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Category Archives: Schleiermacher, Kierkegaard, Tillich

Resting and Longing

Tillich: “The concern of faith is identical with the desire of love: reunion with that to which one belongs and from which one is estranged. The separation of faith and love is always the consequence of the deterioration of religion.”

As I near the end of my conversation with Schleiermacher, Kierkegaard and Tillich on the subject of faith, I’m impressed once again by how vibrant, experiential and deeply mystical they all regarded it. This is quite different from popular Christianity, where faith is either identified with the boxes of belief we hold onto, or our willingness to stop thinking for ourselves and simply adopt the beliefs of someone else – even if that someone else is an author of a book in the Bible.

At the deepest level, faith does not have an object. Rather it is the total release of yourself to the ground of being, or to what I have named the present mystery of reality (or real presence of mystery). This ground is only found by an interior descending path of contemplative awareness, not by looking outside yourself into the environment of your life.

And yet, a more mystically grounded spirituality will not dismiss your outer reality as just dead matter or a seductive distraction.

Your physical senses connect you to a marvelously diverse expression of that same ground, as every other form is similarly rooted in the one mystery of being. In the creative swell, this ground generates the multiplicity of things; and in its own time, each thing recedes, dissolves and returns its small loan of energy to the source.

As one of these forms, you are a manifestation to me of real presence – a creative expression of the ground as an embodied person. It’s astonishing how the ineffable (nameless) mystery of reality reaches out to me through your physical form, your quirky personality, the various roles you play, through the conceited, insecure and occasionally pompous ego acting out your life. (No worries: I have one, too!)

The force that draws us together and holds us in communion, is love. This is the ground as spirit, surrounding and moving between us. Of course, if you’re too quirky and conceited, I may not feel especially interested or attracted to you. Our insecurities might make it challenging for us to be too close, and our separate convictions might rub the wrong way, causing us to feel uncomfortable, threatened and defensive when we’re together.

But whether we like it or not, despite our differences and however fond or freaked out we are by them, the spiritual truth is that we are fellow expressions and co-participants of this universe (“turning as one”), which is simply another word for communion (“together as one”) and the creative, unifying power of love.

Perhaps this is our best working definition of religion – from the Latin religare, to link back. Healthy religion is a relevant system of spiritual practices, artistic symbols, sacred stories and social rituals that link us each internally to the ground within, relationally in shared community, and universally to the planetary and cosmic environment.

Faith is about the contemplative clarity with which we individually connect and release ourselves to the ground, while love is the communal bond that contains our seemingly separate lives and moves us into intersections where we must meet and discover each other. According to this definition, love doesn’t have to feel good and make us tingle.

If we resist its rhythm and aim, in fact, we should expect to feel pain. As pain is the signal that something is wrong and needs careful attention, its intrusion on our relationships might inspire us to inquire where we are interfering with love’s greater design. What do we need to let go of and leave behind, or perhaps stretch out for and go beyond, in order to flow more gracefully and creatively in The Way?

Faith, then, is resting in the ground – in that profound and ineffable mystery supporting you in this present moment. Love is the longing that moves through you and connects you to everything else. Resting and longing: these are the dynamics of healthy spirituality and relevant religion. Remove one of them from the balance and you have either self-absorbed insecurity (today’s counterfeit spirituality) or glorified intolerance (today’s dogmatic religion).

As things continue to deteriorate, we succumb to anxiety and depression, get caught in more destructive conflicts with each other, and undermine our planet’s ability to sustain life.

The fact that we are here at this evolutionary moment in time means that we belong together. Like it or not, we live in the same house and come from the same place. And even now we are passing away, eventually to make room for our successors – if the wake of our own trash and toxins and holy convictions still leaves a sufficient clearing for the possibility of enlightenment.

It’s not yet too late. But we have got to wake up.

 

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The Inner Voice

Kierkegaard: “In eternity, conscience is the only voice that is heard. It must be heard by the individual, for the individual has become the eternal echo of this voice. It must be heard. There is no place to flee from it.”

The sixteenth-century Reformation in Christianity began in Luther’s discovery of the individual conscience and his belief that this inner voice is the very voice of god. Up to that point, institutional religion had successfully spun the delusion of the individual’s separation from god, and of our collective need for intervention that only the institution can provide. Any insight or guidance or judgment you might inwardly discern was not to be trusted.

