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Monthly Archives: August 2015

The Experience of Myth

heaven_hellA growing consensus regarding the sacred narratives of religion, called myths, is that we must take them literally or else toss them out as bad science and obsolete fictions. Those who would rather not fuss with interpreting the myths are content to simply believe them, and those who can’t with intellectual integrity believe the myths are content to leave them be. In either case the deeper insight contained in them is ignored and rendered mute.

It’s difficult for some to open their minds to the possibility that myths might not be records of miraculous events and metaphysical realities, but not ignorant superstition either. But what other choice do we have? Things either happened just as the myths say they happened (or will happen) or they didn’t (and won’t). Either reality is arranged according to the metaphysical architecture testified to in the myths (with a literal heaven and hell, for instance) or it’s not – right?

Actually, the answer is no: this simplistic either-or logic is exactly wrong. In fact, as I will try to show, the mental orientation responsible for casting our alternatives in such a dualistic fashion is part of what the myths intend to expose and help us overcome. I say “intend” and not “intended,” because myths are living narratives and not mere curiosities of the past. The challenge in being human is essentially the same today as it was thousands of years ago, and myths are transcultural maps that reveal the paths ahead – one that leads to heaven and another that leads to hell.

If it sounds as if I have just slipped into a metaphysical reading of myth with my reference to heaven and hell, I want to assure my reader that this is not the case. To explain, let’s begin where myth itself was born, in the state of persistent ambiguity called the human condition. The prefix ambi translates as “both,” and ambiguity refers to how our situation – the human condition as it impinges on me here and you there, wherever we happen to be – sets us at a place where the path can go in one of two directions.

On the one hand, this ambiguity might collapse into opposition and eventual conflict: the “both” are seen as fundamentally opposed, unconnected, divided, and separate. If the process of our individual ego formation was particularly difficult and we came into personal identity under conditions of neglect, abuse, deprivation, or other trauma, our path might naturally fall to a lower course where everything is cast into antagonism. We are now in the realm of lower consciousness, a realm of distrust and suspicion, of hostility and retribution. This is hell.

When we fall into lower consciousness, as the mythic Adam fell out of his garden paradise, our ego becomes possessed by the passions of insecurity and aggression, intent above all else on getting our share and guarding what is ours. In hell, everyone lives in a state of desperate isolation, tormented by insatiable craving and captive to our own self-destructive compulsions. Our relationships are in chronic conflict, as we are incapable of opening ourselves to one another in empathy and love.

On the other hand, the ambiguity of our human condition might resolve into paradox and communion. In this case, the “both” are seen as fundamentally related, connected, united, and whole. Just as the path into hell might feel more natural to us if our ego identity was forged in adversity, the rise to a higher course is likely easier when our sense of self had been nurtured into formation by more provident higher (i.e., taller) powers. We are now in the realm of higher consciousness, a realm of trust and compassion, of generosity and freedom. This is heaven.

When we rise into higher consciousness, as the mythic Christ (whom the apostle Paul named the Second Adam) rose from the garden tomb, our ego completely transcends the deadly entanglements of insecurity and conviction. We are truly free to give of ourselves, to share what we have with others without concern for returned favors. In heaven, everyone lives in a state of inclusive community, offering our contribution to the greater good and truly caring for one another. There is enough for everybody, and goodwill abounds.

The timeless myths can help open our awareness to the critical turning-point of this present moment, to the choice we have in every new situation. We are familiar with the popular misreading of myth, where believers look forward to heaven in the next life, when their enemies and unbelievers are condemned to suffer forever in hell. Supposedly this is scheduled to happen after we die. But who is it, really, that dies?

In all the major wisdom traditions it is ego that must be transcended – released, surrendered, and overcome; specifically the “I” who believes everything turns around “me” and owes me what is “mine.” As Jesus says in the Fourth Gospel:

Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. – John 12:24

We make choices every day that either cast us down into the hell of lower consciousness, into opposition and endless conflict; or raise us up into the heaven of higher consciousness, into paradox and sacred communion with all things. To live in heaven, we must “die” to selfish ambition, drop our holy convictions, and even give up our desperate longing to be saved.

Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it.    – Luke 17:33

The sacred narratives of religion are neither literal records of miraculous events and metaphysical realities, nor bad science and obsolete fictions of a superstitious past. They speak a timeless message, but only when we are ready to hear it.

I guess this is as good a time as any to listen.

