Whether you are a theist or an atheist, the amazing fact that the universe is so providently arranged as to support the ignition and evolution of life, to the point where you and I are here sharing this thought, ought to inspire wonder, gratitude, and praise. This is where religion began – at the confluence of astonishment and thanksgiving. Its role in human culture for millenniums has been to choreograph society by a system of sacred stories, symbols, and rites, with the purpose of fanning the embers of inspiration and uniting the community in worship.
Really, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a theist or an atheist, because the rapture of wonder and gratitude of which I’m speaking is not invested in any claim regarding the existence of Someone behind and in charge of it all. The sacred stories, called myths after the Greek word for a narrative plot, did early on begin to tell of agencies with elemental and personified form who conspire to put on the Big Show. This wasn’t an effort to explain the universe, as later interpreters would mistakenly assume, but to confirm what we still today – theists and atheists alike – can acknowledge as the gratuitous intention at the heart of a cosmos that is our home.
Our body is the evolutionary extension of matter into life and consciousness, not self-sufficient but outwardly oriented to the web of resources it requires to survive and prosper. This extroverted attention of the body engages with the sensory-physical reality around us, converting light waves into visual pictures, pressure waves into audible sounds, molecules into sensations of smell and taste, texture and weight (etc.) into how something feels in our hands. With an emergent intelligence capable of assembling all of this into an aesthetic unity of experience, our body serves as the perceptual vantage point in our contemplation of the universe.
When we open our frame of attention to everything around us, the view we entertain, along with our understanding of its fit-and-flow design, is known as our cosmology. And whether we interpret it mythologically or mathematically, we are not merely questing after and entering into dialogue with a universe “out there.” As we are inextricably involved in what we observe, our contemplation is itself an act of the universe.That is to say, we are not only participants in the provident order of reality; we are manifestations of it as well. While the animal urgencies of the body naturally orient it outward to the resources it needs, a spiritual intuition conducts consciousness in an opposite direction, inward to its own grounding mystery. This aspect of ourselves is equally as primordial as our body, but its introverted orientation puts us in touch with reality prior to and beneath the threshold where it spreads out as the sensory-physical universe.
The mystical-intuitive depth of our own existence is what is meant by “soul” (Greek psyche) – not some thing living inside our body, the “real me” trapped inside this mortal coil, but the deep interior of consciousness, the ground of being itself. Whereas the myriad qualities of the universe beyond us inspire a cosmology of appropriate complexity and sophistication, the ineffable nature of this grounding mystery within us actually quiets our attempts to describe it, calling us to mystical silence instead.
In this way, the best religion will sponsor the research of its members in two directions simultaneously: outward into the most relevant and up-to-date cosmology, and inward to a mystically grounded psychology. The congruency of these two realms – outward and inward, body and soul, universe and ground – is portrayed in myth, revealed in symbols, and celebrated in sacred performance. Science and spirituality have always been the twin fascinations of religion, with its purpose taken up and fulfilled to the extent that it keeps us meaningfully engaged with the present mystery of reality.
The frustration of religion’s essential purpose – this dialogue of body and soul, self and community, society and nature – was introduced long ago with the emergence of a competing ambition, too preoccupied with its own agenda and pressing needs to care as much for the big picture.
Over time, ego’s self-involvement would come to command the focus of just about everything from religion to politics, commerce to lifestyle, philosophy to art. The archaic and long-standing function of religion in reconciling consciousness to the provident universe and its own grounding mystery underwent a profound change as its purpose got reassigned to individual salvation.
What we’re talking about here is the arrival and subsequent influence on culture of the personal ego – that opinionated, flamboyant, self-conscious, willful, ambitious, and deeply insecure center of identity called “I-myself.” Ego’s advent required a greater amount of social energy and attention, as its impulses were more likely to be misaligned with either the body’s instinct or the soul’s wisdom. A moral system of prohibitions, permissions, expectations, and responsibilities had to be created in order to keep its competing inclinations compatible with the general aims of tribal life.
It’s a mistake to assume that ego just appeared out of nowhere. If we observe ego development in children today, or do our best to remember our own adventure into personal identity, we will understand that it really is a lengthy construction project where the tribe (through the agency of parents, guardians, instructors, and other “taller powers”) shapes the personality according to specific social roles. In this way, cultural definitions of the well-behaved child, the good student, the proper husband or wife, the commendable employee, the model citizen, and the true believer are “downloaded” into the operating program of personal identity.
At first, the roles and associated rules need to be imposed on the young child and reinforced through consistent discipline. With maturity, however, the individual will self-consciously enter into numerous identity contracts with the tribe where rewards are not so immediate as gold stars or pats on the head, but may be sublimated, delayed, or even deferred to the next life. Eventually religion took on a role of its own as moral supervisor, mediator of atonement whereby sinners could be rehabilitated to good standing in the community, and keeper of the keys to whichever final destiny the ego deserved.
All of this effectively pulled consciousness out of dialogue with the provident universe and its own grounding mystery, into a spiraling trance where the individual is bound to tribal orthodoxy, trading freedom now for security later, but also forfeiting the living communion of body and soul for ego’s final escape to divinity.
Spiritual teachers like Siddhartha (the Buddha) and Jesus (the Christ) understood that deliverance from this trace of who you are is the true salvation.