Monday, November 1, 2010

The Limits of Literacy Consciousness

       I think it is a widespread assumption in most of the modern world that literacy is a good thing.  And I agree with that -- of course!  I read constantly;  I write often.  I feel greatly enriched by the experience.  When I read, I come into contact with other minds, from other times, other places, and other points of view.   When I write, I find that my thoughts become more tangible to me.  The benefits are obvious, they are enormous, and I wouldn't trade them off.  And you probably wouldn't either.

       But there is another side:  when I am having literary experiences, I am not having non-literary ones.  While I am clearly gaining enrichment in one way, I may be impoverishing myself in another.  If you subscribe to a left-brain-right-brain viewpoint, you see what I mean:  when you and I are reading and writing, we are primarily operating in our left brain; the right brain is effectively on hold.  If we allow this literacy function to greatly predominate, it might be that our right-brain becomes a stranger to us; or ignored; or even permanently atrophied in its capacity.  Or, if you are right-brain-developed, your way of thinking might puzzle or frighten my over-exercised left brain; I might deny the validity of what you think and do.  If I get carried away by fear or pride, I may even hate you and deny you the right to exist.

       That sounds extreme, but let's consider.

       I begin by introducing a writer named Leonard Shlain.  Really, I should call him a polymath; besides being a talented writer he was a world-class surgeon.  He wrote several books, and I have read only one of them:  The Alphabet and the Goddess.   In this book, he makes the case that the development of literacy (the Alphabet) can and does rewire the human brain in such a way that the loser is holistic-image thinking (the Goddess).  (I recommend his website,, and his books, for further reading.)  He sees in history a connection between the development of literacy and the outbreak of religious wars and witch-hunts.  There is evidence to support his point of view.

       As a Christian who has had several spiritual experiences, I would like to emphasize that I make a distinction between brain-function and mind, and between mind and spirit -- and indeed, between spirit and Holy Spirit.  Unlike Shlain, I am not quite ready to assign masculinity primarily to the left brain, nor femininity to the right; but to me that point is minor.  (To Shlain, it might not be; it may be essential to his case.)  What matters most to me is the striking differences he proposes between these thinking modes, which I shall call modes of consciousness, in a loose sense if not a technical one.  So in my vocabulary, we have two distinct modes so far:  the literacy-mode, and the visual-mode.

       What today we call reason is pretty heavily weighted to literacy-consciousness.  Our reason deals primarily with verbal definitions and distinctions, propositions, rational comparisons, syllogistics, and cause-effect relations.  This affects our way of thinking about reality and time.  Reality is seen as prosaic; it proceeds linearly from causes; the past exists as history in documents and books; the present exists in verbal conversation and written and spoken analysis;  and the future exists in the elaborations of a verbal ideology:  whether marxist or religious or deterministic or quantum mechanical, the very-literate person tends to depend on the spoken and written word.  Emphasis is on specifiable facts and principles.  The river contains descending flowing water.  In the beginning was the word.

       Contrast this with a visual-holistic view of reality.  The appearance of reality becomes important.  Both simple and complex patterns take on special significance; linear time becomes less important, as the experience of time relates more to the persistence of image states, the vividness of memory or the strength of the imagination, and depends less on the clock and the calendar.   Speech tends to the story, writing to the poetic and the imaginative and the narrative.  Emphasis is on the visible and detectable. The river is a vital part of a landscape.  In the beginning was sight.

       These two modes -- which for convenience we are calling left and right -- might, in their union, be called the mind, the psyche.  But could we press farther?  Are there other fundamental modes available to us?

      I would like to suggest the existence of at least two others.  I will call them natural-life consciousness and spiritual-life consciousness.  I believe that these modes can be assumed to actually exist, because I think that they are referred to in Holy Scripture; but I will not elaborate those references here.  It is sufficient to note that if I am correct in calling them distinct modes, they should be distinguishable in their sensible sources as well as in their operations; and that each of them would be legitimate and valuable; in other words, that each contributes to the true wholeness of the human person.

