RSS

Monthly Archives: May 2013

Mystics and Prophets

Robinson: “So let us begin by looking again at the two perspectives on truth represented on the one hand by the Hebraic and on the other by the Vedantic [Hindu], contrasted as the prophetic and the mystical.”

We live and die in the round of time. Circles define life, in the rhythms that turn, pulse and spiral in our cells, in our bodies, in the earth’s seasons, in the coming-to-be and passing-away of generations, in the “Big Turn” of the universe itself.

For most of history, human beings have struggled to reconcile ourselves to the many wheels of time that move inside and around us. The so-called “nature religions” represent the early effort at putting our special concerns as a species into accord with the larger fate that holds us captive. The individual life-cycle (infancy, youth, maturity) had to be carefully nested inside the turns of a tribal career (student, householder, elder), which needed to fall into sync with the planetary rhythms of harvest and the hunt. Out and beyond all this foreground revolution were the predictable (auspicious and ominous) travel-paths of the planets and stars.

Somehow, from the tiny oscillations of nerve impulses in our brains to the circuits of stars through the sky, life is borne along inside a complex web of time intervals – nanoseconds to days to months to years to decades to generations to light-years of cosmic time. Health and prosperity were believed to be a function of how obediently and reverently we did our part. Ritual ceremony coordinated tribal life with these smaller and larger cycles. Human destiny was worked out inside the closed circles of time.

And then a revolution happened.

Almost simultaneously in India and in Israel, escape from the circle was accomplished. The Hindu and Hebraic revolutions don’t appear to have influenced each other, so it almost seems as if these two breakthroughs were separate uprisings of a common quest for liberation. Their different paths out of the closed circle became the energizing principles in two ways of engaging reality and constructing meaning.Circles_ArrowsIf you look just underneath the surface of sea waves, the rolling action is really a progression of kinetic energy moving along as each circular current spins open and passes momentum into a new circle. As it spins open to release its energy forward as the next wave, an inner spiral is pulling around the circle’s center, where it will be released to the deeper support of the ocean itself.

Try to imagine each circle as an individual “package” of energy, called consciousness. As it becomes more conscious of itself as an individual, this enclosure of self-identity reaches a point where its mortality – the fact of its very temporal existence – becomes nearly unbearable. Under the stress of this realization, the circle stands a real chance of breaking down.

But then, unexpectedly (from the circle’s vantage-point) the enclosure of its self-concern opens out to an expansive awareness. Along one axis it becomes aware of the momentum that is surging through its own limited form. What feels like a giving-up is really a giving-over to this higher purpose, to a will and direction greater than its own.

Along another axis, the inward clutch around its own center dissolves into a quiet sense of being. In letting go, a deeper essence to its own life as a wave-of-the-ocean is manifested to awareness. The “release” in each case amounts to a liberation of energy as the circle opens up to a larger reality – a higher purpose (up ahead) and a deeper essence (underneath).

This is one way of understanding the Hindu and Hebraic revolutions, and how they were related liberation movements on the advancing threshold of human spiritual evolution. The critical achievement on each front was the breakthrough of a new awareness, which would become the organizing principle in the construction of a new world(view).

Transcendental monism, where all is one beyond the apparent separateness, offers up a model of reality that sees each individual circle as a time-bound expression of a timeless mystery. To each circle it can be said, “Thou art That”; not that you are god, because even the gods are circles in their own way. They are, you are, and everything you see is a surface manifestation of the unfathomable depth of being-itself. You and they and everything around you is essentially one.

Ethical monotheism is how the revolution played out in Israel. As the circle opened up to the forward momentum of which it was but a temporary vehicle, a powerfully new interest in the future emerged. Now in addition to the conventional ties to tradition, the way of the elders, and the archetypes of the past, the question of direction and purpose provided leverage for challenging the status quo. “Thus says the Lord” became a kind of pretext for resistance and upheaval, for the sake of a new reality.

Two spiritual types were born out of the labor pains of this revolution, one springing up in India and the other in Israel. The mystic is one who feels drawn into the depths, breaking through the enclosure of self and personality, to the unqualified mystery of being-itself. A danger along the way has been a tendency to hold on too long to “me,” and thus to twist the whole contemplative path of communion into some kind of exceptional talent, a rigorous discipline and esoteric knowledge reserved for an elite few.