 

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The Great Triathlon of Religion

Triathlon

In a triathlon competitors race for the finish through three different physical challenges: swimming, cycling, and running. Each challenge requires its own skill-set, and as any triathlete will attest, the transition from one leg of the race to the next can be the most perilous part. The three phases of the race are not ranked in order of sophistication or difficulty; running, for instance, is not somehow “better” than swimming – although an individual athlete may prefer, or feel more capable at, one challenge more than the others.

The idea came to me recently that religion might be understood on the analogy of a triathlon. For all the many forms it takes religion falls into three main types or paradigms: animism, theism, and post-theism. There are numerous forms of theism, for instance, but theism itself is a type of religion which all its various forms embody. And just as one leg of a triathlon is not regarded as inherently better than the others, neither is one type of religion better than the other types.

It may be tempting to elevate the importance of the final leg because it’s where the race is won or lost, but we know that an athlete crosses the finish line in record time only because he or she made it successfully through the earlier challenges. All the glory may be focused at the finish line, but a triathlon is not only a foot race. Similarly, the type of religion that I call post-theism is where our spiritual formation is fully realized, but our progress through animism and theism are essential to that fulfillment.

Hangups and setbacks along the way can complicate the process considerably, and in spiritual development (just as in a triathlon race) those hangups especially will introduce additional challenges that might even prevent further progress. For now, though, let’s put the three legs of religion’s triathlon on the board for a sense of the distinct challenges, of the phase transitions from one challenge to the next, and of the broad continuity overall.Animism

Animism begins in the water, which is an apt metaphor for the nature of reality as experienced in and by the body. Animal urgencies and survival needs link us into the vibrant Web of Life, which pulsates inside and all around us. Dynamic currents in the water providently support us, even as they threaten to pull us under. Nature is paradoxically gracious and violent, generously abundant yet ruthlessly selective.

In early human clans, a totem ancestor was honored as both food source and provider, as the one on whom their survival depended as well as a crossover figure through whom their human origins were traced. The totem ancestor embodied the more generally appreciated fact that all things in the Web of Life are related and interdependent.

If part of what religion does is facilitate a solution to an outstanding dilemma as regards our human condition, then “the problem” which animism seeks to resolve is the fact of death. As a body-centered paradigm, animism finds this solution in the life-cycles of nature. As new life springs forth from the ground, as fresh shoots emerge from dead stumps, and as newborns begin another turn in the great rhythm of life, we can find renewal by participating in these sacred events.

At this early stage, there is not yet the idea of individual immortality where some indestructible center of identity migrates from one life form to another. The wonder and celebration is of the way in which the hidden currents of life animate, connect, and advance through the generations.

Theism

With theism religion advances into a much more complicated social experience. The small family clans that had frequently relocated in sync with the changing seasons or migrating animals of the hunt gradually joined with other clans to form more settled villages. Agriculture and farming allowed for much larger populations. Social roles and specialized responsibilities multiplied. And the new challenge presented itself.

Theism is a type of religion that evolved and came to depend on various technologies of mediation (depicted in the bicycle). Symbols represented the sacred, stories (or myths) provided narrative background for interpreting these symbols, and sanctuaries were designed for the ritual performance of stories in a communal context. As much as possible, the liturgical cycle for these ritual ceremonies coincided with the earth seasons and great agricultural festivals.

Another essential feature of theism is its personification of the provident mystery in terms of a patron deity (or deities). The deity is represented symbolically (in icons and idols), his or her character is developed in mythology, and the deity’s presence is invoked in the sanctuary for proper worship by devotees.

An important role of the patron deity, besides providing for the community in exchange for worship and sacrifice, is to authorize a moral code and motivate obedience. Most of these rules concern social behavior and how members should get along. “The problem” for theism has to do with rule violations and the resulting guilt. Its solution involves a process of atonement whereby proper relationship is restored.

Post-theismReferring to theism as “ego-centered” does not imply that it is selfish – not necessarily; only that its primary concern is with the social construction and maintenance of personal identity (the “I” who performs my given roles. A persona was the mask an actor wore in a Greek theatrical production, making it possible to “speak through” the identity of a stage character).

As the religious orientation of what I call a protected membership, theism encounters destabilizing threats on two fronts. Socially, as its local population becomes increasingly diverse and pluralistic, the agreement of lifestyle and belief across its constituency weakens. And at the level of individual psychospiritual development, an awakening of mystical intuition strains to transcend the boundaries of personal identity.

