Emil Durkheim described religious language as condensed, poetic, performative, and involving unisonality. Wallace Steven writes, “The heaven of Europe is empty, like a Schloss abandoned….” He writes about what did it: “Rust on the steeples. These stretched mother of pearl.” But then Stevens goes on to give it back: “There was a heaven once far beyond thoughts of regulation. The mind saw transparence. The doves of azure. Each man beheld the truth and knew it to be true.” This is something like a B-cognition by Wallace Stevens. God and imagination are one. Rhythm and poetry and heart beat.

Q. Is the religious performative the same thing that John Searle is speaking about? A. Yes. It is doing something with words.

2) Narrative is transitional. It falls between the symbolic poetic and the conceptual. Its language is loaded, but is still somewhat conceptual. There are literal descriptions of what was done. Forms of narratives are often governed by symbolic modes of representation as opposed to literal conceptual concerns. Mythical discourse takes place at the total level not that of the word, sentence, or story. An important question: Is plot in the world or is plot something we see in the world. The truth in narrative does not arise from the correspondence of its words to facts. But story is true at a much deeper level than the literal one. A poem translated into the conceptual has loss. A story also has loss when expressed in conceptual language.

Myth, like music, appears to be in time, but is actually outside time. It requires time to unfold, but it has a special relation with time. It requires time only to deny it. It catches and unfolds like a cloth flapping in the wind. (Claude Levy-Strauss has much to say about music and myth.) The temporal element is not the key. It enters e-ternity. Out-of-time. It deals with permanent truth, which is atemporal and permanent in time. In an adventure movie you gasp and cringe because you lose the distinction between yourself and the movie. You get into it. Narrative, in the same way, obliterates the distinction between you and what is going on – between the inner and outer, between the self and world. In such a way narrative operates differently from conceptual analysis.

In Masterpiece Theater: Final Act makes one identify with a monster, Richard III. He is unspeakably awful. Great plays make you identify, e.g., with Macbeth or Othello. We say “Don’t get upset. It is only a story.”   Would we say, “Don’t get upset. It is only a ritual”? It upsets us because it gets us at a level of truth that is there. We feed on narratives. Narratives keep us going. In a study it was found that narratives occurred every seven minutes between mothers and children. We tell stories to others and to ourselves.  Brunner holds that there is a constitutive function of narrative. We are looking for a plot, a story, so that our self and the world make sense. The self can be depicted as a story teller, which comes close to what it means to be a self. Telling a story to the self encloses one story in another. In this view the self is a telling. The story one tells about oneself to oneself is the self.[2]

There are screen memories, fiction and fact. Truth is not historical but narrative truth. And new narrative is necessary. Psychoanalysis can be presented as re-describing one’s life so that there is more life and possibilities in it than some of the tellings we tell ourselves.

In universities, Departments of Sociology have stories to tell. Scientific accuracy is not the point. Point for point accuracy is not the point. Johann Baptiste Metz said do not obscure intentional dangerous memory. For the nation state, [it is necessary] to tell a story to its people about that people to create that nation. The deepest disputes in history are not about facts, but about the story. What is the right way to tell the story? That is the issue. There is a strange mixture of forgetting and remembering. We have to be very careful about both. But you cannot tell anything you like. Who is to control our freedom? Kenneth Burke states that significant narrative has to deal with those things which we cannot forget. TROUBLE. Things that are just there. For example, Buddha’s birthplace is in Nepal, but India tells it is in Northern India. Someone dead, someone sick, someone old – off Buddha goes. Who has life without trouble? Who has a self without trouble? W.E.H. Stannen an Australian anthropologist speaks of the “immemorial misdirection of life.” Things go wrong right where you don’t want them to. Jesus’ disciples are horrified by the crucifixion. But the cross is the symbol that takes time and trouble into the heart of daily life. Thus the disciples are not to deny the crucifixion, but place it right into the heart of daily life and 1,000 times 1,000 times. It is enacted every moment. Every day is Good Friday.

