RSS

Monthly Archives: December 2013

On the Other Side of Meaning

I know someone whose religion is a collection of curiosities from across the landscape of world traditions. A little of this and a little of that, thrown together in no systematic or reasonable way, but still very personal and meaningful as far as it goes.

If you were to ask this individual what it all really means, he could give you a general description of the various sources – the cultural quarries and time periods represented – but what it all means, that is to say, what all of it together means, might not be obvious even to him.

More and more people are opting for this “private collection” kind of religion these days. They have given up membership in one of the “classical” world religions and probably don’t attend worship anywhere on a regular basis. Next to the Bible on the coffee table you might also find the Tao Te Ching, a book of Toltec teachings, and today’s horoscope.

They prefer this to the nervous and narrow-minded dogmatism that can be found in a growing number of “nondenominational” Bible churches across the country. In claiming to be nondenominational, these independent churches are separating themselves from the Christian brands that got their start as branch-offs of reform and reaction, many of them going back 400-500 years when late-medieval Christianity was petering out and becoming culturally irrelevant.

But now these Reformation traditions (Calvinist, Lutheran, Baptist, Methodist) are themselves showing signs of recession. What may have once been anchored in a supernaturally supported worldview is starting to require more “devotion” and intellectual sacrifice to keep it going. The Bible Church movement is an attempt to dissociate from something seen as sliding away and losing currency, kind of like cutting the line to a sinking ship that is threatening to pull you down.

One answer to what we can call the “recession of meaning,” then, is to cut ties with tradition and denominational forms of identity. But then you are faced with the challenge of credibility: who says you have it right? Where does your authority lie? In its effort to create the impression of substance and weight, Christian Fundamentalism – the ideological reaction of the early twentieth century that would provide the cultural soil for the later Bible Church movement – invented what it called the “New Testament Church.”

The inerrancy of doctrine, the validating gifts of the Spirit (especially healing, prophecy and speaking in tongues), the authority of men and proper submission of women, the only acceptable liturgy and performance of worship – these by no means universal features of early Christianity were isolated and elevated by fundamentalists as the incontestable “marks of the true Church.”

Our present-day Evangelical Right is the political arm of this same counter-cultural invention. It presents itself as conservative, as promoting a campaign to recover and preserve the original intellectual and moral foundations of Christianity, our true heritage as a nation. But it’s not really conservative at all; instead, it’s self-inventing.

This particular brand of contemporary Christianity is driving many people out of the church today. As it rapidly loses rational integrity and emotional resonance, individuals who still desire a worldview that makes sense and connects to everyday life are silently slipping out the back door. They seek a spirituality that is culturally engaged and intellectually satisfying, one with contemplative depth and aspirational focus. And since they’re not finding it in the competitive marketplace of existing religions, they are putting one together for themselves.Religious symbols

A little of this, a little of that: a collection of historically diverse ideas, rituals, odd parables and other curiosities. Perhaps the most attractive thing about these homemade religions is that they are personally assembled, intentionally practiced, and carefully evaluated for how well they “fit” the individual’s unique interests and situation in life. In a word, these religions are experimental.

Perhaps it’s because the pressure of “getting it right” has been removed, as the other-worldly orientation of classical (and fundamentalist) religion loses favor to one that is more grounded in the here and now. If it is happening, I see it as an indication not of moral decline but of spiritual progress.

More of us are seeking what Jesus in the Fourth Gospel called “abundant life” – not necessarily a life of abundance, but life in greater depth and fullness. Just in case our earthly lifespan is the only gig we get, we want above all to be real, authentic, sincere and caring in the way we choose to live out this precious nick of time.

But I wonder what might be lost in this new age of grab-and-go religion. Without an understanding of the taproots that may once have anchored and energized with spiritual significance our collection of exotic curiosities, are we perhaps left with something of impressive scope but little substance? Are we just digging lots of shallow wells, when the living water we’re after requires a more committed, focused and sustained effort?

