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Monthly Archives: February 2015

Pushing on Belief

A human being creates a world like a spider spins a web. As an innate impulse of the mind, this need to construct meaning is irresistible, and the prospect of living without meaning – of living a meaningless existence – is widely regarded as a fate worse than death. We are ready to give up on life, and willing to take the lives of others, when our meaning is lost or threatened.

Like other propensities and reflexes of our deeper nature, this impulse to make meaning carries the authority of reality. That is to say, we can easily assume that the meaning we construct and the habitations of meaning (or worlds) we live in are a property of the way things really are, independent of us and inherent to reality itself.

This assumption has been part of the “mental lens” of our mind as a species for many thousands of years, and it is responsible both for our cultural progress around the planet and the natural disasters following in its wake. It’s only been very recently that we have begun to realize that how we see reality is much less about the way things really are, and more about our need for security, identity, purpose and significance.

Constructivism is a philosophical approach to understanding meaning as a product of human nature rather than a fixed property of reality itself. Meaning is made, not discovered in the traditional sense of finding it “out there,” buried beneath the facts or dropped out of heaven and waiting to be found.

Of course, this means that constructivism is itself a construct of meaning. It does not presume to offer any kind of “final theory” or last word on the subject. Indeed, if this approach is valid (and I believe it is), then a final theory or last word is a self-contradiction – unless we are referring to the theory that finally takes out our species, signaling the end to a nuclear age and the likely extinction of life on Earth.

What needs to happen in order for that scenario not to happen is that we individually learn how to be more responsible creators of the worlds we inhabit. How can we step out of the naiveté that is accelerating us to the edge of extinction – ironically for the sake of our precious meaning – and into a more adult mode of creative authority?

Part of the answer is that we need to understand the relationship of meaning to belief, which is the insight of constructivism. Another part of the answer moves deeper into an understanding of how beliefs form and then fuse together into the webs of meaning we live in and are all too willing to die or kill for. Let’s start with the question of what it means to believe something.Pushing BeliefBy definition a belief (from the root meaning “to love or hold dear”) is an emotional commitment to a judgment you make about something. Some judgments are tentative and provisional until you make an emotional investment in them, which effectively personalizes these judgments and makes them meaningful to you.

When someone makes a statement and you don’t believe it, you are withholding emotional investment from that statement and choosing not to take it personally. Very likely you are simultaneously forming a judgment about the person who just made that statement, investing yourself emotionally in a conclusion about him or her. You have constructed a belief.

A belief, then, is a conclusion or a closing-down on something with your mind in order to render a judgment about it, together with some degree of emotional commitment to its truth. Some beliefs might be true, while others must be true. These different emotional values determine where a particular judgment resides in your belief system.

As my diagram above illustrates, a belief that holds less emotional commitment (and which only might be true) is called an opinion. Because you take them less personally and their truth-value is not essential to your web of meaning (or “world”), you likely enjoy sharing your opinions with others and hearing theirs in turn. With a lower charge of emotional commitment, opinions are characteristically flexible, experimental, and easily modified or abandoned.

Whenever someone presses on your belief system by engaging you in conversation about a topic you find interesting but not essential to your life’s meaning, you can be open-minded and tolerant where your perspectives don’t quite match up. Your conversation partner might know more about the topic than you, and you can accept what he or she has to say without getting offended, even modifying or updating your opinion as the conversation progresses.

But then this person, with whom until now you’ve been receptive and open-minded, says something that you find incredible, offensive, or blasphemous. You have a history with this particular belief and you take it much more personally. The umbrage or horror you feel, along with the felt need to debate the statement and defend your truth, indicates that this belief is more deeply situated in your web of meaning and has a lot more riding on it. In pressing on this belief, the other person has poked deep enough to activate a conviction.

Convictions don’t allow open-minded dialogue. As the word suggests, a conviction is a belief that incarcerates thought and holds the mind hostage. Whereas once upon a time you may have held this belief as an opinion, over years of anchoring other opinions to this one and thereby making it more essential to your life’s meaning, it now holds you captive.

The certainty it provides is really a rationalization of how secure the conviction makes you feel, and security is not something you want to risk. Pulling on that thread might cause the entire web to tear and unravel, which could result in a global crisis of meaning and world-collapse. Your strategy, whenever a conviction gets poked, will either be to lash out in retaliation, debate your challenger into submission, move quickly to safer ground, or dismiss your opponent as ignorant, impious, and simple-minded.

In fact, you are deluded, and the same can probably be said of your opponent as well. The nature of your delusion lies in the degree in which you have stopped actively thinking and instead given your mind over to the closed loop of a mental script. You can tell when this intellectual bypass is occurring by how irrational you become in defending your conviction. Again, by this time the argument is not about how reasonable, coherent, or evidence-based your belief might be, but about how much is at stake in its truth for you.

By closing down active thought and conscious engagement with the way things really are, convictions separate your mind from reality. An unavoidable consequence is that your life’s meaning is always several steps (or several decades) behind the way things presently are. When we move our consideration to the societal level, this means that entire traditions and cultural worldviews can be hundreds or thousands of years out of date, promoting mandatory belief systems (or orthodoxies) that are wildly out of touch with the concerns and opportunities of contemporary life.

You might think that a belief system is composed only of lightweight, variable opinions and these deeper-set, mind-locking convictions. But there is a third level of beliefs, which are difficult to talk about for the simple reason that they are invisible to your normal conscious operations. This invisibility of your assumptions has nothing to do with secrecy or sophistication, but is rather a function of their role as primary support structures in your web of meaning.

