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Monthly Archives: March 2013

Easter Reality

Religious high holy days are anchored deep in myth and symbol. These are times when true believers – as well as the larger number of unaffiliated and “occasional pilgrims” – step into the sacred stories and reflect once again on the miracles of old. Too many of them probably do this out of family obligation or annual custom, gazing on the holiday symbols with the wondering eyes of their youth.

The following day, however, they will be back at it – back at life in the real world. No miracles here. No angelic visitations, virgin births, voices from the clouds or revived corpses in the news. It used to be that these and other miraculous events were regarded as signs, still very much set in story and not encountered in contemporary life, pointing to a higher realm of being that supports this one.

Signs are significant because they signify things. Meaning is all about reference – this pointing to that, one thing leading to another, and all of it making sense in the Big Picture. Once upon a time (here I go telling a story) people lived inside a Big Picture, and mythology served the valuable function of pulling them back from the daily distractions of secular life and reorienting them in a single coherent system of meaning.

I say “once upon a time” because people today generally don’t live their lives with a Big Picture in mind. If there is one, it’s the rather cold and indifferent cosmos of science, now somewhere on an unfathomable timeline between BANG and FIZZLE (or maybe CRUNCH). For quite a while, as modern religion was losing its market share in the intellectual landscape of the Western mind, church leaders blamed science for the vacancies in their pews. Empirical skepticism (“I’ll believe it when I can measure it”) was accused of producing secular atheism (“God can’t be measured, and therefore doesn’t exist”).

But here’s what really happened.

The sacred stories began losing currency, not because they were scientifically discredited, but rather because they became increasingly irrelevant to daily life. And as the symbols lost their power to signify, the metaphors closed up on themselves and degenerated into “miracles.” Consequently the Big Picture that had oriented human beings for so long fell apart. Now – occasionally, on high holy days – we pause to fetch from the wreckage those dim reminders, those alien curiosities from another age.

So what becomes of these articles of religious nostalgia? If symbols need stories, and stories need other stories; and if all these stories (the collective mythology of a culture) comprise the Big Picture that once made life meaningful, what purpose is there in dusting the icons, pressing the vestments, and singing the hymns if we don’t really know it as our truth?

I didn’t say “believe it,” for we can make ourselves believe just about anything. There are a lot of true believers who talk a lot about god, read their Bible religiously and do their best to take it literally. If the biblical god doesn’t bust through the starry canopy and talk to us as he once did, it’s only because we live in the Last Days and he is busy preparing for the Final Judgment.

As for Jesus, Christmas got him into our world and Easter got him back out. It all happened a long time ago, but he’s coming again. Just you wait. In the meantime – and it is a mean time – we have to keep the faith, resist the devil, legislate for (our) religion, and guard our stuff.

I saw a bumper sticker the other day: “God – Guns – USA.” Now that’s a very small picture, which can be found all around the planet today. Just insert another god and a different tribe, and that truck might be driving down the road in Syria or Kenya or North Korea.

What can Easter mean in a time when evidence of god is lacking but the testimony for god is all too out-spoken and dogmatic? Just because it’s “in the Bible” doesn’t automatically make it relevant. After all, the Bible is testimony, not evidence. Furthermore, it’s a very special kind of testimony – not exactly the eye-witness accounts as many true believers defend it these days, but creative testimony, poetic testimony.

As mythology, the Bible wasn’t written as retrospective journalism on objective miracles and actual encounters with a supernatural personality. Rather, it issued from the creative imaginations of people just like you and me, inspired by the realization that their lives (just like ours) opened up to a greater mystery.

In those moments, in those places, and in the company of those rare and illumined ones who seemed to live in unbroken awareness of this mystery, the everyday world was touched, elevated and glorified with a higher significance.

Jesus came with a message about compassion, charity, and unconditional forgiveness. He not only talked it but he walked it as well, living it out in his dealings with others – in the company of his friends, in his encounters with strangers, and in the presence of his enemies.

