Arriving at Last in the Kindom of Spirit

Depending on whether you query conventional religion about the way of salvation, or ask your question of the Sophia Perennis (the transcultural tradition of spiritual wisdom), you’re likely to get very different answers. Religion will speak in dogmatic terms of what you need to believe and what you need to do in order to qualify yourself for the salvation you’re seeking. Joining a local “chapter” (church, temple, mosque, or ashram) will be strongly encouraged, since belonging to and surrounding yourself with like-minded folks offers good protection against backsliding.

The wisdom tradition, on the other hand, will respond differently to your question. Before the conversation goes too far, it will want to know what you think salvation is and why you think you need it. You may find you’re chasing after or looking for something that really isn’t relevant – or even real. Like that old saw about a ladder against the wrong wall, you don’t want to reach the top only to realize that your true longings are elsewhere.

Paradoxically the wisdom teachings will challenge you to see that looking for salvation (or wanting to “get saved”) is your deeper problem.

Do this instead – or rather, stop chasing and simply be present to your life, just as it is. Your problem is rooted in the difficulty of remaining for any significant length of time completely in this place, right where you are. So stop the chasing, drop the pursuit, release your craving for something else (the false promises of retail marketing and bad religion), and let yourself just relax into being, here and now. A few deep and slow breaths will let the tension slide away, as you hold a soft gaze in front of you or gently close your eyes.

It won’t be long before you become aware that this is all there is, and that you presently dwell at the center of all things. This is known as solitude, and it really has nothing to do with being by yourself somewhere in a remote cabin or monastery – although it can happen there as well. The key thing, the absolutely essential thing, is that you are fully present in centered awareness wherever you happen to be. It’s not yesterday or tomorrow, over there or somewhere else.

The Christian mystic Meister Eckhart named it the “Eternal Now”: not everlasting but timeless, the moment where time breaks open to being-itself and this is all there is.

Another interesting paradox is how, in this deep centered space of solitude, you are simultaneously one with all things. The Sophia Perennis names this fact-of-facts communion, referring to the undifferentiated oneness in which you and everything else are presently grounded. The deeper into yourself consciousness is able to descend, the more you see that the grounding mystery of your existence gives rise to all existence, and that everything – including, of course, you in your solitude – is rooted in this same ground.

This is where Sophia Perennis and conventional religion are most different, perhaps, in their very different perspectives on that in you which makes you most uniquely you: your ego. As your executive center of personality management, ego (Latin for “I”) is what actually generates the delusion of your separate existence – with you here and everything else flung out and away from you as “not me.”

If that earlier exercise of dropping into deeper solitude was especially challenging for you, your hang-up was likely here, in the insecurity that inevitably – and to some extent for everyone – comes along with the prize of becoming a unique “somebody.”

Your ego requires this separate workspace to exist, and yet the separation is what provokes its insecure feelings of anxiety, exposure, and alienation. Much of conventional religion is organized around the project of reducing this (what is called) existential anxiety, by giving you something to hope for and hang onto. Salvation, according to this system, is about saving you (i.e., your egoic self) from what threatens your security: pain, illness, decrepitude, death, your body (because it will die), and the sucking drain of time.

Conventional religion is intolerant of any notion suggesting that getting out is not the answer, and that dropping deeper in is. And yet, this is indeed the fundamental message of the wisdom teachings. The delusion of a separate identity (i.e., your ego) doesn’t need to be saved, but rather released and left “up here” at the shimmering surface of illusion, as consciousness drops into deeper registers of present awareness, solitude, and communion.

Those obsessed with saving the ego typically cannot comprehend why anyone should go deeper into “the problem” they’re needing to escape, and for this reason conventional religion has a long history of condemning, excommunicating, persecuting, and killing Wisdom’s children (aka mystics).

Once you have awakened to the fact of oneness, released your ego and dropped into the grounding mystery of solitude-in-communion, the true way of salvation opens itself to you. A “peace that surpasses understanding,” not merely a non-anxious presence of mind but a profound sense of inner calm and wellbeing, flows from a quiet spring deep within your soul. As this “water of eternal life” rises in you, it fills you with an uncontainable joy, which just as irresistibly flows out from you to others in gestures, expressions, and demonstrations of love.

Once again we can contrast the different attitudes of the Sophia Perennis and conventional religion, now with respect to the motivation for loving others.

Conventional religion tries to put you under the command of some divine law (“Thou shalt love your neighbor …”) or the urgency of obedience for the sake of some future reward (“… if you want to live forever in heaven someday.”). Here love needs a reason, an ultimatum, or incentive of some kind. Religion recognizes that there is little hope for society if members can’t get along and care for each other, but it also knows that self-interested egos require some pressure – both external and internal – to extend or sacrifice themselves for the sake of others.

But when your love is the outflow of a joy which is sourced from a wellspring of a peace deep, deep in the solitude of your oneness with everything, it is spontaneous, generous, and indiscriminate in its generosity, for there is no self-interest to persuade or separation to overcome. You know that you and the other are mere manifestations of the same grounding mystery, participants together in the transpersonal unity of life.

This is the kindom of spirit, where the deeper oneness of communion finds expression through the diverse fellowship of beings, resolving at last in a great harmony of “peace on Earth.” Religion says you have to wait and hope for it. Wisdom says it’s already here, if you have eyes to see it.

Whitewashed

Just now, conservative and mostly Republican legislators are advancing bills into law that will prohibit the teaching of “critical race theory” (CRT) in our public schools. Basically the theory says that racism – the prejudices, antagonism, inequality, and violence between white and black races in America – is not merely an “episode” of our history, but embedded in the political ideology, cultural institutions, economic structures, and legal system of America today.

Those seeking to block critical race theory from the public school curriculum accuse it of throwing America as a nation under the gloss of racism, of making all white people into white supremacists.

Surely there are many white folks who value diversity and want to include black people in American life – but that’s really the point.

White people are in this position of deciding whether or not to include black people precisely because they are the privileged majority, the ones by whom and for whom the grand system of American society was built. The fact that they built it upon the backs of African slaves is therefore, according to critical race theory, not a merely historical note. Those assumptions and biases were baked right into the white American way of life.

