RSS

Monthly Archives: January 2013

Faith and Creative Change

Excursus: Religious faith is frequently a force of resistance to change. True believers may invoke sacred tradition, holy scripture, or the unchanging nature of god to justify our need to keep things as they are, or get back to the way they once were. Holding fast to ancient ways or locking down on absolute truths in a fundamentalist fashion are often prescribed as our only way through the present situation, which is characterized as godless, worldly and humanistic. Where does faith stand in relation to creative change?

None of my conversation partners (Schleiermacher, Kierkegaard, and Tillich) would number among the saints of orthodox Christianity. The terms dogmatic, evangelical and fundamentalist would not describe any of them in the way they thought of ultimate reality and wrestled with what it means to be Christian in their contemporary world. For this very reason they have been dismissed as eccentrics or renounced as heretics by the true religion. This is also why I find them compelling.

Way “back in the day” when Greek philosophy was leaving the nest of  religious mythology and investigating the nature of reality through scientific mythology – better known as “theory” – Heraclitus asserted that change is not what happens to the way things really are, but is itself most basic to reality. Using the metaphor of a stream, he observed that you never step into the same river twice. By the time you put your foot in again, the river has moved and this experience is different from your earlier encounter.

This message has been difficult to accept. In his own day, Heraclitus was scorned as a heretic by the philosophical majority who held fast to a theory of an immutable essence behind and beneath the only-apparent change. Religious orthodoxy simply identified this metaphysical reality with the transcendent god – exalted, absolute, unaffected and aloof. Out of the whirlwind of experience of life in time, a true believer can attach him- or herself to this god and find not only security in this world, but everlasting life in the next.

I personally don’t regard the mythological god as metaphysically real. That’s a mouthful, but it’s only saying that the god of sacred story lives only in the myths and not outside them in the actual reality of our experience. When Christian theology took off from these stories of the Bible and developed its own sophisticated web of theories concerning the nature and will of god, it moved the god-talk of religion out of a public context of myth and ritual and into the private head-space of orthodox doctrines. This is the point when faith became a noun.

Even the “ground” of mystical spirituality can sound as if it’s referring to a stable and unchanging reality beneath us, something outside and under all the flux of change. True enough, there are some so-called mystical schools that claim to have access to a realm of deities, angels, spirit-guides and your deceased relatives. If your lifestyle prevents you from joining one,  you might consider paying a free-lance psychic medium to channel a disembodied personality for you.

But the genuinely mystical ground of being is not a personality, or even “a being.” It is the deeper support and generative source in which your existence is rooted. The usefulness of the “ground” metaphor should be obvious – if we even feel the need to talk about our experience of reality at this level. You don’t look outside of yourself to find this ground. Instead you need to look into yourself and through yourself, to that place where your individual life is connected to the present mystery of reality.

Of course, you can look outside yourself if you prefer, and there you will see countless manifestations of the one ground, expressing here as grass, there as trees, here as a bird and there as clouds – and so on, around our amazing planet and beyond. All together, these comprise what we call the Universe. All is one – and turns as one (uni-verse) – by virtue of our common ground in being-itself.

This ground is not detached and aloof from your daily experience, but is the dynamic and creative – Heraclitus would say “flowing” – power moving into you, as you, and through you. Right here, right now. It supports your existence as a river carries you in its current.

As reality changes all around you, and as your life changes from year to year, from day to day, and from moment to moment, don’t resist or look for an escape. Simply relax into being, release your grip on the world around you and reach for the deeper support of your existence. Settle into your center, soften your focus, and just breathe into this space.

You’ve been jabbing your heels into the riverbed long enough, and swimming against the current is not only exhausting, but ultimately futile. Stop fighting change with such anxiety and suspicion. Trust the process. This is where you are, so be here.

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The Mystical Turn

Schleiermacher: “Study yourselves with unswerving attention, put aside all that is not self, proceed with the sense ever more closely directed to the purely inward. The more you pass by all foreign elements, making your personality appear diminished almost to the vanishing point, the clearer the Universe stands before you, and the more gloriously the terror of annihilating the fleeting is rewarded by the feeling of the eternal.”

