I conclude my conversations with Nietzsche, Watts and Heschel by summing up what I’ve learned. All of them were lights in their time, and each one spoke out of – and to – his particular cultural context. My re-reading of these authors has opened up a new insight, however, with regard to their respective places in human history. Whether they were German Lutheran, Anglican beatnik, or Hasidic Jew, these three thinkers have become portals of a new vision for humanity. Something deeper underground than what is specific to any given cultural moment breaks to the surface in their writings. Here are the main ideas.
We live like fish submerged in an unfathomable mystery called reality. Each moment offers a fresh experience of the ineffable wonder of being alive and part of it all. Humans have evolved an ability to reflect on our experience, to pull out the patterns – or put them in – in order to make sense of what’s going on. This business of meaning-making is our chief preoccupation as a species, and the products of our effort – identity, value, significance, and purpose – are vigorously defended as truth-itself.
In fact, for the longest time humans were not self-aware in this construction of meaning. That is to say, we were unselfconscious creators: the projections just came spontaneously out of our deeper imagination in the form of dance, art, symbol, poetry and myth – forming the web of meaning we call culture. We saw ourselves in these projected patterns of meaning, but we didn’t consciously recognize the intelligence “looking back” at us. In the ensuing dialogue of cultural development – over many millenniums – we have come to realize our role in all of this.
One place where our evolving intelligence looks back at us is in the mythological god. This term refers to the key figures of early narratives who are depicted as the primary agents in the creation, supervision, intervention and redemption of the world – focused mainly on the local worlds of the tribes that recited and passed on the stories. As we stretch out the history of mythology we notice that god has evolved over time, beginning as the intention within the forces of nature, becoming more interested in the moral foundations and government of tribal society, and eventually ascending to an absolute position outside the world-system as “the one in control of all things.”
A mythic-literal reading of the sacred narratives is confronted with this personal development in god, which is difficult to accept since god is supposed to be outside of time and essentially perfect. But what if, following the theory that the mythological god is really our own developing consciousness looking back at us, we use this growth chart as a leading indicator of human evolution? The evolution of our body is on a very long trajectory reaching back millions of years; but our ego development correlates exactly to the career of the mythological god. Coincidence?
The rise of ego (self-) consciousness begins in the visceral urgencies of biological life. Under the influence of the drives and reflexes that have secured our survival for countless generations, the infantile ego is powerless to resist. But over time and through the disciplines of tribal morality, “I” (ego) takes its place at the table as a civilized – Nietzsche would say, domesticated – member of the herd. At this point, our focus of value and concern has shifted from the biological imperative of survival to the task of maintaining a social identity, with its driving need to “fit in” (belonging) and “stand out” (recognition).
Remember that all of this world-construction activity is taking place on the ego, by the tribe, and under the divine supervision and final judgment of the mythological god. This gearing-together of who I am, who we are, and who’s in control of it all makes for a very captive audience. Once the doors are locked it’s nearly impossible to manage an escape – but who would want to leave anyway? Our god is the true god, we are the chosen people, and I will be rewarded with everlasting life in heaven for being good (that is to say, obedient).
Remember, too, that all of this construction is taking place outside and around the present moment, where our soul swims in mystery. The erector set of culture makes for an exceedingly interesting, developmentally necessary, and magically entrancing game of distractions. Nietzsche wanted to pull it all down and clear the path to a higher humanity (Ubermensch), beyond good and evil. Watts taught that we can see through the cultural facade and step out of the role-play that is currently holding us hostage; we can wake up from the trance and find wisdom in our insecurity. And Heschel challenged us not to rest in this illusion of security, but rather to use the leverage-point of personal (ego) freedom to leap for the ring of responsibility.
This leads us back to “now” – which we never really left, nor can we. Having arched out of and away from the real presence of mystery and through our self-spun webs of meaning, we arrive once again in the living moment. Our awareness has been opened up and the focus of our attention now sees through what we once took as real. The seeds of creativity, compassion and wisdom, once the special possession of the mythological god, have begun to take root in their proper ground.
We are still becoming. The future is already being felt in the contractions. Don’t be afraid.