It wasn’t long before the authorities caught wind of his growing reputation and grew uneasy over his dangerous influence on the people. Dangerous because he was waking people up from the trance of personal self-interest, religious orthodoxy, and militant nationalism.

The authorities were nervous that this trouble-maker might shift the axis of control that protected their privileged position as deputies of god and brokers of salvation. They quoted scripture in self-defense, accused Jesus of going against tradition, and at last succeeded in charging him with heresy, atheism and disturbing the peace (also known as the trance-state of spiritual sleep). He was executed and his followers disbanded.

But then, maybe among a small band of his discouraged survivors, memories were recalled and weaved together in stories. In recalling his words they remembered his message, and as his message reignited their hearts they realized that his vision was still short of fulfillment. The spirit of Jesus was not gone but now lived in them. The torch of his cause was theirs to carry forward.

An empty tomb and abandoned grave clothes are not evidence, but only the absence of evidence. They are signs, metaphors, and symbols opening out to a greater mystery. They say, “Not here.” But where then? Exactly where is Jesus alive?

Up in heaven, if you believe in heaven. In the sacraments of the Church, if that’s your thing.

I would say that if what we are calling the spirit of Jesus is not evident in the way we live and treat each other, then we’re still waiting for Easter.

 

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Inner Dialogue

Robinson: “Each of us, if we are in any way integrated, has a center from which our lives are lived, and our ‘world’ is what is enclosed within the circumference of that circle. Yet often we are more conscious of the edges than the centers, corresponding to the bounds of an animal’s territory which it stakes all to defend. The edges may be hard, the boundaries barricaded, while the centers are relatively unformed. The effect of dialogue is to bring to consciousness, and therefore to strengthen, our centers – so that where we stand will often in the process become clearer and firmer. But we do that by being prepared to soften our edges, to open up the frontiers, and let down our defenses.”

Human beings are world-builders. By now it should be clear that we are using this term in reference to the habitats of meaning that give humans the illusions of security, identity, significance and purpose. These are regarded as illusions simply because they are language-dependent and not found as “facts” in reality. As spiders spin webs out of their own bodies and then depend on their webs for survival, each of us spins a world around ourselves and calls it home.

At the center of my world is “me,” this self-identified maker of meaning. Underneath me are the various supports that hold me up and define who I am. Gender, family, class and tribe are the primary roles that locate me in society and give me recognition as a member. Together we inhabit a shared world called culture, which is a web that stretches across generations and geographical regions and is reinforced by sacred stories called myths. These stories anchor our common identity in a prehistory of ancestors, founders and heroes, as well as in a supernatural realm of gods, saviors and saints.

The movement of postmodernism was energized by the discovery that beneath our web-worlds is a reality much less “solid” than we thought. The foundation of divine providence, for instance, or even something as seemingly rock-bottom as matter itself, are shown to be just deeper constructs of language. The security we feel in being held up by something loving and reliable (matter and mother have a common origin) is perhaps an irresistible need of ours, stemming back not just to our individual infancies but into our existential condition as a species.

And what about the boundary of my world? What’s beyond that? If I don’t think about it too much I can persist in the illusion of a significance and a purpose that continue to infinity. God’s in control, everything happens for a reason, and all things work together for good. It’s a mark of faith not to ask questions, or so we’re told.

But eventually we bump up against … not reality, but other worlds. I am confronted with your very different way of representing reality, and if mine was merely a representation and not the way things really are, I might be worried. We can have differences, but they will have to be superficial, minor disagreements. When push comes to shove, I can’t compromise on my convictions. Not that I won’t. I can’t – there’s too much at stake.

John A.T. Robinson is perhaps best known for his 1963 book Honest to God, in which he challenged the mythological literalism of the Bible and urged his readers to consider the possibility that the divine reality is not merely something bigger than we can imagine, but might even be something other than what we can imagine. Robinson took his inspiration from the likes of Paul Tillich and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, both of whom advocated for a divine mystery beyond our religious conceptions and doctrinal convictions.