Taking the images of religious art and mythology at face value – and we should include the more abstract images of theology as well – promotes the misunderstanding that the ultimate object of religion is, well, an object. Something out there, over there, up there. It’s important to remember that all these artistic images, sacred stories, and more heady conceptions of what we call God have been produced out of our creative imagination, not “caught on tape” or encountered just so.

A favorite metaphor of mystics worldwide and across the ages for the “ultimate concern” of human spirituality is ground, or the ground of being. As with all metaphors, this one can be misunderstood if we take it literally, as referring only to something outside and beneath us. It is beneath us, but only metaphorically, as the deeper support and primal source of our existence itself.

You won’t find this ground separate from yourself, except as shining through and indirectly represented in the countless forms round about. From a mystical vantage-point, all things exist only as embodiments of the one ground. As thus lit up from within, as it were, the entire universe is a turning mystery of epiphany.

But many religious people don’t see things from a mystical vantage-point. Instead they are metaphysical realists and mythological literalists, convinced that their god is really just as the stories depict him/her. Scholarly studies take off from this point and seek to examine and explain the nature of god in big words and thick volumes of systematic theology. As most true believers don’t have the time or patience to wade through this complicated web of arguments, they simply accept the assumptions and profess the conclusions as their own articles of faith.

My personal experience while an ordained pastor in Christian ministry revealed time and again how suspicious orthodox religion is of a mystical spirituality. Mystics tend to hold on loosely to the doctrines of theology, insisting that the real mystery of presence is not something that can be boxed up and codified, or even labeled except with metaphors drawn from our everyday experience.

As we might expect, this reluctance to even speak of the mystery, let alone their persistent suspicion of any attempt to reduce it to doctrines, has resulted in mystics being unwelcome in most churches and frequently persecuted by the custodians of orthodoxy.

In an attempt to put mystics on the defensive, true believers will occasionally accuse them of being fixated on themselves – with all this “study yourselves with unswerving attention.” Proper piety, they insist, must be self-negating, even self-reproachful. Self – and they really mean ego in this sense – is the enemy of god, the ultimate damnable distraction that keeps us from devoted attention to the proper object of our worship. By turning inward, mystics are guilty of sin; and their guilt is multiplied to the degree that they successfully seduce others to their path.

Fundamentalism in religion betrays itself by the nervous insecurity, narrow-mindedness, and propensity for violence that eventually show up in its business. Out of allegiance to the tribe and for the promise of a heavenly reward, true believers across the religions have willingly – even earnestly – committed violence against other human beings, against nature, and against themselves. Ironically they end up behaving in ways that utterly contradict their founder’s teachings, and then justify themselves in his/her name!

The true mystical path does not involve self-infatuation. In fact, obsession with ego identity and personal destiny is typically an outstanding feature of religious orthodoxy, not mysticism. I need to fit in. I need to be right. I need my reward. I need to live forever.

In order to directly experience the ground of being, you must release your hold on concerns of identity. As nothing more than a construct of social conventions, ego is not what you are but only who you are as conditioned and defined by your tribe. What you are is much deeper. It’s your authentic self, the being that you are, rather than your constructed self, the roles that you play. Letting go is often described by mystics as stepping out of the costumes and slipping off the masks that hold your place in society.

The self that is left after all this disrobing is not some metaphysical and immortal soul, but simply you, right now, as you really are. Real presence.

Because ego looks out through filters, your grasp on reality is superficial and highly selective. As you “pass by all foreign elements” – all the add-ons and attachments that qualify who you are – your experience of reality is increasingly direct, singular, and unified. This is what Schleiermacher means by “universe”: the single turning mystery of being in which your existence is rooted.

Inward contemplation is not about gazing upon your true self or reveling in your indestructible nature, but rather sinking past yourself altogether, into a inner space where all is one. Not a jigsaw of oneness but pure and essential oneness. Without specific content yet containing all there is. Obviously descriptive words and word-heavy theories won’t stick to this mystery, so it’s best to remain quiet and just be there.

And this – letting go and finding your ground, sinking past all your titles and achievements, all your honor and shame, past your first word and your last defense – this is faith.

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Living Faith

Tillich: “Here more than anywhere else the dynamics of faith become manifest and conscious: the infinite tension between the absoluteness of its claim and the relativity of its life.”

