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 our 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.The 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above provides a way around our current impasse, where much of popular religion holds the human spirit hostage to outdated ideas, long-abandoned worldviews, and adolescent moralities of reward and punishment.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.