The framing of this image struck me hard while spending time near nightfall at the fire which the Indigenous community maintained constantly during the Parliament. The fire burned constantly and consistently, with periodic handfuls of cedar, tobacco and white sage set to burning with a crackling and a sparkling and a silent prayer. For all my relations indeed. Every morning one tradition or another performed a sunrise ceremony — sometimes Native, or Zoroastrian, or sometimes something else. I was usually doing my own ceremonial work at that hour, so I didn’t get there at all for dawn.
But in the gloaming, as the colors of day faded to the grayscale of twilight and night, I was struck by the sense of scale as it’s expressed in religion — and how being aware of which magnitude you’re operating in, leads to better results in the long run.
The first scale is the human scale. At the human scale, a religion welcomes strangers to the fire, thanks the spirit world in some form for the essentials of life — food and raiment and shelter — and supports existence in an almost-naive way. It’s sustainable bit it’s difficult to support more than a few dozen people at this scale. The temptation is always to go larger.
Then comes the cultural scale. At the cultural scale, the simple experiences of the fire become shrouded in larger or smaller mysteries, the rules of living and hospitality are modified to the landscape and the surrounding landscapes. Rules become law, law becomes inter-generational wisdom if it’s successful at navigating the landscape.
Two scales come next in quick succession: one the right relationship with nature, where the culture remains within the resources and relationships with its human and more-than-human neighbors. The other is either dominionist or overshoot , where the relations with other humans or the more-than-human cause the expansion of the cultural frame or scale of religion beyond its functional boundaries. The result is a set of bent or broken rules and roles, where the circular relationships of the local fire tend to become compromised in favor of a grand vision. The needs of one fire’s circling tribe outweigh those of another fire and their tribe.
The grandest expressions of these cultural models tend to become vast structures of dizzying beauty and complexity. They’re intellectual efforts of spiritual engineering, reaching upward to vast heights and yet never really achieving their main goal, which is some kind of formal and technical solution to the reunion of soil and sky, heaven and earth.
We can be easily awed by these highly engaging experiences of standing inside the structures and monuments of our own culture’s spirituality, of course, and sometimes the monuments of other cultures impress us enough to shift our efforts from funding churches to funding synagogues or ashrams, gudwaras or groves. Sometimes the physical artifacts of another religion, in all their complexity and nuance and mystery, are enough to draw us into admiration without shifting allegiance.
But ultimately, all the real work of religious identity and the flow of experience and relationship is done at the scale of the fire: face to face and person to person: are you cold? Warm yourself at my fire. Are you hungry? Here is food and drink. Are you heart-hurt? Here is ceremony. Are you weary? Here is rest. Are you afraid? Here is safety. Are you friendless? Here there are stories and songs, and the comfort of human companions on a dark cold night.
Every layer we add to this scale risks alienation: confusion, mystification, hurt, horror, bloodshed or atrocity. It’s not guaranteed to be awful, of course— you might convince someone to ride to the top floor of your magnificent intellectual elevator to the heavens and experience exaltation there beyond the skies.
But maybe before you connive a guest to try out your superior skyhook, at great expense to themselves and their own cultural scales, you should see if they need a warm meal and a change of clothes first.