       Let us first consider the natural-life consciousness.  Here, the fundamental realities are neither words nor visuals; rather, they are bodies, organs, cells; internal and external systems and states; feelings, sympathies, antagonisms; inherence, adherence, extensions; direct and indirect perceptions; neuronal, hormonal and pheromonal media; touch, boundary, surface, continuities, connections; male and female, seed and soil, root and branch; the relations of life to other life, and to non-life, and to semi-life, former-life, and potential-life.  Deep, important, and even precise feelings and activities may exist that are never clothed with words or visibility.  Some phenomena may be as wispy as vapor; others as strong as muscle and as solid as bone.  Emphasis is on contact, growth, and motion.  The river is the thirst-quencher, the essential water of life.  In the beginning was life.

       If there is a spiritual-life consciousness, the fundamental realities seem to me more difficult to identify with words.  They might be perceived in abstract sensations of timelessness, connectedness, transcendence, meaningfulness, and so forth;  or, if there are personal aspects of spirit, as I believe, then we might add those things which compare and contrast the personal with the less personal and the non-personal; good and evil; the chain of being; the temporal and eternal; the essential and the phenomenal; God and the world; archetypes, species, characteristics, names, symbols, and so on.  Emphasis is on unity and its relation to particularity.  In the words of Blake, "Eternity is in love with the productions of time."  The river is the Tao.  In the beginning was the spirit.

       The point is this.  If we focus too much on literacy-consciousness, and ignore any or all of the others, we might be doing ourselves and each other a great disservice.  Our abilities to perceive and communicate begin to shrink to fit our dominant consciousness.  This could have serious negative effects on our emotional lives, our visions, our health and longevity, our religious viewpoints, and our spiritual experiences.

       The Lord of All Worlds has told us that Life Is More Than Food, and Body Is More Than Clothing. May I propose that Wisdom Is More Than Information, and Knowledge More Than School?

       It is possible that literacy, as a dominant mode of thinking, is being over-sold.

       *       *       *

       I realize I am breaking no new ground here; there is probably little to disagree with; and very little light shed.  This is just a springboard for discussion and development.  I hope to make a somewhat controversial assertion in a later post, and it depends on the general validity of the ideas expressed here.

       Your thoughts and comments are very, very welcome.


  1. Sometime in the 60s or early 70s, Ivan Illych, an educator, wrote a book, 'De-Schooling Society,' which covers some of these themes. He argued that community education was organized around the school, and that this was wrong-headed -- there are much better ways to learn. His ideas are interesting: though temporarily out of vogue, this does not imply that they are not valid.

    I am greatly indebted to an old friend, Rick Koeplin, for giving me this book from his library. I am indebted to him for many other good things as well.

    I picked up Leonard Shlain's book at some used-book fair. I am very glad I did.

  2. I have long been disenchanted with the current educational system's methodology. But more on that topic later--back to your article. this will take several readings. I have glimpses where I think, "yes!" but then I lose the focus. I think one of the reasons that I've had an interest in mythology is because it provides a portal for this spiritual consciousness.

  3. My basic notion -- the best I can do right now -- is to think that a "mode of consciousness" is somewhere between a single "voice" --a single point or focus of awareness, and a more complex "persona" -- along the lines of a Jungian "animus" and "anima." The next step is to think that the human being is a (hopefully harmonious) interchange between these four (or more) simple voices or complex personae--
    * literacy-mode
    * visual-mode
    * natural-body-mode
    * spiritual-body mode

    This would help us understand the importance and significance of mythologies and archetypes, as they would be our best common representations or understanding of spiritual bodies, (or other composite creatures somewhat like ourselves). That is as far as I have gotten, but it leads me to think something (somewhat controversial) which I hope to bring up in a later post.


  4. Robert & Sharon,

    As long as we're on the topic of literacy consciousness, I should probably drop an astounding fact I learned just yesterday.

    The Biblical canon as we know it today (the source of Protestant literacy consciousness) was about 90% developed by A.D. 200 by the collection of catholic churches spread throughout the world. St. Justin Martyr, in A.D. 150 or so, spoke of believers reading from "the Apostle's Memoirs" at their regular liturgy. Other scholars like Origen and Tertullian had also developed lists of recommended books.

