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Monthly Archives: December 2014

Our Quest for Oneness

Despite the fact that so much of religion tends to divide and antagonize (including terrorize), I’ve been exploring its essential function as a unifying force in human culture. We take as our starting point the root meaning of the word “religion” itself, deriving from the Latin religare, to link back or reconnect. Whatever distortions or corruptions it has taken on over the centuries, it seems to me that we should check these against the deeper or original intention of religion before we simply reject it out of hand as obsolete, oppressive, and dangerous.

As with everything cultural, religion emerged and evolved over time according to the developmental needs, crises, and opportunities of our species. Stone Age religion certainly looked different from anything we can observe today, though perhaps some strong family resemblance continues in present-day aboriginal societies that still live in close communion with “wild” nature. I’ve promoted a theory which interprets this development of religion as correlated with three centers of consciousness (or mental locations) that open up in sequence and steadily add to our general picture of what is real and what really matters.

Triune 1The names of these three centers of consciousness employ familiar terms (body, ego, soul), but with important adjustments from the way they are popularly understood. A primary polarity is represented in body and soul, which simply identify the two directional orientations of human awareness: outward to the sensory-physical realm (body) and inward to the intuitive-mystical realm (soul). These are not “parts of the self” but rather mental locations that open awareness to distinct dimensions of experience.

A popular confusion draws an equation between soul and ego, my third mental location. But in fact ego and soul are not two names for the same thing. Soul, once again, refers to our inward orientation and deep inner life, while ego is our socially constructed center of identity. While I admit that an established center of identity (ego = I) is what makes our primary split in orientation possible in the first place, ego actually inhabits its own realm: the socio-moral arena of life in our tribe.

In the above illustration, the primary polarity of body and soul is indicated by a green connector while ego sits on its own. This makes the point that ego is a construct of culture, both a product and symptom of society, which makes it the wild card in our evolutionary adventure. More on that below.Triune 2

Religion is thus designed to coordinate these three centers of consciousness (body, soul, ego) and their corresponding realms. Together these centers comprise the animal, spiritual, and personal aspects of a human being. Our development, as individuals and a species, advances sequentially through stages beginning in the body, moving through an ego-dominant period, and deepening all the while into a more inwardly grounded mode of being.

I have designated these general stages of religion as animistic (body-centered), theistic (ego-centered), and post-theistic (soul-centered). Just because development has advanced beyond a stage doesn’t mean that the experiences and concerns peculiar to that stage are no longer relevant. On the contrary, those experiences and concerns are taken up and incorporated into the next stage and updated according to its emergent paradigm of meaning.

As the wild card in the set, ego represents a strong element of risk against the eventual fulfillment of this project. In previous posts I have tried to describe the factors that tend to compromise what psychology rightly names “ego strength” – the well-centered self confidence that develops as our needs for safety, love, power and worth are adequately met.

In the best of all possible worlds, we grow up in a family environment where these needs are fulfilled and our personal identity (ego) is securely established. Of course, we don’t live in the best of all possible worlds and our caretakers are not perfect. As a consequence, the ego adapts and compensates for the insecurity by defending itself, pretending to be what it’s not, and insisting on being the center of reality. Interestingly, but not really surprisingly, theism – as the model of religion that co-evolves with the ego – often portrays its principal deity in corresponding ways, as craving glory, jealous of rivals, and prone to violence in his campaign for supremacy.

Since in previous posts I’ve deconstructed the perverse influence of ego insecurity on the otherwise respectable and developmentally necessary stage of theism, I want to move now in a completely opposite direction with my analysis. It’s easy to commit the mistake of effectively dismissing theism as only a transitional stage (more like a phase) along our way to something better. From my comments on the ego, about the inevitable and worldwide neuroses that pull theism into various dangerous corruptions (sectarianism, exclusionary membership, extremism, and redemptive violence), you might assume I have nothing good to say about either one of them.

On the contrary.

