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Monthly Archives: June 2016

Journey Back to Reality

BreakthroughJust as soon as I make a case for the necessity of religion, it’s time to insist on our need to transcend it. If my atheist friends squirm at my insistence that we all have a religion – a system of beliefs, attitudes, values and practices that links the separate ego back to reality – my friends who are believers will shake their heads at my suggestion that we need to leave it behind. Why take the time to defend religion (not one or another religion, but religion itself) when the point is to go beyond it?

A popular notion of religion conceives it as a means to an end, as a way through this world to another one. We trust that our religion will answer those really big questions and ultimately save our soul when the body gives out and our life on earth is over. Even a slight acquaintance with the history of religion should disabuse us of that fantasy, as the ‘soul rescue’ model came on the scene only very recently and is based on a dualism of body and soul which is probably less than 3,000 years old.

For the greater part of its history religion has focused human concern on the challenges and opportunities of life on earth. Essentially it is about assisting human beings in the evolutionary work of “cultivating faith, nurturing love, and constructing meaning,” of reconnecting to reality and becoming real. Why we might need to become real is more obvious when we understand the extent in which ego formation (the development of a separate center of self-conscious identity) removes us from the spontaneous stream of life experience and from the present mystery of reality.

The rise of personhood and individuality is a slow arc across human cultural history, and religion functions to keep it from detaching pathologically from the mystical (contemplative), ethical (communal), and universal (cosmological) dimensions of our existence. Few critics of religion today recognize just how important it was during the formative stages of human evolution, not to mention how important it continues to be as our destiny unfolds. Just because certain aspects of religion, and even entire religions, may change or disappear as we progress doesn’t mean that religion itself is expendable.

The question is not whether but how ego consciousness today is linked back to the grounding mystery within, to the living community of persons, and to the larger context of life on earth. Does our religion ‘work’ to this extent, or not?

My diagram summarizes the ‘journey back to reality’ that healthy religion is intended to facilitate. The place to begin is at the bottom-right, where looped purple and black chain-links remind us of the essential nature of human beings as spiritual animals. We are not souls in bodies or bodies with souls, but sentient animals with a rich inner life. Our body is oriented by the senses in an extroverted fashion to the physical environment, while our soul opens consciousness to its own inner depths. In the dialogue of inner and outer, mediated by metaphor and story (myth), we perceive the oneness of all things and our place in the order of existence.

Shifting over to the bottom-left and slowly swinging upward in the diagram introduces another piece of the puzzle, in that developing center of self-conscious identity (ego) mentioned earlier. If ‘spiritual animal’ is what we are as human beings, ego identity is a quest for who we are – where we belong, to whom, as a member of which tribe, in what occupation, and so on. Early on, the tribe is most active in shaping our animal nature into a well-behaved dependent – a ‘good’ boy or girl who observes the rules of the game. Certain base impulses have to be restrained, or else channeled in ways that conform to the morality of tribal life.

Our fundamental relationship to the body is established at this stage, as either something we can honor and enjoy, or instead feel unsure and ashamed about.

The first separation in ego formation, then, is a separation of self-consciousness from the sensations, drives, and urgencies of the body. Ideally there is a general sense of security, where the emerging ego feels supported and valued as a member. But even in the well-adjusted individual some anxiety persists around the question (inarticulate at this point) of whether it’s really safe to trust, making security a chronic concern for the ego. We see this, for instance, in the infant that clings to its mother for safety and nourishment, unwilling to let go for fear of not having what it needs to survive. Attachment, then, is how ego compensates for insecurity, by latching onto whatever promises the unconditional support it has lost in the process of separation.

Every ego thus carries an inherent self-contradiction: the separation necessary for establishing its own center of identity amplifies a deep insecurity, which ego then seeks to overcome by attaching to an external anchor – be it mother, family, nation, wealth, status, deity, heavenly reward, or whatever. The deeper the insecurity, the stronger and more desperate the attachment: a condition that interferes with and can completely undermine the process of healthy ego formation. This self-contradiction is usually resolved (perhaps only justified or explained away) by the construction of meaning that our tribe erects around us. As an obedient and honor-seeking member of the group, we should be willing – better yet, eager – to sacrifice everything in service to its idols and ideals.