Anti-CRT legislators are only the political face of a much deeper and broader mindset in America today, one that has become entranced by superficial images and brand marketing, steadily losing its ability to think critically and reflectively about reality. As a consequence of our intellectual seduction and down-dumbing, we no longer have the vocabulary and conceptual categories for picking through the misrepresentations and “fake news” of the day in order to apprehend the complex reality beyond our veils.

Reality is, in fact, not “black and white” but ambiguous, and without the critical-reflective tools to help us grasp the paradoxes of our American experience and the human condition, we inevitably fall into (and fall for) a conflict-oriented binary logic of either-or.

According to this mindset, the grayscale reality of American society cannot be transcended as “black with white,” but must be resolved into “black against white” – preferably “white without black.” Importantly, that it cannot be transcended does not speak to a limitation of reality itself, but exposes a dangerously diminished capacity of our minds.


Another place I see this downward resolution of ambiguity (or complexity) into the dualism of either-or is in religion. As the belief system oriented on the objective existence of god, theism is trying to restrain our spiritual progress into a new system where god is assimilated and freshly incarnated in lives of generosity, compassion, and goodwill. Religious conservatives are misrepresenting this emerging spirituality of post-theism as simple atheism: godless, selfish, heretical, and immoral.

If they are forced to put post-theism either on the side of traditional theism or that of secular atheism, average believers from whom the conceptual tools of critical theology have been intentionally withheld will have no choice but to reject it out of hand. With well-developed tools, on the other hand, they might appreciate how post-theism includes and transcends important elements of both traditional theism and secular atheism, without being reducible to either.

I brought this brief account of post-theism into the discussion of critical race theory and American education for two reasons. First, race and religion are two of the dominant threads or themes that have shaped American history and character, and we shouldn’t be surprised to encounter a conservative resistance on both fronts as our inherited assumptions start breaking against a complex reality.

American race relations and religious identities are presently in the throes of deep (radical: at the roots) transformation, and those of us who hold a vision for a New Reality of spiritual awakening and genuine community need to keep its focus on this higher aim.

As we recover and sharpen our critical tools, it will be important for us to expose the systemic, institutional, and ideological prejudices that currently have us locked into an either-or debate, in both American courts and American churches.

The second reason I wanted to briefly include some remarks on religion along with these thoughts on the legislative efforts underway to “whitewash” American public education, is based in how both of these thresholds of creative change provide an opportunity for us to better understand – and more responsibly manage – what only recently has come to be acknowledged as the “construction of meaning.”

Constructivism regards meaning as something our minds assign to reality, as they construct the perspectives, philosophies, and worldviews that orient and guide us through life.

Although it sounds as if we about to slide into a hopeless nihilism, the idea that reality (the really real, being-itself) is a mystery outside our minds and beyond words – essentially ineffable, indescribably perfect, and perfectly meaningless – can be powerfully liberating. The spiritual wisdom teachings have insisted on the illusory nature of meaning for many centuries, but it’s only been in the last hundred years or so that more of us have come to appreciate the creative role our mind plays in making meaning and constructing our world.

Meaning isn’t “out there” as people once believed, but originates “in here” and is projected onto and out into reality.

For reality – any reality – to mean something, our mind must first get it in focus and place a frame around it. This frame determines what will be included (i.e., everything inside the frame) and what will be excluded, or more accurately ignored. Once the frame is set, a filter is imposed that will screen out all irrelevant data and allow through only what matters. With these “construction materials” now in hand, the mind proceeds to fit it all together, fixing the joints and finishing the edges into something meaningful – a product and reflection of the mind itself.

Now, of course, this project of making meaning isn’t all that innocent. Merely selecting the portion of reality to enframe amounts to a tacit invalidation of what we choose not to include. The filter we use is itself comprised of predilections, preferences, and prejudgments, for the most part energized by largely preconscious drives of self-interest and tribal identity. Put simply, the meaning we make and the worlds we create carry our natural and cultural biases.

This is what is meant by “systemic racism”: in the case of American society, a world-construct and way of life that reflect the values and favor the interests of white people, who first conspired together in its creation and have since accepted its definition as the way things are and should continue to be.

We need critical race theory, as well as what might be called critical religion theory, to equip us with the critical tools for deconstructing any part of our “American world” that excludes, exploits, oppresses, or debases other human beings – of whatever color, class, character, or creed. We can no longer be excused for our inability to dig into those embedded and baked-in forms of racism which continue to shape our consciousness and compel our behavior.

Critical race theory is giving us the tools and vocabulary we need for constructing a better and bigger world, for everyone. What we need now is the courage to change the things we can.

An Open Letter to God

Dear God,

When I was a young child and didn’t possess a clear sense of myself or the objective existence of the world around me, Your reality was something I couldn’t conceptualize but clearly felt in the provident support and loving care of my mother and father. Though imperfect, to some sufficient degree they bestowed on me – and awakened in me – an assurance that I was in good hands. I was able to relax into being and open my awareness in wonder to the imaginarium of life.

It wasn’t long before my parents and other taller powers began talking about you, as “someone” up above, who was watching over me. I was taught how to say prayers to you – to thank you for caring and giving me what I needed, to ask for your help in times of need, to implore your understanding and forgiveness of my frequent mistakes, or just to praise you for being so awesome.

Even though I was counseled to listen for what You would have to say, I never heard any voice coming from above me – except, of course, for the voices of my taller powers. Later I learned that I should listen with my heart for a clear feeling of insight, relief from my guilt, or the certain prompting of what I should do next.

In church I studied the sacramental furniture and sacred symbols, the glowing candles and colorful banners, the Bible on the pulpit and the cross on the wall. I could see these with my eyes, though much of their meaning still eluded me. But I never saw You. Whether You were up high above the church building among the clouds looking down, or hiding in the sanctuary and looking out from behind the choir screen, I couldn’t find the kindly gentleman in flowing robes whose portrait hung in my imagination.

I kept at it for years: going to church, joining the fellowship, saying my prayers, offering my worship, and trying to be good during the week. Gradually I realized that this idea I had of You, the portrait that hung in my imagination, was lacking in verisimilitude (a fancy word I picked up in school): it was really nothing like You – or rather, You were nothing like what I imagined You to be.

