Monthly Archives: October 2012

A Second Look

Watts: “From this deeper point of view, religion is not a system of predictions. Its doctrines have to do, not with the future and the everlasting, but with the present and the eternal. They are not a set of beliefs and hopes but, on the contrary, a set of graphic symbols about present experience.”

I am sure that every one of us holds a deep intuition of what really matters in life. Not what is “most meaningful” but what is most real, and by implication where the true relevance of our life is grounded. The premise of Watts’ book – which concludes with this chapter – is that our ambition for security, motivated by the fear of extinction and the craving for permanence, is what keeps us looking outside this present moment for our salvation.

The fact of our insecurity – not simply the anxiety over it, but the naked reality of our passing life – cannot be escaped. However, much of what we do is for the purpose of diverting focus to things (attachments) that are fixed in space or defy the erosion of time. Whether as materialists or spiritualists, we hope that by holding on to what has weight or permanence our own existence will somehow be preserved.

But empirical science has discovered that matter is really just the momentary configuration of vibrant energy, coming together and falling apart at the joints through the dynamic interaction of elementary forces. And mystical spirituality has come to the realization – which also amounts to a disillusionment – that the gods of myth and theology are really representations and reflexes in our own minds of a profound, ineffable mystery. Standing on the edge of this mystery, ego is easily overwhelmed with vertigo.

In an effort to steady myself, I latch on to memories of the past or fantasies of the future, or else to something outside me, like another person, material possessions, or my patron deity (the mythological god). The result of all this grasping and clutching is really no less pleasant than the vertigo – anxiety, disappointment, frustration, regret, guilt, resentment, codependency, addiction and a soul-sick religion. But here’s the attraction: I (ego) am still at the center of all these states and circumstances. Life may suck, but it’s still my life.

In the practice of spiritual direction and transformational coaching, it always amounts to a breakthrough when the client finally understands what he’s doing in order to feel anxious or depressed, or how his habits and expectations are contributing to his relational conflicts and general disenchantment with life. Conventional psychotherapy will typically work to reconstruct the client’s past (in a case history), clarify a preferred future (the treatment objective), and modify his mood and behavior (using specific interventions) to help get him where he’d rather be.

Rarely will a client in therapy say, “I want to be more real.” That’s because most of our Western psychotherapies are not truly psycho (soul) therapies at all, but are instead based on our preoccupation with the personality and its pompous little captain, the ego. Personal identity is spun and suspended in the web of tribal culture, which makes the well-intentioned therapist an agent of the collective trance. Not that we don’t need addiction recovery, functional relationships, or more successful careers – we undoubtedly do. But if we just keep pulling along the past and pushing our way into the future, we will continue to squander our one chance at real life.

What does this mean for religion? I’ve been exploring a theory that regards religion as inherently paradoxical, a coordinated interplay between two evolutionary objectives – (1) providing support and aspirational focus to your developing ego by way of a projected ideal, the mythological god; and (2) awakening your soul to the ground of being, to the present mystery and mysterious presence of reality. The first objective encourages a literal reading of myth, with the action moving from left to right, through time and across the stage. In the Christian myth of salvation, for instance, Jesus Christ was an individual who came from god into the world, accomplished his work here and returned to god. One day he will come again. If you can believe this – and exactly what “this” is will depend on the denomination you ask – you may be considered a convert and become a member. When it all shakes out, you will be in heaven – ego intact.

The second objective requires a mystical reading, where the story is not about the past or future but is rather “a set of graphic symbols about present experience.” In this light, Jesus represents your separate ego, a personality defined by a past and directed toward a future. Christ (anointed one, the biblical equivalent to Buddha, awakened one) is your deeper self, or soul, ready to break forth in resurrection once this ego-momentum can be arrested, restrained and crucified. Now in the moment and fully present to life, your experience is one of authenticity and freedom. Salvation – the healing of your divided self – is here not a one-time accomplishment by someone else on your behalf, but rather the on-going challenge and invitation to be whole.

Now obviously the vertical axis and mystical reading will eventually “cost” more for the ego, which is partly why it’s the road less taken. But there’s also the tribe to think of, with its own organizational instincts and need for control. Remember that ego is simply a function of the tribe, the tribe is a role-play of morality, morality is a rule system derived from the tribe’s mythology, and mythology is the revealed word and will of god. It all ties together into a very tight web of meaning. The path of enlightenment and resurrection sets you free from fear and relaxes the grip of desire – the two motivational impulses that the tribe exploits to keep you captive. Threat of penalty and the lure of reward no longer matter, because now you are grounded in reality.

What else is there?