While opinions can be shared and exchanged in your circle of friends, and convictions are either recited in unison among fellow believers or strenuously defended against ideological opponents, assumptions typically never make it to the surface of conversation. Like the lens of your eye which filters and skews the visual information coming in, assumptions are the unquestioned beliefs that determine your most rudimentary mental grasp on reality.

Should someone challenge one of your basic assumptions of meaning, if it even registers at all – and quite often the mind is mentally deaf and blind to such profound challenges – it will likely strike you as literally incredible and not open for discussion. You will probably blink incredulously and shake your head as if to dislodge the strange idea, then abruptly change the subject or quietly walk away.

The key insight of constructivism is an example of just such a challenge to our core assumptions, with its suggestion that meaning is what human beings “make up” and is really a kind of necessary delusion that our nature (and sanity) requires. To press on belief to the point where such assumptions are poked will predictably agitate an all-or-nothing response. Most often it is nothing, so you just dismiss the challenge and move on.

Of the three types of belief comprising your web of meaning, assumptions change least and most slowly – and it should be obvious why this is so. Because many assumptions (probably the vast majority) were adopted and set in place very early in life – indeed, your deepest assumptions were installed into the default state of your autonomic nervous system and preceded the acquisition of language, putting them beyond words (ineffable) and direct conscious access – the very groundwork of what you are is at stake in their preservation through time.

But assumptions can change. Even more importantly you can change assumptions, however longstanding, that have been separating you from the present mystery of reality in unhappy, maladaptive, or pathological ways.

Instead of only playing it safe at the surface where opinions come and go, or occasionally digging deeper into the convictions that electrify the cage around your mind, you might tap open a few of those sacrosanct assumptions that are restricting your soul and keeping you from being fully present to life in this moment.

As you learn to let go and just relax into the grounding mystery, you will find that meaning isn’t all it is made up to be.

 

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The Rupture of Meaning and The Life to Come

Normal everyday operations of your computer at home or work takes into your system a slow accumulation of data in the form of user preferences, security patches and protections, new applications and saved files, internet tracking and downloads – all of which, unless periodically consolidated and cleaned up, will end up oppressing your computer’s memory capacity and slowing its processing speed. Everything gets encumbered and takes longer to respond as your poor computer is trying its best to coordinate all those bits and bytes while still following your commands.

Assuming an adequate operating system is buried somewhere under all that code, what needs to happen is a periodic adjustment where files can be discarded or compressed, programs can be updated to run more efficiently, and that accumulated weight of junk data can be scraped away like barnacles from the hull of a ship. Of course it’s always a good idea to sweep your system for malware (worms, bugs, viruses, and spyware) since that stuff can be terminal (pun noted).

As a metaphor of life, this need to regularly clean out and update your computer system translates directly to the theory of constructivism. This theory holds that human beings are meaning-makers and, further, that meaning is in our minds, not in reality. As distinct from the physical environment where we live, our “world” consists in the overlay of values, associations, and references that our minds spin like a spider’s web across and beyond the given facts of existence. The picture we get from constructivism, then, is of multiple layers (or worlds) of meaning that human beings spin around themselves as persons, partners, families, teams, organizations, tribes, societies, and cultures.

Let’s briefly explore this construction of meaning as it advances across an individual lifespan. This will prepare us to better understand the life transition that I name the “midlife reset,” when this accumulated meaning ruptures and our mental system needs attention.Life StagesThe above diagram illustrates a human lifespan, represented by a magenta-colored arrow arcing from left (past) to right (future). Consistent with a more general theory I’ve been developing, depending on where you are in the lifespan, the segment of time on your left also corresponds to deeper evolutionary layers of your “operating system,” while the segment on your right signals possibilities (and new layers) still to come online.

In the womb and following our birth, individual consciousness is completely “embodied,” which is to say that it is fully immersed in the animal urgencies essential to staying alive. It will be many months before we are capable of thinking about our experience – using words, formulating thoughts, making abstractions, and drawing conclusions. In those earliest days and months we are responding to life as it happens, intent all the while on the degree in which the provision of reality matches the urgency of our need.

The word “passion” derives from the same root as “passive” and is related to “patient,” referring to one who is in a basically receptive and reactive attitude with respect to what’s going on. Our passions (or to use the more modern term, our emotions) have evolved around the challenge of situational adaptation, giving us an ability to meet external objects and events with an attitude that befits the situation and will motivate an adaptive response from us. Desire/Hope, Despair/Sorrow, Disgust/Anger, and Distress/Fear are the four powerful emotional programs that simultaneously simplify and complicate our lives.

You’ll notice that central to my diagram and pivotal to the turning arc of time through the lifespan is what I’m calling “faith.” This shouldn’t be confused with a religion’s orthodox collection of truth statements, or doctrines. Here faith refers to something much deeper and much more important than doctrines; it is the individual’s primal mode (or mood) of being, carried in the nervous system as a resting state of basic trust and openness to reality. And since the nervous system is not digital (“on or off”) but analog (“more or less”), each of us embodies an existential mood located somewhere on the continuum between very secure (grounded, calm, trusting, composed) and very insecure (unsettled, restless, wary, anxious).

