From Having Answers to Having to Answer

Heschel: “How to save the inner [life] from oblivion – this is the challenge we face. To achieve our goal, we must learn how to activate the soul, how to answer the ultimate, how to relate ourselves to the spirit.”

The cultural atmosphere of the 1960s, as it relates to religion and spirituality, was galvanized by the rediscovery of Nietzsche’s announcement of God’s death – of the mythological god, that is. Major global conflicts, anxieties over communism, and the escalation of racial tensions at home left many utterly disillusioned over whether God was looking out for his favorite nation – or if he even really existed. Speaking through the madman of his parable more than a half-century earlier, Nietzsche realized that his message had been delivered to a generation not ready for it; the 60s were ripe.

Abraham Heschel was a path-breaking proponent of what he called “depth theology” – reconsidering the nature and meaning of God not from the high perch of religious myth and orthodoxy, but out of the deeper ground of the human spiritual experience. As other so-called “neo-orthodox” Christian theologians were working hard to repair the metaphysical realism that Nietzsche had torn down, Heschel was participating in a new wave of religious reflection. These thinkers were really, as I see it, moving Nietzsche’s program into the next step. If he had said “no” to (the mythological) god, they were exploring whether there was any validity to saying “yes” to God-beyond-god.

Heschel observed an emptiness in the inner life of his generation, a stagnancy and disorientation. Once we have let go of the mythological god – the one who created heaven and earth, freed the Hebrews from Egypt, spoke through the prophets and raised Jesus from the grave – are we all alone in a cold and indifferent universe? Some, like the existentialist writer Albert Camus, accepted this absurd condition as our true reality. But Heschel kept faith in God, not as one “up there” or “out there” – an ideal object to the possessive ego – but as a call to freedom and responsibility, coming directly to us from the heart of reality itself.

The mythological god is a character of story, a stage performer who plays to the detached and spectating ego. We read of supernatural acts accomplished in a time not our own, to people not our contemporaries. In our everyday lives we don’t encounter this god of word and deed; we don’t interact with a personality in the way we do with other humans. Put aside for the moment the question of whether miracles actually happened. The issue here is that they are described on the Bible page to a reader-observer: the ego. And in the choice whether or not to believe their veracity, ego is also judge. God is object – “my” object.

Heschel’s radical step was to turn the tables on religion. God is not my object, not one whose existence is to be decided on the basis of evidence, holy scripture, or wishful thinking. God does not exist as other things exist; God is not a thing.

Instead, God is an ultimate question addressed to the soul. In being addressed, the human senses an obligation to answer. This is not about what I believe or to what religion I belong. It is a challenge issued from beyond me; an invitation to authentic life, to sanctify this brief time I have by living fully in the moment. What are you doing with this moment? Where are you going with your life?

If I turn my attention to the emptiness within and listen – not look as an observer but listen in quiet receptivity – the question becomes easier to hear. What I do next is my true religion.

Letting Go of God

Nietzsche: “Why atheism today? It seems to me that the religious instinct is indeed in vigorous growth – but that it rejects the theistic answer with profound mistrust.”

Nietzsche is perhaps best known for his literary persona as the madman, who ran into the marketplace with his lantern looking for God. It’s in that parable that he makes the fateful statement that “God is dead, and we have killed him.” While understandable, it is also unfortunate that Nietzsche has gone down in history as an arch-atheist, an enemy of religion. The above quote makes it clear that he distinguished between theism and religion – the one needing to pass or be pushed into extinction, and the other innately present in human beings as an “instinct.”

Most of Western history has been dominated by a theistic model of religion, which is why Nietzsche’s three cheers for atheism has been heard by many Western readers as a categorical rejection of religion. But theism is only one model, and the evidence of cultural archeology shows convincingly, I think, that it wasn’t the first on the human scene. What I’m calling religion here is a more-or-less systematic way that Nietzsche’s “religious instinct” finds expression in the shared life of a community. The most primitive form of religion was likely some precursor of animism and magic, where natural forces and the rhythms of life were revered. This early religion had a primary correlation with the body and its mysteries.