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Waiting Around

Nietzsche: “In every corner of the earth there are people waiting who hardly know to what extent they are waiting but even less that they are waiting in vain. Sometimes the awakening call, that chance event which gives ‘permission’ to act, comes but too late – when the best part of youth and the strength to act has already been used up in sitting still; and how many a man has discovered to his horror when he ‘rose up’ that his limbs had gone to sleep and his spirit was already too heavy!”

It may be that culture invented philosophy in order to catch the impulse of change and involve it – or tangle it up – in a web of commentary and subtle qualifications, to the point where it is rendered numb and disoriented. Our species is top-heavy, with this big brain wobbling atop a spindle of delicate bones. We often sense and feel the galvanic force of evolution surging out to our working muscles, but then rein it back to the counter for more deliberation. Of course, we don’t want to act prematurely or thoughtlessly or recklessly, or “merely” on the prick of inspiration alone – so we fiddle and futz, weigh the benefits against the risks, and end up throwing it back into committee.

Let’s face it, change is not always welcome. In fact, we embody a survival intelligence that has changed very slowly over the course of evolutionary history. It (Id was Freud’s term) operates according to a “logic” which says, “I’m still alive, so something is working. Let’s hold on and see what happens next. [Time passes] Ah, still here. Keep up the good work.”

End-time Christianity is perhaps the poster child of those who wait. In its early days, the cultural atmosphere was such that things really did seem about to end – at least for those of the dispossessed underclasses, such as the peasants and day-workers initially attracted to Jesus’ message of debt forgiveness and liberation. His gospel of freedom was quickly taken up into pre-existing apocalyptic eschatologies (views of the finale to “this present evil age”) and became something very different from what he probably intended.

The Fourth Gospel (John) was one of the last New Testament attempts to redirect this preoccupation with the end. But no matter how profound and provocative its language was – and obviously still is – the effort to bring Christians back to the present task of living out the spirit of Jesus was pushed to the side and tabled. Cultivation of a more mystical (deeply this-worldly) spirituality lacked attraction for a generation whose existence in the world was toilsome and perilous. Escape – or deliverance by intervention of a savior – was seen as the only way out. And so Christianity underwent an identity change of the first order: from an underground conspiracy for world change, to an orthodox membership club waiting on heaven.

Lately I’ve been feeling the urgency of our present cultural situation, especially as it concerns the spiritual direction of humanity and the decreasing relevance of religion. In their attempts to stop the slide and revitalize our churches, some leaders are advocating a “back to basics” reform or a return to first-century Christianity. Maybe it’s all the theological complications and moral compromises we’ve made along the way; let’s clear the table and get refocused on the fundamentals of our faith. What this really means is a further tightening of the bolt that binds together metaphysical realism, mythological literalism, biblical inerrancy, and infallible authority – that is to say, more of what has gotten us here.

As I see it, organized religion (all religions) is only a stage along the path of our spiritual evolution as a species. It occupies the same tier of human development as ego, tribe, morality and the mythological god. It’s not bad, and I don’t believe it is our destiny to one day live as fully enlightened beings without egos and the rest. These are necessary components of the longer trajectory and larger picture of what we are and where we’re going. But they are relative, not absolutes, and the next phase of our evolution requires that we leap from this platform and into the farther reaches of our human nature.

But the leap doesn’t project us into a new age without religion. The platform provides context, support, orientation and the resources of our various wisdom traditions that can aid us in leaping. A Christian leaps from a Christian platform, a Buddhist from a Buddhist platform, a Muslim from an Islamic platform, each using the leverage and guidance of their distinct traditions to engage the mystery and live more meaningfully in the world. Leaping out, we transcend our ego, let go of god, and learn to live beyond good and evil.

Those preparing to leap should expect a pull-back from the tribe. “What are you doing?! We’re supposed to stay here and wait! How can you just turn your back on us like this?” Such is the last task of ego – to take leave of your attachments, turn toward the mystery, and open your arms to fly.

The waiting is over.


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Mystery and Meaning

Heschel: “The delicate balance of mystery and meaning, of reverence and action, has been perilously upset. Our knowledge has been flattened. We see the world in one dimension and treat all problems on the same level. From the fact that we learned how to replace the kerosene lamp, we have deduced that we can replace the mystery of existence. We may be able to experiment with mice and still be unable to experiment with prayer.”

Imagine being in seminary where all the doctrines of your tradition are fitted together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Biblical foundations, the historical creeds, your denominational standards – all of the edges meet together so tightly, so perfectly. You learn how to translate, interpret, expound and preach the truth as it is represented on the face of your jigsaw puzzle. You will be instructed, examined, ordained and installed some day as an “expert” in these things. But in your second year a seminary professor puts Heschel in your hands. Kaboom.

