CESNUR - center for studies on new religions

Carnival of the Soul : on the "Meeting for the New Consciousness" of Campina Grande

by Leila Amaral (Federal University of Juiz de Fora, Brazil) - A paper presented at CESNUR 2000 conference, Riga, Latvia, August 29-31, 2000. Preliminary version: do not reproduce without the consent of the author.

1. Introduction

Due to the specific nature of the subject in this title, it is necessary to define the central aspect on which I will focus my attention.

Particularly, I have been interested in the "homeless spirit" of a nomadic religious culture for considering it one of the strongest spiritual tendencies, at the end of this century. For this reason, in my last researches, I have tried to follow this religious culture, which is not found in a sole place, in a sole tradition, doctrine or Church, but through all of them, that is, through the exhaustive combination of many mystic and ritual elements, extracted from their original contexts, and in accordance with particular appropriations of individuals, who are searching for perfection and personal improvement

As I cannot devote myself to all ethical and social dimensions to which the problem of the religious nomadism has been appointed, I will only discuss, in this presentation, the following question : the compatibility of that nomadic religious culture with the development of a civility pattern that arises in the modern world, and that partially expresses one of the aspects of the globalization process.

It will be in focus the ability of religions to present themselves as symbolic resources for dealing with problems concerning the new social order of the world. In this respect , I would like to bring to your attention one of the essential problems of humanity, which has appeared in a more serious and systematic way, in the context of globalization : the confrontment with cultural diversity. Such a situation necessarily stimulates societies to think and answer questions regarding the living together with the different one in the same social or territorial space, and the emergence of the internally different one. This situation may take one to: a) do experiments that tend to erase differences, in search for absolute truths or universal values on behalf of the fight against intolerance, b) undertake practices through a violent and agressive reaffirmation of identities, when people are threatened by the process of cultural hegemony, and c) have difficulties in recognizing the universal values, on the basis of relativist, deconstructivist and individualist attitudes.

In connection with those challenges established by the new world order, we can notice some religious attempts towards two directions : a) as fundamentalist reactions facing the sliding of truth, when the attachment to a certain religion appears as a strong sign of group identification or ever under the form of universal religion, and b) as a relativization of identities in the "collective-social" sense, whose religious counterbalance is found in a nomadic religious culture; in a spirituality that shows discomfort in the face of the individual-society relationship. In this last case, it is pointed out the absolutism of an anti-social communication control, represented in its rituals as being the exact moment of the passage through which the individual, after being released from cultural ties, would encounter the humankind.

Nevertheless, I would like to explain that between those two polar attitudes, there is a challenge to be faced. It is necessary to maintain the dialectics between diversity and similarity, in order to maintain a certain degree of diversity that allows the societies (which are nowadays, under an intense and systematic global confrontation) to proliferate and reciprocally encourage themselves, and consequently not permitting themselves to be destroyed or become poor by reason of a relativism that is contrarily radical.

Thus, I intend to demonstrate, starting from an ethnographic example, that even among the most relativist practices, in the realm of a nomadic religious culture, the challenge does not disappear. However it suggests indirectly a ritual effort for articulating the two poles of the paradox. So, the same religious experience, which in the beginning and in accordance with the aims stated by its participants could be characterized as a relativist reaction to the paradox of globalization, presents those two possibilities simultaneously, allowing them to coexist under pressure or in intersection.

2. The Carnival of the Soul of Campina Grande : an Ethnographic Example

The ethnographic example that I will present briefly in this paper is a religious meeting which has been held since 1992, in Campina Grande, a town in the State of Paraíba, Brazil, always at Carnival time. It has attracted tourists, mainly from the Northeast region, as well as public speakers from other regions of the country. Being a "macro ecumenical" religious meeting, in the manner of a nomadic religious culture, it has received the nickname "The Carnival of the Soul", although its official name is "Meeting for the New Consciousness".

In 1997, the year of my research, many representatives of religious institutions got together in the main premises of that Meeting. Among them were representatives of 2 wings of Presbyterian Church; Baptist Church; Methodist Church; Bahaism; Hare Krishna Movement; 2 Afro-Brazilian cults (Tradição de Orixás and Axé Epô Afonjé); Islam; a brazilian New Religious Movement called St. Daime; Messianic Church; and Roman Catholicism (the official one and representatives of Liberation Theology). Some movements that are not strictly religious were also there, such as: Cidade da Paz Foundation, being represented by the Holistic University of Brasília; Freemasonry of Brazil; Rosicrucianism; and participants of the New Age Movement, which is not officially bound to any special religious group. The participation of "tarot players, astrologers, ufologists, and instructors of Yoga and T’ai chi ch’uan has completed that varied manifestation of religious, spiritual and semireligious options, besides the active participation of scholars, sociologists, theologians, psychologists, pressmen, fine arts professionals, musicians, writers and other important people from movements linked to the cause of minorities.