My conversation with Schleiermacher, Kierkegaard, and Tillich has emphasized the point that faith is a verb more than a noun. Furthermore it is an act of existential and not merely of practical significance – that is to say, it involves one’s whole being in an attitude of openness to reality. It’s not so much what you do, but how you do the be-ing of your life.

The opposite of faith is not doubt but anxiety, the tendency we all have to get gripped up inside ourselves, to become hostage to our insecurities and ego defenses. While insecurity is a mark of our existence, we can easily fall in and become overwhelmed by the fact that so much is outside our control and our life is passing away. This is where the fact of our insecurity gets twisted up into the demon of anxiety.

More and more, religion is serving as therapy for this existential anxiety afflicting so many. In its beginnings it was a dynamic system of myth, ritual and morality, coordinating our human experience with the larger rhythm of the seasons, the harvest, the hunt and the changing stations of life in society. Over time, however, the focus of human concerns became increasingly personal – less about balancing heaven and earth, and more about individual salvation in the next life.

To the extent that religion has always been about the knowledge of ultimate reality, for most of its history this special knowledge has been sought for the purpose of living with a bigger context in mind. Your values, choices and actions need to be appreciated in light of your place in the cosmos, among the generations, as a member of your community, and at this particular intersection of fate and opportunity. This is what was originally called “wisdom,” and it was knowledge that really mattered because it concerned more than you and your ego ambitions.

Once ego took the dominant and commanding position – as illustrated in the ascent of the mythological god who demanded worship, glory and honor – knowledge ceased to be true wisdom and became instead doctrinal orthodoxy. You need to get it right not in order to fit your life to the greater whole, but to gain passage through the last gate and receive your reward for being right.

In that case, the absoluteness of the claims of faith can become like tamping gun powder into a tight hole: the fervor in your need to be right – given what’s at stake should you be wrong – might produce a flash of clarity, but the overall effect is much more heat than light. The dogmatic orthodoxy that characterizes so much of religion today is mostly useless as far as providing orientation and guidance in life is concerned.

In reality, life is much more grey than the black-and-white absolutes will allow. This is what Tillich means by the “relativity” of the life of faith. It may be helpful to sift and flatten the complexity down to a simplistic dualism of right and wrong, good and evil, us versus them. But because actual existence is not that simple, you have to screen out a lot of reality and misconstrue the rest to fit your boxes.

There is an obvious tension between the claims and life of faith that requires humility and courage to acknowledge. Such a claim as “God exists,” for instance, was beyond question back in the day when worldviews were based in mythological narratives. There was no need to check the story against reality, for the simple reason that the premodern mind couldn’t conceive of anything as real outside of the myths.  There simply was no “outside.”

But with the awakening of a more rational-technical intelligence, there suddenly appeared a vast realm of physical existence that was without meaning – the sheer fact of matter. This is where Greek science was born, on the “other side” of our stories. For the first time, those listening to the myths recited in the theater or around the campfire would have to ask the question, “Did that really happen?”

Today, the absolute claims of religion are typically derived from scriptural proof-texts that are required to be taken quite literally. The circular arguments notwithstanding, a certain passion – and a passion for certainty – is needed for adults to energetically defend fiction as reality. Never mind that no one has ever seen god outside the myths he inhabits, or that there is no heavenly abode above the sky or tormenting hell under our feet. For obvious reasons this makes our belief in an afterlife (up in heaven or down in hell) considerably more effortful, and a lot less sexy.

A postmodern spirituality will be able to appreciate the sacred narratives of mythology, but the god who lives there must be allowed to live only there. While stories will continue to inform our grasp on reality, they should never become so literal – and the claims derived from them so absolute – that we are ready to commit every violence in their defense.

In the end – but even more importantly, along the way to the end – the relativity of life in the world invites us to pursue our quest for meaning like hikers on a mountain ascent. It’s not a race to see who can get to the top first, or whose backpack contains all the “right” things. It’s not how you finish, or even whether you make it all the way to the peak.

It all comes down to how real you can manage to be, how present to life, and how well you pay attention to the Greater Mystery as you move along.

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

One Thing

Kierkegaard: “The [one] who desires the Good for the sake of the reward does not will one thing, but is double-minded.”