“The problem” presented here, then, is centered in the conflict between conviction (passionate, uncompromising beliefs) and empathy, which is how this transpersonal reorientation is experienced. By definition, empathy is an ability to understand the situation of another from inside, as it feels to them. This insider perception is made possible by a shift in consciousness from ego to soul, or from identity to communion.

Post-theism intentionally steps through the rules and roles by which identity is managed in order to engage reality in its oneness, its wholeness, its holiness. It takes up its cause “after god” (post + theos) without the need to dispute god’s existence, lampoon his devotees, or disparage their beliefs. The positive contribution of theism to the longer course of human development can be honestly affirmed, even as the post-theist celebrates a more inclusive, less anthropocentric (human-centered) vision.

In light of my analogy of a triathlon we can perhaps better appreciate how religion has served the function of connecting us to reality during each major stage of our evolution as a species, and how it has served the longer purpose of our fulfillment through the ages, across cultures, and in those who can trust its deeper wisdom.Religion as Triathlon

 

 

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Stuck On God

Low_High TheismThe rise of theism and the reign of god correlates exactly with the emergence of our separate center of identity as human beings, with what is known as ego consciousness. In other words, the provident forces active in the universe were personified as humanlike (as personalities) at the same time as humans were coming to self-consciousness as standing out somehow from the spontaneous instincts of our animal nature.

The opportunity – and to some extent the survival necessity – of living together in larger and more sophisticated social groups required constraints around our natural impulses and inclinations. Certain drives, reactions, and behaviors had to be domesticated, tempered and refined for life in society, while others were ruled out as unacceptable for members. It was in fact this shift of concern from survival to membership that prompted the creation of an authority structure which could impose and reinforce this tribal morality, presided over by the patron deity.

Whereas animism – the form of religion preceding theism – had been more about maintaining (succoring, celebrating, and reciprocating) a relationship with the provident forces active in the universe (i.e., the power in the storm, the fruiting tree, the spirit of the bear and other totem animals, etc.), theism made these secondary to the moral function, as conditional blessings and rewards for obedience to god’s will. The exact correspondence between the “will of god” and the system of morality was interpreted to mean that the rules of society had originated with god, and not the other way around.

I’m deeply interested in this correlation between theism and humanism (which of course includes egoism), of how the conception of a supernatural ego (the patron deity) served to authorize and justify a moral system in which human beings could further evolve. The challenges and opportunities of society, in the way it pulled us out of communion with nature and into the role-plays of identity and membership, was (and still is) a necessary stage on our way to becoming fully actualized.

My diagram above illustrates the career of the patron deity, ascending with our growing need for moral orientation in society, reaching its peak in what might be called “high theism,” and then descending – or as I will argue, dissolving – into a new mode of spirituality where god is no longer regarded as separate, “up there” and over all. The terms underneath the arcing career of the patron deity (obedience, worship, and aspiration) represent the primary investments of theism in its function of upholding the “sacred canopy” of morality (Peter Berger).

I’ve also divided the arc of theism and its patron deity into “early” and “late” phases, both still focused in the activity of worship where the deity is exalted and glorified in the congregation of devotees, but sharply distinguished by a shift of accent from obedience (early theism) to aspiration (late theism). In early theism the preoccupation is on the task of shaping behavior to the values and aims of society, or more specifically to those of membership.

God’s will and command are represented as putting constraints on our natural impulses, inducing guilt or inspiring altruism as the case may be. Because the patron deity speaks against something in us that must be overcome, or alternately calls out of us behavior that is still to some degree unnatural, god is positioned in early theism as strictly outside and apart from us. We still need to be told how to behave, and this moral instruction implies a source of authority outside ourselves.

In late theism we can hear the message shifting from “Do this, or else” to “Be perfect as your father in heaven is perfect” – to take an example from the teachings of Jesus, whose spirituality marked a key transition beyond the conventional theism of his day. Here we move from objective commands to the more subjectively oriented virtues of moral life. Along the way, god is becoming increasingly more patient, compassionate, gracious, and forgiving than he was in his early life. Correspondingly the focus in theism shifts from obedience (i.e., following rules and doing what we’re told) to aspiration, where the challenge is to become more like god.

The culmination of late theism would accomplish the complete assimilation of god into a fully awakened and self-actualized humanity. While from a naive perspective this might look just like secular atheism, the difference between them in the quality and depth of spiritual life is profound. Whereas atheism seeks to dismiss or argue god out of existence, post-theism affirms the patron deity’s role even as it releases and transcends the need for his separate existence. Secular atheism throws god out, and with him all moral authority; post-theism takes god in and intentionally promotes the spread of inclusive community, unconditional forgiveness, and reverence for life.

