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Monthly Archives: July 2014

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Religion

The phenomenon of religion has evolved with the rise of human culture, perhaps going back millions of years to our hominid ancestors. Its function has always been to “link together” (religare) the separate concerns and activities of daily life in a coherent way by orienting it all around a single transcendent focus. “Transcendent” here doesn’t necessarily mean supernatural or metaphysical, but simply above and beyond the field of temporal attachments.

Theism is the standard and conventional form of religion, as it coordinates tribal life around a metaphor representing the provident power(s) behind the world as we know it. As a constructivist, I hasten to add that the so-called “world as we know it” is really a construction of our own minds – not the given sensory-physical realm outside us, but the layers of value, meaning, and significance that we weave around it. Like spiders we spin our web of language across the universe and call it home.

The deity of theism – an agency of intelligence, personality, and will that might be represented in any number of human or nonhuman forms – is how religion depicts the provident power(s) on which our lives depend. Instead of being revealed to us through the clouds, as someone coming to religion from outside might assume, this deity is actually a kind of creative reflex of the mythic imagination. The many stories (myths) that together form the narrative fabric of human meaning (our worldview) are not eye-witness reports of supernatural encounters, but rather poetic-literary portrayals of the present mystery that gives us life, supplies our need, and receives our last breath.

As societies grew larger and more complex, the tribal practice of reciting traditional stories and ritually participating in the life of god required institutional support. Certain individuals were elevated to positions of honor and authority by virtue of their familiarity with the deity. Or perhaps it was the other way around: individuals with social clout and community influence took on the mantle of high priest and presented themselves as ordained mediators between god and the people. As the sacrament of storytelling and ritual enactment became difficult to manage for a growing population, it was found that community agreement could be more efficiently achieved by converting this sacramental experience of god into a system of orthodox beliefs about god.

My illustration above intends to show how, with the addition of an authority structure and an “official” orthodoxy, religion gradually pushed the providential metaphor of the deity out of its literary habitat (as the principal figure of sacred story), into a supernatural space outside the world, and farther away from the relevant concerns of daily life.

And this is where we are today – arguing over whose deity is the one-and-only, trashing the earth, suppressing freedom and creativity, and thrusting our species to the embattled edge of oblivion. But don’t worry, if you’re on the right side your soul will be safely delivered to a better place far away.

So whereas once upon a time religion could do its job by connecting individuals to one another in community and anchoring the community to a reality celebrated as provident, it slowly but surely removed its members from communion with the Real Presence of mystery and became instead a tinderbox of spiritual frustration, small thinking, moral regression, and redemptive violence.

In the meantime this dysfunctional religion invented its own myth – now no longer in the traditional sense of a sacred story grounding us in a provident reality, but rather a narrative deception about our human fall from grace and into the hopeless condition of sin. The consequent “gap” between earth and heaven, nature and supernature, human and divine is characterized by rampant depravity and ignorance, veritably crying out for the authority and orthodoxy that religion itself provides.

The earth, our bodies (particular woman’s) and our life in time were reconstructed in this myth as fallen, corrupt, and condemned – unless saved (purified, separated, and redeemed) according to the prescription laid out in holy doctrine. If the times happen to be especially stressed and insecure (as they appear to be now), the program of salvation becomes an emergency exit from a world believed to be in the process of irreversible collapse. Over a matter of just 3,000 years or so, religion invented a myth of estrangement where humans are fated to perdition without the saving intervention of “the one true faith.”

As a counter-voice of sanity, a growing number have been calling for the dismantling of theism, insisting that belief in god at this advanced stage in our history is not only unnecessary, but irresponsible. And not just irresponsible, but intellectually and morally backwards. While “atheist” used to be a label for one who refutes the existence of (a) god, it evolved over time into an outspoken defiance of god out of allegiance to human values. Today atheists join hands in solidarity against the abuses of religion, leaving its god to exist or not exist as a matter of indifference.

In my defense of post-theism, I have frequently heard from conventional theists and atheists alike that my position is just a convoluted form of atheism. I’m really a closet atheist but just afraid to admit it to myself. To suggest that the mythological gods of religion are literary figures (in story) and not literal beings (in reality) is effectively denying the existence of god, is it not?