It should be obvious that an individual’s foundational mood or mode of being will be determined to a great extent by the nature of his or her early life experience. A hospitable womb and nurturing home environment will elicit more positive passions (confidence, joy, hope, optimism) and help to set a mood of resting assurance that is open and trustful. Negative events such as neglect, privation, abuse or abandonment will have the opposite effect, closing the nervous system against reality for the sake of survival. This passion-faith axis is where the individual’s general outlook on life is set, as happy, depressed, hostile, or phobic.

Farther along the arc of development brings the activation of a more cognitive (thoughtful, intellectual, rational) approach to things. Reason is about causality, relation, intention, and purpose, and with this capacity, significantly assisted by the acquisition and growing mastery of language, our mind goes to work constructing meaning. A key insight of constructivism, as already mentioned, is that meaning is a product of the mind rather than inherent to reality. What is and what happens are the givens of reality; what it means depends on a mind to ask questions and come up with answers.

We construct meaning under the supervision and guidance of our tribe, and great care is taken so that our individual worldview is congruent with the collective worldview of our primary group. The intended outcome is a deep and broad agreement between our minds, an agreement that insures a conservative advancement of the larger cultural heritage wherein our identities are mutually defined and managed.

We are expected to graduate through a series of life accomplishments, completing each assignment at the right time and in the proper order. Lollipops, gold stars, ribbons, trophies, certificates, diplomas, degrees, bonuses, promotions, licenses, property, real estate, social status, and finally dependents of our own that we will support and shape into “one of us” – all along the way we are making agreements, constructing meaning, and loading our operating system with more data. It is generally true that the first half of life is oriented outward in pursuit of accomplishments that our tribe insists are critical to our success, happiness, and good standing in the community.

And then something happens. Our system takes longer and longer to boot up. Our decisions (like key-commands) get bogged down in lag time. Even more concerning, the pursuits and accomplishments that had previously inspired our personal commitment and sacrifice feel increasingly like an exercise in futility. This is a crisis of meaning, and its principal symptoms – as reported in memoirs, case studies, and popular literature – are feelings of emptiness and disorientation: Nothing (or very little) seems to matter, and it feels like everything is reeling off course.

Welcome to the Midlife Reset.

This rupture in life’s meaning forms a fracture that typically reaches down into the foundations of security. Consequently for many this amounts to a “faith emergency” where reality no longer feels provident or trustworthy. To a once-confident theist it can seem as if god has vanished into nonexistence, leaving him or her utterly bereft and forsaken. A percentage of them will conclude (accurately) that the god they believed in never really did exist as they assumed, that he was a figment of their imagination, a mere figure of myth, a construct of the mind, a convention of orthodoxy. This realization leads some into a disenchanted atheism, others get pulled into a desperate and dogmatic fundamentalism, while a few step through the veil in search of a relevant spirituality “after god” (post-theism).

The shift or life transition pressing in at this point of the Midlife Reset was interpreted by C.G. Jung as a radical reorientation, moving through the harrowing yet necessary phase of disorientation, from an outward investment of consciousness to an inward reorientation on something more esoteric (“inner”) and reality-based. We can characterize this as a breakthrough from a life dedicated to worldly accomplishments, to a new life in quest of genuine fulfillment – for the path that will lead to a more grounded experience, a more authentic presence, greater well-being, and a deeper love for life.

Ultimately this is preparation for engaging life in a more “soulful” way, less concerned with proving ourselves and getting ahead, than simply being ourselves and sinking deeper into the grounding mystery of existence. Wisdom seeks to reconnect to the faith that may have gotten buried beneath the accumulated “junk data” of convictions, beliefs, and opinions. In taking up a practice of mindful meditation, physical discipline, or creative art we can successfully clarify attention to the degree that our practice becomes a selfless vessel of spiritual life.

If reason is involved in meaning-making, then wisdom is what we come to know about life after our assumptions, preferences, judgments, and expectations have been dropped or stripped away. It’s not that we stop thinking about or responding passionately to what’s going on around us. Putting a judgment on something (or someone) and boxing it up in meaning may be a way we can learn something about ourselves, but the neatly labeled package only separates us from what is really real and unique in each situation. Wisdom picks up essential lessons from life without having to haul along the heavy megabyte files containing countless bits of nonessential or even corrupt (exaggerated, embellished, or misremembered) information.

My diagram might suggest that a more soulful, spiritually grounded, and liberated life is only available to us in our later years. But in fact the turning-point of what I’ve called the Midlife Reset can come at just about any time. Presumably (in keeping with my theory) it coincides with an accumulated critical mass of irrelevant meaning (junk data), which would make an early incident very unlikely and much less common. It’s also possible that it never comes: the conditions are right for awakening to occur but the individual “successfully” resists, or else reverts to old certainties with a new-found devotion.

In the end, perhaps the most desirable outcome is that we are able to rest again in the provident mystery of reality.

 

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Creative Authority

A friend in an engagement community that I weekly attend asked recently, “What, exactly, goes into this idea of ‘creative authority’?” – an idea (or ideal, really) that occupies a strategic position in the theory of human fulfillment that I’ve been working to clarify in a conversation on post-theism.

It is critically important that post-theism not be defined as a reactionary movement, as an effort to throw off theism and its antiquated god for the sake of something like secular materialism or atheistic humanism. Quite the contrary, post-theism holds a vision for what life is like after (“post”) theism – not after theism has been discredited and finally abandoned, but when it has served its evolutionary function and releases the self-transcending human spirit into a new existence as an enlightened partner and co-creator in the great community of life.

