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Monthly Archives: September 2015

Our Moment of Decision

Today we seem to be at a moment of decision. Looking at the world’s main faith-traditions, ask yourself: Would I rather, along with Pope John-Paul II, turn away from Buddhism and turn first of all to the Muslim, because he like me believes above all else in the unity of God and in God’s revealed will? Or, alternatively, would I rather (possibly along with Pope Francis, but who knows for sure?), would I rather turn first to the Buddhist, and discuss with him the similarities and differences between our mystical and our ethical traditions?  – Don Cupitt, Creative Faith: Religion as a Way of Worldmaking

This quote from Don Cupitt struck me when I read it, in the way it corresponds to my own theory of religion’s development out of primitive animism, through the egocentric period of theism, and ultimately into a fully secular (this-worldly) post-theistic spirituality. Cupitt is a proponent of post-theistic Christianity who urges us to abandon the metaphysics of classical theology (deity, devil, angels, soul and the afterlife) in favor of a fully embodied here-and-now religion of outpouring love.

One way of reading Cupitt’s words is in the mode of comparative religion, where Christianity is positioned between non-theistic Buddhism on one side and hyper-theistic Islam on the other – hyper not intended as a synonym for extreme, militant, or fundamentalist, necessarily, but in the sense that Allah is ontologically separate from his creation and very much out there. Historical Buddhism can be regarded as a post-theistic development within Hinduism which abandoned a concern with gods and metaphysics for a commitment to end human suffering.

But we might also read Cupitt relative to a tension within Christianity itself, between its own hyper-theistic and post-theistic tendencies. I’ve argued elsewhere that Jesus himself should be seen as a post-theistic Jew who sought to move his contemporaries beyond the god of vengeance, retribution, and favoritism, to outdo even god in the practice of unconditional forgiveness and love of enemies. This tradition certainly represents a minority report in Christianity, whereas its orthodoxy has been more “Muslim” than “Buddhist” – much more about the Lord god, his exalted Christ, the Second Coming and Final Judgment than Jesus’ new community of love and liberty.

In my view, post-theism is the inevitable destiny of all religion. I’ve worked hard to distinguish post-theism from the more or less dogmatic atheism that is in fashion nowadays, where god’s literal and objective existence is disputed on logical, scientific, moral, and political grounds. Post-theism does not see the point in arguing the empirical status of a literary figure. Indeed, as a figure of story rather than a fact of history, god’s place in religion is rationally defensible.

The problem arises when religion forgets that its god is a metaphorical representation of the providence all around us and of the grounding mystery within us. A literary character then becomes a literal being, the dynamic action of myth evaporates into the static atmosphere of metaphysics, and the supernatural object draws attention away from the real challenges before us. Tragically the opportunity of growing into our own creative authority is forfeited in the interest of remaining passively dependent on an executive-in-charge who is (coming back around again) a metaphor of our own making.

My own experience, along with what I observe in my friends and remember from my sixteen years in church ministry, has exposed a real “moment of decision” in spiritual development, where the healthy progression of faith would move us into a post-theistic (Cupitt’s “Buddhist”) orientation, but which is prevented by an overbearing theistic (Cupitt’s “Muslim”) orthodoxy that keeps it (in my words) “stuck on god.” The result is a combination of increasing irrelevance, deepening guilt, intellectual disorientation, and spiritual frustration – the last of which tends to come out, Freudian-style, in a spectrum of neurotic disorders and social conflicts.

Two popular ways of “managing” this inner crisis are to either suck it up and buckle down inside a meaningless religion, or else flip it off and get the hell out, bravely embracing one’s new identity as a secular atheist. From a post-theistic perspective, however, neither solution is ultimately soul-satisfying. Trying to carry on in the cramped space of a box too small for our spirit only makes us bitter and depressed, whereas trying to get along without faith in the provident mystery and in our own higher nature – what religion is most essentially about – can leave us feeling adrift in a pointless existence.

If Pope Francis as the figurehead of Catholicism can open his arms to other religions, embrace the scientific enterprise, advocate for the voiceless poor, and celebrate spiritual community wherever he finds it, then we might be encouraged to think that our “mystical and ethical” sensibilities can unite us and lead us forward. Perhaps the world’s interest in him has to do with the way his down-to-earth and inclusive manner resonates with something inside us that hasn’t felt permission to live out of our own center.

Chakra_treeWhen the mystical (our grounding in the present mystery of reality) and the ethical (our connections to one another and to life in general) fall out of focus as functions of healthy religion, the doctrinal (what we believe and accept as true) and the devotional (our worship and sacrifice on behalf of what we regard as supreme in value and power) start to take over. What is intended to be a balanced, evolving, and reality-oriented system of meaning collapses into conviction and becomes oppressive.

As our planet changes and the globe shrinks, as our economies become more intertwined and volatile, as technology is reshaping society and putting potentially catastrophic influence into the hands of more individuals, we need to come together for solutions. The old orthodoxies and their gods cannot save us. Neither terrorism nor complacency will see us through. We need wisdom now more than ever.

