Empathy and Human Salvation

It’s easy to blame Donald Trump for the fracture of American society along the faultlines of race, wealth, politics, and religion. But we all know that those faultlines were already there before he brazenly sucked the soul out of the Republican party and exploited social media to seduce millions more into his “Make America Great Again” (aka “What’s in it for me?”) campaign.

Truth is, with the rise of insecurity around the planet, in our nation, and in our own neighborhoods and households, we had been primed for someone just like him to rise up and set us off.

I’ve come to see our human destiny as the contest between two forces, insecurity and empathy. Since our beginnings, and in every cultural corner of the world, these two forces have been steering us along a zig-zagging path through history: sending us into wars, or beckoning us into peace; driving our insatiable appetite for more, or finding contentment in what we have; causing us to contract and become smaller, or opening us up to larger and more inclusive identities.

The much-heralded ascent of individualism in the modern age, with its revolutionary values of freedom, autonomy, agency, and self-responsible authority, came at the expense of a lost sense of communion with and belonging to something larger than ourselves. The price paid was one of security. As our individuation advanced toward “enlightenment,” the shadow of insecurity lengthened behind us.

Gaining our separate self left us feeling exposed, isolated, and lonely – which only compelled an intensified self-obsession in our desperate search for happiness.

Insecurity motivates us to contract and withdraw inside smaller identities, where we hope to take control and manage the threats to our ever-shrinking world. We have convinced ourselves that only by pulling in our affections, putting up our defenses, and closing off more of reality will we stand a chance. And to the degree that insecurity has taken the upper hand, our capacity for empathy has been squeezed out of play.

It doesn’t even occur to us that letting down our guard and opening up to larger horizons might actually restore our lost sense of security. We emotionally reason to ourselves that including more of reality will just expose us to greater risk, taking us in the exact opposite direction we need to go.

But this is indeed the key teaching of our perennial wisdom traditions: The “way of salvation” – referring quite literally to the liberation, healing, wholeness, harmony, and wellbeing we long for as humans – is only found as we can find it in ourselves to love and care about others.

The well-known verse from the Jewish Torah (Leviticus 19:18), “Love your neighbor as yourself,” has been interpreted in different ways. A narrower interpretation might be translated as, “Just as you love yourself, so you should also love others,” while the more generous reading counsels us to “Love as your very self the one who is nearby” – in your neighborhood, as it were.

Of course, this leaves open the question of what is meant by a “neighborhood,” where we and our neighbor presumably live. Does it refer primarily to a residential area containing houses or apartments in close proximity to each other? I will offer a more psychological and ‘existentialist’ definition: Our “neighborhood” is the horizon which we establish as circumference to the center we use in identifying ourselves. In other words, what we identify “as” determines the boundary containing all others who are like us in this specific way.

We naturally identify “with” those who resemble us and who share the same traits that are essential to our own self-identification (“as”).

I’ll go even farther to suggest that “naturally identifying with” a neighbor is a useful definition of what is meant by empathy. The degree in which we are grounded and properly centered in ourselves, intimately familiar with “what it’s like to be me,” to an exact corresponding degree we will resonate with the experience of others whom we recognize as essentially like us.

Our self-understanding, therefore, translates directly into a deep understanding of others, as a kind of spontaneous-intuitive knowing of what they are going through, what they long for, and how they feel.

Evolutionary theory considers all of existence – every atom, rock, cloud, plant, fish, bird, and human being – as manifestions of a single creative process, all together “turning as one”: our universe. The physical matter of our bodies is derived from stardust. We carry the same life-force that animates all living things on Earth. The consciousness that opens our minds to the complexity around us involves us also in a great community of sentient beings.

And the individual ego – that leading indicator of human evolution and lonely exile in search of a lost security – has given us each an ability to see and understand ourselves, in a paradoxically self-conscious way, somehow, somewhere in the immensity of all of this.

It should be clear by now just how we ended up where we are: removed from nature, divided from each other, and at odds with ourselves. In our desperate bid for security, we cut ourselves off from what we found threatening, until all that’s left is the smallest identity we can manage (but still we can’t).

We finally extricated ourselves from the 14-billion-year evolutionary process so that we can kill and die for some party, sect, or idol. When we identify ourselves “as” something so small, very few others, if any, remain for us to identify “with.”

Just before our species passes into extinction, the light of human empathy will go out for the last time.

But let’s hold on for some good news.

It has been proven, again and again, that as individuals are willing to drop into deeper centers of identity, their horizons expand in proportion. Their world enlarges and more “neighbors” are included, activating a correspondingly deep understanding – a love of, care for, and generosity toward those whose essential nature they share.

When our center is so deep and our horizon so large that nothing is exluded from the sense we have of ourselves and the neighbors we care about, humanity will find salvation – at last.

And, to wax biblical for a moment, on that day Earth will rejoice to have us back in the community of Life.

Moving On: A Primer on Post-Theism

As our species advances along the path of spiritual awakening, the inherited forms of religion need to change accordingly. A critical and widespread misunderstanding of this process claims that religion needs to be abandoned for our enlightenment to be realized. Religion itself is the problem, and we won’t be able to move forward until the shackles of blind faith, superstition, and orthodox convictions are cast off and left behind.

I couldn’t agree more, except that blind faith, superstition, and orthodox convictions are not the essence of religion – and it’s this misunderstanding that has to be corrected before further progress can be made.

Religion itself (in essence) is a system of stories, symbols, beliefs, and practices that facilitates the awakening, development, and expression of spirituality in everyday life. It is itself this system of linkages between and among these components, not the particular components themselves.

When we move into the specific components, we are engaging with this or that religion, which is where we frequently find blind faith, superstition, and orthodox convictions that actually interfere with – or altogether undermine – the essential function of religion itself. At this essential level, spirituality and religion are not merely compatible but necessary to each other.

Any given religion (whether from among the familiar brand names or something more homegrown and personalized) must be evaluated on how well it facilitates the awakening, development, and expression of spirituality in everyday life.

It happens that our current threshold of spiritual awakening and religious progress is challenging us to move beyond the general type of religion known as theism. The central feature of this type of religion is a god (or gods; from theos) who represents and personifies the supreme (or superior) power and authority in existence, often as the one who created, supports, and governs the cosmos, all of life, and most importantly the life and destiny of his (or her) people. In exchange for the god’s provident blessings, protection, and final salvation, devotees offer their worship, prayers, and obedience.

This idea of an exchange or transaction between the deity and devotees is basic to all forms of theism.

The important corollary to this centerpiece of a patron deity in theism, and serving as its counterpart in the all-important relationship of deity and devotee, is the ego. This is the individual’s sense of him- or herself as a separate person, belonging to the group and standing for the group, as well as possessing some distinct agency with respect to the group.

