The Essential Elements of Culture
Joel Dubois, (c) 2009--for free, fully cited distribution only
III. Describing the Unseen: Powers, Forces & Worlds
Another way to remain curious and open to the dynamic nature of belief is to think more precisely about the nature of the unseen entities that people reflect on, cultivate awareness of, and learn to trust. I have already suggested some ways to do this by using the plural terms "powers" (not simply "higher power" in the singular) and "forces," rather than "god" or "nature." I clarify these and other related terms more fully below, and invite you to use them to whatever extent you feel they help you speak more precisely about the unseen. But I also invite you to come up with your own fresh labels and categories that help you analyze more precisely the way that Asian cultures think about the unseen.
When I speak of divine or other supernatural/spiritual powers, I mean divine personalities, including the supreme God, who is usually personified, but also lesser spiritual beings, like angels and demons in Western traditions, as well as saints, ghosts, ancestors and other spirits of dead people. People typically regard divine personalities as those inclined towards good; the other category of beings are either included towards evil, or some combination of good and evil. People who trust in the existence of such powers typically feel that they are invisible yet subtly present when called upon. But the notion of an unseen power is also relevant to non-religious worldviews: many people, for example, personify entites such as "mother" nature and "lady" luck.
When I speak of forces, I am referring to more abstract,fundamental causes or factors such as "fate," "moral obligation," "sin," which often have a psychological element. People typically think of such forces as affecting everyone in all times and places. And they often think of such forces as giving rise to, and/or influencing, much of what we perceive through our senses, both positive and negative. This notion applies just as well to spiritual forces as to forces that are purely physical, such as gravity and electrical attraction, many of of which are too small, subtle or vast to perceive directly.
One might increase the precision of these labels by also describing the worlds inhabited by powers and ruled by forces. Most people think of such worlds as largely invisible to sensory perception. Yet many also consider that unseen worlds intersect dynamically with sensory world. Supernatural powers manifest in human form, such as God the Father incarnating as Jesus and the Hindu supreme God Vishnu taking birth as the human teacher Krishna. Spirits of the dead influence the living, as most vividly dramatized in shamanic rituals, which still strongly influence much of formal religion in East Asia. In many non-religious worldviews, the invisible power of nature manifests in particularly dramatic ways, such as mountains and storms. And in both religious and non-religious thinking, abstract invisible forces like "fate" and "karma" manifest in the consequences that people experience as a result of their actions.
The fact that powers and forces share common worlds also reflects that the division between them is not hard and fast. Powers often embody universal forces, as in the case of the supreme God's power of judgement over all acts and "mother" nature embodying something more abstract. And abtract forces like death, hunger and passion are sometimes personified as supernatural powers. You may want to consult my handout, "Beyond God(s) and Theism(s)," for a more details analysis of powers and forces in the most widely influetial religious worldviews.
Both religious and non-religious worldviews stress that a uniquely endowed few, usually both gifted and trained in discerning hidden truths, are able to directly perceive the kinds of unseen powers and forces described above. Such people are sometimes refered to as "mystics," but the records they leave of their experience are often more precise than the word "mystery" suggests. Most people, however, reflect on, catch glimpses of and gradually come to trust such powers and forces based on depictions provided by the visionary few, whom they may never directly meet. Such depictions of unseen powers and forces may be either (a) verbal, which include poetry, prose, commentary, and conversation, and may be delivered as song, oral recitation, writing, or through informal speech. Often more popular, however, are (b) symbolic depictions of the unseen, which include sculpture, painting, decorative design, and architecture. Dramatic enactment and other forms of live storytelling include (c) a mix of verbal and symbolic elements.
Reflection about unseen powers and forces is only one dimension or layer of culture. As hinted earlier in stressing that beliefs form and transform subtly over time, trust in particular depictions of the unseen develops in the context of daily sensory engagement with the visible world. The visible objects, spaces and actions of that world thus play a pivotal role in shaping cultural worldviews, which is why people often think of culture as something displayed in things and events. These visible elements of culture are the foundation of trust in unseen powers and forces. An investigator of culture, then, must pay equally close attention to visible "dimensions" or "layers" of culture.
I propose that such visible forms may usefully be conceived of as two distinct layers, practice and community, that supplement the belief or reflection dimension discussed in detail so far. Listing these three together we have:
reflection--thinking about, awareness of and trust regarding unseen powers and forces (vs. simply "belief");
practice--habitual engagement in activities or skills, including especially art forms, rituals and customs, whether formally prescribed in an authoritative source, passed on through observing anothers' behaviors, or simply developed informally by a single individual; and
community--the structured network of relationships between people in consistently defined groups, such as families, ethnic groups, and states, who take on particular roles in such relationships.
Like the above discussion of reflection and the unseen, the following explanation of the visible elements of culture assumes that the three can never be completely separated, as the analogy of "dimensions" and "layers" both suggest. All three are simultaneously experienced by each individual in a culture, somewhat in the same way that time encompasses the three dimensions of space, and that an individual plant simultaneously inhabits distinct layers of soil.
Yet the investigator of culture must distinguish the three, since they are separable to a degree, primarily in situations that many would consider unbalanced or dysfunctional. An individual may very well engage in practice--including reciting words that describe unseen powers and/or forces--without engagement or trust in that unseen. The routine of ritual, or the fascination of a particular artistic form, may numb a person's mind to the point where he loses awareness of his unseen goal. Likewise, absorption in community life might lead to a similar kind of forgetfulness. On the other hand, fascination with the unseen may lead some visionaries to leave behind their community and experiment with new kinds of arts & rituals. Also, small differences in the practice of art or religion may cause tension between different communities. The interweaving of reflection, practice, and community in human culture, then, is as complex as the trajectory of a line in a three dimensional graph, or the intermingling of root systems and microorganisms in compacted layers of soil.