Before I offer a response to my friend’s question, let’s quickly recall where “creative authority” fits into my broader theory of human fulfillment. We started life fully immersed in an animal nature (body), with all its biological requirements and urgencies keeping consciousness oriented outward to the resources we need. Gradually, and with success in satisfying our basic needs, awareness began to open inwardly as well – not just to this pang or that urgency inside the body, but deeper into a sense of our grounding in a provident mystery. This sense of provident grounding is registered in the nervous system at an unconscious, visceral, or “gut” level, which is why I call it animal faith.

Immediately with our birth our tribe went to work shaping our identity (ego). Through guidance, directives, feedback, and discipline we were given clear (but sometimes not so clear) messages about what it means to be a good boy or girl, a member in good standing, a person of value. Because the foundations of identity are constructed early on and are primarily emotional in character, I call the construct of identity itself our inner child.

With sufficient animal faith underneath us, supported by the caring and responsible influence of our tribe, identity can achieve a level of healthy development known as ego strength. Key attributes of ego strength are a stable personality, balanced mood, and a unified sense of self.

This is where things really get interesting, since social security, group membership, shared purpose, and personal value are like four sides of the box containing a meaningful existence. Why would we ever want to leave? Where else would we possibly go anyway? Outside the box is meaninglessness, nihilism, absurdity, and certain despair – or at least the heresy of someone else’s meaning. This is a necessary part of our programming.

An essential part of this project of identity construction is the tribe’s representation to the youngster of what a “good person” looks like – not in physical appearance necessarily, but how a good person behaves, how they treat other people (insiders and outsiders), what values they hold, how they handle conflict and common challenges of life.

Beyond merely listing these features in something like a bullet-point format, this ideal of a good person is represented in the role models of parents and other respected adults, but also in stories that depict super-human, supernatural superegos who are engaged to the tribe as divine protectors and providers.

Theism is a religious system that orients the individual to taller powers (adults) and higher powers (gods) that exemplify the character of a “good person.” These role models are intended to inspire similar developments in youngsters and devotees, but typically in theism the deity demonstrates the virtues in their more or less pure form. (We must not forget that this is a “dramatic” demonstration, since the god lives only in the fictional space of sacred dramas or myths.)

The deity, for example, who is worshiped for having shown compassion to the tribe when they or their ancestors were lost and without hope, exemplifies this degree of loving concern and will typically have expectations (in the form of injunctions or commandments) on the community to aspire toward a similar level of compassion for others in need. In this way, worship, as the exaltation into collective aspiration of the deity’s praiseworthy virtues, flows naturally into morality and obedience for the tribe.

We should acknowledge a flow in the opposite direction as well. The particular historical concerns currently pressing upon a tribe’s existence will “select” those divine attributes most needed in the moment, or possibly even alter the portrait of god in story and theology in order to provide some timely justification. Neglect of the needy, persecution of outsiders, and violence against unbelievers are either dug up from the mythological archives – you can always find a verse for that in the Bible – or else insinuated into the script of orthodoxy from the local church pulpit.

A similar dynamic as what we find in parental role models with their children is also present in theism proper: When a virtue demonstrated by the exemplar is imitated successfully by the aspirant (child, devotee) and internalized – which means integrated into the individual’s ethical character and way of life – an external representation is no longer required and can be transcended. Because the virtue (say, of forgiveness) now informs life from within as an authentic expression rather than from outside by imitation, we might say that the individual has progressed to a post-parental, post-theistic mode of being.

True enough, there are complications that can slow this process down and even arrest it altogether, but in this post I want to pretend as if development has advanced according to design – and by “design” I mean according to the inherent tendency of a human being to mature into a self-actualized adult.

When this sequence of obedience, aspiration, internalization, and authentic expression reaches fulfillment in the stable, balanced, and unified personality, ego strength is achieved and the individual is finally capable of a new mode of being and a higher way of life. Earlier concerns over belonging and recognition, security and freedom, of maintaining membership in the tribe as a person of value, are no longer the preoccupations they once were.

Consciousness has shifted to a new and higher mental location, one that supports a realization of deep communion and universal participation – or more simply stated, the realization that All is One. At this point the tribe has given up custodial possession of the individual (as ego), and the individual begins a new life “after god” (the lower-case ‘g’ referring to the patron deity of the local tribe). This higher mental location for consciousness is what I understand by soul – not “the real me” inside a body or just a new (spiritual) name for the ego, but the individual’s existence as grounded in mystery and connected to all things.

A perfect word for this new arena of life, combining deep communion and universal participation, is community – from com (with, together) and unity (as one). Here the awakened soul understands, by direct intuition and not hearsay, that the separation so important to establishing a clear identity for the ego was really a delusion of consciousness at that level. In some sense, the entire tribe is under this same spell, which is probably why spiritual awakening is frequently described as the breaking of a trance and coming to see things as they really are.

So this is what I mean by “creative authority”: the individual taking for him- or herself the authorial rights to a new story. Siddhartha’s new story was the dharma of his Four Nobel Truths and the Eightfold Path. Jesus’ new story was his gospel of forgiveness and solidarity with the poor. Martin Luther King, Jr’s new story was about a world where our children won’t be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. Each of them stepped intentionally and courageously into creative authority, come what may.

