Monthly Archives: August 2013

Standpoints in Reality

My “Conversations” with recent philosophers, theologians, and mystics over the past year have helped me reconsider some terms we commonly use in the investigation of what makes us human. The longer history of higher thought has continuously required us to make distinctions in what we had earlier grasped as “one thing.” The words individuum and atom once named basic and unbreakable units of reality. Now we have created numerous and sometimes competing disciplines for exploring the many parts of the individual and the atom.

Of course, these many parts can become disconnected in our minds, giving rise to further specializations that eventually leave us with so many scattered pieces that we might abandon all hope of ever recapturing a sense of the whole. This “sense of the whole” is what Abraham Heschel meant by wonder. Somehow, after or on the other side of all this mental business of dividing and defining reality into its many pieces, we need to pause and re-member – put them back together so we can appreciate the unity of being.

In that spirit, I want to pause and reflect on that fascinating bit of reality called a human being. And I want to engage this reflection in light of the philosophical commitments of perspectivism, constructivism, evolution theory and metaphysical nonrealism. These were commitments of my Conversation partners, and they are major features of our emerging postmodern worldview – which is still being worked out, by the way.

A human being is a trinity of body, ego and soul. Each of these terms names a particular standpoint in reality, a certain mental location, as it were, where we can take a perspective on things. They are not pieces of a human being – as if one could be removed, lived without, or left behind with a human being still intact. Rather they are aspects or dimensions, distinct ways by which our existence as human beings is expressed and extended into reality.


I’ll begin with the body, for that is where we all begin. Also called our “animal nature,” body is the organismic basis of life. It is a complex organization of vital impulses that I call “urgencies” – urges which have evolved around the need to convert energy from the environment (sunlight, water, nutrients) into biological fuel. As a biological organism, the body has evolved ways of adjusting itself and adapting to its surroundings so as to maximize the efficiency of this energy conversion.

As a dynamic energy converter, the body is an organic intelligence that carefully balances its own internal state with the changing conditions of its environment. This orchestration of maintenance (state) and adjustment (reaction) keeps a human being in providential niches where life can be sustained and supported in growth.

If all that sounds coldly impersonal, that’s because it is. We now know that body precedes the personality and serves as the biological basis to the formation of ego. Ego, then, is a second standpoint in reality, extending out of the body and engaging the world at a higher level. This doesn’t make it better or more essential to what makes us human – although it seems right to acknowledge ego as an evolutionary stage beyond the vital urgencies of the body.

Ego refers to the socially constructed identity of a human being. In order to become “one of us” at the tribal level, each human being must gain sufficient liberation from the urgencies and compulsions of biological life. The tribe helps this to happen, by giving the child an alternative set of directives, which Nietzsche called “morality.” Morality is necessary to the formation of identity, providing a counter-force to the animal instincts and redirecting (but also repressing) these impulses into socially acceptable behavior.

The body’s internal state serves as the subjective reference of the ego’s stand-point in reality. If the body is anxious, the ego says, “I am afraid.” If the body is incited to aggression, the ego says, “I am angry.” If the body is satisfied and content, the ego says, “I am happy.” The “I am” in each case exposes a tendency of the ego to identify with the body’s internal state.

Otherwise, the ego might say something like, “I feel afraid” – which demonstrates an ability to distinguish between a subjective feeling and its underlying biology. This ability to separate affect and behavior provides an important gap that the ego enjoys as freedom – the freedom to choose a course of action (or restraint) above the compulsions of the body’s animal nature. Not everyone is successful arriving at this point, as evidenced in the proliferation of neurotic disorders where the individual gets stuck in overwhelming affect states and compulsive behaviors.

But if – and this is a very big if – an individual is able to gain sufficient liberation from reactive impulses and adequate moral guidance from the tribe, another standpoint in reality is made available. This is what we call the soul.