A particular religious symbol, myth or teaching has a history that falls off and drops away like dirt from an uprooted plant when we simply lift it out of the soil of its native culture. To the degree it has a mystical resonance with its primordial experience – not back (then) into the past, but down (now) into the present mystery of reality – any genuine expression of spiritual awakening and transformation must be timeless, that is, transcending the local conditions of historical context. It is always possible for a transplanted symbol to stir the soul and come to life.

The recession of meaning today does not need us to invent something that never was, nor should we resort to scavenging for relics and borrowed wisdom from somewhere else. Irrelevancy is a signal – one commonly rationalized or medicated as a problem or pathology to be fixed – that announces the end of the world as we know it. It’s the apocalypse.

Disillusionment is painful. Having our illusions of meaning stripped away and watching them slough off like flakes of old paint is unnerving, if only because you can never be sure how much of your comforting illusion will be left. What’s left after all is unsaid and undone is by definition meaningless, and if we are particularly attached to the meaning that is slipping away it can be very distressing indeed.

That is another attraction of fundamentalism: As overcompensation for legitimate doubt it anesthetizes the pain of disillusionment with an excuse to stop thinking and asking questions. Maybe it’s also why the build-your-own religion solution is becoming so popular as well. As everything crumbles in around you, because yours is so personalized it just might survive the general apocalypse.

But the good news is that there’s life after meaning, just as there’s life under meaning and life before meaning. The key is to ask better questions and stop settling for answers.

There was a time – and you can’t really remember it because memory itself is narrative in structure and meaning-dependent – when you lived simply and nakedly in the present moment. That was before your tribe began pulling the veil (and not a little wool) over your eyes.

You can go there now, without going anywhere at all. The present mystery of reality – and your only worthwhile invitation to authentic being and abundant life – is right here, on the other side of meaning.

 

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

The Story of Truth

At this holiday season we have another chance to take a deeper look into story. What is it exactly, this peculiar arrangement of words that conjures up images in our minds, sweeps us away into other times and places, to places that never were nor likely will ever be?

Take the story of The Nativity, for example. It is the founding narrative of one of the two competing traditions behind our present-day Christmas holiday. Where is the truth in this story – which is really two distinct stories told in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke?

Nativity

Matthew’s version includes a heavenly star and oriental court astrologers who visit Mary and Jesus at their Bethlehem home address. There’s the maniacal and jealous King Herod who orders all males under two years old murdered, in his effort to eliminate this contender to the throne. Joseph takes Mary and Jesus out of Bethlehem and eventually to Egypt until wicked King Herod dies. When the coast is clear, the First Family moves to Nazareth where Jesus will spend his youth.

Luke’s version has Joseph taking his pregnant wife, Mary, from Nazareth to his ancestral home town of Bethlehem for tax enrollment. Upon arriving the couple discovers that every hotel room is booked, and thus is forced to stay the night in an animal shack behind the inn. There Mary goes into labor and delivers Jesus. Meanwhile, an angelic choir announces to shepherds in their fields that a savior has been born in Bethlehem. They go with haste and find the First Family in the stable, just as foretold.

There are some obvious inconsistencies between these two Nativity stories – maybe you caught them.

Joseph and Mary begin in Nazareth and go to Bethlehem in Luke’s version, whereas they end up there after starting in Bethlehem in Matthew’s. Luke’s shepherds visit Jesus in an animal stable, while Matthew’s astrologers find him in a “house.” Obviously one has to be right. If you had been there, what would you have seen with your own eyes?

Before you answer, let’s note that Luke’s shepherds are probably hired hands or day laborers, down in the socioeconomic mucky bottom. They aren’t businessmen, artisans or merchants. They represent the class just barely inside the definition of class, and definitely outside of having any political clout.