So when Luther decided to regard his inner voice as the voice of god, this single decision severed the chain of external control.

Of course, there had been others before Luther’s time who valued individual authority over compliance with “the system” (call it institution, society, fashion, or empire). They were revolutionaries, if their visions and ways of life caught on with others; or saints, if it took some time for them to be respected and appreciated; or maybe just misfits and odd-balls, if no one else really “got it.”

But Luther made his declaration on the cusp of a dawning new age – modernity, with its growing obsession with individuality and the individual’s experience.

Inside this discovery and its more widespread acceptance throughout western European culture, we can also detect the seed of what is now called “postmodernism.” While perspectivism had been developing in painting for a couple centuries already, Luther applied it to faith and morality. If this is how I feel, then maybe this feeling is a divine prompting. This is how things seem from where I stand.

At trial for all the commotion and cultural upset that he had caused, Luther announced the new maxim of perspectivism: “Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise.” I am compelled by the force and authority of my own experience. Kaboom.

In effort to justify its dominance of the individual, tribal orthodoxy does two things: (1) It claims for itself a divinely ordained authority, sustained by a sacred tradition reaching back to supernatural events (revelations, miracles) where this transfer of truth and power was made; and (2) it weakens the creative spirit of the individual with a doctrine of depravity, guilt, and shame (in short, a doctrine of sin).

Your corrupt nature, inherent selfishness, and fundamental inability to save yourself makes you utterly dependent on (the external, metaphysical) god for salvation. Thankfully (and you’d better be thankful), a way has been provided. Long ago we (the tribe) were given the secret, which we have guarded over many centuries. Listen up, join us, believe this, sit here. The devil – counterpart to our god – is still loose and at large in the world, so be vigilant! His most seductive temptation is to encourage your self-consciousness.

Luther was still too much entranced with this orthodox instruction to take full responsibility for his life or look too deeply into his own human nature. The doctrine of sin persisted – one might even say it was amplified in the emerging traditions of Protestant Christianity. Now that the institutional middleman is out of the way, it’s just you standing naked before god. Egad.

So what does this have to do with Kierkegaard and the future rise of postmodernism? Whereas Luther had been an unabashed theist, believing that his inner voice was nothing less than the directive of a god who existed outside of himself, Kierkegaard followed the root system of this interior experience, into the very ground of his own existence. For this reason, he is rightfully honored as an early proponent of Existentialism.

Existentialism is a philosophy of life. Whereas other philosophical traditions had involved rather abstract speculations on metaphysical realities (god, soul, mind), Existentialism dedicated its focus to the time-bound, flesh-and-blood individual who is working out the meaning of life along the meandering course of daily experience.

At this early stage we don’t yet have recognition of the fact that the individual is constructing this meaning as a world-creator and not simply finding it “out there” ready-made. But it’s coming. A necessary step in this direction was Kierkegaard’s replacement of Luther’s conscience as a voice of revelation from elsewhere (the external god) with the notion of conscience as the voice of inner guidance, available to the perceptive and internally grounded individual.

Isn’t all of this just a set-up for rampant individualism? When we start listening in on the universal wisdom as it resounds up from the depths of our own human nature; as we tune into this inner voice of spiritual grounding and guidance; when we begin taking responsibility for our choices and the worlds we create and destroy with them; finally, as we come to appreciate ourselves and acknowledge each other as present (and passing) incarnations of the One Mystery – after all of this, won’t the world come apart and the devil win?

Seriously?

Of course, there is a risk. Not everyone will join the revolution. Tribal orthodoxy works hard to keep you compliant. There will be hell to pay by anyone who dares to question the sacred trust of its holy tradition, supernatural revelations, ordained authorities and inerrant Bible. Too many of us value emotional security over spiritual fulfillment to put so much on the line.

After all, it’s working, isn’t it? It hasn’t all come crashing down yet, thanks to the true believers who are keeping the faith. Get in here and hang on with us!

There, there. Shhhhh. Close your eyes and go back to sleep.

