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 (particularly 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.