Although I spend a good amount of time defending the role of religion as the “system of utilities” that translates our spiritual intuitions into the structures of meaning in everyday life, I don’t want to lose sight of the fact that intuition precedes the structures which translate it, and that meaning is secondary to the mystery at the heart of experience. My utilitarian account of religion, where its validity is determined by its usefulness in representing the mystery and supporting a way of life that promotes genuine community, offers a helpful criterion for criticism as well as one that appreciates religion’s valuable contribution.
Religion’s behavior of late has provided more grist for criticism than appreciation, however, leading many to wonder if perhaps its long career is approaching an end. As science and secularism continue to spread across the planet and pervade modern consciousness, perhaps it is time to just let religion go. The problem with letting religion go is that it isn’t going away as many hoped it would, but is instead going the way of irrelevancy and conviction (which are really flip-sides of each other), increasingly willing to condone or commit violence in defense of its idols.
So I will try again to rehabilitate religion to its proper role in personal life and society, this time not by tracing out its system of utilities but instead by looking deeper into the spirituality it intends to embody and express … at least originally. If it doesn’t do this very effectively at our cultural moment, our task should be (I would argue) to deconstruct religion back to its source – not its prehistoric origins but to the source-experience of mystery that informs all true religion, whether animistic, theistic, or post-theistic.I’ve chosen the symbol of Taoism as the backdrop of my illustration above, for the simple reason that it is perhaps the best visual image available for contemplating the nature of reality (or anything) as a dynamic duality of principles. An experience of the present mystery of reality takes place and unfolds along primarily one of two complementary paths, an interior path to the Grounding Mystery (or ground of being) or an exterior path into the Provident Universe (or universal order).
The interior path descends into deeper centers of solitude, progressively farther from the light of sense discrimination and “world awareness,” to the Grounding Mystery where all mental associations and even consciousness of oneself dissolves away. For this reason it is named the “dark path.” This movement apart (or away) from others, objects, and external reality generally is also called apophatic, which refers to the subtraction of words and a refusal to attach mental labels to one’s experience.
A more determined discipline of abandoning names and representations of the mystery is known as renunciation – saying “no” to something that qualifies, delimits, or otherwise interferes with one’s direct experience of the Grounding Mystery. Since the dark path proceeds by separating oneself from surface distractions, surrendering attachments and refusing to put words on the mystery, it often goes by the Latin name via negativa (way of negation). The goal ultimately is to lose (one’s sense of) oneself entirely in mystical union with the Grounding Mystery, to the point where Nothing (literally no thing) remains.
It is out of this ineffable awareness of Real Presence that the meditator will be refreshed in his or her intuition of oneness; that just as his or her deep inner life opens into the Grounding Mystery, so it can be said of all things. The existence of each thing is really a process of be-ing whereby it manifests the mystery of being-itself in its own limited form. All of existence takes on a sacramental character as the outward manifestation of this deep inner mystery.
In many early cultures, and even into the medieval period, a people’s cosmology (their mental model of the universe) was honored as a sacred picture of reality. This helps us understand why the revisions introduced by empirical science were so strongly resisted, and why even Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton initially explained their observations with adjustments, such as epicycles in planetary orbits, that could preserve the sacred cosmology to some extent.
This outward turn leads naturally to our consideration of the second path. The exterior path ascends into higher orders of communion, farther out into the light of sense discrimination and beyond world awareness, to the Provident Universe where all things “turn as one.” At this highest level, nothing is left out and all things exist together as illumined parts of a greater whole. For this reason it is named the “bright path.” This movement towards (or joining as part of) others, objects, or external reality generally is also called kataphatic, which refers to the addition of words and qualifiers in a fuller description of experience.
On this ascending path we are saying “yes” to the distinctions that qualify reality into a Provident Universe, where all things conspire together for the emergence of life and consciousness. Our ability to contemplate this is itself evidence of the fact that our universe is provident, not only in the organism of our body and highly evolved nervous system, but in Earth’s pro-life environment by virtue of its proximity to the Sun, along with the relative position of our galaxy within the expanding fabric of space-time. Theoretically every bit of it makes a contribution to the whole, suggesting that the farthest distant nebulae somehow play (or once played) a part in our present contemplation.
As we move up and out from ourselves, then, we are engaged upon the via positiva, a path where every new encounter is added to our understanding of the whole. The self is not negated but affirmed, world awareness is not renounced but transcended – surpassed and included within a larger frame of communion (literally “together as one”). Whereas the Grounding Mystery is deep within all things and accessible only by the inward via negativa, the Provident Universe is all around each thing and includes all things by the outward via positiva.
Now that we have the two paths of spiritual experience in view, I will draw my reader’s attention to the square at the center of my diagram. This is the box of identity, of the individual personality and its captain ego, which is conditioned according to its driving ambitions for security, attachment, and meaning. Each of us along the way enters into, negotiates, wakes up inside, converts to, and occasionally abandons (betrays, forsakes, releases) the identity contracts that define who we are. The rigid strength of this box is what I call conviction, which is the point where belief takes control of the mind rather than the healthy vice-versa. Just like a convict, an otherwise free and creative intelligence is “bound and determined,” and we all know where that leads.
To the box-dwelling ego, both spiritual paths present an intolerable threat for the simple reason that they require an individual to let go of “me and mine.” Security, attachment, and even the meaning locked up in one’s orthodoxy must be surrendered in the interest of touching and really seeing the present mystery of reality.
But since boxes are easier to manage (as well as mandate on others), most of us choose to stay inside.