Super Reality

Super NaturalReality is not often, if ever, what it appears to be. As creatures that evolved to survive in this particular environment, we have passed along and received the skills that make this possible. One of those skills is filtering. We filter out most of the stimuli that surround us daily (and nightly), and that with only five senses. We don’t experience reality as it is. It is with this in mind that I read The Super Natural by Whitley Strieber and Jeffrey Kripal. Perhaps unlike many who will read this book, my attraction was based on Jeffrey Kripal’s involvement. In anticipation, late last year I read Whitley Strieber’s Communion, but I have great respect for Jeffrey Kripal’s work, and consider anything he writes well worth the reading. This book, then, is a strange hybrid between the experiencer and the open-minded analyst who brings the toolbox of religious studies to what most academics dismiss as “the paranormal.”

This is one of those books that will distort perceptions of reality. That’s not because Strieber and Kripal simply accept each other’s versions of events or conclusions. They don’t. Both are free to disagree with one another. Kripal, as a recognized academic, brings something rare to the table. He is willing to listen to people who have experienced what standard approaches wipe away as “merely anecdotal.” Ask yourself: what do we have to say that isn’t anecdotal? We don’t experience all of reality, and the filters we use go both ways—what we perceive is filtered, and what we share with others is filtered. As much as a materialist may hate to admit it, she or he still has feelings. And our senses, keep in mind, can be fooled. We’ve all seen mirages or thought we heard something that nobody said. Our brains evolved with lots of false positives. Who are we to judge that someone else’s anecdote is impossible? That’s what super nature can do to you.

It is also refreshing to see that, although the day when a physicist’s name as a household word may have passed (excluding Sheldon Cooper, of course), those who remain recognizable from the past—Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, Wolfgang Pauli, Erwin Schrödinger—were not strict materialists. As The Super Natural points out, these foundational figures of quantum physics all turned to mysticism of some sort or another to help them come to grips with what the empirical evidence was showing. I do wonder how we’ve come, since then, to have so many brilliant people who have lost a sense of wonder about the anomalies that exist in everyday experience. Who hasn’t felt a shiver of pleasure at a particularly poignant coincidence or glitch in the matrix? Maybe most of us will never have as many uncanny experiences as Whitley Strieber, but we might be losing something valuable if we don’t at least listen to what he, and others like him, have to say.

Lost Supper

Culture, for better or worse, involves a deep connection to religion. No matter how secular we suppose the world to be, profound connections to belief surface in the most unlikely places. Time magazine’s culture section this past week has a brief blurb on “Burger Blunders.” Having been a vegetarian for a decade-and-a-half, this short story might not have caught my interest had my wife not pointed out “the Ghost,” a burger offered by Kuma’s Corner, a heavy-metal band-themed bar in Chicago. “The Ghost” comes with an unconsecrated communion wafer on top, and this has raised some spirits, according to Time’s culture team. Even Protestants recognize the power of the symbol of the wafer, even if they can’t accept transubstantiation. In Catholic belief, however, prior to consecration the sliver of bread is just that—a bit of pressed wheat product. The wafer came to be preferred because it was more easily contained than the crumbs of a regular piece of consecrated bread.

Communion, or the Eucharist, is a ritual meal based on the Jewish Passover. According to the Gospels, it was during the “last supper,” a Passover seder, that Jesus instituted the ritual. Early Christians ate together, and, recalling the symbolism, gave special prominence to the bread and wine. Bread, however, produces crumbs. When theology got ahold of bread it became a sacred object, after it was properly consecrated. It was believed (is still believed by some) to be very powerful in that state since it had become the actual body of Christ during the ritual. Wafers, technically unleavened bread, had many advantages to the emerging theological sensitivities. Portion control, symmetry, and virtually no crumbs. I’ve attended many masses, and the extreme care for particle control is everywhere from ciborium to patten to sacred linens that cover the altar like a liturgical table cloth. They are all accessories to the containment of broken bread.

Última_Cena_-_Da_Vinci_5

Communion wafers, however, when unconsecrated are just bread (if even that). They are not made palatable as snacks, but are more easily available online than basic gears or recordings of your favorite musical. Heavy metal has always enjoyed its blasphemous image as one of the most in-your-face counter-cultures possible. It is also profoundly religious. (Note, I am not saying that heavy metal is Christian or even Judeo-Christian, but it does participate deeply in religious symbolism.) If robbed of its shock-value, it is just loud noise. By association, however, many people mistake the wafer itself for what it represents. Without the added ingredient of consecrations, however, the liturgical churches tend to say it’s just bread. If you’ve ever eaten it, you’ll know that that assertion requires faith sufficient to move a Big Mac.

Mythology Gone to the Dogs

Today’s New Jersey Star-Ledger reports an inter-species religious scandal that highlights the vast difference between god and dog. Last month a Canadian Anglican priest fed a dog a communion wafer. The gesture, a spur-of-the-moment reaction to a visitor who brought his dog to church (somewhat of a rarity in itself) was likely just a reflex to seeing that inevitable lolling tongue at the communion rail. Priests see lots of lolling tongues, mostly human.

In my long years at Nashotah House, where daily communion was a requirement of all faculty and students, I’m sure I consumed several pounds of communion wafer. I also received many stern warnings that this particular food item – if communion wafers can really be considered food – was unlike any other and must be treated with the utmost sanctity. Ironically, more than once I was handed a wafer by a priest with an out-of-control head-cold who’d clearly just contaminated an entire paten full of the sacrament with an eager virus. Within a week most of the student body would be hacking up an holy phlegm, not dissuaded from sharing the common cup. Despite the obvious fact that the ritual had become a disease vector, the mythology of its sanctity lived on.

The history of Christian ritual is a specialized field with experts who know the minutiae of each subtle gesture and the history of each preposition in the Anaphora. The ritual itself has become an object of worship. For some the fate of the wafer has become the fate of the world. This is mythology in action. Nevertheless, I have often received unbelievable hostility from those crowned with righteousness. As long as the right words are pronounced in the right order with the appropriate gestures, it is perfectly acceptable to stab another human being in the back.

I grew up with dogs. With the rare exception of the occasional biter, canines have treated me very well. Some on the verge of worship. If it comes down to choices, I’ll take my chances with the dog with a lolling tongue rather than with the priest with the magical bread.

Belief in dog is not a bad thing

iPriest

I don’t own an iPad or an iPhone. I even have to confess to being bored with the internet on occasion. Perhaps my interests are too antiquated for the electronic age. So when I saw that an Italian priest had developed an application to allow priests to celebrate Mass I knew that the brave, new world had attained a heretofore unfathomable high. Instead of laying a missal on the altar, priests can now “double click” to the appropriate rubric with an iPad next to the body and blood of Jesus Christ.

Of course, the temptation to surf the net during Mass must be overwhelming at times. When I look out over my university classes and see a sea of laptops, knowing that university wi-fi is everywhere, I am sure they are somewhere far, far away from Numbers or 2 Chronicles. Perhaps they are checking out what is going on in Mass? A couple years back iBreviary came out for those who need the daily offices on the fly. Convenience and worship, however, were never intended to go together.

I spent this morning in a used bookstore. Some of my favorite places are among old books. The knowledge they hold doesn’t freeze up on you or crash. And often it is easier to find since you don’t have to search for exact terms in an ocean of information so vast that even intellectual whales couldn’t navigate it. Upgrades on iMass are expected to be available soon. The content, however, will remain the same as that rolling off the press in hardcopy after Vatican II. How long will it be before virtual communion is available so that commuters can partake without ever taking their hands off the wheel?

In the name of the unix, linux, and holy mac