The present mystery of reality is not meaningful but beyond the meanings we construct and attach to it. Our dogmatic and aggressive defense of meaning belies an insecurity often unacknowledged – except where we readily point it out in our opponent. If we could relax a little at our edges and meet each other with more honesty, humility and faith, we might realize that our meanings are a lot less absolute and unchanging than we pretend they are.

But as Robinson explains, the condition of our boundaries – how flexible or rigid they are, how open or closed, how responsive to mystery or reactive to difference – is a function of how integrated we are inside. Internal balance, contemplative clarity, intellectual coherence and spiritual grounding are all terms that relate to our center, where each of us is rooted in the present mystery of reality. If we neglect this dimension of our life and become disconnected at our roots, the natural concerns of survival and evolutionary fitness will become combative obsessions at the edges.

Now in this book (Truth is Two-Eyed), Robinson is exploring what he calls an “inner dialogue,” where the spider in the middle of the web – our self-identified ego and the meaning we spin into our separate worlds – opens up (or down) through its own center and into the real presence of mystery.

With “one eye” we see this relationship of self to mystery in terms of communion, between an “I” and a “Thou.” Importantly, this Thou is not the personified god of mythology and doctrinal orthodoxy, but an irreducible “Other” or otherness at the heart of our human experience of reality. This is the Western Way.

And with our second “eye” we see the present mystery of reality less as an interplay of I and Thou, than as a single undifferentiated Oneness playing both parts of the relationship. We are not so much confronted by reality as immersed in it, saturated with it, and essentially the same as it. This is not the same as saying, “I am god,” for the I and Thou are both manifestations of one mystery. This is the Eastern Way.

Robinson is inviting us to consider spirituality as a dialogue of “meeting” (Western Way) and “merging” (Eastern Way), communion and absorption, as our response to the mystery and our identification with it. We can engage this dialogue outwardly, at the table with Christians and Buddhists, for instance, where different constructs of meaning (worlds) seek to understand each other.

But this outer dialogue is not likely to produce the kind of mutual respect and profound appreciation we so desperately need on this planet unless we are each engaged in the inner dialogue of a deep, contemplative  spirituality.

Just relax. It’s going to be all right.

 

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Reality Choices

Anderson: “We have to make choices from a range of different stories – stories about what the universe is like, about who the good guys and the bad guys are, about who we are – and also have to make choices about how to make choices. The only thing we lack is the option of not having to make choices – although many of us try hard, and with some success, to conceal that from ourselves.”

Another of my favorite authors from seminary days is the sociologist Peter Berger, whose book The Heretical Imperative explores this postmodern necessity of choosing the worlds we live in. The word heresy – which conjures up images of papal excommunications, the famous Scopes trial over evolutionary science in the school curriculum, and my own experience inside a Calvinist-Reformed denomination – simply means “having to choose.”

A heretic is someone who acknowledges the reality of options, along with the consequent need to choose between or among them. From the vantage point of orthodoxy, the heretic is dangerous not just because s/he makes the wrong choice, but because s/he might encourage others to think that they have options, too.

My own denominational background would never acknowledge post-theism as a theological option for true believers. There’s too much history, too much mystique around sacred sources (e.g., the Bible and the Standards of Faith) to permit even the consideration that our personification of god might be more about us than about the real presence of mystery. The good people in the pews on Sunday mornings must be reinforced in their dogmatism. All other ways of representing the mystery – or the choice of not representing it at all – must be condemned as wrong.

But as Anderson points out, we can’t get by anymore without having to make choices. And it’s not the choice between The Right Way and all possible wrong ways. Many of the optional paths lead into very perceptive, coherent and responsible lifestyles and worldviews.