Actually, the “after god” of post-theism is very different from the “no god” of atheism. While atheism commits itself to arguing against the literal existence of god (or living as if it doesn’t matter), post-theism regards the literary existence and mythological career of the deity as highly relevant to an understanding of our evolution as a species.The literary deity inspires us, calls to us, and places demands on us in order to actualize what is presently dormant, unacknowledged, or repressed in us.

Yahweh, the biblical god of Jews and Christians, does not have to be real to be important. To say that Yahweh never spoke the universe into being, parted water, or raised Jesus from the dead in any kind of (as we might say) scientific-objective sense might sound as if I’m refuting his existence and seeking to undermine the religions founded on these doctrines – but I’m not. The literal existence of Yahweh is literally beside the point and outside the plot (mythos) where his truth as metaphor is found.

As a constructivist I regard every picture of reality, even the scientific one, as a construct of our minds. Religious myths and scientific theories are merely two kinds of storytelling, the one (science) weaving narratives that explain the physical universe confronting our senses, as the other (religion) does its composing out of a more internal intuition of the present mystery that sustains us. Science joined the conversation around the campfire quite late, when religion had already been about the business of myth-making for many thousands of years. Its more detached and mathematical approach to things did in fact compete with religion’s sacred fictions of fabulous characters and miraculous deeds, convincing a growing number to abandon these tales as so much primitive superstition.

In the illustration above, the entire institution of religion rests on a foundation of spiritual experience – what I call the experience of mystery or the present mystery of reality. We are in this stream (a better metaphor than foundation, which suggests something fixed and unchanging) all the time, but we can only be aware of it now, in this very moment, for in the next moment this mystery will present itself to us afresh. Out of this experience of Real Presence, along with an exquisite awareness that it sustains us providentially in this moment, arise the metaphors of the mythic imagination.

The deity is born, and just as suddenly we find ourselves engaged in a dialogue with the primordial support and deeper intention of our existence. Post-theism is the contemplation of what’s next (“post”), as we continue to grow Godward.

 
 

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Live Like You Are Dying

Let me start out by saying that I have a friend who is struggling with mortality. I have several friends, actually. One thing we all have in common is that we are getting older, and as we get older we are growing more aware of the Dark Gate just over the horizon. Once you realize that your sand won’t ever go back up the hour glass, some serious reckoning is in order. This happens to be terrifying my friend at the moment.

If I can’t make new friends as I go along, my present company will slide intractably down the gradient of entropy and eventually there will be none of us left. Perhaps some day in the still more distant future someone will stroll by my gravestone, or a descendant might stumble across my name while researching our family tree. Where will I be at that time?

Long, long ago an answer to this question was that I somehow carry on in a shadowland of departed souls. Importantly, “soul” back then didn’t refer to a resident ghost that inhabited a body for a time but afterward continued to live apart from it. Soul was more like an animating force – fluid, dynamic, breath-like – than a nonphysical entity.

We can only imagine what went through the minds of primal human beings (perhaps our hominid ancestors) as they gathered around the corpse of a friend or family member. What had just hours before been breathing and talking and living like the rest of us, is now ashen and rigid. Where did that center of affect and agency – that unique personality we knew and loved – go?

paleolithic grave

The primitive practice of burial was probably motivated out of concern for sanitation, odor control, and hiding remains from scavenging animals, but there may have been an element of reverence as well. The mystery surrounding this once-living personality was not to be casually dismissed. Some kind of subterranean extension of the burial hole was envisioned, where all deceased members of the community somehow “live on.” As far as the archaeological record suggests, this seems to have been an acceptable (and widespread) belief, sufficient to allow the folks above ground to carry on with the demands of daily life.

Fast-forward many centuries, and now the postmortem status of the departed personality might be one of three possibilities depending on how important, virtuous, or depraved a person was during earthly life. Good people were taken up into heaven for their reward, bad people were condemned and thrown into hell, while the average and “undecided” cases persisted in something like the old shadowland, but understood as a transitory waiting room, not a final destination. Of course, to be “taken up,” “thrown down,” or tabled for later discussion presumes the existence of someone who executes this action, which is what we eventually find in the pantheon of deities throughout the higher cultures.

We really need to explore what could be called the “archaeology of human psychology” to understand the mechanism responsible for this rather dramatic shift in theories of postmortem existence. What we see over the intervening centuries (10,000-1,500 BCE) is the gradual but steady rise of ego consciousness – the ascent out of tribal sympathies of a separate sense of oneself as an individual. This important separation of the individual ego from the group continued on an earlier separation of the group from the earth, as the maintenance of society began to require more human energy and attention. Specifically what it did with respect to the topic at hand is encourage a notion that I (ego) am separate from my body.

