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Category Archives: Nietzsche, Watts, Heschel

Creative Choice

The creative life is not simply a life without limits, but is more about freely choosing the limits that define your desire. Without definition, the creative desire that Nietzsche called the human spirit splashes out and seeps away, falling short of realization. The other side of it for Nietzsche was the degree in which our limits can strangle the spirit and pull us down into mediocrity.

When I sit with a client, one of the things I’m interested in is his or her behavior. What are you doing? How are you conducting your life? Quite frequently we will discover that the individual isn’t really “conducting” it at all. Instead, the client feels pinned down under the weight of social duty and moral expectations. “I’ve been doing what I’m told, and now I feel like a fake. I’m not living my own life.”

Sometimes it becomes obvious that the individual’s behavior is on automatic pilot. Perhaps it’s not so much the obligations attaching to his or her social roles as it is the dead inertia of habit, trudging on without passion or engagement. This is really Nietzsche’s point, even though he’s most misunderstood here. The individual, moved for so long out of obedience, never truly awakens to his or her own freedom to choose life. It’s not that “morality” is bad, but that it can put us to sleep inside its neat little boxes.

Impulse

Desire originates as an impulse, rooted in the urgencies of our biological life. The natural aim of desire is to find satisfaction by gratifying this impulse. At this level consciousness is fully contained in our animal nature. A newborn baby exemplifies the impulsive life, in the way its behavior spontaneously seeks out the satisfaction of basic needs.

But a human being is also “hard wired” for relationships, not only by virtue of our early dependency on providers but also because these social bonds are necessary to the formation of identity. In the construction of ego, the tribe shapes an animal nature into an obedient and cooperative member of society – or at least that’s the intended outcome. The tribe accomplishes this through the imposition of various constraints; think of them as the “hold” and “push” that gradually train an animal nature into something more domesticated and well-behaved.

Constraint

Don’t do that. Do this instead. That’s what I mean by a “push” constraint. A “hold” constraint is when the instruction is more simply about not doing something, at least not here, not now. There’s a time and place for that, and this isn’t it. Hold that impulse and keep it to yourself. “Hold” constraints often carry the tribe’s shadow, in the fear, condemnation, and consequent shame that get attached to certain animal impulses.

For a while this force of social constraint needs to prevail over the individual’s impulse for immediate gratification. Tribal order and the common good require that some impulses get trained into compliance, some get sublimated in more refined outlets, and some others are kept in the closet. Nietzsche had some trouble with that, as you might expect, but his real complaint was with what typically happens next.

Over time, the control system of social constraints gets internalized, in what Freud would later name the “superego.” Not to be confused with conscience, which refers to an inner sense of how we can best get along together in community, the superego is the pressure of the group on the individual to conform. The real danger is that this “inner parent” will supervene on the individual’s evolutionary need to take control and live his or her own life.

Habit

Habit is a marvelous adaptation in the way it submerges routine behaviors into “thoughtless” performance, in order to liberate conscious attention for higher pursuits. But habit is also the rut where we can curl up and fall asleep to the challenge and mystery of being alive. As social duty is pressed upon the individual and gradually insinuated as the superego, this rut of moral obligation can become the permanent “depression” of the spirit.

This is what Nietzsche (and many others) saw all around him, but it’s not merely a nineteenth-century problem. In his opinion it is the dilemma that represents a critical break-point in human evolution. We will either wake up and start living the life we really want, or we will die in the rut of our daily grind. For Nietzsche it was fulfillment or obedience. After doing what we’re told for long enough, it comes time to choose.

But you need to be awake to choose.

Restraint

The control system of tribal morality is necessary to the construction of personal identity (ego). Our animal nature with its powerful and insistent impulses needs to be domesticated and trained into a cooperative member of society. The way it should work is that these external constraints (“hold” and “push”) gradually assist the individual in developing internal restraint, where he or she is able to “pull” back on impulse and give opportunity for the consideration of options.

What I’m calling internal restraint is not repression, which is about “push” again, this time back and down into a shadow of shame. Restraint is that critical piece of self-control where the individual is able to do something with the impulse, rather than be done by it. Paradoxically restraint is the birthplace of freedom – the evolutionary threshold that Nietzsche announced and prophesied about.