    The criteria used by the early church was that a Scriptural book needed to be written by an apostle. Since the book of Hebrews can't be firmly established to have been written by an apostle, it was deemed questionable. It doesn't appear on all the lists. 2 John, 3 John and Revelation were and continue to be controversial, as is St. James' epistle (Martin Luther famously called it an "epistle of straw"). That's just the New Testament.

    The Old Testament wasn't firmly established either. Eastern Churches to this day regard 3 and 4 Maccabees as canonical, while the Western Catholic Church uses only 1 and 2 Maccabees, in addition to others such as Sirach, Ecclesiasticus, Wisdom of Solomon and Tobit. The Book of Enoch was popular in the early Church as well.

    St. Justin even accused the Jews of deliberately deleting passages from the Old Testament that clearly pointed forward to Jesus.

    What we conclude is that, for the early Christians, literature was very important, but not totally unassailable. Most of it was agreed on, but some of it was up for grabs, and Christians felt they had the freedom to pick and choose.

    If they felt they had that freedom, then the canon of Scripture was not a totally settled thing for them, which means that literacy consciousness was not the only mode for them.

    In fact, many advocates for the ancient Orthodox or Catholic churches erroneously claim that we Protestants owe them for giving them the settled canon of Scripture at the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D., which is known primarily for the Nicene Creed, the recognized "essentials" of Christian orthodoxy (I recommend memorizing the Creed and saying it. It has a special power, I believe). A little digging reveals that the canon was never settled by the council. In fact, there is no evidence that the council even discussed the canon at all! Early Christians had literacy consciousness, but they weren't bound to it in the same way we are today.

    In conclusion, the exclusive use of Scripture alone for spiritual formation and spiritual guidance in evangelical churches may be a good idea and a noble tradition, but it does not jibe with what the early Church did. Depending on who you are, this may not matter to you all that much, but if you're part of a "Restoration" church (I use the term broadly), it should matter to you a great deal. If you're an "inerrantist," this may also cause you to lose some sleep. If you're John MacArthur, you may as well retract every book you've ever written.

    If anyone can come up with evidence to contradict me, I would be happy to hear it, really. The information has shaken me up like I haven't been shaken in a while (which probably means I'm too much into literary consciousness).

  5. Robert, I agree with the dangers of imbalance. It is necessary to keep our hearts and hands, thoughts and touches, our emotions and our skin, in contact with reality. Without presently going into the other modes you mentioned (with Sharon, I'll just say I need to read it a few more times)the distinction between literary and visual modes of consciousness brings up an interesting point. Consider the author of the book one is reading, or the promulgator of the idea one is grasping; perhaps a philosopher or teacher. Now philosophers express their thought either through written or vocal word. Written form is more prevalent now; the ancient Greek philosophers were not always concerned with writing. No matter. The key is that when we read a philosopher's book, or hear a teacher's lesson, we must bear in mind that the original teacher or philosopher was expressing (whether in written or verbal form) ideas directly relating to their experience of reality. The value of reading good books is to stand on the shoulders of giants, but it must be remembered that the giants gained their knowledge through experience. Since all ideas (excepting for the moment spiritual ones) are an impression in the mind of a reality experienced through the senses (this much St. Thomas: "Everything that is in the intellect has been in the senses), it is clear that the reality that caused the impression is greater than the impression received. This, of course stands in stark contrast with much of modern relativist philosophy, which insists that the impression is the only reality. A photograph is necessarily lesser than the landscape. Of course, these ideas or impressions are vital to us, as we learn how to correctly understand and deal with reality, but the experiencing of reality is greater than learning about it. Reading a cookbook is no substitute for eating food. Reading the Bible is futile if it does not lead to contact with God. Understanding history is pointless if we refuse to live it. Perhaps this is why we say "Much learning hath made thee mad." Learning is good and necessary, but too much of it keeps us from experiencing the realities of which we are learning; and to be out of touch with reality is the very definition of madness. Let us strive for balance; to learn about nature, and then to go and pick flowers; to learn about music, and then listen to Wagner; to learn about the human person, and then love our neighbor; to learn about God, and then receive the Eucharist. This way sanity lies....

  6. Ben, Thanks very much for your input. It brings up a lot of matters that need serious research.

    Interestingly, my "blogspot" decided it was SPAM! and shunted it off into Spam Purgatory, who knows why. You'll be delighted to know, I am sure, that I granted it a plenary indulgence!