Ego, then, serves the two functions of centering the individual in a separate identity, and connecting him or her to other persons who are (presumably) centered in their identities. In authorizing the morality by which identity and relationship are managed, god – and let’s keep in mind that we’re talking about a religion’s personified representation of supreme power and authority – provides for the construction and maintenance of a stable society.

At some point – but really by a series of strategic revelations along the way – theistic religion helps the individual come to understand that god is not some “big guy in the sky,” that “he” is not literally a male, nor does god exist in the straightforward sense as a being up there, out there – or anywhere. (In healthy forms of theism, this doesn’t result in an existential crisis for the devotee, since he or she has never encountered god in such an objective-and-literal sense anyway. In fact, such a revelation is typically greeted with deep recognition – and some relief.)

By now the critical achievement of ego strength – with a personal identity that is securely centered and morally connected – has been fulfilled, and god is no longer needed. Spiritual awakening and development have been effectively facilitated by religion up to this point, and the individual is ready to move on to an entirely new mode of expression: the post-theistic, referring literally to religion “after (or on the other side of) god.”

Post-theism can really only “work” for and with individuals who are securely centered in themselves and empathically connected to others.

If instead, the ego is caught in a neurotic spiral of self-obsession or entangled in co-dependent relationships – and let’s admit it, this is where a lot of us are currently stuck – spirituality will not be able to advance. Some responsibility for this can be laid squarely on theistic religion, in my opinion, for not facilitating the spirituality of its members to, through, and beyond the god of orthodoxy.

But even outside of religion proper, healthy ego formation (a stable identity-in-relationship) is not well supported in today’s society.

As more of us are ready to take up the religion of post-theism – recalling my definition of religion as a system of stories, symbols, beliefs, and practices that facilitates the awakening, development, and expression of spirituality in everyday life – new dimensions of experience and understanding open up to us.

From our centered self, we can drop from the separate ego and into the existential ground of our being. This is the dimension of soul, which invites us to the contemplative experience of sacred solitude, inner peace, boundless presence, and deep communion. The descending path to this place-that-is-no-place, the now-and-here that is nowhere, is the mystical way of surrender and release. Here in the soul-space of our inner life we are reverently silent, for the mystery of being lies far below what thoughts and words can grasp.

And from our connections with others, we can leap beyond our mutual bonds and into the inclusive unity of all beings. This is the dimension of spirit, which invites us to the transpersonal experience of a hidden wholeness, universal harmony, higher purpose, and genuine community. The ascending path to this transcendent unity is the ethical way of love and service. Here in the “household of spirit” we are compassionately engaged with our neighbors (even our enemies), with all sentient beings, with Earth and the whole living universe.

At this point, religion has transformed from a conservative tradition and holy institution dedicated to the glory of god and the salvation of his people, to a unified vision and way of life that includes everyone and honors the divinity in all things.

Plato and the Collapse of the Republican Party

When political leaders are elected in a democracy, their constituents expect them to represent and promote their interests, safeguard their freedoms, and protect their rights. Quite frequently, as candidates, those seeking office tell their constituents what they want to hear, and, once elected, they might follow through on some of those promises.

If an elected leader should utterly disregard the will of the people who put him or her in office, we would regard that as a breakdown of democracy.

In American democracy, elected leaders also have a constitutional obligation to help steer the nation in the direction of what the Framers called a more perfect union – “one nation, indivisible” as recited in The Pledge of Allegiance. The Republic they envisioned is a place where people of different backgrounds, religious beliefs, and economic ambitions can live together in a kind of covenant fidelity to the principles of individual liberty and equal justice – for everyone.

Elected leaders, then, need to not only represent their constituents but also help align the nation with the transcendent ideal of genuine community. By organizing geographical populations into cities, counties, and states, it was believed that the will of the majority would have its voice heard at the highest levels of government.

And if it happened that this general will of the people was out of alignment with the principles of an ever more perfect union, the civic and moral duty of a leader would be to choose the Republic over his or her constituents.

That’s what we might hope would happen, but the Greek philosopher Plato had little confidence in the self-correcting conscience of democracy, and for two main reasons. First, the people themselves are notoriously temperamental and capricious, driven by the urgency of their appetites and passions. Their animal nature frequently undermines and corrupts clear thinking and the ability to discriminate between truth and illusion, between what is truly good and what only feels good.

Because of this, they are especially susceptible to being deceived – by their senses, by the broken logic and subjective certainty of their own beliefs, and by others who mislead them with seductive rhetoric, emotional reasoning, fake news and conspiracy theories.

It’s important to understand that Plato didn’t just regard “the people” in this way, but all people – any person and every human being has this part of them which is moved by compulsions that are neither rational, reasonable, or all that socially responsible. Even political leaders are included, of course, leading to Plato’s second reason for doubting the long-term viability of democracy.

An elected leader is someone who must be sufficiently wise in the virtues of community and the skills of diplomacy, but also wise to his or her own baser inclinations, including their secret or not-so-secret ambitions for popularity, power, and re-election. How can the rest of us know that an elected leader is in possession of such an honest self-awareness and the enlightened devotion to what it will take for all of us to reach the promised land? Listen to what they say and watch what they do, and perhaps their true character will become evident.

Because we are all pretty good at faking that, at least for a while, Plato wasn’t too sure. Even an all-wise philosopher-king will need to prove himself.

Plato’s doubts over democracy are just now (and once again) proving prophetic. Republican leaders across all three branches of government are pandering to their constituents, and quite willfully not only disregarding but acting in brazen opposition to the principles of democracy itself.

Lingering and resurgent white supremacist values in their voter base are compelling the interference of these politicians in civil rights legislation for people of color. Republican leaders are unwilling to condemn bizarre conspiracy theories as nonsense and call out those who spread them on social media.

Even after “the will of the people” erupted in a mob insurrection at the US Capitol in Washington, DC on January 6, 2021 – incited by Donald Trump’s refusal to concede his election loss and his exhortation to “take back your country” – an overwhelming majority of Republican leaders gave it their quiet endorsement; in some cases even their outspoken support.

In just days from this writing, the US Senate will hear the House’s impeachment case against former president Trump. However, despite overwhelming video evidence (which all Americans saw on their televisions), numerous killed during or dying as a result of the attack, and even the fact that members of Congress were themselves its intended victims, Republican leadership is not likely to indict Trump and thereby controvert the will of their constituents.

They’re hoping for re-election in 2022 and maybe 2024, after all. Isn’t that what politics is all about?

Nevertheless, the Republican party is currently in the throes of collapsing under its own hypocrisy, division, and lack of leadership. A few may emerge on the other side, repentant and resolved to take up the cause of “one nation, indivisible” – but we’ll have to wait and see. If they do find their souls again and take their place as true leaders, their future re-election by the “will of the people” may well be at risk.

But isn’t that the challenge of leadership? After the election, you will at times have to choose between doing what the people want and doing what is best for them.