Death of the body, at this later stage of development, didn’t pull a personality into the shadowland (as in primitive thought), but was increasingly regarded as a “disencumbrance” of mortality – getting rid of or being set free from the bag of meat that snags us in time and would otherwise drag us to a dreadful end.

heavenAs religion began to reconstruct itself around the death anxiety of the ego, traditional commitments of keeping communal life in rhythm with the cycles of nature were given up in favor of a program for saving the soul from the ravages of time – safe forever with god and other believers in heaven. This program not surprisingly included strong sanctions against “carnal” desire and the pursuit of pleasure for pleasure’s sake; such was the way of woman and the devil. The soul – which by now had become essentially synonymous with the ego personality – must be kept pure or “cleansed” of its attachment to the body through repression and ascetic practices.

Consequently we have inherited these two horns of my friend’s dilemma: Either we blink, wake up in heaven and are happy ever after, or we rot in the ground with the worms. Which one do you want? Religion is betting on (and abetting) your fantasy of living forever.

But this dilemma does not exhaust our choices. In actuality there is no choice. I will die, and so will you. All evidence strongly suggests that your last day on earth is your last day, period. So is this a vote for the worms? When my body starts to lose its peripheral functions, the decline has begun; when its rudimentary functions fizzle out, I’m done. Is accepting this an act of existential resignation? If my death is the end of me, does it mean that nothing matters and there’s no point in caring about anything?

My admittedly over-simplified tour through ten thousand years of religion’s changing opinion on this question of mortality and the afterlife was for the purpose of showing that the escalating anxiety around death is actually a product (or more precisely a by-product) of religion’s steady hijacking by the neurotically insecure (separate, exposed, estranged, trapped and “fallen”) ego. The seduction was slow, but over time ego became the orthodox impostor of the soul, now immortalized and destined for disembodied bliss (or perdition unless you get your act together) somewhere else.

Because it is so obvious that ego consciousness came about and was not there in the opening millenniums of our evolutionary history as a species should encourage a healthy skepticism regarding the glorious fantasies of meaning, identity, salvation and immortality that have since been spun like a web around its nervous and wonderfully conceited existence. You just have to give the assignment of creating their own religion to a group of self-conscious and inwardly tormented adolescents, and soon enough you’ll have something that looks strikingly similar to a number of world religions today.

The truth is that we are human beings, evolving creatures of this magnificent and possibly exceptional planet, outwardly oriented in the turning complexity of our physical universe and (at least potentially) oriented inwardly to the creative source of our own spiritual life. The ground of your being is provident and gracious and deeply mysterious, beyond words and much deeper than who you think you are (ego). This inward path and resting place in the present mystery of reality is named soul, and what your soul wants more than anything is to relax into being – surrender, loosen up, and unwind completely into Oneness.

Death will be our last chance to fully relax and let it all go. Now is the time to practice …

 

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Supremacy and Communion

Quick, before you start thinking too much, give your spontaneous response to the following question.

Which of the two combinations of geometric shapes do you find more appealing?

Sup_ComNow that I have your attention (though perhaps for only one more paragraph), let me do a little “psychic reading” of your life.

SupremacyThis preference means that you hold power at a higher value than love. Not that you don’t love or know how to love, but that you value influence over belonging, winning over sharing, competition over cooperation, control over freedom, management over creativity, hierarchy over holarchy, capitalism over communism, and you tend to live your life down from the top rather than out from the center.

If this is you – maybe not on every check-box but across a majority of the subvalues just listed – then your organizing principle in life is supremacy, the love of power. The archetypal symbol of power is the triangle or three-dimensional pyramid. This shape is well-based and centered along a vertical axis, rising up through distinct levels or “ranks” of value. Triangles and pyramids are cultural symbols of superior strength and lock-tight stability. They have a vibrational value that is highly energetic and resistant to entropy, which is the tendency of any system toward equilibrium.

CommunionThis preference means that you hold love at a higher value than power. Not that you don’t have power or know what to do with it, but that you value belonging over influence, sharing over winning, cooperation over competition, freedom over control, creativity over management, holarchy over hierarchy, communism over capitalism, and you tend to live your life out from the center rather than down from the top.