Consideration

Self-restraint thus opens the field of awareness to at least two options: act now or wait til later. But almost always there is a variety of other options that present themselves as well. Maybe you don’t act on your impulse at all. Maybe instead of swinging back you choose to let go. Maybe you find a more compassionate or courageous way to move your life forward.

The point here is that restraint makes consideration possible. Once you have options, you need to weigh them against each other to figure out which one has the best feel and fit. If you are truly free to live the life you want, then your choice cannot be coerced – not by god, government, church or superego. A forced choice is not a choice.

Vision

Finally, this foreground of consideration begins to clarify some future goals – outcomes and consequences that are likely to follow upon one option or another. At this point the individual is stretched in his or her thinking to imagine a preferred future. As the picture becomes more vivid and compelling, some ideals grow in strength as priorities and illumine the path ahead.

Nietzsche’s ideal was of the fully awakened and self-responsible creator. There’s no room here to expand on it further – I have in fact explored the idea in previous posts; see http://wp.me/p2tkek-5q – but this is what I see in the mythological god. This principal figure of religious myth can be observed evolving over many centuries and across cultures, into a “fully awakened and self-responsible creator.” In other words, the mythological god is the literary representation of our human ideal, the Great Attractor of our higher potential as a species.

Unfortunately – and as Nietzsche saw it, tragically – whereas religion might have been the midwife of this spiritual birth, it too often goes the other way. The tribal control system refuses to let the child grow up and take the lead in his or her own life. The god of dogmatic orthodoxy regresses back into an authoritarian, jealous and vindictive anti-ideal. True believers strive almost neurotically to please, placate, flatter and impress their god. Just don’t piss him off, or it will surely be curtains for you.

Sun

Choice

More than ever – and this has always been true – our future as a species hangs in the balance. And as in all other times, now is the time to choose.

It’s time to step creatively into the life we really want.

 

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In a Nutshell

I conclude my conversations with Nietzsche, Watts and Heschel by summing up what I’ve learned. All of them were lights in their time, and each one spoke out of – and to – his particular cultural context. My re-reading of these authors has opened up a new insight, however, with regard to their respective places in human history. Whether they were German Lutheran, Anglican beatnik, or Hasidic Jew, these three thinkers have become portals of a new vision for humanity. Something deeper underground than what is specific to any given cultural moment breaks to the surface in their writings. Here are the main ideas.

We live like fish submerged in an unfathomable mystery called reality. Each moment offers a fresh experience of the ineffable wonder of being alive and part of it all. Humans have evolved an ability to reflect on our experience, to pull out the patterns – or put them in – in order to make sense of what’s going on. This business of meaning-making is our chief preoccupation as a species, and the products of our effort – identity, value, significance, and purpose – are vigorously defended as truth-itself.

In fact, for the longest time humans were not self-aware in this construction of meaning. That is to say, we were unselfconscious creators: the projections just came spontaneously out of our deeper imagination in the form of dance, art, symbol, poetry and myth – forming the web of meaning we call culture. We saw ourselves in these projected patterns of meaning, but we didn’t consciously recognize the intelligence “looking back” at us. In the ensuing dialogue of cultural development – over many millenniums – we have come to realize our role in all of this.

One place where our evolving intelligence looks back at us is in the mythological god. This term refers to the key figures of early narratives who are depicted as the primary agents in the creation, supervision, intervention and redemption of the world – focused mainly on the local worlds of the tribes that recited and passed on the stories. As we stretch out the history of mythology we notice that god has evolved over time, beginning as the intention within the forces of nature, becoming more interested in the moral foundations and government of tribal society, and eventually ascending to an absolute position outside the world-system as “the one in control of all things.”

A mythic-literal reading of the sacred narratives is confronted with this personal development in god, which is difficult to accept since god is supposed to be outside of time and essentially perfect. But what if, following the theory that the mythological god is really our own developing consciousness looking back at us, we use this growth chart as a leading indicator of human evolution? The evolution of our body is on a very long trajectory reaching back millions of years; but our ego development correlates exactly to the career of the mythological god. Coincidence?