By their wisdom, courage, and devotion to a nation for all of us, such leaders can inspire the rest of us to live by the light of our higher nature as well.

In such fashion, a more perfect union slowly becomes our reality.

The Social Challenge of Jesus

In Insurrection and Epiphany I tried to explain what was truly revolutionary about Jesus of Nazareth, focusing on his message and revelation of “unconditional forgiveness.” That exact term wasn’t used by him, but the gospel stories about him and the stories he told (called parables) both imply and explicitly declare a new understanding – grounded in a truly transforming experience – of God’s forgiveness as already accomplished and universally granted to human beings, everywhere and without exception.

The conventional model in which forgiveness played an important part was, and still is, transactional in nature. According to its logic, the offender (or sinner) has to satisfy some basic conditions before the one who was offended, injured, exploited or betrayed has the prerogative to grant or withhold forgiveness. As encouragement to the would-be forgiver, as well as acknowledgment of a reasonable limit, the Judaism of Jesus’ day had counseled the pardon of such a repentant offender up to but not exceeding three repeated offenses. Beyond that, the offender’s sincerity is clearly in question and no more mercy should be expected.

Jesus was enough of a realist, and sufficiently in touch with his own human inclinations, to observe how this transactional model of forgiveness could never really resolve the key challenge of relationships.

This challenge is centered in the fact of persistent festering feelings in the heart of one who has been offended, injured, exploited or betrayed. Those manipulated conditions of repentance – acknowledging the sin, confessing one’s guilt, petitioning for mercy, and making amends – can be satisfied in their prescribed and proper sequence, with even “religious” scrupulosity, but still leave the offended one unpersuaded and internally unchanged.

In other words, for Jesus forgiveness had to be about more than a conciliatory transaction between the offender and offended, where the ritual of repentance is presumed to satisfy conditions that make it finally possible for the offended one to forgive. “Checking the boxes” of steps taken cannot really touch – and it certainly can’t resolve – the feelings of profound disappointment, justified anger, and vengeful desire in the heart of the one whose dignity, honor, and trust have been violated.

Sooner or later, the need to retaliate and exact retribution will take over – if only as a “therapeutic” vent for all that pent-up frustration. Thus will the wheel of suffering be turned 180°, as the offender-turned-offended one now feels that the balance has been tipped against him. If his enemy doesn’t follow all the steps to satisfy him – which, as Jesus understood, is impossible if emotional appeasement is what he’s really after – the newly offended one will seek his opportunity to put things back to rights.

This is what I call the “retributive reflex,” which in both Jesus’ day and our own is the impulse that divides us and predictably destroys community.

All of that is a necessary preamble for an appreciation of what Jesus taught about forgiveness and exemplified in his own life. In contrast to the familiar transactional model of relationships, he advocated for a transformational one, where the rupture of trust caused by the offender’s betrayal is acknowledged as fundamentally beyond the “repair” of following steps and satisfying the conditions of a formal pardon.

Jesus realized that genuine liberation from the retributive reflex and its perpetual wheel of suffering can come only as the offended one is willing to “let go” (the literally meaning of forgive) of the need for revenge and appeasement.

It’s important to note that such an unconditional forgiveness (granted without preconditions) does not necessarily excuse the offender from accountability for his or her actions. Reparations may still be required in order to make up for the damage, theft, or injury that was caused.

The difference – and it is indeed a transformational difference – is that the drive for vengeance and its corresponding demand for propitiation are inwardly resolved and preemptively released by the offended one.

Such a move allows for a form of justice that is truly restorative: treating partners as responsible co-operators, holding them accountable for their actions, resolving conflict and misunderstandings, working for compromise, and restoring both sides to equal partnership in the ongoing work of making their relationship and the community around them stronger.

When Jesus said, in effect, that humanity’s debt to God was forgiven, that God had released them from the work of having to appease and satisfy God’s wrath before they could enjoy the fullness of God’s love in perfect freedom, he was dropping a seed of spiritual transformation in the soil of our collective consciousness.

In his day, such a radical (literally “at the roots”) insight and teaching was not only incompatible with the dominant ideology and everyday assumptions of social life, it was revolutionary – as it still is in our own.

The institutional religion that eventually formed in his name failed, for the most part, to incorporate and procreate his insight into its identity and mission – even to the point of cancelling it completely in its doctrine of salvation. Jesus had to die on a cross (so goes the theory) in order that God’s wrath against a sinful humanity could be placated and we could be made acceptable by his vicarious punishment on our behalf.

In other words, forgiveness is conditional and transactional. The gospel or “good news” that Jesus announced to the world was effectively cut from its roots.

One wonders how Jesus would fit into a social, political, and economic system like ours. Would he endorse capitalism with its values of a free market and private property? Would he promote a form of socialism with its priority of protecting equal access to public goods for all citizens? Or would he advocate for a communist society instead, where the principle of “from each according to ability, to each according to need” (Marx) governs the nation?

Would Jesus be a Democrat, a Republican, or an Independent? Conservative, Liberal, Progressive or Nostalgic? Given that a favorite metaphor of his was the monarchical “kingdom of God,” would he even commend our democratic ideals and sensibilities?

I think we are asking the wrong questions. It’s not about where Jesus would fit in our existing systems, what kind of society he would be happiest in, or which way he would vote. The question we should be asking is, What would happen to the world as we know it, if his transformational insight of unconditional forgiveness were given a chance to grow? When it comes down to it, Jesus wasn’t so interested in social, political, or economic systems as much as he was in human relationships.

When human relationships change, so goes the world.


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Insurrection and Epiphany

On January 6, 2021, a mob of insurrectionists stormed the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. They had been assembled at a staging area some blocks from the Capitol, called the Ellipse, to hear Republican party leaders and President Trump rehearse their grievances over the November 3 election results (Trump lost). Trump had persuaded them to believe that, in fact, the election had been “stolen” from him, and further that they should “fight” for their country.

After he exhorted their march on the Capitol to interfere with the congressional certification of Electoral College results, the crowd-turned-mob invaded the building, vandalized its sacred interiors, hunted for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and called for the hanging of Vice President Mike Pence. They also inflicted violence on Capitol police that left one officer and four civilians dead.

Inside the lower chamber of the House of Representatives, the charismatic “shaman” of the conspiracy movement QAnon removed his bison-horned hat and offered a prayer, in Jesus’ name, for the success of their effort and Trump’s legitimate reign.

Others with him in the chamber bowed their heads and uplifted their hands in the Pentecostal posture of worship.

This date happened to be the “Twelfth Day of Christmas,” also known as Epiphany, celebrated by many Christians as the day when Three Kings came to visit the Carpenters in Bethlehem and the baby Jesus was thereupon revealed (epiphany refers to an appearance or manifestation) to the Gentile world.

