RSS

Monthly Archives: August 2014

Becoming Human

The challenge for religion today – one of its many challenges – is to offer an understanding of the human being that is relevant to contemporary life, compatible with our present model of reality, prescient of where ourĀ  evolution as a species may be leading, and in deep agreement with that stream of enduring insights concerning the fundamental nature of things which Aldous Huxley called the perennial philosophy.

In actual fact, however, religion – particularly so-called popular religion – is failing us on all four points. It is increasingly losing currency as a way of providing real guidance for today, locked in a stalemate between complacency and terrorism. In one of the supposedly more advanced societies, courts are jammed by legal efforts to throw aside scientific theory for biblical myth in deciding what our children should be taught in school.

As far as a vision for the future is concerned, popular religion is exploiting our inherent insecurity as a species by promising true believers a final escape from this corrupt world. And many of the deep discoveries of our long adventure have been all but forgotten if not rejected outright as myth, magic and New Age. Instead of discovery, which involves a process of looking deeply into things, religion today campaigns for truth as revelation from above and outside of things.

My efforts aren’t the last word, obviously. But they are dedicated to the task of continuing our human quest with these four frontiers in mind – daily life, our model of reality, the human future, and that fund of deeper insights carried across the cultures and millenniums of our collective history. Just because I challenge traditional notions of god, truth, immortality and salvation, it’s probably easy for someone to conclude that I must be an enemy of religion, when in fact I am one of its outspoken advocates. Not of this or that religion, but of religion as the system of sentiments, theories, ideals, values and practices which link us back (religare) to the present mystery of reality.B_E_SThe illustration above provides a way around our current impasse, where much of popular religion holds the human spirit hostage to outdated ideas, long-abandoned worldviews, and adolescent moralities of reward and punishment. My diagram is intended to be interpreted dynamically rather than statically; that is to say, as representing the progressive transformation of human beings over time, instead of a snapshot of what we are and always have been.

We know that individual human beings develop as they mature, but their development might not result in maturity. It often happens that development gets arrested around neurotic fixations and emotional attachments, holding back at least part of the personality in “infantile” or “adolescent” attitudes and mindsets.

We can, of course, use this same lens to appreciate where entire societies and cultural systems get hung up and held back as well. Real problems come when this arrested development degenerates into a pathology of profound insecurity and holy conviction, producing a readiness (even eagerness) to kill and die for the truth in our possession. When we are prepared to trash this world for the sake of a better one elsewhere – whether it be the suburbs, a neighboring planet, or heaven after we die – we carry the principle of destruction inside ourselves. It’s only a matter of time before we turn this paradise into ashes and need to move on to the next promised land.

Across the horizontal axis of my diagram is a depiction of the sequence by which human individuals and cultures develop. Going up along the vertical axis are three centers of consciousness and the rising transcendence of distinct stages that provide different perspectives on reality. These mental locations of awareness engage peculiar sets of concerns, values and aims. As we evolve from one stage to the next, the task is to carry forward and upward our gains in development, integrating them somehow in a holistic and meaningful vision of human destiny. Let’s take these centers and stages one at a time and see where this fit-and-flow design can lead, but also where it has gone bad.

A human being is a biological organism, a complex organization of molecules, cells, tissues and organs conspiring together in a pulsing symphony of life. The deep history of this symphony stretches into a pre-human past, modifying along the way a basic template by adapting it to changing conditions of its environment. This is our animal nature, compelled by instinct and guided by reflex to seek out niches of safety, resource, and opportunity over the long course of many millions of years. As a providential arrangement of protoplasm and vital urges, our body is carnal (flesh) and incarnates the energy of magnetism, matter, and light.

The body is our mental location in the natural realm, with a set of concerns, values, and aims organized around the singular priority of survival. Our most powerful instincts are dedicated to keeping us alive, bonding us to our group, and passing our genes into the next generation. Thankfully the fulfillment of this survival mandate hasn’t required much careful consideration and deliberate choice; unconscious drives simply get it done.

Whatever number of decades brings you back to early childhood, an exponential factor of that time span suggests a distant era when our species was beginning to transcend mere survival concerns in the interest of functioning cohesively as a tribe. Successful reproduction presents us with the challenge of raising children in a social context, in such a way that our offspring eventually can assume identities compliant with the pressing needs and occupational roles of the group. Through this process of socialization, an animal nature is disciplined into a personal ego – into a person with a separate and special identity, but still “one of us.”