The rise of ego (self-) consciousness begins in the visceral urgencies of biological life. Under the influence of the drives and reflexes that have secured our survival for countless generations, the infantile ego is powerless to resist. But over time and through the disciplines of tribal morality, “I” (ego) takes its place at the table as a civilized – Nietzsche would say, domesticated – member of the herd. At this point, our focus of value and concern has shifted from the biological imperative of survival to the task of maintaining a social identity, with its driving need to “fit in” (belonging) and “stand out” (recognition).

Remember that all of this world-construction activity is taking place on the ego, by the tribe, and under the divine supervision and final judgment of the mythological god. This gearing-together of who I am, who we are, and who’s in control of it all makes for a very captive audience. Once the doors are locked it’s nearly impossible to manage an escape – but who would want to leave anyway? Our god is the true god, we are the chosen people, and I will be rewarded with everlasting life in heaven for being good (that is to say, obedient).

Remember, too, that all of this construction is taking place outside and around the present moment, where our soul swims in mystery. The erector set of culture makes for an exceedingly interesting, developmentally necessary, and magically entrancing game of distractions. Nietzsche wanted to pull it all down and clear the path to a higher humanity (Ubermensch), beyond good and evil. Watts taught that we can see through the cultural facade and step out of the role-play that is currently holding us hostage; we can wake up from the trance and find wisdom in our insecurity. And Heschel challenged us not to rest in this illusion of security, but rather to use the leverage-point of personal (ego) freedom to leap for the ring of responsibility.

This leads us back to “now” – which we never really left, nor can we. Having arched out of and away from the real presence of mystery and through our self-spun webs of meaning, we arrive once again in the living moment. Our awareness has been opened up and the focus of our attention now sees through what we once took as real. The seeds of creativity, compassion and wisdom, once the special possession of the mythological god, have begun to take root in their proper ground.

We are still becoming. The future is already being felt in the contractions. Don’t be afraid.

 

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Polarity and Paradox

Heschel: “There are two ways in which the Bible speaks of the creation of [humanity]. In the first chapter of the Book of Genesis, which is devoted to the creation of the physical universe, [humanity] is described as having been created in the image and likeness of God. In the second chapter, which tells us of the commandment not to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, [humanity] is described as having been formed out of the dust of the earth. Together, image and dust express the polarity [in human nature].”

In the counseling clinic you will find two types of clients: those who are ashamed of themselves and regard others generally as not to be trusted, and those who are conceited with themselves and regard others generally as not to be trusted. Both of them will typically have relationship issues, be chronically unhappy in life, and will either be in therapy for a long time or else jump in and out, looking for the magic trick that no counselor can provide. Fix me.

As I have already suggested, the persistent problems of middle-class mental health in America today are likely a complication of our Western fixation with ego. Instead of following a more contemplative line of research into the spiritual intelligence that grounds us in present reality, Western “psychology” has in fact abandoned the soul (psyche) in favor of personality development and its organizational center, the ego. From the vantage-point of the strained and conflicted ego, any threat to its executive control and perpetual reign is perceived as a problem.

Ironically, then, we have come to prefer experiences of ego-inflation to genuine self-transcendence; what we are has been eclipsed by who we are. Experiences of love, wonder, inspiration and faith – all of which require that we let go of “me” in release to a larger mystery – are seen as threatening and make us anxious. The divine ideal of our own higher nature (god) becomes severed as the object of our aspiration and becomes, not a force for waking and clarifying our dormant virtue, but rather a source of judgment, shame and condemnation. The “God beyond god” is inaccessible to the degree that we insist on saving ourselves.

On the other side of this existential divide – this illusion of duality generated by Captain Ego – is the body and its realm of instinct, mucus and blood (yuck). Strange urges and powerful moods take us by surprise, and much of our shame for falling short of god’s demands is hooked into our bodies. But the body is also in time, and time is passing, and passing time is mortality, and mortality means deathand who wants that?!

The cosmic force of entropy, which is constantly pulling at the heels of higher order so as to reach simpler and more stable arrangements, is also at work on our bodies. As a living composition of physical matter, the body will eventually succumb to this downward pull of mortality and return as dust to dust. In reality this is a marvelous thing, and it might be appreciated as the descending arc of our recycling universe, straining against the upward push of evolution along its ascending arc – a scientific yin and yang that strive together in the beautiful balance of all things.