Playing out the other axis, the prophet is one who feels drawn to the future, inspired and compelled by a vision not only of what might be, but of what will be. The danger here is that the prophet will be reduced to a fortune-teller, a mere predictor of future events. Because we cannot control the future, there will always be business and celebrity for those who claim to know what is going to happen. The endless postponements and recalculations may help to expose the “false prophets,” but utopias and end-times are an inexhaustible market, and more will always be ready to step into the vacancy.

Mystics and prophets are really our “two eyes,” one looking into the essential reality beneath, and the other to the emergent reality beyond the fears, fixations and concerns of our ego and tribe. There is, then, in each of us a “mystical intention” and a “prophetic intention” – still susceptible to the corruptions mentioned above, but present at least as potential tracts of revolution.

The spiritual life today must continually seek deeper ground as it reaches for higher purpose. As fellow inhabitants of this planet, we are one in ways we still need to understand; and we are moving into a shared future that needs us working together for the good of all.

 

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

A Theology of Twisters, or a Twisted Theology?

At the latest count (according to several news sources), as many as ten children were killed on May 20, 2013, when a category EF5 tornado ripped through Moore, Oklahoma and destroyed the school where they were seeking refuge. Everyone agrees that it was a tragedy of horrific proportions, not only in the loss of life but in the estimated $2 billion in damages to the city’s buildings and infrastructure.

But those children …

In the aftermath of the May 20 storm, probably the most widespread reaction was that people were horrified at the violence and devastation. Horrified, not outraged.

The public was outraged when, on December 14, 2012, a young man entered an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut and shot to death 20 children and six adults. “Horrified” would have been an appropriate description of how we felt (and still feel), but “outraged” just seems more fitting. Why? Because the Newtown children were victims of a moral crime, whereas the Moore children were victims of a natural disaster.

There’s no one campaigning for tighter weather control or background checks of low pressure fronts. It was simply a random event where atmospheric conditions were just right to spawn a twisting convergence of crosswinds. The tornado didn’t have a “purpose.” Just because we can explain how it happened, there’s really no answer to the question of why it happened.

Well, I take that back. There are some folks who claim that the Oklahoma tragedy was a moral event. God directed that tornado with the purpose of working out his vengeance on the sins of sexual indulgence, religious pluralism, and compromising the sanctity of marriage. That professional athlete shouldn’t have come out of the closet, and the rest of us shouldn’t have commended his courage. Big mistakes. Really big. Now God is punishing us.

According to this way of thinking, the citizens of Moore, Oklahoma paid for the sins of a few moral reprobates. And the children who died under the rubble of school buildings were … what, collateral? God killed them to make our lesson all the more costly, painful and personal? God can’t stand sin, right? Can’t be around it. Whenever and wherever it happens, he must condemn sin and punish the sinners.

God has, as we might say, a reluctant obligation to condemn. He loves everyone, and maybe even wants to save everyone, but he is constrained by moral necessity to suspend his compassion or mercy in delivering what we deserve. This logic must hold – it simply has to. If life is meaningful, it must be moral; and if life is moral, there must be someone in charge of the carrots and sticks.

My readers already know that I’m not a theist, either in the classical or conventional sense. The notion of a supervising deity who sets things up in the beginning (Genesis), closes the show at the end (Apocalypse), and monitors human behavior in the meantime is widespread. Historically it seems to have been the next step in the evolution of religion after superstition, where people believed in an invisible web of coincidence stretching over human affairs.

Planting your crop precisely when that bright light in the sky is positioned just above and to the right of that outcropping of rock would ensure a good harvest. It wasn’t simply that these things happened to be in visual proximity from a particular vantage point when the orbiting earth was starting¬† its seasonal tilt toward the sun. No, the star-and-rock alignment was a critical causal factor in successful farming.

A holdover from this earlier mindset and worldview – stemming not only from our distant past as a species, but from early childhood when magical coincidences seemed to happen all the time – is when you pick up your lucky ball cap on your way out the door to the big game. Will the lucky cap give you the win? Maybe not this time, but it did once!