The “delicate balance” that Heschel speaks of here is indeed delicate, but it is far from being in balance – especially now, as the 21st-century planet is more cross-connected and interdependent than ever before. As we are confronted by alternative worldviews and competing perspectives, the temptation is to lock down our own and defend its truth.

Nietzsche comes to mind. All we have is perspective, a view from somewhere; a construct, an untruth, and never truth itself. Heschel’s distinction between “mystery and meaning” is getting at the same idea. Mystery is not what is still unknown, but our experience of the unknowable. Our effort to make sense of this experience and translate what it means – in symbols, metaphors, stories, theories and doctrines – is so much secondary conjecture. We make up a picture, analyze it into pieces, and then spend generations figuring out how the pieces fit together.

I suppose it’s not only the psychological value of the resulting world-picture – giving the illusion of reality as secure, stable and significant – but all the generations of human effort invested in meaning-making that motivates our extreme attachment to the meaning we make. The certainty and control we feel on the inside of our world is preferable to the open and fluid nature of what’s really going on “out there.” Like those children in a sociological research study who played only in the center of an open field but explored the entire property after a fence was installed, we need to feel that chaos and danger are kept out of our cultural playgrounds.

Now on the other side of seminary and after a decade and a half of church ministry, I can sometimes become deeply discouraged over the conviction and arrogance that characterize this world-building enterprise – especially when it gets tied to inerrant holy books and infallible authorities. And it’s not just religion. Every human tradition hands along the conclusions of previous generations, and with each transfer of knowledge our reality gets that much smaller.

In my denomination, Calvinism was smaller and more tightly controlled than Calvin’s own faith had been; Calvin’s orthodoxy was itself a reduction of what the apostle Paul thought and wrote about; and Paul’s doctrinal platform was much more dogmatic than Jesus had been. As scientific discoveries, commercial trade, and world travel were pulling open the boundaries of our known universe, local tribal traditions were systematically closing the Western mind.

We need the balance of mystery and meaning. Without a conscious commitment to return to experience, our explanations become rigid, heavy and increasingly irrelevant over time. The security we feel on the inside of our fabricated and well-defended worlds eventually gives way to a kind of fatalism – the existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre called it ennui (the “sick and tired” feeling of boredom). Perhaps we can condition and predict the behavior of caged mice because their situation is so similar to our own.

The moment I begin reflecting on my experience, the business of meaning-making is well on its way. I need to make sense of it – and isn’t it interesting that we have an implicit acknowledgement of our role as creators of meaning, in this common phrase about “making sense” of things? I need meaning in order to keep sanity and thrive as a human being. But can I have too much of it?

Experience is the free-flowing spontaneity of life in this present moment. Yes, I need to make sense of it. I will keep working to figure it out, and then configure these figures like so many jigsaw shapes, into a picture that’s meaningful to me. And you’ll keep doing the same.

But let’s make a pact. Every once in a while, we will put down our puzzle pieces and push ourselves away from the card table. We will take a deep breath, release the tension in our mind and muscles, and open our attention to the present mystery.

Here and now. Amen.


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Depth Theology

Heschel: “Depth theology seeks to meet the person in moments which are affected by all a person thinks, feels, and acts. It draws upon that which happens to [us] in moments of confrontation with ultimate reality. It is in such moments that decisive insights are born. Some of these insights lend themselves to conceptualization, while others seem to overflow the vessels of our conceptual powers.”

Post-theism asks the question of what comes after (post) theism (belief in god). This is not the modernist campaign of secular atheism, which proceeds on the assumption that we no longer need god to explain the universe and orient our lives. Secular atheism stands in opposition to religious fundamentalism, and the error of both camps is their fixation on god. Does god exist or not?

People are made to feel as if they must take a side on the issue. They are “true believers” if they say yes, “atheist unbelievers” if they say no. Post-theism regards both sides of the debate as caught on a technicality. The mythological god is our own invention, a long historical project (and projection) of our creative imagination, the reflex and representation of our confrontation with ultimate reality.

In other words, we didn’t just “think god up” one day because we were bored or confused or lonely. An experience of the real presence of mystery provoked – and still provokes, from those who haven’t entirely lost their sensitivity to the depths of life – an outpouring of rhythm, dance, song, poetry, imagery, metaphor, myth and the mythological god. All of this was – and is – very spontaneous, wonderfully playful and unselfconscious.