As the next-higher mental location of consciousness, ego provides a perspective on the landscape of cultural meaning, consisting of the artifacts, traditions, assumptions and conventions that support a sacred canopy called a worldview. Personal identity is thus a socially constructed point of reference where consciousness is shaped and bent upon itself as self-consciousness, reflecting back on the individual an image of “who we are.” The dutiful ego is expected to do its part, promote the values of the tribe, and contribute meaningfully to the commonwealth.

A culture’s sacred canopy is woven of narrative threads called stories. They are not simply reports of fact – what would the point of that be? – but imaginative representations and entertaining plots (from the Greek mythos) that serve to articulate a cross-referencing web of significance. The productive power of this web is fantasy, the very same power that pretended and animated your world as a child. Fantasy is not a weak attempt to describe reality as we see it; rather it is a literally fantastic project in meaning-making, constructing a habitat for the mind. I call the part of our personality responsible for the ongoing defense and repair of our worlds, the inner child. It is spontaneous, playful, and dependent on the support of others; but it can also be neurotic, insecure, and prone to tantrums.

Now, I would say that the form of popular religion summarized at the start is stuck exactly here – at the stage of development where humans are heavily invested in the identity project of ego. Just as your inner child operates according to a model of reality perhaps decades out of date, many present-day religions are still trying to manage meaning inside a worldview thousands of years old and equally outmoded. We need to engage the present reality of our situation, but it’s like performing brain surgery with a paleolithic flint chip.

Jesus, the Buddha, and others have tried to help us see that the source of our suffering is self-preoccupation – the emotional cravings and dogmatic convictions that disable us spiritually. We cannot really know freedom, love, and truth until we learn to let go, open up, and reconnect in more creative ways.

Transcending ego brings us to the mental location of soul, where “me and mine” no longer entrance us. I am of the opinion that this higher self of the soul is a distinguishing mark of maturity. It is not about identity or even meaning. Soul doesn’t fuss with the question “Who am I?” but rather seeks authentic life beyond the masks we wear. It is our spiritual self – the creative spirit in us that contemplates the mystery, celebrates life, and consecrates the precious value of each passing moment. Whereas ego separates us from reality by its veil of meaning, soul reaches through the veil to realize oneness with (communion) all things.

The set of concerns, values, and aims organized around this priority of communion constitutes what is meant by wisdom. Instead of the urgency of survival or the project of identity, wisdom is about living in view of the ever-expanding context of daily life. We make choices and take action, the consequences of which ripple out into our relationships, leach into the soil and water, choke the atmosphere and threaten life. These rippling rings of effects and side-effects should be evidence enough that we are not separate from anything but rather one with everything.

And so, becoming fully human is a destiny still calling to us from the other side of meaning.

 

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

Edge Religion

By definition religion is a force for social cohesion. In “linking back” (religare) the many divergent concerns of daily life to a metaphor of ultimate reality, it provides a system of values and constraints that serves to hold a community together. This metaphor isn’t just a name for something already known objectively, but is the vehicle of language that first names the mystery and represents it, locating it amidst and beyond the necessary activities of everyday experience. It is what we call God.

In this view, God (the unnamed mystery) isn’t something that comes to us from somewhere else, even if god (the metaphor) might well encourage the assumption. Whenever we talk about something, we understandably assume that there is some thing we’re talking about. Our talking about it makes this thing better known to our minds. By qualifying and explaining it, we are as it were throwing a net of definition around it and bringing it closer to us. The mystery with which religion is (or at least originally was) chiefly concerned, however, is not a mysterious object to be explained and thereby rendered meaningful. It is rather the deep support and radiant presence of reality felt in the providential uplift of conscious being, of life in this moment.

The God-metaphor, then, or what I simply refer to as “god” (with a lowercase ‘g’), is a product of our imagination, a reflex of the mind to put labels on reality, push it into the distance where we can regard it as “this” or “that,” and then grasp it as an object of understanding. As metaphor (from meta + phorein, to carry across), our representation of God facilitates the experience of mystery across the threshold and into the web of language, where it can be expressed as meaning. Further articulation of meaning is accomplished through the media of art and story, where the metaphor takes on dimension and weight, opening up various ritual ways for us to link daily life back to the present mystery of reality.

So now we can add to our starting definition of religion as the link-back of everyday concerns to a metaphor of ultimate reality, by saying that this is primarily a ritual (ceremonial, sacramental, liturgical) system of social behaviors. In coordinating tribal life in this fashion around a metaphorical representation of the present mystery, social cohesion is successfully maintained. And because it is designed to bring individuals into agreement over their shared identity and specialized responsibilities to the group, I will call this form of religion “conventional theism” (from theos, god with a lowercase ‘g’). It’s been around for many, many thousands of years, and is still the dominant form of religion in our day.Conventional TheismThe illustration above provides a way of understanding conventional theism as coordinating the hearts and minds of individuals, and individuals with the larger group, around the orthodox representation of God (or god). I don’t mean for the balloon with the word “deity” imprinted on it to be taken as a lampoon, but merely to pick up on the point made earlier, that god arises out of the metaphorical imagination and is eventually (if it gains widespread agreement) tethered to the frame of community life as the focus of worship and belief.

