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Monthly Archives: June 2013

The Possible Human

Anderson: “Contemporary civilization without ball games and movies would be as incomprehensible as medieval civilization without the Church. Our social reality is shaped by those myths and structures, our personal lives informed and sometimes inspired by them.”

In the early flush of modernity, when the codes of the physical universe were being unlocked right and left at a breathtaking pace, many thought that we were finally past the age of superstition and religion. With god no longer needed to explain how things originally came about or presently hold together, our interest in all things spooky and divine could be left behind. We had grown up and were fully enlightened at last.

The sociologist Peter Berger coined the term “plausibility structure” for the tightly bonded system of myths and symbols, rituals and authorities, traditions and morals that support a more or less coherent worldview (what he called a “sacred canopy”). Education for any society involves constructing the mental framework inside young minds that will filter information coming up from within (intuition) and in from outside (sensation) according to what the worldview allows as plausible (likely, logical, conceivable).

Our cultural deliverance from ignorance was widely celebrated as a breakthrough at last, to the direct (unfiltered) grasp of reality itself. Now we had our hands on the “facts,” without the need for childish fictions or an immature dependency on “papacy” – the authority-line connecting papa to the pope to the patron deity calling the shots. Myth gave way to history, superstition to science, a picture-book faith to mathematical reason.

Protestant Christianity came of age during this truth-rush of modernity. In order to save their religion, as the plausibility structure of Catholicism was coming down around them, Protestants turned the Bible into a history book, replaced images (think of icons) with words (think of  The Word), and shifted the fulcrum of meaning from ritual ceremonies (sacraments) to orthodox precepts (doctrines).

What had been publicly managed by a complex institution of ordained authorities got pulled apart and repackaged into a variety of denominational identities, each espousing a slightly (or significantly) different set of beliefs necessary to salvation. Less about “us” and more about “me”; less about now and more about later – when my soul gets to heaven and I receive my reward for getting it right.

Back to science, which was boldly going where no one had gone before – deeper and farther out into the mysteries of matter, expanding knowledge and dispelling superstition. It took a while longer (into the twentieth century), but eventually it became apparent that the theories supporting the scientific worldview were also fictions. Even the idea that science was a worldview – a perspective, an angle on reality, a limited vantage-point with its own operating assumptions and not simply “the way things really are” – came as a shock to the system.

The steady rise of this realization is the story of constructivism – understanding and coming to emotional acceptance of the “fact” that we can’t live without “myth,” that human beings construct meaning rather than discover truth out there in reality. By replacing cathedrals with stadiums, popes with commissioners, saints with superstars, and heroes with celebrities, we are not necessarily any more enlightened or advanced.

The “truth” of any plausibility structure may have less to do with how it matches up to reality, than how effective it is in providing inspiration and guidance to the rising arc of our evolution as a species.

I realize that “rising arc” and the very idea of evolution are themselves metaphor and fiction. But that’s really the point. We need to consciously accept that the meaning we construct is what makes our lives meaningful. Our sense of security, of orientation, identity and purpose are the design objectives of the worlds we make up. The more we have of these things, the more meaningful our lives are.

But where does it all lead? I don’t mean far off in the distance, at the end of time, but later today, after we push ourselves away from the computer and step back into our life? What values will we live by? What choices will we make? What ambitions will motivate us to action? How will we behave towards those we meet? Whether we worship world saviors or sports stars, what kind of life does our devotion inspire and justify?

From an evolutionary standpoint, the behavior of an individual organism is where the fate of the species is decided. It’s not about how advanced and sophisticated our philosophy is, but the lifestyle it produces in our choices, sacrifices and commitments. In addition to the forward movement through time (survival, reproduction, prosperity), evolution also opens “upward” (so to speak) into the complexity of consciousness, the capacity for subjective feeling, rational intelligence, a wider compassion and unconditional forgiveness.

This is where the truth of our plausibility structures can be measured, it seems to me. Do they support a life of meaning? Do they inspire us to reach out and connect in ways that are peaceable and benevolent? Do they inspire us to transcend the neurotic limitations of our ego and foster genuine community with our neighbor? Do they help make us more human?

Viewed from the inside, every plausibility structure (from sprawling cultural worldviews to the comic stand-up’s one-liner) makes sense to the degree that its terms mutually reinforce each other in meaningful cross-reference. This is truth as coherence. If language didn’t hold together in this way, nothing would make sense.

Then there’s truth as correspondence – how accurately our plausibility structures match up to and correctly describe/explain external reality. This is where the constructivist suspicion comes into play: that our stories and theories may be more about us (i.e., the author) than the way things really are out there.

Yes, it feels for all the world like we are depicting things as they are, but then again, every portrait assumes a point of view and reflects the author-artist’s perspective (from here, not over there). It’s all an on-going exercise in making meaning.

Finally there’s truth as actualization. As we are able increasingly to let go of the dogmatic assumption that our stories and theories “tell it like it is,” we might become more open to what they reveal about ourselves and the “possible human.”

We tell stories to put our children to sleep at night. Now more than ever, we need stories to help us wake up to a New Day.