With each additional “layer” of creative output, we have gradually come to see more of ourselves in our art. Now, in this cultural moment of post-theism, a growing number of us are realizing that the mythological god is really the advancing ideal of our own evolving nature. For the longest time, this creative process was so much a part of us that we simply took these impressions of mystery and expressions of meaning as separate from ourselves, existing “out there” and on their own.

In an earlier day we could debate the existence of (our) god or refute the existence of (their) god. Today it’s less important, even a distraction. But there’s more at stake than ever before. Heschel’s “depth theology” helps us look back at the path that has led to where we are, but it also gives us better vision for what still lies ahead. We don’t need to abandon theology (god talk) or throw aside the mythological god. Instead we might learn how to read the depth-soundings of our own spiritual life, treating all this theological labor as so much experiential code rather than supernatural revelation.

Our experience of the present mystery of reality is profound and ineffable. We are in it all the time, but only rarely does our consciousness open sufficiently so as to be overwhelmed by its preciousness, power and depth. In “normal” mode – or what is effectively our trance-state of everyday life – our attention and energy are devoted to the priorities of our tribe. Dutifully we fall in line and roll along the grooves of morality in our pursuit of happiness. But when it does happen, when the box breaks open and reality rushes in, we catch our breath in terror, amazement, ecstasy, or holy recognition.

Human beings are body-and-soul, with an ego squeezing out in the middle and making it seem as if we are bodies with souls, or souls with bodies. In our confrontation with ultimate reality – or I should say, shortly thereafter – we begin to process our experience by feeling its lift and impact, thinking through its meaning and implications, and letting it move us into creative action. Or not, depending on how spiritually grounded and open-minded we are to the mystery; or how flexible, encouraging, and spiritually attuned our tribe is.

Post-theism insists that we still need god; that myth, theology and organized religion retain an important place along the arching line of our evolution as a species. We just see them differently now. We see them as having come out of us, not as dropping out of heaven. We see them as creative expressions of a profound and inexpressible experience – which is a paradox we can celebrate and don’t need to fear.

We see them as suggestions and guideposts of a way still unfolding, intimations of the possible human. Join the movement.


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Will to Power

Nietzsche: “Everywhere one enthuses, even under scientific disguises, about coming states of society in which there will be ‘no more exploitation’ – that sounds to my ears like promising a life in which there will be no organic functions. ‘Exploitation’ does not pertain to a corrupt or imperfect or primitive society: it pertains to the essence of the living thing as a fundamental organic function, it is a consequence of the intrinsic will to power which is precisely the will of life.”

Nietzsche’s “will to power” has been taken as a ruthless pursuit of superiority, as the drive to overcome, dominate and subdue others. It’s probably this idea of his, more than any other, that encouraged many to see in Nietzsche a kind of pre-endorsement of fascism and inspiration of Hitler. But, once again, this represents a gross mis-reading of Nietzsche.

True enough, he was scathingly critical of those Christian utopians who foretold a future where all people would live in happy equality and perpetual peace. What would happen if we smoothed down all differences, every more-or-less, and were able to remove the friction, tension and conflict that characterize so much of our interpersonal relations? Nietzsche was not a fan of equality – or democracy, insofar as it insists on the principle that everyone is equal.

He even seems here to affirm and encourage exploitation. Isn’t that evidence enough that Nietzsche is against Christian morality. Oh right, we already determined that. But against moral decency? Ah, true again. He’s a “nihilist,” then, a moral anarchist, proto-Nazi and antichrist. Well, not really.

The straightforward definition of exploitation is based on the verb exploit, which simply means “to utilize, advance or promote.” Granted, it’s more about your advancement than someone else’s, but that doesn’t have to make it greedy or vicious. Perhaps we’re dealing here with something more analogue than digital, a variable range from too little to too much, rather than a simple “on” or “off.” The Christian morality that Nietzsche was reacting to tended (and still tends) to be digital – it’s either a virtue or a vice, praiseworthy or condemnable. Such a digital value system plays out and produces a dualistic worldview (good versus evil) as well as bipolar personalities that are unable to absorb and modulate the emotional complexity of experience.

Is a healthy human society entirely free of exploitation, competition and self-interest? The early Christian communalism as described in the New Testament Acts of the Apostles is frequently referenced as an ideal, and we know that Karl Marx envisioned a society where every talent would be harnessed, every need satisfied. But that was a fantasy. In the meantime, exploited proletarians need to muster themselves and pull down the bourgeoisie system of privilege. Sounds like exploitation just running in the opposite direction, doesn’t it? And what about those primitive Christians? That model quickly fell apart as real life seeped in and a politics of entitlement took over.

