The New Archaic

From “The New Archaic: A Neurophenomenological Approach to Religious Ways of Knowing,” Anne Benvenuti and Elizabeth Davenport. In Barbara Maria Stafford, ed. A Field Guide to a New Meta-Field: Bridging the Humanities/Neurosciences Divide. University of Chicago Press, 2011.

“The cloaked and inwardly-directed figure walks the ancient labyrinth that has been constructed in a contemporary garden from rocks rounded over millennia by the surge of the river. Her intention is to walk inward as a seeker, and outward again with new insight taking shape within her. She is participating in that kind of knowing into which we enter as entire beings: a multi-sensory engagement of our physical, intellectual, sensory, and emotional systems which Barbara Stafford describes as mantic knowing. It is our hypothesis that spiritual practice such as this creates a specific kind of mantic knowledge, an integrated situating of humans within a framework of relationships; and that the neuro-circuits created by engaging in such spiritual practice service to orient individuals to their place in larger schemes, in an embodied and participatory manner, beyond belief or a set of beliefs and distinct from intellectual theological interpretation.

“We refer to contemporary spiritual practice as a new archaic in order to suggest its continuity with that of ancient humans. We think, for example, of the Neanderthals who buried their dead with grave goods, beads, and medicinal plants, apparently in recognition of the questions raised by their own mortality, and of the modern humans of the Upper Paleolithic whose painted caves have been interpreted as mechanisms of shamanic journey between ordinary daily life and the realm of the spirits….” Our argument builds upon and runs somewhat parallel to that of David Lewis-Williams and Thomas Dowson in their carefully constructed case for interpreting cave art of the Upper Paleolithic with reference to geometric light patterns seen within the eye during altered states of consciousness in the experience of twentieth century shamans. The continuity is based fundamentally upon the shared human body and brain, modern humans being in genetic and phenotypic continuity with the cave-traveling shamans of the Upper Paleolithic. Although the content of spiritual practice changes with context and culture, the need for the binding of fragmentary subjective experience does not change because it is based in the body. We hypothesize that performative spiritual practice, which may include ancient or newer elements or a blending of the two, creates that binding….”

© Anne Benvenuti and Elizabeth Davenport, 2010

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