Art and education as a spiritual awakening

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Light calligraphy by Julien Breton (a.k.a Kalaam). Courtesy of the artist

Since the dawn of human existence, our species has sought and yearned to explore the very nature and meaning of life on Earth and beyond. Early human beings developed complex mythological narratives, rituals and practices, which were incorporated into the daily lives of that specific culture. Starting as early as the Upper Paleolithic period (at least around 30,000 years ago and possibly even earlier), archeologists and historians believed that rituals and belief in supernatural phenomenon (i.e. an afterlife and a pantheon of deities), played a significant role in society.

While we know little about the day-to-day experiences of Paleolithic era peoples; what we have surmised from their relics suggests that they sought to contextualize the world through a combination of natural observation and supernatural beliefs. This idea is largely reflected in art and artifacts such as cave paintings, Venus figurines and monolithic burial sites like Stonehenge. These objects and architectural sites, suggest that our early ancestors were simultaneously exploring and communicating information regarding their environmental surroundings, internal thoughts and insight into supernatural realms.

During the Neolithic revolution and thereafter (c. 4500 BC, largely starting with ancient civilizations in Sumer and Egypt), cultures embedded mythology and spiritualism within daily life as a means to try and explain natural and extraordinary phenomena.

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Still image of Sister Wendy’s Story of Painting, a TV series, which featured the Carmelite nun and art historian.

Early spiritual beliefs strongly influenced scientific advances, since spirituality and science were both concerned with explaining the physical and intangible aspects of existence. Each has focused on exploring and gaining insight into the origins of life, the creation of the cosmos and the relationship between the physical and metaphysical realms. This is evident from the contributions of individuals throughout history. For example, the Ancient Greek scholar, Pythagoras contributed to theosophical ideas such as the transmigration of souls between the physical and metaphysical world, as well as his alleged mathematical discoveries (the Pythagorean Theorem) and scientific teachings (i.e. understanding that the Earth was spherical and divided into climate zones). Other scientifically and spiritually endowed individuals include the 19th century Hindu teacher Swami Vivekananda and Helena Blavastsky, the founder of the Theosophical Society (1875).

While science explores the universe through cognitive observation, experimentation (the scientific method) and peer reviewed research; spirituality synthesizes experiential and universal relationships through social and emotional expression and subjective symbolism. The artistic process is an amalgamation of scientific and spiritual practices, because it explores both the object nature of things and the more subjective aspects of life, nature and culture. Art inspires us to make valuable connections between our conscious and subconscious thoughts, and give new meaning to the way we experience and portray the act of living.

The roots of the word ‘spiritual,’ come from Latin translation, spīritus and the Indo-European root (s)peis, meaning “to breathe.” The word ‘religion,’ on the other hand, derives from the Latin root re-ligere, which translates as ‘to bind together. Clearly the words spiritual and religion are at odds. An individual cannot breath easily if they’re bound. When interpreted within a dogmatic system such as organized religion, spirituality risks suffocation as a result of objectivity and hierarchy in the doctrine of worship (see: Abbs, 2003).

According to Peter Abbs (2003), our civilization needs to transcend the more extreme ideologies and restrictions presented by organized religion, scientism (the belief that science is the ONLY absolute truth) and materialism/consumer culture. Spirituality isn’t synonymous with any organized religion and can be enjoyed within a completely secular life, which includes the public educational environment and the art world.

The late Catholic nun, Sister Wendy Beckett, might have seemed like an unlikely person to promote the separation of dogma and aesthetics, however, her unique, critical and empathetic view of art and visual culture, can teach us how to reflect better and ask big questions when confronted with challenging images and messages. While celebrating her faith in Christianity, Sister Wendy Beckett illustrated that art can either supplement the teachings of a specific faith, or provide a personal form of devotional fulfillment.

As an art historian, Sister Wendy’s unique perspective on art’s ritual and utilitarian elements has had a profound impact on the contextualization of art, spirituality and the culture at large. She was an honorable defender of the importance of art and its subjective role in communicating the essence of humanity, even if that meant going above and beyond our own comfort zones. One prime example is how she famously analyzed and gave merit to Andres Serrano’s photograph titled Piss Christ (1987), which has steadily been under attack from religious fundamentalist groups (see: Sister Wendy in conversation with Bill Moyers) since it was first displayed in the late 1980s. Along with the work of fellow photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, Serrano’s Piss Christ added fuel to America’s ‘culture wars,’ where conservative (largely religious) groups argued against works of art, music, or performance that express themes such as homosexuality, violence and sexual liberation, which they consider taboo.