Benedict Anderson says that national histories are involved in remembering our dead, who must be remembered so that they will not have died in vain.

Narratives have moments where we breakthrough trouble, but can’t stay there. It is just like we can’t stay in daily life all the time. Is this all just an illusion, just an opium for the people? Marx also saw religion as a cry from the heart of a heartless world. If religion kids us out of facing trouble, then it is no help. It needs to be taken up case by case. But most religions are not about that. To dismiss religion is a massive form of denial, which really shows an inadequate study of the subject.

In the transition to conceptual language, Brunner notes that logical propositions are most easily understood when they are embedded in a story. In the broadest sense poetry is also rational and there are categories in narrative too. Conceptual representation is not equal to rationality. Stories are organized by concepts. Religion is involved with the worst as well as the best things done to people. This is the empirical study of religion.

K. Burke notes the powerful story of Genesis chapters 1-3. Rephrased in logical entailment, these chapters concern the freedom to choose, which leads to the logical consequence of disobedience. “Do not do that!” a child is told. “No.” In the logic of the situation, given free will, Q.E.D., they eat the apple. The story is not antithetical to logic. One can tease the logic out of it.

At some point Piaget’s European children at age 7 or 8 begin to achieve the capacity to distinguish themselves from what it is we are describing or arguing about. “The sun did not come with me. I moved. The sun is not a part of me or is only in relation to me.” We learn to ‘decenter’ , which is a classic term coined by Piaget. Much goes on independently of us. We come to the end of our ego-centric period. The child learns to distinguish different points of view. George Herbert Meade speaks of the capacity to take the place of another. One can play baseball, a game in which one has to know all the player positions to be able to play. It is the self against the world, and baseball is a very complex game. The decentered world of late childhood approximates the world of daily life. Because the child does not fully dominate daily life, it is not so conceptual. It has not differentiated itself fully. But reverting back, in a special moment at the end of its first year, the child may take the spoon and feed its mother. That is a sign for not just give-me, but also, I-give-you. Of course, we never quite entirely reach the moment when we don’t think the world hinges on us, but we try.

When we conceptualize, we bracket ourselves and try to see the world as it is, as much as possible. The Greek philosophers had two concepts: 1)epistome and 2)doxa, i.e., 1) knowing, demonstratively, and 2) being of the opinion, which is always arguable. The first deals with objective argument which can be tested. What it tests is always saturated with opinion, doxa. Rhetoric persuades, but it cannot demonstrate. The epistemic can demonstrate, but it cannot persuade. And the world cannot run on epistemes alone.

When the world was de-contextualized and de-centered, a conceptual critique of myth enters, and in the 17th century, conceptual conscious representation arises. But in revolutionary triumph, one throws out from the past what cannot be thrown out. In the words of Yeats: “One cannot know the truth. One can only embody it.” Thomas Hobbes would say that there is no truth in speech, no truth in things spoken of. Only a proposition is true. In a text, the metaphorical is deception. The whole absurdity of metaphor needs to be thrown out. There is no such thing as a common good.” That is language gone crazy. Descartes comes in here. Rosenstock Husey yearning for a clean slate, which could be attained at twenty, exclaimed, “Would to God we had all been born at the age of twenty!” Hobbes and Descartes led to the Enlightenment and modern science. They went too far. This brought about the dark side of modernity, because they denied too much, rather than dealing with it. We cannot really live in the light of conceptual consciousness.

[1]Jean Piaget, The Child’s Conception of the World, (Totowa. New Jersey: Littlefield, Adams, & Company, 1976), p.69 and 86.

[2]A thought of my own that I attach to this lecture: In this version of the self the speech act and the self could be related if it were not a mere sentence as the basic unit, but a literal form, like a poem or story, or drama, or novel, etc, perhaps as unit. It may turn out that a higher level of such a complex speech act could be a person.

[See the notes of all the lectures posted so far in Deficiency Cognition and B-Consciousness.]


Written by peterkrey

August 19, 2010 at 12:08 am

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