Christian Scientists think of angels as bright ideas. Angels are moments of clarity and expanded consciousness, moments of fresh vision and creativity, broadened perspective, and infusions of loving inspiration. Christian Scientists, who think of God as pure Mind, a divine principle of loving consciousness, see the intellect as a portal of revelation.
I come from a line of Christian Scientists, educated people devoted to the art of learning, whose hearts and imaginations are fed by angelic ideas, who are restored to health and wholeness through the spiritual practice of learning. Of course, not only Christian Scientists access the divine via the portal of the intellect. The heritage of growth through learning, and liberation through education, is upheld by Jesuits, Orthodox Jews, swamis and gurus, poets and scholars, and anyone who embarks courageously on immersion into a new discipline. Children, whose biological development keeps rapid pace with their cognitive burgeoning, are greeted by angels on every horizon.
I am a PhD student, a professional learner. Presently I am preparing for comprehensive exams. Naturally, the task of preparing for comps is accompanied by great trepidation. It is the time at which one is asked to master the literature and historical lineage of their field of study in order to be able to teach it to undergraduates and to more incisive graduate students, and to be able to engage with fellow field specialists about new research and emerging methods for conceiving of, connecting, and conveying information within and beyond the field. The heritage of the academic profession is to be encyclopedic about one’s field of study, and to be able to constellate ideas and explications into related clusters. These constellations amass into a celestial canopy of ideas, the effulgent latticework that is your field of study. In other words, you have to get the lay of the land and to be able to name the giants whose shoulders you stand upon.
The reason this task is laden with such trepidation has to do with the enormous amount of literature that beleaguers virtually every academic discipline. All of this information has to be taken in and synthesized. The proof of the achievement is passage of a series of exams that ask you to demonstrate your grasp of up to 210 academic treatises relevant to your field. Even if you aren’t particularly interested in or compliant with certain arguments that have been made, if they have been made in the neighborhood of your topic, you need to be conversant on them. It is part of the vocation. So people like me are asked to read about a book a day every day for about nine or twelve months, and to reintegrate other pertinent literature read throughout graduate and perhaps undergraduate coursework.
This is of course an arduous undertaking. I have found that it is, to my surprise, possible to read a book a day, although the more appropriate term might be “reading,” these big juicy air quotes denoting a selective and efficient mode of input that depends heavily on introductions, conclusions, indexes, chapter headings, and other scholars’ reviews and summaries of the text.
The greatest challenge of this task is structuring the input marathon so it is sustainable and retainable. I have long been a binge-worker, working until collapse until catatonia subsides and I do it again. So the attempt to discipline myself for consistent input has released my beastly wild child. My greatest enemy is not the magnitude of literature to intake, nor is it the difficulty level of these dense texts, though these factors are of course daunting. What I fight with every single day is simply the charge to wake up at the same hour, to sit and read for several more, to feed and exercise and bathe myself, to read some more, and then to go to bed at a reasonable hour. Consistency is the hobgoblin of my monstrous little mind, which wants to monkey around, climb the walls, multitask uselessly, check Facebook, write unnecessary emails, wander around my apartment in pointless loops, stare into the bowels of the refrigerator, and gaze at my toes.
The last time I felt like this I was living at a Benedictine monastery for three months. I found that without the demands of meetings and constant social stimulation, I had a window to my anxieties and the whirligig pony ride psychcrunch of my mind that was, frankly, horrifying. I was amazed by the amount of trash floating around in the air of my imagination, much like the view outside Dorothy’s Kansas window as her house floats through the tornado.
The thing is, Dorothy was looking out the window from inside the eye of the storm, from a room of relative tranquility. Hers was a steady gaze through the glass at the whirling world outside. That calm eye is also in my mind, and I learned to looked at my mind with that eye when I was at the monastery. As the days and weeks and months passed, I grew able to occupy that eye more readily. One day I realized I was becoming the eye. I was able to gaze out beyond the tornado without worrying I would get hit by a flying scarecrow. I knew I was not in danger.
Now charged with preparing for my comprehensive exams, I am tasked to find the eye and look tranquilly out onto the pages before me. When I manage to resist interacting with flying monkeys and broomsticks and toenail polish and tasty leftovers, I touch a certain tranquility, a receptivity to the many minds of my field of study.
I am an anthropologist of religion. So I am reading what social scientists have written about religious communities, rituals, and experiences for about the last 200 years. As the days, weeks, and months pass, I will myself to arise and go to the page and put my eye on it. Slowly the scarecrows cease their chatter. The more I read, the more I develop a cybernetic latticework of ideas and analyses and interpretations and narratives. I feel hot little buttons going off in my brain as ideas start to connect and citations start to sprout. I see the family tree of social scientists unfurling: the ancestors, the elders, the old brigade, the current in-crowd, the ingenues.
