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Monthly Archives: October 2020

5 Steps to Ridding the World of Democracy

Back when I was a church pastor, I gave a sermon that offered an analysis of the strategy used by the conservative alliance of political and religious leaders to get rid of Jesus. He had been stirring up hope and excitement among the rabble, announcing the arrival of a New Reality that would break their yoke of oppression.

For obvious reasons, he had to go.

Conservatives of any persuasion are committed to maintaining the status quo – conserving or safeguarding the inherited values, beliefs, worldview and way of life enjoyed by those who are comfortably getting by. Of course, this is also in the interest of a privileged few in seats of authority and with entitled access to wealth, healthcare, education and good jobs.

Anyone who dares to criticize and challenge the moral legitimacy of such an arrangement is asking for trouble.

Jesus criticized and challenged the politico-religious axis of conversative powers, and he got the trouble he was asking for.

To them, his message of the in-breaking power of a New Reality was nothing short of apocalyptic, in the way it threatened to pull down the idols of empire and orthodoxy. Getting rid of him could not be accomplished by a single aggressive strike, since Jesus had a popular following of some considerable size and they didn’t necessarily want to incite a revolution.

So this is how they did it.

Step One: Dismiss the Message

“Can anything good come from Nazareth?” The New Reality that Jesus’ proclaimed was just another utopia dreamed up by a disgruntled peasant from the Galilean outback. In a sprawling empire, there’s going to be a few who just can’t seem to accept the way things are and find their place in it. They would rather daydream about an ideal world than learn how to live in the real one.

Step Two: Deride the Messenger

“He is out of his mind.” But Jesus persisted, and this made it necessary to redirect their strategy at him personally. Not only was his message unrealistic, but he was himself a self-styled prophet who wandered the hills and city streets peddling a crazy fantasy. He spoke in parables and paradoxes – riddles just provocative enough to stupify his audience and keep them curious.

He was a cross-eyed clown-magician for the simple-minded.

Step Three: Discredit the Messenger

“Isn’t this the son of a carpenter?” Laughing off Jesus and his pathetic company didn’t have its desired effect, and his following only continued to grow. So instead of painting him as a buffoon, his conservative opponents began to attack his pedigree, as someone whose family tree would not be expected to bring forth a serious leader.

Jesus came from the wrong side of the tracks, the son of someone who didn’t matter.

Step Four: Disparage the Messenger

“This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” If exposing Jesus’ unremarkable and average background wasn’t enough to undermine the devotion of his followers, then a more aggressive smear campaign was in order. Consistent with his “good news” (gospel) of a New Reality where divisions of race, wealth, power, and morality are transcended by a community of compassion, generosity and goodwill, Jesus spent his time with social outsiders and moral outcasts.

How can anyone with a conscience associate with someone like that?!

Step Five: Destroy the Messenger

“And they began to look for an opportunity to put Jesus away.” In a civil society, before a movement goes too far and upsets the status quo, the steps for shutting someone up and dispersing his or her fan base might be regarded as “coarse and unkind” – but still be allowed to play out in the press, from the pulpit, on the airways, and in social media.

With each step, the water in the kettle gets a little warmer – not enough to trigger the frog’s leap of escape, however – until the temperature reaches a critical point where it’s no longer tolerable but has rendered the frog incapable of doing anything about it.

One of the dichotomies inherent to a liberal democracy is its aspirational commitment to freedom and progress on one side, and on the other a natural tendency, characteristic of all human groups, to fall into routines and become increasingly protective of the status quo.

The true spirit of democracy is for that reason unwelcome in a society which has settled into its traditions and authority structures, to the extent that beliefs and value-judgments once held consciously slip into position in front of the mind as pre-judgments (aka prejudices), determining how its members perceive and respond to the world around them.

All of this came back to me over the past four years, as I observed how candidate and then president Trump regards his democratic opponents – the true proponents of democracy in America. Included in this company are both Democrats and Republicans (as well as other minor parties) who are committed to the process of creating a system of governance dedicated to the advancement of individual freedom, civic responsibility, servant leadership, and equal representation under the law.

Those who speak on behalf of these democratic principles are typically handled by Trump using the same five-step process outlined above, just as the politico-religious conservative alliance dealt with Jesus in his day.

It’s proven to be the most effective method of dictators for luring otherwise sane and decent folk under a spell, where they are finally willing to abandon their interest in freedom for the despot’s promise to protect them from “disasters” which are sure to come with the changes of progress.

Moving our focus from the lessons of history to what’s transpiring right now in our own country, we can see how Trump has been pulling large numbers of professional Republicans and American citizens under a kind of spell. Like that frog in the kettle, we have followed him step-by-step through the program, with each additional step seeming to be not such a gross departure from what we’ve already been willing to concede, casually accept, and quietly ignore.