But as familial clans of early humans diversified into more sophisticated societies, the focal point of human wonder and concern shifted increasingly to tribal dynamics of membership. This is the evolutionary stage where an individual’s identity, or ego, became paramount. Belonging (fitting in) and recognition (standing out) were powerful preoccupations – just as they still are in the developmental stage of adolescence. The theory is that this is also the point in the history of religion when the mythological god was “born” – that is, when god was generated out of the creative imagination and projected into narrative constructs called stories, or myths.

Theism is a belief system organized around the presumed existence of the mythological god. As a literary product of the “religious instinct,” the mythological god exists only in myths – and then only as a metaphor of “the other” who sees me and knows me, who demands my worship and obedience. As my ego-ideal, this god also awakens my deeper potential and attracts my higher nature. So far, so good. But what happens when the mythological god fails to stay ahead of me, developmentally speaking? He becomes oppressive and an obstacle to my evolutionary advancement. God is moralistic and I remain mired in guilt. God is aloof and I am disoriented. God is jealous for glory and I must be nothing.

Obviously this theory of religion’s evolution leaves an open question: Is there a model of religion that might help us appreciate how the religious instinct finds expression at the level of soul? Unlike ego, soul is unconcerned over matters of identity. This spiritual dimension of human life is what opens us to the deeper ground of our being and the greater mystery of our place in the universe. What stands in the way of this expansion of awareness and experience of mystical communion with all things? Nietzsche’s answer is the ego; or rather, that co-dependent relationship of the ego and its mythological god.

If this god can die – if I can find the courage to let go of “my” god – then the possibility arises for the transformation of spirit into a form of religious life that is … Nietzsche called it “atheistic,” but perhaps the better term is “post-theistic.” Theism, along with the myths and the god who inhabits them, must be transcended. Maybe the first act of liberation is saying “no” to theism: The god of myth does not exist “up there” or “out there” separate from us. Only after we have sufficiently released this god – who has become largely irrelevant in our modern secular lives anyway – will we be able to catch a vision of the higher horizon that awaits.

Our Predicament

Watts: “We seem to be like flies caught in honey. Because life is sweet we do not want to give it up, and yet the more we become involved in it, the more we are trapped, limited, and frustrated. We love it and hate it at the same time. We fall in love with people and possessions only to be tortured by anxiety for them.”

The Buddha taught that life is suffering. Of course, life can be more than suffering; it can be bliss and peace (nirvana). But the vast majority of us are stuck on the wheel of discontent, craving, worry, disappointment and regret – turning endlessly, round and round. Because it’s so predictable, this spinning wheel of suffering gratifies our sick need for some kind of permanence in life. And so we don’t want to give it up. What’s the alternative – oblivion? No, thanks.

In my practice of transformational coaching it became very clear early on that much of conventional counseling is about adjustment. Something happens that knocks a person out of balance – a set-back, a loss, a recurring problem. The therapist goes to work and constructs a case history, makes a diagnosis (preferably one that insurance will cover), and takes the client through a treatment plan designed to restore balance. It’s called recovery: getting back to the way life was prior to the crisis.

The deeper problem, as I discovered, is that the client’s life-system wasn’t in balance before this latest crisis. It’s just that his or her wheel had been spinning fast enough to avoid getting stuck in one or another of the five modes of suffering. Then a life event bumped the wheel and it began to wobble. Naturally the individual’s focus of attention and effort began fixating on “the problem,” which shifted the remaining momentum into what was “wrong,” and life got stuck there.

Discontent, craving, worry, disappointment or regret are thick and sticky, and once you get stuck there it pulls you deeper in. Since fixated attention on any of these “problems” is inherently unproductive – only refocusing on a solution is productive – the entire system gets drained of energy and the client ends up in depression (discouragement, fatigue, despair). This is when medication might be recommended, a chemical adjustment to keep the client on the wheel.

As a keen student of the human experience and early “ego psychology,” the Buddha saw that all of this suffering is a consequence of one thing: attachment. The ego is all about identity (“I”). Identity is about identifying with something or other (“I belong to it” or “It belongs to me”). That something is inherently unstable and impermanent, which means that the ego will have to change as well. But change is the opposite of identity, so the ego suffers. If only we could live without attachments; or better yet, if we could live without having to attach ourselves to anything. Why do we do it?