But again, if ego is attached to the body, then I am going down as well – which is unacceptable. So I dress it up to look younger, take supplements to extend its life, primp, tuck and cinch up its sagging weight. I will not be dust … I will not! What is really an astonishing miracle of matter becomes instead a death sentence, a damnable anchor holding me in time. Thankfully, religion has provided me a way out of this mess, with its doctrine of immortality and the promise of everlasting life.

What would happen, what would it be like if we could embrace this polarity in our human nature? How different would our lives be if we were able – really it comes down to whether or not we are willing – to transcend the ego and move more effortlessly (less anxiously) through the frontiers of body and soul? Can we affirm the image of god in ourselves, and in each other, without becoming self-inflated? Can we embrace mortality and learn to appreciate the fleeting moments and limited time we have?

Not to separate ego from body, and not to confuse ego with soul – this is wisdom. We harbor a divine image, but we are even now passing into dust.

 

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A Second Look

Watts: “From this deeper point of view, religion is not a system of predictions. Its doctrines have to do, not with the future and the everlasting, but with the present and the eternal. They are not a set of beliefs and hopes but, on the contrary, a set of graphic symbols about present experience.”

I am sure that every one of us holds a deep intuition of what really matters in life. Not what is “most meaningful” but what is most real, and by implication where the true relevance of our life is grounded. The premise of Watts’ book – which concludes with this chapter – is that our ambition for security, motivated by the fear of extinction and the craving for permanence, is what keeps us looking outside this present moment for our salvation.

The fact of our insecurity – not simply the anxiety over it, but the naked reality of our passing life – cannot be escaped. However, much of what we do is for the purpose of diverting focus to things (attachments) that are fixed in space or defy the erosion of time. Whether as materialists or spiritualists, we hope that by holding on to what has weight or permanence our own existence will somehow be preserved.

But empirical science has discovered that matter is really just the momentary configuration of vibrant energy, coming together and falling apart at the joints through the dynamic interaction of elementary forces. And mystical spirituality has come to the realization – which also amounts to a disillusionment – that the gods of myth and theology are really representations and reflexes in our own minds of a profound, ineffable mystery. Standing on the edge of this mystery, ego is easily overwhelmed with vertigo.

In an effort to steady myself, I latch on to memories of the past or fantasies of the future, or else to something outside me, like another person, material possessions, or my patron deity (the mythological god). The result of all this grasping and clutching is really no less pleasant than the vertigo – anxiety, disappointment, frustration, regret, guilt, resentment, codependency, addiction and a soul-sick religion. But here’s the attraction: I (ego) am still at the center of all these states and circumstances. Life may suck, but it’s still my life.

In the practice of spiritual direction and transformational coaching, it always amounts to a breakthrough when the client finally understands what he’s doing in order to feel anxious or depressed, or how his habits and expectations are contributing to his relational conflicts and general disenchantment with life. Conventional psychotherapy will typically work to reconstruct the client’s past (in a case history), clarify a preferred future (the treatment objective), and modify his mood and behavior (using specific interventions) to help get him where he’d rather be.

Rarely will a client in therapy say, “I want to be more real.” That’s because most of our Western psychotherapies are not truly psycho (soul) therapies at all, but are instead based on our preoccupation with the personality and its pompous little captain, the ego. Personal identity is spun and suspended in the web of tribal culture, which makes the well-intentioned therapist an agent of the collective trance. Not that we don’t need addiction recovery, functional relationships, or more successful careers – we undoubtedly do. But if we just keep pulling along the past and pushing our way into the future, we will continue to squander our one chance at real life.

What does this mean for religion? I’ve been exploring a theory that regards religion as inherently paradoxical, a coordinated interplay between two evolutionary objectives – (1) providing support and aspirational focus to your developing ego by way of a projected ideal, the mythological god; and (2) awakening your soul to the ground of being, to the present mystery and mysterious presence of reality. The first objective encourages a literal reading of myth, with the action moving from left to right, through time and across the stage. In the Christian myth of salvation, for instance, Jesus Christ was an individual who came from god into the world, accomplished his work here and returned to god. One day he will come again. If you can believe this – and exactly what “this” is will depend on the denomination you ask – you may be considered a convert and become a member. When it all shakes out, you will be in heaven – ego intact.