My challenge here is to understand soul without relying on metaphysical realism. It is becoming less meaningful and relevant these days to regard the soul as some kind of ghost in the body, which can carry on perfectly well (or even better) without the burdens of mortality. Metaphysical realism treats the soul as a thing, separate from and independent of the body. This thing is believed by many to not only survive the body, but to live forever. As we should expect, the tribe has exploited this belief for the purpose of enforcing the moral conformity of the ego.

Just as ego uses the body’s internal state as the basis of identity, soul is a still-higher standpoint in reality where feeling and thought differentiate out of this subjective affect. The ability mentioned earlier, of distinguishing between “I” and “this feeling I have,” is a sure sign of the individual’s transcendence of ego. But again, transcending only means “going beyond,” not leaving behind.

Once lifted above the need to either protect or promote identity (ego), affect can differentiate into even subtler experiences, which have produced great works of art and other cultural achievements of our species. Feeling and thought are the Yin and Yang of the soul, with each creative expression adding spread and height to the growing tree of wisdom. They complement each other, deepening and expanding in creative partnership.

Only ego sees them as opposites, where one must win and the other lose.

Soul joins the dance, where the push and the pull, the rise and fall, the silence and the sound come together, only to spin out again. In that moment – yes, in every moment, but now in full mystical awareness – the soul is in the presence of mystery. This is the place of inspiration (feeling) and enlightenment (thought), where all the “parts” are suddenly seen – in a sustained flash of intuition – as rooted in a common ground, as diverse fruits of a single tree.

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Posted by on August 31, 2013 in The Creative Life


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No Use for God

What NextReligion is to spirituality as meaning is to mystery, as god is to ground, as belief is to faith, and as body is to soul – if we can resist the old habit of making the second term of each pair into some separate and metaphysical “thing.” These pairs are paradoxical, not antagonistic or merely “coexistent.” Spirituality finds “body” and expression in religion, not inside it but as it. Faith as release to the grounding mystery of existence is translated and becomes “useful” as timely (relevant) and meaningful belief.

Misunderstanding and complications arise at the very start (or shortly thereafter), in our impulse to label and define what is essentially unnameable. When that happens, mystery becomes (is turned into) just another name for what we don’t understand – yet. Faith becomes Christian, Muslim, or Buddhist faith, then “the” (one true) faith, which really means the set of beliefs that is supernaturally revealed or fully enlightened.

God is a name, an idea, a representation of something that isn’t a thing. The ground does not “stand out” (ex-ist) in the field of identities and relationships, but is merely another name (a metaphor in this case) for that out of which everything else stands, and back into which it will all eventually return. That grounding mystery is experienced in those moments when you can let go of meaning, let go of thought, and let go of “me.”

Faith is yet another name, a noun that is really a verb, a way of be-ing and living in communion with the present mystery of reality.

As I have tried to explain post-theism, some have heard me advocating for a new kind of postmodern atheism. It sounds to them as if I’m rejecting god and wanting to discredit religion as so much mythological literalism and metaphysical malarkey. There is that. But at its best, religion can be a helpful servant to spirituality, and god can be a relevant representation of the grounding mystery. The problem is that religion is not very often at its best.

You can’t resolve the errors in religion by digging deeper into its scriptures and refining its doctrines. It’s not about clarifying your concept of god, or making it “big” enough to contain all the attributes that a perfect and supreme being should properly have. No matter what you might try on that side of the threshold of the paradoxes mentioned above, you are still only straightening up and rearranging boxes.

Spirituality comes before religion, though not in the temporal sense of “before.” It inspires (breathes life into) religion, but it can’t connect to your life without the “system of utilities” that religion provides. In religion god is useful for making the world, providing for our needs, giving us purpose, supervising our progress in morality and settling the score at the end. God can become so useful, in fact, that we lose sight of his/her “first use,” which was to re-present the mystery and give us a way of relating ourselves meaningfully to it.