Psychologically we now know that wearing the cap (and not just any cap; this one) probably improves your performance by virtue of the confidence it instills in you. Something bigger is in play here, and when you cooperate with it your outcome tends to be better than if you don’t. Those occasions where you do play well and end up winning the game reinforce your superstition and keep it alive for the next time you head out the door.

Theism emerged when this invisible web of coincidence became centralized and personified in a committee of supervisors. Now a bountiful crop would be the answer to fervent prayers and sacrifices to the deity-in-charge of planting and harvest. Of course, everything would still be taking place at the precise time when the star and rock were in position. The real causal factor, however, was the grace and generosity of god, not some magical coincidence.

Despite what is depicted in the stories, no one has ever come across, interacted with, or peeked in on a deity doing business. Like the earlier “lucky cap” worldview, theism is a belief system that stays in effect so long as it gets reinforced by events – and random reinforcement schedules are more enduring, since they are unpredictable and keep us hanging on hope till the next time.

But anomalies and discrepancies gradually add up. Children can be killed in violent storms just so many times before people begin wondering about this god who’s supposed to be in charge of things. Either god made it happen – perhaps to punish Moore residents for their sins. Or he stood by and let it happen – which tugs at the integrity of our belief in a god who loves and cares for us. In either case, the event stirs up either really bad theology or some serious doubts.

Post-theism is another step beyond superstition and conventional theism. Contrary to the criticisms from orthodox defenders of theism, post-theism is not motivated by scientific materialism, secular humanism, or the depravity of human sin. It is not the same as atheism. It emerges at the progression threshold of a spiritual courage, a broader compassion, and the willingness to remain present to the pain and loss of meaningless tragedy.

 
 

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

The Responsibility of Thinking Well

Anderson: “The best way to keep an audience from seeing the weakness in any plot is to step up the sense of menace; the maxim of hack screenwriters is that when things get slow you put a bear on the beach.”

There is a narrow bandwidth of intelligence where an individual is able to think critically, skeptically and rationally. While this capacity for reason is a natural endowment of human beings, the skills that are necessary to develop it must be learned and practiced in a social context. Optimal learning occurs somewhere between urgency and boredom.

This bandwidth of reason is narrow, but it can be widened with training and discipline. The individual needs to learn how to be “reasonable” even in emergent and high-risk situations, when the stress-response would otherwise kick in and take over. This natural reaction in the body has evolved for the purpose of survival and has millions of years of “practice” behind it. When it kicks in, the energy flowing up to the light bulb in the attic gets shunted to the boiler room in the basement.

It’s not time to think. Pausing to consider your options or take in a larger perspective could forfeit your opportunity for getting out alive. Stress hormones activate a complex syndrome of physiological events in your body, and you just react. Your nervous system locks into a channel that diverts energy away from longer-term projects of digestion, cell repair, and immunity, directing it instead to your visceral organs and exercising muscles to enable a successful escape.

That’s the upper extreme.

At the lower extreme of this bandwidth of intelligence called reason is boredom, and ultimately dormancy – sleep. While situations of urgency will interfere with your ability to think critically, skeptically and rationally, situations of boredom can prevent the kind of concentration of mental focus that reason requires. If the topic lacks sex appeal or real-life relevance, this focus quickly dissolves and the mind falls to a baseline of daydreaming reverie.

Human beings are meaning-makers, and the primary way we make meaning is by telling stories or listening to others tell them. As constructs of language, stories are like gymnasiums where we learn how to swing, tumble and vault through the thought-ways of our culture. Fairy tales, folk legends, heroic epics and the great archetypal myths form a nested hierarchy of narratives that shape consciousness and open the mind to larger, more inclusive realms of human concern.

Reason is trained and strengthened in this gymnasium of cultural mythology. Over time, it graduates from fairy tales to more abstract and sophisticated stories (theories) in its orientation to reality. Graduating doesn’t necessarily entail that you suddenly become intolerant of stories about talking animals and faraway fantasy lands. But once your reasoning intelligence is active, these earlier engagements must be seen in a new light and from a different angle.