Triune FullThe diagram above shows where theism fits into the evolutionary scheme of religion. Our animal nature of the body connects us (religare) outwardly to the sensory-physical Universe, while our spiritual nature (or what I prefer to call our higher self) links us inwardly to the intuitive-mystical Ground. Both “Universe” and “Ground” are synonyms of sort, each communicating the idea of oneness: Universe as the nuance of totality (the All), and Ground as essence. As I said earlier, this body-soul axis forms the primary polarity in which human beings live. Ego (our wild card variable) tugs development in a horizontal direction, where we find a third nuance of oneness, encountered as the Other.

This, I would say, is the real genius in theism: regarding the present mystery of reality in its specific incarnation as one who stands opposite of me, in a space of absolute difference insofar as the other is deep-down unique and truly an individual (from individuum, the indivisible). In the process of ego development, identity is shaped and challenged in relationship with others who come out to meet us from the dark recess of otherness. We’re not talking about the role-plays of social performance that govern so much of our daily interaction, but about the direct encounter between one self and another.

To conceive of God as Other in this sense, as a transcendent and absolute self who comes out to meet us or calls us out of our selves to an encounter, considers the present mystery of reality in terms of a one-to-one relationship. As the Jewish writer Martin Buber explained in his seminal book I and Thou, this faith in reality as arising out of the primal relationship of self and Other frames our whole existence in the dynamics of mutuality, dialogue, estrangement, and reconciliation.

This might encourage us to re-read our Bible as a mythological exploration (of quest, encounter, and response) into reality as the reciprocal adventure of humanity’s longing for God and God’s outreach to humanity. To simply take the Bible literally and make God into a literal being (i.e., a god) only serves to strip out its internal complexity, leaving nothing more than supposedly factual reports of supernatural events and once-upon-a-time miracles. When this happens, the Bible becomes, in the words of Francis Bacon, “an idol of the tribe.” It stops speaking and becomes only words.

What if instead we engaged the Bible as a literary portrait – really a collection of portraits – of the human being as formed in relationship with Holy Otherness, as falling out of union and trying to hide our nakedness from The Gaze, as distracting ourselves in mediocrity or striving for superiority, and at last hearing the call to an awakened life and returning to intimacy with The One who never left us? That would be a very different Bible from the one pumped from most pulpits today, would it not?

As I said at the beginning, our developmental advance from one mental location (and one stage of religion) to the next doesn’t mean that we grow up and get past those deeper needs and concerns. Just as theism doesn’t (or shouldn’t) seek to discredit the animist vision of reality as it sets out to expand on the dynamics of relationship, neither does (or should) post-theism dismiss the genuine insight of I and Thou at the heart of theism as it cultivates a more contemplative engagement with the grounding mystery of Being itself.

Our quest for oneness at each stage turns out to be a chapter (and ongoing theme) in the longer human journey to communion. Whether we celebrate our place in the living Universe, reach out with care to the holy Other, or sink inward to the nameless Ground of our being, we are fulfilling a most enduring and sacred of human quests.

 

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Lost in The Message

Present Mystery FullWhat’s your message? What philosophy of life – theories, beliefs, values, and aims – do you live by? Each of us has a message, a personalized interpretation of what life is about, what really matters. Some of us are more consistent in the way we put our philosophy of life into practice, and some philosophies of life are more thoughtfully composed than others. But we all have one – or I should say, each of us has one, which means that all of us taken together represent billions of different messages concerning the nature of reality, the purpose of existence, the meaning of life, and how we ought to live.

If we shift focus from individuals to societies, we can see that entire groups of people are characterized by the messages of their respective traditions. There’s a Christian message and a Buddhist message, and inside each we will find variations on the principal message: Roman Catholic, Baptist, Evangelical or Progressive Christian; Mahayana, Theravada, Zen or Pure Land Buddhist. These group-level distinctions are more numerous than you might first expect, and the variations on a message will multiply exponentially the deeper we look, until, once again, we find ourselves face-to-face with this individual Christian or that individual Buddhist (or whatever brand of message we happen to be considering).

Any message (at whatever level) can only speak out of the range of experiences informing it. No human being can hold everything inside his or her frame of reference, and even when we adopt someone else’s message into our own, we are unable to escape the limitations inherent to just having a perspective. Some cultural messages, like the religions mentioned a moment ago, claim that their perspective on reality was revealed to them by someone who did (or does) in fact comprehend everything in a limitless perspective, which is a contradiction supernaturally transcended in this case.