It’s not just curious but deeply concerning how often Jesus is invoked by some people to bless and grant victory to their campaigns of violence, and then to receive their worship and thanksgiving when the objective has been achieved.

After his retinue of police brutally pushed aside Black Lives Matter protestors in Lafayette Square with batons and flash-bang grenades on June 1, 2020, President Trump made his way past the steps of a Christian church, stood solemnly and held up a Bible – the same holy book upon which every congress person swears an oath of service to our Constitution.

Granted, the Bible and Jesus are not exactly equivalent – except in some popular forms of Christianity where the Bible is literally God-in-words and Jesus is the Word-in-flesh, and both are close enough to God to be essentially the same. Whereas the Bible is really a collection of writings produced over a period of nearly 1,200 years and reflecting very different (even contradictory) conceptions of God, there is deeper agreement among scholars about the historical figure of Jesus.

So, what do we know about him? And how does the profile of certain or near-certain facts about Jesus square with the beliefs held by many Americans, even Christians, and also by those QAnon seditionists who praised his name on the Day of Epiphany?

Well, we know that Jesus wasn’t white, obviously not Anglo-Saxon, and certainly not a Christian in the sense of belonging to a church and believing in himself as an article of orthodox doctrine. He wasn’t wealthy, not a capitalist, nor did he own a house or property. And although he appears to have started his ministry with a focus on restoring the spirit of his own Jewish people, Jesus wasn’t a bigot, a racist, a misogynist, or a xenophobe.

Also, contrary to some later christological definitions of Christian orthodoxy, Jesus wasn’t God in disguise, the endtime destroyer of sinners, the warrior-king of the Crusades, or the patron deity of our American prosperity gospel. These are later reconstructions that were used to ordain and justify actions, worldviews, and ways of life that take us in the exact opposite direction from where Jesus himself stood and intended to go.

Nevertheless, it is clear that the insurrectionists on Epiphany 2021 were devoted to such an amalgamated makeover of Jesus in their own image.

We can do more than separate Jesus from qualities, associations, and beliefs that he certainly didn’t hold, however. What then do we know?

We know that Jesus was a Jew of the peasant class, from a small city in Lower Galilee called Nazareth, born and raised in a household of seven siblings, the son of an artisan named Joseph and his wife, Mary. In early adulthood, he became an erstwhile disciple of a prophet named John, whose Riverside Baptist community attracted many who were seeking a fresh start and a new direction in life. John’s message was a threat of punishment against sinners, along with the promise of forgiveness for any who would repent (“turn back” to God) and clean up their act.

Jesus soon departed for his own ministry and began proclaiming an almost unbelievable message, one that turned John’s inside-out.

At his first synagogue sermon and in subsequent teachings, Jesus declared that God’s forgiveness was already a done deal – given preemptively and universally, to everyone. John’s turn-around of repentance was now reconceived as a turn of astonished joy and gratitude for this truly unconditional (and undeserved because no “confession of sin” was required beforehand) act of forgiveness.

This resolution of love for one’s enemy, releasing vengeance – to forgive means “to let go” – and returning the transforming power of kindness to another’s hurtful intention, is the center of Jesus’ gospel and what he was all about. He expected that anyone who really accepts God’s unconditional forgiveness will become in turn a liberative force in their personal relationships and in society as a whole. He saw the human future through a completely new lens.

Other people through the centuries since – not murderous mobs, white supremacists, or dogmatic bigots – have gotten the message and committed themselves to living in the “way of Jesus.”

They aren’t perfect, and never have been or claimed to be. And if Jesus expected perfection from his disciples and friends, it was to be perfect (i.e., absolute and uncompromising) in their love for each other and for their enemies – “as your heavenly father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48; but also see the parallel passage of Luke 6:36 where the word is “merciful”).

With that historically grounded and revolutionary picture of Jesus before us, we can now take up the question of whether Jesus was behind and on the side of those who spun false narratives leading up to January 6 and used deadly violence against their enemies. Of course, our answer will apply also to those who even today continue with the same campaign, in Jesus’ name.

Whomever may have received the worship of those with bowed heads and raised hands in the House chamber that day, we can be sure it wasn’t Jesus.

American Voices

Just now, Americans don’t know what to do with each other. After the legitimate election of a new president, those who supported his opponent attempted an insurrection of the US government. The election loser had spent all four years of his presidency undermining public trust in the news media, scientific credibility, cultural diversity, and their own fellow citizens. So when he called on his followers to interfere with the election process, they did; and when the result didn’t go their way, they revolted.

Needless to say, this isn’t how democracy is supposed to work.

I’m not an expert on the topic by any measure, but I feel such an urgency in the need to recover our American soul and repair the fabric of our American society, that I want to offer a perspective which might help us get oriented in the important work before us.

I’m sure that the solution will not come by a process of elimination – of defeating, discrediting, and silencing voices of dissent from the debate over who we are as a nation.

If American democracy is anything, it is – and must continue to be – a productive conversation among different voices and value systems, working together toward compromises that work for everyone.

A major challenge has to do with the fact that some of us don’t want democracy. Some of these have no real vision of what they want instead, making them susceptible to apocalyptic conspiracy theories and mob anarchy. They are easily suckered into believing in things like a “deep state” of cannibalistic Democrats who abduct and traffick children, space aliens who are coming to take over the earth, or that Jesus is going to come on the clouds and save them from this mess someday soon.

I’ve suggested elsewhere that a generalized anxiety in such true believers is what gets cathected into the object of their fanatical devotion, giving focus and direction to an otherwise unmanagable neurotic energy. In this post, however, I don’t want to get pulled into a rabbit hole of trying to diagnose the causes and conditions behind conspiracy thinking – though, no doubt, its devotees can be a real danger to the rest of us.

Instead, let’s come back to democracy, this productive conversation committed to working toward compromises that work for everyone.

Democracy is actually one of three paradigms of governance, holding its space along a continuum with two others. Authoritarian governance concentrates power and control at the top of a vertical hierarchy of command. In order to work, a general compliance must be enforced down the chain of command, all the way to the ground where individuals are almost completely bereft of their freedoms. This form of government typically either gets locked in place by an act of forceful take-over, or the people get seduced into surrendering their liberties to someone who vows to rule providently on their behalf.

As history teaches, that rarely lasts for very long.

At the other end of the continuum is communitarian governance, which seeks to include and involve everyone in the work of achieving consensus. In the ideal version, there is no hierarchy and everyone shares equally in the benefits and responsibilties of communal life. As you might guess, such an arrangement has been difficult to realize and virtually impossible to maintain over any significant length of time. At some point, the arbitration for a fair distribution of resources and enforcement of justice begins its ascent into some, typically elected, governing body or individual.

It would seem that the attraction of having somebody in control is extremely difficult to resist.