    Which is why, when you posted on Wednesday, it didn't appear until now. Sorry.

  7. Historically, Ben,
    The Catholic council that defined the canon of Scripture was definitely not Nicea, but even later. The first council to list the books that the Roman Church still accepts was the Council of Carthage (much influenced by St. Augustine) in the late fifth century. I believe 497, but memory sometimes fails me. However, this was not a fully ecumenical council (though still worthy of respect); the council of Trent in 1556 is what you are really looking for. So the real question to me is, "How did the Church survive without an official canon for so long, and why do we trust the present canon?"
    Of course, as a Catholic, I recognize that Jesus speaks of founding a Church (not a book), and that St. Paul calls the Church the pillar and ground of Truth (not a book). Most importantly, the book itself which we accept offers no inspired table of contents (as others have pointed out before). Without authority confusion arises, as can be seen by the fact the Luther did not consider James, Jude, etc., worthy of being in the Bible.
    But here is a really interesting question to think about: After the Law, how did the Jews come to recognize which later writings were inspired, and how did they function without them? It seems that there is always a process, an unfolding (what Newman would call a development of doctrine), that requires some other authority to guide the people of God. Are Christians really a "people of the book" like the Muslims, or are we a Body, a Bride, a Church? A book may contain truth, but the words on the page are of no effect unless they are understood, i.e., interpreted. If that interpretation is by the individual reading, then, well, we have gotten as many different interpretations as we have people reading. Is that what God designed, or did He grant a clear seat (see) of authority to guide us? "The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat: all, therefore, whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say and do not." "And going into one of the ships that was Simon's...he taught the multitudes out of the ship."
    Some things to think about.

  8. All,

    I regret that I accused defenders of the Catholic and Orthodox communions of being responsible for my ignorance of issues surrounding the canon of Scripture. I take responsibility for my own stupidity. I won't blame Holy Mother Church.

  9. No blame need be assumed at all. It's not a part of history that many people are familiar with. We have accepted the things we have received for so long that we have forgotten both who gave them, and how they were given. And to forget those things is very dangerous, and can lead us to eventually misunderstand the gift itself.

  10. Leonard Shlain appears to have been influenced by Indian philosophy. In the various Kundalini yoga and Tantric yoga texts, the two sides of the brain are represented as masculine and feminine. The spinal cord represents the path for the force of kundalini and the awakening of kundalini require fusion of both the male and female aspects of the brain to achieve enlightenment. It is interesting to note that the story in the Bible - where tongues of fire fell on the heads of the apostles and instantly enlightened them appears to draw from this belief. Even more so is the celibacy clause in both the Catholic Church and in various yogic and Indian spiritual practices. The Indian schools of thought requires channelling of the sexual urge to awaken kundalini. While this thought may appear abhorrent to some readers, in Indian mysticism, sex has been recognised as a force of creation, and hence this can be rechannelled to reach union with the superconscious aqnd hence God

  11. To add to the above; functional MRI studies and PET CT scanning have shown that the brain does not work in hemispheric isolation and various areas of the brain are simultaneously involved during any task

  12. Thanks, Anon.

    Do you think that this fact that you have mentioned ("the brain does not work in hemispheric isolation") modifies or invalidates Shlain's thesis that a strong literacy function rewires the brain to the detriment of holistic function?

    Further thoughts most welcome.

  13. Robert and all,

    More thoughts on literacy consciousness. I am reading Fr. Alexander Schmemann's book, "For the Life of the World." Fr. Schmemann is an Orthodox priest who studied in Paris and taught at St. Vladimir's Seminary in North America.

    Fr. Schmemann makes the interesting observation that for the early Church, pilgrammage to the great sites of Jesus' life or sites related to saints' or apostles' lives was unnecessary and unwanted because they understood that Christ was present with them already. They didn't need to "go" anywhere, pay a fee or have a designated professional go "get" Jesus for them.

    The Fall of Man, for Fr. Schmemann, was that he began to look at Nature and use Nature as an end in itself, not as window that led them to God. Man is a hungry being, he was made to be hungry for God. Hunger is a holy thing, because all eating in communion with God. God made the world, the world lives through Him, so He feeds us.