Theism of one form or another is necessary (but not sufficient!) to a fully developed human being. (I should remind my reader here that every family system is a form of theism, with its higher (or taller) powers supervising the emerging identities of a new generation.) Problems arise when the proper arc of theism and its patron deity is prevented from advancing; functionally (or I should say dysfunctionally) it gets stuck in its early phase. Obedience is a persistent preoccupation, which is correlated with a deep mistrust of oneself and others. God is worshiped as the rule-giver, moral supervisor, end-time judge and executioner.

As theism fixates itself on our need for correction – to be straightened out, made clean, redeemed from sin, and ultimately rescued from final destruction – it effectively holds the human spirit captive and unable to progress. (This is the dogmatic, authoritarian, and militant religion that atheists rightly reject.) Tangled in its dragnet of obligations, believers are given no liberty to think outside the box or reach beyond the circle to a larger mystery. The higher virtues of human nature are closed off from us, relegated to second position in the character of god and heavily qualified by his supreme demand for repentance, righteousness, and retribution. Ego remains in control.

But we must advance. Forces of an arrested and corrupt theism around our planet today must not dissuade the waking (and growing!) minority from growing fully into god.

We have a job to do.

 
 

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A Once and Future Religion

What if I don’t believe in a metaphysical deity who is running The Show? What if I don’t take the Bible literally? What if I regard heaven and hell as mythological constructs rather than actual places? What if the soul for me is not a separate and immortal center of who I am? What if I see religion as a system for coordinating the multiple concerns of human existence, instead of a holy regime revealed from above and established for all time. What if I don’t believe that ‘everything happens for a reason’? What if I am not waiting for Jesus to come again, or trying to convert others to my way of life?

What if I believe that a religion is right or wrong, true or false, depending on the quality of consciousness, breadth of compassion, and persistent kindness it inspires in its adherents? What if I’m of the opinion that a religion (any religion) might follow or fall off the path of salvation; and that ‘salvation’ is about coming together, getting healthy, and becoming whole – not escaping and leaving behind the mess we’re in.

And then again, what if I choose to regard this so-called mess of a world as a perpetual twilight of peace, love, joy, and hope?

You might call me a pitiful contradiction.

It’s impossible, you say, to have peace without god, to know genuine love without believing church doctrine, to experience real joy unless it is fixed on something outside the world, or to live with any hope unless my destiny is secure in the next life.

Once upon a time – and still once in a while – religion, its god, the community of faith, and the individual believer worked all together in support of a way of life that honored the sacred thresholds of birth and death, that cultivated an intimate relationship between our pressing needs and a provident universe, that opened human hearts and minds to the present mystery of reality, and that inspired us to look deeply into that mystery with wonder, gratitude, and responsibility.

But then it happened – and happens still – that religion became oppressive and its god an idol, that believers turned into prisoners (convicts) of their beliefs (convictions), and all the sacred rhythms that once coordinated and connected the varieties of human experience collapsed into empty ritual, rigid doctrines, blind tradition, and heavy obligations. The sacred myths that, in the communal act of telling, once generated a fictional performance space for the transformation of consciousness, were screwed down into writing and taken as eye-witness reports of supernatural facts.

For the longest time religion was a vibrant force in human society, not a violent one. It was the generator of ultimate meaning, not a propaganda factory of apocalyptic fears. It brought people together rather than drive them apart. Religion was about sacred grounding and holy communion, not terrorism and holy wars. It healed our brokenness and raised us to new life. It affirmed the cosmos as friendly and Earth as our home. Religion deepened our faith, challenged our tendency toward self-interest, and encouraged our compassionate outreach into the Web of Life.

It did all of this before god (animism), occasionally during the reign of gods (theism), and now after god has passed beyond definition (post-theism), gradually waking in the lives of millions around our planet today whose religion is loving-kindness.

This is my belief.flower

 

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The Simple Message

“Plug in. Open up. Reach out.” What if the message of a one-world religion was as simple as that? Obviously the meaning of those words would need to be unpacked before believers scramble on board. There is no magic in merely repeating the words as you break bread, ring a bell, prostrate yourself, or whirl in circles. Religion has really never been about some special power in ritual performances, but rather how these rituals focus attention, unite members of the community in shared intention, and provide thereby a sacred entry into deep time where everything is celebrated as moving in a purposeful direction.