Our postmodern predicament is having outdated worldviews “behind” us, as it were, in the traditions that have shaped our history and identity as tribal members, while “ahead” of us are all these different (contrasting and incompatible) worldviews competing for the emotional currency of our belief.

Behind us is singleness of vision – the “correct thinking” of orthodoxy – while in front of us is this marketplace of rival “software” vendors peddling their exotic thought-forms. There’s at least the illusion of freedom ahead, but for many the security in a one way/right way mentality is too valuable to give up.

We don’t want to admit that we have a choice, because if we do we might be asked to justify our selection. Frankly, most people don’t want to think that much – especially about spiritual things, which really means metaphysical things like god and the soul. Besides, according to the Tradition we must rely on revelation when it comes to such matters, and who do you think holds the keys to that? Long ago god left us with the Bible, and thankfully we now have the scholars and preachers to tell us what it means.

But what scholars and preachers? You have only to step out of one church and into another – of the same denomination even – to realize that options are inescapable and the “obligation” to choose ever-present. Of course, you can bury your head in the sand of one tradition, but even there you will be confronted with a story of differences, dialogue, compromise or dissension. Very human choices, all along the way.

For a long time – we’re talking many hundreds of years – the custodians of cultural orthodoxy were successful in convincing tribal members that the way they saw things was the way things really were. This was easy to do since the custodians themselves (scholars, priests, lawyers and magistrates) were under the same spell. Looking out on reality, why wouldn’t you assume that how things seem to you is the way things really are?

The trance remains strong and widespread even today.

We are coming to understand, however, that worldviews are stories about reality, and that every story is told from a very particular vantage-point. Each possible vantage-point offers only a limited perspective on reality, and whoever steps into that space brings with him or her a dense filter of personal assumptions, ego ambitions, and intellectual commitments.

Every time you change your position in reality – just stepping out the door and into the street, for instance – you are making a choice whether or not to believe the story you have been telling yourself up to that point. Actually, if you had the vision for it you would see a complex web of stories connecting and crisscrossing in such fine detail as to comprise a veil between your mind and reality.

Perhaps this veil is itself your mind, who can say?

If reality is a mystery, then maybe every vantage-point is at base just a few very simple questions: What is IT? How does IT feel? What does IT mean? Our efforts at answering these questions are the stories we tell, and the worlds we inhabit are made up of countless such stories. Yes, our worlds are made up. This discovery is what inspired the postmodern movement.

For more about IT, see my blog at http://braintracts.wordpress.com/2013/03/23/it/

Once you realize that you have no choice but to make choices, that you make choices by telling stories, and that your view of reality (your world) is nothing but a dense web of stories, what comes next is the doubt whether it’s all worthwhile. If there’s a good chance that IT is not exactly as you think IT is, then what can you count on?

Well, I hate to say it, but it’s up to you. You will have to decide. Choose wisely.

 

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Waking Up

De Mello: “Spirituality is the most practical thing in the whole wide world. I challenge anyone to think of anything more practical than spirituality as I have defined it – not piety, not devotion, not religion, not worship, but spirituality – waking up, waking up!”

Human beings are creators, and what we create are worlds. A “world” is a construct of language, a habitation of meaning, a web we spin for the sake of establishing some measure of security, orientation and purpose across the expansive and fathomless mystery we call reality. Like cocoons, we weave our world-homes and crawl inside.

Then we fall asleep.

But just as a cocoon is only intended as a temporary compartment, an incubator for a time as the swooning caterpillar undergoes metamorphosis, our worlds aren’t able to permanently contain the creative energy of the human spirit.

I saw it too many times in my career as a pastor, and later as a counselor: there is a “spiritual frustration” behind all our fussing and fighting, all the crime and unrest, all the neuroses and sink-holes of depression that are swallowing so many today. In ministry I wasted much time and energy – before I realized what was really going on – placating this restless demon and restitching the splitting seams of outgrown worlds.

