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.
Taking 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.
Now, 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.When 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 …