Posted by: Harold Knight | 06/20/2011

Emotional or spiritual? What is Man?

Not Howard Hanson's fault

Not Howard Hanson’s fault

Damn! It happened again. Yesterday I sat in the Service of Holy Communion at my lovely Episcopal church between two of the most important people in my little circle of friends and family. One I’ve known for seventeen years, the other for about ten. Both are well educated, thoughtful, highly intelligent. Both have helped me navigate some pretty scary and unpleasant waters in my personal journey (there! how’s that for a metaphor for emotional support in difficult stressful times?). The deaths of four of the people who had had a hand in my mental and emotional formation, and darkest time of my depression.

This is the religious observance I attend nearly every Sunday even though for me to say I “believe” any of what is said or done is to stretch imagination almost to the breaking point. Before the service the organist played a romantic-style work—a non-specific style appropriate for performance before a church service—not intellectual, but well-crafted and easy to hear. Then we sang the hymn in procession: “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty.” The tune is Nicaea composed by John Bacchus Dykes in 1861. This tune is one of the few I can play from memory because at the time I began playing in church, it was the hymn my church sang most often.

The words of the hymn don’t specifically name Jesus. It’s a hymn to the Trinity. Its tune is named Nicaea for the Council of Nicaea in 325 C.E. which settled the theology of the Trinity, certainly one of the most bizarre bits of religious hair-splitting extant on the planet. It’s just weird, not important to explain (because no one can). Yesterday on the church’s annual cycle of celebrations was Trinity Sunday.

Anyone who knows me well (or has read many of my postings here) can guess I was already in some sort of altered state of mind. Organ music. An audience participation performance of a piece of music that’s part of my unconscious. Pageantry designed to draw us all together into—well, into what? Then there are all these prayers and readings leading up to the day’s reading from the Hebrew scripture—the first Creation Story from Genesis (you know, the one where there’s no making man out of clay).

Next in the unchanging structure of the observance is the reading of the Psalm for the day (also from the Hebrew scriptures, which most Christians choose not to remember or think about).  Yesterday it was Psalm 8. It begins with

O Lord, our Lord,
How majestic is thy name in all the earth!

and goes on to such declarations and questions as

When I look at thy heaves, the work of thy fingers,
The moon and the stars which thou hast established:
What is man that thou art mindful of him,
And the son of man that thou dost care for him.

The work of thy fingers

The work of thy fingers

And so on. The first problem I had was that as soon as I discovered Psalm 8 listed, I began to hear in my mind the Howard Hanson setting which I have accompanied on more than one occasion. Fortunately the congregation read the Psalm in unison.

My mind found an altered state of reality almost immediately at the beginning of the reading. It may have been a purely emotional response. Music does that. Even hearing the words read in the context of my memory of the Hanson setting can be enough. It may have been sitting between my two friends and hearing them read. It may have been—well, something less wonderful than either explanation. A punster friend of mine some time ago defined “aesthete’s foot” as “Everywhere I go my feet simply ache for the beauty of it all.” I may have been having a case of aesthete’s foot.

Or perhaps I was simply reverting back to the safety of my childhood playing “Holy, Holy, Holy” on the organ with my father standing at the front of the church securely leading the congregation in experiencing an attachment to a

God who psychologically functions to provide: (a) Protection and comfort in times of threat (haven of safety function of attachment); and (b) A psycho-spiritual base from which Christians move forward to explore and engage life (secure base function of attachment) (1).

All of that ooey-gooey altered state of consciousness I feel is perhaps a “haven of safety function of attachment” to my father’s God.  I’m not being flip, and I’m not ruling out any possibility. I don’t believe or disbelieve. Any of these explanations are possible.

During (almost) any given service, the altered (or simply emotional) state of consciousness takes over my mind at some point in the service. I suppose that’s why I continue to get myself there at 11:00 AM every Sunday. It usually, I have begun to understand, happens at some concatenation of the ideas of beauty, infinitude, and my (nearly) constant wondering about what we human beings are and “what’s to become of us all” (2). I think the experience I have in the church service is not unique. I know it happens to me on many other occasions. And I know it happens to you now and then.

It’s my (our) constant—if we’re alive and awake and not living in a capitalist, materialist, power-grabbing stupor—that we are concerned

. . . for human uniqueness, and how that may, or may not, relate to human origins and the evolution of religious awareness. It is, therefore, precisely in the problem of ‘human uniqueness’ that theology and the sciences may find a shared research trajectory. Our very human capacity (or mania?) for self-definition can most probably be seen as one of the ‘crowning achievements’ of our species (3).