Religious formation can be thought of as the development of a “vehicle” for the evolution of human spirituality. As life evolves through the adaptation of an organism to the conditions and challenges of its environment, so does spirituality evolve through the ability of religion to stay grounded and adapt to the changing circumstances. “True” religion – if I dare use the term – is one that is spiritually rooted in the timeless mystery and usefully current to the concerns of our time.

While religion has a thousand uses for god, spirituality has none. It should make sense by now that I am not arguing for atheism. Indeed atheism and its “opponent,” theism, are both on the religion side of things. Together they constitute a warring dualism rather than a creative paradox, as they both (at least in the context of their debate) effectively ignore the grounding mystery that cannot be named (or unnamed). I see religion and religion’s god as very useful, but they are not ultimately the concern of faith.

As the developmental vehicle of human spirituality, religion began with the question, “What will we name this mystery, and what does it mean to us?” Through the course of its long history, religion has been very busy – naming, mythologizing, coordinating, instructing, sanctioning, authorizing, proselytizing, defending, condemning, justifying abuse, violence and exploitation in the name of its god. Many, many people have left religion because of its violations of ethical sensibility, its sometimes ruthless control tactics, the way it tries to motivate conformity through fear, and its frequent dismissal of reason and rational inquiry.

Although I strongly support anyone wanting to get out of a corrupt and abusive religion, it’s not this corruption that presses me to explore the promise of post-theism. As long as identity is our preoccupation and ego is controlling the game, we will continue to see dogmatism, bigotry, and violence in our religions and across the cultures. I suppose that some of the more articulate and outspoken atheists really just want to remove the baby so we can throw out the bathwater.

Post-theism doesn’t really care about denying or defending god, however. Instead it is interested in spirituality after religion – but not temporally after, since spirituality will always need embodiment in and as religion. The “after” here is more about the intention and developmental aim of religion, in the way it directs the deeper experience of spirituality into the utilities of daily life. And then what? For what purpose?

I would say, for the purpose of providing a springboard for a leap back into mystery. Beliefs must be dropped, religion must be transcended (gone beyond), and god must be left behind. We cling to our god with the same energy that we defend our ego. Religion assists in the formation of ego by projecting its god as counterpart and ideal. At some point – and I am arguing, we are at that point right now – we need to be strong enough to leap beyond even ourselves, into the grounding mystery.

We are standing now on a vantage-point at the far end of an arc through time. Religion, tribe, ego and god have been useful in getting to the point where we can now look back – and down – through this complicated formation and discern a light shining up from below.

As paradoxical as it sounds, we must arrive at the point again where we have no use for god.


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What (your) God is Saying (about you)

Post-theism is not atheism – let’s get that out of the way at the start. To ask about what comes after god is not the same thing as denying the existence of god. But then again, denying the existence of god does not necessarily mean that one is refuting the reality of mystery – or the “real presence” of mystery, as I’ve been naming it in this blog.

How I conceive of that mystery – that is to say, how I represent it conceptually, metaphorically and artistically – is different from how I experience it, let’s say, mystically. The experience of mystery transpires below language, as it were, prior to and transcendent of my mind’s ability to name it and give it meaning. This is why the mystics say it is ineffable, undefinable. The Tao that can be named is not the eternal Tao.

When you’re a metaphysical non-realist like I am, then post-theism is about more than just asking how god is other or bigger than our representations. It’s inquiring into what comes after our representations of mystery have run their course. Experience begins with mystery, but the mind quickly goes to work making it meaningful by naming it, qualifying it, and then fitting this representation into the long-term construction project of its world. If this outgoing arc can return eventually to the present mystery where it began, then the mind’s world-project stands a chance of keeping current – even meaningfully relevant.

But this is not how it typically goes. Instead we get attached to our representation, to our meaning. We get defensive when someone questions it, and we have a history of becoming violent in our ambition to convert others to it. It’s probably natural that we become emotionally invested in our work and its product. After all, mystery is; but we need meaning, or else everything seems – well, meaningless. People have been searching for meaning, living for meaning, dying for meaning, and killing for meaning for many thousands of years.