 

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Unqualified Mystery

De Mello: “The fact is that you’re surrounded by God and you don’t see God, because you ‘know’ about God. The final barrier to the vision of God is your God concept. You miss God because you think you know. That’s the terrible thing about religion. The highest knowledge of God is to know God as unknowable. There is far too much God talk; the world is sick of it.”

Here’s a piece of calculus predicting our human future: Calculus FutureTranslated into narrative the formula states that our representation of God, divided by our identification of self, multiplied by our interaction with others equals the evolutionary future of humanity. Let’s break it down.

Our representations of God come from many sources – scripture and tradition, intuition and revelation, reason and logic, imagination and fantasy. Whatever its source, we must be careful not to confuse any representation with the reality it represents.

This is, in fact, the classical and orthodox definition of idolatry, even though much of the new orthodoxy and fundamentalism in the world’s religions fall – and fall passionately – to this temptation. Any representation of God will necessarily be less than God, an understatement, a reduction to ideas, words, and images of an ineffable mystery.

And yet, it is an irresistible impulse of our minds to mentally represent the mystery in ways that make it intelligible, relevant and useful. What we call God – the real presence of mystery or the present mystery of reality – must be rendered meaningful by the mind, which it does by telling stories, playing with metaphors, or simply dancing out the ecstasy.

What is produced from this creative activity is not a substitute for the mystery or some final definition, but rather a symptom of the inexpressible, a sign pointing beyond itself, a suggestion of Something More.

Still, for whatever reason, we come to settle on our preferred representations. Perhaps our religious tradition requires it, we find it convenient, or maybe it just “fits” with the general picture of reality known as our world(view).

But our representations of God must always include (whether by expression or concealment, projection or compensation) our identifications of self. Since these representations come out of us, we should expect them to reflect and bear the signature of our nature and personality.

What I call the mythological god – which refers to the narrative character at the center of the sacred stories (or myths) of religion – is at once the creative expression of an evolutionary ideal (power, goodness, love), a reflex of our insecurity as a species, and a dramatic counterpart to what we admire, despise, or fear in ourselves.

Just as a providential god compensates for our dependency on a larger order, so a judgmental god confirms the shame and guilt we try to keep to ourselves, and an all-loving god externalizes and covers everything with a caring intention. Whose god is the “true god” is a question without an answer, for the simple reason that it is based on a false assumption that our representations of God (in other words, our various “gods”) match up to the reality we generically name God.

My formula suggests that our representations of God are just as much, if not more, about us than they are accurate portraits of the divine mystery.

It might sound as if I’m building an argument for atheism, when in fact it’s “post-theism” I’m boosting here – the idea that the real presence of mystery is always and necessarily beyond (and after: post) the patron deities of religion. To the degree that we get caught up in devotion to our god (lowercase = representation), the stage is set for interreligious competition through the ordination of bigotry and violence.

As my formula shows, the package of how we identify ourselves, along with the representation of God that complements or compensates for it, gets carried out into our interactions with others. It’s here that orthodoxy – our “correct” beliefs about God – translates into ethics. Our god will tend to inspire and justify a certain regard for others, a certain way of behaving towards our neighbor – whether friend, stranger, or enemy.

It seems obvious that a religion which generalizes love, encourages compassion, and challenges us to forgive and get along would be preferable to one that excludes, condemns and justifies violence as  a means to redemption. The evolutionary future of humanity on this planet – if there’s any chance of it being a long and prosperous one – will depend on our ability to reach out and make benevolent connections with each other.

But didn’t god (the mythological god of the Bible) require the death of his son for the salvation of those who believe? Isn’t he poised (and morally obligated) to condemn to hell all unbelievers? The myth of redemptive violence is a strong current in Christian orthodoxy – one that reflects (and exposes) something about the myth-makers who invented it in the first place, as well as those who defend it today.

I’m not suggesting that Christianity is all this way, or that it is exceptional in this regard among the world religions. There are many Christians who reject the myth of redemptive violence, which of course calls for a critical, less literal reading of the Bible and a more conscientious stance on sacred authority.

As our planet continues to move into a global culture, the motivation and consequences of our interactions grow in importance.

Again, post-theism is not about a “one-world religion” – either as an outcome of interreligious competition (one wins and eliminates the others) or by blending religious differences into a generic stir-and-serve. It acknowledges a “spiritual intelligence” in all human beings, and even affirms the constructive place of religion in its development. Our representations of God are useful to the degree that they provide community support, devotional focus, and fresh inspiration along the way.

At a certain point, however, this process can get bogged down in the specialized vocabulary of a tradition’s god-talk. More and more is “known” about God – more accurately, about god (the orthodox representation) – as less and less of God is experienced. How God is represented eventually eclipses a direct (mystical) vision of, and communion with, the present mystery.

Worse, this worship of the representation can – and increasingly will – result in spiritual frustration. The progression of our continuing evolution as a species is capped off and boxed up in an ideology incapable of lifting us to the next level. A living spirituality gets strangled in the net of commentary.

Can we set our idols aside?

 

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