Humanists always have occasion for religious literacy, and often Humanists know more about religion than religious practitioners themselves. For instance, most Humanists will know what Feng Shui is.
The words feng shui in Chinese mean literally wind and water, though it’s anyone’s guess how wind and water link to the ancient custom of geomancy, which is what feng shui is.
Geomancy is the practice of arranging items in their best possible locations and positions.
Should this village go here or further down the road, over there? Should the buildings of the village face north or south or west or east? Should the gravesite for the villagers be nearer to the hill or to the river? Should the table be centered in the room or off to the side? Should the flowers in the pot lean left to capture incoming light or right to be shielded in the shade of a banyan tree?
In once sense feng shui is pure aesthetics, the art of putting objects in places most appealing to the eye. In another sense feng shui is pure pragmatics, putting things where they are most useful or nearby what is useful.
We might now hazard a guess as to the meanings of the words wind and water. Ancient artisans laid out villages and buildings with a view to their proximity to drinking water and with an understanding of prevailing winds that might either cool or freeze hut owners.
Feng shui shifted over time. It began as the prerogative of engineers, moved on to the musings of proto-home decorators, and concluded in the privileged counsel of a Taoist and Neo-Confucian sacerdotal class, who turned feng shui into a ritual and a science at the same time, both of which gave feng shui its air of mystique. Priests devised special tools whereby they ascertained various forces at work in a given space, and after numerous calculations and incantations, they offered their advice.
Finally, we get the latest, Western alterations.
A few late-twentieth-century, well-heeled Westerners who had become overwhelmed by household clutter hired feng shui artists and paid sizable sums to rearrange clutter in feng shui stylings.
All was not well, however. A California householder I know had a new feng shui artist rearrange an old feng shui artist’s work because the old one had miscalculated due north. Everything in the living room was slightly off kilter.
Any Humanists can peep through eyes and see lessons here about religion in general: the history of feng shui well illustrates how religious customs may change over the centuries, beginning in practicality, morphing into high magic and spiritual necessity, and finally, in an utterly alien setting, transforming itself into an elite suburban conceit.
Featured image ‘clutter’ by katy via Flickr