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Monthly Archives: September 2016

The Great American Divide

dem_repIn the 2016 Presidential debates two candidates stand before us: one a super-rich white businessman, and the other a female politician (also wealthy and white). So while the differences between them could be much more significant (a middle-class Latina against an Asian-American Buddhist, for instance), in the process of the debate I am struck by how the deepest difference between our candidates coincides with a profound fault-line through the center of our nation. It’s not male versus female, white versus black, or even rich versus poor.

Back in my seminary days I had the assignment of researching the agreements, compatibility, and contradictions between American ideology and the gospel of Jesus. Needless to say, while I could find numerous points of agreement (even complicity) between American ideology and Christian orthodoxy, favorable touchpoints with Jesus’ message and way of life were very hard to find. He was not a big fan of empire or orthodoxy, nor of the egoism that drove both of them against his communitarian vision. His ‘campaign’ was on behalf of human liberation, and of a life awakened in love for others.

Orthodoxy and empire cannot allow for the creative authority of individuals. Jesus was killed because his gospel ran counter to the religio-political domination system of his day.

But as I looked deeper into the American psyche it became evident to me that our national history has been a tale of two visions, which are not only incompatible but run in opposite directions. On one side are the principles of democracy as set forth in the Declaration of Independence (1776) and embodied in The Constitution of the United States (1789), committed to the sacred and self-evident truths of dignity, liberty, equality, and community.

The Constitution’s “We the people” very clearly takes the perspective of all citizens, together as one voice. (Granted, neither blacks nor women were explicitly included in this democratic collective at the time, but the Constitution would later be invoked on their behalf as well, demonstrating its essentially inclusive spirit.)

On the other side of the American Divide are the perhaps equally sacred ambitions for privacy, property, and financial profit, as laid out in the Bill of Rights (1794, Constitutional Amendments 1-10). True enough, these Rights were articulated with the principles of democracy in the background, but they really aren’t about democratic aspirations at all. Their cause is with free-market capitalism,

an economic system in which investment in and ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange of wealth is made and maintained chiefly by private individuals or corporations, especially as contrasted to cooperatively or state-owned means of wealth. (Dictionary.com)

If America is a Land of Dreams, these are dreams about breaking out of poverty, making a living, and getting rich. The individual has a right to property and wealth, which must be protected by all means against unnecessary taxation or confiscation by the government. (Hence also “the right to bear arms.”)

It could be argued that democracy and capitalism name two fundamentally different enterprises of a society (its government and economy) and have really nothing to do with each other. And yet, as seedbeds for a general philosophy of life these two value systems advance contrary ideologies. One (democracy) looks at the individual through the lens of community life, while the other (capitalism) looks at society through the lens of individual self-promotion.

Side by side, democracy and capitalism seem like they should get along. After all, haven’t they coexisted since the beginning of our American Experiment? Yes, but their apparent compatibility has been about as natural as Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump sharing the stage.

The candidates speak very different languages, for the clear and simple reason that Clinton speaks the language of democracy while Trump speaks the language of capitalism. One is centered in the responsibilities of liberty, equality, and community; the other stands passionately on the rights for privacy, property, and profit. One is a proponent of all of us, together. Her opponent speaks mainly for those at the top, as well as for the large number who dream of getting there one day.

In this election, perhaps we are finally having to come to terms with the Great Divide in our character as a nation.

 
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Posted by on September 27, 2016 in Timely and Random

 

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Thoughts on the Apocalypse

apocalypseIn popular religion and culture ‘apocalypse’ refers to an end-of-the-world scenario where the order and stability of life as we know it breaks down, stars fall from the sky, evil powers are unleashed, and zombie herds ravage the few unlucky survivors. Even in ancient religions we can find this dystopian picture of catastrophic destruction and world-collapse, signalling the finale of temporal existence. The curtain comes down and the lights go out.

Or do they?

There is good evidence that the Persian prophet Zoroaster may have been the first to treat the Apocalypse as a future event rather than a mythological device announcing a phase transition from one mode of consciousness to another – which I will explain shortly. Zoroastrianism inspired similar prophecies in late Judaism and early Christianity, leading up to our own evangelical end-timers as its present-day descendants.

Zoroaster divided reality into two absolute and opposite principles: Ahura Mazda, the personified principle of light and righteousness, versus Angra Mainyu, the principle of darkness and evil. The human situation was thus characterized as caught in a cosmic-moral conflict, with each principle vying for our devotion and allegiance.