With that, I can finally respond to my friend’s question about what creative authority entails. In the diagram below are listed five virtues that I find in the dharma, gospel, and Dream stories just mentioned; but they are also well represented across countless others. Since the diagram depicts the path of human fulfillment organically, as growing up from a body-centered mode, through an ego-centered (and theistic) mode, and into a soul-centered (post-theistic) mode of being, my visual display of these five terms is meant to be interpreted in a similar bottom-up fashion.

Creative Authority_virtuesContemplative

Even though “contemplation” is commonly used in the West as a synonym for “meditation,” I want to avoid this confusion. While a meditation practice is essential for descending the inward path to the grounding mystery of being, contemplation is closer to the idea of “mindfulness.”

Creative authority is contemplative in the way it holds a mindful perspective on reality. This includes a big picture and long view on one’s place in the great community of life. Contemplatively the individual acknowledges that s/he is both a participant in and a manifestation of oneness.

The opposite of contemplative mindfulness would be something like conviction, where one’s beliefs about reality actually separate the mind from reality. A conviction is a belief that holds its owner hostage. Contemplation, on the other hand, opens the mind to the present mystery of reality.

Empathetic

With “reality in mind,” creative authority is open at deep levels to the connectedness of things. As a cell in the great body of community, an individual feels the dynamics of well-being or deterioration in the connective tissue of relationships. Empathy is similar to “sympathy” and “compassion,” but adds to these a degree of rational understanding to the direct and spontaneous feeling.

In the profession of counseling today empathy is what the helper needs in order to truly help the one who is suffering. Drawing on the big picture and long view afforded by contemplation, the helper can offer perspective and recommendations that have a larger context in mind. The helper is careful not to jump down into the dark hole of suffering for the sake of merely providing some company in the misery, but instead confirms genuine care and understanding while holding open the horizon of possibility and hope.

Responsible

Whereas in the ego realm of the tribe responsibility is about following through on what’s assigned or expected, for creative authority this element of obligation is transcended. The self-actualized adult doesn’t act or refrain from acting because of what someone else (human or divine) might think. In this way, the motivation of responsibility is not externally coerced but rooted in empathy, coming directly out of a grounded and connected life.

Within a much broader and deeper context than ego consciousness is capable of grasping, soul-centered responsibility understands that “the right thing” is not always what feels good, gets rewarded, or even promotes individual self-interest. Sometimes, in fact, doing the responsible thing involves transgressing on tribal rules (or divine commands) that perpetuate inequality, prejudice, bigotry, oppression or violence against others. The resulting “conscientious guilt” – willingly bearing the indictment for the sake of a higher good – is something the individual must learn to live with (and care less about).

Benevolent

I said just now that the soul-centered responsible adult commits his or her life to a higher good, which is to say that this individual wills the good, chooses the path of well-being, and puts it into action. Benevolence continues the organic progression of creative authority – as one who mindfully holds the big picture (contemplative), deeply understands what is going on (empathetic), uses his or her influence for the benefit of the whole (responsible), and now wills that greater good into an intentional way of life.

Most likely the ego was instructed in the importance of having “good will” toward others. The so-called “golden rule” of Do unto others what you would have them do unto you, and the biblical mandate to Love your neighbor as yourself (quoted by Jesus but originating in the Jewish book of Leviticus), are typically limited in their practical application to the in-group where ego is a member.

Jesus’ exhortation to Love your enemies and do good to those who commit evil against you (Matthew 5:44) represents a decidedly post-theistic direction, which neither the patron deity of the Judaism of his day nor the patron deity of later Christian orthodoxy was capable of fulfilling. Theism will always have “outsiders,” who necessarily live and perish outside the saving mercy of (the insiders’) god.

Forgiving

This, I suppose, is where the real test lies. How far does the benevolent life of creative authority reach? Where is the edge, where is the boundary that defines the extent of lovingkindness? For the ego there must be a limit, past which it is not only dangerous and foolhardy, but positively blasphemous to go. If god will finally cast his enemies into everlasting torment – even if it is out of a reluctant obligation to condemn the sinner – who am I (asks the ego) to presume that god might be outdone?

I have made a case that this was precisely the message (new story, gospel) of Jesus, summarized in the simple yet revolutionary appeal of “unconditional forgiveness” – loving anyway, doing good anyway, choosing benevolence over retribution, letting go of the past and moving into a shared future. (For more on that, see “Jesus Against Christianity” @ http://wp.me/p2tkek-mT.)

Forgiveness, as “letting go,” concerns more than just our relationships with others, even if that’s where it is most difficult and most urgently needed. Releasing the past allows the individual to take from it the valuable lessons that constitute wisdom, without having to drag an unexamined life behind him or her like – in the wonderful metaphor of Robert Bly’s – “a long, black bag.” We forgive so we can be free to grow and learn and fulfill our creativity authority in the great community of life.

 

 

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Growing Into God

Atonement_ApotheosisThe developmental aim of a human being is to become a well-grounded, fully centered, and creative authority; a caring, autonomous, and responsible adult. According to this definition, an adult is more than just a “grown up,” someone who has reached a certain age and stage of physical maturity. As I’m using the term, adult refers to an individual that has attained a level of self-actualization and fulfillment of the species. What the species holds in potential is thus actualized, or actively expressed, to some degree in the adult individual.

