The ultimate aim of human evolution is the formation of spiritual community, by which is meant nothing supernatural or esoteric, but rather a kind of “breathing” (spiritus) “together as one” (communitas). In this higher state of consciousness, individual egos act as creative agents of communal wellbeing, serving not an impersonal system or their own selfish ambitions, but cooperating with each other in transpersonal fellowship – a consilient (“leaping together”) unity.
In the longer project of human culture, it’s been the role of religion to facilitate this evolving formation of spiritual community.
Tragically, however, religions have too often and too easily gotten pulled off their true purpose by the seductions of worldly success and otherworldly escape. Its custodial leadership (pastors, priests, bishops, monarchs) get to enjoy the perks of wealth and power, claiming justification (and impunity) as god’s representatives on Earth, while common believers anticipate their reward in the next life, obediently paying their dues, following the rules, and submitting themselves to the authority of their ordained leaders in the meantime.
Every so often it becomes necessary to realign religion with its proper aim and function (i.e., its true purpose).
We should expect that any attempt to do so will be met with resistance from those who are benefiting somehow from the current arrangement. This includes its leadership whose “worldly success” depends on staying in power, as well as many common believers whose fantasies of “otherworldly escape” have lulled them into a blessed, and largely complacent, assurance.
Rather than fighting with its present leadership and structural orthodoxy, or trying to shake its true believers out of their settled convictions, those of us who are concerned over the damage being done by religion – in god’s name and for heaven’s sake – stand a better chance of restoring religion to its true purpose by clarifying exactly what it was (originally) and is (essentially) supposed to be facilitating.
What is spiritual community, and how can its evolution be facilitated most effectively?
My diagram is meant to reflect a dynamic process whereby spiritual community (defined as we go) intentionally supports the holistic life and development of its members. This spirit and intention require an organizational structure in order to engage practically with the concerns of daily life in the world – an outer network of roles, connections, routines, and behaviors that is the technical meaning of religion (from the Latin religare, “to link back”).
When religion loses its spirit and intention and gets “tied up” or entangled (religare in the pathological sense) in its own business, ambitions for worldly success and otherworldly escape take over, and the religion ceases to be true. “True religion,” then, has to do with its clarity and fidelity in facilitating the psychospiritual development of its members.
For now, we’ll just assume its benevolent influence on the individual (coming down on the left) and begin our meditation there, at the bottom of this “full-circle spirituality” which is the heart and soul of true religion.
Referring back to my diagram, the individual’s own “hero path” can be followed (going up on the right) to its apotheosis, or fulfillment, where he or she is empowered and called to join in the sacred work of spiritual community.
What I mean by “full-circle spirituality” is this full coming-around of psychospiritual development, where one who has found a provident support in spiritual community eventually becomes a devoted provider of the same to others.
Let’s take a few quick turns up the right side, dropping back to the bottom each time, in order to gain some understanding of how religion and spirituality interact throughout the process.
Our first turn begins with the individual’s physical (or first) birth as a more or less helpless dependent, and culminates in a spiritual (or “second”) birth where he or she takes a creative role in the active life of community. An infant is, dynamically speaking, a “patient” or passive recipient of the community’s care; whereas a mature adult is ready to be an “agent” or active contributor to the community’s wellbeing and sacred purpose.
Individual development turns around a center of self-conscious identity, called ego, which (or who) occupies and perpetuates a delusion of its own separate existence. From this mental location, ego is confronted with three existential threats: (1) of its own ground, in the dark abyss of the body; (2) of an unknown future beyond its control; and (3) of other egos, whose ulterior motives cannot be discerned or fully defended against.
Starting again at the bottom, then, a second turn follows psychospiritual development through three “trimesters” (divided by angled lines in my diagram) which can be summarized according to the principal achievement of each period: (1) releasing to the ground, (2) opening to the future, and (3) connecting to the other.
The goal is not to escape or evade the three existential threats, or even to overcome them, but rather to engage them in ways that can liberate consciousness from egoic delusion and restore the self to wholeness.
In what follows, I will offer a brief meditation – a third turn – that correlates this liberative engagement and restoration to wholeness with the “three Graces” of faith, hope, and love.
The psychospiritual development of an infant and young child is about gradually differentiating an ego out of the body’s animal nature. Ego’s delusion of having a separate identity cannot be sustained without the body, which is its source of life and ground of being. So the trick is in constructing the illusion of separateness, but without making the body into a “black hole” in which ego cannot rest or find renewal.
Through its provision of compassionate safekeeping and nurturing care, spiritual community coaxes the infant’s body into a relaxed and trusting state, easing ego along its path with the assurance that reality, both around and within, is provident. This internal state of a trusting surrender to reality is what is meant by faith.
Though popular religion has corrupted faith into a believer’s willingness to trust in the truth of certain doctrines – to “believe what I know ain’t so” – its original meaning derives from this inner release of (existential) trust in a provident reality.
The body (ego’s ground) is always and only in the present moment, which is why most meditation practices designed to cultivate present awareness involve a “return” to the sensations and rhythms of the body. Inside its delusion of separation from the body, ego is also cut off from the present, preferring to “spend time” in the past or in the future. The past is a traveled landscape and holds The Story of Me and How I Got Here. It frequently serves as a refuge from anxiety over what is ahead of ego and outside its control: the future.
When the caregiving work of spiritual community is effective, or “good enough,” in helping the individual release inwardly in trust to the provident ground of being (the body), an unknown future doesn’t loom menacingly over the ego as an impending catastrophe. Instead, in a mood that corresponds to the calm surrender of faith within, the future is regarded as a threshold of opportunity, anticipating that the same provident reality will open new doors of discovery, possibility, and higher purpose. In light of this, we can define hope as the attitude of holding open a positive expectation for the future.
Such creative expectancy inspires ego’s agency in choosing doors that open to greater freedom, joy, and connection.
To be sure, we have been assuming a healthy course of psychospiritual development, where ego is supported on its journey by a deep faith and a resilient hope. When things don’t go so well, as sadly happens quite often, the individual suffers from psychosomatic (mind-body) disorders and anxious preoccupation with the future. Pathological religion offers solutions in its doctrines of immortality (emancipation from the body fueled by antagonism to the body) and everlasting life in heaven after we die (a shift in attitude from creative agency to passive waiting).
But we need to hold our attention on how things go when they go well, when religion is properly fulfilling its role of supporting, shaping, and inspiring our human psychospiritual development.
An ego that can release in faith to its provident ground and open with hope to a future of opportunity is also capable of connecting to others in love. At this critical stage in development, consciousness is empowered to break through its own delusion of separateness for a transpersonal communion, a higher wholeness of love rooted in the deeper oneness of faith. Ego is not renounced or discarded, but rather its stable center is used as the position from which consciousness can now “drop” into oneness and “leap” into wholeness.
At last the internally grounded, creatively optimistic, and compassionately connected individual can take his or her place among the fellowship of a spiritual community whose vision of “the human being, fully alive” (Ireneaus) inspires their communal fidelity to the up-and-coming heroes, just now setting out on their journey.