Exactly, Nietzsche would say. The drive to utilize resources, advance the quality of life, and promote the fulfillment of its own deeper nature is written into the genetic code of life itself. Efforts to push it down and put it out are really just another form of exploitation, which prompts the question of whose interests are being served in our moral repression. The “will to life” naturally arises in every living thing as it seeks its own foothold in the universe, struggles to satisfy its basic needs, and strives to actualize its true nature.

If we should remove all obstacles and flatten out all uprisings; if we could somehow assuage every hint of discontent and anesthetize the energizing nerve of our innate selfishness – would the result be a healthy society and genuine community? No. Instead we would end up with such an inertia of mediocrity and laziness, that our very survival would be in jeopardy.

Nietzsche wasn’t in support of pushing down your neighbor and sticking it to the poor. His ideal was not just another aristocracy based on the golden rule of a rogue capitalism – “The one with the gold rules.” Nor was he an advocate of a ruthless antagonism where individuals and classes are consumed in their schemes to ruin each other. He believed that our better days are still ahead, but not in a utopia where everyone is equal and all adversities have been neutralized.

We need to get along, but each of us must also get along – that is, we need to go forward in our own development and evolution as human beings. An important part of that development involves our relationships with others in society, but we must be careful not to cut the root as we cultivate the flower.

An illustration from the vineyard. Vines that are grown in super-rich soil where every emergent need of the plant is instantly and abundantly provided for don’t have to “strive” as diligently to produce fruit. As a consequence of this “privilege,” the vines will put out lazy grapes – berries that are bloated and tasteless, lacking in complexity and depth. Wine made from lazy grapes is characteristically flat and uninteresting, winding up as cheap jug wine. The overly providential vintner, by removing adverse conditions and anticipating every need, thereby enfeebles the plant’s innate “will to power” and compromises its natural intelligence.

Nietzsche might say that our culture is  bringing forth “lazy grapes,” individuals lacking the complexity of character, inner fortitude and passion for life that our species requires for the next phase in our evolution. Though he waxed prophetic over the “superman” (Ubermensch) of the future, this apparent recession of the human spirit made him wonder whether our opportunity has already passed.


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Love and Self

Watts: “There is no formula for generating the authentic warmth of love. It cannot be copied. You cannot talk yourself into it or rouse it by straining at the emotions or by dedicating yourself solemnly to the service of mankind. Everyone has love, but it can only come out when [you are] convinced of the impossibility and the frustration of trying to love [yourself]. This conviction will not come through condemnations, through hating oneself, through calling self-love all the bad names in the universe. It comes only in the awareness that one has no self to love.”

I’ve broken my usual rhythm in this conversation so I can bring out a second quote of Watts, from the chapter entitled “Creative Morality.” His concluding remark “that one has no self to love” stands in obvious – which at this point only means apparent – opposition to our Western notion of the self as something solid and enduring. Besides, how can we make sense of Jesus’ “second greatest commandment,” to love your neighbor as yourself, if there is no self to love?

The answer to this question depends on the definition of self that we assume. My working assumption is that “self” designates a unity of three distinct centers of experience and their corresponding realms. Body involves us in the physical realm as a living organism inhabiting an environment. Ego involves us in the social realm as a member of a tribe, one of “us.” And soul involves us in the spiritual realm, which as I’m using the term isn’t something separate and apart from these other aspects of self, but instead opens us to the deeper ground and greater mystery of being.

These didn’t come together as my “self,” as in popular mythology where the soul preexists, briefly occupies, and eventually survives the body. Body, ego and soul are not separate “parts” but, once again, merely distinct centers of experience that evolve together through time. It is only because the language we use to make sense of all this is tethered to an ego, which is itself a social construction of the tribe, that we even presume to “have” a body and a soul.

In a fateful series of steps, ego, taking the dominant position, imagined an antagonism between body and soul, proceeded to scandalize the body and identify with the soul, and finally stepped fully into the role as a transcendent and heaven-bound immortal. Of course, this didn’t transpire in a vacuum, for we must remember that ego is itself only a construct and symptom of the tribe. In fact, this entire fantasy was very useful to the tribe, as it provided a way of managing the ego and enforcing a morality of obedience.

This was the situation in India 2,500 years ago, when Siddhartha Gautama saw through the trance and found a path of liberation. As the Buddha (awakened one) he came to the realization that ego’s self-designation as a metaphysically separate and permanent center of identity was not only lacking a basis in empirical experience but was also being exploited by the tribe to keep everyone in the game and awaiting their turn.

He stated his break from orthodoxy on this point in the doctrine of “no self” (anatta): The individual is a composite of mutually-arising conditions, just as a candle flame depends for its existence on the interplay of numerous elemental forces. Full enlightenment and perfect freedom come as we are able to quiet our cravings and allow the flame to “blow out” (nibbana). What comes after that? It’s not for us to know, he said, simply because it is unknowable. In other words, it’s a mystery.