Giving the aesthetic qualities and conceptual nature of Serrano’s photograph a lukewarm review, Sister Wendy recognized Piss Christ‘s poignancy, by commenting on how the artwork laments the suffering of the human spirit in light of social, cultural, psychological and spiritual corruption.

The hypocrisy of the ‘culture wars,’ is how the religious right has strayed from spiritual and moral elements, in favor or a more authoritative and political hunger. While they have attacked works of art showing subversive and/or socially liberal imagery, by claiming that they are blasphemous; they themselves engage in a demoralizing form of pedantic and oppressive behavior, which negates intersectional compassion for all human beings (ex: the condemnation of homosexuality and transgender communities).

The fulfillment of power over faith was something that Sister Wendy had been highly critical of in her lifetime. She disavowed authoritative and declarative positions of Church leaders (throughout history) in her contemporary interpretations of Christian spirituality. She recognized faith as being something that manifests in the mind and heart, and which takes into account social and emotional factors, such as expressing empathy for the human condition. She defined the Church as being a reflection of contemporary humanity and therefore, its ideals, goals and practices must change as society progresses. This philosophy draws parallels to this post’s opening argument about how spiritualism and science are largely interwoven.

In her book Sister Wendy on Prayer (2007), Sister Wendy stated that “faith does not mean ticking off our accent to Dogma, although that may pass for faith.” The irony of the Piss Christ controversy, as pointed out by Beckett, is that Serrano’s work of art, is in fact, suggesting that the culture at large is becoming burlesque and cruel through defaming spiritual virtues, which would appear in line with the principles of spiritual leaders. However, the religious right has chosen to interpret it as an attack against their Dogmatic order, and therefore has overlooked the work’s subjective symbolism, and are unwilling to have a critical discourse in regards to works of art that don’t fit their agenda.

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Sister Wendy Beckett with a work by David Hockney.

Sister Wendy’s expansive views on art and culture were further evident in her analysis and embrace of artists like David Hockney, who confidently portrays his homosexual identity within his oeuvre. When Hockney initially expressed his identity as a gay man in the United Kingdom, it was during a period in time when it was actually illegal to do so. Therefore, he took great risks both artistically and personally in order to express his humanity to the world.

Homosexuality is too often viewed as taboo and sinful within Christianity, however, like previously mentioned, Beckett recognized the need for the Church to support the progressive views of the culture at large, which most notably include sexuality. She stated: “Art only works if it comes from love,” a loaded statement, which can be interpreted in a myriad of ways, notwithstanding through both a compassionate and sensual lens. One can argue that spirituality works the same way. It is a combination of self love, love for others and a yearning to connect our humanity with a greater purpose.

Contemporary artists including Bill Viola and Kira Perov, Julien Breton (a.k.a Kalaam),  Sister Corita Kent, Jay Milder, Yayoi Kusama, Anish Kapoor and James Turrell (see: Participatory Learning: Artworks as Experiences), all incorporate a personal form of spirituality in their art practice, which is interpreted, reflected and assessed, through day-to-day rituals, prior experiences and visions that create new meaning for age-old beliefs and customs.

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Corita Kent, our father, 1964, color screenprint on Pellon, edition of 50, CAC 64‑13, sheet: 29 11/16 in x 36 in, The Vivian and Gordon Gilkey Graphic Arts Collection. Courtesy of the Portland Art Museum

Like Sister Wendy, Sister Corita Kent merged issues related to spirituality and faith within the largely secular contemporary art world. Kent was an American Roman Catholic nun, a visual artist and an educator, who ran the art department at Immaculate Heart College, a former private Catholic college in Los Angeles.

