Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Secret knowledge, sacred knowledge

"Secrets are to religion what lingerie is to the body."
The verb secrete can denote either "to hide" or "to release." Both derive from the Latin root of se-cernere, to sift apart or to distinguish. Secrets are not buried far from the sacred, etymologically or otherwise, since the value of both lies in their qualities of being set apart, distinguished and defended from the everyday. To view religion in light of the secret entails, among other things, dividing the set-apart quality of the sacred into two distinct movements. The first movement is hiding, the act of classification that removes something or someone from obvious and banal evidence, the act of restricting its flow. The second movement is release, the rare and fragmentary revelation of a secret, its return to circulation. The return is not usually of the secret as substantive information. More typically, revelations are about the secret, words and acts hinting that it exists and is near and powerful in spite of its invisibility, "that which is not said even though it gets around" [quoted from Baudrillard's On Seduction] . . . .

To hide and to unveil, to contain and release -- this is the rhythm of secrets and also of the sacred. Without secrets, religion becomes unimaginable. For religion is in its cultural sense a technology of periodic human access to extraordinary powers, which generally remain concealed, and in its social sense a group of people who share such a technology and exercise it. If it is true, however, that all religions seek human relations with generally mysterious powers, which are revealed only in intermittent staccato bursts punctuating everyday experience, it is not true that all religions embrace secrecy and secretism as fundamental tools in their cultural repertoire and basic social form, nor do all historical contexts equally evoke secrecy as a defense against outside intrusion. Consider the tendency in most forms of Protestant Christianity, where there is no developed language of secrecy at all. God is transparent, revealed, even historically present in person and in text, "fully human, fully divine." One finds no developed ritualization of secrecy, little initiatory fencing off of those inside from everyman, and neither strong taboos nor sanctions guarding against disclosure. Despite the biblical injunction to "pray in secret" instead of for public glorification, in practice congregants are enjoined to make the religion as publicly conspicuous as possible, to "bear witness" in every word and deed so that as much of civic life as possible might be conformed to the religious mold. In theory, at least, there is no priviledged Protestant information, and all share equally the benefits and burdens of proximity to religious powers.

It is hard to imagine a religion less like this than Brazilian Candomble. Here the techniques of wresting power from the Gods (Orixas) are secret, foundational matters (fundamentos) guarded behind layers of graded initiations and strict hierarchies marking off those possessing the knowledge of fundamentos from those who do not. Here the reputation of knowing the deepest, most authentically African secrets is a hotly contested, fast-trading form of prestige, highly dependent on a consensus of pratitioners and networks of gossip along the channels of the informal "Yoruba post" (correio nago). To gain and keep the reputation of deep knowledge, priests and priestesses must be able to advertise it. They must master the art of flirtation, of accenting the contours of what remains concealed.

There is, then, an unspoken exchange between exhibition and voyeurism to secrecy. It is always socially constructed in a triangle composed of at least two confederates who are watched and envied by a desiring Third. Secrets are to religion what lingerie is to the body; they enhance what is imagined to be present. Even when the secret is known but unspoken, a "public secret", its allure is greater when veiled by shimmering textures. It is this capacity for dissimulation, the fact of a possible disjunction between the reputation and the reality, that renders secrecy a suspect force.
[Paul Christopher Johnson, Secret, Gossip and Gods: The Transformation of Brazilian Candomble, pp. 3-4]
Paul Christopher Johnson (on the Anthropology and History faculty at U Mich, and a 2008 Gugenheim Fellow) spent several years doing field research on the Afro-Caribbean religion called Candomble, which is primarily based in Brazil. Greg Downey (Historian, U Wisc-Mad) writing in the journal History of Religions, wrote of Johnson's Secret, Gossip and Gods that "A reader interested in learning about Candomble would be hard-pressed to find a more comprehensive yet deftly written introduction to the religion and to the intellectual debates that surround it ...."

During his field work, Johnson was frequently urged, by those he was studying, to be initiated into the religion so that he could see it from the inside, so to speak. One priestess in particular, whom Johnson refers to as "Mother B.", pushed Johnson to undergo the secret initiation ceremonies, despite Johnson's insistence that he did not believe in the Orixas: "While she found that utterly absurd, she found it equally trivial and always reassured me that it did not matter in the least. 'The question is whether you perform the rituals, not whether you believe in them.'"

But Johnson did eventually accept the repeated invitations and took initiation from Mother B., becoming one of the hundreds of filhos de Santo under her spiritual direction. Many of these "children of the Saints" live together in Mother B.'s terreiro, which Johnson describes as a "powerful, genuinely African place" in the suburbs of Rio de Janeiro.

Johnson (above) does an excellent job of very succinctly communicating the suffocating psychic limitations of the "Protestant" world view, which literally (if that is the right word) makes religion "inconceivable". This "inconceivability" of genuine experiential religion is what creates the proportionately intense longing for spiritual experience in the modern Western soul. As Socrates explains so eloquently in Plato's Symposium, one only desires what lies beyond one's reach.

Many people have incorrectly interpreted words like those of Mother B.'s (to the effect that it is only necessary to perform the rituals, not to believe in the Orixas) to indicate that "primitive" or "pagan" religions are orthopraxic as opposed to orthodoxic, that is, that in these supposedly un-philosophical, pre-civilizational religions there are no beliefs or ideas worth bothering with, just the mindless performance of rituals.

But you see, Mother B. was not really telling Johnson the truth, or at least not the whole truth. Instead, she was seducing him -- and not in some po-mo lit-crit baudrillardian sense, but in the old-fashioned, everyday meaning of the word. She was carefully choosing her words to overcome his resistance: so she "reassured" him that his concerns were baseless, his hesitation unwarranted, his fears "utterly absurd."

There can be no doubt that Mother B. genuinely believes in the Orixas, so there is no use trying to argue that her Candomble does not involve belief, i.e., that it is purely "orthopraxic." But then why does she insist that Johnson need not believe, and need only perform the rituals? Johnson actually explains this quite nicely further on in the book:
In their ideal form, which only moderately constrains actual practice, fundamentos are not to be known about, knowledge gained through books, but to be known through, learned through practice. It is the doing, not the knowing, of secrets which is the key. Only through long ritual apprenticeship, and especially through progressive initiations, can this ideal form of knowledge be gained. During these years it is not transmitted by the answering of questions, but rather by attentive observation and memory of the surroundings as one enters more restricted places and groups within the terreio and its hierarchy. Hence in the Candomble conception of learning there is an implicit geography. As an adept moves along the initiatory path, he arrives nearer to knowledge (saber) real fundamentos. Spatially he moves closer to the center of the terreio, into the most secretive rooms, where initiates heads are made, and where Orixas are dispatched from possessed bodies. In the metaphoric time-space of secrecy he moves back in time toward the ancestors and, ultimately, the creation of the world and the adventures of the Orixas; across the sea toward Africa; and deeper, down through the layers toward a more genuine, solid foundation. By mastering fundamentos, plural, he arrives ultimately at the possession of fundamento, "having foundation", in the singular.
[pp. 31-32]