Now we have sufficient background to understand where Watts is coming from, and what he means by saying “there is no self to love.” Though he never abandoned his Anglican roots, Watts became increasingly interested in the teachings of Buddhism and was convinced that it offered an effective alternative to the strangling orthodoxies of the West.

The idea of “no self” might even help us interpret the biblical injunction to “love your neighbor as yourself.” (It was already part of the Hebrew scriptures that shaped the spirituality of Jesus). In this case, self is not the immortalized ego but merely a reflexive reference to what I am. I don’t have a self to love because I am this self, which makes self-love essentially spontaneous, unconditional and free-flowing.

And perhaps that’s the take-away message: Love creates and connects, and flows like a stream. We love ourselves when we can get out of the way and let its current move through us.

It’s not about me after all. What a bummer.


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The Divided Mind

Watts: “It is easy to see that most of the acts which, in conventional morals, are called evil can be traced to the divided mind. By far the greater part of these acts come from exaggerated desires, desires for things which are not even remotely necessary for the health of mind and body, granting that ‘health’ is a relative term. Such outlandish and insatiable desires come into being because man is exploiting his appetites to give the ‘I’ a sense of security.”

Security is an illusion. At any second an unsuspected bacterium could invade your immune system, a blood vessel in your brain could burst, a piece of space junk could fall out of the sky on your head, or a random act of violence could find you in the wrong place at the right time. Imagine what your life would become were you to make these slim probabilities your preoccupying focus.

Instead of fixating on them and driving yourself crazy, you do the responsible thing and build up a line of protection to keep any of it from happening. But now there’s a new worry over that monthly insurance payment, or a deepening sense of isolation as you keep yourself safe at home. So what can you do but see the doctor for a prescription drug that will take the edge off your anxiety or lift you off the floor of your depression. Then there’s the side-effects …

Our desperate quest for whatever can counteract or permanently transcend the inherent insecurity of existence actually creates new things to worry about. As we devote more resources to protecting our resources, eventually we reach the point of diminishing returns. More is spent to keep from losing. Life becomes an exercise in circling the drain: put death off just a little longer and maybe you stand a chance of having a life. Nope, it doesn’t work that way.

We should be clear, it’s not the body that is driving this circus of absurdity. By following the rhythm of its natural life cycle, the body has evolved internal mechanisms to either heal or surrender to its inevitable fate. The ego, strapped to this eventual corpse, is the one who strives to slip the knot and live forever. We have developed all kinds of technologies and cosmetics to postpone or conceal the fact of mortality. And religion has done its part by promising everlasting security to the one who can delay gratification and remain obedient to the end.

Think of the evils that have been committed for the sake of security – or the sense of security, and the pursuit of it. The greed for “enough” can never be satisfied, simply because there can be no such thing as enough. How can you know for sure? Life conditions could change, the supply could run out, your neighbor could take more than his fair share. Insecurity produces discontent, discontent produces greed, greed motivates hoarding and theft, hoarding and theft (by others) require protection, protection requires insurance payments, insurance payments require more income, more income requires more time, and more time – oops, game over.

Let’s just agree for the moment that security is an illusion, something unreal, unrealistic, and unattainable. If we were to simply accept this fact, would we live any differently than we do now? We would worry less, there’s no doubt about that. And depression – the state of fatigue and discouragement that comes in the wake of anxiety – would be far rarer, indeed. We would certainly be more relaxed, even living on this edge of death, and probably feel more alive by virtue of its constant shadow.

Watts’ “divided mind” is another term for ego ambition, driven by the competing motivations of desire and fear. For its part, security, being an illusion, is not even something we can pursue – unless some clever advertising has attached it to a “must have” new product or service. To that end, we buy and replace, use and toss out, try and abandon one false promise after another.

The fear side of ambition is typically more concrete. While positive gains and happy progress may forever elude us, negative losses on the downward slope of mortality are inevitable. Ego ambition is about spending and stacking – or shooting – whatever is necessary to hold off the specter of death. But the more we clutch and stockpile, the greater our risk and pain in losing it, and the more we are willing to do to keep it a little longer.

Even if “Romeo and Juliet are [not] together in eternity,” in the words of Blue Oyster Cult’s Donald Roeser, we don’t need to fear the reaper.


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Metaphors of God

Heschel: “God is every [human being’s] pedigree. He is either the Father of all people or of no one. The image of God is either in every individual or in no one. God’s covenant is with all people, and we must never be oblivious of the equality of the divine dignity of all people. The image of God is in the criminal as well as in the saint. How can my regard for others be contingent upon their merit, if I know that in the eyes of God I myself may be without merit!”