Yes, that’s right, others agreed. God is invisible and has no form. But He is paying attention, so be careful.

Well then, WHO is paying attention? If You aren’t as I imagine, then what are You – or are You, even? For quite some time – another decade at least – I continued going to church (and became a pastor!), joining the fellowship, saying my prayers, offering my worship, and trying to be a “good Christian,” all the while directing my attention to someone (or something) that wasn’t up there, behind that, or possibly anywhere at all.

For all I knew, You didn’t exist, but I kept up the routine anyway.

Thankfully, by some grace of my upbringing and formation, this disillusionment of mine was less a devastating loss than a liberating revelation.

Along the way, my suspicions had been growing: that my religion is a production, that its star performer lives only in the sacred stories and active imaginations of devotees, and that its real work is not in representing You or in managing what I should believe about You. Instead, its real work – its essential task and design intention – is to awaken in me a spirit of faith and wonder, of freedom and service, of compassion, generosity, and goodwill.

I have further come to see that this spirit is not some ghost floating somewhere above me or haunting the silent sanctuary behind locked doors. It is rather a creative force flowing – or seeking to flow – through me, out to others and into my world.

It is what reached out to me as a young child in the provident care of my parents. It is what set aglow those holy symbols and sacred stories, even that early portrait of You that was hung in my imagination and later tossed in the closet.

This spirit is not mine, nor is it something else. It is a deep wellspring of inner peace, an irrepressible uprising of pure joy, and the overflowing outreach of boundless love. Like my breath [Latin spiritus], it moves through me but isn’t mine to keep. Breathing in, I am its definition; breathing out, it is my gift.

Nearer the far end of my journey, I now understand that all of this has been preparing me for the responsibility and high calling of personifying Your mystery to someone who is, just now, needing assurance that they are in good hands. Hopefully they, too, will come to know what I have taken so long to learn.

Gratefully and sincerely Yours,

Amen.

Heaven (or Hell) on Earth

Do you know what our problem is – I mean, what our problem really is as a species?

We fall into this delusion of believing that our real problems are outside ourselves, along with the corollary belief that the secret to our happiness and wellbeing is out there, too. And that’s a problem because what’s going on out there and all around us is really a manifestation of what’s inside us.

A lot of us are convinced that our unhappiness and suffering originate out in the world.

Other people, our job situation, our life circumstances – whatever it happens to be, bears the blame for how we feel. It’s almost reflexive, the way we look outside ourselves for the cause of our misery. Which of course also implies that the solution or fix to our problem will necessarily come by way of external changes.

Some pastors and therapists get into their professions by an unrecognized and ultimately damaging motivation of looking for their own happiness in saving or fixing other people whom they see as lost or broken.

To help us see our problem more clearly, the spiritual wisdom tradition makes a useful distinction between “soul” and “spirit.” Avoiding the mistake of many historical religions in defining these in terms of supernatural or metaphysical things (i.e., ghostlike entities), the Sophia Perennis uses them as metaphorical references to the grounding mystery within each of us (soul) and to the relational energy moving like breath or wind among us (spirit).

The depths of soul are accessed by the inward path of quiet reflection, centering contemplation, and mystical communion; while the dynamics of spirit move us into active engagement, transpersonal outreach, and ethical community.

The wisdom teachings further encourage and guide each of us on that inward path, in the cultivation of inner peace. A peaceful soul is a “non-anxious presence” (Edwin Friedman), resting in solitude and full surrender to the provident ground of being. The soul is not nervous and chatty, but silent and calm, since there is nothing (no thing) to talk about. Its grounding mystery eludes all our efforts to pin it down or box it up in words; it is ineffable.

Religion’s favorite nickname for this mystery, “God,” is acknowledged in the most insightful traditions as unutterably beyond name and form.

When we have peace within ourselves, we are intuitively aware that nothing in the world around us is making us feel this way. Being centered and inwardly grounded, we draw from a deep inner wellspring of eternal life – not everlasting but timeless: always Now. Our serenity of soul provides a clear view of the world around us and of the reality beyond, and we fully understand that our wellbeing (along with the happiness it supports) is totally an “inside job.”

When this soul-centered spirituality is translated into our way of being and living in the world, we know that nothing and no one out there needs to be saved or fixed before we can be happy.

A restless soul, on the other hand, is what drives many unhappy people from one relationship to another, from one job to the next, falsely believing that by changing or moving things around they will finally be happy – or at least less miserable. Happy at last, if not a happiness that lasts. In projecting their inner disquiet and spiritual dis-ease upon the world and others around them, they “send out” a spirit of blame, agitation, and violence. They are creating hell on Earth.

I’m not suggesting that the “spirit” they are sending out is some kind of demonic entity or evil ghost, even though popular culture and religions have misread the ancient myths by taking such metaphors literally. Today it is as relevant as ever to speak of our personal influence in the world – our thoughts, words, choices, commitments, actions and reactions – as an out-breath (spiritus) of creative and helpful, or destructive and hurtful, energy, moving outward from us like a rippling wave.

This energy-wave will be beneficial or malevolent, fostering community or causing division, making our world a heaven or hell, as the case may be.

It’s interesting that in most conceptions of heaven, the picture is one of many people gathered in joyous company, whereas in hell everyone is suffering, but each soul is suffering in isolated agony. As mythical visions, these contrasting pictures are not really about the postmortem conditions awaiting us when we die. Instead, they are lenses for helping us understand that what comes out of us is a power for good or evil, one that can draw us together or drive us apart.

They are, in other words, visions of what our life on Earth can be, depending on whether we are cultivating inner peace or projecting our misery into the world.

These days, many of us are looking out on a wasteland of abandoned dreams, broken promises, and rising conflict. Who’s going to save us? How can we change the world and make it better? Are we Waiting for Godot, or just hanging on till the End? It’s easy to pin the blame on some person, some party, some “principality and power” that must be responsible for our suffering.

The truth is that no one is to blame, but each of us is responsible for our own suffering – as also for our own happiness. If the world out there is hell, it’s because we are making it so. The way to heaven on Earth begins as we call back our spirit (thoughts, words, actions) of judgment, descend by that inward path to the wellspring of inner peace and drink deeply of its healing waters, and then send out a new spirit of kindness, empathy, generosity, and goodwill.