They are invited by the organizing committee for making speeches, participating in panels, and conducting courses. The participation in that Meeting is totally open to an heterogeneous public: volunteer regular visitors, residents of that town and tourists, on a religious or touristic trip.

Besides the speeches and panels, the Meeting also provides for the participants courses and workshops, typically known as New Age, such as, Past Life Therapy; Brazilian Aromatherapy; a blend of Brazilian musics and Eastern meditations; Chakra Alchemy; Photo Kirliam; Sensual Meditation; Dance of Universal Peace; Tarot and Selfconsciousness; Being an Individual within Community; Bioenergetics; The Inner-Understanding Process; Princples for the 3rd. Millennium; Biodance; Vibration Therapy; Hipnotism; Improving the Sociolization of the Excluded People Through Arts; Ikebana; and so on.

All around that eclectic set of activities, other independent events take place as well, in parallel with the "central forum", for discussing special issues related to a specific religious movement. Thus, at the same time of the central Meeting, other meetings take place as well, such as, the Meeting for the Integration of the Spiritualist Movement in Paraiba; the Catholic Community Meeting; Lectures on Seicho-no-iê; the Rosicrucian Meeting; the Meeting of Hare Krishna Movement; the Meeting with St. Daime, Lectures on Bahaism; and so on.

In short, it is possible to count on the official presence of religions of well delimited identities, including those recognized as traditional, as well as those considered as new religious movements, besides the semireligious practices, generally called New Age. The discussion and workshops that take place at the "Meeting for the New Consciousness" favour the constitution of a spirituality as an experiment of a "pluralist universalism", according to the follow question: where should we recognize the previous unity, capable of assuring the type of similarity that approaches human beings in the process of communication, keeping at the same time a certain distance between them for preserving their peculiarities ?

The content of the speeches, round-tables and workshops realized at that "conference" offers different assumptions about the meaning of that previous unity, what encourages myself to support the following argument: the concept of essential unity has been presented to the organizers and participants of the Meeting as being the unifier and the condition of the Meeting. Nevertheless, that concept is not an unified concept. Being the condition of the diversity, the previous unity, however, demonstrates that it is far from being achieved.

The essential unity is represented as a result of partial aspects of temporality, for instance, the time of "tradition", among the followers of Krishna, and the time of "prophecy" and the "mnemonic" time, in the case of the St. Daime communities. These followers consider the "past", both the one of "tradition" and the one of "prophecy" as the representation of the absolute essence of time. In very New Age workshops, the time of "experiment" and the consequent reaffirmation of the "present" are considered as the representation of the absolute essence of time. This is achieved through a conception of the "sacred element" as a "full potential" which is present at any time and any place. Within the Catholic presence, it is noticed an approach that tells us about a present action directed towards the future in stressing the time of the "project". The emphasis is then placed on the "future" as the representation of the absolute essence of the time. We could say this is a sort of a spiritual evolucionism, whose project will never be realized because, while it is represented in a time sequence, the reality of the essential unity is always its own virtuality, be it the virtuality of the "original myth", the "prophecy", the continuous "becoming" or the virtuality of the "it will be".

In turn, as the essential unity is represented on account of the parcial aspects of temporality, the recognition of diversity in space is left open. I could say, it deals with the productive indetermination of the religious transit and with the herectical, flexible, ephemeral and fleeting meetings, of which the "Meeting for the New Consciousness" is one possibility among others.

Such religious or spiritual practices, informed in this way, even if they are not necessarily fundamentalist or essencialist, they are committed to finding the essential unity, as a condition of their own existence. The fundamental aspect that characterizes the spirit of the "Meeting for the New Cosciousness" is found right here: the affirmation of the participants` will to capture that essence, which is simultaneously fundacionist and relativist.

Nevertheless, it is important to clarify that the double nature of the essence -- which is both fundacionist and relativist -- does not present the same degree of equilibrium in the various religious or spiritual experiments realized at the Meeting. They may tend more towards the fundacionist pole, when the past is lived as the representation of the essence of time, or then, towards the relativist pole, when it is the living present time that represents it.

At last, I could say that this "Meeting for the New Consciousness" seems to capture and express "something" that could be informing the modern society -- or the "spirit of our age" - in the various fields of its experience and not only in the field of religion or spirituality. I call to your attention the following aspects of this "spirit of age": uprooting, fluidity, transitivity, additive logic, des-tradicionalization; emphasis on emotions and wish for similarity (Velho,1996).