 

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Faith and Discovery

Schleiermacher: “If there is religion at all, it must be social, for that is the nature of human beings. There is also a spiritual nature which we have in common with others of our species, which demands that we express and communicate all that is in us. The more violently we are moved and the more deeply we are impressed, the stronger that social impulse works.”

Contemplating the likely origins of religion helps us appreciate its roots in individual experience rather than in what might be called “orthodox instruction.” For those who believe that religion – their religion, the true religion – was lowered from heaven already fully assembled and given by revelation to a founder, prophet or saint, faith must be taught. You must read your Bible, listen to your teachers, and take in the points of doctrine upon which your salvation depends.

The credibility of this long tradition of orthodox instruction requires that your Bible is inerrant, your teachers enlightened, and those points of doctrine absolutely infallible. If there’s a break anywhere in the chain – maybe scripture is metaphorical or made-up, just one teacher was mistaken or confused, or just one dogma is derived from a mistranslation – then the whole institution loses authority and disintegrates.

To protect itself, institutional religion implants in us a virus of doubt and suspicion against the validity of individual experience. Because you are fallen, ignorant, sinful and depraved, your own perceptions, insights and judgments are corrupt and unreliable. In fact, if you allow their seduction you will be lured away from truth. Don’t think for yourself. Don’t pay attention to your misgivings over how far-fetched, fantastic and irrelevant to daily life the orthodoxy seems. Certainly don’t trust yourself, your human nature, or the greater nature of reality within, beneath, and all around you.

Mystics throughout history and across cultures – and I would also say, the mystic in you – have regarded the orthodox instruction of institutional religion with mild tolerance, outspoken criticism, or active opposition depending on how authoritarian and abusive it can become. They typically won’t spend too much time and energy in the effort, partly because the errors are deep and long-standing, but also because they understand that the entire system of religion is more a human production than a divine revelation.

To say that religion is a human production, however, is not to discredit it, as orthodoxy claims (unless, of course, you’re talking about other religions). The source of religion is in discovery, not revelation. Whereas revelation is something the mythological god did to get the truth to us (from up/over there), discovery is a process whereby the present mystery of reality (the really real) is gradually or suddenly perceived, as our assumptions and expectations are removed.

Questioning our long-standing beliefs, conducting careful experiments, and generally paying closer attention to what’s going on is how discovery unfolds. To the degree that institutional religion discourages or straightaway condemns such practices, it is the enemy of discovery – the enemy of experience.

Out of this age-old process of discovery, individuals just like you have drawn deep insights concerning human nature, the real presence of mystery, and the present mystery of reality. Their first efforts at translating these powerful intuitions into symbols, metaphors, story and song/dance – for the purpose of expressing them and communicating them to others – mark the beginnings of religion.

Symbols don’t capture the mystery, but only provide a way of consciously participating in it. Metaphors aren’t literal descriptions but merely poetic representations of experience. For their part, story (sacred myth) and song/dance (earliest ritual) are the outpouring of spiritual discovery into the social arena of cultural life.

Schleiermacher identified an “impulse” in you that cannot allow these spiritual breakthroughs to be kept to yourself and quietly cultivated in some kind of private religion. Where it begins is undeniably private, by which we mean individual, profound, and deeply internal. But once expressed – and the power, magnitude and anticipated repercussions of spiritual discovery push it irresistibly up and out into your shared life with others – it enters the public sphere.

You talk about yours. I talk about mine. Through dialogue we find connections and resonances in the ways we separately represent our deeper experience. We translate something profound and ineffable into words, art, melody and movement. Inwardly we know that all this expressive meaning is ultimately a futile exercise, however irresistible, of enclosing the formless infinite in our mental boxes. The stories we tell are imaginative portrayals of what cannot be represented. The symbols we elevate for our mutual contemplation are acknowledged as mere allusions to a wordless mystery, always within our reach yet forever beyond our grasp.

We know this, you and I. But that guy over there – he’s new to the conversation. So we invite him in and show him our work. We tell him our stories and teach him a few steps of the dance.

Where did all this come from? he asks with fascination.

I look over at you, and you wink back at me. From god, we answer in unison.

A long time ago and in a land far away, earlier than our history books can reach and in a place inaccessible to science, the truth was given to our ancestors by supernatural revelation. Since that time, the countless generations of true believers have preserved what you see here, for the sake of your salvation. Have a seat, forget what you think you know, and pay attention to our every word.