It’s been this way for a long time. Yes, it has always been this way.

Meditation on the Snow Cone

In Religion and the Snow Cone Universe (October 2014) I offered this simple image as a way of understanding the relationships among science, spirituality, and religion. The ball of our snow cone, I suggested, can stand for the great cosmic environment arching overhead and surrounding us. This is the realm of scientific research, also called “external reality,” referring to what exists outside of and separate from our mind. Underneath, but really descending inwardly to the grounding mystery of being, the cone itself represents the realm of spirituality. This I call the “inner ground,” the essential source and support of consciousness itself.

And managing the intermediate zone between external reality and the inner ground, I suggested that a main task of religion (from the Latin religare, to connect), at least until very recently, has been to facilitate a dialogue between psyche and cosmos, between our inner experience of being and its outer manifestations. The various transformations and historical development of religion reflect our expanding knowledge of external reality through advances in research technology and theoretical comprehension – as well as an intensified awareness of our own existential depths.

Religion’s relevance – its timely truth – is thus a function of how well it manages this dialogue of spirituality and science.

The unique province of religion is what many of us today recognize as the meaningful world and our lifetime of adventures inside it. Whereas primitive and archaic cultures may have been less self-aware of our human role as myth-makers and storytellers, of how our stories actually construct meaning and the meaningful worlds we inhabit, our recent shift from a modern to a “post-modern” mindset and worldview was activated on this very discovery. The intermediate zone, once managed by religion and its mythology, turns out to be a very active construction zone.

With “organized” religion losing relevance, directing its energies into dogmatic debates with science and spirituality rather than creatively facilitating a contemporary mythological experience for people today, we should be asking (and having some considerable concern over) what is taking its place.

Who is telling the stories, hanging the veils, and constructing the worlds we are living for, dying in, and trying to find our way through?

This intermediate zone (or mitwelt) isn’t going away just because organized religion has abandoned its responsibility for constructing meaning and officiating the rites of passage through a life of purpose. These added dimensions to my snow cone image, of the “quality world” and our individual “hero path,” are now on us to figure out.

This is both good news and bad news. Good because we now have an opportunity to bring science and spirituality back into dialogue again, in a worldview and way of life that hold contemporary relevance. But it’s bad news in that a great majority of us have fallen into erroneous assumptions over the centuries regarding external reality and our own inner ground.


From inside the construction zone of meaning (our quality world), external reality is seen through the lens of mythology – all the stories we use to construct the meaningful world we live in. The ancient mythology of higher cultures once educated their people to look into the sky for the heavenly abode of god, and through the narrative corridor of myth, legend, and apocalypse for a proper understanding of history.

It would take many centuries for us to discriminate between reality as it is (external reality) and our mythological constructs (quality world). Our disillusionment was accelerated by the resistance of institutional religion to the current discoveries and changing cosmology of science. It grew increasingly difficult to adjust the sacred stories – putting heaven outside the observable galaxy, for example, or interpreting a “day” in the Genesis myth of creation as an indefinite period of time – and still keep up with the new scientific understanding.

On top of that, science was rapidly branching off into numerous specializations, each one dissecting and analyzing reality into its more basic elements – meaningless, mindless, and lifeless – until there was no place left for human values. Many gave up on the inherited quality world and accepted this scientific picture of things, of a cosmos empty of ultimate meaning.

What struck terror in the heart of the 17th-century mathematician Blaise Pascal, as he contemplated “the eternal silence of these infinite spaces,” would leave Albert Camus in the 20th only in quiet resignation before a universe “indifferent” to human values and aspirations.

Besides serving as the lens through which premodern societies looked at and interpreted external reality, the quality world of mythology also provided a way to understand our human adventure of identity through time, in what is known as the “hero path.” This path tracks (1) our rise into self-consciousness (often depicted as a “fall”), (2) a venturing-forth from tribal customs and beliefs in search of our own way, (3) a confrontation with and recovery of the parts of ourselves (i.e., our shadow) that we had to deny, dismiss, or actively suppress in order to fit in and feel loved in our early years, and finally (4) leads us back to where we started, but now as a self-conscious, internally reconciled, and fully awakened adult.

Inside this archetypal story-cycle, many more stories were told and ritually enacted to help us address the critical concerns of our journey through life as a child, youth, adult, and elder. At whatever stage or Age in life we happened to be, the topography and symbolism arranged at the surface of those stories served to focus our awareness of the inner ground, of what we are and are evolving to become in our essential nature as a human being.

This grounding mystery was acknowledged as deeper than the personality and its quest for identity, as the true origin of our quality world; the contemplative depths of being itself. Our own life and destiny, along with the life and destiny of everyone and all things, were regarded as manifestations of this ground, thrusting us all into time as participants in the higher wholeness of a provident universe.

Analogous to the way our quality world brings into meaningful focus an external reality beyond our mind, the hero path once facilitated our gradual acquaintance with and full embodiment of the grounding mystery within us.

Along with the disenchantment of our (quality) world and the consequent loss of a meaningful universe, the lack of a coherent mythology and life-directing hero path has led to a popular belief in the soul as nothing less (and little more) than an immortal ego. The inner life of consciousness has been emptied of mystery and made into a metaphysical ghost riding inside our body until it expires (or Jesus comes), at which point it will be freed to live forever in heaven – if we managed to believe and do all the right things, as prescribed by our religion.

In the meantime, we just need to hang on and try to keep from getting dirty.

Sophia Perennis 2.0

If we think of religion as a tree, then we can appreciate how its essential nature is rooted in mystical experience, channels this experience into an organizational structure, and expresses it outwardly in the distinctive virtues of ethical life. In a condition of systemic health, religion serves the vital function of integrating these mystical, institutional, and ethical priorities.

The problem is, religions haven’t been healthy for a long time.

Approaching the eighth century BCE, religions throughout the higher cultures were growing more concerned over maintaining control of their populations, mandating what devotees believed, how they behaved, and where they belonged. Enforcing conformity became a near-preoccupation, with an increasing number of heretics, apostates, and freethinkers persecuted and killed under their regimes.

