As an advocate for post-theism I give frequent attention to the question of how it differs from theism. I’ve made the point that the “post” in post-theism should not be interpreted to mean that theism is being left behind for a more preferable secular atheism. Whereas atheism takes its very existence from the debate over whether or not god is to be taken literally, post-theism (at least the variant of post-theism I’m interested in promoting) presses beyond the debate to consider how our representations of god in art, story, and theology either support or arrest our spiritual evolution.
Central to my argument is the claim that a distinct concept of god, personified in myth as one who watches over and provides for us in exchange for our worship and obedience, is not only conducive to our moral development (and therefore in the interest of our tribe as well) but also awakens in us the higher virtues of compassion, responsibility, benevolence, and forgiveness. A longitudinal review of a religion’s mythology (i.e., its library of sacred stories) reveals an unmistakable development of its principal literary figure (i.e., the deity) in this same direction. In other words, the mythological god sets before the community a moral exemplar and stimulant to what we are in the process of becoming.
And whence do these stories arise? Do they come to us by a vertical drop out of heaven or from a period in history when people actually witnessed metaphysical realities, supernatural interventions, and miraculous events? This search for origins and evidence is really exposing the fact that the stories have already lost their power. When multiple narratives cross and weave the very fabric of your worldview, the literary god who lives in the stories functions as a causal agent in the way everything holds together. Once the background assumptions in the myth lose currency, however, or fall out of alignment with present-day theories of the universe, the literal existence of that god suddenly becomes a question for debate.
Because we have lost (or outgrown) our ability to simply inhabit our stories and engage the god who lives in them, the only way theism can hold on is by insisting that its myths are not myths at all, but rather factual reports of things long ago, far ahead, or otherwise outside the world in which we live. So you have no choice but to either take it literally, as orthodoxy requires, or else toss it all on the pile of outdated cultural junk.
Post-theism, on the other hand, encourages a fresh exploration of myth and its resident deity. But rather than reducing mythology to the stories different tribes tell about their gods (comprising the various religions), it insists that we not leave out of consideration the third component of theism, ego, around whose evolutionary destiny this whole thing turns. Beyond being a mechanism of societal cohesion and control, theistic religion has our individual formation, awakening, liberty, and transcendence at heart – at least this is what I aim to show.
Let’s track the hero adventure of this quirky social construct of identity known as ego (or “I”). Depending on where in this adventure we decide to insert ourselves for a look, everything, from its internal state and sense of self, its dependency and regard for others, its perception of time, and its mental model of reality as a whole, will be construed according to a few basic energizing concerns. These concerns are, we might say, the pressure points where individual consciousness confronts reality with its most urgent and timely need.
I see these as formative periods when the linkage (religare again) of consciousness to reality is having to be renegotiated, in the passage through self-consciousness and into what lies beyond. For the sake of simplicity, I will focus on just three such formative periods. It seems to me that these three stages of transformation provide a way of viewing ego development as consisting of trimesters (though not all of equal duration) and culminating in the transition of consciousness to the more spiritually grounded (and selfless) experience we call soul.
The transpersonal psychologist Stanislav Grof has conducted a lot of research into the basic images, metaphors, and mythic themes that inform non-ordinary states of consciousness. Particularly intriguing are the deep and universal images with roots in our pre-personal memories of our mother’s womb and the birth experience.
A kind of paradisal garden prevailed in utero where the biological requirements of our body were instantaneously met. In that environment our consciousness registered a feeling of undifferentiated oneness, blissfully absent the pang of need.
(Already nearly a century ago, Romain Rolland, in a personal letter to Sigmund Freud, encouraged the good doctor to investigate what he named an “oceanic feeling” of oneness with reality, which Rolland believed may lie beneath all religions. Freud adopted the term, but proceeded to reduce it to “narcissistic elation.”)
Then the time came for our “eviction.” The walls around us began to contract and we were forced down a narrow passage with no foreseeable exit. We know from obstetrics that the birth experience is stressful on a fetus: falling out of the bliss state and down a constricting tunnel constitutes, following Grof’s theory, our first experience of trauma as a human being. Occasionally the birth canal and pelvic girdle of the mother are such that a safe passage is difficult or even impossible, which amplifies the distress considerably.
The light at the end of the tunnel introduces the newborn to a strange reality, very different from the one left behind. Instead of an oceanic state of warm satisfied comfort, the infant is jostled about in a dizzying kaleidoscope of flashes, shadows, and odd shapes, accompanied by the intrusion of harsh sounds and fluctuating temperatures. For the first time, need forces itself into consciousness with the inaugural gasp for air and sharp pangs of hunger. This is definitely “east of Eden,” the beginning of life in exile.
