Sunday, January 23, 2011

What more can be said?

"The SACRED (whatever that means) is surely related (somehow) to the BEAUTIFUL (whatever that means)..."

--Gregory Bateson.

I picked up this quote from Bateson from a comment thread to an article I just read on the Internet; I have no idea which of his writings it comes from, but it is so typical of his wry, no-nonsense wisdom that I had to share it.

I like it because it openly acknowledges both the complete inadequacy and the occasional necessity of words like "the sacred" and "the beautiful" as signifiers pointing toward an experience of the numinous that cannot be either expressed or understood in words. And it simultaneously expresses total, experiential assurance ("surely") in its fundamental equation (the sacred = the beautiful) and a refreshing skepticism about his (or anyone's) intellectual formulations ("somehow" and "whatever that means") of what these words actually denote.

It is analogous, in this respect, with the wonderful opening line of Lao Tzu's classic Tao Te Ching: "Tao ke tao fei chang tao"--which Gia Fu Feng translates, "the Tao that can be spoken (that is, talked about) is not the eternal (or true) Tao." Another version of the same insight is Alfred Korzybski's famous insight about the limitations of language: "the map is not the territory and the name is not the thing named."

This being the case, we need to remember that our own experience of the Sacred (hence of Beauty) is not communicable to anyone else with words or concepts, and that the world's various religious traditions have created intrinsically inadequate systems of metaphors through which people can share and discuss their experience of the Sacred. The big error made by fundamentalists of all stripes, however, is to mistake the language and concepts--the symbolic and ideological constructs--for the ineffable experience of the Sacred itself to which they allude.

But if we remember, as Bateson said (like Keats) that Beauty and the Sacred are one, (and that we cannot hope to understand either) we have taken our first step toward emancipation from the clutches of self-serving religious ideologies to an appreciation of the Sacred (beauty) as it manifests in all religious traditions worldwide, as well as in sunsets, lakes, smiles, oak leaves, and butterflies.