Watts says it’s our insecurity that motivates us to reach out and cling to what’s external. This body is immersed in the flux of biological and physical change, so if ego is to find identity it will have to be out there. But that’s changing, too. What hope do I (ego) have? None at all; hence the wisdom of insecurity (Watts’ book title). Once you realize that everything is “insecure” – without a permanent foundation or immortal identity – the invitation is to live life in full embrace of this fact.

Liberation, then, is living in a way that is free of attachment – not merely this or that attachment, but free of the “attachment impulse” altogether. But isn’t that ego, this drive to identify myself with something else and find my identity in it? Isn’t the whole point to hold on and ride the wheel, as “successfully” as possible?

Maybe I should just stop caring, since care involves attachment. Or is it possible to care without becoming attached?

Are We Spiritual Idiots?

Heschel: “Is it not possible that we are entering a stage in history out of which we may emerge as morons, as an affluent society of spiritual idiots?”

What is spiritual intelligence? Do “spirit,” “spiritual” and “spirituality” even have a place in a worldview that rejects metaphysical realism as a foundational assumption? If the mythological God has died with our outmoded and irrelevant mythology (as Nietzsche claimed), then are we just done with God altogether? If an immortal soul was a prophylactic against our human anxiety over death (as Watts contended), does it have any significance once we come to full acceptance of our mortality? In other words, is the revolution leading us into an age where the language of spirituality is nonsense? Or are we already there?

Let me review the conversation so far, as it concerns our understanding of human nature. As a human being I am body, ego, and soul: each of these is a center of experience, and the focus of my conscious attention migrates “up” and “down” the axis connecting them. The experiential center of “body” orients me in the physical environment as well as in the deeper stream of my genetic prehistory. Instincts are those drives, reflexes and internal urgencies (as in the “urge” to breathe) that sustain this body as a living organism. (I caught myself about to write “my body.”) For the most part, these impulses are dedicated to ensuring my survival, and sometimes this means contending with others for what I need.

Ego is my identity as shaped in the social context of a tribe (first my family, then moving farther out). Beyond physical survival, I also need to belong – where I can “fit in” and “stand out” as a valued member. If body motivates self-interested behavior, ego is where “other-interested” behavior is trained into me. I need the acceptance, approval and recognition of others to hold my place here. The experiential center of “ego” orients me in the field of interpersonal relationships, social expectations, cultural anxieties and aspirations. My successful ego development requires definite “role models” – personalities who exhibit and demonstrate those qualities of character that my tribe deems worthy of emulation.

Chief and highest among these role models is the mythological God. At this level, religion is an organized program for supporting the devotee (ego) in becoming more like God – obeying God’s will and conforming to the way God is portrayed in the myths. It’s at this level, too, where the doctrine of one’s immortal soul is most “useful.” Who you really are does not die with the body (so don’t be anxious). But where you end up (heaven or hell, since you have to go somewhere) is determined by how obedient you are to God’s will, which by implication means how compliant you are with tribal orthodoxy.

Ego is not soul. Identity is not spirituality. However easy my tribal training has made it for me to say “I (ego) am immortal” and “I (ego) have a soul,” both statements are misguided. Not only that, they amount to a powerful trance that can prevent me from fully engaging my spiritual center of experience. Soul is spiritual, not personal – as persona refers to the masks of identity and tribal roles that connect us socially to others. As long as ego continues to personify and claim ownership of the soul (just as the tribe personifies “my” God in its mythology), we will become – or continue to be – spiritual idiots.

What does it mean to be “spiritual,” then, if not dutifully performing the religious and moral disciplines that (my tribe says) will get me to heaven? What is “spirituality” if not the ego reflecting on its own immortality and trying to be more like God?

Here’s a short answer …

This body is rooted in the rhythms of nature, and is itself a coordinated system of organic urgencies. This ego is my social identity, drawn out of the body and shaped through my interactions with other members of my tribe. And this soul is not who I am, but what I am: grounded in the mystery of being and a living part of The Whole. “Spirituality” is about living in the awareness of communion. “Spiritual” names that dimension of life where all things breathe together. And “spirit” is the breath, the creative dynamic of existence that inhales oneness and exhales the astonishing magnificence of it all.