The standardization of religion had begun, and orthodoxy (“correct opinion” or true belief) came into prominence. As a consequence, many religions were cut off from their life-source and succumbed to disorders of complacency, dogmatism, division, and violence.

This is also when a transformation in culture and religion began, continuing into the second century BCE and comprising what the philosopher Karl Jaspers named the Axial Age, capturing the idea of a “great turning” or revolution in the way many people engaged with life and its deeper reality. Taking up a term coined by G.W. Leibniz in the 17th century and popularizing it for the 20th, Aldous Huxley published an anthology (1945) of stories, teachings, and insights from this “perennial philosophy” (philosophia perennis).

With this ancient yet timeless (perennial) love of wisdom (philo+sophia) reintroduced to popular consciousness, a similar critique of institutional religion as had inspired its founders millenniums earlier provoked a “New Age” in the spiritual adventure.

The perennial philosophy represents a deliberate breaking-through the floor of institutional religion – or, to invoke my earlier image of a tree, an intentional and disciplined descent of the soul’s inner life to its mystical ground of being. As the tradition developed, however, it began to take on features of institutional religion: hierarchies of authority, secret ceremonies, inner circles of initiation and membership, along with an esoteric orthodoxy of its own.

The 20th-century New Age movement was a kind of “thought carnival” in new revelations and strange cults, where anyone feeling bored or oppressed by conventional religion could find excitement and escape.

With traditional religions and mainline denominations in rapid decline these days, as far as their memberships and cultural relevance are concerned, our time is ripe for the transformation of a second Axial Age. The anticipated outcome will not amount to an updated remodeling and fresh face on the same thing as before. Our question is not about how religion today can recover itself and get back to what it once was.

This crisis of change is only a crisis as it concerns the institutional structure of religion, to what ought to be the living and flexible form that makes every religion recognizable (as a tree) yet distinct from others of its kind. Another turn along the axis of transformation demands more than a new reading of ancient texts or a contemporary (psychological) engagement with the great myths of our world cultures.

Insofar as the first Axial Age tended to lose focus and muddled around in otherworldly speculation and esoteric metaphysics, leaving religion essentially unchanged though more defensive and dogmatic than before, today religion needs to truly transform if it has any hope of speaking to our real spiritual and existential concerns.

I should pause here to reissue my running apology for religion and its crucial contribution to the health of culture and to our progress in self-actualization as a species – that is to say, when it is fully aligned and doing its job. If it happens not to be, this is no reason to reject religion outright, apart from all its dysfunctional examples and merely on principle.

In its essential work of linking (religare) the individual to his or her own inner ground, individuals to one another in community, and their community to the larger world as a force for social change, religion is properly regarded as the very substance of culture (Tillich) and not merely one of its passing forms.

Following that definition, it should be clear that the sickness and decline of religion is more likely a cause than a symptom of cultural decay, and that any attempt to surgically remove it will almost certainly result in the death of culture itself. Our challenge, then, is to cultivate the conditions for the flourishing of a mystically grounded, structurally sound, and ethically relevant religion today.

The irony is that many religions and religious believers renounce the very world they are supposed to redeem, and would prefer to escape this life rather than wake up before it’s over.

For this new Axial Age we need a fresh touchstone of awareness. No doubt, we will continue to find inspiration and refreshment in the timeless wisdom of the perennial philosophy, but a contemporary and timely restatement is in order. For my reader’s consideration I offer what might be called Sophia Perennis 2.0 – a deceptively simple image and archetype (a generative form) that can prompt our deeper reflection, guide our creative dialogue, and empower our collaborative efforts as a spiritual community-in-formation.

Instead of beginning our critique with some religion or other outside of us, the important work needs to start with ourselves first, looking closely at the presence or absence, strength or weakness, coherence or confusion of religion (religare) in our own daily life.

Is our life deeply rooted in the grounding mystery of being? Are we able to release our judgments, beliefs, and thoughts – even our identity as “the one who” thinks, believes, and forms judgments? Can we descend contemplatively to that deep space within and be silently present to the mystery of our existence in this moment? Are we willing to relax into being and rest in solitude, surrendering ourselves completely to the Spiritus Vitae (the breath of life) in us?

Are we able to translate that mystical experience of our grounding mystery into constructs of thought, belief, and meaning? Can we keep the trunk, limbs, and branches of our personal life strong yet supple and flexible at the same time? Is our worldview and philosophy of life sensitive to the deeper mystery manifesting in all things? Are we thoughtfully engaged with questions that stretch us to grow and include more of reality in our horizon of concerns? Can we hold our beliefs with an open mind and not become a prisoner to our own convictions?

And finally, as we mindfully cultivate inner peace in the ground of our being and allow it to rise and fill us with the joy of life (joie de vivre), are we willing to pour our joy into the world as love? As surely as a healthy fruit tree will bear good fruit in season, is it even possible for us to hold back our inner peace and pure joy from expression in selfless acts of kindness, generosity, and goodwill? Can we accept creative authority for the positive change we hope to see in the world? (Does the fruit tree hesitate over who is deserving of its cool shade and nourishing produce?)

Inwardly grounded and mindfully aware, what is there to be afraid of? What are we pretending not to know?

Your Life In (Maybe) Five Steps

Just before you got going on this journey of life, you were whole and complete in your essential nature as a human being. Even though it would take a lot of experience and many years for you to really appreciate the dual capacity of your consciousness, in opening outward to the sensory-physical realm around you (through your body, to the Web of Life) and plunging inward to its mystical-intuitive source within (through your soul, to the Ground of Being), already back then you had all the necessary “equipment.”

Now it was just a matter of flipping the switch – or, to use a preferred term from the spiritual wisdom teachings, of “waking up” to the fullness of what you are.

But the journey proved more complicated than simply flipping a switch. It turns out that waking up is disruptive and annoying, particularly if you would rather stay asleep.

It’s important to understand that you didn’t start your journey asleep. Instead, your tribe slipped a sedative into your mother’s milk, and under its hypnotic influence you fell into a trance of believing that your supreme purpose in life is to become somebody. One of the great paradoxes is that waking up to the fullness of what you are in your essential nature requires that you first fall asleep and start dreaming about becoming somebody.