But you have only to study it in closer detail to discover that their so-called revealed message carries assumptions about the universe that are millenniums out of date, along with ethical values and directives that today many regard as barbaric at best. Even if their message once had the mystique of encompassing all of reality, it’s obvious now that it cannot – and didn’t back then, either.

So all of us carry messages that articulate a philosophy of life, conclusions and conjectures that orient us meaningfully in reality. My message is not exactly the same as yours by virtue of our different backgrounds, histories, situations and personalities (to use very broad categories). And neither of us holds the same philosophy of life today as we did, say, ten years ago. The slow process of maturity changes us, and along the way we come upon opportunities, suffer losses, and learn things that our former self could not have imagined or wished for.Present Mystery 3So many messages, so many different philosophies of life might inspire a more thoughtful exploration of meaning, if only we could get past the outer orbit where we all are promoting our messages as the best or only right one. But let’s say for now that we can. If there are so many variants in how human beings interpret reality and make sense of things, what can be said about the nature of meaning itself? If you have yours and I have mine, then at least we should be able to agree that meaning is more complex than our divergent messages would have us believe.

Indeed, the “meaning of life” that each of us is busy constructing is incapable of being reduced to a publishable message. There is just too much information, too many angles and perspectives, too many different ways of arranging and connecting the countless points of human experience, to break it all down into a single exhaustive philosophy of life. If we can step deeper into the complexity of what we might dare call THE human experience, we have to be willing to leave behind the either/or logic of competing messages and develop a tolerance for paradox.

It is possible that your message and mine are two legitimate spins on the meaning of life, constructed out of two distinct vantage points on the present mystery of reality and generated out of experiences that are deep-down unique according to the specific conditions that make us two different individuals. Our competing messages or philosophies of life may be irreconcilable, but perhaps all our efforts at negotiating a total agreement or eliminating our competition are fundamentally misguided. We are finally coming to understand that our ambition for one supreme and absolute message will most likely lead to our collective extinction.

Meaning, then, has to do with the haphazard and more intentionally systematic ways that human beings select from the moving stream of experience those sensations, impressions, and patterns that correspond to the apparatus of our nature as sentient beings. We “tune into” reality along frequencies matching our human needs for safety, nourishment, intimacy, identity, freedom, purpose and significance. It’s that last (and highest) need, for significance, which drives our incessant activity of meaning-making: constructing a “world” and composing a philosophy of life (our message) that will orient us meaningfully in reality.Present Mystery 2The construction of meaning begins in the act of reflecting on experience and forming a mental image that depicts it internally to the mind. As we would expect, the images which first ascend into consciousness are generated out of the primary experiences of being in the provident garden of our mother’s womb, falling out of union and pressed through a narrow passage into exile, thereafter compelled by the pang of need to find the sustenance, protection, and warm bonds of security that will ensure our survival.

The entire drama of birth is preserved in this way, as powerful archetypal impressions coded into our subconscious memory. These reflex images continue to serve as primal templates for what concerns us existentially as human beings; they are foundation for everything else we construct “higher up” in the configuration of meaning called our world. (I’ll refer the reader to the work of Stanislav Grof for more on that topic.)

Because they provide this bridge from direct and spontaneous experience into the organized construction site of our world, these reflex images are known as metaphors (from meta, across + phorein, to carry). Not to be confused with the similes and analogies by which we compare and make sense of things we know in other ways, metaphors operate as grounding for language, anchors that tie our otherwise free-floating world systems to the present mystery of reality. When they are engaged (typically at deep intuitive levels), these images draw consciousness down to its source. Rather than representing something (some thing) external to the mind, an archetypal metaphor is a “dark depiction” of our own essential ground.