If this is you – again, across most of the listed subvalues – then your organizing principle in life is communion, the power of love. The archetypal symbol of love is the circle or three-dimensional sphere. This shape is balanced around a pivotal center-point, radiating outward from there along a continuum of concentric (nested) bands. Circles and spheres are cultural symbols of inclusion and dynamic wholeness. Arthur Koestler’s term “holarchy” refers to a holistic arrangement of smaller wholes, rather than of parts or pieces.

Supremacy and Communion sound like they should be diametrical opposites, opponents in a battle for … supremacy (oops, did I give myself away?). In reality, however, they are complementary principles, which is why I have combined them in the different icons. They are, if you will, the Yang and Yin of the Tao, respectively. Neither one (according to Taoism) exists without the interplay of the other, although certain aspects of reality – such as individual personalities – will tend to demonstrate and prefer one to the other at various times.

Going a bit further on that insight, we can expect that anyone who strives for only one principle to the exclusion of the other will (1) be out of alignment with the nature of reality, (2) grow increasingly neurotic, and (3) become a danger to the rest of us. By “alignment with reality” I mean in accord with the true nature of things: firmly grounded but flexibly connected, resilient yet adaptable, dedicated yet open to change.

So as you look at yourself with these principles in mind, can you recall times when your preference for power or love made you overlook or dismiss the other? Individuals, families, communities, nation-states, and the emerging global network of regional economies frequently fall to the error of promoting one principle at the expense of the other. The world cultures are presently ascending into values of supremacy – pushing on each other, contending for resources (perceived as limited), gripping down on minorities, and closing their borders.

Love without the complementary balance of power lacks initiative, leverage, and the courage to stand up for what is right. But power without the counterbalance of love often rides roughshod over the feelings, dignity, and genuine needs of others. You can probably see this playing out in the history of your family, tribe, and religion as well. Christianity, for instance, has cycled through a number of alterations between communion and supremacy, often pursued to damaging extremes.

Certainly Jesus was an advocate of communion, with its values of kindness, compassion, goodwill and forgiveness. Some Gospel narratives have him confronting (power) his disciples on their competition for rank and authority, telling them that true greatness is in reaching out and serving others (Mark 9:33-37). It didn’t take long, however, for the movement he left behind to swing toward supremacy. Too soon, he was reconstructed in the emerging orthodoxy as Lord, Judge and Executioner, battle general of the Crusades and divine sponsor of Christian exceptionalism around the world.

Before we make the true “essence of Christianity” into a slush-pond of sentimentality and glorified suffering, we need to remember that in its better days this religion did inspire the establishment of hospitals and schools, not to mention the modern rise of liberal democracy where at least on principle every citizen is given rights and the power to vote. But once again, without the check-and-balance of communion to keep these efforts directed toward the good of all, runaway supremacy in our businesses, schools, and courtrooms is steadily pulling apart the fabric of community.

It’s easy to stand back and criticize the abuses around us. Rather than exercise power in the interest of putting our institutions back into alignment with the true way of things (the Tao), more and more people are throwing wrenches into gears, digging up dirt on the competition, polishing their rifles, or just giving up in disgust. The solution won’t be love OR power, but love AND power – benevolent strength and relentless kindness. How different would things be if we had the wisdom to guide us through the adversities we face?

But don’t leave me yet, because nothing much will change unless we make this deeply personal. If you earlier identified yourself as preferring supremacy or communion, and then were honest enough to look at where in your life you’ve leaned too far into your preference (and what damage it has caused), then our challenge is to restore balance in our individual lives first.

If the thought comes back to you later in the day, ask yourself whether it’s making a difference.

 
 

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God Beyond Belief

In his popular lectures on the topic, Joseph Campbell would frequently start out with a definition of mythology as “other people’s religion.” Curiously the assumption of insiders is that the depiction of their god in the sacred stories of scripture came by supernatural revelation, while stories of other deities outside their tradition are quickly dismissed as just mythology.

A purely objective consideration of myth across the religions will not be able to distinguish which stories were “revealed” (by god) and which were “produced” (by humans). The god of our Bible is not less violent or more merciful than gods we can find in stories elsewhere. But even in the polytheistic age of the Bible when other gods were acknowledged if not honored and worshiped, we find this tendency to regard other people’s religion as generated out of ignorance rather than by illumination.