This process of self-actualization is illustrated in the above diagram, and in a moment I will take you on a quick tour. Anticipating the primary focus of this blog post, however, I want to direct your attention to a crucial point where the very natural adventure of becoming an adult (as I’m using the term) frequently gets hung up and held back. Here we find two words with a deep history: atonement and apotheosis. Atonement describes a procedure by which the individual sinner – using traditional Christian language – is reconciled back to the deity and, importantly, to the covenant community. (The patron deity and his tribe always go together in theism as co-evolving counterparts.)

Apotheosis is less familiar, although it too is deeply rooted in myth, politics, and religion. In the Latin (Roman Catholic) West and its Protestant step-children, apotheosis never officially made it into Christian orthodoxy – and it’s not hard to guess why.

While the term names a politically self-serving proclamation by a Roman emperor of his deceased predecessor’s deification, apotheosis in religion also refers to a human being’s progress into God; not merely getting closer to the deity in prayer and devotion, but growing into God to the degree that the human being is sanctified, glorified, and awakens to divinity. That’s why it couldn’t be allowed into orthodoxy – at least in the great Western branch (and countless splintering twigs) of Christian orthodoxy.

The Western traditions (Roman Catholic and Protestant) picked up on the Jewish-biblical theme of atonement and made it the fulcrum of orthodoxy. Humanity’s sinful condition separates us from god, and the process of returning to right relationship (called reconciliation) is conceived as a juridical transaction involving exoneration from guilt by the satisfaction of a penalty and the judgment of god (or his ordained church officials) that the sinner is forgiven (called justification). The benefit is a clear conscience, but more importantly it means restoration to good standing with god and the covenant community.

It’s this idea of being brought back to a position temporarily forfeited by the rupture of sin – or perhaps permanently forfeited if proper atonement is not made – that is particularly interesting, especially when contrasted with the progressive, forward-moving, and transformational notion of apotheosis whereby the individual advances to a heretofore unrealized state of being.

There are reasons why atonement rather than apotheosis became the fulcrum of Western Christian orthodoxy, which I won’t dig into right now. Most likely this preference was driven by such factors as religious persecution (which tends to unify the victimized community), the strong juridical theme in Jewish mythology (Yahweh as king and judge; salvation as being set free of debt and guilt), and the fact that early Christianity grew up in the Roman era with its overriding governmental, judicial, legal and military obsessions.

But let’s go back for that tour I promised, showing how this tension between the pull-back of atonement and the forward aim of apotheosis is relevant to understanding the threshold between theism and post-theism.

The hero of our story – the one we’re all so concerned about, whom I name Captain Ego – gets started on the adventure by restraining and redirecting natural impulses of the body into behavior that is socially compliant and proper. With considerable help from the tribe in the form of guidance, feedback, and discipline, individual identity (ego) gradually establishes a center of self-control, social recognition, and personal agency.

But before that center gets established, the individual needs to secure strong bonds of dependency and trust with the provident powers responsible for his or her care. The ensuing condition of attachment sustains the individual – this gestating sense of self – in a web of support where he or she feels safe, accepted, and comfortably enveloped. (There is probably a deep visceral memory of what it was like in the paradisal garden of mother’s womb that compels the infant’s quest for oneness.)

Of course, there’s no going back. Besides, the ego is compelled by a second drive, which is to separate itself from this comfortable anonymity and stand out in freedom, to be recognized as special and unique. This imperative is what’s behind that signature feature of Western civilization: its individualism, its infatuation with stand-out celebrity, unprecedented achievement, and heroic glory. As you can tell, this pursuit of freedom and self-importance stands in direct opposition to the ego’s need to fit in and belong.

Welcome to the inherently conflicted adventureland of personal identity.

Further progress into adulthood – that is, into the human fulfillment represented in the self-actualized adult – will need to continue with this formational process as the individual awakens to his or her higher self (soul). Earlier identifications will need to be transcended – such as belonging to this tribe and holding these titles or awards – which inevitably is confronted with resistance from society. This is who you are. You are only a person of value and respect because of your standing as one of us. You need to stay here and obey the rules!

A certain guilt is induced with disobedience. And here we’re not talking about ethical violations such as deceit, theft, and murder, which are genuine threats to human community; but rather the kind of disobedience where an individual sets down the masks and steps out of the roles that define identity, in order to assume creative authority in his or her life.

Before the developmentally opportune moment (what in Greek is called kairos, the critical opportunity for action), such forays into a more authentic life will convict the individual with a guilty conscience. But when the time is right and the individual is possessed of sufficient courage to bear the consequences of his or her choices, a guilty conscience will give way to conscientious guilt, willingly accepted in civil disobedience. Conscientious guilt is the price of identifying with goals, principles, and ideals that represent realities and possibilities beyond the sacred conclusions and status quo of the tribe.

Siddhartha (the Buddha) breaking a hole in the wall of the caste system to allow for the liberation even of outcasts, Jesus (the Christ) reaching out to include sinners and the ritually impure, Martin Luther King, Jr. instigating boycotts and leading peace marches against race and class inequality – these are historical examples of individuals who accepted conscientious guilt in pursuit of aims they regarded as more noble and necessary to true human progress.

As a final measure, the tribe might appeal to its patron deity and the precepts laid down by orthodoxy. How can you arrogantly believe that there is more to life than what we have for you here. We are the chosen ones. This is the covenant community, obedient to god and blessed in turn with eternal security. You’ve grown up under the grace and clear directives of our patron deity. You have enjoyed the benefits of membership all these years. And now you are ready to throw it all aside, turn your back on god and us for the sake of your own selfish fulfillment? Excommunication and everlasting torment in hell are what you are really choosing – just be clear about that!

