Home and altar

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1. Home and altar seem to occupy mutually exclusive positions in the religious imagination. What happens to the home when it incorporates an altar? What happens to the altar when a religious sanctuary is converted into a private home?

2. The home as a container for personal possessions, including the weapons necessary for their defense, is very far from the idea of a sanctuary, open to all who come in peace. But in many parts of the world, the distinction is not nearly so sharp, and offering an unreserved welcome to the stranger is recognized as the foundation of ethical behavior. An important test of ethical behavior is a willingness to part with anything, should the guest’s fancy alight on it.

3. Abrahamic religion encourages a view of every stranger as a potential hypostasis of the one divinity, but whether the godhead is viewed as singular or plural is not of such great moment as the attitude toward divine representatives and representations: may they be permanently housed in stone, in wood, in icons? Or is this an impermissible encroachment on divine prerogatives? In the so-called Ten Commandments, an injunction against service to other gods is coupled with an injunction against the manufacture of religious images. Throughout the Hebrew scriptures, divinity may choose to rest in a particular place – e.g. the Ark of the Covenant, or a human heart/mind – but it remains essentially homeless and apart. It may not be compelled by rite or prayer nor encompassed by preconception or mental category.

4. As the practice of Jubilee suggests, there are no permanent possessions before God. Clinging to objects of desire is not merely a transgression against the laws of hospitality but an act of supreme impiety, a violation of the commandment against idolatry. Might the presence of an altar within the home simply be a concession to human weakness? We take whatever it is we most value and place it, literally or symbolically, among the offerings.

5. One problem with religious objects and images – fetishes, icons, priestly vestments, etc. – is that they cannot be freely given to any guest who shows an interest in them. But this may be problematic only if one sees God as uniquely transcendent and unbounded and everything else as (ideally) bounded. An animistic or pantheistic/immanentist view tends to hold that all things, including natural and man-made objects, are imbued with manas and possess a sovereignty (whether their own, or refracted) that commands respect. Earth as home becomes a sanctuary for an infinite number of guests, any of which may enter into a covenantal relationship with any other but remains otherwise free and sovereign. Abrahamic religion tries to simplify things by positing one, fundamental relationship which all others should aspire to emulate. Anything that comes into contact with the divine presence becomes a locus of uncreatedness within the midst of Creation. A shrine or altar is the physical manifestation of this paradox.

6. Within the sanctuary, the altar is the place of maximal openness – a portal, perhaps even a vortex. It need not be reserved for non-quotidian purposes: in its simplest, shamanic form it is nothing more than a chimney or smoke hole through which the shaman’s spirit too might pass into a suddenly transfigured Outside. Might the home computer, connected permanently to the Internet, provide a rough analogy? Isn’t the open source movement simply the latest manifestation of an age-old, idealistic tradition of radical hospitality?

7. The occasional necessity of breaking into one’s own home or vehicle is a peculiarly modern source of vertigo. How might such vertigo differ from the experience of Christians reenacting the Last Supper before the symbolic empty tomb, or Jews welcoming Elijah (in lieu of the Destroyer) across the threshold on Passover, inviting him to take the empty place at the table?

8. One good definition of altar is a stage upon which divine dramas are reenacted or pantomimed. These dramas need not be violent, but I believe they must, at some point, involve a sacrifice, which I interpret in the broadest possible sense as an act of renunciation, a shedding of self-centered attachments. Even non-hierarchical worldviews tend to acknowledge the sacred responsibility of periodically overcoming social or provisional boundaries between self and other, participating in a more fundamental openness or unboundedness. In the ancient Middle East and elsewhere, the marriage bed was seen as the primordial form of the altar.

9. What about the table, then? Quoting myself (a deplorable practice, I know), “Against sacrifice: Every nation-state is built around an altar; ours is no different. But I am not sure what to think about altared states of being: the bull that turned into a god in the ancient Near East, the Mesoamerican serpent demanding that the whole world shed its skin. Like so many moderns, I prefer the living with their claws and hooves, their manes and humps and barbs, their scales, their feathers. When I eat them, it is not for power. At most I might sketch their shadows, I might dream of trading colors for a world of scent. I have no ambition to don a theurgist’s cloak or wield a jewel-encrusted letter-opener to read a supposed message from another supposed world: this one’s enough. To suck the marrow yet would be too much. I don’t taste half of what I eat.”

10. But in the very next post, I advocated “For sacrifice: In Rabbinical Judaism, hermeneutics – deep reading and critical analysis – became the explicit substitute for the act of sacrifice. The connection, I take it, is that both are discriminatory. In Christianity, sacrifice continues, but in a more sublimated form: the rite of Eucharist. In both cases, the tendency is away from violence. Pueblo religion transformed the bloody sacrificial traditions of greater Mesoamerica in a similarly ingenious fashion. Prayers are animated, given shape, by carved and feathered prayer sticks fashioned by the petitioner himself, or in the case of a woman by her husband. They are, in fact, effigies of the petitioner. Their use is phenomenologically similar to the act of crossing oneself.

11. “It is at this crossroads in the self that the most important sacrifice is enacted.” This image of altar as crossroads may be the most useful of all. In a post describing the anti-shrine pictured above, I quoted Ifa priest and scholar Wande Abimbola: “Sacrifice is an act of exchange. When one makes sacrifice, one exchanges something dear, or something purchased with one’s own money, in order to sustain personal happiness. Sacrifice involves human beings in a process of exchange or denial of oneself, or giving of one’s time, forsaking one’s pleasure, food, etc., in order to be at peace with both the benevolent and malevolent supernatural powers as well as to be at peace with one’s neighbors, family, the entire environment and ultimately to be at peace with oneself.”

12. My blog is your blog. Please feel welcome, as always, to respond to any or none of these points using the comment boxes below.

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave's writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the "share alike" provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

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