Today, as the living stream of spiritual life grows increasingly frustrated behind the rigid walls of conventional religion, more and more people are looking for a way through. While a large number keep this struggle to themselves, willing to accept the problem of relevancy as a fault of their own, others are beginning to speak out.
Many are leaving church on their own accord; others are being asked to leave.
Of course, similar things have happened throughout Church history: revivals, protests, and reformations are how religion stays current and meaningful in changing times. For the most part, orthodoxy has managed to accommodate our spiritual development, translating age-old doctrines and philosophical assumptions into present-day convictions.
Until recently, that is.
As church leaders experiment with new technologies and orchestrate an experience that is consumer-oriented and entertaining, churches and denominations continue to decline in membership. Charismatic preachers and sentimental praise songs are still an attraction and have their effect, but our deeper spiritual quest is going unanswered. Instead of vibrant insight into the present mystery of reality, we are handed the reheated leftovers of tradition.
Readers of this blog are already familiar with my criticism regarding these attempts at Sunday morning entertainment and retooling orthodoxy for another go-around. The problem of declining membership is centered not in the method of delivery but in the message being delivered. We are in the midst of a shift where religion needs to empty its buckets for a fresh refill from the moving stream of spiritual life.
A mystically grounded faith – that is, an existential trust in the real presence of mystery – has always been the place in religion where this refreshment of meaning happens.
However, because orthodoxy is innately suspicious of the mystical experience, the present-day solution to the problem of relevancy amounts to painting old buckets and calling them new. The water inside – if there is any left – is staler than ever.
Mystery. At the heart of reality is a present mystery. This mystery is immediately accessible yet transcendent to our minds, always within our reach but forever beyond our grasp. It is the very ground of being, not out there somewhere but deep “in here” – inherent to existence and profoundly internal to consciousness.
It is the source and suchness of all beings; not another being, but being-itself. The present mystery of reality is continuously passing yet eternally Now. This moment is the narrow gate to communion with God.
Meaning. In itself, the real presence of mystery is ineffable; it can only be encountered, entered, and experienced. Putting concepts around it – or scooping it up into mental buckets – gives it form and makes it meaningful. But every image, symbol, metaphor or concept constructed by the mind is only an artifact of our intelligence, not the mystery itself.
Meaning-making is what the mind does. Drawing inferences and associations into the realm of daily concerns is how our minds translate mystery into meaning, experience into something more useful.
Self. A human being is a form of consciousness with the capacity to look outward on the present mystery as it manifests itself to our senses in our surroundings, as well as inward to the mystery of our own depths. Referring to these two orientations of awareness as “body” and “soul” has frequently led to their differentiation into opposite (and opposing) parts of the self.
Forcing this split of body and soul is a third mental location of human consciousness, known as ego (or “I”). Ego is not a primary orientation of awareness, but is rather a social construct consisting of gender instructions, role assignments, moral agreements, and cultural expectations defining what it means to be a member of the tribe.
In ego formation, the animal instincts of the body are disciplined and domesticated. For societies where this training is particularly harsh, repressive and shaming, the ego can psychologically dissociate from the body and mistake itself for the soul – but now as a metaphysically separate thing, an immortal personality detached from the life of the body.
Deity. Whereas the familiar moniker “God” (with a capital ‘g’) is useful in talking about the various ways that human beings cross-culturally represent the real presence of mystery, “deity” (also “god” with a lowercase ‘g’) refers to the portrait in art, myth, theory and doctrine of that never seen but much talked about guarantor of tribal authority.
Mystics seek the ineffable experience of real presence, while priests are social functionaries who perform on behalf of their deities, collecting the offerings from the congregation and dispensing favors of membership and the assurance of salvation.
Despite my satirical exposé, I nevertheless see a vitally important role for the patron deity of theistic religion. As The Voice of temperance, equanimity, fidelity, mercy, compassion and forgiveness, god’s command and personal example (as rendered in myth and exposited from the pulpit) serve to raise the moral aspirations of believers to the divine ideal.
As the mythological god becomes, with the advancing spiritual development of his mythographers, less vengeful and more benevolent, so too does the worshiping community grow into a more enlightened moral presence in the world.
Salvation. As human culture has evolved, the representation of our principal dilemma and its solution has changed accordingly. Earliest cultures were centered in nature and the body, and death was the obvious problem. Salvation (the solution) was not everlasting life in another world, but ritual renewal, seasonal rebirth, participating in the rhythms and priming the life cycle with appropriate sacrifices.
Gradually cultures became more socially centered, that is to say, increasingly preoccupied with tribal order, membership, and authority. As you might guess, this was the Age of Ego, when the urgencies of the body needed more than ever to be managed and the resources of nature exploited in the interest of social stability.
It was at this point that the control system of morality, dictated by the patron deity and enforced by his ordained deputies, created the very ideas of transgression, sin, and guilt. Thus did salvation become redefined as repentance and the reconciliation of sinners to god.
Most recently – but still going back 2500 years or so – a second shift occurred, corresponding this time to the awakening of a more mystical sensibility. The problem in this case was precipitated by the foregoing “solution,” where ego and the tribal deity came to oppose the body and nature – controlling them from outside, as it were – resulting in a pathological dualism.
Brokenness, division, separation and estrangement: not the enmity between sinners and god of the earlier phase, but a rupture in consciousness caused by the ego in its very formation is what needs to be resolved. Salvation, then, is the process of dropping attachments of “me” and “mine,” and releasing oneself in full surrender to the present mystery.
Truth. In light of this, the spiritual life becomes a quest for truth. Not a truth or even the absolute truth in doctrinal terms, but The True, the really real, life deep and abundant, authentic existence, radiant being.
Obviously this is not something that anyone (or any religion) can scoop up in conceptual buckets and carry to market. Truth, here, is not an article of knowledge but the depths and transforming power of an experience.
This is our way through. Theists don’t need to become atheists and leave their religion behind. Indeed, arguing for or against the existence of god (note the lowercase) is really a pointless exercise anyway.
The urgency today is for religion to catch up to the progress of spiritual evolution on our planet.