The general trend in the current conversation on religion and spirituality is to define it – spirituality – as your private practice of prayer, communion with your higher power or inner guide, along with any odd assortment of ideas, symbols and rituals that make it meaningful to you. Religion, on the other hand, is “organized religion” – public, dogmatic, authoritarian and traditional.

In other words, boring and irrelevant.

The truth is, religion has become rather disconnected from life on our planet in this global age. As its boundaries bump up against rival belief systems, religion becomes increasingly reactive, defensive and violence-prone. But it’s also the case that religion is losing the currency game. Adherents go to church and sing praises to a deity they’ve never met, for the simple reason that he is only a literary character, what I call the mythological god.

As I’ve explained in previous Conversations, the mythological god is a personified representation of what some human beings regard as the supreme power behind the universe. So far, so boring. He got more interesting as the tribe fashioned this deity into its own likeness, with a rather unstable personality, a really BIG ego, and all the necessary vengeance at the ready for sinners, outsiders, and enemies.

Back in the day, a tribe (as I’m calling it) was a local human group of stratified classes, ranks of authority, strong boundaries, a deep genealogy and a tight moral code to keep it all from falling apart. Religion functioned as the center-pole around which this arrangement was oriented, and the mythological god was positioned at the top of the pole. The icon of sacred order.

All around the planet during this tribal age you could find the same general set of ordained functionaries, positioned and properly respected as guardians of truth. Priests looked after the ceremonial aspect, scribes kept the scrolls in order, and prophets or shamans served as therapeutic inlets of ecstatic experience – just enough conscience or craziness to preserve the illusion that Someone Else is in charge.

At some point, however, the evolution of human consciousness produced a more individually grounded and skeptical intelligence. People started to wonder why the god they heard and read about in the holy books wasn’t still sounding down from the clouds or filling the temples with holy smoke.

The guardians did their best to protect the tradition and its orthodox heritage by making up “adjustment stories” about the god’s heavenly transcendence, our loss of direct contact with him due to our fall into sin and depravity, and about how the god was preparing for an apocalyptic return – very soon, and maybe tomorrow. Don’t rock the boat.

So for centuries now, individuals living in the dawning light of a higher spiritual awareness have accepted these adjustment stories as sacred revelation.

It’s a little like all the minor adjustments that astrologers were making to the earth-centered universe before Copernicus. Because Earth was really traveling through space and whirling around the sun, earlier scientists had to make mathematical adjustments to the orbital paths of the other planets, in order to keep them moving in perfect circles around us. This was because god only works with perfect circles, not ellipses or squiggles.

In some of my earlier Conversations I’ve been pumping for a “post-theistic” spirituality. As theism is a conceptual model of religion based on the objective reality of a divine personality “up there” and in charge, “post”-theism is an invitation to contemplate the possibility that this god, along with the world-order he supervises, is intended as an evolutionary incubator of spirituality.

A defensive theist may well cry, “Atheism!” But the “post” in post-theism is meant as an acknowledgement of theism’s strategic place in human spiritual formation. It’s closed system –¬† however large this closed system may be permitted to get – provides the security, orientation and sense of purpose that human beings need.

To say that its god lives only in the myths is not to deny his existence, but instead reflects a new-found appreciation for sacred stories and their power to shape and reshape consciousness. Just because god’s existence is literary and not literal, doesn’t mean that he’s now obsolete and better left to the dark ages.

Religion is the outer structure to spirituality’s creative life, the body to its soul. Post-theism is not what comes after religion, and neither is it just a word to validate the kind of designer superstitions available under best-seller titles at the local bookstore. It’s a way of seeing spirituality in an evolutionary context, and religion as the staging area of our awakening.

Truth in religion is in the flexibility of its present arrangement, as well as in its willingness – let’s call it faith – to release the need to be right, in order that we might become more real.

There’s nothing more practical, and more urgently needed today, than waking up.

