A very long time ago, way back in the dim prehistory of human cultural evolution, “primal religion” functioned to keep our run-away brain connected to the cycles and rhythms of the natural order. At that point, the tribe was still a human group organized around the necessities of sex, territory and nutritional resources. These cycles and rhythms represented the pulse of life that no primitive society could afford to fall out of sync with. Woman, more grounded and in touch with natural cycles than her male counterpart, was a figure of wonder and reverence. She was regarded a nature being, an embodiment of the generative force beneath all things.
The man, while still dependent on the cycles of need and provision, activity and rest, harvest and the hunt, was the more aggressive proponent of technological advances (invention of tools) and mastering the environment. His talent was in his powers of detachment, abstraction and control – mental progress that increasingly removed him from the wisdom of nature, woman, and his own body. This is the stage in history – no longer in the circular turns of natural time but now on the abstracted “time line” of identity and conquest – when ego became the new obsession. Not embodiment but role-play, not natural wisdom but technical reason, not cooperation but competition, no longer participation in a larger providential order but finding the way out.
What has been called “conventional religion” is where this ambition of world-escape is the prominent feature. The patron deity dwells beyond this world and condescends to the worship of the devoted in elaborate and expensive buildings, according to liturgies and traditions managed by (mostly male) custodians. Our god is great – exalted, majestic, and worthy of praise. We worship him and give him what he deserves, because one day we expect him to give us what we deserve for all our sacrifice, moral obedience, and unshaken conviction. One day we will live forever in heaven, without the drag of our bodies, singing hymns on golden streets in the perfect everlasting city.
In this post-conventional age, if it’s meaningful to talk of “soul” at all, it can no longer be as a synonym for ego. While ego is the “I” of personal identity, shaped by and reflecting the social influence of my tribe, soul is that in me which is more than “me,” that seeks a higher wholeness, fulfillment and well-being. Whereas conventional religion sanctifies the split of “I” from “it” (the body) in an afterlife envisioned as an unending celebration of disembodied egos, a religion of the soul will consecrate this quest for wholeness, communion and real presence.
Soul doesn’t look to the future for salvation. In fact, this fixation on and desperate hope for a future way out is now precisely the “problem” that soulful religion must find a way to resolve. As long as we persist in the male initiative to detach from, dominate, and finally escape the realm of nature, woman, and the body, our situation on this planet will continue to deteriorate. Unfortunately, as the conditions for life on Earth are compromised and degraded by human activity, the temptation for escape becomes all the stronger. The resurgence in conventional religion in what we know as fundamentalism can be understood as the urgency many feel to get back to the truth, take control, and secure our escape out of this doomed situation.
If soul awakening is the inevitable course of human evolution, then we should expect resistance from the ego, its tribe, and this escapist ideology. I’m reminded of the challenge in therapy, in helping a client get “incarnated” again, to come back to a body presently racked with symptoms from a lifetime of unhealthy habits, physical self-abuse, and an underlying body shame. Who wants to go back to that? What purpose could there possibly be in going into the pain, rather than medicating or distracting ourselves away from it? Our impulse is to run from “Lucifer” – a name for the devil that everybody’s looking out for these days, whose name means “light bearer” – instead of facing him and taking back our light.
The good news is that soul awakening is our evolutionary intention as a species. Just as an apple tree “apples” – as Alan Watts would often say – a human being develops according to an intrinsic ideal that attracts and guides this development towards maturity and fulfillment. With its fantasy of detachment, control and everlasting life somewhere else, ego not only makes coming back to the body unappealing, but it also stands in the way of what might be called true salvation. From the root-meaning “to heal and make whole,” salvation involves a return to this present moment, to the place where you are, to this body you are, to the earth that is our home.
This is the division in our being that must be healed – before it is too late. Soulful religion is carried out on the basis of some very simple practices, like breathing, calming down, getting grounded and expanding your awareness beyond the neurotic cluster of self-interest. A very long time ago we did these things naturally, instinctively, and for the most part unconsciously. During the “age of ego” and the escapist methodologies of conventional culture and religion, we gradually forgot how to breathe and be fully present, as we lost touch with the living wonder of our body. Now some of us are relearning how to do these things. Or if that sounds too much like the ego taking control and setting out to achieve a goal, then we are learning how to release ourselves to the natural wisdom of human be-ing.
Soulful religion doesn’t look to the future for salvation, and neither does it put faith in the truth of doctrines. The wholeness we seek at the level of soul – and the mystery that opens to us from this standpoint in reality – is not about being right or belonging to the right church. Soul understands that all our efforts at being right have divorced us from what is left, which is everything else. The real path of salvation will bring together left and right, woman and man, body and ego, them and us, for the sake of the Greater Whole.
This is where the responsibility of being human takes on new urgency.