Already too many words. In the face of mystery, it is best to be silent.

No Wonder

Heschel: “The grandeur and mystery of the world that surrounds us is not something which is perceptible only to the elect. All [of us] are endowed with a sense of wonder, with a sense of mystery. But our system of education fails to develop it and the anti-intellectual climate of our civilization does much to suppress it. Humankind will not perish for lack of information; it may collapse for want of appreciation.”

The rejection of metaphysical realism is only the negative corollary of a positive and passionate commitment to the reality of our experience. Such a commitment is not easy to maintain, for the simple reason that the reality of our experience is not static but dynamic, not fixed but fluid, not even all that “humane” but frequently random, ruthless and absurd. It’s not difficult to understand why human beings would construct worldviews where such straightforwardly evident features of reality are contained, transcended and resolved.

Our “worlds” are like psychological shelters that make us feel secure. They detect – or rather project – patterns on the fluid and random mystery of existence, like the constellations we “see” in the stars. Is the Big Dipper really there? Well, yes, there it is! But where, exactly? Meaning (pattern) is in the eye of the beholder.

Heschel’s point is that our world-shelter is also a screen that obscures the grandeur of being, pinching its boundless magnitude inside our frames of meaning. Like the cartographic grid of longitude and latitude, our projections interfere with our ability to perceive the elusive mystery that is all around and within us. As we add to our catalog of knowledge, expanding the grid and refining the details, we are accumulating information at an accelerating rate. Maybe this makes us smarter than previous generations; but are we any wiser?

Wisdom is “understanding,” not mere knowledge. It has more to do with an appreciation of mystery than the discovery of meaning. The wonder Heschel speaks of is, as he calls it elsewhere, “radical amazement” in the presence of what is. It’s not just the apparent boundless magnitude of the universe that can cause you to catch your breath; it’s also the precious impermanence of this passing moment.

Do we need a mythological God to impose a “beginning” and “boundary” on this mystery? Do we need an immortal soul to hold down some permanence and anchor our identity through the fluctuations of change?

Oddly enough, for all our avid and enthusiastic information gathering, Heschel regards the climate of our civilization as “anti-intellectual.” For him, our intellectual capacity as human beings entails much more than an ability to pull information out of the mystery and connect the dots in ever more sophisticated patterns. Thinking begins in wonder, with the mind opening to an unfathomable mystery. In the presence of what eludes our mental grids and transcends our mental grasp, all we can do is stand in amazement.

The business of world-construction, of projecting our patterns, imposing our frames, and making meaning of it all gets going soon enough. But before it gets going – just prior to the moment we reach out to grasp and reduce the mystery to something that makes sense to us, there is wonder, the sheer appreciation of just how marvelous reality really is.

The revolution begins in wonder.

Overcoming Morality

Nietzsche: “The overcoming of morality, in a certain sense even the self-overcoming of morality: let this be the name for that protracted secret labor which has been reserved for the subtlest, most honest and also most malicious consciences as living touchstones of the soul.”

The terms “morality” and “moral” are rooted in the notion of “mores” (pronounced mor-ays), referring to the customs of behavior and interaction that coordinate our life together in society. According to its basic definition, to say that someone is  “moral” simply means that his or her conduct validates or violates what society regards as proper, right and good. Moral behavior, in other words, can be either “good” or “bad” depending on how it lines up with accepted standards.

In popular discourse, however, we frequently use the term “moral” to classify exclusively good behavior and “morality” as the values that define “the good life.” It’s in light of this second, more popular definition that Nietzsche’s call to overcome morality has been interpreted as an attack on everything decent, noble, and good. Is he advocating for a society where theft and murder are permitted, even condoned? This would amount to a bad reading of Nietzsche. What does he really mean?

Remember that Nietzsche rejects metaphysical realism – the philosophy behind our beliefs in God and the soul as real things, “above” me and “inside” me. Religion has used these notions – these absolutes – to control the lives of believers with the promise of heaven or the threat of hell, persuading them to surrender their intelligence, creativity and freedom to a higher authority. Morality as the  customs that shape and motivate human behavior in society substitutes for and renders unnecessary our capacity as individuals to face the challenges of our life together. If a rule prescribes how you should regard and act toward another person, it serves as a groove in the social landscape that pulls your behavior into alignment with what is considered right and proper.