So let’s stay with the Bible for now, and ask why so many believe in the existence of Yahweh*, the patron deity of Jews and Christians. The popular assumption, once again, is that they believe in Yahweh’s existence because the Bible (the principal resource of Judeo-Christian mythology) contains historical accounts and eye-witness reports (encounters, sightings, and auditions) of the deity. Yahweh created the cosmos, liberated the Hebrews from Egypt, revealed himself to the prophets, and sent his son for our salvation. These things are taken and accepted as facts – historical, objective, and supernaturally validated.

Creation

What I’m calling the supernatural validation of biblical stories can be analyzed into three closely related but independent claims. First, the Bible is an inerrant resource for our knowledge of Yahweh. Every word – or in a softer variant of the inerrancy doctrine, the intention behind every word – is the revelation of Yahweh to those he elects to save. To prove Yahweh’s existence by appealing to the Bible as his infallible revelation to us is an argument of obvious circularity, so we hasten on to the next claim, which is that the Bible records literal accounts of Yahweh’s self-revelation to people much like us.

This is how to escape the fatal circularity of the inerrant Bible argument: Because the stories of the Bible are factual reports of events in history, however miraculous and supernatural, the real anchor for our knowledge of Yahweh’s existence and character is human experience. Prophets and visionaries, but also average folks like you and me, were granted the privilege of divine visitations and apocalyptic visions. They were actual witnesses; their accounts were taken down with perfect accuracy and provide us with what we know about Yahweh. If the biblical stories were not grounded in actual events outside the Bible, they would be nothing more than … well, myths.

Even with that critical move, however, believers are still on shaky ground, for how can we know that these historical “revelations” were not really hallucinations of something that wasn’t there? So-called ecstatic experiences (e.g., clairvoyance, glossolalia, out-of-body experiences, “hearing voices”) are observed among patients in mental clinics and state hospitals around the world today. I suppose it could be argued that these are the true charismatics of our age, though tragically misunderstood and wrongly diagnosed. But who’s to say that those visionaries behind the Bible were not mistaken or mentally disturbed?

To answer – and effectively silence – this question, the third and final claim for the supernatural validation of our knowledge of Yahweh is that these visionaries didn’t just “see things,” but that he showed himself directly to them. Authorization for the orthodox doctrines concerning god’s nature, character, attributes and accomplishments therefore transcends both the Bible and human experience.Ascension

The argument is thus that (1) Yahweh exists (out there as a separate being) and (2) revealed himself to people much like us, who then (3) recorded their experiences and facts about Yahweh in the inerrant resource of our Bible. Even though Yahweh isn’t speaking out of burning bushes, parting water, multiplying loaves, or raising dead people back to life anymore, the faith of a contemporary true believer is measured by how willing he or she is to simply trust that the same deity is out there, watching over us, and getting ready to ring down the curtain on history.

But what if Yahweh doesn’t exist – and by “exist” I mean out there as a separate entity, “above nature” (supernatural) and metaphysically real? What if no one has ever encountered this deity in the realm of actual human experience? What if the Bible isn’t a factual record of extraordinary encounters and miraculous interventions?

What if, that is to say, Yahweh is a literary character, the principal actor and prime mover in the collection of stories that shaped the worldview of Jews and Christians – but not a literal being?

Of course there are people today who claim to have had personal experiences of the biblical deity – or any number of countless other gods and goddesses, spirit guides, angelic or demonic beings, fairies and departed souls. Perhaps because we want to hold open the possibility of higher dimensions to existence, or because we can’t conclusively disprove their reality, or maybe we don’t want to come across as judgmental, simple-minded or faithless, we let the popular discourse continue unchecked. Who knows, but perhaps these individuals are genuinely gifted. Could they be seeing and hearing things from which our ignorance or skepticism prevents us?

Someone has to say it, so I will: No.

Metaphysical realism – belief in the existence of independent realities outside the sensory-physical universe – was the inevitable consequence of mythological literalism. When the myths lost their tether to sacramental celebration, ritual reenactment, and the contemplation of mystery, they floated up and away from daily life to become “timeless” accounts, ancient records, and long-lost revelations. But before they were taken literally, while they were still serving as drama-poetic expressions of experience and the narrative structure of meaning, myths were fictional plots bearing the life-orienting metaphors on which human security, community, and the shared search for significance depend.

