Monthly Archives: September 2014

An Update for Religion?

One of the biggest complaints I have about much contemporary religion is that it obligates believers to accept (whole or in part) worldviews which are thousands of years old and wildly outdated. This isn’t my problem only, as modern thinkers (and thoughtful believers) have struggled with the relevance issue for several centuries now. For a short while we tried to divide reality into “natural” and “supernatural” realms, relegating the preoccupations of religion to the supernatural side and leaving the rest for science and everyday life.

This “partition effect” worked – but again, only for a very short while. People could go about their work-a-day business Monday through Saturday, and then check their common sense at the door before entering church on Sundays. Once inside, the archaic mythology underpinning their rituals, hymns, doctrines, confessions and prayers was accepted as truth. Jesus came down from heaven, paid the penalty for our sins, was raised to life again and went back to heaven. Soon he’ll be coming again. Inside the church it all made sense.

But outside the church this vocabulary became increasingly strained in its fit to the concerns and challenges of daily life. The remarkable successes of a more secular (this-worldly) orientation, with its principal values of reason and critical thinking, controlled observation and evidence, rationality and sound logic, were making religion’s defense of the supernatural, an external god, historical miracles, and an infallible tradition of truth harder and harder to accept, much less understand. True believers found it necessary to cut themselves off from mainstream culture and establish protected communities where traditional ways could be enforced.

Today, this cut-off is going on inside the personality of true believers who don’t necessarily want to give up the conveniences and opportunities of contemporary life for a backwater monastery in the woods. They are able somehow to read with enthusiasm on Thursday the latest discoveries of astronomy as they commit themselves on Sunday to the three-story cosmos of the Bible. Biblical fundamentalists around the world download the latest smartphone applications and invest in the stock market as they look into the clouds for the imminent return of Jesus.

For the sake of sanity, many are picking up their common sense on the way out of church and not going back. Some regret losing the community and occasional inspiration they enjoyed there, but the sacrifice of intellectual integrity is just not worth it anymore. The failure of their religion to stay current with evolving ideas, new discoveries, and advancing values is making it necessary to leave it behind. If at the historical threshold of modernity it was the demand for Reason that emptied churches, in our generation the search for Relevance is doing the same.

So let’s engage a conversation on the topic of relevance, which is defined as “connected to the matter at hand” – in this case, the matter of living meaningfully and productively in a world described by science, characterized by pluralism, and increasingly organized around the global values of security, sustainability, fair trade, and human rights. Where does religion fit into the picture, if it even has a place anymore? To answer that question I need to tell a story, one that helps us see what relevance religion may still have, and where it goes wrong.

Truth Systems

The beginning of religion is not in supernatural revelation. Remember, this partition effect is a peculiarly modern strategy designed to safeguard the old metaphysics (an external deity, immortal souls, heaven and hell) from the incursions of science and common sense. Even the myths are not the proper origins of religion; they come later, as secondary reflection and artistic expression of a more primal experience.

The essence of this primal experience is what we (ought to) mean by faith – the full surrender (or trust) of one’s existence to the provident support of reality. While this absolute trust might translate into a confident hope for tomorrow’s provision, the deepest truth here has to do with a present-moment uplift of what the mystics call the ground of being. This uplift is experienced in the faithful rhythms of our breath, our heartbeat, and the background hum of consciousness. Certain meditative practices assist in the centering (or contemplative) descent along an interior axis of focused attention, where the practitioner breaks into an inner space of expanded awareness, profound peace, and calm presence.

This experience of Real Presence (or present reality) transpires below the brain regions involved in language and objective thought, which makes it inherently “beyond words” or ineffable. The grounding mystery is therefore not some thing we can talk about, even though we may refer to it metaphorically as ground. At this level it is purely about the experience, not what it means. An individual “has faith” to whatever extent he or she is able to be fully present, let go of self, and sink deeply into communion with being-as-such.

Now, if this doesn’t sound anything like the religion of our churches (and temples and mosques), that’s because it isn’t. Faith and the mystical experience are the spring that brings living water to the surface of life in the world. Religion is the system of utilities that carries this spiritual refreshment and perspective into the relationships, commitments, and business of daily life. By a network of symbols, rituals, and stories, religion organizes a society and keeps it “linked back” (religare) to the provident support of the grounding mystery.

In my diagram above, a vertical line connects the faith experience and our knowledge of the universe. (Ignore for now the fact that this line is ruptured in the middle by something called belief and orthodoxy; I’ll come back to that.) An unbroken vertical connector suggests a strong link between the ineffable ground and the qualified universe – or in other words, between the silent communion of faith and the numberless distinctions (qualities) we can observe in the extended context of our environment.

This connection is the likely source of our word “universe,” which refers to the single-turning unity of everything. The very concept of universe, then, is itself an expression and representation of an insight grasped by intuition in the deep experience of faith. Its oneness isn’t evident to the senses; indeed our sense awareness is stretched across a boundless diversity of seemingly unrelated phenomena. But faith – and again, by this I mean deep and total self-surrender to communion with the present mystery of reality – confirms that all things are manifestations of the one grounding mystery. It all turns together and is essentially one.

A long time ago perhaps, the human view on reality (our sense of the universe) was like a holy picture in stained glass: the radiance of being (the grounding mystery) shone out through multiplicity of beings. Science and spirituality were the outlook and insight, respectively, of a holistic intelligence. The stories (myths) of religion were relevant narratives that nourished the communion of outer and inner life. Gods were depicted as personified agencies behind the events of nature, inviting humans into a relationship of reverence, stewardship, responsibility, wonder and celebration.

Over time and with new discoveries our understanding of the universe changed. It got bigger and more complicated, but simultaneously simpler to explain by virtue of mathematical logic and an experimental method. The inward turn of contemplative meditation continued to support our need for mystical communion and mindful balance, but advances in science placed a growing strain on the traditional stories and assumptions of religion. Religion fell behind. Under the added strain, it gripped down with stubborn insistence on the truth of its myths and consequently fell still farther behind.

Eventually, in the interest of a productive and relevant life in the world, the claims of religion were relegated to their own realm, sufficiently outside the range of evidence and practically useless to the secular concerns of society. Thus partitioned, it was left to the clerics and theologians to decide which doctrines were absolutely necessary for a successful escape from this (now fallen and sinful) world to an everlasting security in the next. These necessary doctrines were neither articles of knowledge nor genuine expressions of faith, but rather beliefs, which means that they required an emotional investment in order to carry any meaning.

To believe is to pretend that something is so, to proceed as if it is the case. Because our knowledge of the universe is and will always be incomplete and provisional, we humans frequently find ourselves in the position of having to make judgments on the basis of insufficient information.

Philosophy and science have learned the wisdom of regarding such judgments as hypotheses, explanations treated as predictions, to be tested against careful observation in the field. By checking the facts, a prediction will either be disproved or advanced for further testing. An explanation that survives such scrutiny – preferably under controlled variables and across numerous trials – is awarded the status of knowledge.

Once upon a time, the beliefs of religion did fit into our general knowledge of the universe and our place in it. But as our world-picture changed, the mythological accounts couldn’t update as quickly. Patron deities either needed to be (1) left in the past when their myths and corresponding worldview were relevant, (2) reconsidered in light of evolving knowledge and new experience, or (3) recharged by a forced allegiance to orthodoxy (“right belief,” authorized by those in control). Believe it anyway, because if you don’t, you can’t be saved.

Faith was gradually (and almost imperceptibly) redefined from the act of full surrender to the provident mystery of reality, to a set of beliefs or tenets – the “true faith” of this or that denomination. Orthodoxy became a well-defended and airtight fortress of belief. (I’ve put the word in a box above to illustrate the point.)

But whatever is airtight is also out of touch, at risk of losing currency and dying inside. What can religion do? So much has been sacrificed, so much committed for the sake of the institution and its future. To pull down the curtain and give up on the supernatural would mean “the death of god,” would it not? To re-read the myths with a sensitivity to metaphor would require us to listen deeply to the same intuitions in ourselves that first inspired our ancestors to story them forth. It might mean that we need to tell new stories, different myths, sacred narratives that are relevant to our situation today.

It might be asking too much. We shall see.


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God On The Brain

I don’t typically talk much about the brain in Tracts of Revolution, where it’s more about how spirituality, religion, philosophy and science offer frequently contradictory (but possibly at some deeper level, complementary) accounts of reality. This three-pound organ and its central place in our ongoing efforts to live happy and meaningful lives is, however, my veritable obsession in another blog of mine, called Brain Tracts. Perhaps this brief excursion into the neuroscience of God will entice you to check it out.

Mental Theater

In order to beat down the grass a bit and make a path to this grand topic of God, let’s begin by talking about what your brain is doing right now. Throughout the day your brain is entertaining a series of loosely chained scenarios, as you move in and out of the various environments and situations of daily life. One of its important contributions is the faithful representation inside your mental theater of what’s going on outside and around you. As you drive your car on the road, sit behind your desk at work or school, or engage a conversation with friends, your brain attends to (or bends toward) the stimuli coming across its sensory outposts – the classic five (or so) gross senses of your body.

Gathering together these numerous strands of sensory information, your brain projects this composite representation on the screen of your conscious awareness. Whether it’s an apparently seamless and dynamic movie unfolding there or a “still shot” of something you are studying with concentrated effort, the focus of your attention is your mental object. As it flashes up there on the screen inside your mental theater, it is only information. In my attempt to make it as uninteresting and impersonal as possible, I will simply name it: “IT.” IT is what you are focusing on right now.

Now, your brain isn’t just a fancy mechanism for collecting and processing sensory information from the environment – although that in and of itself is pretty amazing indeed. Your mental object might instead be something you are recalling from yesterday or five years ago; or again, IT might be something you’re making up on the fly, as it were, by the wonder-working power of imagination. Perception, recollection, and imagination are thus the three channels by which your brain brings your mental object (IT) to the screen of present attention.

The debate between theism and atheism over the existence of God gets predictably hung up at this point, with one side (the atheists) refuting it on the claim that this particular mental object has no basis in the sensory-physical realm of our senses and was simply made up (imagined) by superstitious storytellers. Theists will typically counter by appealing to sacred writings that record and inerrantly preserve the actual (miraculous, supernatural) experiences of people many centuries ago. The responsibility of faith today is to trust these accounts as a reliable witness to the objective truth of God’s existence.

In my opinion, this debate is tired, boring, and pointless. The theists are misreading their sacred texts by taking the stories of God literally, and the atheists are playing right into it by taking the theists literally. For a way through the stalemate, we need to go back to the brain.

Lower BraintractYour brain is “wired” into your body through a complex nervous system that reaches out to your muscles, organs, glands, tissues and cells. I call this a braintract – specifically your lower braintract, since you have an upper one as well (which we’ll get to in a bit). With brain-imaging technology and carefully controlled experiments, neuroscience has discovered that your brain is constantly monitoring the stream of experience flowing below the threshold of conscious attention. This spontaneous engagement with the stream of experience is called intuition (or at least that’s what I’m calling it), and it’s where your brain is “picking up” all kinds of subtle impressions of what’s really going on.

Of course, “stream of experience” is only a metaphor – although I hasten to add that the word only here should not be taken to mean merely or nothing but a metaphor. Metaphors are image-words used to convey something that cannot be grasped in objective terms. Many of our most powerful experiences in life are of things that have no separate existence of their own but are nonetheless real to us by virtue of the unmistakable and frequently overwhelming feelings they evoke. Any attempt to extract such metaphors from the moving stream of experience and strip them of feeling ends up destroying them along with the connection to reality they provided.