The body-and-soul wholeness of your essential nature was thus divided in two by the wedge of your ego, a conditioned self or “second nature” that your tribe engineered by a process of socialization – also known as domestication, operant conditioning, brainwashing, moral discipline and social instruction. Your ego is where the trance and hallucination of becoming somebody is rooted.

All along the way you were praised, admonished, and advised by your tribe concerning what was necessary for you to fit in, to be “one of us,” and to become somebody.

All of that is what I’m calling the “first step” on your journey in life. The point was to put you asleep and guide you inside the moral frame of a world where you could find security, identity, orientation and meaning. In a way, this process was a lot like being hypnotized by a kind of seductive lure of emotional security (the feeling of safety and belonging), which you took without thinking because in falling asleep you fell under the spell of a separate self – exposed, inadequate, and unable to make it on your own.

Fitting in, however, came at a price. Your tribe accepted parts of you but not others; it expected you to measure up to its templates, standards, and ideals of identity. What didn’t fit had to be kept out of sight, which in psychodynamic terms meant that these unacceptable parts of yourself had to be ‘suppressed’ – if fitting in was what you really wanted, and you did: you needed to fit in.

All these suppressed parts of yourself collected in a corner of your psyche to become your shadow.

To use an analogy from the teaching of Jesus, it was as if you covered the light of your lamp with a bushel basket so no one would see it.

Inside the moral frame of your world, you did your best (but sometimes, honestly, you barely tried) to measure up to those templates, standards, and ideals of identity, so that you could really become somebody. Inevitably, however, you would fall short, prompting judgments from your taller powers and social peers, as well as internal feelings of guilt and shame. Gradually, after many attempts, some success, and numerous failures, you came to settle down into your roles and daily routines.

Measuring up, falling short, and settling down comprise steps two through four of your journey in life.

For a complete picture of your journey, according to the wisdom teachings, one more step is required, but most of us never take it. The reason is in its uncompromising demand that you get over yourself – the very ‘somebody’ you worked so long and hard to become.

Let’s not forget that in becoming somebody (i.e., fitting into the frame), certain aspects of your essential nature had to be disqualified and pushed into a dark corner of your psyche. Over the years you found ways of accommodating this shadow – not reconciling with it and taking back your hidden light, but learning how to get by without the full light of your true self.

You also discovered that by projecting onto others your own internal frustration and self-judgment, you could experience a temporary relief, a welcome distraction, and a sense of moral righteousness.

Getting out of the frame and leaving your world, if not simply for another frame and a slightly different world (known as conversion), means that you will have to confront your shadow. What you have been conditioned to condemn, dismiss, or ignore in yourself must now be consciously redeemed or “bought back,” and the cost will be nothing less than the “death” of your hard-won identity: the somebody you’ve been pretending to be.

A trusting surrender to life as it is (faith), a freedom to live in the present (spontaneity), the creative construction of meaning (imagination), an unquenchable thirst for discovery (curiosity), and a delighted astonishment in the face of mystery (wonder) – all of those ‘powers’ of your essential nature which had to be squeezed out, closed off, and trimmed back to make you fit inside the frame now need to be recovered and reincorporated.

Many just like you have made their departure, only to confront their shadow (metaphorically in its ‘satanic’ aspect as adversary) and lose heart, forced back by their fear into the familiar frame of their constructed world and conditioned self. Having left with an ambition to “break free and find authentic life,” they soon abandon their quest for the security of life in a box.

Don’t let that be your story. It’s the “life of quiet desperation” that Thoreau warned about.

Take back your light. Your shadow is only the disowned powers of your essential nature. It holds your light and is waiting for you (metaphorically in its ‘luciferic’ aspect as light-bearer) on your way to the liberated life.

Life as it is

In his important work The Denial of Death (1973), Ernest Becker made a case for seeing much of Western culture as a series of “immortality projects,” where we have worked collectively to hide from ourselves (deny) the bald fact that one day we will die.

Great and small people alike have invested themselves in projects they hope and believe will outlive them; and, as in the case of religion, in the project of gaining everlasting life in heaven after they “die.”

Some believers prefer to speak of “transitioning” rather than dying, as it permits them to talk around death instead of facing its inevitable reality – as the period at the end of our life sentence.

The problem with our immortality projects, one that Karl Marx saw clearly more than a century earlier, lies in how they divert our focus of attention and care from the way life is, to life as we imagine it could (or even should) be. 2,300 years before Marx, Siddhārtha Gautama (the Buddha) had the same insight. The “immortality project” of Hindu religion held forth the promise of an individual’s elevation through numerous lifetimes of proper piety to a final liberation (moksha) of their undying self.

All of this concern over abstract metaphysics and progressive reincarnations, in Siddhārtha’s opinion, distracted devotees from the real existential task at hand, of finding liberation in this life from the wheel of suffering.

Although I’m not intending this post as a study of Buddhist teaching, one critical distinction is worth carrying forward here, which is that, according to the Buddha’s “life is suffering” doctrine (his first Noble Truth), there are certain facts about life as it is that cannot be ignored without consequence. Indeed, our attempts at ignoring them are what turn these facts into suffering – into devastating assaults on our nervous state, emotional composure, mental equanimity, and the very meaning of life itself.

It’s our refusal (or willful ignórance) to face, work with, and accept life as it is that makes us suffer.

Life as it is includes pain, illness, loss, decrepitude, and death – ending in our own. It was his observations of such facts that drove Siddhārtha from his palace home in search of liberation. His royal lifestyle had been one immortality project that apparently could not protect him from the facts of life, despite his father’s best efforts at keeping him inside the palace compound. From there he joined another immortality project, this one not of self-indulgent luxury but self-denying austerity, with monks who believed that by starving and punishing the body they could free their true self.

After some time, he left their company and came to the revelation of his “middle way” while meditating under the canopy of a Bo tree.

Although we should certainly herald the rise of individual self-consciousness as an evolutionary watershed in human history, it must be said that a lot of suffering came in its wake. Being conscious of ourselves means that we are also (or will be very soon) aware of the pain, illness, loss, decrepitude, and death that are unavoidable. Life as it is brings along all kinds of experiences that may tempt us at times to jump onboard with one immortality project or another, with some guarantee that things don’t have to be this way, that we can have life without these problems – if only in a life after this one.