Zoroaster’s division in the very nature of reality was the cosmological projection of a psychological shift in human consciousness, in the formation of that separate center of personal identity which we know as ego. Instead of the seat of immortality that Zoroaster presumed it was, contemporary schools of ego psychology are approaching agreement in their regard of it as a social construction – not immortal or even all that self-consistent over an individual’s lifespan.

Ego formation is the process whereby a human animal is shaped by his or her tribe into a person, a term tracing back to the Latin persona and Greek prosopa, referring to a mask actors wore on stage to ‘personify’ the characters of a play. By constructing an identity and assigning roles for the individual to play, the general role-play of society could be carried off with functional success. Intrinsic to this process of identity-formation was the individual’s gathering sense of him- or herself as a separate center of affection, perspective, and agency.

Standing in its own unique (but socially invented) space, an ego must identify itself with certain things and against others, in commitments that are mandated and closely managed by the tribe. Around this center of personal identity everything seems to fall very naturally into pairs of opposites – outside/inside, above/below, behind/ahead, right/left, self/other, mine/yours, us/them, good/evil. And since the individual’s obedience to the moral code of the tribe is so essential to the tribe’s cohesion, it was Zoroaster’s genius to invent a cosmology that turned around – and in turn motivated – each person’s moral behavior.

How does dividing reality into opposing principles of good and evil motivate moral obedience? By making the ego immortal, Zoroaster made it all very personal, since the question of the individual’s postmortem destiny was now suddenly relevant and unavoidable. He preached that only obedient and righteous believers (those who believed his myth and its message) would enjoy an everlasting bliss in the paradise of Ahura Mazda, while doubters and sinners would be tormented in hell forever.

Apparently his motivational system worked, for many submitted themselves to the moral code and its unforgiving orthodoxy. The priests and prophets who spoke for Zoroaster and his god used the promise of paradise and the threat of perdition to keep their congregations in line and under control.

And so it was as well in late Judaism (cf the Book of Daniel) and early Christianity (cf the Apocalypse of John), down to our own day (Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and that strange celebrity cult of TV evangelists). But whereas the Apocalypse of John (aka the Book of Revelation) was written for first-century Christians under Roman persecution, with figurative references to current events and personages in the effort to encourage their faith and lift their hopes, today it is interpreted against our current world situation, but more for the effect of demonizing enemies and justifying bigotry than bolstering a commitment to the nonviolent way of Jesus.

End-time religion is a multi-billion dollar industry, which is odd considering how its message is about the world ending tomorrow. The more insecure people feel, the more likely they are to buy into schemes that promise relief, escape, or a decisive end to their trouble.

I’m not really arguing that the Apocalypse is a bunch of hog-monkey, only that taking it literally is. It bears repeating that Zoroaster (along with his Jewish and Christian descendants) was not the originator of this idea of world-collapse and history’s end; it was in the collective planetary consciousness of world cultures both before his time and outside his sphere of influence. He’s the one who took it literally, made it imminent, immortalized the ego and pitched the whole thing into a moral contest for the individual’s postmortem destiny. Prior to and outside of him, the ‘end of the world’ carried very different implications – very different.

My diagram illustrates the relationships among a people’s mythology (the collection of sacred stories by which they orient their lives), its background cosmology (current theories regarding the structure of reality), and the psychology (including stages of consciousness) that gives rise to the whole affair. In other posts, I’ve written about the consequences of dogmatically perpetuating a mythology that has fallen out of date with respect to our current understanding of reality. A prime example is the way that early Christian myths, which were composed upon a reality conceived as a three-story, vertically oriented structure, eventually lost credibility as science revealed an outward-expanding cosmos. (Jesus ‘coming down’ and ‘going up’ just doesn’t make as much sense anymore; and where exactly is heaven, if not above the clouds?)

This connection between psychology, mythology, and cosmology might actually help refine our definition of religion – not this or that religion, but religion itself. As the system that ‘links back’ or ties together (from the Latin religare) human consciousness (psychology) and the greater universe (cosmology) by means of sacred narratives (mythology), religion gives us (or once gave us) a way of holding everything together as one coordinated and meaningful whole. The Western advance of science disturbed this marvelous unity-of-experience when it challenged the traditional cosmology. And the stubborn reaction of Christian orthodoxy in denying these scientific discoveries and insisting on the literal truth of its outdated myths only precipitated our slide away from a relevant spirituality.