Thus was religion born. And then we forgot how it happened …

 

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Embodied Faith

Tillich: “The history of faith is a permanent fight with the corruption of faith, and the conflict with reason is one of its most conspicuous symptoms.”

“Reason” as a term referring to a faculty of human intelligence has an interesting history of its own, both on the human-evolutionary and individual-developmental scales. Its ascent in the evolution of our species gave us new powers for critical thinking and rationality. It’s not that reason is any more reality-oriented than faith, but it moves less by wide leaps than smaller logical steps, connecting dots into patterns of meaning.

The relationship between mystery and meaning helps illustrate the essential differences in faith and reason. Faith is your primary response to mystery – to what I’ve been calling the real presence of mystery or the present mystery of reality. It’s a very here-and-now phenomenon and has to do with the quality of your experience in terms of how open, grounded, centered and trusting you are to the greater reality in which you live.

Awareness at this level is beyond words (ineffable), not just because words are fixed and the mystery is fluid, but also because this experience is processed in a deep, preverbal part of your brain.

When you were still in the womb, reality was registered in your nervous system as providential or inhospitable, depending on the sensory-intuitive information it was picking up from your uterine environment. And because all organisms are equipped with a survival drive, the general tenor of your resulting nervous state was somewhere between agitation and calm, distress and composure, anxiety … and faith.

Your brain’s primary task is to regulate the internal state of your body and continually match this state to its external environment. Such adaptation is what Darwin called “fitness.”

According to this definition, faith is a deep response to reality rooted in your very physiology. Anxiety or faith are felt at a level far below verbal processing, deeper even than conscious awareness. How you feel is the way it is – I could say “for you,” but it really doesn’t matter. This is why there is such certitude in this kind of knowing: no argument is needed to make the point.

Reason takes it start from this place of direct knowing. The nervous state of faith is preverbal, subconscious and inarticulate until the mind can begin to represent it somehow. The earliest forms of art, dance, song and poetry were likely creative expressions of the human experience of reality – as vast, sublime, frightening, and awe-inspiring. These were the first products of reason in its attempt to translate pure experience into communicable forms of representation. This was also the birth of meaning.

As it develops, reason takes these products of its own creative effort and puts them together in more complex patterns. Eventually – and it doesn’t take long at all – a complicated web of cross-referencing associations is generated, expanding up, out and around the ineffable mystery of your present experience. This meaning is tribal and personal, and its all about orienting your experience within the larger web of collective metaphors, values and concerns that make up your cultural world.

One of the important terms in your culture’s web of meaning is the mythological god. He is responsible for creating the cosmos, calling your ancestors to a special destiny, providing for your salvation, protecting you from harm, showering you with blessings, and finally taking your soul to everlasting life. At one level – at the imaginative, creative, and metaphorical level – such belief in god can promote a “blessed assurance,” a profound and confident trust that everything is going to be okay.

In a time when human culture was still in its creative-artistic phase, the mythological god was completely compatible with reason. It made sense to speak of a supernatural personality who made the world, who watches out for those he favors, and intervenes on their behalf. But when human evolution moved into a logical-rational phase, something had to be done about myth, the mythological god, and the traditional organization of life around one’s relationship and obligations to him – now formally called “religion.”

The progressives have always been in favor of putting down the stories and taking life more seriously, as enlightened and sophisticated adults. Conservatives, on the other hand, typically preach the necessity of holding on to the traditions and preserving the values of our forebears. If the myths and the mythological god don’t seem any longer to be compatible with our contemporary scientific worldview, then it only exposes how far we have fallen in our sin.

Faith now becomes inseparable from a literal Bible, an objectively real god (up there, out there), along with the orthodox doctrines, denominational creeds, and ordained authorities appointed to defend them as absolute truth. This is what Tillich means by “the corruption of faith.” What is basically a primary nervous state and existential stance in reality – open, trusting, present and receptive – gets retooled into an exercise in intellectual by-pass where we are pressured to believe and confess things that require an outdated worldview to make any sense at all.

Progressives also need to move past the point where they criticize mythology as childish and culturally retarded. There’s often a sour smell of self-congratulatory pride in their dismissive comments, and not enough genuine appreciation for the creative imagination and how metaphorical theology can still speak to our deep human need for grounding in a providential reality.

Truth is in the myths, but not when they are taken literally. At least not any more.

 

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Faith and Creative Change

Excursus: Religious faith is frequently a force of resistance to change. True believers may invoke sacred tradition, holy scripture, or the unchanging nature of god to justify our need to keep things as they are, or get back to the way they once were. Holding fast to ancient ways or locking down on absolute truths in a fundamentalist fashion are often prescribed as our only way through the present situation, which is characterized as godless, worldly and humanistic. Where does faith stand in relation to creative change?

None of my conversation partners (Schleiermacher, Kierkegaard, and Tillich) would number among the saints of orthodox Christianity. The terms dogmatic, evangelical and fundamentalist would not describe any of them in the way they thought of ultimate reality and wrestled with what it means to be Christian in their contemporary world. For this very reason they have been dismissed as eccentrics or renounced as heretics by the true religion. This is also why I find them compelling.

Way “back in the day” when Greek philosophy was leaving the nest of  religious mythology and investigating the nature of reality through scientific mythology – better known as “theory” – Heraclitus asserted that change is not what happens to the way things really are, but is itself most basic to reality. Using the metaphor of a stream, he observed that you never step into the same river twice. By the time you put your foot in again, the river has moved and this experience is different from your earlier encounter.

This message has been difficult to accept. In his own day, Heraclitus was scorned as a heretic by the philosophical majority who held fast to a theory of an immutable essence behind and beneath the only-apparent change. Religious orthodoxy simply identified this metaphysical reality with the transcendent god – exalted, absolute, unaffected and aloof. Out of the whirlwind of experience of life in time, a true believer can attach him- or herself to this god and find not only security in this world, but everlasting life in the next.

I personally don’t regard the mythological god as metaphysically real. That’s a mouthful, but it’s only saying that the god of sacred story lives only in the myths and not outside them in the actual reality of our experience. When Christian theology took off from these stories of the Bible and developed its own sophisticated web of theories concerning the nature and will of god, it moved the god-talk of religion out of a public context of myth and ritual and into the private head-space of orthodox doctrines. This is the point when faith became a noun.

Even the “ground” of mystical spirituality can sound as if it’s referring to a stable and unchanging reality beneath us, something outside and under all the flux of change. True enough, there are some so-called mystical schools that claim to have access to a realm of deities, angels, spirit-guides and your deceased relatives. If your lifestyle prevents you from joining one,  you might consider paying a free-lance psychic medium to channel a disembodied personality for you.

But the genuinely mystical ground of being is not a personality, or even “a being.” It is the deeper support and generative source in which your existence is rooted. The usefulness of the “ground” metaphor should be obvious – if we even feel the need to talk about our experience of reality at this level. You don’t look outside of yourself to find this ground. Instead you need to look into yourself and through yourself, to that place where your individual life is connected to the present mystery of reality.

Of course, you can look outside yourself if you prefer, and there you will see countless manifestations of the one ground, expressing here as grass, there as trees, here as a bird and there as clouds – and so on, around our amazing planet and beyond. All together, these comprise what we call the Universe. All is one – and turns as one (uni-verse) – by virtue of our common ground in being-itself.

This ground is not detached and aloof from your daily experience, but is the dynamic and creative – Heraclitus would say “flowing” – power moving into you, as you, and through you. Right here, right now. It supports your existence as a river carries you in its current.

As reality changes all around you, and as your life changes from year to year, from day to day, and from moment to moment, don’t resist or look for an escape. Simply relax into being, release your grip on the world around you and reach for the deeper support of your existence. Settle into your center, soften your focus, and just breathe into this space.

You’ve been jabbing your heels into the riverbed long enough, and swimming against the current is not only exhausting, but ultimately futile. Stop fighting change with such anxiety and suspicion. Trust the process. This is where you are, so be here.

 

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The Mystical Turn

Schleiermacher: “Study yourselves with unswerving attention, put aside all that is not self, proceed with the sense ever more closely directed to the purely inward. The more you pass by all foreign elements, making your personality appear diminished almost to the vanishing point, the clearer the Universe stands before you, and the more gloriously the terror of annihilating the fleeting is rewarded by the feeling of the eternal.”

Taking the images of religious art and mythology at face value – and we should include the more abstract images of theology as well – promotes the misunderstanding that the ultimate object of religion is, well, an object. Something out there, over there, up there. It’s important to remember that all these artistic images, sacred stories, and more heady conceptions of what we call God have been produced out of our creative imagination, not “caught on tape” or encountered just so.

A favorite metaphor of mystics worldwide and across the ages for the “ultimate concern” of human spirituality is ground, or the ground of being. As with all metaphors, this one can be misunderstood if we take it literally, as referring only to something outside and beneath us. It is beneath us, but only metaphorically, as the deeper support and primal source of our existence itself.

You won’t find this ground separate from yourself, except as shining through and indirectly represented in the countless forms round about. From a mystical vantage-point, all things exist only as embodiments of the one ground. As thus lit up from within, as it were, the entire universe is a turning mystery of epiphany.

But many religious people don’t see things from a mystical vantage-point. Instead they are metaphysical realists and mythological literalists, convinced that their god is really just as the stories depict him/her. Scholarly studies take off from this point and seek to examine and explain the nature of god in big words and thick volumes of systematic theology. As most true believers don’t have the time or patience to wade through this complicated web of arguments, they simply accept the assumptions and profess the conclusions as their own articles of faith.

My personal experience while an ordained pastor in Christian ministry revealed time and again how suspicious orthodox religion is of a mystical spirituality. Mystics tend to hold on loosely to the doctrines of theology, insisting that the real mystery of presence is not something that can be boxed up and codified, or even labeled except with metaphors drawn from our everyday experience.

As we might expect, this reluctance to even speak of the mystery, let alone their persistent suspicion of any attempt to reduce it to doctrines, has resulted in mystics being unwelcome in most churches and frequently persecuted by the custodians of orthodoxy.

In an attempt to put mystics on the defensive, true believers will occasionally accuse them of being fixated on themselves – with all this “study yourselves with unswerving attention.” Proper piety, they insist, must be self-negating, even self-reproachful. Self – and they really mean ego in this sense – is the enemy of god, the ultimate damnable distraction that keeps us from devoted attention to the proper object of our worship. By turning inward, mystics are guilty of sin; and their guilt is multiplied to the degree that they successfully seduce others to their path.

Fundamentalism in religion betrays itself by the nervous insecurity, narrow-mindedness, and propensity for violence that eventually show up in its business. Out of allegiance to the tribe and for the promise of a heavenly reward, true believers across the religions have willingly – even earnestly – committed violence against other human beings, against nature, and against themselves. Ironically they end up behaving in ways that utterly contradict their founder’s teachings, and then justify themselves in his/her name!

The true mystical path does not involve self-infatuation. In fact, obsession with ego identity and personal destiny is typically an outstanding feature of religious orthodoxy, not mysticism. I need to fit in. I need to be right. I need my reward. I need to live forever.

In order to directly experience the ground of being, you must release your hold on concerns of identity. As nothing more than a construct of social conventions, ego is not what you are but only who you are as conditioned and defined by your tribe. What you are is much deeper. It’s your authentic self, the being that you are, rather than your constructed self, the roles that you play. Letting go is often described by mystics as stepping out of the costumes and slipping off the masks that hold your place in society.

The self that is left after all this disrobing is not some metaphysical and immortal soul, but simply you, right now, as you really are. Real presence.

Because ego looks out through filters, your grasp on reality is superficial and highly selective. As you “pass by all foreign elements” – all the add-ons and attachments that qualify who you are – your experience of reality is increasingly direct, singular, and unified. This is what Schleiermacher means by “universe”: the single turning mystery of being in which your existence is rooted.

Inward contemplation is not about gazing upon your true self or reveling in your indestructible nature, but rather sinking past yourself altogether, into a inner space where all is one. Not a jigsaw of oneness but pure and essential oneness. Without specific content yet containing all there is. Obviously descriptive words and word-heavy theories won’t stick to this mystery, so it’s best to remain quiet and just be there.

And this – letting go and finding your ground, sinking past all your titles and achievements, all your honor and shame, past your first word and your last defense – this is faith.