Matthew’s court astrologers, on the other hand, are pretty high up on the social ladder. They may be outsiders but they come with wealth and power. Still they leave their country and kingdom in search of the “king of the Jews,” and when they find him they lay their offerings at his feet.

So did it happen just that way? But which way?

In their effort to merge these different storylines into a single coherent narrative, commentators have suggested that Matthew’s events actually took place after Luke’s – maybe as many as two years later. That accounts for Herod’s massacre of two-year-old males and gives the First Family time to get from the stable into a bona fide residence. The astrologers and shepherds never met each other, which means that our crowded manger scenes on postcards and storybooks are an historical inaccuracy.

But it’s not necessary to merge these two narratives. They are inconsistent only if your assumption is that the truth is somehow outside the stories, in the facts of history and what must have “actually happened.”

This question of which Gospel Nativity story is true – and the question of truth in story generally – cannot be answered by jumping out of the story and looking for facts to back it up. Actually, this scramble for historical evidence and the sworn testimony of eye witnesses is a very late development. It became urgent and pressing once the spell was broken.

What spell? The spell that any great story puts on the mind of whomever is willing to “go under” its entrancing power. You can’t keep interrupting the narrative with ejaculations of “Did that really happen?” and “Is that literally how it went?” Follow the example of a young child: Once upon a time carries the imagination into another world – that is to say, into a different narrative construct from the one you’re in right now.

Don’t sweat it. You’re just leaving one spell for another. You’ll be back in no time at all. For now, simply relax, close your eyes and listen …

Luke’s Nativity introduces you to the start of a world revolution, where an insurgent savior is born to poverty. The good news (gospel) of his arrival is first announced to shepherds “living in the fields,” outside and away from the power-centers of wealth, politics and religion. The Jesus of Luke’s Gospel – if you are patient enough for the whole story – continues to fill out this character who comes to level the playing field, to challenge the high and mighty, and pull the hopeless poor to their feet. Luke’s Jesus is the prince of a new kingdom, and you are invited in.

Matthew’s Nativity invites you to a revolution as well, but his messiah is fashioned on the model of Moses, the great liberator who saved his people from bondage in Egypt. In order to solidify this association, Matthew arranges for Jesus to be in Egypt (hiding from Herod) and be granted a safe exodus into the new “promised land” of Nazareth. Matthew’s story overall is about the world significance of this New Liberator, represented in a heavenly star high above and foreign magistrates from far away. Apparently no one alive “under heaven” is excluded from this very good news, not even you.

Coming back to the burning question, what can be said about the “truth” of these stories?

The Nativity stories are not true because they accurately relate how things actually went down. They were not composed as an effort to piece together evidence in a factually reliable report. We can safely make this generalization about all true stories. They are true to the degree they are successful in bringing about a transformation of consciousness, orienting the spell-bound audience to reality with a new set of values and expectations. If the story changes you, then it’s true.

But if it can’t change you, simply because you refuse to “go under” and get “caught up” in its alternative fantasy, then it’s “only a story” or “just a myth.” You might as well set it down and get on with your life, such as it is.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on December 19, 2013 in Timely and Random

 

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

Just a Little More Reality (Please)

Constructivism is an approach to understanding the world we live in as a product of our own creative intelligence. “World” refers to the habitat of meaning that human beings construct around themselves for security, to support identity, and to provide a sense of purpose to their lives. As a social species, humans are compelled to carry out this construction project in tribes and communities, where the larger world they share together is known as culture.

This project of world-building has progressed apace with our evolution. Since earliest times, the spontaneous and ineffable mystery of being alive has been rendered in language first as archetype, then metaphor, myth and (quite a bit later) theory. These various conceptual devices (symbols and symbol systems) enabled our hominid ancestors to articulate an expansive and increasingly complex web of references, inside of which everything had meaning.