Is it any wonder that hearing two dear friends read (with 300 other people) “What is man that thou art mindful of him, And the son of man that thou dost care for him?” is enough to put me into a place where I have to drop out for a brief moment in order to pull myself together. It would help, of course if the entire room did not fade into—oh well, it’s impossible to explain, so I won’t try.

When I contemplate

When I contemplate

I am fascinated by Van Huyssteen’s article, which I cannot claim to understand. Once again I will do what I tell my students they must not do—end a bit of writing with an idea that is a trajectory into ground the writing has not covered.

Of perhaps even greater significance, the cognitive fluidity of our minds allow(s) for the possibility of powerful metaphors and analogy, without which science, religion and art could not exist (4).

Or have I covered it?
(1) Proctor, Marie-Therese, et al.  “Exploring Christians’ Explicit Attachment to God Representations: The Development of a Template For Assessing Attachment to God Experiences. Journal of Psychology and Theology 37.4 (2009): 245-264.
(2) I put the cliché in quotes because many years ago it was a phrase I used so often that it ended up as a chapter heading in a friend’s ThD Dissertation at the School of Theology in Claremont, CA, with an attribution to me!
(3) Van Huyssteen, J. Wentzel. “Human Origins and Religious Awareness In Search of Human Uniqueness.” Studia Theologica 59 (2005), pp. 104-128.
(4) Van Huyssteen, ibid.


  1. Its not in truth as complicated as you think or perceive.

    Its but a matter of stages people are at on the journey.

    If your content with a weekly visit to the church singing
    a few songs as listen to a interpretation of a part of the
    bible // then you’ll feel contented. If not content then you
    need havea stronger spiritual experience / your in need
    of more depth in spiritual understanding / thus abled in
    quenching your thirst ( don’t mind me saying this ) but it
    seems your a very thirsty individual whom seeks / REAL
    spiritual experience having real spiritual understanding..

    Thus your place is not with religions they (not being rude
    or mean to be insulting) but religions having become big
    business // the main religions in christianity have a yearly
    turnover of many $millions. Many having broke away from
    the main body of christianity / also money making scams
    all promising a heaven beyond the clouds. One but follow
    the “Yellow Brick Road” till reach Oz // then one in taking a
    sharp left turn // then its onward to the pearly gates heaven.

    The point being its all halfbaked nonsense // where people
    are being fleeced / hence why they are referred to as sheep
    children are being brainwashed as yoing as 3yrs 4yrs 5yrs
    the damage to thei developing brain // is severe to extreme.

    However that does not mean all religion evil / it but meaning
    people having simply lost their way // corruption as greed but
    blinded to reality / and such taken generationun to generation
    thus ends with a mishmish /mumbo jumbo / of ideas/ beliefs.

    First thing you need to know. / Dont seek truth with the mind
    but seek truth with your heart // thus 100% problem reduced
    unto an1% problem / at a stroke. From your words your pain
    is such / you tend focus with the mind / rather than the heart
    such just your personal journey // the testing times one faces
    thus it not you at fault // it just the circumstances having faced
    life can be somewhat cruel // some stories are heartbreaking.

    There’s but only one way in making your bond with the Almighty
    which in place / before christianity / islam as the many religions.

    The way to know the Almighty having remained unchanged since
    time began. / Such done through meditation / in one directing the
    senses inward / thus reveal bring an unfolding of the spiritual self.

    On pc search put ( words of peace ) on site be a large selection of
    videos where Prem Rawat talks of meditation / the art of turning the
    senses inward thus in bringing a unfolding of the spiritual self / not
    of ideas / not of beliefs / not an heaven beyond the clouds / but true
    spiritual experience giving one clarity of understanding/ in knowing.

    If your wish take such a journey toward practical spiritual experience
    then the site ( words of peace ) is an first stage upon real spirituallity
    if your thirst great / then go to the well where drink /quench your thirst.


  2. I prefer to experience my experience the way it happens. I doubt very much that Prem Rawat has any more grasp of reality than anyone else who claims to be able to tell me the stages of “real spirituality” — especially, as I have written here several times, because “spirituality” like “liberal” or “conservative”–is a word many use but no one can define.



%d bloggers like this: