Monthly Archives: October 2014

The Three Stages of Religion

In my last post I explored the essential function of religion as a way of connecting (religare, tie together) the inner and outer realms of human experience. Our mystical communion with the grounding mystery is metaphorically represented and depicted across a collection of sacred stories known as mythology. These myths (mythos, narrative plot) are recited by the community in ritual performances and worked out in daily life according to the local customs and precepts of morality.

A critically important qualification in all of this is that the mythology of religion must align with our current understanding of the cosmos. When it does, our spirituality (inner realm, grounding mystery) can flow out and connect meaningfully with our science (outer realm, cosmic order), generating an awareness that everything “turns as one” (universe). When this alignment is missing, our myths become incredible and increasingly irrelevant. Rather than being able to inhabit our stories, enacting them and living them out, we are left with the choice of taking them literally as eye-witness accounts of supernatural and miraculous events of the past or tossing them aside as so much childish superstition.

All of that is looking at religion as positioned at the center of a vertical axis, with spirituality below (or within) and science above (or around). This central position helps us appreciate the intended function of religion (to connect these two realms) as well as understand how and where it begins to fail. In this post I will turn this axis 90º to the horizontal and picture it as a moving time-line from left (the past) to right (the future). The question now is, “How has religion evolved through the millenniums, and is this evolution more or less haphazard or does it proceed according to a deeper design?”

Snow Cone 2I will build a case that religion evolves as human beings develop, which means that the larger cultural shifts we observe across the centuries are deeply correlated to changes unfolding (or arrested) at the individual level of human consciousness. The above illustration is pulled forward from my most recent post (Religion and The Snow Cone Universe), but in place of the word “religion” I have inserted a graphic representing what I will explain as three stages in the evolution and organization of consciousness. “Stage” here will be used in two senses of the word: as a developmental period of time and as a kind of platform (think theater stage) that provides consciousness with a specific vantage point on reality.

Thankfully we don’t need to do a lot of research or dig into cultural archaeology to start making sense of these stages I have in mind, for they are represented in the very structure of your consciousness as a human being. Just as your individual development is unfolding according to a sequence of distinct stages, so religion has been evolving along that same advancing line. So, I’ll ask you to sit back and take a look at yourself.

Stage One: BODY

Let’s just get the hard fact out of the way: You’re an animal. You breathe, burp, and bleed just like other animals. You were born, grew up, and one day you will die – just like other animals. Inside and under your skin is a complicated system of tissues, glands, organs and nerves, pulsing together as an interconnected web of urgencies. The urge to breathe, for instance, is a compulsion that evolved around the need of your cells for oxygen (and to blow off carbon dioxide); breathing is an urgency. Many other urgencies are presently taking care of what this animal nature of yours requires to live.

Like other animals, you possess an instinctive intelligence that has been evolving for millions of years and across numerous species. Through a network of impulses, reflexes, drives, and adaptive routines instinct serves to uphold a dialogue between the internal urgencies keeping you alive and the larger rhythms of your external environment. The cycles of Sun, moon, and seasons are intricately timed with your needs for activity and rest, arousal and reproduction, nourishment and shelter. You don’t have to think about this provident coincidence since the urgency that anchors it in your throbbing viscera is unconscious and graciously impersonal.

From the stage of your body, reality is physical, vibrant, sensual – and alive. Since everything in you and around you is caught up in a pulsing tango (and tangle) of urgency and rhythm, from this vantage point nothing is inert or uninvolved. Colors, sounds, odors, flavors, temperature, current, texture, pressure and weight: a kind of glory cascades across the dazzling variety of forms, effervescing to the surface and dancing on your senses. It’s not you over here and that over there, but you and that together, partners in the same cosmic dance.

At this stage religion is animistic, connecting and closing the circuit between the inner mystery and outer cosmos by a mythology of hidden agencies. Anima is Latin for vital force or life-force, a related term to spirit, meaning breath. It’s not that something else is on the other side of what we perceive with our senses, but rather that what we perceive with our senses participates in and manifests forces that hold everything together. Again, these are not supernatural personalities (deities) pushing things around (that idea comes later) but creative energies expressing outward from the interior of things.

Stage Two: EGO

In addition to being an animal and having an animal nature, you – and this especially refers to the you you think you are – are an identity project of your tribe. Ego is also from the Latin, translating as I, the subjective center of a separate self. You needed this separate center so your tribe could shape an identity around it and assign your place in the larger role-play of society. For this to happen with reasonable success, your animal nature (body) needed to be trained (i.e., socialized) to behave properly – not to bite, pass gas, or mate in public. In addition to such constraints on unacceptable behavior you were conditioned by your tribe to be polite, cooperate with others, and pick up your toys.

All of this social shaping of identity (ego) is what we generally call morality. The individual is expected to follow the rules and respect authority, and not only because those in charge have their hands on the carrots and sticks. It just makes for an easier life together in community. Your tribe dutifully (but not always very competently) instructed you with the preferences, values, and beliefs that demonstrated obedience. Because all of this happened in the first decade or so of your life, the part of your personality where these moral sentiments and reflexes still reside is known as your inner child. Most of what goes on in there is deeply conditioned but nonrational – prompted and carried along on scripts of flattery and shame, praise and blame, guilt and appeasement.

Another strong virtue of early childhood was your gift for fantasy. Daydream, dress-up, role play and pretending to be someone (else) occupied much of your time. Fairy tales and closet monsters were sources of endless fascination or bedtime anxiety. Fantasy is your creative intelligence for making things up and acting as if what you can’t see is more real than what you can. Your tribe exploited this native ability of yours and got you invested in the collective fantasy of meaning-making, producing a kind of semantic shelter in the world you shared. As long as this world-construct was confirmed and reinforced in the habits of everyday life, the illusion of its reality could be maintained.

Religion at this stage is theistic (from theos, god) referring to the belief in higher powers that model human character and supervise the world from the margins. When you were a child these higher powers were literally your “taller powers” – i.e., the adults who were in charge of things and provided for your needs. Theism postulates (but doesn’t prove) an intention behind and above the world, representing an important advancement on the spontaneous and impersonal life-force of animism. The gain was that theism introduced the notion of there being a plan and purpose in the nature of things that we can interrogate, petition, and perhaps even influence for our benefit.

Stage Three: SOUL

Currently, and for the past several millenniums, human beings have been comfortably established in second-stage culture and religion. The reason is simply that ego has been the dominant mental location of human consciousness for that long. Theism, as the religious system coordinating deity, tribe, and ego, has provided orientation and meaning to our species for a long time. Until fairly recently, that is, when our cosmology (scientific model of the universe) began to render the old myths unbelievable.

When one stage is passing and before the next stage is fully entered, the phase we find ourselves in can be very disorienting. Once-true believers lose faith, members leave their churches, denominations don’t seem to work anymore, and the “spiritual but not religious” look for inspiration from other sources. We can also see the endangered religions growing more desperate and violent, putting up their defenses and terrorizing nonbelievers. It is tempting to conclude that such is the nature of religion itself, and that we will be much better off without it.

To understand the third stage of religion, however, we need to look beyond the anxiety, hostility, and depression of the disoriented ego. Your inner child is not capable of creating the life you really want. It’s not only stuck in the problem, it’s where the problem is centered. What you really need is to ascend to the mental location of your higher self – rational and responsible as an adult ought to be, but also emotionally balanced and intellectually engaged. You don’t need to leave your passion and creativity back in childhood (or repressed in your personality).

What is soul? Let’s first say what it isn’t, exposing some popular efforts to hang on to ego. It isn’t a ghostly replica of the body’s physical form, and it’s not another word for the immortal ego. Soul isn’t what continues on after you die, as a disembodied personality moving residence to the next earthly incarnation, new celestial home, or some metaphysical higher plane. All of these explanations are trying to figure out what happens to you when you die, when you – again, at the mental location of ego – are nothing more than a temporal construct of social roles, attitudes, and beliefs. Your third-stage challenge is to open yourself to a post-ego way of being, where “me and mine” are no longer anchors of ultimate concern.

The “post” in post-ego – as well as in post-theism, the religion of our third stage – doesn’t require that you renounce your ego, throw it down, or try to stomp it out of existence. It simply means after, referring to a way of life oriented on the essential realization that All is One, which logically comes after the illusion of your separateness (ego) has been transcended. In the light of this realization you instantly understand that you, as an individual, are a participant in the larger communion of beings. Morality is no longer about obedience to another’s command, but is rather about making choices and taking action with a much (much) larger context in mind.

Notice how this insight marks an advance beyond the animism of Stage One, where the emphasis was more on the peculiar manifestation of the life-force in a tree, a thunderstorm, or in the body itself. This is the difference between instinct (unconscious, compulsive, urgent) and wisdom (fully conscious, contemplative, intentional). A higher capacity for holding the awareness that All is One had to wait on the ability to open your mind without losing it, to detach your focus without getting distracted, and to jump from your highest thought into the mystery encompassing all things.


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Religion and the Snow Cone Universe

snow cone universeThe role of religion for millenniums has been to connect (or tie together, from the Latin religare) the inner and outer realms of human experience. This sounds odd nowadays, given that religions the world over are presently fomenting (or at least justifying) violence against minorities and outsiders in the name of their gods, as they work to successfully separate the true believer from this fallen and sinful world.

But as with everything else, a thoughtful consideration of religion needs to distinguish between its essential function (by design, so to speak) and what it has become under the various conditions of history, geography, and culture. If this or that religion exploits our natural insecurity, heaps guilt on our heads, and pulls us into spiritual depression, should we just reject religion itself as a negative force on our planet? Increasingly this is the popular opinion of secular minds.

Whatever its peculiar manifestation, however, religion will always serve a necessary function in human culture – at least this is my argument. Its particular form (animistic, theistic, or post-theistic) and denomination (totemic, Southern Baptist, or Zen Buddhist) is more or less a “sign of the times,” but the phenomenon of religion itself is critical to our ongoing evolution as a species. The reason is that our quest for a meaningful connection between the inner and outer realms of experience corresponds to the nature of human consciousness itself.

Simply put, the conscious self is aware in two primary directions – outward to its surroundings and inward to its own deep interior. Take a moment to notice this for yourself. The physical apparatus of your body and brain has the task of coordinating your behavior with the changing conditions of circumstance, in a way that is both adaptive and advantageous. Success-oriented behavior (in this sense) doesn’t really require much conscious intention; life on this planet evolved for millions of years without it. But with the advent of more sophisticated nervous systems came a “surplus” of conscious awareness, which in humans (at least) opened attention to the deeper and larger mystery of existence. Homo Philosophicus.

What I’m calling the deeper mystery of existence is the inner realm whence consciousness itself arises. At some inner threshold of this descending awareness, the ego, referring to that contraction of self-possession acknowledged as “I-myself,” gets loose in the joints and begins to fall apart. As we would expect, this threat to its own self-possession generates confusion and anxiety in the ego, which may persuade it to resist further descent and recover control. But this is precisely where religion, in its role as counselor and guide to the deeper mystery, encourages the nervous psychonaut (“soul explorer”) to let go in full surrender to the provident ground of being.

Such inward exploration and expansion of consciousness into its own depths is what I mean by “spirituality.” Because this is the inner realm of our human nervous system, it seems safe to assume that the nature of experience at this deeper register of consciousness is virtually the same today as it was many thousands of years ago. Getting there might have been more of a challenge back then, given the urgencies of survival in the forest or savanna, but I can imagine a distant hominid ancestor dropping into contemplative awareness on a warm African morning.

Spirituality is inherently mystical, or at least it has a strong tendency to sink into the grounding mystery where our separate self (ego) dissolves into an ineffable presence. In this space grows an awareness that existence itself rests in, rises out of, and returns to essential communion. And yet, when we return to the surface where our relationships and daily responsibilities await, we feel compelled to talk about it. That’s the paradox: trying to put into words what no words can qualify or contain.

Talking about something beyond words requires a form of language that can represent this mystery metaphorically. Even to speak of the experience as a “descent” across a “threshold” (or series of thresholds) into a deep “ground” is using language in a highly symbolic way. The experience is not literally this but nevertheless really is! Metaphors serve the purpose of “carrying across” (meta-phorein) into verbal intelligence something that doesn’t lend itself to objective thinking; it’s not even some thing.

Religion’s preferred vehicle for such metaphorical representation is myth, referring to a narrative plot (Greek mythos) that serves as the backbone of story. The picture language anchored to this action-line only seems ancillary to the cause-and-effect sequence of the story itself, when its true purpose is to pull awareness into contemplation of a timeless mystery behind it all. This is essentially no different from contemplating any other form of well-composed art: You begin by looking at it, but soon enough you are pulled through it and into the creative consciousness that brought it forth.

For a myth to make sense, at least at the surface level, the architecture of reality it assumes must be compatible with the cosmology of the times. Ancient cosmology envisioned the outer realm as arranged vertically, with distinct levels (typically three) connected by an axis passing through the center of a stationary earth. The action of gods, heroes, and saviors – again, acknowledged as metaphorical representations – naturally conformed to this “up and down” structure of reality.

Deities had to come down from heaven and go back up again. Heroes and saviors might descend to the underworld (in death or by some secret passage) and come back up (by resurrection or escape) with boons for their community. By the Christian era, the departed saved and the departed damned were imagined as “up” in heaven or “down” in hell, as the case may be.

By virtue of the vibrant connection between the inner realm of spirituality and the outer realm of cosmology, ancient religion was an active sponsor of our awareness of living in a “universe” – the turning-as-one of all things. Whereas the term cosmos simply refers to the “order” we can perceive around us, a true sense of the universe to which we belong reflects a mental integration of this order with the grounding mystery in which all things exist. In this way, an active appreciation of the universe is a product of spirituality (mystical union) and cosmology (surrounding order).

The outer realm is our context of life, the expanding environment in which we human beings need to locate ourselves. If we can detach the discipline of science from the peculiar tradition of Western science as we know it today, then even the three-story model that stood as background architecture to the ancient myths may be appreciated as “scientific,” as a theoretical explanation drawn from straightforward observations of the outer realm. Today, a myth of visitors from outer space is more compatible with our current cosmology, and hence more believable to the modern mind, than the up-and-down traffic that would have made sense back then.

And this is where things started slipping with religion, not too many centuries ago. As science pursued an updated cosmology based on newly invented observational instruments (e.g., the Greek astrolabe and European telescope) and mathematical calculations, the older myths couldn’t keep up. More accurately, as we can see in our own day, the belief systems that had gotten attached to those older myths didn’t want to keep up. Science was pulling the hearts and minds of people into a secular and godless age, undermining faith and threatening the eternal security of “doubting believers.”

What had for millenniums coordinated a meaningful dialogue between the inner and outer realms of human experience thus dug in its heels and held fast to an obsolete science, trading intellectual relevance for emotional conviction. And the stories? What became of the myths? Lacking a respectable cosmology to back them up, the only way to take myths seriously was to read them literally – as eye-witness accounts of supernatural and miraculous events. This required a bold division between other people’s myths and our salvation history, which New Testament authors were busy making already in the late first century CE (cf. 2 Peter 1:16).

Doubly tragic for religion was its aggressive campaign against spirituality, increasingly identified with “mysticism” and censored as godless self-absorption. Any teaching that encouraged an individual to surrender completely to union with the divine, understood as the non-objective presence and grounding mystery of being, was condemned out of hand as heresy, blasphemy, and atheism. Despite the fact that the major theistic traditions all contain subcurrents of spirituality which are clearly mystical in orientation, the mainstream ideologies (in pulpit and press) regard such practices with a high degree of suspicion.

However much the religions have failed in fulfilling their purpose (as religion), the need persists for human beings to meaningfully connect the inner and outer realms of experience. To whatever extent we can create new metaphors to carry our spiritual intuitions of the grounding mystery into a cosmology big enough to frame the stars, deep enough to appreciate our place in the evolution of life, and wise enough to use our considerable influence for the good of our planet and future generations – to that extent we will be healed, made whole, and rediscover the holiness of being alive.


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Myth and the Magic Eye

Sigmund Freud regarded dreams as the “royal road” to the unconscious. His breakaway student, Carl Jung, used this same approach in his interpretation of the great cultural dreams known as myths. Whether the images and strange storylines come up for the individual at night or arise from a “collective unconscious” of human nature, these two analysts were convinced they provide insight into the deeper conflicts and waking potential of our species.

For millenniums the dreams of culture have been spun like webs out of our mythic imagination and then inhabited as the narrative structure of a peculiarly human world. As I have argued in recent blog posts, the inspiration for this construction of meaning originates in our spontaneous experience of the present mystery of reality, as the provident uplift of being itself. The world picture we construct needs to be sufficiently compatible with the actual facts of objective reality to be relevant to our given situation. Thus spirituality as contemplative engagement with the ground within us, and science as the investigative engagement with the universe around us, are where the human web of meaning is anchored to reality.

In former ages, religion is what cultivated the connection (religare, to tie back or connect) between spirituality and science. It authorized the myths and symbols representing this link between inner and outer, as well as choreographed rituals and ceremonies uniting the tribe around a common focus. Religion’s primary role was to supervise a liturgy (literally the work of the people) that maintained meaning and kept the world (Peter Berger’s “sacred canopy”) intact.

But while the deep experience of the grounding mystery is likely the same today as it was thousands of years ago by virtue of a relatively identical nervous system across our species, our understanding of the universe has advanced dramatically. We don’t any longer hold the world picture of a three-story cosmos, with a celestial realm above the clouds for god and the saints, a nether realm underground for the dead and damned, and an earthly realm in between where the living work out their mortal destinies. Our current cosmology contemplates a universe that is perhaps 14 billion years old, where time is relative and space warps and stretches under gravitational force. There is no “up” or “down” to our universe, no heaven above our heads or hell below our feet.

It was as these discoveries were being made that religion made the fateful mistake of insisting on the literal truth of its myths. Rather than acknowledge sacred story as produced out of the mythic imagination, a “corrective” explanation was provided, claiming that the stories were eye-witness accounts of supernatural and miraculous events that really happened long ago. Perhaps part of what motivated this unfortunate bit of illusionment was the heavy investment religion had already made in the institution of symbols, rituals, sanctuaries, and inherited beliefs. Of course, the more time that passed, the more intellectually incredible the stories became, requiring still more corrective explanations to keep them in play.

As a consequence of this shift from a deep reading of myth to one that takes it literally, the literary gods – compelling forces in the narrative storyline – became literal deities instead and essentially lost their significance. The fact that no contemporary person encountered a literal deity didn’t deter belief. Eventually, in fact, a willingness to believe in the invisible existence of god became a religious mandate on all “true believers.” Believing it anyway testifies to the sincerity (and apparently the veracity) of belief, effectively putting it beyond argument or even evidence to the contrary.

Magic Eye

Let me see if I can illustrate this shift I’m speaking of, from a deep reading to a literal reading of myth. Above is a “Magic Eye” design, where a three-dimensional figure is embedded in the two-dimensional pattern. A literal reading of myth is like trying to figure out what this design means by scanning its surface. There is some obvious redundancy in the pattern, with very slight discrepancies in detail – but these discrepancies are substantial to the real meaning of the design. There seem to be some humanoid figures, or is it bovine? Is that a flash of lightning or a fish of some sort? And then there’s all that fuzzy confusion in the middle.

A literal reading of myth stays on the surface, just as we’re doing when we scan the two-dimensional pattern of the Magic Eye design. Pattern itself is intriguing to our brains, and they will invent it where one isn’t obvious (think of the star constellations representing mythical creatures, a different set depending on the culture and its native mythology). Unless you are suspecting something more than just what’s on the surface, you will eventually make up a meaning. If tool-use separates us along with other primate and non-primate species from the rest, and tool-making separates the primates from other mammals, then meaning-making is what sets homo sapiens apart from our evolutionary cousins.

But what if the design holds another dimension, inside its two-dimensional arrangement? What if a religious myth is something more than what scans from left to right or reads from “The Beginning” to “The End”? As I said, unless you are open-minded to the possibility, all the sharp detail and drama at the surface will prevent you from going deeper. But if you could, what would you find? If you could stop taking the myth literally and start cultivating an appreciation for it as an artistic product of the mythic imagination (individual or collective), what might it bring to awareness?

Take another look at the Magic Eye design, but this time don’t screw your focus down so hard on the two-dimensional pattern. Instead, let it relax. Let your eyes blur a little as your gaze rests lightly at mid-field of all that visual complexity. Gradually you will feel something pulling on your eye muscles, trying to stretch your attention deeper down into the pattern, toward a three-dimensional image crossing in and out of focus. Be patient. If you’re taking it literally and have been doing so for some time, it will take a while for your eyes to give up their fixated hold.

The exact same can be said of a mind that has been conditioned by culture to read its myths literally. As long as religion reads, teaches, and defends its sacred stories as literally true eye-witness accounts of supernatural and miraculous events, more and more people will opt out. Human beings need relevance, and a myth that’s been reduced to its surface – one that is thousands of years out of date – is perfectly irrelevant.

Despite religion’s coercive effort in arguing otherwise, believing in the factual accuracy of sacred stories is not a demonstration of faith but only of the willingness to cast aside common sense, suspend responsible thinking, and ignore evidence or the lack of it. When the early Christian theologian Tertullian (160-225 CE) defined faith as “believing because it is absurd,” he was admitting that biblical mythology had begun to lose relevance even back then.

So relax and open up. This story may be time-bound by its historical and scientific references, but it came from a deep place outside of time that mystics call the Eternal Now. This place is within you as well. If you look without an expectation of what should be there, of what orthodoxy says must be there, the truth might be revealed.

A deep reading of religious myth allows the transient details at the surface to fall aside, revealing a mirror into its creative source. The myth is an invitation to self-awareness, far below what you assumed it was all about.


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Why Religion Can’t Advance

Working from the root meaning of the word “religion” (from Latin religare) I’ve been making a case for it as a necessary and essential dimension of human cultural life. Even theism, which I don’t regard as the only model of religion worth considering, occupies a critical place in the development and “awakening” of human consciousness to the present mystery of reality. So when I say that “religion can’t advance,” I am not advocating for its abandonment (finally) for the sake of progress and other modern values. I’m saying that it presently can’t but needs to advance.

If religion can be liberated from its current deadlock, it stands a good chance of fulfilling its primary function as incubator of the human spirit. I don’t use the words spirit or spirituality with any metaphysical associations – as something that inhabits and survives the body – but rather as metaphor of the mystical intuition and creative intelligence that links us, as the rhythmic urgency of breathing from which the metaphor of spirit derives (Greek pneuma, Latin spiritus), to the deeper and larger reality in which we (hopefully) find ourselves.

In its current condition religion isn’t serving our spiritual incubation as a species, but is rather holding the human spirit captive. Instead of lifting us up and setting us free, it is holding us down and locking us inside toxic convictions. The polarization between complacency and terrorism, between those who use religion to cultivate security and privilege and those who use it to justify resentment and violence, is setting the stage for our likely extinction – one way or the other.

A fast-growing third party, which I’ll call the unaffiliated commonsense liberals, is working hard to throw god down and expose the underlying pathology in religion. They take a “surgical” approach to the solution: Cut it out and move on. It’s time to grow up. No more sleeping in mommy’s lap or pleading with daddy to save us. We need to leave religion in the nursery with our pacifiers and security blankets. We’re on our own, folks.

But religion isn’t a product of infantile dependency – or at least it’s not only that. To those who sit in church pews or strap on explosives it must also be said that religion is not about getting “it” right or proving “them” wrong. It’s not really about you at all. In fact, the widespread assumption that religion is about me and my security, my meaning, my purpose, or my destiny in the next life is precisely where religion today is stuck. So if I’m going to clear some space for a fourth option – not complacency, not terrorism, and not atheism either – then we need to spend a little time trying to understand what’s in the way.

Ego 1Taking an historical and evolutionary perspective on the phenomenon of religion reveals it as something that has developed over time. This development of religion is correlated to the emergence of individual consciousness – of the growing awareness in the individual of himself or herself as an individual, an irreducible center of identity. This is what is meant by the term “ego,” or I: an anchoring reference point of a self-conscious orientation in reality.

Identity has to do with being a part of something, at the same time as you are apart from other things. This is the dynamic of attachment (a part of, belonging) and separation (apart from, distinction) that each of us must negotiate – or I should rather say, the negotiation of which results in who each of us comes to be.

Archetypally we can associate our attachment need with Mother and our separation need with Father, regardless of who actually plays these primary roles in our early life. What in psychology is called “ego strength” is the centered, stable, and healthy balance in the personality between our ego needs to fit in and feel secure on the one hand, and to stand out and feel special on the other.

Ego 2Now, let’s pretend that this all goes reasonably well. We are enabled to occupy our own center of identity, as the tether for an expanding perspective on reality, a widening sphere of concerns, values, and choices. With maturity we understand ourselves within the increasing complexity of our situation, managing the balance between our dependency and responsibility.

A healthy and stable identity provide us with two critical points of access to the present mystery of reality, one opening downward to what is within us, and the other opening upward to what is beyond us. I call these two orientations communion and transcendence, respectively, and together they represent the farther reaches of our human nature.

They are complementary principles like Yin and Yang, with communion inviting awareness to sink below the consciousness of self, in a gradual and steady release of identity until all reference to “me and mine” has dissolved away. Transcendence works in the opposite direction, not releasing the ego but going beyond it across an extended web of relationships.

A religion that affirms and supports ego strength in this healthy sense will encourage the practitioner to “go within” for communion with the grounding mystery and “go beyond” in transcendence to the universe that is our home. Healthy religion – not the kind that is stuck with the ego and can’t advance – should thus be the outspoken advocate for both “mystical” (ground) and “scientific” (universe) research. In that case, each of us would regularly practice meditation (whatever helps you descend the rhythms of your body and enter that deep clearing of a calm presence) and build out a rational model of reality based on the evidence of careful observation.

If we stop pretending for a moment and instead take account of how things have actually gone with religion, we can begin to appreciate where it gets hung up. For whatever reason, ego strength isn’t established and the functional balance in our need for attachment and separation is thrown off-center. Because our personal histories are unique, how it happens for you will be different from how it happens for me, but the consequences of our dislocation (Buddhist dukha) will be predictably similar.Ego 3When our insecurity overwhelms the need to separate and become our own person, any number of “attachment disorders” may result. To some extent, however, they all have to do with our desperate drive to put ourselves beneath what (or whom) we hope will dispel our anxiety. Submission, in the sense of throwing ourselves on the mercy of god (or whatever) out of a sense of guilt, shame, or depravity, regards “the other” as everything and the self as nothing. Typically “the other” – represented in an external deity perhaps – is really an externalization of the sick ego’s own self-condemnation. Confessing our unworthiness and inability to change brings a brief but temporary relief of the burden, as the shameful part of ourselves is admitted to be seen. But it won’t last, and we’ll soon be back for another “fix.”

A different set of problems emerges when our need for attachment is not adequately met and we are left to establish ourselves by showing off and chasing fame. Whereas healthy development would give us the strength to go beyond “me” and “mine” for the sake of cooperation, participation, and even self-sacrifice for a greater good, an inability to get beyond ourselves compels us to self-inflation instead. Now it really is all about me. Individuals with “separation disorders” crave recognition, are fixated on self-importance, seek their own glory, and have to be better than others. (This sounds a bit like the biblical deity Yahweh in his adolescent phase.) Tragically, their passionate drive to stand out and be recognized too often alienates the very audience whose praise and approval they so desperately need, and they end up alone.


So where does all of this lead me, as it concerns the present predicament of religion? Once again, I don’t think the answer is to “be done” with religion and finally grow up. Clearly the lukewarm and sentimental religion in many of our churches won’t help us much, nor is violence in god’s name (whichever god) our way through. We don’t need to condemn the ego or glorify it. But we can drop it from time to time and sink into an ineffable mystery; we can leap off its shoulders into a larger experience of what is going on all around us.

Of course, to let go of ourselves requires an ability to let go of some other things as well. One step at a time …


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