It’s been about connection, as the root religare implies (to tie back or link together). Just because some religions have degenerated into reactionary, separatist, and violence-prone idiocracies (a rule of spiritual idiots) isn’t a sound reason to reject religion itself out of hand as the same. The occasion of bad science or bad politics doesn’t give us good reason to cast science or politics on the cultural junk pile; instead we redouble our commitment to keep science aligned with empirical facts and politics oriented on the welfare of society.

With so many blatant examples of bad religion all around us, I want to call us back to its essential function, summarized in the simple message of “Plug in. Open up. Reach out.” All religions will find the secret to a renewed inspiration and relevance as they realign themselves once again to the vision of reality conveyed in this message. So let’s take a few minutes to unpack what it means.

Web_GroundPlug in

A human being has both an inner life and an outer life. Our inner life, called our soul, trails deep inside to the very root of consciousness. In that deep place within each of us, finally inaccessible even to our own searching mind, consciousness rises out of and recedes again into a mystery that all religions acknowledge as an elusive presence. Before they put words to it and dress it up in symbols, stories, and doctrines, this presence is intuitively known as the very Ground of Being, the creative source in which our existence finds its genesis and provident support.

Reach Out

A human being also has an outer life, called our body, which extends far outside the boundary of our skin – although for the sake of convenience we commonly regard it as a physical object. In truth, however, our body is of the same substance (homooúsios) as the earth and contains the saline of its oceans, metabolizes the light of the sun and has stardust in its cells. It is not a separate thing at all; in fact, our body belongs to a vibrant Web of Life as large as the universe itself. The very nature of our body shares in the interdependence of cosmic reality.


The inner life of our soul and the outer life of our body make human beings a fascinating duality. Outwardly we are connected to the Web of Life and dependent upon its sacred balance of energies, while inwardly we are rooted in the Ground of Being and cradled in a present mystery. These two aspects of our existence, outer and inner, are what religion has long helped us hold together. By coordinating our deeper communion with Being and our wider fellowship with Life, religion (as religare) keeps us whole.

Open Up

But there is yet another aspect of human beings, besides the inner and outer, that introduces a wonderful complication to this enterprise of unifying our experience of reality. What we call ego is our identity as members of this or that human tribe (family, community, culture). Because every social group of humans is unique according to its history, traditions, customs, concerns, values, beliefs, and aspirations, every individual ego – which, of course, carries its own unique set of inclinations, moods, and motivations – is unique as unique can possibly be.

Egos must be shaped to the aims of the group so they can take the responsibility of promoting its peculiar construction of meaning known as ideology. One problem with ideology is that it tends to codify our human insecurities into compensatory convictions of absolute truth. If our tribal existence is particularly imperiled by vanishing resources and competition with a neighboring group, for instance, an idea something like manifest destiny will soon rise in our minds, providing all the justification we need to secure what is ours by right.

It’s at this stage in the game where religion constructed the notion of a patron deity, whose role is to authorize the moral order, incentivize internal reform, justify external campaigns of war, and characterize the virtues to be cultivated in the lives of devotees. These protected memberships served, and still serve, as social incubators of identity. Members are believers, believers are aspirants, and what they aspire to is represented in their deity. Submission, devotion, and obedience train their collective energies on a common ideal which they confess together as the one and only way.

As I said, inevitably (and by design) the constructed identity of an individual ego will carry the social investment of its culture. Family patterns of abuse, neglect, or discrimination – but of healthy nurturing as well – work themselves into the operating system of our personality. I would dare say that all of us, simply because we had to find our way through this broken maze of childhood, enter our own maturity with some deep-set insecurities about ourselves, other people, the world around us, and the prospect of happiness. As a consequence, we play it safe and keep ourselves closed to the greater reality.

An insecure identity, contracted in self-defense and working itself into nervous exhaustion, is that much removed from its own inner life and Ground of Being. Indeed the mere suggestion that “I” (ego) might surrender completely and lose myself in union with the soul’s grounding mystery is contemplated with horror. But outwardly, too, the self-involved ego is ignorant of and careless about the body and its vibrant Web of Life. Reaching out too far and opening its horizon of understanding to the fragile balance of life would take focus away from its precious contract of “me and mine.”

And that’s where the real contribution of “true religion” lies: in challenging us to open up and to drop the illusion of identity. Only then can we plug in to the Ground of our being and reach out to the Web of Life. Only then will we be whole.

This is the simple message.

 

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