Kent’s medium of choice was printmaking, likely in part to its democratic process for producing mass information (Dammann, 2015). Her message, which no doubt derived from her faith, is a plea for love, peace and unity within the world. Kent’s style blends graphic design and pop-art sensibilities with spiritual messages that often make liberal social and political associations. By juxtaposing popular culture and mass media references with quotes from great authors/poets/musicians (Kent’s works cite Robert Frost, e.e. cummings, Albert Camus, Rainer Maria Rilke and Jim Morrison, among others) and verses from spiritual texts, Kent’s work makes all images feel sacred. For example, the print our father (1964) creates a unique spiritual psalm out of aesthetic typography and pop-culture graphics, which are sourced from the urban environment and mass media. The title draws attention to the Lord’s Prayer, which is significant as a prayer template for all Christians (it also has similarities in Jewish prayer). Kent recognized the possibility for everything around us to have a higher spiritual and humanitarian meaning.

Kent’s friend, theologian Harvey Cox, remarking about her work, said: “like a priest, a shaman, a magician, she could pass her hands over the commonest of the everyday, the superficial, the oh-so-ordinary, and make it a vehicle of the luminous, the only and the hope filled.” Kent’s incorporation of uplifting and poignant verses in a mass media inspired style, is a testament to the human spirit’s ability to overcome obstacles and trials. Noticing things deeply and attributing miracles to common place occurrences, makes profound meanings out of everyday life and provides an array of hope in light of difficult situations.

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Bill Viola and Kira Perov, Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water) 2014, Color High-Definition video polyptych on four vertical plasma displays. 55″ x 133″ x 4″ (140 x 338 x 10 cm) Duration: 7:15 minutes. Courtesy of the artists.

Contemplative messages of perseverance and the audacity of hope, are also evident in Bill Viola and Kira Perov’s time-based video artworks, such as Martyrs (2014) and Mary (2016). These immersive works of art reference religious mythology and archetypal imagery, which are re-presented via a novel interpretation of sublime and virtuous narratives. The presentation of these works, allows for personal contemplation akin to the elegant and extravagant altarpieces of the Late Middle Ages and Renaissance eras. In fact, these two works of art are exemplary in bridging contemporary issues with age old concerns. In The Martyrs, four people are displayed across a long plasma screen quadriptych, each representing a martyr. The individuals are continually suffering and being martyred through exposure to the four classical elements: earth, air, fire and water.

The Martyrs comments on both the biblical and contemporary concept of martyrdom, and portrays a duality between action and passivity. All we can do is watch, while the four individuals in the film are being martyred for seven full minutes. Our inaction reflects our culture’s indifference to the pain of others. We have become inured to seeing and hearing about terrible tragedies in the 24 hour news cycle, that our ability to empathize might be compromised at the expense of its banality. On the other hand, the piece celebrates the righteousness of the individual by depicting the resilience of the human spirit in the face of adversity. Viola states:

“The Greek word for martyr originally meant ‘witness’. In today’s world, the mass media turns us all into witnesses to the suffering of others. The martyrs’ past lives of action can help illuminate our modern lives of inaction. They also exemplify the human capacity to bear pain, hardship and even death in order to remain faithful to their values, beliefs and principles. This piece represents ideas of action, fortitude, perseverance, endurance and sacrifice.”

Mary is a triptych of three plasma screens presenting a non-linear narrative of spiritual and earthly collectiveness. The piece represents mortality, the afterlife and the yearning for salvation, comfort and transformation throughout humanity. Nearly every culture has a similar faith based myth of an all encompassing figure who represents and embodies the good, the bad and the ugly aspects of human nature, while providing characteristics of infinite love, empathy, healing and fortitude. Perov explains:

“As the Mother, she is a timeless icon that transcends daily contemporary existence that flows endlessly behind her as time and space are displaced. As earthly Mary, she is a seeker, a traveler, who takes her place in a vast natural world, on a difficult journey that endows her with strength and compassion. The pièta of Mary is the embodiment of eternal sorrow. This vision of death among the ruins represents an ailing and wounded humanity that Mary carries alone, providing a place of refuge and solace in the intimate sharing of grief and pain that her image as an icon offers to those who seek comfort. As ‘container of the uncontainable,’ Mary encompasses all spiritual life.”

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Jay Milder, Bird Ark, 2007, acrylic & oil on Canvas, 30″ x 24.” Courtesy of the artist and Quogue Gallery, New York.

Julien Breton (Kalaam) and Jay Milder also integrate the everyday with the extraordinary, by artfully creating visual artworks that make use of alphabets and numerical systems.

