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1.2.02

This is going to be a rambling and only marginally coherent post. I'm just trying to get a bunch of thoughts I had during Native American Religions down somewhere before I forget so I can ponder them more at a later date. And writing stuff like this out can help clarify it in my own head.

We were talking about two myths. One was a Yanomamo myth that talked about how the moon used to come down and eat the ashes of the people's children until a hero shot the moon with an arrow. The other was a Bororo myth about a man who killed his wife because she had been raped, then secretly buried her instead of giving her a public funeral in which she would be put in the water. Their son, in order to get revenge, turned into a bird and pooped on his father's shoulder. The poop turned into a tree. Every time the father sat down, water would form and the tree would shrink. Essentially, in expiating his sin he created the means for others to avoid committing that sin. But I'm digressing from my main point here.

In both of these myths, the focal sin was not what we would think it ought to be. Eating ashes sounds bad to us, but it's a regular practice that the Yanomamo say helps to keep them connected to those who have passed away. Moon's real sin was eating the ashes by himself. In the Bororo story, the myth doesn't focus on the rape, but rather on the lack of a proper funeral. In both cases, the sin is essentially one of being antisocial, refusing to share with society a practice that is important to social cohesion.

This got me thinking about my own ideas about religion. The first point to understand about that is that I can't say what God is, and I don't expect to be able to. But in thinking about the Bible, I had picked out two themes of how God is manifested in the world (or at least the social world, which is what I'm most interested in. Ethics is more important to me than cosmology) -- love and wisdom. Love in this sense refers to the condition in which one's own happiness is dependent on the well-being of the object of the love. Wisdom is knowledge and understanding produced collectively, by the interaction of human minds and synthesizing of observations and ideas, rather than by the (supposed) triumph of an individual great mind. There seemed to be some kind of a connection between the two, but I hadn't quite figured out what it was.

This is getting more difficult because the things I was thinking about are starting to slip away. God can be found where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. That missing quantity -- the extra 2 that makes 1 + 3 = 6 -- is God. God is essentially holistic -- a part of the system can't exist without the system. To bring in a point that Prof. Vecsey raised (and which I had been thinking about this summer in somewhat different terms), you can't be human without having a (socially created) culture. Cultural norms and values aren't something imposed on us that holds us back, as many people put it, but rather things that make us more than just a collection of chemicals with electrical impulses running through it. Levi-Strauss cited an article that explained how voodoo curses can actually kill people even without having any "magical" component (or maybe it would be more accurate to say that migic is, like any other explanation, just a shorthand for the same infinitely complex and therefore impossible to fully understand process), because when the society and the cursed person both believe he is dead, and therefore no longer part of society, he is cut out of the system and diminished. Which is not to say we shouldn't try to change the culture that we are given. Every culture is full of contradictions, and the process of social interaction is constantly trying to resolve those contradictions by either (rarely) acheiving a non-contradictory synthesis, or (more commonly) trading off one set of obvious, problematic contradictions for a set that isn't at the moment (kind of like how a person without a chair will shift from one leg to the other and back as her knees get tired and need to be rested).

So coming back to the myths, it seems like the focal sins of the myths are essentially actions which reduce the role or presence of God (or it might be better to say "the ideas and phenomena that I define as being manifestations of God"). They individualize what is properly collective.

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