"Elements of Culture"

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The Essential Elements of Culture

Joel Dubois, (c) 2009, 2013-14—for free, fully cited distribution only

III. Describing the Unseen: Invisble Beings, 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 "invisible beings " (vs. "higher power" in the singular) and "forces," rather than "god" or "nature." I clarify 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 invisible beings, I mean divine personalities, including the supreme God who is usually personified, but also lesser spiritual/supernatural beings like angels and demons in Western traditions, as well as saints, ghosts, ancestors and other spirits of dead people. People typically regard those beings inclined towards good as divine or saintly; those who tend towards evil, or towards some combination of good and evil, are typically placed in an opposing category ("demons," "ghosts," "etc.). People who trust in the existence of such beings typically feel that they are invisible yet subtly present when called upon. The notion of an unseen power is also sometimes relevant to non-religious worldviews, however. Some people, for example, personify entities such as "mother" nature and "lady" luck; while such personifications are typically not taken literally by adults, artists and storytellers may go to great lengths to depict them.

  • When I speak of cosmic 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 invisible beings and ruled by forces. Many people think of such worlds as largely invisible to sensory perception, yet many also consider that unseen worlds intersect dynamically with sensory world. Invisible beings 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 largely invisible powers of nature manifest in dramatically observable 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 invisible beings 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 invisible beings . You may want to consult my handout, "Beyond God(s) and Theisms," for a more detailed analysis of invisible beings and forces in the most widely influetial religious traditions.

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 invisible beings 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 invisible beings and forces based on depictions provided by the visionary few, whom they may never directly meet. Such depictions of invisible beings 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.

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