Bon Iver, led by Justin Vernon, is by most standards one of the signature indie bands on the scene. As Mumford and Sons was to folk, so Bon Iver is to Indie, but I digress. I was listening to a podcast where Justin Vernon and his bandmates were interviewed about their writing process for a song called Holyfields on Bon Iver’s most recent album, i,i. Near the end, Vernon said something that I had to rewind and play multiple times. He said:
“We can never not be all of us…. [it’s] Hard to separate and decipher what one person is. You can’t have one person without the other. That to me….. seems to be sacred math for figuring out our problems as human beings – understanding there’s always the other we are responsible for.”
I was blown away, and since that podcast, I have been obsessed with the term he coined: sacred math.
If one googles sacred math, they will find an ideology developed during ancient times which focused on the spiritual meaning of various sets and sequences of numbers or geometrical shapes. While interesting in its own right, and further, while it may carry some crossover to how I will be using the term, this older version of sacred math or golden math really doesn’t have much to bear on my thoughts. So when I use the term sacred math, think of something entirely different than the golden ratio and the Fibonacci sequence. Think of individuals and social responsibility.
So what is sacred math and how might the notion of sacred math offer insight into social responsibility? I’m not really sure, but selfishly, I hope this blog will help me clarify my own thoughts.
Sacred math is the notion of understanding oneself in light of another. It is what Jesus was pointing to when he said, “Where two or more are gathered in my name, I am in the midst of them.” When two people get together, it’s not just two people. In equation terms, 1+1 = 2 and then some. There is something divine in properly seeing and encountering someone other than yourself. If humans are in fact created in the image of God, then everyone bears/carries some measure of the divine within themselves. In other words, we can see within anyone (and everyone!) something about the nature of God. Therefore, when the other is truly seen, something of the divine nature is recognized and is ushered into the space. I mean, it is always there, but the act of seeing invites it into the conversation. I imagine we have all experienced a conversation with someone who was not truly listening, or perhaps we have been the one not truly listening. I think we all know what that feels like, as if something has been missed entirely. I wonder if that “something” is the “seeing” of the other person, if it is the missing of the “divine.”
Sacred math is seeing the world through a good eye, seeing the world from a mindset of abundance. Sacred math looks at the world and says there is always room to add, there is always more to come later. Annie Dillard says it like this, specifically in regards to the writing process: “One of the things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.” I think she nails the abundant mindset that comes from recognizing and knowing the numerical economy of sacred math. The equation (this is for my math nerds) does not read 1+1= 2+C, for C is a constant value. Sacred Math says 1+1 = 2 and then some, an unspecified amount, a variable amount, something undisclosable, out of reach of the nature of math, just like trying to add words to numbers.
Sacred Math is a way of approaching the world which sees the other (used here to indicate anyone who is not like me. Also read: alien, foreigner, political opposite etc.) not as problematic, but as the solution itself. The encounter of the other is the solution. For when 1 and 1 get together, something more comes about than the simple sum of the 1 and 1. Vernon claims that this is the key to solving our problems, and I tend to agree; that is to say, a physical encounter with another human being draws us each closer to the divine, and pulls us further away from polarized, unhealthy, and extremist thinking. Is it a coincidence that the nation feels more polarized than ever after a few years of fully using social media? Social media eliminates the encounter of person to person, of a face to a face, and thus seems to reduce, if not altogether, eliminate the divine from the conversation.
To conclude: I had a conversation this weekend with a friend of mine. We hiked up and down Mt. Scott and talked about life. It felt normal and real, rather unnoticeable like the feeling of feet hitting the ground while walking. Nobody really thinks about that feeling, the feeling of the soles of our feet actually striking the ground, but it is there, and it is a very real feeling, a feeling which connects us with the planet we traverse. I know the divine was there walking with us on Mt. Scott, and I suppose what I’m trying to communicate in this brief conclusion is that the practical application of sacred math probably feels a bit like the hike my friend and I did this weekend. Actually listening to someone, and actually believing that it is worth it to spend time and effort on a person feels a bit like feet hitting the ground during a hike. It’s very, um, unsexy to listen to a person sometimes, to care for someone, to believe that there is enough in this world and that the person sitting across from you saying the vaccine is load of hogwash (or that the vaccine needs to be forced upon everyone) bears the image of the divine just like the person begging for help on the side of the road.
Maybe we need some help (I certainly do) remembering that 1+1 = 2 and then some, and further, that when God created the world he said (and has yet to say otherwise) that it is very good.
The featured image is a picture I took of a printing at the famous Steamroller Arts Festival in OKC Deep Deuce District this year. I can’t remember the name of the artist, but the image captures the essence of Vernon’s quote in a way that art so often does. How many faces are there? And is any face really separate from the other faces? This is sacred math.
Here’s the link to the podcast: https://songexploder.net/bon-iver