The three attributes of reason mentioned above are that it is critical, skeptical and rational. Critical thinking involves being able to tell the difference (kritikos, to discern) between the meat and potatoes of story, between its argument or main point and the style of its presentation. When we are very young and reason is still getting its grip on the monkey-bars of language, the proportion of potatoes to meat must be carefully arranged so as not to overwhelm the plot or main point with too much secondary material (adjectives, references, details and digressions).

As critical thinking continues to develop, we gain an ability to separate not only substance and style in the story itself, but to distinguish between the story as an artistic expression and its author as artist. Who wrote this? What type of story is this, and what was the likely occasion for the writing? Who is the intended audience, and where does the author intend to take the reader/listener? Obviously this kind of discernment involves leaving behind the initial enchantment of the story, in the way it caught us up and carried us along when we first read or heard it.

Reason is also skeptical (from the Greek, meaning to examine or look closely). Just because it’s there in the story doesn’t make it reliable information about the nature of reality. The “looking closely” of skepticism reinforces the point that the ultimate criterion for judging the reliability of story is one’s own experience. If the story was authored by someone who lived a long time ago, critical thinking will seek to determine the type of story it is. If it’s purported to be some kind of factual reporting or eye-witness account of events, then skeptical thinking will evaluate its claims against the (sensory) evidence available to us. In the absence of such evidence, we are left with the question of the author’s grasp on reality and the trustworthiness of his or her supposed testimony.

A skeptical attitude doesn’t require that we dismiss as untrue everything that may have happened in the past or to other people. But outside of our direct experience we are left with only degrees of probability. Even if the piece of historical writing contains its own fail-safe claims to divine revelation or doctrinal inerrancy, as is commonly the case in the holy scriptures of religion, reason will assign only a relative value of reliability. Reasonable certainty must not be confused with emotional conviction, where it must be true if only because we need it to be so and believe with all our heart.

Finally, reason is rational. Ratios and rations have to do with relationships and portions, which makes rationality about putting things together and making the patterns that support higher meaning. Something is rational when it is logically coherent, holds together, and makes sense. A story about supernatural beings or magical creatures may not pass the bar of skeptical judgment, but it still can be completely rational in the way it offers an internally consistent and logical portrayal of narrative events.

Now, back to the first point, about the narrow bandwidth and cultural dependency of reason. Without a clear and persistent commitment to reasoning and to being reasonable in our orientation to reality, popular culture must find ways of keeping us interested and engaged. It does this by putting “a bear on the beach,” which keeps our attention riveted on the stressor as it distracts us from our need for longer plots and larger patterns. Global security threats and end-time prophecies put us just on the edge of panic (upper extreme), as the glossy photos and celebrity gossip keep us from falling asleep (lower extreme).

It’s not too late for reason. Even faith needs to be clear-sighted and sensible to avoid being hijacked by fear or rendered irrelevant. Good people of faith must be good thinkers as well.

 

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

Life Without Hooks

De Mello: “Put this program into action, a thousand times: (a) identify the negative feelings in you; (b) understand that they are in you, not in the world, not in external reality; (c) do not see them as an essential part of ‘I’; these things come and go; (d) understand that when you change, everything changes.”

In both East and West you can find a high value placed on detachment. In the East this detachment is more contemplative and mystical in orientation, while in the West it has been more speculative and experimental. Despite these different cultural “accents,” however, each type is well represented in both East and West.

Of whatever type, detachment represents a decision at some deep level not to get emotionally “hooked” in reality – as it seems or how it feels. Mystics and scientists are fellow researchers in this way, choosing not to allow their feelings to filter or prejudge what’s really going on. From one angle this can sound as if a vital part of human experience is being subtracted and dismissed. Who really lives this way?

Nobody. It’s important to understand that this detachment is more a discipline than a lifestyle. The point must also be made that we’re not talking here about people with severe affective disorders, who lack an emotional engagement with the world due to a brain dysfunction or because separating themselves emotionally from their experience was the only way they could cope with early trauma or abuse.

We are talking about “the rest of us” – the billions on this planet presently who get triggered and hooked every day. You make me mad. I miss my dog. God loves me. These are all emotional judgments I use to arrange reality into a world around me. I have a world, and you have a world.¬† What’s on the other side of our worlds, beyond them as the unnamed mystery of reality, hardly interests us. It rarely even occurs to us.