Like spiders spinning webs, humans construct meaning. We live always in the present mystery of reality – or in the real presence of mystery – but we live (and will die) for meaning. From the time we’re still in the womb our brain is not only regulating the homeostasis of the body, but is also gathering information from the environment in the form of basic, very visceral impressions. Perhaps the most “primordial” of all such impressions is our sense of the degree in which the supporting reality of our existence is providential.

Awareness arises in the brain beginning at the level of individual nerve cells, which have evolved the ability to carry electrical charges and spritz chemical messages to their neighbors. These chemicals (called neurotransmitters) serve to amplify or suppress the wave of energy, and as it makes its way across the tiny gaps separating the cells it becomes information and “jumps” to the level of circuits – lines and loops of brain cells “talking” to each other.

Distinct circuits of local communication proceed to link together in networks, pulling information from the various outposts of brain specialization (the various lobes and centers dedicated to processing specific kinds of information like visual, auditory, motion, and so forth). Finally – and this is all happening in fractions of a second – all this cross-talk up and down, back and forth, enables the brain to construct a representation of experience, a meaning of mystery.

I said “finally,” but there’s more. Next the brain makes associations of this momentary representation with many others it has kept on record (in memory). Complicated and historically deep mental maps of our experienced reality are then correlated into a single and fairly seamless worldview, which is the spider’s web we inhabit and maintain throughout our lives.

You should be visualizing a neural latticework arranged hierarchically from individual cells to circuits to networks to a broad-scale symphony of cross-talk among the major brain regions, all working to produce the web of meaning called a worldview. From the far edges of our constructed world picture, we could trace a winding path back down through this complicated webwork and into our moment-by-moment experience of life. This is where we hold our deepest impressions of reality, whether and to what degree we are supported in the larger mystery of being.

Of course, the brain itself doesn’t know that all of this is its own invention, a mere representation or facsimile of the ineffable energy field of reality. It probably doesn’t care. As long as it can manage to produce a worldview adaptive to our various life-environments and give us a chance for reproductive success, it’s done its job. Only with the emergence of a self-aware ego – a center of personal identity – does the philosophical question of truth present itself.

For instance, Heschel invokes the metaphor of God as father, which is itself part of a relational model (since “father” only makes sense in relation to “child”). Where is truth in this metaphor? Are we to take it literally, where God is regarded as a being who is like a father to us? The philosophical position of metaphysical realism supports such a literal reading. (This is the basic assumption that the mythological god, the narrative character who is found in the sacred stories of most cultures, exists outside our myths in just the way he is represented in our myths.)

But the evolution of human consciousness has moved us to the place now where metaphysical realism is no longer tenable. In fact, the force of religion, denominational membership and church attendance in our day have fallen off dramatically. Some well-intentioned but increasingly desperate pundits are recommending better marketing gimmicks or innovative outreach strategies, when the real problem (in my opinion) is that the postmodern mind is finding it harder to believe in a god who’s not around anymore.

The solution is neither to abandon our myths and the mythological god, nor to insist dogmatically on their literal truth; the way through is not atheism or religious fundamentalism. Post-theism provides the investigative space where we can take our metaphors seriously, but not literally. How would that look?

Heschel’s metaphor of God as father is not a reference to the mythological god of the Bible, but rather to the present mystery of reality beneath, within and all around us. It’s not that god (a separate and supernatural being) is like a father to us, or that he is literally the father of Jesus the son, as the German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg argued in a lecture I attended back in my seminary days. Strictly speaking, the mythological god is only related to other fictional characters who share narrative space with him (or her). To the brains of storytellers who make up the myths, the mythological god is a metaphor of something else, which I’m calling the present mystery of reality.

Reality is “father” in the way it sources our existence and provides for our needs. God as “mother” is another, even older metaphor for the way mystery contains and nurtures us. Because this real presence is the grounding support and generative life fuse in everyone, all human beings possess a “divine dignity” – even if we regularly fall short of fully expressing it in the way we live. Whereas our egos may get puffed up and strut around in self-importance, thinking “I” am better than the rest, at the level of soul our dignity as human beings is intrinsic to each and equal among all. Saints don’t have more of it, and criminals don’t have less.

My theory is that most of the small-mindedness, internal tensions and sectarian conflicts of religion are really a symptom of an underlying spiritual anxiety. For one reason or another, many have lost faith in a provident reality. Or perhaps we have climbed so high into our worldviews and gotten tangled up in our webs of meaning, that now we dangle over an apparent abyss, afraid to let go.

