Spiritual Expressions in Cultural Settings

By Karen A. Bellenir 

I have often wondered why people in earlier historical times reported more vibrant experiences of spiritual realities than people do today. The standard answer from the skeptical crowd is that those poor misguided folk didn't know as much as we do now; therefore, they attributed to spirit everything they didn't understand.

This answer has never seemed fully satisfactory. The spiritual insights in ages past led to scientific discoveries in the physical world. They opened inner vistas and enabled artists in a variety of media to explore meaning. They inspired philosophers and helped shape governments that would strive for liberty and justice for all. These aren't the results I'd expect to see from people fearing and shunning the unknown.

I think the answer may be more closely aligned with the patterns cultures train their inhabitants to experience. An analogy exists in the way the language is learned. Children learn to recognize and differentiate among subtly different sounds when the associated differences carry meaning within their culture. Take spoken English as an example. The difference between the /p/ sound and the /b/ sound influences what a word means. The words "pat" and "bat" have completely different meanings. On the other hand, if a difference doesn't carry meaning for a specific language, native speakers of that language won't automatically hear it.

During my college years, I took a linguistics class and was surprised to learn that there are two distinct, separate sounds spoken to represent the hard /k/ sound. A hard /k/ sound can be spelled in various ways. It is often spelled by the letter "k" (except when "k" is silent, as in "knee" or "knife"). It can also be spelled by the letter "c" (as in "cat"; but the letter "c" can be used to spell other sounds such as an /s/ in words like cement).

I did not initially believe in the existence of two separate /k/ sounds. My teacher explained that although the initial "k" in the word "key" and the initial "k" in "kook" sound identical to most people with modern American ears, they are in fact different, and they are produced differently in the mouth. Americans don't hear the difference because in English the different sounds occur in predictable combinations and they never affect meaning.

You can discover the difference if you carefully pay attention to how you form words that include them. Get ready to say "key" but stop before you say it. Notice that your tongue is bowed and it touches the roof of your mouth. Now relax and get ready to say "kook" but stop before you say it. Your tongue is still bowed and it touches the roof of your mouth, but in a different spot that is farther back. If you get ready to say "key" and instead switch and say "kook" without first moving your tongue, it will sound odd, something like "kyook," almost like you're starting to say "cucumber."

Along these lines, I believe people today are less attuned to the spirit because they've been culturally indoctrinated to ignore it. Schools often teach that scientific understanding is what is important, and they promote the idea that spiritual meaning is a relic from an older, more superstitious past. The process of training minds to ignore spiritual experiences may be responsible for producing cultures inhabited with people who no longer recognize them.