Emotional feeling might attach us to reality, but the place where we get hooked is no longer reality just as it is. It feels a certain way (“to me”) or has a certain meaning (“for me”) because I am here. My interest in it makes reality instantly personal and uniquely mine.

Most people would probably concur, as this relates to how IT feels – IT being what I am hooked into at the moment. But meaning … well, that’s “out there,” separate from us, just waiting to be discovered. Right?

Not so fast.

Wherever I’m hooked to reality, a kind of duality emerges. On the “me” side of the experience is how it feels (sad, delightful, scary, annoying, etc.). This part of my experience is personal, subjective and “biological” – in that these are all measurable reactions in my body. The particular emotional state of arousal is really a syndrome of numerous biological events in my cells, glands and organs. When I’m in a state of fear or desire, reality has the character of being scary or seductive, but it’s all happening inside of me.

On the other side of my hook is an expansive association of meanings – how IT connects to other hooks of my past and present. Once upon a time I set that hook over there (or my ancestors did) and then forgot I did it. Now it’s just a part of the way things are. This hook gets connected to all those other hooks, and together they comprise the illusion of a seamless fabric of meaning called my world.

The awareness that human beings “construct” meaning rather than simply “discover” it out there in reality is a very recent realization. If it is discovered, then it’s as a mental or material artifact of human creativity. We come upon hooks left on reality all the time. The worldview of a given community or culture is actually a more complex hooking-together of many personal worlds, through many generations of time. That it goes on into apparent infinity gives the impression of timeless permanence.

The Buddha said that if we can’t learn to manage our cravings we will continue to latch on to reality, and then suffer when it pulls away from our hooks. It’s always pulling away, if only because our hooks of feeling and meaning are organized around “me” and reality isn’t. Whereas the orthodoxy of his day insisted that we are caught on the wheel of suffering for as many turns as it takes to get our act together, Siddhartha taught that it’s our craving for all things “me” that keeps us stuck there. Extinguish the flame of craving (the “blow-out” of nirvana), and liberation just happens.

Jesus, too, had much to say about hooks and our need to forgive or “let go” of the places in our relationships, particularly with “my enemies,” where the pain of injury and misunderstanding keeps us gripping down in self-defense. While orthodoxy claimed that the one sinned against (god/me) is free to forgive in response to a satisfying repentance of the sinner/enemy, Jesus flipped the whole thing around. When asked how many times we should forgive “the one who sins against me,” he advised his disciples to stop counting and waiting around for repentance. Forgive first.

In some ways, Siddhartha and Jesus were “postmodern” in the way they deconstructed the metaphysical assumptions behind their respective cultural mythologies. The Buddha (“awakened one”) overturned the idea of a permanent soul and its endless cycles of rebirth, while The Christ (“anointed one”) pulled down the doctrine of a vengeful god and his insatiable demand for propitiation. They are both honored and worshiped as world redeemers because they showed how letting go of “me” allows for a larger experience of peace, freedom and joy.

Yet we continue to hook in and hold on, if only because it’s the primary impulse of our ego to do so. The significance of my world is an extension of my identity (ego), and my identity is a function of where I hook in for security. What would it be like to live without hooks, or with fewer hooks than we presently do?

No doubt, everything would change.

 

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

Light and Shadow

Robinson: “Faced with the shadow, the unacceptable, [the response of the West] has been to reject and exclude it. The dark has been detached from the image of God or the Christ and projected on to a Devil or Antichrist viewed as the embodiment of evil per se – though at the beginning of the process, as in the book of Job, it was not so: Satan was among the agents of God and seen as doing his work, the hand of the Almighty, albeit his left hand.

“This process comes to its climax in Zoroastrianism, post-exilic Judaism, Islam, and not least in Christianity, where the Devil came to occupy a uniquely powerful, even obsessive, position. The absolutizing of evil in a totally malignant Being has been the dark side of the absolutizing of the good in ethical monotheism. Evil is utterly banished and excluded from God.”