With the poles of our continuum now set, we can get a better sense of where the paradigm of democratic governance sits with respect to the authoritarian and communitarian models. Its central work of building compromise among different perspectives and value systems exhibits the non-extremist virtues of the other alternative types of government: in recognizing the importance of including everyone in the process (the communitarian virtue) while providing vision and direction from a centralized authority (the authoritarian virtue), in an administrative body of elected representatives.

As society grows more diverse, with various pocket-cultures starting to form and compete for control, democracy is tempted toward more authoritarian solutions. In more stable and peaceful times, communitarian ideals can inspire new visions of that “more perfect union.”

But for the most part, in the creative tension that characterizes all healthy societies, democratic compromise charts a more interesting, engaged, and sustainable path than the others. The trick to making it work, however, is in understanding the principal voices that need to be included, and what each voice brings to the table.

In addition to the familiar Conservative, Liberal, and Progressive voices I have added a fourth, the Nostalgic voice, whose priorities pull in the opposite direction of the progressive voice. In what follows, I will summarize the special contribution of each voice and suggest how their “conversation” can make American democracy stronger.

Conservatives and Liberals have been knocking each other for decades, with each one accusing the other of undermining our American Experiment.

By definition – which is always a good place to start – a Conservative is someone who seeks to conserve or “hold on” to what’s been working so far … or at least was working not too long ago. By defending traditional ways and values, Conservatives also, at times unwittingly but at others with full intent, work to strengthen or restore the establishment of authority from earlier times. For this reason, I have placed an arrow of sympathetic influence from the Conservative voice towards more authoritarian forms of governance, which characterized many or most traditional societies (chiefdoms, monarchies, and empires) of the premodern period.

A Conservative’s popular opponent is the Liberal who, by definition again, seeks to liberate or “open up” the boundaries that divide society along the lines of wealth, race, religion, sex and current definitions of what is regarded as “normal.” With changes in the demographic landscape of society, Liberals believe that the rules around power, access, and representation need to change accordingly. Their social principles inspire them to challenge and seek to change all definitions that alienate, isolate, or disenfranchise any citizen.

In my diagram, an arrow of sympathetic influence identifies a leaning in the Liberal voice towards communitarian ideals.

A Liberal voice in democracy also frequently trends in the direction of Progressive concerns, with an interest in making progress and “moving ahead” into a more advanced and enlightened society. Progressive solutions to social problems tend to favor more full-scale and comprehensive collective action, seeking universal access to public goods like healthcare and education. The arrow of sympathetic influence for the Progressive points in the direction of a future utopia.

Progressives and Conservatives often can’t even get to the table for dialogue, since their respective visions of cultural stability or social change draw on very different vocabularies.

Pulling in the exact opposite direction of Progressives is what I’m calling the Nostalgic voice, from the root meaning of longing for home and “going back” to a golden age when things were as they are meant to be. Looking back in time with nostalgia can preserve the memory of something lost along the way, and the mere act of remembrance might at times provide the discernment needed to meet the challenges of today.

In the constructive conversation of democracy, the Nostalgic voice offers an anchorline back to a paradisal society which, even if it never actually existed, clarifes the “gold” of timeless ideals out of the ambiguous prima materia of our life in time.

As the throughline among the four voices of constructive democracy illustrates, each voice is connected, directly or indirectly, to the others, while each voice is also pulled (or tempted) into a preoccupation all its own. At the heart of democracy, however, is a respectful disagreement but co-equal commitment to compromise, between Conservatives who want a table with a sturdy foundation, and Liberals who request a place at the table for everyone.

Becoming Whole

In his important work The Birth of Tragedy (1872), Friedrich Nietzsche interpreted the dynamism of ancient Greece as a tension between two principles, which he saw represented in the gods Apollo and Dionysus. Apollo, the celebrated solar god of light, logic, and the visual arts, stood in mythologic opposition to Dionysus, the equally celebrated (but usually at night) god of wine, dance, and music. Nietzsche proposed that Greece and subsequent Western culture can be understood, if not exactly comprehended, as the struggle between these two principles, coming to theatrical form in the great Attic tragedies of the 5th century BCE.

Nietzsche’s notorious contempt for Socrates was based on how that philosopher championed the ascendancy of rational, calculating, and strategic thinking (the skills of logic) over our emotional, spontaneous, and intuitive experience (the force of feeling). With the rise of technical reason and science, both capitalizing on the mind’s objective distancing from reality, our more primal and embodied creative passions were gradually suppressed in pursuit of knowledge.

Indeed, Nietzsche himself took up the revolution on behalf of Dionysus and his wild iconoclastic (image-shattering) ecstacies, fulfilled, he believed, in his emancipative “will to power.”

There is a fascinating analogue of Nietzsche’s Apollonian-Dionysian tension in what we have learned about the human brain. Its right and left hemispheres are distinguished by the very different ways they process information, interpret experience, and engage with reality. In fact, our brain’s two hemipheres carry almost exactly the same counter-values as did Dionysus and Apollo of Greek mythology.

Our right hemisphere is more active in the early months and years of life, establishing sympathic connections with our mother and other family relations. Interestingly there are more downward neural projections in the right hemisphere to our body and its visceral state than there are in the left. Emotional attachment and an intuitive sense of security (or anxiety) are facilitated more in the right side of our brain than the left.

The spontaneous (“always now”) quality of experience is something we see in young children, and can perhaps still remember from our own early life.

Around the years 4-7 our brain development starts to shift decisively to the left. During this time we are active in mastering language, using technology, memorizing procedures, and navigating the artificial systems of social life. This “consensus reality” of our culture is really a logical construct of meaning that we all agree on and cooperate within. We must quickly become proficient in the skills of critical thinking and object relations, how to calculate values and work out strategies for getting around in the world.

This might be where we spend the rest of our life: firmly settled in the left hemisphere, managing our roles, our goals, and the social identity we have taken on. To Nietzsche – and I tend to agree with him on this – a life that is well-managed, locked in routines and standing in lines, is not really much of a life. Certainly it’s not a full life, not the fullness of life, or a very fulfilling life.

This realization descends upon many like a hammer at midlife, when we are coming to terms with the fact that our life is more than half over. Or it might crash in on us as we near retirement, only to realize that we don’t really know who we are – or perhaps that we’ve been so invested in managing who we are that we’ve lost our soul or true self.

These are typical phases in life when our left-sided obsessions suddenly feel hollow, empty, and pointless; but it can happen any time.

Such disillusionment can be profoundly unsettling, and it may compel us to grip down with determination to “make this thing work.” But if the natural course of our development intends to move us beyond where we happen to be, and have been perhaps for quite some time, “making it work” is only likely to deepen our distress and disorientation. For a while we may impose left-sided (rational, strategic, top-down) solutions, but these can’t resolve our problem, simply because they can’t see what the problem really is.

