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Hello again, reader! Welcome to part three of the Divisions series of posts! Last time, we left off talking about mythology and values.  In this post we’ll be talking about space.

Interstellar space?

Not exactly.

We’re not talking about the cold, remote void between planets.  We’re talking about space in the sense of space.  The world around us.  The space in which we build buildings and interact with one another. Space. You know, space.

Space often gets a little funky around humans.  One minute we’re wandering around on the plains, and the next we have thresholds and houses, and begin to chop up the universe into little manageable bits and pieces, some of them with great meaning and significance.   Space is all around us–but not all space is made equal.  Or, more accurately, we make space unequal.

Think of the space inside a church.  If you’re like me, you’ll notice instinctively that there is something different about a place of worship.  No matter how dogmatically you believe that all religion is hogwash, your voice is hushed, your breath is stilled, and all minds turn inward in reflection.

In reflection and in contemplation of copyright laws protecting photography of gothic cathedrals.

If that example fails to move you, consider another space: your home. Your home sits in the same open air and under the same weather as any other point on the planet. Why, then, does it seem so completely solid? Why does home seem so safe? Why do we relax when we close the door behind us? There is nothing particularly magical about a door.

Of course, we don’t call these spaces sacred any more.  There is nothing magical about the first dorm room we ever inhabit, or the first job we ever held.  We have progressed beyond the need for religion, right?

“…this experience of profane space still includes values that to some extent recall the nonhomogeneity peculiar to the religious experience of space.  There are, for example, privileged places, qualitatively different from all others–a man’s birthplace, or the scenes of his first love, or certain places in the first foreign city he visited in youth.  Even for the most frankly nonreligious man,  all these places still retain an exceptional, a unique quality; they are the ‘holy places’ of his private universe, as if it were in such spots that he had recieved the revelation of a reality other than that in which he participates through his ordinary daily life.” 

The spiritual world is coterminous to our own.  Sacred and profane overlap, but the sacred moment breaks through only occasionally, bringing with it timeless moments that influence us for years or decades.


Remember how we talked about mythology in China?

One thing that you might know already about eastern mythology: everything depends on where you are.  Every shrine, tree, and stream has its own place spirit, its own genius loci.  Space in our culture is divided.  Space in China and Japan is microdivided. A forest is divided into glades and rivers which are divided into individual trees and pools.  And the space matters.  If you’re on the river, you’d better be prostrating yourself to the river spirit.  If you’re in the forest, you’d better be damn friendly to the trees. And if you’re on a mountain, you’d better be showing proper respect to that mountain spirit.

The same thing happens in social spaces, not just in China but in many more communal cultures.  Each social task and economic niche is taken care of on a local and individual level.  It’s like the atmosphere at a small school.  If you want to get some help with your coursework, you don’t go to the outside world or onto the internet; you go talk to Kim in Learning Enrichment.  If you want to get into a club, you don’t fill out an application online; you find Will and schmooze with him for twenty minutes.  The division of sacred space is paralleled by the division of social space–and so, in Chinese mythology, it’s all about who you know.

So to recap: our experience of the world is divided.  Space may be infinite, formless, and homogenous–but humans slice it up into bits and pieces.  The same thing happens with social roles, although the West has by and large moved away from this model (except in small towns).  We divide the formless mass of society into infinite little groups, as this XKCD cartoon clearly shows:

In the next post, we’ll look at possible implications of a worldview where everyone has their own niche and responsibility–it makes for a very commonsense approach.


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