But we can let go. There’s more to life than just what it means.


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Learning to Dance

Nietzsche: “There are sufficient idiotic friends and corrupters of woman among the learned asses of the male sex who advise woman to defeminize herself … and to imitate all the stupidities with which ‘man’ … is sick. Almost everywhere her nerves are being shattered … and she is being rendered more and more hysterical with every day that passes and more and more incapable of her first and last profession, which is to bear strong children. There is a desire to make her in general more ‘cultivated’ and, as they say, to make the ‘weak sex’ strong through culture: as if history did not teach in the most emphatic manner possible that making human beings ‘cultivated’ and making them weaker – that is to say, enfeebling, fragmenting, contaminating, the force of the will, have always gone hand in hand.”

The rise of human culture is the story of how a primate animal nature was gradually trained into a well-behaved and proper civilian – or maybe we’re  not quite there yet. At any rate, an evolutionary perspective regards human civilization as a long series of negotiations with our instinctual intelligence – our impulsive tendencies around selfishness, sex and aggression. I’ve already noted how Nietzsche speaks against the general opinion that sees this cultivation of our animal passions – in a word, culture – as the proper end-point of human evolution. Instead he regards it as a staging area or transition space between our (animal) past and our (spiritual) future.

Of course, our animal past is still with us, as body; and our spiritual future is already present, as soul – and both are under the tyranny of that control freak called ego. This dynamic tension in human experience between body and soul, animal and spiritual, where we’ve been and where we might be going on this long arc of evolution, is the seedbed of magic, metaphor and mythology. Whereas the religious aspiration of ego – as revealed in tribal orthodoxy – is commonly to leave the body behind and live forever as a soul in paradise, the reality of our experience is this tension and its inescapable ambiguity. Our primary task as humans is not to become escape artists, but amphibians.

The thought and writings of Nietzsche spring directly out of his creative imagination, from that part of the mind the psychologist Carl Jung later called our collective unconscious. The images that emerge from this mental underground represent our earliest and most basic impressions of reality; Jung named them archetypes (or “first forms”).

All of this is important for understanding Nietzsche’s references to “man” and “woman” throughout his writings. As a creative philosopher, he was not so much commenting on individual men and women of his day – though he did some of that as well. Man and Woman for him are archetypes, first forms or basic patterns in the evolution of our species. They are present in each human individual as propensities in our development, expressing in powers and qualities that are more or less masculine and feminine.

For Nietzsche, Woman is part of a cluster of associations including Nature, Animal, Body and Time; Man is included in the cluster of Culture, Person, Ego and Space. Think of a ‘T’ where the ascending energy of the first cluster is capped and splayed out horizontally into the second cluster. We could add further polarities, like passion and reason, feeling and thinking, instinct and conscience, organismic and mechanistic. These terms are not intended to be seen as mutually exclusive opposites, but instead as complementary and creative counterparts in a higher dance of sort. Only as we identify exclusively with one or the other, do they become antagonistic and competitive.

We should remember that culture for Nietzsche is not the end-point of human evolution. The “cultivation” of our animal passions in the obedient morality of tribal life involves too much denial, repression and condemnation of our most important drives – “making them weaker” on their way to becoming more domesticated. Archetypally, Man has made too much an end-game of harnessing and controlling the powers of Woman. As the personal Ego caps off and flattens out the creative life of our animal Body, the intended channel of our higher progress as a species is blocked. Man-against-Woman is an endless conflict and waste of energy. According to Nietzsche’s vision, if we can’t get past this battlefront it will also be our tragic demise.

What’s beyond this point? If it’s not Man holding down Woman, Ego managing Body, Personal values overriding and repressing Animal drives, the rational mind over the passionate heart, then what is the frontier of the human spirit that patiently – but not indefinitely – awaits our foreground squabbling and wrangling over opposites?

Just as in the Chinese philosophy of Taoism, Man and Woman are reconciled only as we are able to shift focus to a point “above” the apparent conflict. This does not mean that the opposition is neutralized in an agreeable blend of powers – this, too, would represent a tragic end for Nietzsche. Rather, Man (Chinese yang) and Woman (yin) must be comprehended as necessary counterforces of a dynamic interplay (swirling together as in the yang-yin symbol). The “T” must break through and transcend the intersection of either/or.

This is the domain of Soul – not apart from and outside the perpetual struggle of Ego and Body, Man and Woman, but inside-and-beyond it. Each must contribute its (his or her) primary power to the dance, if the dance is to continue. And we will only break through and ascend to authentic life as we are able to keep dancing.


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