Jay Milder paints letters and numbers as signifiers of spiritual messages, which are rooted in his quest to understand the natural world both inside and outside of its physical (known) realm. The letters and numbers are combined with bright chakra colors, sacred geometric shapes and recognizable figures (most commonly animals, humanoid faces and a vessel resembling an ancient ship), in order to express a Kabbalistic (mystical and metaphysical) and personal interpretation of biblical narratives and sociocultural topics.

In Kabbalah, letters and numbers have essential spiritual meanings and can be arranged in different configurations, which afford the reader multiple avenues to interpret their significance. Milder’s alphanumeric compositions, along with a rainbow-like color palette, allude to the covenant between the physical and metaphysical worlds. His paintings from the 1970s onward reference the narrative of Noah’s Ark. In a contemporary interpretation of the ancient narrative, Milder makes a correlation between the biblical flood and today’s climate crisis and societal corruption. In the biblical version of Noah’s Ark, the rainbow represents the covenant between God and humanity after the flood. It is our responsibility to maintain balance and harmony on Earth. In light of today’s dire environmental and social conditions, the rainbow has become polluted. We are experiencing actual floods and extinction events as our global waterways continue to warm and rise. In order to unblot the sullied rainbow, we need to reaffirm our covenant by being respectful and empathetic custodians to our natural environment. Milder’s bold colors, alphabetical, and numerical forms, express a message of hope and a call to action against an ominous backdrop. He wants us to understand that through a joyful and dedicated application of spirit and physical labor, we can repair what we have broken. In several of his paintings, a composition of the numbers ‘3, 6, 4, and 5’ can be added together to form the numerological value of the word ‘love.’ The idea that multiple expressions of love can provide salvation for us all is Milder’s overarching message.

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Jay Milder, Zim Zum, 2003, acrylic and volcanic ash on canvas, 48″ x 54.”
Photograph by Mourrice Papi.

In some of Milder’s paintings the words “Ain Sop” or “Ayn Sof” can be deciphered. In Kabbalah, this word is understood as the divine prior to its self-manifestation in the production of any spiritual realm. Ein Sof can be translated as “no end,” “unending,” “there is no end,” or “infinite.”

Through an observation of the Zohar (the main text of the Kabbalah), personal spirituality and empirical processes, Milder realized that when “Ein Sof” and Keter (the head Sephirot of the Tree of Life in Kabbalah) meet they create black infinity. This is one reason why Milder has used black and white as the ground for his compositions, which allows for forms to appear simultaneously fixed to the ground and floating in space.  “Zim Zum,” another set of words that appear in some of his paintings refer to ‘Tzimtzum,’ meaning concealment and contraction. This term explains the doctrine of the 16th century Kabbalist rabbi Isaac Luria, who relates how God or Ein Sof, which is infinite began the process of creation by contracting a part of its infinite light to create a conceptual space in which finite realms (humankind) could exist.

In addition to Milder’s interpretive arrangement of mystical vocabulary and numerology, letters often spell out the names of loved ones.

Julien Breton’s unique utilization of calligraphy, an oft-sacred form of art used by Eastern and Western cultures, presents spiritual messages as both ephemeral and commonplace. Breton composes his calligraphic imagery within familiar environments, by working with various hand-held light sources and long-exposure photography techniques. In essence, Breton ‘paints’ using light by moving in a choreographed gestural manner, in order to create colorful forms that resemble Arabic and Eastern letters.

Although his letters resemble Islamic calligraphy, Breton creates his own spiritual and linguistic meaning for his calligraphy, which is derived from a brand new personal alphabet. Additionally, by placing his word based art against backdrops that are well known throughout culture (i.e. the Brooklyn Bridge, an open field, or wooded forest), Breton links the divine with tangible natural and synthetic realms.

Yayoi Kusama is another contemporary artist who blurs the lines and seeks to expand the visual discourse between the physical and metaphysical. According to Kusama, her signature polka dot motif and captivating Infinity Rooms, signify the relationship between human civilization and the vast, seemingly unending nature of the cosmos. Kusama stated: “I wanted to examine the single dot that was my own life.  One polka dot: a single particle among billions.”