I have argued that religion began as a way of contemplating the present mystery of reality. Its deepest and earliest metaphor is the ground of being – the providential support and creative source on which all depends, moment to moment. The feeling of this ground is registered in your nervous system, generated out of a syndrome of countless synchronized events transpiring in your cells, glands and organs. The present mystery of reality is grasped intuitively and “known” spontaneously in the rhythms of your breath, your heartbeat, and the nerve cycles of consciousness.

Religion thus began with a metaphor that conveyed a profound and essentially ineffable experience of reality as the rising support of being-itself. Quickly enough – for the next task of religion is to tie the concerns of daily life back to this deeper support – it further clarified the ground metaphor into the natural incarnations known intimately by every newborn mammal: mother and (to a lesser extent) father. The earliest representations in religion of the present mystery of reality were the generative provision of Mother Earth and the supervisory protection of Father Sky (or heavenly Father) – both archetypes (or “first forms”) of the grounding mystery.

It’s important to understand that these primordial representations (and earliest mental objects) of reality were not of a being in the earth and another being in the sky. As archetypes of the ineffable mystery of being-itself (i.e., the ground metaphor), they translated a deeply intuitive experience and established a relationship to reality that acknowledged our natural dependency and communion with the universe.

Upper Braintract

So far my theory explains the origins of our concept of God, beginning in the spontaneous engagement with the stream of present (and preconscious) experience. This intuition of reality as provident support and creative source was first grasped and communicated in the ground-of-being metaphor, but pretty quickly got translated into the specific incarnations of Mother and Father – and by extension, Mother Earth and Father Sky.

Once your brain fastens the focus of attention on a mental object, it sends this information via your upper braintract to your mind where its meaning will be determined. Your two braintracts are constantly working in parallel, with the lower braintract (your body) converting the information in your brain (the mental object) into an energy-state of feeling, and the upper braintract (your mind) translating it into a narrative composition (story) of meaning. Your mind is a storyteller and perpetually busy constructing narratives around your mental object, which serve to frame a context, establish causality, project possible scenarios, predict outcomes, and generally link the mental object into a web of associations that makes it mean something.

Storytelling is recursive elaboration on a mental object, or what is commonly called reflection: the bending-back of your mind on a work-in-progress, weaving strands of identification and significance around it, like a spider bundling up a trapped fly in sticky fibers. As the mind cannot help but construct meaning when your brain presents it with a mental object, telling stories (including theories, hypotheses, explanations, reports, excuses and lies) is its primary business.

Coming back to religion and its concept of God, this business of storytelling is how humans make sense of their experience and link everything back (Latin religare) to the grounding mystery. Yes, this is mythology – not fallacies, deceptive tales, or bad science, but dramatic narratives connecting our life-world and daily concerns to the provident reality supporting and supplying our existence in this moment. The many deities of religion are personifications of hidden agencies in the rhythms of life and death, the landscape and its resources, the seasons and catastrophes that shape our experience in the world.

The danger of telling stories about the gods (these hidden agencies) is in our mind’s need to perform further recursive elaboration on these elaborations – constructing the god’s genealogy and sibling relations, reputation and character, sovereign will and inner thoughts – all of which may encourage the belief in his or her separate existence. As the archetypes of Mother Earth and Father Sky reproduced into the countless offspring deities of the regional and tribal myths, the actual origins of God were forgotten and the literary gods became literal beings. The stage was thereby set for the theist-atheist debate. Who’s right? Neither one.

Braintracts_full pic

If – and I grant this is a BIG if – we can look through our deities, descend along the winding path of our sacred stories and deeper into the intuitive experience that got everything started, we will be able to relax our grip and loosen up. It all began with the waking of consciousness to the provident uplift of life in this moment. You’ve never left it, despite your long and tired journey in its quest.

One day you will close your eyes and unwind completely into a mystery beyond name and form.



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