The 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.