We don’t like to admit this, but there are instances in our society where being kind to strangers or reaching out to “sinners” would be judged as contradicting the accepted customs – the morality – of the tribe. Even if there are deeper animal sympathies that naturally generate distress in us and motivate outreach when confronted with the suffering of another, these rules in many cases work to resolve the internal tension and justify our inaction. Precisely because morality controls our minds, prescribes our attitudes, and constrains our behavior it must be overcome.

Rare individuals have courageously – even maliciously, in the way they aggressively challenge and pull down the control system – accepted the guilt of breaking rules for the sake of living more spontaneously, more creatively and more responsibly in the world. They are what Nietzsche calls “the living touchstones of the soul.” Their conscientious guilt, rather than the guilty consciences of the rest of us living obediently inside the cattle tracks of morality, is the price of human redemption.

Think of them. Thank them. Join them.

Insecurity and Freedom

Heschel: “Freedom is the liberation from the tyranny of the self-centered ego. It comes about in moments of transcending the self as an act of spiritual ecstasy, of stepping out of the confining framework of routine reflexive concern. Freedom presupposes the capacity for sacrifice.”

The human being is body and soul. The part of us that puts these primary aspects of our existence in opposition to each other and then claims ownership – “I have a body; I have a soul” – is the ego. In my opinion, a major preoccupation of popular religion is with this conceited center of identity. I (ego) deserve to be happy. I (ego) want to live forever. I (ego) need to be right and be rewarded for being good. When religion gets (re)organized around the ego it becomes nervous, defensive, bigoted and sectarian.

Etymologically the term “religion” refers to what ties together and cultivates the relationship of body and soul. In the very word is a presumption: that body and soul are essentially separate and need to be (re)connected. It is in exposing the error of this foundational conviction that our revolution begins.

Ego is not the key player, but merely a social conceit. This center of identity is a product and reflex of tribal membership. It isn’t “added to” our primary nature of body-and-soul, but is an ongoing social construction project. We come to self-consciousness in the context of societal relationships, taking into ourselves the language, preferences, attitudes and beliefs of our tribe. Our social development as egos has the primary objective of making us into agents of our group, extensions of our tribe. I (ego) am also a symptom of my tribe’s chronic dysfunctions and internal contradictions. I (ego) want love and power. I (ego) want to fit in and stand out. I (ego) want security and significance.

So far, all three of my conversation partners – Friedrich Nietzsche, Alan Watts, and Abraham Heschel – acknowledge freedom as a critical feature or attribute of a human being. For Nietzsche, freedom puts us “beyond good and evil,” in a position where we must choose our way through life. As values, “good” and “evil” are really value-assignments, moral judgments that we compose into the myths and worlds we inhabit. We pull these around ourselves for security and meaning, but it’s all made up and tied inescapably to perspective. Nietzsche is perhaps most well-known for his declaration that “God is dead,” meaning that the mythological God is dead, which has come about because our myths have lost their power to entrance us. For Nietzsche, our disillusionment is our liberation.

Watts digs a little deeper, into the psychological origins of ego and its world project. We are living bodies; the claim of having a body is merely a persistent conceit of the ego. As organisms we have evolved with powerful drives and instincts, perhaps deepest among them being the drive to survive, to keep living, which also entails not dying and avoiding death at all costs. The self-consciousness that steadily emerges through the social construction of ego only amplifies our anxiety around the fact of mortality. To dampen our anxiety or distract us sufficiently from it, we escape into the refuge of metaphysical “counter-facts.” A transcendent and all-knowing God lifts us above the limitations of perspective. An immortal soul (really the undying ego) calms our fear of death. A universal order of moral government and higher purpose resolves our sneaking suspicions that maybe life is just a shot in the dark.

Heschel carries this idea a step farther. While our social formation as egos can bury our creative energies in the safe-house of tribal membership, it also serves to liberate us from the compulsions and urgencies of animal life. This freedom is insecure and there is always the temptation to fall back under the control of some other authority – if not our animal impulses, then perhaps cultural fashions or religious orthodoxies. True freedom, for Heschel, implies responsibility. The ego is not set free from the compulsions of animal instinct simply to be made captive to the slightly higher compulsions of our social neuroses. Freedom is not a goal, but the precondition to a higher task.

