One of the most fascinating examples of creative change in nature is the metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly. Genetically the two organisms at either end are identical, and yet they are so different from each other in every other way, that unless you watched the whole event with unblinking eyes, you’d never believe it.
Remarkably, the caterpillar has in its body a population of micro-organisms called imaginal cells, which its immune system actually suppresses and tries to destroy.
After gorging itself on leaves, the caterpillar hangs upside-down from a branch and spins a silken cocoon around itself, called a chrysalis. Once sealed up inside, the insect falls dormant and its innards slowly turn into a goopy plasma. Soon thereafter, these imaginal cells begin to multiply, connect, and differentiate into the body of a butterfly, which, once fully formed, climbs out of its incubation chamber and into the sunlight where it will dry out, unfurl its wings, and glide away through the open air.
Does this sound at all familiar to you? It should, because it’s essentially the same process of transformation that you are in the midst of right now.
You were born, however long ago, as offspring to human parents who were themselves descendants of countless generations of a highly evolved animal species called homo sapiens. Your sentient body arrived already programmed with basic urgencies (e.g., the pressing need for water, nourishment, and oxygen), along with drives, reflexes, and instincts that have secured human survival on this planet for many millenniums.
Just as with the caterpillar, these critical codes of your basic animal nature were fully engaged in their work long before you became aware of it, and they have operated continuously under the radar of your conscious awareness ever since.
Not long after your birth, your parents and the larger society got busy training and shaping you into “one of us” – that is to say, into a well-behaved member of the group. Those instinctual bonds of your basic nature were exploited in the work of constructing an identity that exhibited the same general preferences, attitudes, perspectives, and beliefs as others around you.
If we’re tracking with the process of metamorphosis, then this socially constructed self and its deputized center of self-conscious identity, called the ego (“I”), corresponds to that middle stage when the caterpillar is zipping up and falling asleep inside its cocoon.
We sometimes refer to your well-practiced and habitual ways of acting, thinking, and responding to things as a “second nature,” indicating an awareness of the fact that this conditioned behavior is different from those instinctual patterns mentioned earlier. They belong to a distinct system of codes that you learned over time, some by social instruction and moral discipline, and some through the more or less random curriculum of life experience.
It seems strange to characterize ego consciousness and your second nature as somehow dormant inside a cocoon of personal identity and its quality world, until we are reminded that the term “personal” derives from the Latin persona, referring to a stage actor’s mask. Even though it all seems very real and serious to you on the inside, the whole construction of identity – the masks, roles, stories, and scripts – is literally made up and played out on the performance stages of tribal life.
All of that overlay of social meaning encapsulates consciousness, serving as a kind of incubation chamber where animal instinct will be transformed into spiritual aspiration – but first by taking on the persona of someone who belongs here, believes these things, and behaves as everyone else expects.
You can’t see it now, and you won’t until this cultural cocoon starts to split open to the light and vast sky beyond, but what you think is real is really an elaborate illusion, a veil over your mind, a meaningful dream but a dream nonetheless.
The dream of meaning is not without its purpose, however, for in the dream-state of your second nature, all those stories of heroes, saints, and world saviors who break through to the liberated life and reveal the way for others, have been sowing inside you the imaginal seeds of a higher nature. When the time is right (kairos in Greek), your butterfly self will outgrow the cocoon of your caterpillar self and something will have to give.
If things go according to design, all that moral and mental conditioning – the identity contracts, shared assumptions, social attachments, and personal ambitions that constituted your second nature – will split at the seams and let you out. Just as the chrysalis is but a stage in the metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly, so too is the cocoon of your personal identity only a transitional stage, crucial but not final, in your full transformation as a human manifestation of Being.
In my illustration above, three frames isolate the stages of transformation and define two critical thresholds in-between. The first threshold is where your caterpillar self, or basic nature, begins the work, in obedience to your tribal taller powers, of dream-spinning around itself a quality world and personal identity. And the second threshold is the moment when this improvised construction of meaning becomes suddenly (or so it can seem) too confining, oppressive, and stifling – incapable of accommodating the new dimensions of your higher nature.
As an enthusiastic apostle of post-theism, I want to meditate a bit longer on this second threshold of transformation. Theism is a second-stage, second-nature, ego-centered type of religion dedicated to the work of authorizing a coherent worldview, propagating an orthodox system of beliefs, coordinating a collective way of life, mediating a grand myth of salvation, and inculcating a binary morality of right and wrong.
All of this is regarded by believers as the creation and sovereign will of a god (Greek theos) who blesses and protects them in exchange for their worship and obedience.
In healthy theism, the virtues of god as depicted in scripture, glorified in corporate worship, and contemplated in personal devotion are initially acknowledged as divine exceptions, which devotees can only petition and extol. Over time, however, the pedagogy of religious instruction begins to shift these exalted virtues into the range of ethical ideals that believers are exhorted to imitate, “follow,” and exemplify in their daily lives.
We can think of these discrete virtues of god (such as forbearance, compassion, beneficence, and forgiveness) on the analogy of imaginal cells or seeds, planted early and eventually taking root, fusing together, and differentiating into a new and higher nature, whereby a Gautama becomes a Buddha (“awakened one”), and a Jesus becomes a Christ (“anointed/empowered one”). If references to god persist, it is now as the divine-within, the inner teacher, the Spirit of Love and Freedom.
Post-theism, then, is not a “one-world religion” where the distinctive voices of our historical traditions are silenced and left behind in a pre-enlightened past. Instead, it advocates for integrity and genuine health in all forms of theism, so that they can be ready when the time comes, to encourage and assist in a believer’s spiritual breakthrough to the liberated life.