In this blog I’ve been exploring creative change from a number of different angles. My philosophical preferences in this quest include (1) constructivism, (2) perspectivism, (3) metaphysical nonrealism, (4) evolutionary psychology, and (5) a mystical orientation that regards all of the worlds we make up (however meaningful) as nothing more than secondary qualifications on an essentially unqualified mystery – the moment-by-moment wonder of experience itself.

Metaphysical nonrealism sounds more sophisticated than it really is. Very simply, it is an unwillingness (hence the “non” in nonrealism) to assume that the early stories of primitive and ancient cultures were based on what we today would call supernatural encounters with metaphysical realities. Just because a myth speaks of gods, devils, angels and disembodied souls doesn’t compel us to take them literally. Indeed, taking them literally is just as irresponsible – and I would add, intellectually lazy – as dismissing them out of hand as hallucinations or lies.

A representation of god in a myth needs to be interpreted and understood within the story’s own web of references, and also, moving out into the larger worldview of its authoring culture, across numerous overlapping webs. Our assumption that these stories were reports and eye-witness accounts of real things (metaphysics) and actual events (miracles) is already “breaking the spell” of the story-telling art, which is about taking us inside and transforming consciousness.

Tragically, an irreversible side-effect of mythological literalism is that it leaves the contemporary reader in a depressed state of disillusionment. No one today experiences god in the ways the Bible personifies him. No one ever has. But because we don’t, our only conclusion must be that we have fallen farther into sin, ignorance, and spiritual blindness. All the more reason to take the Bible literally and not question what we’re told.

A more interesting explanation for our current disillusionment, besides it being the consequence of mythological literalism, has to do with some conflicts that are internal to our psychological development. The evolution of our species – which can be observed in a developing individual across the lifespan – has opened our perspective on reality at different “standpoints” along the way. In earlier posts I have named these standpoints “body,” “ego” and “soul.”

In the space I have left, I want to explore three distinct “powers” that correspond to these standpoints in reality. These powers might be thought of as three strands in a braid, complementing each other but also generating conflicts between and among themselves. Such conflicts, I would argue, are a key to appreciating the complexity, wonder, ecstasy and torment of being human.

Three AspectsBody is your animal nature. The particular power-strand that resides there is instinct – the urgencies, impulses, drives and reflexes that are rooted in the very deep evolutionary past. Instinct is non-personal, which is to say that it has no concern for the personality. The moon is my symbol for it, representing the dark realm of our unconscious (and autonomic) animal life. Instinct carries on far below the light of conscious awareness. It comes before thought and precedes even feeling.

If you didn’t have instinct, you would die. The countless events, urges and reactions in the biological foundations of your animal nature are regulated constantly for the primary purpose of keeping you alive. When your life is threatened – or you perceive it to be – strong and often irresistible reflexes and “gut reactions” move you to behave in a defensive, avoidant, or perhaps hostile manner.

But you are more than a body. Because humans are a social species – collecting into clans and communities where resources can be shared, where the very young and the very old can find protection, and where world-building can begin – our hominid ancestors were faced with the challenge of channeling the dark powers of animal instinct into some kind of social order. This domestication required some impulses to be redirected into acceptable behaviors, while others were gradually “pinched off” through progressive discipline.

Your childhood brought you through experiences highly unique to the interactions inside your family system. But however it went for you, one important outcome was the formation of your identity – maybe enmeshed, codependent or estranged in some ways, but an identity nonetheless. This is your ego, which during your childhood was who you were in your relationships with others. If you are now an adult, we can speak of this center of (largely emotional) identity, restraint, agency and ambition as your inner child.

The power-strand corresponding to childhood, the ego, and your inner child is what I call fantasy. It is, very simply, the productive genius that enables you to make believe and pretend, to tell stories and still get caught up in them. My symbol for fantasy is the nighttime star, not like the shape-shifting moon pulling on sea and blood, but twinkling in constellations of mythic forms from the realm of story and dream. Even after you grow up, your story-telling inner child continues to compose the narrative plot (Greek mythos) of your personal myth.

