In The Progress of Wisdom and Curriculum Spiritus I offered a perspective on religion as the incubator of spiritual wisdom, discovered and clarified by our species over the millenniums of so-called higher culture.* I argued for what can be named the “originary principles” of wisdom, highlighting not only the historically original revelations by which they broke into our collective consciousness, but also to make the point that these wisdom principles have continued their transformative and evolutionary influence upon subsequent generations.
Not all generations, however, and only a relatively few individuals have been willing to download this spiritual wisdom from the “cloud” of higher consciousness.
Thinking of it that way – as mystical intuitions and ethical ideals that are discovered (or revealed) at particular historical moments by living individuals who clarify and manifest them in actual life, effectively “uploading” these principles (intuitions and ideals) into the collective consciousness of not only their contemporary generation but our entire species, and ready thereafter for subsequent “downloads” by individuals of future generations, whereupon they can continue their transforming influence on our life together in community – brings our consideration back around to the role of religion in the whole adventure.
My aim in the present post is to elucidate the full and evolving system of these originary principles of spiritual wisdom, extracted from their historical chapters (in this or that religion) and presented in such a way that their genetic and developmental logic can be clearly seen.
First, let’s get our bearings in the graphic above. The middle column contains the major advancing stages, moving upward from bottom, in the curriculum spiritus or path of spiritual wisdom, along with symbols associated with the historical religions by which its four originary principles first entered our collective consciousness (Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam).
Each wisdom principle further extended but also stretched the limits of the preceding one(s), generating a creative tension among them that continues to drive human transformation.
On either side of each originary principle are arranged what I’ll call key virtues which together provide definition and practical application in our understanding of it. We will look at these eight key virtues more closely below. Zooming out a step or two will reveal the whole system as facilitating the circulation of spiritual energy, inwardly rooted by “faith” in the grounding mystery of being, and actualizing outward in “service” to the higher wholeness of genuine community.
As an important disclaimer, I want to repeat my caution against identifying the four historical religions with the originary principle each had, once upon a time, been instrumental in clarifying and conveying into the transcultural stream of spiritual wisdom. This is where it’s important to distinguish between the spiritual life-force of a religion and its historical accretions of sacred tradition: holy texts, institutional authorities, moral precepts, ritual practices, and orthodox beliefs.
Every honest and fervent quest for the “essence” of this or that historical religion has been in search of this spiritual life-force, the “originary” experience that got it all going to begin with, and which continues to inspire its more truthful and tranforming moments.
Sadly, all religions – even the four featured in the curriculum spiritus – fall out of alignment from time to time, and some might even forfeit their souls in pursuit of infallible authority, absolute truth, global supremacy, or some such delusion.
For my own tradition, I can say that Christianity has lost its soul again and again, occasionally recovering some sense of itself but perhaps never fully catching the vision and revolutionary message of Jesus for any significant length of time. Thanks to his courageous demonstration of unconditional forgiveness, however, this originary principle of spiritual wisdom was successfully uploaded and now awaits its download by any who are ready to follow his example and live, as we say, “in the spirit of Jesus.”
Fidelity as Faith and Responsibility
A sacred promise and commitment (in Jewish and Christian religions known as a covenant) that keeps partners engaged in the work of relationship requires their mutual fidelity. On one side, this fidelity, or covenant faithfulness, is rooted in the faith that each partner has in the provident nature of reality. Faith should not be confused with the collection of doctrinal tenets that one may believe, or that are shared and professed by members of a religion. Its etymology goes far below such professions of belief, reaching to that deep inner space where ego has been left behind and the soul rests in the grounding mystery of being.
Outwardly – and the circulatory flow of this entire system of originary principles and key virtues is outward/upward on the righthand side, and inward/downward on the left – convenant fidelity is fulfilled in each partner’s responsibility to their mutual benefit. They are responsible, that is to say, not exactly to each other but to the health and longevity of their relationship. As their reciprocal affections naturally ebb and flow, this responsibility to their partnership holds them together, keeping them engaged in the work of relationship.
Compassion as Empathy and Kindness
The em- in empathy invites us inward again, to a deep level of intimate self-awareness. While each of us experiences life as contextualized by a unique set of circumstances, our experiences themselves are profoundly the same. We all know (or come to know) what it is to feel lost, confused, betrayed, abandoned, bereaved, ridiculed, ashamed, injured, sick, weak, lonely and without hope; to be at our wits’ end. Our own inner acquaintance with such experience-induced feelings primes our sympathy for others who are going (or have gone) through similar things. The Latin-derived word “compassion” and the Greek-derived word “sympathy” have an identical meaning, as the sensitive understanding of someone else’s experience based on this deep acquaintance with our own.
True compassion cannot remain a bystander to another’s suffering, but further motivates us to reach out, step in, and stand with them in their experience. Kindness is the outgoing positive energy that seeks to assist, encourage, liberate, and uplift the other. In the vision of Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha), this compassionate energy of kindness is intended not just for those in desperate need, but for all people; and not for other humans only, but “all sentient beings.” In that respect the originary principle of compassion is universal in scope.
Forgiveness as Integrity and Freedom
Up a step and back to the left, we see that forgiveness, which in Greek literally means “to let go,” is a function of our individual integrity. Unless individuals are inwardly centered and whole, they will be susceptible to getting pulled into neurotic attachments, emotional entanglement, and codependent relationships where partners can neither live with each other nor be on their own. It’s this off-centered co-dependent dynamic of leaning into each other that keeps us locked into the “retributive reflex” of score-keeping, paying back, and getting even. Until we get re-centered in ourselves, this dysfunctional and mutually destructive back-and-forth will continue.
Jesus taught and lived by the originary principle of unconditional forgiveness. He exhorted individuals in his audience to stand on their own centers (i.e., have integrity) and respond creatively, graciously, and therefore surprisingly to the hostile intentions and hurtful behavior of others. Having “let go” of the compulsive need to get even, to repay evil with evil, such a person enjoys the freedom to choose a higher road and a better future. The unconditional nature of forgiveness means that it doesn’t wait for the other to “see the light” and repent of his sin, but instead loves him anyway, in total freedom.
Devotion as Surrender and Service
In a recent post I analyzed devotional religion into the three essential moves of surrender, sacrifice, and service – all directed, at least in conventional forms of theism, toward the deity as center and focus of worship. In early and high theism, sacrifice (making offerings to the god) was the most overt of the three, with surrender and service only implied in the sacrificial rite.
Muhammad understood that the ritual performance was actually secondary in importance to the key virtues of surrender and service. The very name Islam refers to the surrender of ego ambitions to the “will of Allah,” which intends peace, harmony, fulfillment and wellbeing. As the culminating stage of the curriculum spiritus, surrender is about the release of consciousness from the conditioned ego, passing through the center of integrity and into the inner chamber of empathic awareness, coming to rest and finding serenity in the grounding mystery of being itself.
The outward manifestation of devotion is service, the last of our key virtues and the one that provides a creative outlet of spirituality into consistent and dedicated action on behalf and for the sake of the greater good – the peace, harmony, fulfillment, and wellbeing mentioned above. The whole framework of originary principles and key virtues of spiritual wisdom – which is to say, the general intention of the curriculum spiritus itself – reveals these as the four transpersonal ideals of genuine community.
As we align our thoughts and aspirations with these ideals, committing ourselves in service to their actualization in our life together, we may at last enjoy the apotheosis of humanity and the dawning of a new age.
*This post is third in a three-part exploration of the spiritual wisdom tradition. I recommend reading them in the order as mentioned for the best grasp on what I’m trying to show.