Insofar as religion can become a closed orthodoxy and a hierarchy of top-down control, it was inevitable that this natural course of human evolution (i.e., the rise of ego consciousness) would generate a crisis – and a worldwide one. Wherever the rising force of personal identity and individual freedom confronts a regime of moral repression and thought control, something needs to give.

It’s important to understand, however, that because ego is inherently insecure to some extent, the framework of meaning it comes to inhabit and defend as its personal world is not wide open to reality, but just as small and simplified as it needs to be. In my diagram, a ladder of ego development leads up into a more or less coherent worldview (symbolized by a sphere) held inside a set of beliefs concerning ‘the way it is’ (symbolized by a box around the sphere). Even a healthy personality, exhibiting the telltale signs of ego strength (stable, balanced, and unified), is separated from reality by its world construct.

We don’t need to demonize the ego and make it the cause of all our trouble, as some world religions have done. The goal of ‘salvation’ (referring to the process of being set free and made whole) is not to cancel or reverse what ego formation has accomplished, but rather to transcend personal identity and reconcile consciousness to reality once again. I say ‘once again’, but in fact the connection this time is conscious and intentional, whereas its pre-egoic state was unconscious and spontaneous.

By definition, nothing is separate from reality, which means that ego’s separate identity is actually (in the words of Albert Einstein) “an optical delusion of consciousness.” This is what needs to be transcended.

Having made our way to the top of my diagram, we can now follow the path of our journey back to reality. To really see things as they are, the veil of meaning that separates us from reality (or to use a related analogy, the mental labels we affix to things and other people) must be pulled aside. What is revealed, then, is perfectly meaningless: reality in all its glory, the pure radiance of being. Truth is always beyond meaning, and our meanings are true only insofar as they accurately represent the way things really are. And yet, even the most accurate representation is still just a representation; the present mystery of reality transcends all media of thought, language, art, and theory. It is ineffable.

When we are liberated from the constraints of belief, prejudice, and unrealistic expectations, other persons can be respected as free individuals rather than as emotional attachments that protect or ‘complete’ us. Such open and sacred regard for others, expressed as empathic care for their health and well-being, is what we call love. Genuine love and community is a dynamic of freedom, trust, kindness, and honesty between individuals. It isn’t ‘blind’ at all, but profoundly clear-sighted. Attachment is what makes us blind to others, regarding them only as we need them to be – how reassured, desirable, important, or threatened they make us feel.

If truth is the way things really are behind the meanings we impose on them, and if love refers to a genuine human connection that is free from neurotic attachment, then power, as the opposite of insecurity, has to do with our conscious connection to the grounding mystery within. Paul Tillich expanded the notion of being (taken as a verb rather than a noun) as ‘the power to be’, interpreting existence (from existere) as the place where reality manifests (or ‘stands out’) in this or that thing.

Much of mystical spirituality might be characterized as an inward descent of consciousness, dropping past the identifications of ego, into the deeper registers of inner life until the wellspring of being-itself is reached.

Our quest for identity sets the stage, as it were, for our journey back to reality. As the quest is our preoccupation during the first half of life, the journey will (or perhaps I can dare say, should) serve as the orienting metaphor for a spirituality of the second half. Yes indeed, we will occasionally get hooked into the drama of ‘me and mine’ – much more frequently than we would care to admit – losing our way time and again. But soul seeks truth, not meaning. It celebrates love, not possession. And it rests quietly in being, in the secret source of power.

 

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A Father’s Heart

My present relationship with my father began a little more than two years ago, when we lost my mother. Since then we have talked on the phone morning and evening, just about every day. I suppose the combination of my being more temperamentally similar to my mother, and my father’s steady fulfillment of his family role as provider and disciplinarian, had made him seem more distant – not absent or uncaring, but more other, the counterpart to her enveloping nearness. Throughout my early life, he was like that promontory on the seacoast which provides a fixed point for the orientation of ships rising and falling on the waves.