As I said, from inside mythology the Apocalypse will be seen as near or far in the future. Those whose consciousness is still centered in a mythopoetic (storytelling) mode of experience will look out on reality through the lens of sacred fictions. They are oriented on the archetypes, characters, exemplars, and ideals designed to urge their imitation, obedience, and aspiration through the course of their coming of age.

From the body-centered psychology of animism and well into the ego-centered psychology of theism, the great myths frame their sense of self and reality.

In ancient cultures the Apocalypse was in part a statement regarding the transient nature of existence, along with an imperative on the tribe to ritually renew itself at key points and thresholds along the way. The observable winding-down nature of time required periodic rites of renewal to keep things going. Many of our religious holidays have their roots in seasonal festivals and sacred ceremonies when the cosmos would be wound back up and order restored.

But at a certain stage of psychological development, as a rational and reality-oriented intelligence is waking from its incubation beneath the warm emotional covers of mythopoetic consciousness, the stories are recognized as cultural creations and not necessarily as representing the way things really are. For the individual this means that one’s adult higher self is stepping out of an earlier mode of make-believe (the now inner child), in order to acknowledge a reality on the other side of the mythological enclosure, of what we’ve known as ‘my world’ and ‘our world’, that is, the shared world-view of our tribe.

And this is the world that comes to an end with the Apocalypse. In other words, what had been interpreted from inside the myth as a future event for the world as we know it, is, psychologically, the moment of realization when an individual begins to understand the world for what it is – a narrative construction of meaning. Such a realization is one-part liberating discovery and one-part shattering disillusionment. The mythological enclosure is gone, and now the present mystery of reality breaks in. It’s not that we’re done with story at this point, only that we are now aware, as we once were not, that our constructions of meaning are exactly, and only, that.

Our challenge and opportunity becomes one of working out a relevant spirituality and way of life, together, as the curtain comes down and the lights go on; after our world ends, and on the other side of god.

 
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Posted by on September 22, 2016 in Post-theism/New Humanism

 

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The Galilean Rocket Man

Rocket ManAfter his natural life and rather sudden death, Jesus the Galilean started on a mythological career which carried him all the way to the top-floor corner office of the universe, as none other than God Incarnate. A surprising majority of those who confess to be Christian have little knowledge of how a backwater itinerant teacher eventually became the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. The obvious reason for this ignorance is rooted in their belief that Jesus was God Incarnate from the very beginning, just as Christian orthodoxy says. In other words, the story starts there.

But the advancement in our knowledge since the fourth century, when Jesus was officially promoted to his fully-divine status, makes such a confession today a matter of willful ignorance. Discoveries from the study of history, cosmology, sociology, mythology, psychology, and the development of Christian doctrine itself have to be deliberately ignored for the sake of ‘keeping the faith’. In this case, faith becomes a matter of believing it anyway, as if intentionally sweeping aside all evidence, rationality, and common sense against the claims of Christian orthodoxy is somehow a demonstration of spiritual virtue. All it really demonstrates, however, is that individuals prefer the security in what they believe to the risk of being wrong.

Having served in professional ministry as a church pastor for fifteen years I am well acquainted with this phenomenon, technically known as fideism – the exclusive reliance on faith as a substitute for rational thought and reality-testing. Many believers don’t realize how they are being gamed by a system that constructed its most prized doctrines in the head, but cautions parishioners against using theirs.

This rise of the Galilean Rocket Man progressed by stages, like a rocket breaking through the stratosphere as it disengages and drops off the weight of parts no longer needed. By the end of his mythological career Jesus had become the most significant item in existence – nothing less than God himself, the supreme Lord of the universe. At the stage just before this one he had achieved the status of World Savior, whose crucifixion and resurrection saved the world from sin, the devil, and death itself – or we should say, he saved those who can believe this.

Earlier still, before the focused effort of orthodoxy got underway, Jesus walked the storyland of the gospels as a Miracle Worker healing the sick and bending laws of nature. Actually he was one of many highly honored and well-remembered holy men in and before his time. It was common practice to represent such figures in narrative scenarios, short stories, and hero legends giving miraculous performances in exhibition of their unusual powers. To suspend or transform conventional reality, even if only in storyland, served to keep the holy man alive in the memory of his disciples and descendants.