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Finding ourselves nodding in agreement with his character smears and name-calling, we might next be content to look away as one more candle in our less-free democracy is snuffed out.

 
 

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Tomorrow’s Religion

Let’s begin with a definition. Religion is a more or less systematic framework of values, beliefs, commitments, and practices that serves to orient a human being in reality, connect her with others, and inspire the lifelong pursuit of wellbeing and fulfillment.

I’m taking the term on its etymological cash-value – the Latin religare means “to link together” – rather than its popular definition as believing in the existence of god or cultivating a fascination with the supernatural. Such misconceptions of religion have been invented for the surreptitious purpose of setting it apart from the realities of everyday life and ultimately dismissing it altogether as irrelevant nonsense.

But if we go with my straightforward definition of religion, then two important observations follow. The first is that religion is an essential formality of our life as human beings in the way it provides structure around and gives expression to our deeper intuitions, communal affections, and higher aspirations.

Whether or not you “believe in god” or “go to church,” you have a religion – some framework of values, beliefs, commitments and practices that serves to orient you in reality, connect you with others, and inspire your lifelong pursuit of wellbeing and fulfillment. It may not be very intentional or all that effective, but you have one nonetheless.

Secondly, given that our human future hangs in the balance and depends in no small way on how mindful, compassionate, and responsible we are with respect to our planet and each other, it should be obvious that our future will be as long and prosperous as our religions are properly grounded and successful in fulfilling their mandate.

If our religions are not so grounded and successful these days, it is incumbent on us to bring them back into alignment – seeing as how they are human constructions and manifestations of our own psychospiritual condition.

The essential formality of a healthy religion can have the salutary effect of shaping consciousness and guiding our development in provident ways, but a “sick” religion will only make its adherents sicker still.

All around us these days we can see how widespread this sickness is: moral complacency and fanatical devotion, small-minded dogmatism and militant sectarianism – these are symptoms of the same underlying spiritual disease.

In this blog I give a lot of attention to the challenge of understanding where we are individually and as a species on the trajectory of evolution, and particularly to the role of religion in facilitating our progress. Regardless of the fact that many religions today are insular and regressive, my interest is in how religion itself evolves – or needs to evolve, if it is do its job and not pull the world down upon our heads.

The very busy diagram above spreads out the canvas of our big picture. Ascending along the diagonal axis are the major eras and levels in the architecture of our universe: beginning 14 billion years and 3 minutes ago with the flaring-forth of quantum energy in what we quaintly name “The Big Bang”; telescoping through the formation of matter, the emergence of life, the ignition of sentient awareness (mind), and the differentiation of self-conscious identity (ego); reaching fulfillment finally in each individual’s breakthrough awakening to the transpersonal spirit of community.

With all of that in front of us, I will devote the rest of this post to that phase transition in the upper left, where the religion of theism, which is centered on the relationship of ego and deity (superego, or the “ego above”) in the social context of group membership, transforms into the religion of post-theism.

I need to remind my reader that the post- in “post-theism” is not concerned with the debate over god’s objective existence, but is instead critically engaged with what our theological constructions of god say about us, and what hint they may provide regarding our prospect of a liberated life after, beyond, and on the other side of (post-) theism and orthodoxy.

Arranged to the left of those three major types of religion (animism, theism, and post-theism) are the “stages of faith,” as formulated by James Fowler – with a slight revision of the stage that marks, according to my scheme, the transition from theism to post-theism.

For its part, theism develops through three distinct phases. The first phase (“early”) is focused on the tribe’s founding myths (world creation, ancestral heritage, stories of heroes, saints, and saviors). A second phase (“high”) is oriented on the devotional cult, the moral code of obedience, and the ordination of earthly authorities.

Eventually it may advance into a third (“late”) phase where the individual takes up the work of constructing a personalized worldview and philosophy of life, one that is relevant to his or her experience and no longer satisfied with borrowing on the experiences (or purported experiences) of others.

Late theism can be particularly stressful and traumatic for the individual whose faith development is needing a religion suitable to his or her psychospiritual progress. In what I earlier called “sick” religion, the response of theism to the individual’s emergent aspirations is that of closing down, using shame, guilt, or the threat of excommunication to coerce him or her back into the fold.

Tragically many give in, if only because they don’t necessarily want to lose the fellowship, but also because their vision of a post-theistic spirituality is as yet unclear.

We happen to be at a point in our history, and on the trajectory of evolution itself, where an unprecedented courage is required – at least on a broad view, since a relative few have already achieved the breakthrough – for each of us to persist on our adventure into the farther reaches of human nature.

