Beam Me Where?

It’s kind of like the transporter dilemma on Star Trek. Where is the person/Vulcan/Klingon when their atoms are being disassociated in one location and reassembled in another? In the classic series, McCoy was never happy with the technology, and even today our doubts linger about what constitutes a person. The other day in a routine medical procedure, I underwent anesthesia. Lying there in the corridor, staring at the calmly themed over-head light colors (no, they actually were themed covers; the drip hadn’t started yet), I wondered where I was about to go. I’ve only had anesthesia once before that I can remember, and I recalled awaking suddenly from the most profound, dreamless sleep ever. It was very different from ordinary sleep. So where was my consciousness at the time?

We have no satisfactory answer to the question of what consciousness is, let alone where it is. Materialists would say, literally, it’s all in your head. Consciousness is a happy mixture of electro-chemical signals in a dull gray organ that’s busing churning out this illusion that Steve A. Wiggins is something more than, well, a mixture of electro-chemical signals. Those of us who’ve experienced enough to question such simple answers wonder a bit more deeply about it. What is consciousness? We’ve all had that feeling, I suppose, of awaking from a dream and being disoriented, even throughout the day at points, as to whether it was real or not. Or, alternatively, remembering something but not being sure if it “really happened” or might’ve been a dream. Ordinarily we recognize the difference between waking and dreaming consciousness, but sometimes the line is blurred.

My experience this time around was the same as last. One moment you’re talking to an anesthesiologist and the next you’re awaking from a completely blank state of mind, a little confused about where you are. You haven’t been in dreamland since there was nothing there. The exact mix of chemicals isn’t the same as when you fall asleep. For all intents and purposes, you are completely gone for that span of time. When I woke up I remembered the anesthesiologist and the watch he was wearing. His accent. His assuring me that the bubbles in the tube were okay. Between that moment and this, nothing. A complete blank. I went in hoping that I might explore alternate states of consciousness in those few disassociated moments, but that’s not how it happened. I think I’m ready to beam back aboard now, though. I trust my consciousness will follow my gray matter, even as I’m being beamed through the ether.

Neologism

I like a good neologism as much as the next guy. Oxford English Dictionaries recently released a covey of new words added to the famed lexicon. Most of them, it seemed to me, had to do with dangers of technology, like “drunk text” and such fare. Still, increasing vocabulary is one of those rare joys in life that is continues to be free, so I indulge. A friend sent me a BBC story about another new word: champing. Well, my spell-check recognizes that one so maybe it’s not new. In any case, this champing is derived from two words “church” and “camping.” Some locations with medieval churches—which kind of rules out anything on these shores—are now opening them up as camping spots, thus church-camping. The article asks what it’s like to stay overnight in such a place.

Growing up in western Pennsylvania, medieval churches were hard to find, but I spent more than one night sleeping in sacred spaces. It’s an uncanny experience. In what may have been more innocent days, our United Methodist Church allowed youth group sleepovers, as long as there were counselors present. (Ever naive, I only learned later that there were ways around such obvious strictures.) On a Friday night, then, we could occasionally gather with our sleeping bags and slumber under the sanctuary. For theological reasons we couldn’t sleep in the sanctuary itself (although that couldn’t be prevented on the occasional very long sermon) but we could go in. Churches are scary at night with the lights out. We may give lip service to holy ground, but large, cavernous spaces suggest so much by absence and implication that it would take a stout soul indeed to sleep there.

Looks okay from the outside.

Sleeping in sanctuaries in ancient times was an acceptable practice. In fact, there’s a name for doing so: incubation rituals. A person who slept in a sacred place believed any dreams had that night were a message from God. Knowing the dreams I tend to have, I do wonder. Once, at the United Methodist camp called Jumonville—famous for its large white, 60-foot, metal cross visible in three states—we counselors (still naive) had our charges sleep outdoors at the foot of the sigil on the bare top of the mountain. In the morning my champers gleefully informed me that I’d been praying in my sleep. “You kept saying ‘Amen. Amen,’” they told me. Alas, I don’t remember the dreams of that night. Perhaps when I find a medieval church on my journeys I’ll be brave enough to try an incubation ritual once again. This time I’ll take a tape recorder.