The second objective requires a mystical reading, where the story is not about the past or future but is rather “a set of graphic symbols about present experience.” In this light, Jesus represents your separate ego, a personality defined by a past and directed toward a future. Christ (anointed one, the biblical equivalent to Buddha, awakened one) is your deeper self, or soul, ready to break forth in resurrection once this ego-momentum can be arrested, restrained and crucified. Now in the moment and fully present to life, your experience is one of authenticity and freedom. Salvation – the healing of your divided self – is here not a one-time accomplishment by someone else on your behalf, but rather the on-going challenge and invitation to be whole.

Now obviously the vertical axis and mystical reading will eventually “cost” more for the ego, which is partly why it’s the road less taken. But there’s also the tribe to think of, with its own organizational instincts and need for control. Remember that ego is simply a function of the tribe, the tribe is a role-play of morality, morality is a rule system derived from the tribe’s mythology, and mythology is the revealed word and will of god. It all ties together into a very tight web of meaning. The path of enlightenment and resurrection sets you free from fear and relaxes the grip of desire – the two motivational impulses that the tribe exploits to keep you captive. Threat of penalty and the lure of reward no longer matter, because now you are grounded in reality.

What else is there?

 

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Waiting Around

Nietzsche: “In every corner of the earth there are people waiting who hardly know to what extent they are waiting but even less that they are waiting in vain. Sometimes the awakening call, that chance event which gives ‘permission’ to act, comes but too late – when the best part of youth and the strength to act has already been used up in sitting still; and how many a man has discovered to his horror when he ‘rose up’ that his limbs had gone to sleep and his spirit was already too heavy!”

It may be that culture invented philosophy in order to catch the impulse of change and involve it – or tangle it up – in a web of commentary and subtle qualifications, to the point where it is rendered numb and disoriented. Our species is top-heavy, with this big brain wobbling atop a spindle of delicate bones. We often sense and feel the galvanic force of evolution surging out to our working muscles, but then rein it back to the counter for more deliberation. Of course, we don’t want to act prematurely or thoughtlessly or recklessly, or “merely” on the prick of inspiration alone – so we fiddle and futz, weigh the benefits against the risks, and end up throwing it back into committee.

Let’s face it, change is not always welcome. In fact, we embody a survival intelligence that has changed very slowly over the course of evolutionary history. It (Id was Freud’s term) operates according to a “logic” which says, “I’m still alive, so something is working. Let’s hold on and see what happens next. [Time passes] Ah, still here. Keep up the good work.”

End-time Christianity is perhaps the poster child of those who wait. In its early days, the cultural atmosphere was such that things really did seem about to end – at least for those of the dispossessed underclasses, such as the peasants and day-workers initially attracted to Jesus’ message of debt forgiveness and liberation. His gospel of freedom was quickly taken up into pre-existing apocalyptic eschatologies (views of the finale to “this present evil age”) and became something very different from what he probably intended.

The Fourth Gospel (John) was one of the last New Testament attempts to redirect this preoccupation with the end. But no matter how profound and provocative its language was – and obviously still is – the effort to bring Christians back to the present task of living out the spirit of Jesus was pushed to the side and tabled. Cultivation of a more mystical (deeply this-worldly) spirituality lacked attraction for a generation whose existence in the world was toilsome and perilous. Escape – or deliverance by intervention of a savior – was seen as the only way out. And so Christianity underwent an identity change of the first order: from an underground conspiracy for world change, to an orthodox membership club waiting on heaven.

Lately I’ve been feeling the urgency of our present cultural situation, especially as it concerns the spiritual direction of humanity and the decreasing relevance of religion. In their attempts to stop the slide and revitalize our churches, some leaders are advocating a “back to basics” reform or a return to first-century Christianity. Maybe it’s all the theological complications and moral compromises we’ve made along the way; let’s clear the table and get refocused on the fundamentals of our faith. What this really means is a further tightening of the bolt that binds together metaphysical realism, mythological literalism, biblical inerrancy, and infallible authority – that is to say, more of what has gotten us here.