“Freedom presupposes the capacity for sacrifice.” Sacrifice = sacri (holy) + facere (to make). It’s not primarily about losing something, but is rather about sanctifying the ordinary with extraordinary attention and care. Maybe this is what “commitment” really means …

Why We Do It

Watts: “It has been possible to make the insecurity of human life supportable by belief in unchanging things beyond the reach of calamity – in God, in [the] immortal soul, and in the government of the universe by eternal laws of right. Today such convictions are rare, even in religious circles.”

If we lived forever – without aging, entirely immune to the slow drag of mortality, never facing our own death or having to survive the loss of those we love – would a doctrine of the soul’s immortality have been formulated into such a widely and passionately held conviction as it has? We don’t need to “believe” in things that are immediately evident (gravity, for instance) or irrelevant to our needs and concerns as humans. You sense them and know them, or else you don’t care.

By running the doctrine of immortality in reverse, we come to what is likely its real inspiration: not that we do live forever, but that we don’t. Our purchase on this frail strand of life is precarious, indeed. Any number of environmental events might do us in any moment; and many more biological dysfunctions or diseases inside might pull the life-rug out from under us, in a heart-beat or over many painful years. Excluding suicide, the exact where and when of it just can’t be predicted; insurance companies make a profit due to this unpredictability. But they get rich because of something else. Our insecurity. We don’t want to die. The drive to stay alive is perhaps our deepest genetic code as living organisms.

So what do we do? As Watts suggests, we believe in God; we believe in our own undying souls; and we believe that everything is working out according to a higher moral purpose. Belief in such things calms our anxiety over the fact that nothing really is secure. I am aware that Watts doesn’t say outright that we invent these things, but that our insecurity compels a belief in them. A transcendent God, an immortal soul, a moral universe – maybe these are metaphysical facts regardless of whether or not we believe. Or maybe they aren’t; maybe we make them up as a prophylactic against the fear of death. My dog will die one day, too, but there’s no evidence that he ponders his fate or worries himself sick over it. I have something he doesn’t: not an immortal soul but a mental capacity to think about things that aren’t there and worry about things that might happen.

The Buddhism that so fascinated Watts actually holds the soul’s nonexistence as a doctrine (the doctrine of anatta), and it doesn’t support belief in a God (up there, out there) either. There is an order (dhamma), but it’s inherent to the nature of things, not divinely imposed or managed from without. While some forms of Buddhism do contemplate the existence and beatitude of fully realized Bodhisatvas on their own tranquil island-worlds, the Zen Buddhism of Watts dismisses metaphysics completely. Learn to embrace-and-release the life that flows through you. Don’t cling to anything in hopes that it will give you permanence or happiness; everything is impermanent, so attachment is just a set-up for more suffering later on.

What if there really isn’t a God? What if I won’t live forever? What if the universe doesn’t turn in favor of the righteous and well-intentioned? If I can release my belief from these things, and then come to terms with the insecurity that may be driving my need to believe in them, how would my life be different? Would I live it differently from the way I do now?

Last question for now: Is atheism in the straightforward sense the only responsible and respectable stance for a person living in a post-mythological age?

Is the Game Over?

Watts: “Once there is the suspicion that a religion is a myth, its power is gone.”

In reflecting on the first part of Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, I have already considered the idea that religion is based in or at least largely conditioned by myth – the language, stories, beliefs and judgments we use to “make meaning.” Well, more than just consider the possibility, I have embraced it entirely – you might even say enthusiastically.

Alan Watts was schooled in the tradition of Anglican orthodoxy, which is decidedly different from other Christian denominations in the way it organizes and carries out its purpose, but nevertheless shares the foundational stories of the Christian worldview. These foundational stories are its mythology, and because the Christian doctrine of God is derived from this mythology, the Christian God is mythological.

Yes, Nietzsche would go on to say that my mythological God is an untruth; but I’m okay with that, too. I should hope that the reality indicated by my doctrine of God and the stories that inform it is beyond my perspective-dependent definitions. However, according to Watts, the moment I suspect that my stories are human projections and not supernatural revelations, the game is over (their power is gone).