Let’s admit it: We don’t want to suffer. We would rather have a life where pain, illness, loss, decrepitude, and death are simply sponged away and we can go on living problem-free forever.

And if our immortality project grants us assurance by the conviction that life’s final period is only a comma leading to the better life we imagine, then what’s the harm in that? Doesn’t our belief regarding a perfect life in heaven after we die help us bear our suffering in the meantime? If we really believe that death is merely a “transition” to something infinitely better, then our inevitable “end” is no big deal, therapeutically speaking, right?

Before we answer that question, let’s identify the various ways we “deny death,” in Becker’s terms, or otherwise refuse to engage with life as it is. We can flat-out deny what we find unacceptable and simply refuse to acknowledge its reality. We can also try to defend ourselves against it happening to us. Beyond that, we can work hard to avoid or dodge life as it is. Another tactic is to defer such problems to a later time – just not now, maybe tomorrow, and hopefully never. And finally, we can plan our escape from life as it is on the departure narrative of some heaven-bound religion.

Going deeper still, we should also inquire into what motivates all these maneuvers away from life as it is and hopefully closer to life as we imagine it should be.

Obviously, our creative imagination makes it all possible, and in some cases the life we imagine does help us to see and appreciate the longer views, larger contexts, and more nuanced textures of our experience, guiding our way through life as it is with wisdom, faith, and compassion. Holding such ideals in our imagination can keep us from falling hopelessly into our pain, illness, loss, decrepitude and death.

Still, beneath our creative imagination and serving as a principal “energy inlet” of its inspiration is our nervous system. Becker believed that one thing all human nervous systems have in common is at least a chronic twinge of insecurity, following very naturally in the wake of our emerging self-consciousness.

Stepping into our own center entails a separation from what is “not me,” and it’s here that we become aware of our exposure and vulnerability. We are all, in some degree, insecure, both in fact and feeling; and to pacify our feeling of insecurity we attach ourselves emotionally to whatever (or whomever) we hope will make us feel better – if not blissfully calm, then at least a little less anxious.

This is where Becker’s immortality projects come into play: By denying death and transferring our focus of attention and care to an imagined everlasting life somewhere else, or by identifying ourselves with something that will outlast us, our insecurity over life as it is can be assuaged – simply because death doesn’t really matter, it isn’t real. And if death doesn’t matter (because it isn’t real; it’s only a “transition”), then maybe we don’t have to face our pain, illness, loss, and decrepitude either, since the locus of value and concern has been projected out and away from life as it is.

But in our ambition to have less of life as it is – and we should make the point that this life is also our arena for experiencing inner peace, abundant joy, genuine love, and amazing grace – then we will end up losing our chance at a full life, of being fully alive.

To paraphrase Jesus: If we seek to save our life (from pain, illness, loss, decrepitude, and death) we will lose (miss out on) what makes life most precious and worth-the-while.

The Progress of Religion

My returning reader and blog follower probably has a good handle on why I keep coming back to the topic of religion. But if this is your first visit, you may well wonder why I would mount any kind of apology for religion, in a time when it happens to be a source of a lot of our social conflicts, personal suffering, and fixation on things that aren’t even real.

Can’t we just be done with religion, now that we know better?

True enough, we’d be much better off without the backwards thinking and baptized bigotry that have leeched into many forms of religion in our day. Even if I were to argue that superstitious belief and a self-righteous moralism are not inherent to a proper definition of religion, the fact remains that these are prevalent today – just as they have been for many centuries.

But simply to throw religion itself under a single categorical judgment and presume we can move on without it is dangerously short-sighted.

The diagram above provides a simple framework that can help us recover a critical appreciation of religion and its place in the longer view of human evolution. My basic working definition of religion as a driving force in human transformation proposes that the advancement towards what we can call our fulfillment as a species is not something that merely happens on its own, as it were.

Instead, it depends on the facilitation provided by a system of interlinked practices, beliefs, aspirations, and commitments – a functioning religare.

From this basic definition we should predict that the dysfunction and breakdown of religion – where it falls out of alignment with its deeper design intention – will result in the arrest of human progress and a potential foreclosure on our future as a species. If “salvation” literally refers to the process of being made whole or coming to fulfillment, then it feels warranted to say that there is no human salvation outside of or without healthy religion.

I’m not advocating here for any particular name-brand religion, but only for “an interlinked system of practices, beliefs, aspirations, and commitments” that can effectively facilitate our human progress.

My diagram identifies the four major stages of consciousness, to be understood not only as distinct “chapters” in the temporal evolution of consciousness but also as distinct “platforms” on which it engages with reality.

  • Primal consciousness is centered in our body, in its animal instincts, biorhythms, and metabolic urgencies.
  • Tribal consciousness is centered in our social group and its moral frame, where we learn how to fit in and behave ourselves.
  • Personal consciousness is centered in our identity as an actor (ego) of roles, with a subjective life all our own.
  • Communal consciousness is centered in the transpersonal realm of genuine community and higher wholeness.

Historically speaking, we can understand these four stages of consciousness as projecting the path of human cultural development over many millenniums, but also of our own individual development through a single lifetime. Each of us has “made it” to some stage and are preparing for the next – or perhaps we are stuck here for some reason.

Broad cross-sectional cultural studies suggest that a large number of us are currently in a transition of existential exile, lost and disoriented in a phase between a secure group membership (tribal stage) and our own creative authority (personal stage).

Lacking a sense of belonging, but for the most part still deficient in personal agency, we are like dazed spectators watching the world fall apart around us.

Already we should be able to see how what I’m calling healthy religion effectively facilitates human progress: in providing for a centered stability at each stage, and by offering guidance and support through each transitional phase between stages.

In fact, it is in these disruptive and disorienting phases that religion can make its most important contribution. I will go so far as to say that religion’s interlinked system of practices, beliefs, aspirations, and commitments has the design intention of supporting us through these developmental and evolutionary phases – rather than helping us find a permanent home in whatever stage we happen to be.

For that reason I have placed each major type of religion in my diagram at the critical phase-transition where its principal contribution to human progress is made.