Instead of thinking of it as a “problem,” however, I propose that we can much more productively see it as an opportunity – to wake up, break through, and finally become whole. In the illustration above I have added a vertical axis to Nietzche’s horizontal polarity of Dionysian and Apollonian principles. This second axis represents the polarity of our spiritual intelligence, which I will identify with the archetypes of Buddha and Christ.

Our right-to-left crisis, I am suggesting, can find its resolution only by a transformational shift to the (vertical) dynamics of spirituality.

Buddha personifies the contemplative, grounded, and mystical dimension of consciousness. Because it invites us – I could just as well say it “requires” us – to release our attachment to personal identity (ego), personal beliefs, and our personal construct of meaning (the world we inhabit), this contemplative descent of consciousness to its own ground finally comes to rest in a mystery below the reach of words. This is what the term “mystical” connotes, from muein, meaning “to close” (the mouth) or to render one speechless.

Deep within, in the grounding mystery of being-itself, is where our soul resides. There are no words here, no thoughts even. Just a sense of boundless presence and undisturbed tranquillity, captured in the Buddhist term nirvana: “no wind,” like a placid pond where the thousand-petaled lotus rests in quiet solitude.

At the opposite pole is the archtype of Christ, who personifies the transpersonal, communal, and ethical dimension of consciousness. Ascending the axis also invites us beyond the ego, but in this case it will be included (not released) in a unity of beings (rather than the ground of Being), where our unique identity participates in and contributes to a higher wholeness. The term “ethical,” from ethos, refers to the unique spirit or character of community and each individual’s responsibility to it.

The symbol of a chalice comes directly out of the story of Jesus (honored as “the Christ”), who was celebrated (as well as condemned by critics) for his practice of inviting to the table any who would come to break bread and share his cup of wine. In Christianity this is still commemorated in the sacrament of the Eucharist, which effectively unites in one community all who partake, as Jesus himself originally intended.

Because the dynamic of this unity is transpersonal, transcending and shared among persons, this is where spirit is active, as the breath or wind (spiritus) that moves among them.

All together the archetypes of Dionysus, Apollo, Buddha and Christ provide an intriguing matrix for understanding our human journey. Growing from children into adults, finding our way in the world, eventually realizing there must be more, and then possibly waking up to authentic life: each of us is somewhere on the adventure of becoming whole.

Alone in the Middle of Everything

Because the adventure of becoming somebody requires its own separate workspace, the entire project along with its product, a unique identity named “I” or ego, has prompted two very different judgments on the matter. Conventional religion typically regards the separate ego – conceived as estranged from its proper and original communion with god – as in need of rescue and reconciliation. More psychologically oriented spiritualities, on the other hand, often treat ego consciousness as an illusion to be dispelled on the path to enlightenment.

In this blog I try to chart a middle way between these opposites. This middle way is not about a third perspective on the problem of our self-conscious identity, but seeks rather to show how these others are on to something, but in fact misunderstand their own central insights.

Ego is a social construction and therefore not real, in the sense of having an essential nature of its own. Its construction advances by a process called sublimation, where the native consciousness and instincts of the body are trained into conformity with our tribe’s moral code. Naturally spontaneous impulses are thereby restrained (held back) and redirected into channels of behavior that are obedient to its definitions of a “good person” and “right action.”

The approved result of this social engineering is our individual persona, the identity (literally a mask) we present and carefully manage in the company of others. Prohibited, discouraged, and unacceptable aspects of ourselves, on the other hand, are suppressed (pushed down) and kept “off stage,” where they gather into our shadow.

If the split in our personality between the welcomed persona and the alienated shadow is severe enough, we can get caught in a neurotic spiral of insecurity, guilt, shame, and self-doubt. Inevitably these rejected parts of ourselves get projected outward onto others, where we feel justified in passionately condemning and attacking them without having to acknowledge their true source.

Now, that’s all a mess, or it can be, and it begins to make sense how some religions and spiritual traditions might regard ego itself as the chief problem. Either deliver it out of the body and safely to heaven, or else disqualify it as nothing more than a seductive mirage.

A middle way defends the importance of ego consciousness in the big picture of human evolution, but identifies it as a staging point on the longer course of our spiritual awakening. Without the establishment of a unique identity, separate from others and standing on its own center of self-conscious reference, consciousness itself would remain fully immersed in the web of existence (see my illustration above).

The image of a web is the perfect representation of the way things are. Science, too, has confirmed, again and again, how the universe is not merely “made up” of many parts but is itself a “whole system,” where nothing is truly separate from everything else. Our body, as a sentient, organic, and material system in its own right, is inextricably “wired into” this fabric or matrix of existence.

So, by sublimating a small portion of the body’s consciousness into a “side show” of reflexive self-conscious awareness, the resulting construct of identity (ego = “I”) comes to inhabit a delusion of its own separate existence.

Ego, therefore, is not something that can be rescued, for the simple reason that it lacks an essential nature – it isn’t real, but only a social construction. But because our self-conscious identity is to some extent a captive of its own neurotic disorders, there is some sense in which it is in need of salvation. So, conventional religion is on to something, although it makes the mistake of making ego’s salvation the main focus of concern.

On the other side, the spiritual traditions correctly see that personal identity lacks an essential nature. But they make the mistake of dismissing it as nothing but an obscuring illusion to be renounced and thrown aside.

In fact, it is from this admittedly illusory and delusional position of ego’s separate existence that consciousness has the opportunity of returning to reality, along two complementary but opposite paths. One path descends from ego’s center of identity and deeper into the grounding mystery of our embodied existence – thereby also deeper into communion with being-itself.

This is the realm of “soul,” which in many religions is confused with the ego; or perhaps it is rather that ego impersonates the soul out of envy of its peaceful repose in the ever-present (eternal-immortal) ground of being.

A second path doesn’t drop away from ego, but instead uses its position as a jumping-off point where self-consciousness can connect and join with others in transpersonal unity. This liberation beyond the confines of our delusion of separateness involves a fascinating dialectic: of leaping beyond personal identity even as it is taken up and included within a higher wholeness.

This mode of consciousness does not rest quietly in the depths of our being but is instead expressive, outgoing, relational, and creative – in a word, communal – which is why it is named “spirit,” from an ancient root meaning breath, air, and wind.

What are called “soul” and “spirit,” then, are complementary modes of consciousness: as it releases from ego and drops into a deeper communion with being (soul), or transcends ego into the higher wholeness of genuine community (spirit).

It should be obvious by now that the “farther reaches of human nature” (Abraham Maslow) depend for their realization on the construction of a personal identity and its executive ego, which paradoxically consigns us to an existential situation where we are alone in the middle of everything and confronted with our own Nothingness. Think of how much of our best art and philosophy find their inspiration in the tensions of this paradox.

It is precisely this situation that some religions have been hard at work to rescue us from, and which some spiritual teachings have advised us to provisionally regard but ultimately deny as a symptom of “fallen consciousness.”