The experience of mystery (or the mystery of experience) prior to meaning is qualitatively different from the experience of mystery after (post) meaning. On the far end of that arc, some of our representations simply fall out of relevance or just plain burn up on reentry. But other representations can start to take on a radiance and become epiphanies of their source. They are at once reminder, symptom and anticipation of what was, is, and is to come.

The image of an arc is intended to represent the curve of time, which also suggests a progression through various phases, stages, and incarnations along the way. Some elements don’t advance, but rather remain behind after serving their role. Perhaps they are dis-covered (dug up) later on as curiosities of former ages.

One day they will discover god.

Our gods are useful. I would even argue that they are developmentally necessary to our evolution as a species. But what happens when a god no longer inspires and awakens our “higher self,” but instead ties us back to our developmentally arrested “inner child”? Our representations of mystery, as they take shape in our myths, iconography, and theological doctrines, have a lot to say about their creators.

Wouldn’t it be interesting to know what your god is saying about you?

Neurotic StylesIn another blog of mine, I recently introduced the Mandala of Neurotic Styles as a way of understanding what I call our little “grooves of nasty” – those sometimes bizarre behaviors that jump out of us when we get triggered or hooked. How they come about and why they are so damned persistent, are questions I explore in that blog (see Braintracts). For now, I simply want to use this construct of neurotic styles as a lens for looking at god.

Our gods are representations, not the eternal (timeless) mystery itself. They serve a role in our development – several roles, in fact. Deities supervise and explain the universe. They secure our membership in a tribe of true believers and provide us with a sense of purpose. They receive our worship and grant us blessings in return. They authorize the rules of morality and reward our faith and obedience. They also depict the higher virtues like patience, mercy, compassion and forgiveness, that are slowly (even now) coming awake in us.

A post-theistic appraisal of this would consider our gods – particularly in the last role just mentioned – as evolutionary ideals of our waking human potential or higher self. We represented god as compassionate, for example, at a time when what we might call “the intelligence of compassion” was beginning to open human consciousness to reality in a way that enabled us to perceive and participate in the suffering of others.

To worship a god of compassion is also to elevate (or glorify) the virtue of compassion – holding it up, as it were, as an ideal to pursue, celebrate, and actualize in our own way of life. It remains up there and out there, ahead of us on our evolutionary arc, as long as compassion stays partially dormant and unrealized in ourselves – or is actively suppressed.

The god of many Christians today illustrates – in the mythology of the Bible and in their denominational theologies – an explosive-aggressive neurotic style. He can be patient up to a point, but once the line is crossed, you’d better watch out. The much feared “wrath” of god; his outrage over the “sins” of idolatry, sexuality, and unbelief; his tireless vengeance on his enemies – what exactly does this reveal?

Since the representation isn’t real – that is to say, since god doesn’t really exist up there or out there – we turn our question to those who made him up. Why are believers still hanging on to this god, this celestial Hothead? Post-theism answers: Because they don’t know what to do with their own anger. They are hooked into a neurotic style of explosive aggression. Just listen to the fiery rhetoric of their religious and political convictions.

When in the grip of an explosive-aggressive episode, a Hothead will cast fire upon the earth, curse and condemn all who do not stand with him, turn over tables and smash plates against the wall. If you could interview him at the vent of his fury, he would tell you that it feels good to just let it out. Once upon a time it probably worked to get what he wanted – attention from his mother, influence with his playmates, intimidation of his rivals.

After all these years, he still gets hooked from time to time. Frankly, he doesn’t know what else to do with his frustration when things don’t go his way. But don’t challenge him on it. Don’t you dare suggest that violence isn’t a solution. His god will throw you in hell, and that’s for sure.

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Posted by on August 10, 2013 in Timely and Random


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