It would be a tragedy for Christians to remember the one who worked miracles, saved the world, and took his place as god, but not give serious reflection to what he had to say or how he lived. Granted, it is not easy to sift the authentic message of the historical Jesus from the embellishments of hero worship, myth-making, and emerging orthodoxy in the Bible. But the tragedy turns into a double catastrophe when those who profess to be Christian follow the Rocket Man into heaven and completely eclipse the vision he had for life on earth. As long as they have assurance of joining him when they die or witnessing his return in the meantime, what he said and how he lived before his mythological ride into abstraction has little relevance to them.

Am I saying that Jesus isn’t (or wasn’t) God Incarnate, savior of the world, or a wonder-working miracle man? Yes, at least not in any literal or factual sense. If he is or did all those things he is worshiped for, then he is and did them inside the mythopoetic construction of an early Christian worldview – a vertically oriented three-story cosmos, a fallen human condition in need of rescue from above, and the popular portrayal of important historical figures as possessing supernatural powers. Look around. Our view of reality today (i.e., our contemporary scientific worldview) is very different.

Interestingly enough, we do still flock by thousands to watch celebrity faith healers and charismatic self-proclaimed prophets perform miracles – right before our credulous eyes. Something inside us knows that it’s a put-on, but we fail to pause and ask why these faith healers don’t have an office inside local hospitals where so many more of the suffering and ill could benefit from their extraordinary gifts.

Because so much of Christian identity is invested in an outdated cosmology and in a mythology taken literally, the religion will continue to decline, breaking into numerous sects, cults, and extremist factions on its way to extinction. And along the way, more damage will be done. The way out of this tragic predicament is to take one more step down to earth with the Galilean Rocket Man – out of mythology and the abstractions of orthodoxy, and back to the vision and way of life of a Wisdom Teacher.

You’ll notice that I didn’t say ‘the’ Wisdom Teacher. That’s because as a teacher of wisdom, Jesus was not, as we say, one of a kind. I realize that may sound disrespectful, irreverent, and even blasphemous to many Christians. But in the great stream of wisdom teachings which has been coursing through the world cultures for thousands of years, the personal identity of a teacher is much less important than the clarity, depth, and real-world relevance of the wisdom he or she has to share. As a Wisdom Teacher Jesus was one of many. But as is true of all the others, his unique personality, family background, life experience, and historical situation conspired to bring this wisdom to bear on the concerns of his time in a highly individualized way.

Wisdom is about the challenge and opportunity of being human, profoundly (i.e., thoroughly) mortal yet grounded always in an eternal now. How can we live out this life with integrity, authenticity, mindfulness, and compassion – for ourselves, for others, and for the whole community of life? How can we step beyond fear, suspend judgment, and be more genuinely present in the moment, wherever and with whomever we find ourselves? Jesus had some very timely things to say, but the wisdom he shared is timeless.

Before he became the Rocket Man of Christianity, Jesus the Galilean was a human being. That was his true glory.


In my diagram above I have distinguished two terms often used interchangeably: significance (vertical axis) and relevance (horizontal axis). As the root-word suggests, significance (from sign) is value we can point to. We talk of ‘high’ significance to acknowledge such value as up and above common or ordinary values. When Jesus got promoted to the status of God Incarnate, his significance was made absolute. But in the same stroke he also became utterly irrelevant, for relevance has to do with timely, real-world value. If Jesus was/is God Incarnate, what practical difference does that make in daily life? On the other hand, as a Wisdom Teacher Jesus is very relevant but not highly significant – that is to say, his value is not ‘up there’ or outside our situation in life, but in the very heart of it.

 
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Posted by on September 5, 2016 in Post-theism/New Humanism

 

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The Supreme Paradox

Supreme ParadoxI’ve written before on what I call the Matrix of Meaning, referring to a deep code of primary concerns and narrative motifs that generates the very fabric of our worldview. A sense of self and reality is the central construct in our personal myth, orienting us on the pressing challenges and emerging opportunities in our journey through life. The Matrix is deceptively simple in design, but the patterns of meaning it can produce are beyond number. Your life story and personal worldview are very different from mine, but the same Matrix of concerns and motifs is behind them both.

My first-time reader needs to know that I am a constructivist and employ the term ‘myth’ in its more technical (rather than popular) sense, as a narrative plot that holds the body of a story together and drives its action. Although we may have authorial liberties regarding the style and idiosyncratic features of our personal myth, the deeper structure is determined by what the ancient Greeks personified in the goddess Ananke, or Necessity. In other words, how you respond to adversity, hardship, pain and loss is unique to you as an individual, but the inevitability of suffering is universal for human beings. This was the Buddha’s First Noble Truth.