I don’t regard the ego/inner child as something that prevents you from what you are ultimately here to become or accomplish. Just as instinct is necessary for you to stay alive, fantasy is equally as necessary for you to have an identity and make meaning. You will be telling stories until you die. If you should stop telling stories before you die, you will likely fall into a suicidal depression and die anyway. The truth of your personal myth is measured by how much more awakened and genuinely human you become in telling it.

One thing a child doesn’t have a whole lot of is experience – the months and years that afford a broader exposure to the variety of troubles, challenges, opportunities and lessons that life has to teach. It’s impossible to say when it happens, and it’s probably different for everybody, but there comes a time when the time you’ve had provides you with an understanding of “how life works.” This is known as wisdom.

To be “wise” or to have wisdom doesn’t mean that you’re smarter than everyone else, and it’s not about knowing things that are theological or metaphysical in nature. Wisdom is exquisitely practical and famously pragmatic. It involves using critical reason and making good judgments, giving attention to detail but also extracting general principles that can apply across similar situations.

Whether you would consider yourself very accomplished at wisdom, or are the type that seems to need numerous sessions in the school of hard knocks before you finally “get it,” as an adult you have been through enough of life to have a sizable collection of observations and discoveries to draw upon.

Drawing upon the lessons of life is the business of your higher self (or soul). Cultivating wisdom requires reflection, obviously, or else you would never stop long enough to pick up your lesson and carry it forward. We could add other supportive practices that enhance the cultivation of wisdom: introspection and mindfulness, self-honesty and humility, responsibility and forgiveness, being open-minded and willing to change your verdict should the evidence demand it.

My symbol for wisdom is the sun, which is actually fairly popular across the cultures as representing clear-sighted impartiality and radiant understanding. Seeing as how wisdom is extracted from the churning stream of real experience, and how it lifts to universal validity certain truths that are purported to transcend the vicissitudes of time, perhaps this is also why the higher self is commonly regarded as immortal.

Thus, you are a microcosm unto yourself. The myth-maker of your ego/inner child/fantasy spins out the stories that give your life meaning. Below is the dark force of your body/animal nature/instinct, dependable in its rhythms yet always urgent at the threshold to your tidy world. Above middle-world, resting quietly and detached on the dome high overhead, is your soul/higher self/wisdom. With the benefit of its elevated vantage-point you can survey the entire field of your present and past experience.

Of course, your inner child must struggle with and can hopefully befriend your animal nature. And your higher self needs to gently persuade your inner child to rise above self-interest for the sake of self-actualization, to let go (just a little) of security for fulfillment, to break open the small horizons of your world in order to take in (just a little) more reality.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on December 8, 2013 in The Creative Life

 

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

Excavating Christmas

Let’s get out our shovels. We are searching for the true meaning of Christmas – this season that rushes upon us and is as quickly gone again.  Our quest will proceed on the analogy of an archeological dig.

Christmas ExcavationBefore even breaking the surface, one layer in the meaning of Christmas is commercial. Earlier each year, it seems, retailers are pumping the music, putting out their holiday sets, and giving us fair warning that our chance at 60% off is “this weekend only.”

Christmas is a celebration of materialism. It is time to buy – before it’s too late. All the glitzy and gaudy trinkets, the Jing Tinglers and Flu Floopers, are brought out of storage to get us in the mood. Our credit card balance after the holidays is the lingering reminder that we got bamboozled once again.

Just barely under the surface of this layer of Christmas commercialism is the figure of Santa Claus. He’s the one we’re waiting for, hoping he’ll bring us what we really want this year. Or maybe he’s the one we’re pretending to be as we swipe to satisfy the material cravings of our children.

“Santa Claus” is an informal rendering of Saint Nicolas, which suggests that this genius of package delivery logistics is somehow (or once was) a religious notable. His backstory in folk tale and legend tells of his charitable endeavors in bringing cheer to orphans and children whose families couldn’t afford the luxury of toys.