I know that Sigmund Freud saw religion as the universal obsessional neurosis, a projection of the need for a father figure who provides structure and protection, and for a nurturing mother who provides a familiar hearth and a warm breast. I know that Karl Marx saw religion as upholding the ideology of the ruling class, a lie about eternal rewards that kept the little people working even though they were totally alienated from the products of their own hard labor. I know that about a century later a sociologist named Peter Berger wrote that reality is a social construction, and most of the life-ways we take for granted emerge from a fundamentally arbitrary mass of variables that have been sculpted through political, economic, linguistic, ecological and biological processes into the forms we take as facts today. I know that anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann has found a way to not only conduct but to clearly explain a complex study on the religious experiences and prayer lives of American evangelical communities, and how a nuanced personal relationship with God over time changes response and bias tendencies in the human brain.
As I read on, arguments about religion seem laden with heritages, classifications, and contradictions. Within a few sentences I can identify whether a person thinks about religion theologically, anthropologically, biologically, philosophically, historically, phenomenologically, sociologically, scientifically, self-consciously, prayerfully, habitually, traditionally, economically, politically, personally, critically, or constructively. Usually these adverbs come in combinations. They are often quite identifiable and traceable.
It is pretty cool to develop such classifying competencies, to start to see the underlying patterns and matrices in arguments and narratives, to be able to trace leaves to branches to roots. I am getting the lay of the land, slowly and surely. I see Van Gennep talk to Durkheim, and I see Turner expand on Van Gennep. I see Ammerman invoke Weber, and I see Bender invoke Ammerman. I see E. Evans-Pritchard savage the just-so theories of Freud while admitting their creativity. I see Margaret Mead illuminating anthropological method in her day and later, decades after her death, lambasted for enhancing her data, generating new standards for methodological stringency even after death. Human thought is no isolated process; it is a conversation. Nobody is in this conversation alone. They all speak to each other across the decades and centuries. Human thought bears a radiant connective tissue, pulsing with tension and unity.
Strangely enough, this was almost exactly my experience when I was at the Benedictine monastery years ago. I encountered the connectivity of all life, intersecting by sentience and sensation, suffering together, harmonious and destructive, contradicting and borrowing from each other, deeply interdependent. The leaves and branches and roots I followed then were my own restless mental meanderings, my psychological quirks and pathologies. I followed them down to the ground of my being (citation: Paul Tillich). What was at the ground? The source of life. An indivisible wholeness. Inimitable, imperturbable unity. The eye of the eye.
I cannot yet name the ground of the social science of religion. Maybe it is curiosity; maybe it is control; maybe it is a kaleidoscopic system of emotion, bodies, logic, and social groups, with a ground as elusive and yet undeniable as the ground of my being. Of course, my reading and learning about religion will continue long after my comps, and this tree of knowledge will continue to flourish and bloom and sprout and sway in the bluster of new information. But the experience of taking in all this literature has felt something like springtime inside. The tree that is growing in my brain has a paint-by-numbers color scheme, and as time passes I can see and name the numbers and I know who inscribed which numbers where and what thinking-family they hail from. My brain plastically absorbs and synthesizes new information and connections, and it feels like sun landing on dewdrops on leaves. I literally feel lit-up inside my head. It is really cool. Yes: preparing for comprehensives exams is really cool.
Lots of people told me that preparing for comps would be torture. Lots of people told me that comps are the ball and chain of graduate school and that they are a soul-sucking stress-fest of doom.
Horror story not true. It’s a rigorous undertaking to be sure. Almost every single day I have to torture and punish and discipline myself (citation: Foucault) to sit down and read. After the daily explosive wrestling match with my beastly little wrigglemonkey, I surrender. I sit down, and the lights start to light up. The dewdrops heat up. I start to ride my melt. Bronislaw Malinowski kicks Max Weber’s ass for being an armchair anthropologist, and E. Evans-Pritchard does the same to Durkheim (also snarling at Malinowski for pioneering fieldwork methods but not theorizing well). Gananathe Obeyesekere salvages Freud’s dream symbols to understand Hindu ecstasy, and Talal Asad corrects Wilfred Cantwell Smith’s tendency to ignore ritual practices and secularism when attempting to define Religion. Ghosts yodel at each other across parallel universes through the bullhorn of the page. It is a grand opera.
I resist my seat in the audience out of defiant habit but then succumb to the show. There is really no way around mastering the literature of a field other than to stuff it in your brain as quickly as possible. And lest we forget, this stuff is interesting. I am obsessed with these ideas and I always have been. And now I am collecting and sorting (citation: Mary Douglas) the citations to support my obsession.
If angels are ideas, if they are seeds for expanded consciousness, then teachers and books and comprehensive exams are the sacred ground of revelation. Every now and then I fall out of my eye and back into the storm, where I get whacked by a few scarecrows and chase the monkey around the tree for a few hours. But then I climb back into the blustering branches and keep reading. After all, I have a big exam coming up in late May. Leftovers and toenail polish can’t help me now.