I think there’s something archetypal about a father, as there is about a mother. Whereas she is the encompassing reality out of which we need to be delivered in our quest for identity, he represents in his otherness the ideal and future goal of what we are becoming. Our fathers might not exhibit the ethical character that inspires our own positive moral formation – although my father truly did – but simply in their otherness they stir our longing to stand out and be somebody. This might help explain why some young men who grow up without a positive role model in their fathers are at higher risk of becoming sociopaths and extremists.

Sometimes I wonder if my father’s role in our family system as the lawmaker and disciplinarian kept me from seeing the sentimental and softer side of him. Maybe his life story as a firstborn son and obligated farm hand, eventually serving as a church pastor in a denomination that was strongly patriarchal, shaped his own development away from the more tender and expressive virtues. No doubt, who we are and how we are in the world is to some extent determined by our situation in life and the responsibilities we are asked to shoulder. Even given that, I realized later on that how I saw my father was also limited by my own needs, ignorance, and insecurities.

Just last month my father’s only sibling and last remaining family member passed away, leaving him with the solitary task of sifting and sorting through legal documents, family memorabilia, and other of my uncle’s personal effects. He’s remarked more frequently of late how tired and ‘shaky’ he feels, driving back and forth from Michigan to Iowa and having to make decisions over the disposition of property and the family farm. He is struck at times by how little is holding him here anymore, after losing his parents, a son, his wife, friends along the way, and now his only brother. As the anchors of love and commitment are pulled up from his world, he feels increasingly adrift and alone in life.

In the midst of it, however, his faith remains strong, which I’m sure is the deep core of his character stability that has always impressed me. While his theology – the vocabulary and discourse he uses to make sense of his faith – is not identical with my own, I resonate with my father’s sense of a provident mystery that is present with him even in his loss and grief. We are not separate from reality after all, and ultimate reality (what we name God) is not ‘something else’ but rather the essential ground in which, as the Apostle Paul says quoting the Cretan philosopher Epimenides, ‘we live and move and have our being’. In his quiet moments, my father finds reassurance that he is not really alone.

At first, our frequent phone conversations were my way of keeping in touch and sharing the grief of losing my mother. It was distressing to picture him there, sitting by himself on the edge of the bed or staring through tears at his morning oatmeal. I wanted to be with him, to give what comfort I could offer. Over time, however, it was his faith that ministered to me. He seemed softer, more vulnerable; and in his vulnerability, more genuine and present in the moment. Our connection grew stronger, and I found myself looking forward to the next chance we’d have to talk.

Someday I want to be like my father.

Why is it so easy for us to take what is precious for granted? When our loved ones are alive and with us, how do we dare let a day pass without telling them how much they mean to us? Why does it take losing them to remind us? I will not wait, not another day. After all, the day might not come.

Dad, I love you. Thank you for being a rock for me, and for helping me find my way.Promontory

 
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Posted by on June 17, 2016 in Timely and Random

 

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Does Your Religion Work?

The question is not whether religion will one day be only a memory of our brutal and superstitious past as a species, or else singularly responsible for our future catastrophic self-destruction. A lot of people feel that we would be better off without it. In their perspective religion is unnecessary baggage crowding the mental space we could be using for more relevant and practical concerns. We can’t deal rationally with these things until we abandon superstition, come to our senses, and work together for real solutions.

A returning reader is familiar with my less categorical appraisal of religion. I can be critical of every tradition and denomination with respect to how easily it gets tangled in our neurotic obsessions with glory, guilt, sex, violence and death. But at the same time I am constantly in search of what we might call ‘religion in essence’, as distinct from its countless historical manifestations. From the etymology of the term we can define religion as the system of attitudes, beliefs, values and practices that works to link us back (Latin religare) to reality, resolving the separation inherent to the rise of ego consciousness.