When we look out across the mythology of world religions, this pattern of Bliss-Fall-Exile starts showing up everywhere. Even when we survey the so-called secular literature of poetry, novels, and even non-fiction writing, this same archetype of a three-part transition into a state of separation and loss (along with a longing to return to “the way it used to be”) is remarkably widespread. The reason is that this archetype – this “first form” or primal pattern – is really down there, in the earliest strata of our perinatal memory.
Following our expulsion from Eden and finding ourselves in exile, our next challenge involved two more archetypes – Mother and Father. While for many of us these terms match up to our actual biological parents, this isn’t necessarily the case.
“Mother” names the provident power in whom we found nourishment, comfort, warmth, and emotional bonding. She was our secure base, the one place we could go for the reassurance that “all is well.” Our first attachment (after the Fall) was to Mother, and she provided the safe place where we could simply relax into being.
“Father,” contrastingly, was our first Other, whose presence was as an Outsider. His existence called to us from across a chasm of otherness and issued the challenge to step out into our own developing individuality. The secure base represented in the enveloping embrace of Mother needed to be left behind, if only momentarily, in order to prove ourselves capable and worthy of recognition. Father was the pat on the back when we succeeded in a task, as well as the voice who encouraged us to give it another try when we fell short.
Obviously I am invoking the developmental archetypes of Mother and Father in their ideal forms. In actuality no mother is the “perfect mother” and no father the “perfect father.” Consequently ego’s adventure through this phase of the journey is for most of us complicated by fears of abandonment, rejection, criticism – and of the failure that will surely subject us to these dreadful ends. A general insecurity drags on us like gravity, causing us to hesitate when we should better move ahead, or foolishly leap before we take the time to carefully look where we are likely to land.
There can be little doubt that these developmental archetypes are beneath some of the earliest metaphors of God in religion: mother earth and father sky. In the middle of their embrace, our ancestors experienced the provident mystery of reality. Soil and fruit were gifts from mother earth; sun and rain were gifts from father sky. Life itself was sustained in the love they shared, in the way they cooperated for the provision of what early humans required to survive and prosper.
Even in the Bible, reflecting a time when this divine partnership was replaced with the notion of an exclusive sky god – our Father in heaven – the maternal qualities of the earth were still celebrated in song and poetry, as Yahweh’s good and bountiful creation. As time went on, however, and a metaphysical dualism took over late Judaism and early Christianity, the earth was increasingly depersonalized and degraded into a mere resource for humans to exploit. Along with the earth, woman and the body, too, were demoted in value, regarded as the footholds of sin and death.
This is where the mythic quest of Captain Ego is currently stuck, in my opinion. Because our consciousness (speaking collectively) is caught in the web of neurotic disorders – fixated on security (Mother) or overly ambitious for esteem and self-importance (Father) – we are unable to advance on the path to genuine fulfillment. Some of us have, or are in the process of making our way through this impasse. Thankfully, some of those who succeeded cared enough to return with insights and guidance for the rest of us. They passed along their wisdom, and where it hasn’t been corrupted and twisted back into an orthodoxy of world escape, sectarian fundamentalism, or redemptive violence by their so-called followers, we can find help in their teachings.
This final set of archetypes I call “esoteric,” not because it is secret knowledge but rather because it involves a decisively inward turn (Greek esoterikos = inner) of consciousness. The esoteric teachings of religion take us directly into mystical spirituality, where the initiate is led along a descending path toward an experience too deep for words. In order to make the descent, ego must drop through a series of levels by letting go of the various convictions, beliefs, expectations, and attachments that give it identity, that together define who “I” am.
Of course this also means that ego needs to “let go of god” – or its idea of God. In the process, theology, which is only a theory of God, falls apart and dissolves away, releasing awareness at last into the ineffable mystery of being itself, or what some mystics name “divine presence.” This divine presence is not the “presence of god,” as if the deity who was somewhere else a moment ago is now here with me. It is pure presence, the Real Presence of mystery, the present mystery of reality. This is what is meant by the “post” in post-theism, referring to the experience of presence after ego has let go of its god.
A number of mystics speak of this experience of the grounding mystery as a kind of return to the envelopment of bliss we enjoyed before this whole adventure got underway. In his interview with Bill Moyers (“The Power of Myth”), Joseph Campbell is invited to contemplate the implications of saying “not that Eden was, but that Eden will be.” (Eden is the Hebrew name for the garden paradise in Genesis.)
After a pause Campbell replies: “Eden is.”