Down through the history of philosophy in the West, metaphysical realists have believed in “the Good,” in a deep foundation or high ideal on which all our values are oriented. The great Plato even made it the sun-center of his thought system, explaining our appreciation of goodness in the realm of time as the intuition of an eternal or timeless Form reflected to varying degrees in the world around us. Later on, the Church father Augustine interpreted this and other forms of perfection as archetypes in the mind of God, the essential patterns on which Creation was originally fashioned and from which it eventually fell, under the spell of sin.

In the high Middle Ages, philosophers began to challenge this idea of transcendental Forms (archetypes, models, divine ideas) having a separate existence in a realm apart from their incarnations in time. Nominalism insisted that these so-called Forms are only categories in our minds, names we use to organize and make sense of reality – whatever that is. This was the bridge in Western philosophy that gave support to even more radical views later on, in the set of assumptions called postmodernism: (1) all we have is perspective, (2) meaning is constructed, and (3) there are no absolutes.

Kierkegaard was in this new current of thought, so why does he still refer to “the Good” as if it is something out there that we might desire, whether for the sake of a reward or not? Does the Good exist in some other realm, apart from this web of relativity we call our world? If there were no human beings, would there still be the Good? A little farther into the nineteenth century Nietzsche would insist on our evolutionary need to go “beyond good and evil” – beyond tribal morality, the dis/obedient ego, and the mythological god who holds it all in place – for the sake of a higher humanity (his Ubermensch or higher self). Is Kierkegaard trying to prevent what Nietzsche later celebrated?

It may sound as if he is saying, “Okay, we’re making it all up – except this one thing, the Good.” Like the vestige of the mythological god who still lurks behind the screen for many post-theists today, perhaps the Good is Kierkegaard’s attempt to fix in place just one thing that can serve as the immovable center of this (only) apparent chaos. At least there’s this, we can say. This is absolute and for certain, whatever else may be called into doubt.

But what if “the Good” is more internal than external, more about the intention in what we do than something we look for and find out there in the world? What if it’s about focus, passion and devotion – what you regard in all seriousness as the “one thing” that matters most. This is what Tillich means by “ultimate concern.” Its separate existence, either outside you in the world or in a metaphysical realm apart from this one, is merely secondary. Maybe “the Good” is not what we will but the way we will, a quality of intention rather than a quantifiable something out there.

Human beings make meaning, we don’t find it – unless we come across what someone else has created already. Once upon a time we composed a myth that conceived of existence itself as the creation of a god who made everything before we got here. So we’re coming across what someone else has created already, all the time, and its meaning is inherent because god put it there. But once we realize that the mythological god is a literary and psychological device in our own effort at meaning-making, a new kind of responsibility befalls us.

In the film City Slickers, the character Mitch is a man who has reached the point at midlife where meaning and purpose have drained from his world. In the spirit of adventure – and as a kind of desperate measure to get out of his boring life routine – he and his friends sign up for a cattle-drive across the western United States. In a critical scene Mitch is sitting with an old cowhand named Curly, whose way in the world is tough and crass, and he asks him the question that’s been burning in his soul: “What’s the meaning of life?” Curly pauses, looks deep in his eyes and says to Mitch, “One thing.”

For a while thereafter, Mitch is perplexed over what that “one thing” might be. Is it a woman? A successful career? Religion? When Norman, a calf that Mitch delivers under Curly’s supervision, is in danger of drowning in a fast-moving stream, Mitch jumps in at the risk of his own life and saves the animal. In that moment he discovers the “one thing” as the object of his unconditional love and personal sacrifice. After the adventure he goes back to his life with renewed intention, embracing in gratitude and devotion what had earlier felt only heavy and pointless.

This is what I think Kierkegaard means by “the Good.” It’s not out there for us to find. Instead it’s the degree of focus, passion and investment with which we live our lives. Living “on purpose” means that we are living awake, that we are not simply reacting to our upbringing or circumstances but rather intentionally creating the lives we really want.

There is a caveat. Our lives will be truly meaning-full when we live not for the sake of gaining a reward (something afterwards or on the side) but for the fulfillment that is intrinsic to the act of creation itself. As creators of value, human beings find their deepest spiritual satisfaction in translating the present mystery of reality into worlds of significance, purpose, beauty and love. Not for what we get out of it, but for the exhilaration and authentic life we experience as we get deeper into it.

It’s not about me, and it’s not about you. But it can’t happen without us, so let’s step into it with both eyes open.

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,