My diagram depicts the Four Ages of individual development, and these, too, are universal archetypes in mythology: the Child, the Youth, the Adult, and the Elder. I’ve indicated the average years over a lifetime when we transition from one to the next, but these shouldn’t be taken as hard predictors. The developmental challenge of a given Age might not be successfully negotiated, in which case our neurotic hangups around its primary concern will be carried into the next challenge, compounding our difficulty in making it through. Indeed, the fact that none of us gets out of childhood without some insecurity throws light on the question of why the human journey can be so damned complicated.

Northup Frye’s four literary types are also included in my diagram, each one corresponding to an Age and its driving concern. Comedy is the up-swing to ‘happily ever after’. Romance follows the heroic quest for an ideal. Tragedy descends the plunge-line of misfortune. Irony provides a double-vision between what is said at the surface and what is meant underneath. Our personal myth will predictably move through these distinct narrative frames, forcing us to adapt our construction of meaning to the shifting focus of our life in time. Although many have tried, any attempt to impose a frame of comedy over the reality of suffering only ends up forfeiting a potentially life-changing insight behind a veil of denial and make-believe. Needless to say, otherworldly religion is especially good at this.

The multicolored arc across my diagram represents the progression of consciousness through an ‘animistic’ body-centered stage (color-coded black), through a ‘theistic’ ego-centered stage (orange), and farther into a ‘post-theistic’ soul-centered mode of life (purple). Only a small minority are willing, or even able, to release personal identity (ego) for a deeper mystical realization and larger ethical vision. The rest of us fall in line with the status quo, take refuge inside our convictions, and succumb to the consensus trance. This is when theism can become pathological and our god starts looking like a glorified version of ourselves – a moody, judgmental, and self-righteous bigot.

My purpose in touring through the diagram in such detail is to lift into view the paradoxes in play throughout. The security of early childhood is in polar tension with the suffering that comes on as we mature. Much of suffering has to do with the loss of attachments that anchor identity and meaning for us, but which also represent for us a reality that is safe and supportive. Security and suffering, as primary concerns coded into the Matrix of Meaning, are paradoxically related. It’s not security or suffering, but the tension between security and suffering that drives our construction of meaning. Similarly, freedom and fate are polar opposites, making the interplay of our control in life and the conditions outside our control a second creative opposition. Freedom and fate only seem to exclude each other, while real wisdom involves learning to live inside and with their polarity.

This consideration of the paradoxes inherent to the Matrix of Meaning, and how these concerns compel us to make meaning that is at once relevant to our situation in life and capable of orienting us successfully throughout our journey, brings me to what I’ll call the supreme paradox. I refer my reader back to the diagram, specifically to that arrow arcing across from left to right. This represents the arc of our lifespan, tracking through the Four Ages (if we live long enough) from birth to death.

Especially during the first half of life, and most critically in those early years, we experience the uplifting support of reality in our growing body, a nurturing family system, and a wide world of opportunity. Such a conspiracy of virtuous forces instills in us a deep assurance of reality as the ground of our existence. We are the living manifestations of a 14 billion year-old process, a flower of consciousness emerged from this magnificent universe, the cosmos contemplating itself in wonder. Surely this is the root inspiration of true religion: the ineffable sense of being sustained by a provident reality, coming to be and living our days under the watchful intention of a mystery we cannot fully comprehend. All the mythological gods who provide us with nourishment, protection, guidance, and solace are metaphorical personifications of this provident ground of existence.

There are other gods as well, who begin peeking in as our exposure to reality becomes more complicated and challenging. These are dark forces – tricksters, shadowy forms, and unseen solvents that slowly erode the foundations of our neat and tidy worlds. Yes, reality is the provident ground of existence, but it is also the inescapable abyss of extinction. Coming-to-be and passing-away are the paradoxical reality of our life in time. We may want only a reality that supports and promotes our rise into identity, safekeeping our existence forever and ever, but that’s not how it is.

As Carl Jung pointed out many times and Lao Tzu made the central insight of his reflections on the way (Tao), light and dark are not absolutely exclusive of each other. Rather, they swirl together, pulling and pushing, blending and separating in the dance of reality, generating the ten thousand things and dissolving them simultaneously into the ineffable secret of the Tao which cannot be named.

 

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