As our species advances along the path of spiritual awakening, the inherited forms of religion need to change accordingly. A critical and widespread misunderstanding of this process claims that religion needs to be abandoned for our enlightenment to be realized. Religion itself is the problem, and we won’t be able to move forward until the shackles of blind faith, superstition, and orthodox convictions are cast off and left behind.
I couldn’t agree more, except that blind faith, superstition, and orthodox convictions are not the essence of religion – and it’s this misunderstanding that has to be corrected before further progress can be made.
Religion itself (in essence) is a system of stories, symbols, beliefs, and practices that facilitates the awakening, development, and expression of spirituality in everyday life. It is itself this system of linkages between and among these components, not the particular components themselves.
When we move into the specific components, we are engaging with this or that religion, which is where we frequently find blind faith, superstition, and orthodox convictions that actually interfere with – or altogether undermine – the essential function of religion itself. At this essential level, spirituality and religion are not merely compatible but necessary to each other.
Any given religion (whether from among the familiar brand names or something more homegrown and personalized) must be evaluated on how well it facilitates the awakening, development, and expression of spirituality in everyday life.
It happens that our current threshold of spiritual awakening and religious progress is challenging us to move beyond the general type of religion known as theism. The central feature of this type of religion is a god (or gods; from theos) who represents and personifies the supreme (or superior) power and authority in existence, often as the one who created, supports, and governs the cosmos, all of life, and most importantly the life and destiny of his (or her) people. In exchange for the god’s provident blessings, protection, and final salvation, devotees offer their worship, prayers, and obedience.
This idea of an exchange or transaction between the deity and devotees is basic to all forms of theism.
The important corollary to this centerpiece of a patron deity in theism, and serving as its counterpart in the all-important relationship of deity and devotee, is the ego. This is the individual’s sense of him- or herself as a separate person, belonging to the group and standing for the group, as well as possessing some distinct agency with respect to the group.
Ego, then, serves the two functions of centering the individual in a separate identity, and connecting him or her to other persons who are (presumably) centered in their identities. In authorizing the morality by which identity and relationship are managed, god – and let’s keep in mind that we’re talking about a religion’s personified representation of supreme power and authority – provides for the construction and maintenance of a stable society.
At some point – but really by a series of strategic revelations along the way – theistic religion helps the individual come to understand that god is not some “big guy in the sky,” that “he” is not literally a male, nor does god exist in the straightforward sense as a being up there, out there – or anywhere. (In healthy forms of theism, this doesn’t result in an existential crisis for the devotee, since he or she has never encountered god in such an objective-and-literal sense anyway. In fact, such a revelation is typically greeted with deep recognition – and some relief.)
By now the critical achievement of ego strength – with a personal identity that is securely centered and morally connected – has been fulfilled, and god is no longer needed. Spiritual awakening and development have been effectively facilitated by religion up to this point, and the individual is ready to move on to an entirely new mode of expression: the post-theistic, referring literally to religion “after (or on the other side of) god.”
Post-theism can really only “work” for and with individuals who are securely centered in themselves and empathically connected to others.
If instead, the ego is caught in a neurotic spiral of self-obsession or entangled in co-dependent relationships – and let’s admit it, this is where a lot of us are currently stuck – spirituality will not be able to advance. Some responsibility for this can be laid squarely on theistic religion, in my opinion, for not facilitating the spirituality of its members to, through, and beyond the god of orthodoxy.
But even outside of religion proper, healthy ego formation (a stable identity-in-relationship) is not well supported in today’s society.
As more of us are ready to take up the religion of post-theism – recalling my definition of religion as a system of stories, symbols, beliefs, and practices that facilitates the awakening, development, and expression of spirituality in everyday life – new dimensions of experience and understanding open up to us.
From our centered self, we can drop from the separate ego and into the existential ground of our being. This is the dimension of soul, which invites us to the contemplative experience of sacred solitude, inner peace, boundless presence, and deep communion. The descending path to this place-that-is-no-place, the now-and-here that is nowhere, is the mystical way of surrender and release. Here in the soul-space of our inner life we are reverently silent, for the mystery of being lies far below what thoughts and words can grasp.
And from our connections with others, we can leap beyond our mutual bonds and into the inclusive unity of all beings. This is the dimension of spirit, which invites us to the transpersonal experience of a hidden wholeness, universal harmony, higher purpose, and genuine community. The ascending path to this transcendent unity is the ethical way of love and service. Here in the “household of spirit” we are compassionately engaged with our neighbors (even our enemies), with all sentient beings, with Earth and the whole living universe.
At this point, religion has transformed from a conservative tradition and holy institution dedicated to the glory of god and the salvation of his people, to a unified vision and way of life that includes everyone and honors the divinity in all things.