The stories of the Bible are indeed myths (from the Greek mythos, a narrative plot), not to be taken literally but engaged imaginatively. Much of the worldview they promote and assume is out of date with respect to our current science, politics, ethics, and spirituality. At the time of their composition, the biblical myths were very similar to those of other tribes and traditions, but with Yahweh (rather than some other deity) as the metaphor of the community’s dependency on the earth, its place among the nations, its origins and destiny, and its moral obligations.

As human culture evolved, so did Yahweh. Indeed, one of the principal functions of a deity is to model (in example and command) the preferred behavior of his or her devotees. The storyteller is sometimes at the leading edge of this evolution, as when a minority voice among the prophets began representing Yahweh as unimpressed (even offended) by the sacrificial worship of his people, demanding instead their care for widows, material help for the poor, and inclusion of the marginalized. Later, Jesus of Nazareth gave the wheel of evolution another turn when he began to tell stories of Yahweh’s unconditional forgiveness of sinners (love for the enemy).

At other times, those telling the stories and thereby controlling theology were motivated by less noble, even base and violent impulses. Yahweh’s wrath and vengeance as represented in the myths subsequently provoked and justified similar behavior in his devotees. Depending on what you are looking to justify in yourself or get others to do, chances are you’ll find Yahweh endorsing it somewhere in the Bible.

I’ve defined myths as fictional plots bearing life-orienting metaphors and shaping our view of reality, with the deity chief among these metaphors. Rather than looking outside the stories for facts that might establish their truth, I’m arguing that we need to look deeper inside the stories to the human experience of mystery and our quest for meaning that inspired them.

Theism insists on the objective existence of god, while atheism rejects it. Post-theism is our growing awareness that the argument, one way or the other, just might be distracting us from the real challenge at hand.

                                                                               

*In reading the name Yahweh, and throughout the continuing scriptural tradition, a title (Adonai, The Lord) was used in its place as an expression of reverence.

 
 

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The Lullaby of Belief

Look out into the galaxies, into a seemingly infinite darkness splashed and speckled with nebulae and stars beyond number. Cosmologists estimate that our universe is somewhere between 12 and 15 billion years old, born from an energy burst in which the primary structures of matter were forged and then flung, stretching the horizon of space-time as it expanded. I read recently that if you were to take two straight pins, hold them out at arms length and cross them together, the point of their intersection would conceal as many as 1,500 galaxies, each galaxy home to many billions of stars, and many of these stars suns to their own planets.

SpaceWhere are you in this cosmic context? Such speculation can make you feel insignificant, until you realize that all of this has somehow worked together, over all those eons and across all that distance, to be aware of itself in you. Scientists investigate the conditions that must have obtained for life first to emerge on our planet. What were the chances that the oxygen excreted as waste by primordial single-celled organisms would eventually inflate an atmospheric dome where aerobic symbians and the teeming populations of animal life would flourish? Not very great. In fact, given the narrow margins and multiple variables that make Earth hospitable to life, your existence is something of a fluke.

If you were to take a mystical slant on this mystery rather than a scientific one, you might be able to look down into yourself, deep into your biology, through helical strands of organic chemistry and beneath the table of elements, poke your head through the space-time fabric of energy strings and quantum fields, and eventually come to an astonished realization that this present mystery of reality is provident. Whatever it is (and there really is no saying), this mystery is the very ground of your being, the life-spring and gracious support of all that you are.

It is a popular mistake to think of the soul as a metaphysical resident riding patiently inside the mortal vehicle of the body – popular not only in being widespread across the religions, but also because it provides reassurance to the neurotic ego (impostor of the soul) that it will not die but live forever. For lack of empirical evidence, science has generally dismissed this notion of the soul as a carryover of superstition or a projection of wishful thinking. And so it should, not in order to pursue its “atheistic agenda” but rather because this popular belief is neither scientifically substantiated nor spiritually respectable.