Powerful Movies

PowerOfMoviesOur friends were shocked. I don’t even remember the title of the movie, but they couldn’t believe we had gone to see it. Not because of the content of the film, but because it had been shown on a Sunday morning. Why hadn’t we been in church? This was back in Edinburgh when we had very little money—wait, we still have very little money. This was back in Edinburgh, and we had won free tickets to an early screening of a new movie. The showtime was on Sunday morning. So in our own version of weak-willed athletes from Chariots of Fire, we’d skipped church to go see the movie. I don’t remember the title and I remember very little of the film. It had something to do with Richard Wagner and a conductor. An art film. We didn’t really feel too guilty missing church to go, since at the time, it seemed like a rare opportunity and the movie was, in some sense, religious. Or at least mythological.

Movies have a way of really influencing people. Thus it has been since the invention of the art form. We’ve all had the experience, I suppose, of a movie hitting us with a profound impact. It never really occurred to me to ask why. That is, until I read Colin McGinn’s The Power of Movies: How Screen and Mind Interact. I’d always thought that movies were simply a successful form of entertainment, and scholars seldom take entertainment seriously. As McGinn makes clear, there’s a lot more than casual watching going on when we slip into the theater. As a philosopher, McGinn is duty-bound to look beyond the obvious. Time after time in this profound little book I found myself pausing to consider the implications of what he says. Ultimately, he suggests that movies access the same areas of the brain that dreams do, not only giving them dreamlike qualities, but also making films emotional experiences like dreams.

At one point, McGinn draws explicit connections between going to church and going to a movie. Beyond the superficial aspects of a darkened building with a performance meant to impact a person, there are clear parallels between going to the theater and going to church. Both can be transformative experiences. The Power of Movies is a powerful little book. As much as we like to think that we have custody of our minds, the realm beneath the surface—that which gives us dreams and syncs with movies—has more influence on us than we’d generally like to admit. More and more, scholars are beginning to realize that films do have a profound impact on viewers. This is not just entertainment. It may not be worship, but after reading McGinn I think it might not be too far from it. The mind able to dream, after all, is a mind that’s truly free.

Detoxing God

There’s some pretty weird stuff in the Bible. Those who are only familiar with all the “thou shalt not”s are missing a great deal. Some of the material is strange enough to rival Alice’s tumble down the rabbit-hole (Charles Dodgson was, after all, a deacon). Anyone who’s read Ezekiel, or Daniel, or Revelation, knows the feeling of having been slipped into some kind of alternate state of consciousness. As students of the Bible have been saying for decades, “What was Ezekiel on?” I’ve always tried to put these unusual writings into context for my students. Nevertheless, some scholars still explore the possibilities that something more than revelation was going on in the desert. A friend of mine pointed out the website Time Wheel, which has a story about Moses and his experience of the burning bush. Time Wheel is an artistic collective, and the story about Moses is richly illustrated. The title, however, is the attention-grabber: “The Bible’s Moses Was On DMT Says Hebrew Professor.”

The article explores the thesis of Benny Shanon, who suggests Moses may have found DMT in the natural store of psychedelics available in nature. As the piece suggests, you have to accept a literal Moses for this to make any sense. Nevertheless, it does raise an interesting question: did ancient people use hallucinogens for religious purposes? We do know that cultures throughout the world have found alternate states of consciousness to be religious in nature. Before the days of controlled substances certain plants and fungi were known to distort reality. Alcohol was one of the earliest inventions of civilization, or perhaps even predating it. When other views of the world are available, it is possible to say that one is by default the true one? It’s a question we face every morning, to some degree. The dream, another biblical favorite for alternate realities, can be just as real as waking.

Controlled substances are dangerous in large groups of people. Not only have modern scientific techniques refined the active ingredients, but we live very close to one another and erratic behavior, perhaps fine isolated in the desert with a cognizant adult, can lead to problems when other people live right next door. Anthropologists assure us that the use of natural “drugs” is/was not uncommon among many peoples who don’t fall under the rubric of powerful centralized government. But was Moses among them? To me, the burning bush hardly seems fantastic enough to require a chemical explanation. In fact, detailed study of even such books as Ezekiel and Revelation often reveal a much more mundane reality behind the writing. Still, imagination is often the key to unveiling realities left hidden to more prosaic minds. So why not see what might happen when the religious are left to their own devices in the desert? The results could change the world.