What I’m calling a “dialogical-conjunctive” faith (Fowler’s stage is named conjunctive) takes into account the wide diversity of belief systems, worldviews, and ways of life sharing the planet with us. These are brought together (“conjunctive”) for a comparative understanding and mutual exploration, in the interest of co-constructing a larger horizon of meaning (“dialogical”) that can appreciate the differences, even as it provides for their radical inclusion.

Having surrendered our idols of orthodoxy, we can now descend by a contemplative-mystical path into our own grounding mystery, as we ascend together by a transpersonal-ethical path into the liberated life of community.

 

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Secure in Delusion

One of the charming yet potentially devastating traits of our species is in the way we lose touch with what’s real, even preferring illusions to what’s right in front of our face. And yet, the condition of fully believing our illusions – called delusion – creeps over us so gradually that we actually have no idea the extent to which our mind has been separated from reality.

The steps or stages by which our delusion progresses are not a mystery, however, and your hope for the liberated life depends on how deep your understanding of it is able to go.

Let this black dot represent reality – what’s right in front of your face. Its existence, as distinct from its appearance or your perspective on it, is independent of whether you notice it, what you might think about, or what belief you hold regarding it.

As we say: It is what it is.

Before you were even born, your nervous system was collecting data from the environment in order to regulate your body’s internal state accordingly. Once outside the womb this adaptive work ramped up, matching your internal state and behavioral response to the conditions and events around you.

If these conditions and events were “provident,” meaning that they provided what you needed to live, connect, and to grow, your nervous system was regulated to a default mode (or mood) of calm, centered attention. If they were not so provident, but instead hostile or painful, your default mood became that of anxious irritability.

Delusion got started way back there in your early hours and days of life. If your nervous system detected a less-than-provident reality around you – perhaps because your caregivers weren’t attentive, nurturing, or even all that present when you needed them – this subjective insecurity served as a filter of your perceptions.

Your anxiety screened out some sensory information, as it allowed in and amplified other information. An anxious nervous system is adaptively hyper-vigilant to any signs that confirm its default state. Already your attention was recalibrating according to this basic mood and making some things more important (i.e., more real) to you than other things – if those other things even got through the screen at all.

Your insecurity motivated you to reach out for whatever could help you feel less anxious. Not only did you stay vigilant to possible dangers, but you also grabbed on and held tight to whatever could pacify your anxiety. For this reason, I call them “pacifiers,” and your relationship to them was one of “attachment.”

This is profoundly (i.e., deeply) different from the healthy normal bonding of an infant and its mother. What we’re talking about is neurotic attachment: a compulsive attempt to feel secure by clinging to something outside yourself.

You are (more or less desperately) trying to find security in a relationship, when its proper source is “up” from your nervous system and the preconscious experience of provident support.

Neurotic attachment splits your motivation into two opposing lines: a craving for what can make you feel secure and the fear of not getting it, of losing it, or of it not delivering on your demand.

The self-defeating nature of this split motivation is at the root of our word ambition, where ambi means “both.” A fear of not getting what you want intensifies your craving for it, which only makes your expectation all the more unrealistic and irrational, amplifying your insecurity rather than resolving it.

At this point, your mind starts to close around a small set of absolute beliefs formatted along the lines of “I can’t be happy without, unless, or until” such and such is the case. It can be something as mundane as a new toy, or as abstract as an imaginary object of religious doctrine.

Just as a legal conviction throws the convict in a jail cell, so does an absolute belief incarcerate your mind – which is why we call it a “conviction.” It becomes impossible to even think outside the box of what simply must be true, since so much depends on it being so.

Notice how little of reality, represented by our black dot, is visible any longer. Almost by definition, your convictions have separated your mind from what’s real.

Since all that matters to you is what impinges on your ambitions for security, everything else must be screened from awareness. A mind that is closed inside its convictions must actively suppress or deny any facts or information deemed irrelevant to this pursuit.

The philosopher Alan Watts coined the term ignórance, where the accent makes it an act of willfully ignoring something or other. Because all that matters is what confirms and will hopefully resolve your deep insecurity, you must turn attention away from all that is by definition irrelevant.

Your carrying capacity of consciousness has been reduced to “what’s in it for me.”

By now the delusion is fully established. Trapped inside your convictions and driven by a craving for what nothing outside you can satisfy, this has become what Arthur Schopenhauer called “the nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” Your only hope is for some relief from the burden of existence, maybe in the next new and shiny thing, a suicidal exit, or perhaps everlasting bliss in the life to come.

So then, stop believing it.

The prison door of your convictions is not locked, but you will need to leave them behind for a truly liberated life. Not by argument, renunciation, or conversion to another belief system, however, but simply by bringing attention to the breath and warm presence of your body.

Here and now is the best place to begin again.

 

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