Besides being a very popular site-specific destination, the Infinity Rooms completely alter the space which they occupy in an ethereal manner. Since the 1960s, Kusama has been creating these rooms using infinity mirrors –a pair of parallel mirrors that create a series of smaller and smaller reflections that appear to ebb and flow to infinity– and aesthetic forms and objects such as dots, hanging sculptural shapes and neon lights. Standing inside of the room, the viewer gazes into an environment that exhibits the illusion of being endless. The installation envelops us, as if we’re floating within the universe. It is an awe-inspiring experience, which poignantly and fantastically illuminates the yearning and desire to find one’s place within the large and vast corporeal and transcendental realms. Often times, finding our place within the all-encompassing world is a daunting task, however, the artist has the power to envision, create and/or re-present the world we live in a cohesive and harmonious perspective. Sometimes, that might even mean building a whole new world (or worlds).

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Anish Kapoor, Cloud Gate, Memorial Park, Chicago IL. Photograph by JTClarkDesign

James Turrell and Anish Kapoor also create transcendental environments and works of art that become destinations and experiences for the public. Like Kusama’s Infinity Rooms, Anish Kapoor’s sculptural artworks alter the space they occupy, while allowing for a very personal and reflective viewing encounter. For example, Cloud Gate, which is installed in Chicago’s Memorial Park, is a ‘bean’ shaped sculpture that refracts and distorts Chicago’s skyline and the sky above. The monumental structure, which viewers can move around and underneath, presents an obtainable link between two seemingly unattainable realms – the earth and the heavens. Kapoor’s reflective sculptures explore the vastness of time and space, and enable us to contemplate and view our environment from multiple unique perspectives.

Alternatively, Kapoor’s use of Vantablack®, the purest and deepest black able to be produced (it absorbs 99.96% of light), gives the illusion of a void, or endless darkness. It also offers a meditative opportunity, where the viewer is likely to disappear into its seeming nothingness and into their own cognitive and emotional headspace.

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James Turrell, Meeting, MoMA PS1 installation. Photograph by Adam Zucker

As mentioned in an earlier post, James Turrell’s installations play with natural light as a means to inspire deep, personal, reflection. Turrell’s innovation comes from his practice as a Quaker. One of the major principals and practices of the Quakers is self-reflection and silent contemplation.

Quaker meetings for worship are fixated on a silent, meditative self-reflection and the sharing of revelations or messages with other ‘friends’ in the congregation. The experience sharing personal or spiritual thoughts with others is a very intimate occasion. When you take part in a meeting for worship, you are experiencing what Quaker’s call “The Light Within,” which is no doubt, where Turrell draws inspiration for his light-based installations. The light within is symbolic of a ‘divine’ presence within ourselves. Whether that presence is associated with an organized religion is entirely subjective. People may choose to share scripture, poetry, comment on current events, or suggest ways they wish to better themselves, help others, or work within the community (Zucker, 2018).

A commonality in the aforementioned works of art is the process of praxis, which is both an educational and spiritual exercise. It can be thought of and summarized as ‘reflective thinking,’ which is enacted by employing cognitive, social and emotional actions. Paulo Freire (1970) defined praxis as the “reflection and action directed at the structures to be transformed.”

Educators utilize praxis as a means to prompt critical thinking and action. Artists also use this process. In both disciplines the following steps are involved:

1) Taking action.
2) Considering the impact of that action.
3) Scrutinizing and analyzing the action through reflection and formative assessment.
4) Revising, changing or re-presenting elements or plans, as a result of the assessment
5) Utilizing the entire process during the course of further and future actions.

In spirituality, praxis is evident in the work of theologians and faithful individuals who balance their divine worship with humanitarian action. When thinking about praxis in all contexts and environments, the mantra ‘practice what you preach’ comes to mind, which expresses the necessity for the world’s religious, cultural and educational frameworks to reflect upon the impact of their actions/policies/practices in light of the changing collective cultural conscious and adapt accordingly.

Employing spirituality in art and education requires an open-ended and open-minded foundation that supports inquiry, experiential learning and the liberal, self-directed acquisition of knowledge. Art not only describes what something looks like; it also conveys what something feels like. Through artistic forms of communication, such as symbolism, impressionism and expressionism, we get a sense of the essence of something rather than just its physical depiction.