    For Fr. Schmemann, the eating of the forbidden fruit was the beginning of dualism, where man thought that "material" things were on one level, the "sacred" was on another. It was acceptable to serve Nature for its own sake if it helped you get ahead in the "material" world, but in the sacred realms one had to necessarily cast those things away in order to become God-conscious.

    This was never Our Father's intention. And in Christ, the old loss of sacramental awareness, or eucharistic awareness, was reversed. Christians are able again to see God in everything. There is no need for an intermediary to get us from the profane to the sacred, because Christ abolished the ordinances of the Law.

    Understanding this takes a while, but it leads me to some conclusions.

    If Fr. Schmemann is right, where does this leave his particular church? The Orthodox Church famously encourages pilgrammage, the cult of relics, great processions, etc. Was he, in a backhanded way, critiquing abuses he saw in his own tradition? My answer is that if he is right about "The Life of the World", it in no way obligates me to become an Orthodox Christian, though that may be an answer for some.

    If in Christ, what was disjointed, broken and divided has been reunited, so that God is always available and present, then the celebration of Eucharist, or Mass, is a way of Christian worship that reminds us of a bigger reality. It's not, "Come to church and 'get' Jesus." It's "Come to church and see, ceremonially, what your whole new life in Christ is supposed to be about." In the formal celebration of the Eucharist, a Christian becomes part of salvation history, for (at least in Western liturgy) it is said, "Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again." In order to remind ourselves, we go back in time. We go back to the Cross.

    Charles Williams wrote that the Eucharist can be understood partially as time travel. The elements become the Victim and are sacrificed, but not afresh, for that would deny the power of the original sacrifice, but it is as if we're going back in time to that moment and remembering it anew.

  14. Ben, I think I get most of it, except the paragraph about forbidden fruit and dualism. Could you recast the statement, 'It was acceptable. . . ' Does this mean that after the Fall it was THOUGHT by fallen man to be acceptable, but not really; or the best that we could do was a kind of spiritual double-vision. . . I'm not really sure what my question is here. Help me out.

  15. Ben,
    I think you would really enjoy John Paul II's "Theology of the Body" if you aren't already familiar with it. I read the For Beginners version some years ago (written by someone else to explain the Pope's thought), and have only read the first bit's of the Holy Father's actual text. However, I think you would find an incredibly eye-opening explanation of Adam, Eve, the forbidden fruit, sin, psychology, etc. I give it an incredibly high recommendation.
    A couple of other points:
    I think that Fr. Schemmann is a bit off base with his interpretation of early Church history concerning pilgramages. He's reading too much into silence. Pilgramages happened very early on in the Church. To not see them at the very beginning could easily be attributed to periods of persecution, the early formation of the Church, lack of communication, etc. But as for the holy sites of the Saints, be aware that the early Christians (even at least by the A.D. 100's)took the bones of the martyrs with them, and, often offered the Mass over their tombs. From this comes the tradition in Roman Catholic Churches of always having some relic in the actual Church Altar. So while they may not have visited certain "sites", the tendency to take relics with them still seems to disagree historically with Fr. Schemmann's idea. Even in Sacred Scripture we see the idea of relics: The dead man revived from contact with the bones of Elisha; the taking of handkerchiefs that had been in contact with St. Paul for healing; possibly even the shadow of St. Peter (see Acts), if a shadow counts as a relic. On the sacramental nature of your post I'd like to write more later, but one comment from Bishop Fulton Sheen (re Charles Williams statement). He said that if the Blessed Virgin Mary had closed her eyes at Calvary, she would be at Mass; and if we closed our eyes at Mass, we would be with her at Calvary. Keeping in mind, of course, that the actual suffering, shedding, dying, etc., are not repeated at Mass, but that the Sacrifice is the same one.

  16. Robert and friends,

    Well I think I've got this commenting thing all sorted out. So here goes. I think I was vague in that last post.

    What is Father Schmemann saying? When I say Christ reveresed the loss of eucharistic awareness, I should more properly say that he restored eucharistic awareness for man, for the loss of it was never meant to be the norm.