 

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Living Faith

Tillich: “Here more than anywhere else the dynamics of faith become manifest and conscious: the infinite tension between the absoluteness of its claim and the relativity of its life.”

My conversation with Schleiermacher, Kierkegaard, and Tillich has emphasized the point that faith is a verb more than a noun. Furthermore it is an act of existential and not merely of practical significance – that is to say, it involves one’s whole being in an attitude of openness to reality. It’s not so much what you do, but how you do the be-ing of your life.

The opposite of faith is not doubt but anxiety, the tendency we all have to get gripped up inside ourselves, to become hostage to our insecurities and ego defenses. While insecurity is a mark of our existence, we can easily fall in and become overwhelmed by the fact that so much is outside our control and our life is passing away. This is where the fact of our insecurity gets twisted up into the demon of anxiety.

More and more, religion is serving as therapy for this existential anxiety afflicting so many. In its beginnings it was a dynamic system of myth, ritual and morality, coordinating our human experience with the larger rhythm of the seasons, the harvest, the hunt and the changing stations of life in society. Over time, however, the focus of human concerns became increasingly personal – less about balancing heaven and earth, and more about individual salvation in the next life.

To the extent that religion has always been about the knowledge of ultimate reality, for most of its history this special knowledge has been sought for the purpose of living with a bigger context in mind. Your values, choices and actions need to be appreciated in light of your place in the cosmos, among the generations, as a member of your community, and at this particular intersection of fate and opportunity. This is what was originally called “wisdom,” and it was knowledge that really mattered because it concerned more than you and your ego ambitions.

Once ego took the dominant and commanding position – as illustrated in the ascent of the mythological god who demanded worship, glory and honor – knowledge ceased to be true wisdom and became instead doctrinal orthodoxy. You need to get it right not in order to fit your life to the greater whole, but to gain passage through the last gate and receive your reward for being right.

In that case, the absoluteness of the claims of faith can become like tamping gun powder into a tight hole: the fervor in your need to be right – given what’s at stake should you be wrong – might produce a flash of clarity, but the overall effect is much more heat than light. The dogmatic orthodoxy that characterizes so much of religion today is mostly useless as far as providing orientation and guidance in life is concerned.

In reality, life is much more grey than the black-and-white absolutes will allow. This is what Tillich means by the “relativity” of the life of faith. It may be helpful to sift and flatten the complexity down to a simplistic dualism of right and wrong, good and evil, us versus them. But because actual existence is not that simple, you have to screen out a lot of reality and misconstrue the rest to fit your boxes.

There is an obvious tension between the claims and life of faith that requires humility and courage to acknowledge. Such a claim as “God exists,” for instance, was beyond question back in the day when worldviews were based in mythological narratives. There was no need to check the story against reality, for the simple reason that the premodern mind couldn’t conceive of anything as real outside of the myths.  There simply was no “outside.”

But with the awakening of a more rational-technical intelligence, there suddenly appeared a vast realm of physical existence that was without meaning – the sheer fact of matter. This is where Greek science was born, on the “other side” of our stories. For the first time, those listening to the myths recited in the theater or around the campfire would have to ask the question, “Did that really happen?”

Today, the absolute claims of religion are typically derived from scriptural proof-texts that are required to be taken quite literally. The circular arguments notwithstanding, a certain passion – and a passion for certainty – is needed for adults to energetically defend fiction as reality. Never mind that no one has ever seen god outside the myths he inhabits, or that there is no heavenly abode above the sky or tormenting hell under our feet. For obvious reasons this makes our belief in an afterlife (up in heaven or down in hell) considerably more effortful, and a lot less sexy.

A postmodern spirituality will be able to appreciate the sacred narratives of mythology, but the god who lives there must be allowed to live only there. While stories will continue to inform our grasp on reality, they should never become so literal – and the claims derived from them so absolute – that we are ready to commit every violence in their defense.

In the end – but even more importantly, along the way to the end – the relativity of life in the world invites us to pursue our quest for meaning like hikers on a mountain ascent. It’s not a race to see who can get to the top first, or whose backpack contains all the “right” things. It’s not how you finish, or even whether you make it all the way to the peak.

It all comes down to how real you can manage to be, how present to life, and how well you pay attention to the Greater Mystery as you move along.

 

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