And what is this ground exactly? We can’t say, for the simple reason that its reality as the ground of being is deeper than words can reach. Once the threshold between meaning and mystery is crossed, in the direct and spontaneous experience of reality, we leave meaning behind and enter the ineffable presence of being-in-the-moment. Not a being, but being-itself.Present Mystery 1This is where everything begins – not in the once-upon-a-time sense of begin, but as the timeless source of your existence in each moment. The present mystery of reality, which might also be named the Real Presence of Mystery, is evident all around you in its countless manifestations. As one of these manifestations of the present mystery, you also have the opportunity to descend through the interior of your own being, into deeper and deeper registers of contemplative experience until, releasing the last (which were really the first) forms of self-definition, awareness breaks through to … this.

We can review the long history of religion as the pouring-forth of mystery into meaning, and meaning into the numerous messages or philosophies of life encircling our planet today. With so many parties and denominations calling at us to join in agreement and have a seat in the sanctuary, more people than ever before are feeling lost in the message. So much of it leaves us baffled, but also slightly offended at the demand that we distrust ourselves and let someone else do our thinking for us.

More people now than ever are seeking to push through the mob of placards and pickets, ready even to drop their own heart-crossed creeds in the quest for a deeper truth. Because they are straining against the outflow of world construction that’s been going on for many generations, the effort and intention of these seekers is interpreted by the custodians of orthodoxy as defiance, disobedience, and rebellion. But they are not interested in anarchy. They aren’t promoting atheism or dabbling in New Age superstitions.

What they seek is Real Presence – in themselves, in their relationships and communities, in the way they live on the earth. For all I know, you may be one of them.

 

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Post-Theism and the Great Work of Religion

The progress of religion towards post-theism has its critics on either side, with devoted theists decrying it as just another form of atheism, and atheists voicing their suspicion that it’s taking us backwards into superstition and tribalism when we need to be moving forward into the enlightenment of science and technology. Theists are sure that the “post” in post-theism is motivated out of a desire to get rid of god, to get past our need for what god represents and provides. On the other side, atheists hear “theism” in post-theism and are convinced that it’s nothing more than a postmodern reconstruction of the same old neurosis.

But the “post” and “theism” in post-theism are misunderstood in each case. In fact, post-theism represents the direction religion must go – indeed it’s the direction that religion is already going, despite the slide at its margins into the corruptions of complacency and terrorism. You might be surprised to learn that you are a post-theist, but I make no presumptions.

Animist_TheistReligion began in the body, where the visceral urgencies of our animal life resonate with and link into (religare means to connect) the rhythms of nature. Earliest religion was animistic, preoccupied with the provident support of reality and the life-force that ebbs and flows along the rhythmic cycles of natural time. The pressing concern was to live in accord with these cycles, to flourish in the fertile grooves of dependency and to celebrate the mystery, both tremendous and fascinating (Rudolph Otto’s mysterium tremendum et fascinans), in which we exist.

There were no “gods” as yet, no external causes or agencies behind the forces impinging on us. The thunderstorm, for instance, wasn’t regarded as controlled or sent by some supervising intelligence separate from the storm. Rather the thunderstorm was itself the violent and refreshing expression of life-force. Its power manifested a vital energy and aroused sympathetic vibrations in our nervous system.

As time went on and the smaller family clans of our early human ancestors grew larger and more socially complex, this new cultural environment of the tribe gradually eclipsed a direct relationship with nature. In order for the individual to become a compliant member of the group, animal urgencies of the body had to be “trained” into morally acceptable behavior as befit the tribal order. The social construction of identity thus domesticated our animal nature and installed a deputy manager in the ego, with the authority of executive management retained by the tribe.

It was probably the question of “who’s in charge” – as key to the smooth operation of social roles and duties – that first inspired a reconsideration of nature as managed by external agencies, giving rise to the notion of deities as supervising directors behind what is happening around us. Conceiving a sovereign intelligence “on the other side” of our limiting conditions transformed the human-nature relationship into an exchange of services. As human devotees offered their prayers, worship, and sacrifices to a patron deity, it was hoped that the deity would in turn grant success in childbirth, a bountiful harvest, victory over an enemy, comfort in suffering, beatitude in the next life, or whatever boon was under the deity’s control and discretion.