Insofar as the deity is made in our image – that is to say, in a way that reflects back to us the personality traits, character strengths, and waking virtues of our own higher nature – it serves to inspire us to life above our animal instincts and juvenile impulses. As we contemplate in our minds and glorify with our hearts this chosen metaphor of God, it represents to us a better part of ourselves that is to some extent still in our developmental future.

Yahweh’s career across the time arc of the Bible demonstrates this dynamic perfectly, beginning as a warrior deity to a band of near-eastern nomadic tribes; taking his place as Lord and Creator in the era of national settlement; reaching out in compassion to the poor and marginalized during the downfall of King David’s dynasty; and resolving at last – around the time of Jesus but most clearly in the life and teaching of the Nazarene – to lift the curse of guilt from his enemies by a unilateral and unconditional forgiveness. If you should put early-Yahweh and late-Yahweh side by side, you would have to conclude that the two were different gods – so great was the evolutionary distance traveled by his community of faith over the course of centuries.

Such an evolutionary view of religion, tracking the developing metaphor of God as a reflection of our spiritual awakening and moral progress in community, must beg the question: Does a time come when the metaphor has served its purpose and is no longer needed? Are there more “mature” approaches to the mystery and our own life adventure, which could help religion stay current with our evolving spirituality? I suggest there are, and even now some forms of conventional theism are beginning to invite these voices of what I call “edge religion” into the conversation.ReligionAnd so I will make yet another appeal on behalf of post-theism – not as an alternative to theism, but rather its natural fulfillment as a system for social cohesion and spiritual guidance. By definition, post-theism explores the frontiers of faith development “outside the box” of conventional religion, but without abandoning the box and trashing its patron deity. The structural support and moral orientation provided by conventional theism is, I will argue, still important and necessary to the formation of faith as individuals (especially the very young) are in the process of having their identities constructed in community with others.

But there comes a time when, for many, the conventional representation of God becomes too small, too confined by doctrines, and increasingly irrelevant to daily life. These are folks who typically begin asking questions and challenging the usual answers inside the box. They are searching for a spiritually grounded way of being in the world, one that can help them continue to evolve in their faith. They aren’t interested in disputing the existence of god, and more of them today are refusing to be converted back to the religion of their youth. Consequently they wander outside the box foraging for spiritual sustenance, sometimes feeling guilty for wanting more (or something else), and often struggling with the loneliness of no longer having a community.

But there is hope. As I said, some theistic religions and denominations are providing space for these “edge dwellers” – and they have something of great value to contribute. Basically they come in two varieties, and it’s not unusual to find both strains of post-theism in the same individual. They represent the mystical and ethical edges of conventional religion, although they have no interest in merely recovering that familiar warm feeling in worship or sifting through the commentaries of church doctrine. They bring tools.

Let’s recall the significance of that balloon tethered to the frame of conventional theism. It is the preferred metaphor of God, the orthodox representation of the present mystery within and all around us. It calls to us – reminding us of who we are, where we belong, how we should behave, and why we are here. But when (not if) the individual’s spiritual capacity and depth of experience is no longer promoted by the god we all know, something needs to be done with that balloon.

Those post-theists who are mystically oriented wield the tool of a straight pin. They help us to realize – on the likely chance we have forgotten – that our representations of God are constructs of our minds, a convenience of language in providing handles on reality. These metaphors are not simply labels affixed to a literal being “out there” and separate from us, but rather spring from the inner life of the soul where we rest in the provident mystery of Life itself. Popping the balloon is not intended as sacrilege or “atheism”; it is what’s required if we are to experience the ineffable presence, the unnamed and unnameable ground of Being.

Ethically oriented post-theists are often motivated out of a concern that the so-called “will of God” has become too predictable, too much an endorsement of our petty ambitions and self-serving moralities. They bring scissors. By snipping the balloon string, these revolutionaries want to return freedom, unbounded generosity, and creative license to our metaphor of God, which means that we need to release our patron deity into the infinite sky, into the God beyond god. Only when God is no longer “our god” will religion be able to reach out to the stranger, love the enemy, and include everyone without judgment but rather in celebration of community.

We will never be without religion. However religion will be without more and more of us until it welcomes those on the edge and listens to what they have to say.

 
 

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