As I see it, organized religion (all religions) is only a stage along the path of our spiritual evolution as a species. It occupies the same tier of human development as ego, tribe, morality and the mythological god. It’s not bad, and I don’t believe it is our destiny to one day live as fully enlightened beings without egos and the rest. These are necessary components of the longer trajectory and larger picture of what we are and where we’re going. But they are relative, not absolutes, and the next phase of our evolution requires that we leap from this platform and into the farther reaches of our human nature.

But the leap doesn’t project us into a new age without religion. The platform provides context, support, orientation and the resources of our various wisdom traditions that can aid us in leaping. A Christian leaps from a Christian platform, a Buddhist from a Buddhist platform, a Muslim from an Islamic platform, each using the leverage and guidance of their distinct traditions to engage the mystery and live more meaningfully in the world. Leaping out, we transcend our ego, let go of god, and learn to live beyond good and evil.

Those preparing to leap should expect a pull-back from the tribe. “What are you doing?! We’re supposed to stay here and wait! How can you just turn your back on us like this?” Such is the last task of ego – to take leave of your attachments, turn toward the mystery, and open your arms to fly.

The waiting is over.

 

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Mystery and Meaning

Heschel: “The delicate balance of mystery and meaning, of reverence and action, has been perilously upset. Our knowledge has been flattened. We see the world in one dimension and treat all problems on the same level. From the fact that we learned how to replace the kerosene lamp, we have deduced that we can replace the mystery of existence. We may be able to experiment with mice and still be unable to experiment with prayer.”

Imagine being in seminary where all the doctrines of your tradition are fitted together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Biblical foundations, the historical creeds, your denominational standards – all of the edges meet together so tightly, so perfectly. You learn how to translate, interpret, expound and preach the truth as it is represented on the face of your jigsaw puzzle. You will be instructed, examined, ordained and installed some day as an “expert” in these things. But in your second year a seminary professor puts Heschel in your hands. Kaboom.

The “delicate balance” that Heschel speaks of here is indeed delicate, but it is far from being in balance – especially now, as the 21st-century planet is more cross-connected and interdependent than ever before. As we are confronted by alternative worldviews and competing perspectives, the temptation is to lock down our own and defend its truth.

Nietzsche comes to mind. All we have is perspective, a view from somewhere; a construct, an untruth, and never truth itself. Heschel’s distinction between “mystery and meaning” is getting at the same idea. Mystery is not what is still unknown, but our experience of the unknowable. Our effort to make sense of this experience and translate what it means – in symbols, metaphors, stories, theories and doctrines – is so much secondary conjecture. We make up a picture, analyze it into pieces, and then spend generations figuring out how the pieces fit together.

I suppose it’s not only the psychological value of the resulting world-picture – giving the illusion of reality as secure, stable and significant – but all the generations of human effort invested in meaning-making that motivates our extreme attachment to the meaning we make. The certainty and control we feel on the inside of our world is preferable to the open and fluid nature of what’s really going on “out there.” Like those children in a sociological research study who played only in the center of an open field but explored the entire property after a fence was installed, we need to feel that chaos and danger are kept out of our cultural playgrounds.

Now on the other side of seminary and after a decade and a half of church ministry, I can sometimes become deeply discouraged over the conviction and arrogance that characterize this world-building enterprise – especially when it gets tied to inerrant holy books and infallible authorities. And it’s not just religion. Every human tradition hands along the conclusions of previous generations, and with each transfer of knowledge our reality gets that much smaller.

In my denomination, Calvinism was smaller and more tightly controlled than Calvin’s own faith had been; Calvin’s orthodoxy was itself a reduction of what the apostle Paul thought and wrote about; and Paul’s doctrinal platform was much more dogmatic than Jesus had been. As scientific discoveries, commercial trade, and world travel were pulling open the boundaries of our known universe, local tribal traditions were systematically closing the Western mind.

We need the balance of mystery and meaning. Without a conscious commitment to return to experience, our explanations become rigid, heavy and increasingly irrelevant over time. The security we feel on the inside of our fabricated and well-defended worlds eventually gives way to a kind of fatalism – the existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre called it ennui (the “sick and tired” feeling of boredom). Perhaps we can condition and predict the behavior of caged mice because their situation is so similar to our own.