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Caledonia Dreamin’

“Edinburgh is a mad god’s dream.” So penned poet Hugh MacDiarmid with sentiments that could’ve been composed by H. P. Lovecraft. My association with Edinburgh seems accidental, but there is little in my life that compares to this mad god’s dream. The Gnostics used to believe that there was nothing in divinity that precluded a kind of divine madness. Philosophers, back when they still considered god a postulate, argued about whether the deity was good or evil. If they’d come to Edinburgh, I suspect, the debate would’ve taken on a whole new cast. In his poem “Edinburgh,” MacDiarmid captures the untamed nature of a city that has never been given the accolades of Paris, London, or New York, but is just as edgy and twice as beautiful.

Dreaming gods, of course, are nothing new. Vishnu, according to some strains of Hinduism, is the god whose dream is the universe. In the Ugaritic Baal Cycle, it is a dream that reveals to the ancient god El that Baal has returned from the land of death. And, of course, Cthulhu lies dead but dreaming in the city of R’lyeh. To me, Edinburgh is a wonderful alchemy of divine dreams. I was a young man, still so very naive when I moved here. Looking back at those old photos, I see a much younger face from the past, telling the camera that yes, he’d found paradise, the very place of God’s dreaming. Our human politics, however, trump divine dreams every time. Although I never wanted to leave, I was not permitted to remain. Yes, the camera does, at times, capture the soul.

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I am on the train that will take me from Edinburgh, having seen it anew through my daughter’s eyes. I came here penniless some twenty-four years ago, but with a head full of dreams. Life has taught me the cost of dreams since that time, and I have had to pay with wrecked careers and uncertain futures, trusting that the god who is dreaming all this is mad indeed. Nevertheless, like the gods, I refuse to stop dreaming. As much as Hugh MacDiarmid captures the spirit of Edinburgh, as I sit here, with a wee bit of mist in my eyes, my mind is on the words of another poet, Baroness Nairne. To her I will have to leave the last words, from this south-bound train. “Fareweel, Edinburgh, where happy we hae been.”


Heavenly Visitors

With Passover hard upon us, I was a little disturbed to receive a letter on Friday that read, “A heavenly visitor will pass your house…” Having been raised on the sturdy fare of Exodus, I knew that heavenly visitors more often take the form of marauding angels than of jocular Santa Clauses. It seemed an ominous warning. Of course, it came from the Saint Matthew’s Churches that sent me such good wishes of divine promises of prosperity some months back, so I had to assume it was a purely coincidental biblical reference. The folks at Saint Matthew’s Churches are, after all, Bible believers.

Perhaps because of that fateful letter, I dreamed, in good Genesis style, a dream two nights ago. I dreamed that I found a dollar coin on the ground at a family outing. A few feet away lay another. And another. Wherever we went in that Morpheus-bewitched town there were silver dollars unclaimed on the ground. My trousers were being dragged down with the weight of the lucre in my pockets. I couldn’t believe my good fortune! Then I awoke, still employed only part-time, still worrying every minute about whether we can meet all the bills. Perhaps the dream was a message? Should the Saint Matthew’s’ folks be right, prosperity was headed my way. Saturday’s powerball jackpot was in the double-digit millions. I very rarely play the lottery, but since state education in New Jersey needs all the help it can get, I offered up a dollar to see if Saint Matthew’s’ prosperity was at hand.

No. Not even one number came close. Perhaps there is a secret clause in the prosperity gospel contract. Perhaps those who prosper must hold certain conservative views on social issues. The views, say, my mother holds. Yet she lives in a trailer on a severely circumscribed income. That doesn’t seem to be it either. Last night I awaited another dream. Instead, the next-door neighbors were holding a loud party until 3 a.m. Perhaps celebrating Palm Sunday? Or perhaps that was the heavenly visitor passing over for Passover a couple of days early? Either way, I didn’t sleep well last night knowing that something was just outside my window.