I want to show that ego consciousness is, in fact, an advanced stage in the evolution of consciousness itself. But instead of rescue or denial, what we need is sufficient ego strength to drop away and leap beyond ourselves for an authentic engagement with reality.

As the ancient myths have been telling us for some time, our pursuit of personal identity and meaning is but a stage on a longer, much higher adventure.

Reality, Truth, and the Things We Believe

The favorite location of ego is in the silo “observatory” of our logical mind – in the head, in other words. This is the place where self-consciousness takes, or can take, its perspective on reality, engaging in the work of constructing and maintaining a world, which in this context refers to the construct of meaning that each of us, as a self-conscious individual, inhabits and defends.

I say that ego “can” take its perspective from that vantage point because, while the work of constructing a world certainly begins up there, it’s not long before we start thinking that we have all the information we need and proceed to draw our conclusions, close the windows, and lock the mind inside our convictions.

This is when our beliefs, along with the behavior they motivate and justify, can become pathological. Our logical mind is no longer taking a perspective and constructing meaning in reference to reality, but has instead been commandeered by the insecure ego and its desperate need – broadcasted outwardly as an imperious demand – that its closed-off view of things is the way things really are.

We happen to have some egregious examples of this closed-minded, trapped-in-conviction type of ego pathology featured in the U.S. national news right now.

These individuals cannot accept reality because it doesn’t match up to the world construct in their minds. They fall easily into conspiracy-thinking and become victims of delusion. And if the conspiracy they have fallen for is sufficiently extreme and apocalyptic, they will not hesitate to endorse or commit violence – which, of course, will be spun in their own minds as heroic action – for the sake of “the truth.”

What has to occur for someone to lose their perspective on reality and get caught in conspiracy-thinking? The explanation is not that they are stupid or gullible pushovers; many of them are intelligent enough to know better – but for some reason they don’t.

Perhaps we can reach some clarity on that question by first considering another, more foundational one: What makes a belief claim true? Indeed, what is truth? Popular consensus regards truth as “out there,” as just another word for objective reality, the simple facts, or the way things really are.

Truth in this sense is something to find – ferret out, dig up, bring into focus, or put our hands on. Given that a belief is not outside us in that sense but instead inside our mind, it would be erroneous to call a belief “the truth.” A belief about a fact is not the same as the fact itself.

Let’s just accept the idea that a fact simply is, that something is a fact quite apart from our attention on it or whatever we might think and believe about it. It is what it is, and our belief about it is something else – an observation, an opinion, a judgment, a story that carries some interpretation of what it means.

Truth is neither the fact by itself nor the belief in our mind, but a measure of how realistic, reality-oriented, or in touch with reality our belief happens to be. The truer a belief, the closer it gets our mind to the way things really are.

It’s possible for a belief to be meaningful but not true. A (false) belief can be very meaningful but lack any contact with or orientation to reality. Granted, a majority of the stories we love to listen to, tell to others, watch on the stage or screen, and read in books are in the category of “fictional,” referring to a narrative that is shaped, molded, and “made up” by the human mind. Such stories and the beliefs they may induce in us might be true in another sense, as expressive of the storyteller’s inner reality. Religious myths and poetry are examples of “fictional truth.”

So, we have made a critical distinction between truth as a measure of proximity, transparency, and mediation which a belief exhibits by some degree with respect to reality, the given facts, and the way things really are. A fact is not a statement, but some objective reality that the statement presumes to describe, define, or interpret. If a claim is made about something allegedly real – perhaps a conspiracy ring of Democrats, human trafficking, pedophilia, and cannibalism – then the truth of that claim is judged on the basis of evidence, of real facts that substantiate it and bear it out.

That particular bit of conspiracy-thinking has absolutely no basis in reality, no factual evidence to support it. Then why would anyone buy into it?

Typically some “evidence” is provided in the form of photographs and testimonies – not by someone the soon-to-be-true-believer personally knows and lives with, but likely conveyed on social media in the form of some viral online post. To be clear, a photograph or testimony is not really evidence but only a kind of claim that something is real. Since no one has actually met a child-trafficking cannibalistic Democrat, the supposed conspiracy ring is a pure fabrication with no basis in fact – except, perhaps, in the fact of the believer’s disgust with and animosity toward Democrats and what they represent.

A false claim would not be persuasive to a mind that isn’t already possessed by irrational fears of the dreaded thing. The fantastical and apocalyptic tenor of the claim will only be persuasive to someone who is already on the verge of feeling overwhelmed by the ambiguity and uncertainty of things.

But reality is itself ambiguous (shades of grey and not black-and-white) and beyond the certain grasp of our minds.

Any person who suffers with generalized anxiety will eagerly reach for anything that promises to break it all down into managable pieces – especially if those pieces are the elements of a conspiracy theory promising to resolve their anxiety in some dramatic, decisive – even violent and gruesome – way.

Those who invent and spread conspiracy theories of this kind can rightly be named “ideological terrorists,” for the way they seek by inception to plant a viral idea into the minds of those who are especially susceptible and “eager to believe.” A preposterous conspiracy theory like that promulgated by “QAnon” does its work by stirring the fears that some folks have over a perceived slide of American democracy into a socialist and, eventually, communist state.

Exactly what this would mean is not altogether clear to them, but at the very least it would deprive them as citizens of their civil liberties, economic opportunities, and the authority to protect and determine the future of their children. In this way, Democrats (as proponents of top-down government interventions), trafficking pedophiles (who threaten to take our children) and cannibals (in order to kill and eat them), are operating as metaphors – but which they take quite literally.

Their fears are rooted in deeper – we can even say more respectable and legitimate – concerns, but it’s the horrific imagery that mobilizes their hostility against the Democratic party.

At the very least, this is all a lesson in human credulity – of how easily we lose contact with reality and start believing things that are fantastical, delusional, outlandish, and simply not true. The combination of our own native insecurity and uncertainty over what’s farther out and up ahead is a fuse just waiting to be lit.

Dawn of a New Age

In The Progress of Wisdom and Curriculum Spiritus I offered a perspective on religion as the incubator of spiritual wisdom, discovered and clarified by our species over the millenniums of so-called higher culture.* I argued for what can be named the “originary principles” of wisdom, highlighting not only the historically original revelations by which they broke into our collective consciousness, but also to make the point that these wisdom principles have continued their transformative and evolutionary influence upon subsequent generations.

Not all generations, however, and only a relatively few individuals have been willing to download this spiritual wisdom from the “cloud” of higher consciousness.

Thinking of it that way – as mystical intuitions and ethical ideals that are discovered (or revealed) at particular historical moments by living individuals who clarify and manifest them in actual life, effectively “uploading” these principles (intuitions and ideals) into the collective consciousness of not only their contemporary generation but our entire species, and ready thereafter for subsequent “downloads” by individuals of future generations, whereupon they can continue their transforming influence on our life together in community – brings our consideration back around to the role of religion in the whole adventure.