In the Meeting of Campina Grande, those aspects were being expressed through the referred indetermination of the place where the essence can be captured, that is, through the productive indetermination of the transit, in opposition to a religious code neither ambivalent nor doubtful. Therefore, because this "spirit of age" is open to indetermination, it is presented as the proper possibility of the diversity.

In the cases presented here, due to the emphasis on the "des-totalization" of the representation of the essence of time, under the aegis of a pluralist universalism, it was noticed in that Meeting, the coexistence of a plurality of "spirits of age". They do move in different directions, according to a stronger or weaker emphasis given to the fundacionist pole or the relativist one, keeping up between them a tension not resolved. I mean, emphasis in one of the poles and tension between them, but I do not mean the crystallization of one or the other pole, as the radicalization of one of them - the fundacionist or the relativist one -- what would endanger the idea of "open totality", on behalf of a "systemic totality", by materializing, in one case, the idea of "community as fusion" and in the other case, the idea of "individual as monad". In both cases, a strive favoring the determination against ambiguity or ambivalence would take the place of the productive indefinition of the transit. The effort for exterminating the ambivalence, by defining precisely the place where the essence can be captured, contrary to creating a dynamic for searching the essence, would lead its apologists towards a critical attitude for the purpose of delimiting identities, be it on the level of the individual conscience or in communitarian terms.

It could be said that exist partial "spirits of age", that is, "spirits of age" that get updated, first towards one direction (fundacionist), afterwards, towards another one (relativist) or even more, in the tension between them. This allows the recognition in the diversification and the corresponding notion of dispersion of the sacred element, and not exclusively, the recognition of identities. I would take the risk to affirm that it is the recognition of the dispersion of the sacred element, which constitutes the "spirit of our age". As such, the "spirit of age" does not exist as a complete category. This enables the people, with a higher or lower degree of affinity to the tendencies pointed out here, to recognize themselves as being "similar" instead of "identical" to others or even "irreconcilable" in their identities.

There are times when many people, supposedly defined as followers of the New Age movement, present themselves as not being so. This is due to the indetermination of the place where the essence can be captured and due to the meeting of partial "spirits of age". On the other hand, at other times and situations, many of the so-called "traditions", not assumed or defined as New Age, show perspectives that are considered as being properly from New Age.

3. Conclusion

It could be said, at long last, that the "Meeting for the New Consciousness" brings to light a type of "nomadism" that usually occurs among the parcial "spirits of age", revealing a religious conscience (or a spirituality) that before being considered essencialist, it presents itself much more as a search for the essence.

In this sense, the "Meeting for the New Consciousness" focalizes the relativist version of the globalization phenomenon. The holism referred to in its practices and speeches is related to an ideal of a very radical "fusion", which can only realize itself at a non-essentialist level. That is, in the sense of a placeless sacred element. The result is the possibility that Religions allow themselves to be appropriated in relation to other religions and movements. This happens through the diachronic and synchronous transit of a syncretism in motion and by the "sociability" of the dialogue. It is the assurance of that "essenceless unit", or even better, the assurance of searching for the essence, which never becomes definitively substantialized, that allows, in the case of the sociability of the ecumenical discourse, the valorization of diversity, and in the case of the New Age syncretism, the experiment of diversity. It is in that universe, so converted to New Age, that the dialogues and practices realized there, for being opened to cross-social relationships, are understood as spiritual ones.

On the other hand, in the Meeting of Campina Grande, it was not abandoned neither the ideal nor the nostalgia of creating substantive communities, whose concrete experiences as explained there, were presented as alternatives to the fragmentation of the modern society or even to a feeling of cultural uprooting .

Both tendencies are present: the "relativist" and the "substantive" ones. The first emphasizes the contingent meetings of the workshops. The second stresses the conviviality, which valorizes the experiences in communities culturally established and holders of well delimited identities The "Meeting for the New Consciousness" of Campina Grande help the two tendencies to coexist through the possibility offered to their participants of experiencing them together, at the same period of time and in the same religious and spiritual space.

At long last, it is possible to conclude that the "Carnival of the Soul" (and I make use of this expression not only to characterize the Meeting of Campina Grande, but also to refer to a nomadic religious culture from the end of this century), reveals a challenge syntonized with the "spirit of our age". It includes in its own religious and spiritual experience the antinomy that characterizes the worldwide problem of the new social order: the coexistence of issues and experiences concerning the valorization of the cross and intersocial relationships (the diversity as a value) as well as the intrasocial relationships through face-to-face associations (that is, the local acting, be it through transitory and ephemeral meetings, as those that take place at the time of the New Age workshops, be it through more stable community ties).


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