Personal identity is a process of social construction that gradually establishes an executive center in the ego – actually a deputy center, subordinate to the authorities of family and tribe. Ego stands above the body and apart from others, and if development has been particularly difficult or traumatic, it becomes estranged from its own inner life (soul) as well. When this condition of separation is severe enough, a profound insecurity can overtake the personality. The essential function of religion is to provide the means for ego to reconnect with reality – internally with its own grounding mystery, relationally with others, and transcendentally through a meaningful world-picture (or cosmology).Faith_Love_Meaning

Distinguishing essential religion in this sense from its various manifestations – inspired or deluded, genuine or dysfunctional as the case may be – gives us a useful model for assessing the relative health of our own. Whether or not you believe in god, say your prayers, go to church, or hold out hope of an afterlife, the real litmus test of any religion has to do with how effectively it connects you to the grounding mystery within, to others who share the world with you, and to the universe that surrounds you.

My shorthand for these dimensions and associated practices of life is illustrated to the right. I’ll unpack each term more thoroughly in a bit, but for now I’ll restate my general thesis in the following way.

Religion is the system by which human beings cultivate faith, nurture love, and construct meaning. However you do that, is your religion.

Faith

We begin with faith because its presence or absence sets the tone for everything else. From the time we were still in our mother’s womb, our nervous system was picking up clues as to whether reality was provident and supportive, or instead hostile and dangerous. This was long before we had an ego and prior to our acquisition of language. Consequently the deep impression registered in our nervous system was both unconscious and ineffable.

In the context of essential religion, faith has nothing to do with beliefs – orthodox or otherwise. The roots of the word reach far below the articulate mind and its propositional truths, into the matter of trust, surrender, and release. I prefer release because it keeps the dynamics of faith centered internally, where to trust (in) anything we must first let go and open up to what is beyond us.

Its opposite is not heresy or intellectual doubt, but anxiety – more accurately existential anxiety, a profound dis-ease concerning the nature of reality. Our nervous system is gripped with tension, skittish and hyper-reactive, which sets us up for nervous exhaustion. This anxiety is the cause of so much that goes wrong in religion.

Because faith is our trusting release to the grounding mystery of being itself, it’s not something that can be measured or manipulated. It is our spontaneous ability to surrender control, relax into being, and rest in the moment. The good news is that it’s an ability we can develop by intentional practice.

Love

We might expect that a deeply grounded faith will translate in positive ways to our relationships with others, and this is indeed the case. The ego is established in its own separate center, which suggests that reaching out for affection, intimacy, cooperation, and reconciliation is where our religion is really tested – and where many fail. A deficiency in faith (i.e., excessive anxiety) makes us suspicious of others and unable to trust them, so when they let us down as they inevitably must, our core impression of reality is confirmed. Around it goes, in a self-reinforcing loop.

Because ego-formation moves our center of personal identity into its own separate position, the real work of religion lies in caring for others, respecting their interests, understanding their needs, forgiving their faults, and helping them thrive. In short, the real work of religion is about love. We should be able to say with confidence that any religion which fails to cultivate the power of love in human relationships, even more when it arouses and justifies hostility towards others, is neither healthy nor true. This insight is what motivated Siddhartha to eschew metaphysics and Jesus to renounce orthodoxy, revealing the way of liberation as consisting in loving-kindness.

Meaning

The age of postmodernity coincides with the dawning realization that meaning is not something we find in reality, but construct for ourselves. Words are human creations, and the sentences, stories, and worldviews they make up really are made up. If there’s a crisis of meaning these days, it’s not that life has let us down but that we are doing a bad job making life meaningful.

At the highest level, our religion inspires a view of the full horizon of existence, a unified theory of how the Whole Thing moves as one. In prehistoric and ancient times such theories were dramatic narratives, which we know as myths. As we approach modern times, these stories become more mathematical than narrative in structure, and personal elements are strictly excluded. A downside of this shift from sacred stories to scientific theories is our difficulty in seeing ourselves in the bigger picture. If we reduce mind to brain, brain to body, and body to nothing but dead matter, where is the self? Where is the human spirit? How is it possible to say that we belong to the universe?

One more quick drop down to the level of faith will help us appreciate how the meaning of life is really a creative project of our shared life together, and how the quality of our relationships is directly a function of how deep and strong is our individual faith. Faith, that is to say, encourages love, and love engages us in the collaborative pursuit of meaning.

That’s when you know your religion works.

 

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