My aim in the present post is to elucidate the full and evolving system of these originary principles of spiritual wisdom, extracted from their historical chapters (in this or that religion) and presented in such a way that their genetic and developmental logic can be clearly seen.

First, let’s get our bearings in the graphic above. The middle column contains the major advancing stages, moving upward from bottom, in the curriculum spiritus or path of spiritual wisdom, along with symbols associated with the historical religions by which its four originary principles first entered our collective consciousness (Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam).

Each wisdom principle further extended but also stretched the limits of the preceding one(s), generating a creative tension among them that continues to drive human transformation.

On either side of each originary principle are arranged what I’ll call key virtues which together provide definition and practical application in our understanding of it. We will look at these eight key virtues more closely below. Zooming out a step or two will reveal the whole system as facilitating the circulation of spiritual energy, inwardly rooted by “faith” in the grounding mystery of being, and actualizing outward in “service” to the higher wholeness of genuine community.

As an important disclaimer, I want to repeat my caution against identifying the four historical religions with the originary principle each had, once upon a time, been instrumental in clarifying and conveying into the transcultural stream of spiritual wisdom. This is where it’s important to distinguish between the spiritual life-force of a religion and its historical accretions of sacred tradition: holy texts, institutional authorities, moral precepts, ritual practices, and orthodox beliefs.

Every honest and fervent quest for the “essence” of this or that historical religion has been in search of this spiritual life-force, the “originary” experience that got it all going to begin with, and which continues to inspire its more truthful and tranforming moments.

Sadly, all religions – even the four featured in the curriculum spiritus – fall out of alignment from time to time, and some might even forfeit their souls in pursuit of infallible authority, absolute truth, global supremacy, or some such delusion.

For my own tradition, I can say that Christianity has lost its soul again and again, occasionally recovering some sense of itself but perhaps never fully catching the vision and revolutionary message of Jesus for any significant length of time. Thanks to his courageous demonstration of unconditional forgiveness, however, this originary principle of spiritual wisdom was successfully uploaded and now awaits its download by any who are ready to follow his example and live, as we say, “in the spirit of Jesus.”

Fidelity as Faith and Responsibility

A sacred promise and commitment (in Jewish and Christian religions known as a covenant) that keeps partners engaged in the work of relationship requires their mutual fidelity. On one side, this fidelity, or covenant faithfulness, is rooted in the faith that each partner has in the provident nature of reality. Faith should not be confused with the collection of doctrinal tenets that one may believe, or that are shared and professed by members of a religion. Its etymology goes far below such professions of belief, reaching to that deep inner space where ego has been left behind and the soul rests in the grounding mystery of being.

Outwardly – and the circulatory flow of this entire system of originary principles and key virtues is outward/upward on the righthand side, and inward/downward on the left – convenant fidelity is fulfilled in each partner’s responsibility to their mutual benefit. They are responsible, that is to say, not exactly to each other but to the health and longevity of their relationship. As their reciprocal affections naturally ebb and flow, this responsibility to their partnership holds them together, keeping them engaged in the work of relationship.

Compassion as Empathy and Kindness

The em- in empathy invites us inward again, to a deep level of intimate self-awareness. While each of us experiences life as contextualized by a unique set of circumstances, our experiences themselves are profoundly the same. We all know (or come to know) what it is to feel lost, confused, betrayed, abandoned, bereaved, ridiculed, ashamed, injured, sick, weak, lonely and without hope; to be at our wits’ end. Our own inner acquaintance with such experience-induced feelings primes our sympathy for others who are going (or have gone) through similar things. The Latin-derived word “compassion” and the Greek-derived word “sympathy” have an identical meaning, as the sensitive understanding of someone else’s experience based on this deep acquaintance with our own.

True compassion cannot remain a bystander to another’s suffering, but further motivates us to reach out, step in, and stand with them in their experience. Kindness is the outgoing positive energy that seeks to assist, encourage, liberate, and uplift the other. In the vision of Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha), this compassionate energy of kindness is intended not just for those in desperate need, but for all people; and not for other humans only, but “all sentient beings.” In that respect the originary principle of compassion is universal in scope.

Forgiveness as Integrity and Freedom

Up a step and back to the left, we see that forgiveness, which in Greek literally means “to let go,” is a function of our individual integrity. Unless individuals are inwardly centered and whole, they will be susceptible to getting pulled into neurotic attachments, emotional entanglement, and codependent relationships where partners can neither live with each other nor be on their own. It’s this off-centered co-dependent dynamic of leaning into each other that keeps us locked into the “retributive reflex” of score-keeping, paying back, and getting even. Until we get re-centered in ourselves, this dysfunctional and mutually destructive back-and-forth will continue.

Jesus taught and lived by the originary principle of unconditional forgiveness. He exhorted individuals in his audience to stand on their own centers (i.e., have integrity) and respond creatively, graciously, and therefore surprisingly to the hostile intentions and hurtful behavior of others. Having “let go” of the compulsive need to get even, to repay evil with evil, such a person enjoys the freedom to choose a higher road and a better future. The unconditional nature of forgiveness means that it doesn’t wait for the other to “see the light” and repent of his sin, but instead loves him anyway, in total freedom.

Devotion as Surrender and Service

In a recent post I analyzed devotional religion into the three essential moves of surrender, sacrifice, and service – all directed, at least in conventional forms of theism, toward the deity as center and focus of worship. In early and high theism, sacrifice (making offerings to the god) was the most overt of the three, with surrender and service only implied in the sacrificial rite.

Muhammad understood that the ritual performance was actually secondary in importance to the key virtues of surrender and service. The very name Islam refers to the surrender of ego ambitions to the “will of Allah,” which intends peace, harmony, fulfillment and wellbeing. As the culminating stage of the curriculum spiritus, surrender is about the release of consciousness from the conditioned ego, passing through the center of integrity and into the inner chamber of empathic awareness, coming to rest and finding serenity in the grounding mystery of being itself.

The outward manifestation of devotion is service, the last of our key virtues and the one that provides a creative outlet of spirituality into consistent and dedicated action on behalf and for the sake of the greater good – the peace, harmony, fulfillment, and wellbeing mentioned above. The whole framework of originary principles and key virtues of spiritual wisdom – which is to say, the general intention of the curriculum spiritus itself – reveals these as the four transpersonal ideals of genuine community.

As we align our thoughts and aspirations with these ideals, committing ourselves in service to their actualization in our life together, we may at last enjoy the apotheosis of humanity and the dawning of a new age.


*This post is third in a three-part exploration of the spiritual wisdom tradition. I recommend reading them in the order as mentioned for the best grasp on what I’m trying to show.