 

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The Nature of Reality

If you were the only sentient being in this universe, you probably would never become aware of the discrepancy between your worldview and reality-as-it-is. Of course there would be perceptual mistakes, as when the cool oasis in the distance turns out to be only a mirage. But these would amount to minor illusions. Over time you would carry forward your lessons and make the necessary adjustments.

The term “reality” is used pretty loosely, even today when the discrepancy between our personal worlds and what they are meant to represent is finally acknowledged – at least by some. This acknowledgement is one of the marks of our postmodern mind. Human beings are meaning-makers, and the closed webs of meaning that we create – individually and together as cultures – are the worlds we inhabit.

Even one of my conversation partners for this round uses “reality” in reference to our individual and cultural constructions – as in you have your reality and I have mine. Personally I prefer the term “world” when speaking of these constructs of human language, perspective, and meaning. Especially on the level where such constructs serve as more global habitats of meaning.

This saves “reality” as the way things really are, apart from and beyond our constructs. You have your world, I have mine; but there’s still something outside our boxes, so to speak. Besides being fantasies conjured out of the creative nothingness of our imaginations, at least part of our world is meant as a representation of the way things really are. Even if we’re wildly off base – which is probably the case at least some of the time – there remains the present mystery of reality.

Just because we (mis)take our constructions or representations for the way things really are doesn’t mean we should be content to persist in that delusion. If I am fully convinced that the end of history will be crashing in at any moment, this is not my reality. Even as I take it with all seriousness, sell my possessions and abandon civilization for refuge in the desert, reality is what it is. There have been countless examples where delusional prophets were forced to apologize to their followers and review their calculations the following day.

So we live inside worlds of our own making. These worlds may be fairly reliable representations of the way things really are, but they also serve as shelters against the unknown. A happy and productive life would likely be impossible if we had to figure out everything from scratch upon waking each morning. Meaning provides a sense of security.

But this relationship between meaning and security isn’t exactly reciprocal, in that more security doesn’t always support a more meaningful life. In fact, as we lock ourselves up inside our personal and cultural worlds, grateful for what is familiar, stable and certain, the air in there quickly goes stale. Because meaning seems to be a function of relevance, reference and transcendence, it is diminished to the degree that our awareness shrinks to the dimensions of our mental boxes. Smaller boxes feel more secure, but they are less meaningful.

The authors I will be reading and reflecting on are definitely “outside the box,” as we say.

DeMello

Anthony De Mello (Awareness: The Perils and Opportunities of Reality, 1990) was a Jesuit priest whose life and writings were a lively dialogue with Oriental spirituality. Based on retreat talks he gave on mindfulness, freedom and happiness, this book takes a humorous yet revolutionary tour through what it means to be truly aware.

 

Anderson

 

Walter Truett Anderson (Reality Isn’t What It Used To Be, 1990) wrote one of the definitive popular guides to postmodernism. In that book, he helps us become more self-consciously aware of our role as creators of the worlds we inhabit. The relationship of our brain to language, and of the constructs of language to the perennial question of truth are considered.

Robinson

 

John A.T. Robinson (Truth is Two-Eyed, 1979) was the Dean¬† of Trinity College in Cambridge, England. He challenged current thought on matters of theology, especially the way Christian orthodoxy has made god into an article of doctrine and forgotten God as spiritual Presence. The “two eyes” in Robinson’s title represent Oriental and Western approaches to truth.

 

I can already imagine a conversation among these three, where De Mello investigates the inner-psychological groundwork of awareness, Anderson interrogates the constructions of reality that spring up from there, and Robinson explores how very different world-constructions can challenge and enrich each other in healthy dialogue.

Throughout my reading and reflections on passages from these authors, I want to carry forward from my previous Conversations the insight that reality is a present mystery. However we frame it up, whatever filters we use to make it useful to our needs, the nature of reality is such that it is both within us as the ground of our being and beyond us as the universe to which we belong.

You are invited to join the conversation as well. Read along with me and share your insights by leaving comments along the way.

 

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