An inability to hold a creative opposition together results in dualism, where the internal tension strains through a bi-polar phase and finally breaks apart into a split reality of warring opposites. With one eye – let’s say the right (and all that it means to “be right”) – we see what is good, orthodox and acceptable. With the other – the left (Latin sinister, French gauche) – we see what is evil, deviant and unacceptable.

Conventional theism regards this dualism as based in metaphysical realities. On the right (correct) side is a company comprised of gods, angels, saviors, saints, and buttoned-up true believers; on the left (errant) side are devils, demons, fiends, sinners, and pants-down heretics. These opposites can have no part in each other, and in the end one or the other must win.

But why stop there? Historically on the “right” side are also males, the logical mind, and the self-righteous ego. And on the “wrong” side are females, the emotional body, and the sex-obsessed id. In other words, while the out-lying branches present a view where one side is held separate and apart from the other, following this tree of metaphors back to the trunk reveals each as a part of the same reality.

Post-theism takes a step back from metaphysical realism and tries not to get caught up in the passionate testimonials that claim to have encountered good or evil in its pure form. I’m suspicious that such a metaphysical dualism – a division in the very nature of reality itself – is actually rooted in a more home-grown dualism within ourselves.

If I can’t accept a basic part of what I am – and in the West it has tended to be my impulsive, carnal, pleasure-seeking animal nature – then it (Freud’s Id) must be split off, pushed down, depersonalized and disowned. This is the part of me that had to be managed, disciplined and domesticated in the early years of my socialization, as this animal nature was being converted into a polite and well-behaved member of my tribe.

It wasn’t socially acceptable to crouch down and relieve myself in public. I had to “hold it” and go find a restroom. In some circles it’s not socially acceptable for girls to play rough or for boys to dance. Whatever we needed to do to ensure the protection, provision and approval of our “higher powers” – even if it meant casting off some natural passions and talents, we did it.

But if a part of what I am has been shushed, punished and excluded long enough, it’s going to show up somewhere. Robinson’s point is that it shows up in our metaphysics, in our mythology, in our religion, and in our ethics. It emerges from under ground either as out-and-out deviance and rebellion, or else in the prejudice and bigotry of our moral convictions.

The mythological god is where this psychosomatic dualism gets projected and sanctified. If god hates sinners and deplores what is evil, then why should we be any different, right? If god is constrained by some reluctant obligation to condemn unbelievers – even though he supposedly loves all of us unconditionally, mind you – then why should I forgive my enemy? How can I, if even god can’t?

It seems to me that there is a whole semester of Jesus’ teachings, particularly on the topic of forgiveness and love for the enemy, that has been pushed out of the curriculum of orthodox Christianity. This “first voice” of Jesus will not be heard as long as the dualism of light and dark, good and evil, right and wrong, rules and urges, “us” and “them” persists.

We worship in god what we glorify in ourselves, and we persecute in each other what we can’t accept in ourselves. As more and brighter light shines on the cultured ego, the shadow behind it grows darker and more ominous. A passionate pursuit of righteousness may really be a sublimated fear of our repressed urges. We only appear to be chasing after godliness; in fact, we are running from our own shadow.

This internal strain of the ego trying to break free of the id serves a purpose, so I’m not suggesting that it’s completely neurotic. The social expectations of the tribe need to prevail over the animal impulses of the body if the individual is to take his or her place in polite society. Certainly, the primal energies dedicated to physical survival, sexual reproduction, and pleasure-seeking have to be guided into channels that are conducive to community life.

So the tension and interplay of “good” and “evil” is inherent in our human development. But when this tension becomes intolerable and the whole thing cracks apart into warring opposites (absolute dualism), reality goes apocalyptic. Relationships break up as individuals break down. As this continues, any hope for peace and community, reconciliation and love, health and happiness falls over the edge.

Interestingly enough, buried in our own fairly ancient mythology is an image that offers a way back to wholeness. Lucifer – that captain of devils who keeps whispering to us from behind the hedges of our Victorian garden-morality – is so named because he bears the light we have lost. He’s the part of us that we keep pushing away from ourselves and condemning in each other.

In order to get our light back, we need to face him, not cross ourselves and run away.

 

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