And this is just where atonement works its magic – if it can persuade the waking soul to instead submit to the prescribed procedures of confession and repentance in order to be pardoned and reconciled back to where a true believer rightfully belongs. Things inside run more smoothly when we all stay in our proper place and do what we’re told. Heaven is up, hell is down, and the devil is locked outside. You barely made it back, but good for you!

Or else, this is just where apotheosis makes its fateful move. With the courage not of convictions but of an evolutionary purpose taking root and springing forth from within, the individual draws strength from the grounding mystery and enters more fully into the realization that all is one. It is no longer “me and mine” or “us versus them,” but all of us together, sharing this moment in faith, holding the future open with hope, releasing fear for love.

We are growing into God.

 

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By God, What Do You Mean?

Real progress in religion is hampered by the fact that its primary concern is such an enigma. What people name “God” – or better, what they mean when they use this term – is nearly impossible to pin down. This is partly due to the inherent difficulty in defining something that admittedly has no boundaries or limits. But perhaps an even stronger factor has to do with the indefinite nature of experience itself, like a moving stream in continuous change.

When these two factors (a supposedly boundless object and the dynamic subjectivity of experience) are forgotten, religion becomes a seedbed of dangerous conviction and spiritual oppression. Once orthodoxy is convinced that it has the last word on God, there is no end to what it might muster, justify, or condone in promoting and defending its truth. Well, there actually is an end, once there’s nothing left to burn.

As an outspoken critic of religious orthodoxy and its god – and now I’ve shifted to the lower case, for reasons to be explained shortly – I try to maintain a sharp distinction between our names for God and that which we are presuming to name. Our unique capacity as a species for meaning-making makes us susceptible to falling under our own spell, where we start to believe that reality is as we imagine it to be. (Of course, crucial to this trance-state is forgetting that we have imagined it!)

In this post I will offer an understanding of religion’s primary concern, specifically exploring how experience, meaning, and truth come together (or fall apart) in this often baffling enterprise. An operating assumption throughout is that our names and representations of God – in other words, our various gods – can never fully or finally capture the reality under consideration. If we can agree on this (and not forget it), then perhaps some constructive dialogue is possible.

Even if our depictions of God are different, and significantly so, at least we can learn to appreciate our different depictions as depth-soundings into the marvelous complexity of human experience. Why do we have to put our depictions (as art, story, or doctrine) up against each other for competition and superior standing? Why not celebrate this diversity, claiming it as proof that God is more (and other) than any of us can imagine?

I think I know why.God Spectrum

God as Divine Absolute

It’s interesting how, at the higher levels of theological reflection, God is depicted in such abstract terms and extrapolated to such infinite degrees, that most (if not all) of our differences are logically eliminated. It no longer matters whether we’re talking about the ultimate reality according to Jews, Christians, Muslims or even Buddhists. Once you bracket out the traditional names for the Absolute (referring to what is utterly independent and unconditioned), the reality under consideration is identical.

The reason for this remarkable similarity has to do with the inevitable effect of pushing definitions into infinity (e.g., the Divine Absolute as omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent), which is to erase them or stretch them so far that they no long define anything. By definition, so to speak, the Absolute is beyond definition. Whatever qualities are attributed to it are necessarily amplified to an infinite degree – exploded into everything and beyond.

As the Divine Absolute, God is everywhere. If God isn’t in this tree or that cloud, or even in my enemy; if God is only in heaven or on earth, but not in hell – then there is a location where God isn’t, which logically means that God is not everywhere after all. If we are going to reflect on the logical perfection of the Divine Absolute, then anything that is in the nature of God will be without limits, that is to say, infinite. That’s why, at this level of reflection, the differences among our traditional gods dissolve away, leaving only The Unlimited which includes everything but is not dependent on anything for its existence.

This capacity for higher-order thinking is a fairly late development in our individual maturation, coming only after we have gained the cognitive functions and language skills to support what Piaget named formal operations, the ability for symbolic and abstract thought. I like to think of this as the “logical refinery” where concepts drawn from experience are stripped of their situational “dross” and changed into pure ideas, or ideals. God, at this level of abstraction, is not a being belonging to this or that tradition, but absolute and limitless Being, that which transcends yet includes existence itself.

Now obviously that’s not where most people are interested in spending their time and intellectual energy. Besides, a logical abstraction like the Divine Absolute is not something that does much to stir devotion or confirm the validity of your creed. Even worse, if it doesn’t produce religious apathy (who can love an abstraction?), there is a danger that serious theological reflection will lead to heresy. (The omnipresent God is in hell? Unacceptable!)

God as Patron Deity

That’s perhaps why more of us stay in the groove of our religious tradition – belonging to a faith community, going to worship and bringing up our children in the “right way,” studying the scriptures and denominational confessions, believing and behaving as we ought, doing our best to please, flatter, and placate our Patron Deity. The down-shift from a Divine Absolute to a Patron Deity is a step into full engagement with a personified representation of God who has had a long history with “our people” – the insiders, the elect, the chosen ones, the saved.