Thus, animistic religion facilitated human progress from an original embeddedness in the natural realm, supporting us in our transition from primal to tribal consciousness. It’s important to remember that progressing from one stage to another doesn’t mean that the earlier stage is left behind in some archaic past. Instead it continues to provide a distinct mental location for consciousness to engage with reality.

In moving into the social realm of tribal and personal consciousness, in other words, we don’t leave our body behind – even though some forms of religion conjure up fantasies of doing precisely that, in their departure narratives of life after death.

It’s in the cultural space between tribal and personal consciousness that theistic religion does its work, prescribing and enforcing the moral frame of society, but also inspiring our gradual individuation as free and responsible agents (or actors). As I explore in other posts, theism itself can be analyzed into its early (ritual magic), high (orthodox belief), and late (ethical virtue) forms.

When it does its job well, theistic religion will instill in us a devotion to expressing and living out the divine virtues of patience, compassion, mercy, benevolence, and forgiveness – qualities that were earlier believed to belong uniquely to the deity and bestowed on us in our formation as believers.

Post-theistic religion intends to facilitate our further progress toward fulfillment in the transpersonal (“beyond the personal”) realm. The accent of late theism on ethical virtue is now transferred from the deity (the idea of god as represented in myth, art, and theology) into our own awakened self-understanding as makers of meaning, world creators, and visionaries of optional futures.

As the name implies, post-theistic religion picks up our evolution after – or on the other side of – god (post-theos). It is not at all interested in debating (either affirming or denying) the objective existence of god, which only amounts to a needless metaphysical distraction from the real work and deeper truth of religion anyway.

Communal consciousness is participatory and consilient, where we surmount and leap beyond tribal affiliations and individual identities into the spirit of genuine community, properly conceived as the “breath” (the etymological root of spirit) that animates us, connects us, flows through us, and unites us together.

We need healthy religion to realize the full potential of our nature as human beings. If we don’t give attention to fixing what’s broken but merely toss it aside in the interest of lightening our load, the final ascent of our spiritual journey might remain forever out of reach.

Becoming Aware

To call something an “illusion” commonly assumes that it was somehow designed to deceive or mislead us into believing what isn’t true. To believe an illusion is to live in delusion, and no one wants that. What we want is the pure and simple meaning of things, without any spin or labels or partisan agendas.

The problem is that meaning itself is a spin, a narrative tapestry that our mind weaves together and drapes over the present mystery of reality.

The ultimate reality of things always stands just on the other side of our veils, essentially transcendent to whatever we may think it is or believe about it. Our veils of meaning are more or less transparent – but never completely transparent – to the present mystery of reality, separating us to some degree from the way things really are. This separation creates the necessary distance our mind needs in order to label, define, classify, and assign signficance to what’s there.

All the time and moment by moment, we are immersed in experience – in “the experience of being alive,” which Joseph Campbell insisted is ultimately what we are all, each of us, looking for. Not meaning, at least not at our core. Meaning is what we spin around our experience and the mystery of being alive, serving as context to a mystery too deep for words. By speaking of it metaphorically – as ground, source, womb, or spirit (literally the breath of life) – we can carry allusions and reminders of this ineffable experience into our construction of the world.

When we were infants and before language began to structure and organize our thoughts, the experience of being alive was all we knew, although our knowledge was intuitive and not schematic as it would increasingly become. Very soon, however, we began to construct meaning by hearing stories and telling our own. As we weaved together multiple storylines and all those veils fell into place, our world took shape. Questions of meaning and the quest for meaning soon became our preoccupation.

That’s what we mean in calling our world a “construction,” referring to a sophisticated arrangement of veils that works as a theater-in-the-round or a stained-glass cathedral, closing us inside and making life meaningful.

Storylines are illusions in the way they build assumptions and generate expectations, conjuring up the sense of a past and future. (In reality, which is always and only here-and-now, the past and future do not exist.) As the progression threshold upon which the significant action takes place, the true present of every story is where the storyline opens downward and inward by the “optic nerve” of our creative imagination and engages with our experience in the moment.

In the moving images on its veil, a story pulls consciousness out of the eternal now (i.e., the ever-present) and onto its horizontal timeline. To be so taken up into a storyline’s construction of meaning, however, we must leave the grounding mystery of our present experience. We might call this trick of good storytelling “narrative rapture”: the sensation of being taken up into the imaginal realm of story.

This paradoxical up-and-down and back-and-forth movement of consciousness between mystery and meaning, ground and world, present experience and temporal storylines reveals the topography of our spiritual adventure as human beings.

We can appreciate the great myths of religion as cultural storylines that once provided our ancestors with vast cosmic and legendary illusions (and allusions) of meaning by which they could orient their lives in time. In its function of “linking back” (Latin religare) this complex of stories (i.e., its mythology) to the present mystery of reality, religion historically was responsible for maintaining a narrative superstructure of meaning for entire societies and generations of people.

In ritual settings they recited stories, observed and handled sacred symbols that linked them to mythic time, and thereby were able to participate in both local and larger spheres of meaning while remaining grounded in (or mindfully coming back to) the present mystery of reality. They could time travel to the Beginning or End of history, to the founding events of their race and tribe, into the celestial heavens or nether regions of Earth – always coming back at the close of a ritual ceremony to their life together, somewhere at the center of it all.

The process of becoming aware, of not just becoming conscious but waking up to the deeper reality and higher significance of our lives, requires an ability to both play along the complicated storylines of life’s meaning and periodically drop back down into the grounding mystery of being.

In all of this it is essential to remember our way back to the present moment, for it is only here that we can touch reality and fully engage with the experience of being alive. As long as we remain properly grounded and centered, our veils of meaning can make life meaningful without trapping us in illusion. (I would argue that much of religion today is so trapped, due not only to a loss of presence and a failure of imagination, but even more to a mistaken and tragic insistence on the literal truth of its stories.)

The particular skills, techniques, and practices for grounding and centering ourselves in the present mystery are an integral part of the wisdom tradition that flows through yet transcends our diverse cultural zones. From time to time our veils need to be pulled aside for us to realize where we really are, that reality is indescribably perfect and perfectly meaningless, just as it is.