    Dualism is part of the Fall, according to Father Schmemann. The split between "material" and "sacred" is part of the Fall. Religion, which seeks to help man "escape" the material and get in touch with the sacred, is part of the Fall. Father Schmemann says that Christianity is the "end of all religion." It fulfills all religious yearning, but it also abolished religion, because it breaks down the wall of separation between sacred and profane, because the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Because of Christ, His death, His defeat of Satan, His sacrifice for our sins, His Resurrection and Ascension, man can now enter into the old eucharistic awareness. He can see God through Nature and worship Him and offer Him a proper sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. In turn, a man can find his fulfillment in God alone, because God offers, through Nature, man's food, that is, Himself.

    Christianity, according to Schmemann's thinking, can't be properly as a religion because it is the end of religion. It is best understood as Life. All of Life becomes a sacrament. The Church is the sacrament. The Liturgy is sacramental.

    The Mass is a ceremonial reminder of this, but it shouldn't be confused with the Thing itself. The Thing is Life, and the worship of the Church is but one part of that Life. Here Fr. Schmemann is drawing a distinction between the Western concept of "the Church provides the Sacraments" or "The Sacraments are in the Church" to "The Church IS the Sacrament." It's about Life, not about adherence to religious principles and laws.

    The Church's celebration of the Eucharist and her Liturgy is a ceremonial recognition of the new order that Jesus established. At the beginning of the Liturgy, the congregation is led into the heavens with Christ. Fr. Schmemann says the Church is led into Christ's Ascension. This expalins the elaborate decorations, the vestments, the censing, and the icons.

    For Fr. Schmemann, the Mass is mysterious necessarily. It is very real. To call it a "symbol" of Life is misleading, because it isn't only symbolic. So he avoids the term.

    At the Mass the People of God are led into the heavenly realms to remember Christ, His Kingdom, His new order. Then they are released (Mass comes from a root word that means "to send") into the world to live out the sacrament of Life.

    For Fr. Schmemann, all men are priests of the Eucharist, for man's original vocation was that of priest. We offer the world to God and He gives us Life through the world.

    This is all very subversive stuff because it questions the need for pilgrammages and traditional religious "stuff." Of course if you want to have it, there's no shame in it (Vestments are cool and they create a necessary mood. Same with icons.).

    I've read through probably a quarter of Fr. Schmemann's book and I'm getting all this stuff out of it. He is very dense, but very good. I've noticed that he hasn't mentioned literacy consciousness once! For him, the Church is about Life. The Church is the witness of Life. The Church is the pillar and ground of truth. The Liturgy is the means of how we come to meet Jesus in the heavenly realms.

    The Scriptures come from that life, and so I'm sure that for him and for Orthodox Christians in general, the Scriptures are venerated appropriately, for they help guide us into the heavenly realms and guide us into truth. But they aren't the Main Thing. The Main Thing is Life, it's eucharistic awareness.

  17. Thanks, Ben. And I hope you give us an update as you proceed through the rest of the book.

  18. Isaac,

    I was focused on responding to what Robert said the explaining Father Schmemann in a better way, but its tough because he's so dense!

    To respond to what you said: I'll accept that its true that the early Christians developed a sort of "cult of relics." But I think it's fair to say that they understood it perhaps a little differently than the later Church understood it: less of an obligation, maybe?

    Certainly by the 16th Century the cult of relics had become quite an industry. The Reformers reacted against by doing away with it altogether. While that was an overreaction in my view, it does suggest that something went wrong and that something may still be wrong with the practice. I know only that for myself, relics, ornate churches and grand presentations make me uncomfortable and feels unnatural, but that's me and my evangelical upbrining, which taught me to receive Christ in a mostly literary (and sometimes musical) way, not so much physically. I know that I have feelings about things but I don't know that I can completely trust them as "right" so I won't impose on others' views of things like relics, icons, vestments, censing, architecture, etc.

    Still, I think that literacy consciousness, to the exclusion of other kinds of consciousness, creates, as Robert has suggested, some interesting problems. It changes how are minds work. It changes how we perceive eternal truths. And with that in mind, I think we need to ask some questions and try to sort some stuff out. How much of what we believe is part of 16th century conflicts and how much of it is really trustworthy?