The moment I begin reflecting on my experience, the business of meaning-making is well on its way. I need to make sense of it – and isn’t it interesting that we have an implicit acknowledgement of our role as creators of meaning, in this common phrase about “making sense” of things? I need meaning in order to keep sanity and thrive as a human being. But can I have too much of it?

Experience is the free-flowing spontaneity of life in this present moment. Yes, I need to make sense of it. I will keep working to figure it out, and then configure these figures like so many jigsaw shapes, into a picture that’s meaningful to me. And you’ll keep doing the same.

But let’s make a pact. Every once in a while, we will put down our puzzle pieces and push ourselves away from the card table. We will take a deep breath, release the tension in our mind and muscles, and open our attention to the present mystery.

Here and now. Amen.

 

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Depth Theology

Heschel: “Depth theology seeks to meet the person in moments which are affected by all a person thinks, feels, and acts. It draws upon that which happens to [us] in moments of confrontation with ultimate reality. It is in such moments that decisive insights are born. Some of these insights lend themselves to conceptualization, while others seem to overflow the vessels of our conceptual powers.”

Post-theism asks the question of what comes after (post) theism (belief in god). This is not the modernist campaign of secular atheism, which proceeds on the assumption that we no longer need god to explain the universe and orient our lives. Secular atheism stands in opposition to religious fundamentalism, and the error of both camps is their fixation on god. Does god exist or not?

People are made to feel as if they must take a side on the issue. They are “true believers” if they say yes, “atheist unbelievers” if they say no. Post-theism regards both sides of the debate as caught on a technicality. The mythological god is our own invention, a long historical project (and projection) of our creative imagination, the reflex and representation of our confrontation with ultimate reality.

In other words, we didn’t just “think god up” one day because we were bored or confused or lonely. An experience of the real presence of mystery provoked – and still provokes, from those who haven’t entirely lost their sensitivity to the depths of life – an outpouring of rhythm, dance, song, poetry, imagery, metaphor, myth and the mythological god. All of this was – and is – very spontaneous, wonderfully playful and unselfconscious.

With each additional “layer” of creative output, we have gradually come to see more of ourselves in our art. Now, in this cultural moment of post-theism, a growing number of us are realizing that the mythological god is really the advancing ideal of our own evolving nature. For the longest time, this creative process was so much a part of us that we simply took these impressions of mystery and expressions of meaning as separate from ourselves, existing “out there” and on their own.

In an earlier day we could debate the existence of (our) god or refute the existence of (their) god. Today it’s less important, even a distraction. But there’s more at stake than ever before. Heschel’s “depth theology” helps us look back at the path that has led to where we are, but it also gives us better vision for what still lies ahead. We don’t need to abandon theology (god talk) or throw aside the mythological god. Instead we might learn how to read the depth-soundings of our own spiritual life, treating all this theological labor as so much experiential code rather than supernatural revelation.

Our experience of the present mystery of reality is profound and ineffable. We are in it all the time, but only rarely does our consciousness open sufficiently so as to be overwhelmed by its preciousness, power and depth. In “normal” mode – or what is effectively our trance-state of everyday life – our attention and energy are devoted to the priorities of our tribe. Dutifully we fall in line and roll along the grooves of morality in our pursuit of happiness. But when it does happen, when the box breaks open and reality rushes in, we catch our breath in terror, amazement, ecstasy, or holy recognition.

Human beings are body-and-soul, with an ego squeezing out in the middle and making it seem as if we are bodies with souls, or souls with bodies. In our confrontation with ultimate reality – or I should say, shortly thereafter – we begin to process our experience by feeling its lift and impact, thinking through its meaning and implications, and letting it move us into creative action. Or not, depending on how spiritually grounded and open-minded we are to the mystery; or how flexible, encouraging, and spiritually attuned our tribe is.

Post-theism insists that we still need god; that myth, theology and organized religion retain an important place along the arching line of our evolution as a species. We just see them differently now. We see them as having come out of us, not as dropping out of heaven. We see them as creative expressions of a profound and inexpressible experience – which is a paradox we can celebrate and don’t need to fear.

We see them as suggestions and guideposts of a way still unfolding, intimations of the possible human. Join the movement.

 

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