In some of today’s schools, the negation of sensuality and emotion in favor of curricula rigidity, pedantic instruction and standardization, is creating well-groomed automatons (see: Darder, 2012). When students are conditioned to think, act and behave accordingly, in order to fulfill a set of quantitative assessments (i.e. standardized tests and rote memorization of facts/laws/structures) they are pigeonholed to either fit in with the status quo, or be designated as an outlier. This can obviously have a shattering impact on the student’s life because it labels them as being different, when in fact, students should be encouraged to ask big questions, challenge per-existing problematic conditions and bring their own personal values and insights into the subject matter they are studying across the curriculum.

Forcing children, adolescents, young adults and adults (at any stage in life), to fit within a particular predetermined framework, upholds oppressive systemic conditions. This is true for anyone who blindly follows doctrines (i.e. fundamentalism) without employing any form of critical thinking, meaningful learning, associative learning and active learning.

Those that choose alternative paths (note: I am talking about routes that aren’t self-destructive per se, but, which are anti-establishment, for reasons including standing up for social injustice) are not afforded the same rights and preference as those that are obedient. The cards are stacked against liberal thinkers who exhibit actions, which are the antithesis of the linear, austere and orderly culture of the status quo. We can easily look at history for examples of how individuals and groups have been publicly ridiculed, persecuted and even harmed for expressing beliefs against established norms.

While our society should fully champion diversity, it still operates in a highly binary manner, which is to say, that things are explored in very limited ways (i.e. the two party political system, religious or secular, rich or poor, good or bad, etc.). We need to change the paradigm to give equal precedence to enlightened thoughts and self-aware behaviors. We need to let the human spirit be expressed in our culture and in our schools. The arts and a progressive education, which includes spiritual and creative practices, permit good opportunities to make this an overarching reality.

“Spirituality in education refers to no more—and no less—than a deep connection between student, teacher and subject—a connection so honest, vital and vibrant that it cannot help but be intensely relevant.” Laura Jones (2005)

By including spirituality in the educational curricula, teachers and students can co-develop a deeper empathetic and compassionate relationship with the material they are studying, and make meaningful connections to how it relates to social, emotional and ethical issues (Jones, 2005). The work of the aforementioned artists (and art in general), prompts us to consider foundational spiritual questions such as ‘why do I exist,’ ‘what is the meaning of life?’ ‘how can I be be happy?’ and ‘how can I live a moral and liberated life?’ Addressing these questions, requires a combination of experiential living with the  yearning to discover the mystery of our individual and collective existence.

When students are able to relate their personal humaneness to the content within the curriculum, as well as to issues in the world around them, they are partaking in a liberated type of education, which will have a positive, lifelong impact.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Abbs, Peter. 2003. Against the Flow: Education, the arts and postmodern culture. Great Britain: Rutledge.

Beckett, Sister Wendy. 2007. Sister Wendy on Prayer. New York: Harmony.

Chan, Oliver. “The Point is Sister Wendy Approves of Piss Christ.” The Fine Tooth Column. 6 Nov. 2013. https://finetoothcolumn.wordpress.com/2013/11/04/the-point-is-sister-wendy-approves-of-the-piss-christ/

Dammann, April. 2015. Corita Kent: Art and Soul. The Biography. Santa Monica, California: Angel City Press.

Darder, Antonia. “Schooling bodies: critical pedagogy and urban youth.” Fine Print. 35 (2) 2012. pp. 3-10. http://www.valbec.org.au/fineprint/archive/2012/fp_2012-02.pdf

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum, 2007.

Jones, Laura. “What Does Spirituality in Education Mean?” Journal of College and Character. 6 (7), Oct. 2005. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.2202/1940-1639.1485

Katz, Jonathan. “‘The Senators Were Revolted:’ Homophobia and the Culture Wars.” in A Companion to Contemporary Art Since 1945, ed. Amelia Jones. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2006. pp. 231-248.

Leroi-Gourhan, Andre, Michelson, Annette. “The Religion of the Caves: Magic or Metaphysics?”, The MIT Press, Vol, 37, October 1986, pp. 6-17.

Nash, R. J. 2002. Spirituality, ethics, religions, and teaching: A professor’s journey. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc.

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