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.