The giving of gifts brings us down yet another layer in our excavation of Christmas. We need to be reminded every year that it’s not the gift but the thought and love behind the gift that really matters. Back in the day, according to the Bible story, wise men from the east brought Baby Jesus their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Narrative detail would probably be more important to us had Christianity remained anchored in its foundational myths. As it happened, story gave way to theology, and abstract doctrines took over from the concrete narratives that shaped the earliest Christian experience.

Stories are arranged in a system called a mythology; doctrines are arranged in a system known as orthodoxy. Stories appeal to the imagination, doctrines to the intellect.

At the doctrinal level, Christmas is about the Second Person of the Trinity (the Son), the sinful condition of humanity, the “kenosis” or self-emptying of God in becoming human. The vehicle of this incarnational miracle was a virgin, whose status as “Christotokos” (Christ-bearer) made this a central doctrine not only for Roman Catholics but Protestants as well.

Inside of story and deep along its root-line is metaphor, which is a way of representing something that eludes our conceptual grasp. Once the metaphor is offered up by creative imagination, our minds get busy weaving a meaningful pattern of storylines around it.

Stories of immaculate conceptions and virgin births can be found across the cultures. Early Christian storytellers were not the first to ponder this metaphor as a kind of doorway or passage from eternity into time. It’s important to know at this point that eternity does not mean “everlasting” or “unending,” as it is popularly (mis)understood today. Instead of “without end,” eternity refers to what is “without beginning.”

Rather than thinking of eternity as an endless extension of time, or as another realm of existence separate from this one, imagine time as we (think we) know it moving like a horizontal stream in a “forward” direction. Eternity would be represented as a perpendicular line drawn straight down along the vertical axis. The place of this intersection is not itself part of the time-stream, but always NOW. It’s not that this present moment comes to us from the future, and neither does it recede into the past. It is timeless.

Contemplating Mary and the universal metaphor of the Virgin Mother, we can begin to appreciate her value to mystics everywhere, by whatever name she is called. She is a literary symbol, a mythical archetype, and – in a celebrated paradox – the spiritual embodiment of those qualities that must be nurtured if you are to be fully present to the mystery. What qualities?

Emptiness. The opposite of emptiness is not fullness, but preoccupation. Instead of relaxing the boundary of attention and expanding your capacity for awareness, your mind becomes increasingly cluttered. Real presence is available as you are able to drop assumptions (from the past), release expectations (for the future) and surrender all distractions.

Humbleness. From the root-word humus, “humble” and its cognate “humility” carry the idea of being fully grounded. Not exalted or “full of yourself,” not inflated or disengaged from what’s going on, but fully here and now. Humility is a position of greatest strength, balance, and resilience. In the present moment you are grounded in the really real.

Faithfulness. Having little or nothing to do with orthodox beliefs, faith refers to the act of entrusting yourself to the providential support of reality in this moment. Its opposite is not doubt, but conviction, which is not about opening up to mystery (as faith is) but closing down on meaning.

Creativity. The creative life is not about “making” something of yourself or accomplishing great things in the eyes of others. You give a lot of attention and time to making money, making progress, making up, and making do. Creativity doesn’t flow along the conventional channels of effort, work and accomplishment. Instead it breaks into time through the portal of this present moment.

I’m suggesting that while in the deeper layers Christmas might seem like it’s about something that happened a long time ago, the early Christian myth-makers were not writing history, doing theology, or just making stuff up. The Story is a creative composition, to be sure, but it’s more an exercise in mystical contemplation than anything else.

Christmas is an invitation to get to a place where you are empty, grounded, and open to the real presence of mystery. Only then – when you are centered, quiet and receptive within – can the creative life truly begin.

The revolutionary life of Jesus came through the contemplative preparation of Mary. It still does.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on December 5, 2013 in Timely and Random

 

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