Hold on a second. Nietzsche was the son of a Lutheran pastor, and Watts was ordained an Episcopal priest. Is it possible that the views of both men were shaped as reactions to the dogmatic heavy-handedness of their parental religion? And maybe I am sympathetic because I, too, was raised a pastor’s son and worked as an ordained minister for a decade and a half. I will confess that much of the doctrinal inheritance of my Dutch Reformed tradition seemed heavy and depressing. The dogmatic orthodoxy derived from the vibrant narratives of mythology was comparatively inflexible and boring. Did I leave church ministry because my religion lost its power?

Not exactly. Long before I made my break – before even I entered seminary – the untruth of doctrines and the pretense of the stories behind them was evident to me. I really think it is evident to most of us. We just don’t want to admit it, for once we do, the game might be over. If the God I believe in is thoroughly mythological, and if mythology is really the narrative projection from a historically limited perspective (of others who lived long ago and far away), then God doesn’t really exist, right? And if God doesn’t exist, then what’s the point in going on? It’s all meaningless.

Agreed: it’s meaningless – if we’re talking about the mystery of life beyond our foreground meanings. On this side are all the opinions, myths and theories we use to make sense of the mystery. They are NOT the mystery, but only a perspective on it. But if we mistake our perspective for the reality, our meaning for the mystery, we might be inspired to do all sorts of things in the name of our “truth.” Why not go out and persuade others to take our perspective (which isn’t a perspective, remember, but truth-itself)? Why not threaten them if they refuse? Why not blow them up and wipe them out if they won’t agree with us? There is power in religion, in the way it can entrance us, cement our convictions, compel us to violence, or justify our complacence.

If THAT game is over, then we all stand a chance.

 

The Usefulness of Untruth

Nietzsche: “To recognize untruth as a condition of life: that, to be sure, means to resist customary value-sentiments in a dangerous fashion; and a philosophy which ventures to do so places itself, by that act alone, beyond good and evil.”

Nietzsche’s suspicion that all we have is the finite life we are living now and the perspective it provides on the mystery of existence, is both unsettling and liberating. Unsettling because it takes away our certainties, and with them the security that comes with the sense that we’ve got things figured out. But liberating, too, for it helps us let go of our mental lock-boxes of belief and let reality be – whatever it is or is doing in this moment. As we step out of the living stream in order to catch a portion of it in our belief-bucket, what do we have? No longer the living stream. Not the mystery of being, but instead only meaning.

Meaning is about perspective – what it (all) means from our vantage point, as it concerns our individual needs and desires. Meaning is constructed out of smaller packages called beliefs, which are assembled together like scaffolding against the mystery. Beliefs are nothing more than judgments, the particular ways we carve up reality or, to change the metaphor, scoop up the river of life into buckets we can carry away. And what are judgments, besides the blades or buckets we use to make reality meaningful? They are untruths, according to Nietzsche.

It is helpful to know that Nietzsche’s training was as a philologist, one who studies words, language, and the meaning that a language system makes possible. For him, reality IS; it is Truth-itself. In the language system of ancient Greek, truth refers to what is “unhidden” – what stands behind or beneath all the judgments, beliefs, and meanings we layer over the transcendent and fluid mystery of being. By definition, then, this mechanism of language hides reality by casting a veil of words, judgments, beliefs and meanings over it. Untruth.

The fate of being caught in our own limited web was transcended for the longest time by the inclusion in our language system of the mythological God, whose view on reality was absolute and universal. By special revelation, this God gave us information of reality behind the veil. Like a space probe far and above our cloud-covered gravity station, God helped resolve the insecurity of our limitations.

Interestingly enough, Nietzsche – the reputed nihilist – doesn’t reject the usefulness of untruth. Perspective requires it. By letting go of the mythological God, we are left with our perspectives, our veils of meaning, our untruths. “The question,” says Nietzsche, “is to what extent it is life-advancing, life-preserving.” Do our beliefs inspire us to act responsibly? Are our judgments thoughtful and held lightly enough to stay relevant to the changing times and emergent challenges of life today? Can we be brave (and humble) enough to tip out our meager portion of stale water and cast our bucket into the living stream once again?