Theist_AtheistSomewhere along the line, someone called “B.S.” and the game changed. The denial of (a) god’s existence might have been a simple refusal to accept the reality of something unavailable to direct experience. It may have come as science was starting to penetrate the veil of what’s really behind the phenomena of nature. Or perhaps it was provoked by the confrontation of a divine will and humane values, as ethical defiance of a deity’s demand for child sacrifice, for instance. Then again, our First Atheist may have simply been unable, with intellectual integrity, to accept the popular personification or orthodox theory of god.

The moment someone publicly said “No” to (this or that idea of) god, theism became an option and people had to choose between believing or not believing – that is, between taking the traditional myths and doctrines literally, or dismissing them as bunk and balderdash. Due to the morally charged nature of the tribe, and of the individual’s identity as a member of the tribe, this polarity of options quickly collapsed into a conflict of opposing views. Inevitably, it seems, theists and atheists are compelled by force of their differing convictions into dogmatic positions, each refusing to listen to the other and both fantasizing a world where the other no longer exists.

The rise of post-theism begins right here, in the tension generated between the poles of theism and atheism. It’s important to understand that post-theism is not merely a marketing makeover of theism, nor is it a postmodern restatement of atheism. And even though the dogmatists on both sides cannot (will not) acknowledge post-theism as a viable “third option,” there is a growing number of both theists and atheists who are creatively promoting its advance. This is because more contemporary thinking individuals are coming around to the realization that, one way or the other, we really just don’t know.

AgnosticBetween the dogmatic positions on either side of the theist-atheist debate, a significant population of truth-seekers around the planet and across cultures are finding space to breathe, as they acknowledge that the grounding mystery of being, which the myths and metaphors of religion attempt to name, is beyond language and the grasp of our minds. To say that it does or doesn’t exist in the guise of one deity or another is to miss the real insight of this agnostic confession. The point is that all our attempts to talk about it, as part of an effort to prove or disprove its objective existence, move us out and away from the very truth we are contemplating.

Post-theism begins, then, as theists and atheists alike humbly admit that the Real Presence of mystery (or the present mystery of reality, including, of course, the reality of our own existence) is ineffable – incapable of being described in words or reduced to meaning. Any honest thinking person cannot dismiss the awareness that language and the meaning we construct only qualifies this mystery, but will never contain it. For that reason we must renounce the tendency in ourselves towards dogmatism, and leave open a “space” in our belief systems for a deep, silent wonder.

Fighting over the existence of god is thus a contest over meaning that gets us no closer to the grounding mystery and provident uplift of life in this moment. Whether theist or atheist, each of us needs to descend through that open space and ponder the umbilical opening where meaning crystallizes and dissolves again into the mystery. Obviously this requires us to be sufficiently centered and self-aware, as well as contemplatively engaged in the moment. If you and I can both speak out of that agnostic space of not-knowing, offering our perspectives and beliefs in a spirit of humility, the Great Work of religion can proceed.

DialogicalThe theist-atheist debate is a win-lose contest (and all too quickly becomes a war). Dialogue, on the other hand, is this activity of sharing our perspective without a need to persuade or convince a dialogue partner to our position. We speak and listen with openness, curiosity, respect, and in a mutual understanding of the necessary incompleteness (and possible distortions) in our relative points of view. Through the back-and-forth of dialogue, meaning (logos) forms between (dia) the partners. It is no longer merely a reciprocal sharing but becomes a mutual co-creation of higher meaning.

Full ChartWith my illustration now complete, what I’m calling the “Great Work” of religion approaches fulfillment. With its commitment to keeping an open space of agnostic confession and enjoining other perspectives in healthy dialogue, post-theism takes up the responsibility of constructing shared meaning. This constructivist phase is where the providential uplift of the grounding mystery, experienced in the mystical depths of contemplative awareness, finally bears fruit in a paradoxical vision: The truth of both/and honors our differences as it energizes the ongoing pursuit of inclusive community.

                                                                                

Note: The color-code of text in my diagram corresponds to that in previous posts.

  • Black = Body, vitality, animal nature, carnal, instinct, urgency
  • Orange = Ego, identity, inner child, personal, fantasy, obedience
  • Purple = Soul, authenticity, higher self, spiritual, wisdom, responsibility
 

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