Yes, we are at a moment of decision.

 

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What’s Going On

world gridEach of us is responsible for creating and maintaining a personal system of meaning called a world. It isn’t entirely our invention, as much of it, including the foundational elements known as assumptions, were installed by our culture (family and society) even before we acquired language. These pre-verbal dimensions of our world – which I also refer to as our worldview – should not be confused with the ineffable mystery of existence that fascinates mystics and inspires artists across the cultures.

According to the theoretical perspective known as constructivism, “the world” is not just another name for the environment or the globe or our planet Earth. “The” world identifies the personal system of meaning in which live; it is the habitation of this separate center of identity called I-myself. You live in the world, and I live in the world, but our worlds are not exactly the same. We should also make the point that your world today is not the same world you inhabited when you were younger. The “meaning of (my) life” has changed over the years, sometimes dramatically as in response to hardship, trauma, or loss.

belief systemYour world, then, is a construct, the appearance of which is really a function of your assumptions, conclusions, opinions, and predictions about reality based on what you’ve been taught to believe, and of your adaptive strategies along the way. Indeed, what you perceive as your world might be more accurately regarded as a product of your beliefs than a perfect representation of reality.

Even though you may think of your world as arranged outside and around you, its objective existence is only an optical delusion. Behind your world, as a projector is behind the images projected on a screen, is your mindset – that framework of assumptions (etc.) concerning the nature of reality, the meaning of life, the value of persons, and so on. Constructivism suggests that by altering your mindset you can actually revise or recreate your world, in some cases bringing about an apocalyptic “new heavens and new earth” by virtue of an entirely new system of meaning.

The educational author Carol Dweck (2006) has defined the categories of “fixed” and “growth” mindset to distinguish how people tend to regard talent, intelligence, achievement, and excellence as either something we’re basically born with (fixed) or which instead can be developed with effort, practice, and persistence (growth).

outlookBesides its role in supporting a particular construction of meaning (i.e., the world), your mindset also works as a lens or filter setting an emotional tone or general outlook on life. In a therapeutic approach called Mentallurgy (see my blog http://www.braintracts.wordpress.com), I have identified four primary attitudes that color our outlook, selecting for “evidence” that confirms how we feel and screening out (or minimizing) what doesn’t. These primary attitudes are Confidence/optimism (green), Discouragement/melancholy (blue), Anxiety/paranoia (yellow), and Frustration/hostility (red).

We can distinguish worldview, mindset, and outlook by saying that your worldview represents the way things are (to you), your mindset consists of the beliefs you hold with respect to what it all means, and your outlook is how those beliefs cast reality and the future under an emotional tone – generally speaking, positive (green) or negative (blue, yellow, red). Your outlook sets up each situation as an opportunity or adversity, as opening new possibilities for growth and discovery or foreclosing on your happiness and making life hard.

brainMentallurgy is a brain-based therapeutic approach which seeks to empower individuals in taking creative control of their mental focus, storytelling (aka “meaning-making”), and behavior. Ultimately – and I’m making the point explicit here – your worldview is rooted in particular brainstates, referring to more or less persistent moods that link your nervous system to external reality.

When your brainstate is coherent you are able to interpret sensory information, access your feelings, organize your thoughts, understand your needs, and behave in situation-appropriate ways. Alternatively when your brainstate is confused, irritable, or depressed, the connection and flow among these faculties is disrupted or gets stuck. All you have to do is trace these brainstates into their associated mindsets, outlooks, and worldviews to get a feel for how this whole system spins out and feeds back upon itself.

With the technology to scan live working brains, neuroscience is helping us appreciate the wonderful benefits of a coherent brainstate, where the quantum field of consciousness flows in smooth waves across the regions and networks of the brain. We can also see where things tend to get hung up and go awry, depending on whether the brainstate is confused (prefrontal cortex), irritable (limbic system), or depressed (deep temporal lobes).

Because we are obviously talking about something (i.e., consciousness) presenting as a continuum, the positions chosen as distinct brainstates might seem somewhat arbitrary. My choices are persuaded by the frequency in which these particular brainstates manifest themselves in common behavior, as when we’re confidently engaged in what’s going on (coherent), uneasy and disoriented (confused), frustrated and over-reactive (irritable), or lethargic and disinterested (depressed). While all of these may be considered normal behaviors, the hope is that we can shift back into coherence when we feel ourselves slipping or on the way to getting hooked.BMOWAll of this helps us interpret “what’s going on” through a system of correlates – brainstate, mindset, outlook, and worldview. Depending on where in this system we undertake our analysis, a description of what’s going on will employ a vocabulary that is neurological, psychological, or sociological in orientation. When it comes to instigating transformative change (the general theme of this tracts blog), however, we will always have greater success by shifting into a coherent brainstate first.

What does all of this have to do with spirituality (another of my themes)? When our brainstate is coherent, our mindset is also more flexible, our outlook more positive, and our worldview is correspondingly more open and accommodating. We are able to live more intentionally and charitably in the face of what life brings our way.