What we call “body” and “soul” are nothing more (or less!) than the outward and inward orientations of  awareness. Your body isn’t just a piece of meat, and your soul isn’t who you really are. Who you are is your ego – this socially constructed center of identity that puts on and takes off the variety of roles your tribe has programmed you to play (though you quickly forgot you were pretending to “be someone”). This skill in wardrobe change is likely what encouraged the view of the body as merely another disguise, the final costume to be dropped at the end of this earthly life.

brainYour body – just listen to how this comes off sounding like a possession of some sort! – is your place in the sensory-physical marvel of our universe. Looking up into the night sky, it is the complex aperture of your living eye that takes in the faint twinkling lights from across the black vault of outer space. An optic nerve carries these impulses to the visual centers in your brain where they are transmitted along networks of nerve cells, propagated through ion-charged channels, and float as chemical messages across 100 billion twinkling lights of inner space.

The material substance of your body derives as stardust from that primeval energy burst some 14 billion years ago. Your genetic line traces deep into the evolution of life, down through its very recent human expression and back into the trees, to the amphibian marsh, and out into the sparkling sea where an auspicious arrangement of organic chemistry first began to capture sunlight and store it away. Primordial sea salt still runs in your blood and conducts electricity through your cells.

Your soul isn’t just along for the ride. It is where consciousness breaks past the attachments and defenses of ego, descends through longer and more relaxed frequencies of awareness, until it dissolves entirely into the provident support of its own ground. We could call it your essential self (from esse, being), but only if we were careful not to separate it from the living organism of your body. The body and its realm (the sensory-physical universe) is properly regarded as trans-personal, beyond (and around) the ego-centered personality, while the soul and its realm (the intuitive-mystical ground) is entero-personal, within (and beneath).

Cycle of BeliefScience and spirituality are thus two ways we touch the present mystery of reality, outwardly and inwardly. Neither mode of experience is terribly interested in what it means. Meaning comes later; or more precisely, it is subsequently constructed as we try to make sense of our experience. In the spontaneous moment of engagement with reality, we are typically transfixed in wonder, not thinking about it but somehow aware of it all at once. As we stand under the starry canopy or surrender deeply to being, our wonder turns into a quest for our place in it.

Our quest for meaning is articulated in questions, about who we are, how it began, where it’s going, and (perhaps most urgent of all) why we are here. These questions are invitations to answers – meditations, stories, and theories that bend the outgoing line of inquiry back like a boomerang to the contemplative mind. Answers give us the orientation we seek, serving to validate our questions and provide conclusions we can use to build out the larger meaning of our life.

Once a conclusion has been reached, the original urgency of our questions as well as the inspiration of our quest effectively come to an end. As the word suggests, a conclusion is a closure, a period to silence the question mark. Once a conclusion is settled on, our mind uses it as foundation and scaffolding to higher-order questions – and so on we go.

If we were paying attention we’d take into account the various ways that the present mystery of reality – the way things really are – spills over the rim of our neat conclusions. Since meaning is a mental construct and not a property of reality itself, a wider and deeper exposure to life requires stronger commitment to our conclusions, a degree of emotional investment in their truth that can hold them in place despite serious erosion of their credibility. A conclusion that persists only (or mostly) because we need it to be true is called a belief.

Both science and spirituality are committed to investigative methods that subject belief to the scrutiny of actual experience, whether by means of controlled experiments or meditative disciplines. In that zone between, however, where the tribe, its deity, and the socially conditioned ego conspire to promote and defend our beliefs, meaning becomes fairly quickly outdated. The lack of experiential support and this rapid recession of relevance then call for more commitment to keep everything in place, until we reach the point where our emotional dependency on things being just this way makes us forget that we have been pretending all along.

Over time – years and decades for the individual, generations and centuries for the tribe – beliefs slip out of sight and gradually become the unconscious assumptions of our worldview. Instead of the fresh answers to questions they once were or the emotional investments they later became, these assumptions are now carried along (from sumere, to take up) as the mental filter that screens out not only contradictions and discrepancies to what we believe, but the present mystery of reality itself.

When religion lost its roots in mystical experience and the spiritual reflex of wonder, its ostensible purpose was altered, from waking human nature to the grandeur of existence and our evolutionary ideal as a species, to perpetuating former revelations and keeping believers comfortably asleep. What probably started as a celebration of existence and communal participation in the cycle of life and death eventually became a bastion of security and a program for getting out alive. Today its deepest assumptions are grossly incompatible with the present discoveries of science and spirituality, and its convictions – where emotional commitment to belief is so extreme as to make the mind a prisoner (convict) to its own absurdites – are pushing us to the brink of self-destruction.

The way forward begins right where we are. It is time to wake up.

 

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