Patron Deity is a more or less technical term taken from the kind of relationship said to exist between the deity and devotee. This relationship is transactional and supported by the mutual exchange of submission for protection, obedience for reward, worship for blessing. Where exactly is the Patron Deity encountered? The answer is difficult for many believers to accept: In the myths, or sacred stories, in which the deity’s character is first introduced and subsequently developed. In other words, the Patron Deity is a narrative construct – the central construct – of a tradition’s mythopoetic (myth-making or storytelling) imagination.

Our modern Western loss of this mythopoetic imagination, which was the tragic cost that attended our “gain” in a reductive, objectifying, hard-facts-oriented worldview, required that we “interpret” (rather than recite, embody, and perform) our sacred stories as factual eye-witness reports of supernatural realities and miraculous events of long ago. Yahweh, the resident Patron Deity of the Bible, now must be regarded as existing outside the stories (since story has lost its power), somewhere “out there” or “up there” – in any case, no longer exactly here.

In the opinion of many, it is a blatant statement of atheism to even suggest that no one (anywhere, ever) has encountered the Yahweh depicted in our Bible. But in making the statement I am not denying the existence of God, only insisting that the personified representation of righteousness, potency, judgment and mercy – this particular Patron Deity, Yahweh – lives only in the Bible. If it sounds like I’m saying that God is nothing but a fictional figure stuck in the pages of a book, this only exposes how far the modern mind has fallen out of mythopoetic consciousness.

Most of us need to go back to early childhood to recapture a dim memory of when stories weren’t just leisure-time entertainment but our full-time occupation. The world we lived in wasn’t made of objective facts. Instead it was suffused with invisible creatures, heroic challenges, time travel, and numerous branching storylines that we might spontaneously follow into our next adventure. Our world was a narrative construct spun out of stories. The characters we encountered, while not literally existing, were real to us – more real than any dead-heavy fact could ever be.

Yahweh started his career in the imaginarium of the ancient Near East, among a few tribes of habiru that had settled in the Sinai peninsula. The sacred stories they told brought Yahweh to life, and Yahweh in turn brought their world into existence.

God as Holy Presence

So far, then, we have distinguished two very different meanings of God: the theological abstraction of the Divine Absolute, and the mythopoetic character of the Patron Deity. One more step closer to the ground brings us into special settings where God is encountered as a Holy Presence. The sacred precincts of institutional religion (temples, churches, mosques, and cathedrals) are artificial constructions where worshipers gather to call on the Patron Deity and join themselves once again to the timeless realm of sacred story. Typically some kind of ritual performance mediates this crossover from the broken time of ordinary life into the deep time of sacramental experience.

Before temple buildings and architectural sanctuaries, people were likely to have such experiences in natural zones like groves, meadows, grottos, seashores, riversides and mountaintops – places where “something more” seemed to come through, activating their sense of wonder, amazement, awe, or even trepidation. This something more should not be confused with something else. The particular name for God at this level – Holy Presence – is often and too quickly reduced to a being (the Patron Deity?) who adds the something more by coming in from elsewhere. As a spiritual intuition, however, this Presence is not added but “unveiled” (or revealed) as always and already there.

In my diagram above I leave open the question (with curving arrows) of whether the experience of Holy Presence precedes and inspires the mythopoetic imagination, giving rise to the Patron Deity as a personification of the something more; or if established stories of God are engaged in ritual performances that successfully conduct the worshiper into the sacred time and Holy Presence of the Patron Deity. In all likelihood, the answer is “both.”

This dynamic reciprocal support between the Patron Deity and Holy Presence is where conventional religion settles into orbit. Ordinary members are neither interested in, nor do they have the patience (and time) for abstract theological reflection. It’s sufficient to give agreement to doctrines of God’s infinite nature and power and love (etc.) without bothering to chase such statements to their logical (and heretical) conclusions.

Indeed your average believer will likely harbor some suspicion towards the “scholars and academicians” who stretch the concept of God beyond what our minds can comprehend. Their preference is for a theology that maintains allegiance to the Patron Deity of their tradition and demonstrates the prestige of their orthodoxy over others. More important than an intellectual exploration into God is the security of knowing that God is here when they need him, and will reward them for their faith and obedience in the life to come.

God as Grounding Mystery

Another direction that conventional believers won’t typically go is downward – which is actually a decisive step inward, to the Grounding Mystery of being-itself. This is where mystical spirituality lives, and its signature experience is essentially the same across (really underneath) all the world religions. It’s similar to theology in the way it pushes language to its limits, but instead of pushing out, mysticism pulls language in to its metaphorical foundations. Rather than an infinite being, God is being-itself, the power-to-be in everything that exists.

God as Grounding Mystery is the source and support of all things (as suggested in the metaphor of ground). You will not find this Ground by looking outside yourself, however. As the generative wellspring of existence, the only path into the Grounding Mystery is within: inward and away from outward attachments, beneath and past the center of your personal identity (ego), down into the place which is no place, where your being rests in and is released to the provident mystery of reality. If language is useful in labeling, classifying, qualifying, and explaining the outer realm, it is gradually surrendered to a silent wonder and profound tranquility, as there is nothing (no thing) for it to grab onto.

                                                                               

While my explanation of the distinct levels of meaning for God began in the abstractions of theology and stepped down from there, essential to my theory is the claim that it all really begins in the ineffable (wordless, indescribable) experience of the Grounding Mystery. This is, after all, where our existence is rooted and anchored, where each of us takes in our life and lets it go again, where I am and you are: the only place we can ever be.

This is the only place we can ever really be.

 

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