We are also empowered to live more creatively as we take up the Deeper Process and Higher Purpose of existence itself, transcending the often petty concerns of ego and accepting our responsibility as authors of what’s going on.

 
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Posted by on September 20, 2015 in Philosophical Underpinnings

 

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Deliver Us From Conviction

In The Great Triathlon of Religion I attempted to put more definition around the type of religion called post-theism. If we are to really appreciate its distinctive contribution to our development as individuals and our evolution as a species, the meaning of post-theism needs to advance beyond being seen as nothing more than a resolution for getting on without god.

A post-theist is not merely a formerly outspoken atheist who just doesn’t care enough anymore to argue the obvious point of god’s nonexistence. In other words, getting on “after god” (post + theos) is a very different mode of life than getting on “without god” (a + theos).

I characterized each of the three types (or phases) of religion as motivated partly out of a need to address a pressing problem of our human condition. Animism has to deal with the inevitability of death, and finds salvation in the promise of rebirth – not individual reincarnation (which is a theory that comes later) but in the cycling rhythms of life that turn within and all around us. The religion of our early life (as a species as well as individuals) is all about participating in this provident web of life with reverence and gratitude.

Theism carries these same themes forward, but in a more self-conscious and socially oriented way, as the emerging center of identity (ego) takes the stage. By now, that impersonal life force moving through all things has taken an anthropomorphic turn, as any number of patron deities who authorize and oversee the world-order. The problem that theism must resolve is the tendency in the individual to deviate from group norms, to “selfishly” pursue his or her own gratification and transgress on the rules for “proper” behavior. If individuals won’t comply with this moral code, the very existence of a civil order is at risk. Guilt is induced with disobedience, and atonement provides the repentant ego a way back into good standing with the community.

The great themes of sin and redemption, fault and forgiveness, transgression and reconciliation are key ideas of theism, as it has to do primarily with interpersonal relationships, the threat of social breakdown, and the process of restoring harmony in the body politic. Toward this end, even the individual might be sacrificed for the common good – perhaps as a vicarious offering, to appease an offended deity, or to satisfy the penalty for sin.

Obviously the great theistic systems of Judaism and Christianity, as represented in the Bible, are very much in this groove. Less obvious – or rather buried underneath multiple layers of theistic commentary and myth-spinning known as the New Testament – is the First Voice of Jesus whose message (gospel) of unconditional forgiveness marked a potential (but ultimately failed) transition to post-theism. His teachings were soon obscured behind a transactional theory of salvation, where his death on a cross for our sins became the turning-point of a conditional redemption (only for the elect or true believers).world religionsThe example of Christianity is illustrative, if mostly in the negative, of the threshold dynamics of post-theism. Our primary problem according to post-theism is not death (as in animism) or sin (as in theism), but conviction, which refers to a critical reversal where beliefs once held by the mind come to hold the mind captive, in a mind-set of absolute certainty.

In this post-theistic age, conviction becomes our greatest threat to genuine community and world peace. Individuals compelled by conviction to sacrifice themselves and persecute (or kill) others are ready to bring down the apocalypse in defense of their truth. At this point, ideology takes over in a kind of “demonic possession,” locking an otherwise creative intelligence inside a closed circuit of cross-referencing dogmatic claims and motivating violence as a demonstration of devotion.

To the degree that theism proclaims the literal (i.e., metaphysical) reality of what was originally a literary (i.e., mythological) figure, an absence of empirical evidence requires it to be increasingly self-validating. In other words, its “truth” becomes more about passion than reason, more about persuasion and intimidation than existential insight and real-life relevance. For a fundamentalist the mere suggestion that the personal god of Scripture is a narrative construct and not an objective being is tantamount to atheism and worthy of damnation in the deepest hell.

For a post-theist, however, this same observation is profoundly liberating, but not because it sets us free from superstitious belief and for a future without god (a-theos). Rather it is liberating because it helps us appreciate the need for the technical mediation of symbols, stories, and sanctuaries in the longer event of our spiritual awakening, on our way to becoming fully human. Just as the developmental process of maturity doesn’t require the self-responsible adult to engage a campaign of debunking childhood myths and disproving the objective existence of Neverland, a post-theist feels no need to debate the metaphysical reality of gods and demons, heaven and hell, immortality and the afterlife.

Post-theism affirms the vital importance and relative place of theism in the scheme of human spiritual development. The god that was earlier worshiped and obeyed must gradually be absorbed by our rising aspirations, as we step into our roles as taller powers to embody a more generous and farther reaching empathy. The real “success” of theism is when the virtue of god glorified in our sanctuaries is actively manifested by us in the streets. With the personified ideal of patience, mercy, compassion, kindness, and forgiveness (as in the early Christian equation of god and love) now internalized and made flesh in us, we can take full responsibility as caretakers of earth and one another.

With growing challenges these days at all levels of concern – personal, political, and planetary – the need for us to break the chains of conviction which separate us and bravely honor the bonds of empathy that make us one is as urgent as ever.

 

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