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?

A Matter of Perspective

Nietzsche: “Perspective [is] the basic condition of all life.”

To see anything involves observing from a specific vantage point. The philosophical worldview called postmodernism got a big push in motion by Nietzsche’s challenge to the long-standing (mythological) idea that humans – especially those who believe in God – have a view on reality that is absolute and universal. We have stories that tell of the genesis and apocalypse of all things. And because those stories were dictated by divine revelation and not just “made up,” they give us a privileged observation-point that is really outside of time and absolutely true.

Priests, prophets, and theologians were our sacred knowledge brokers for the longest time, and we trusted them because they were closer to God’s Eye than the rest of us. In the nineteenth century, that delusion fell apart. Or, as Nietzsche would say, we at last awoke from the trance called metaphysical realism, which holds that God and the soul are nonphysical but nonetheless real things.

If other people in other lands have stories similar to our own, then either (1) theirs are borrowed and likely corrupt copies of our original stories; or (2) other divine beings and realities exist that our catalog doesn’t account for; or (3) there really are different names and costumes for the same metaphysical realities; or (4) all of our stories – theirs and ours – are perhaps not arching out and sticking to real things after all. Maybe our stories are more projections than descriptions.

It doesn’t sound outrageous to speak of stories as narratives we make up. Opinions are more obviously made up; but even theories – the best scientific theories included – are accounts that humans fashion to make sense of reality. And every kind of story (opinions, myths, and theories) is composed – put together, made up – by someone occupying a very specific location in relative space and time.

Perhaps thousands of years ago an especially gifted artistic type formulated her perspective into an opinion that her friends found particularly amusing. Around the fire that night, and for many nights thereafter, she was pressed into reciting and elaborating it for the enjoyment of the other tribe members. She added a dramatic setting, a cast of characters, with a rising action, riveting conflict and a cathartic denouement. The group loved it. Soon they were taking parts and acting out the plot, with costumes and props and the whole nine yards.

Years passed, then decades and centuries. As it happened, the tribe migrated, intermarried, and otherwise got caught up in the multiplying concerns of “modern” life. The myth was still recalled every once in a while, as friends relaxed over their beers, but by now it had become completely detached from its earlier anchor in ritual and was free-floating. It sounded more like an explanation than a story in the poetic-artistic sense; its appeal was more cognitive than emotional. It had become a theory.

You know where I’m going with this, don’t you? If perspective is, as Nietzsche asserts, the basic condition of all life, then all we have is “the view from here” – wherever I am, wherever you are. We don’t have the full picture. We can’t see through the eyes of God. And I am ready to agree with Nietzsche that we can’t through God’s eyes because “God” is a projection of our own opinions-myths-theories. Does that mean there is no “divine mystery,” no “ultimate reality,” no “ground of  being” or “creative source” of all things? No, I don’t think it does. Reality, the Real, is.  But what it is requires that I formulate an opinion, tell a story, or state a theory – all of which is, has been, and forever will be generated from a given vantage point, a very limited outlook, and along an extremely short angle on the mystery. However incomplete, it’s all we have.

So tell me how it seems from where you are …

A Conversation Across Time

Recently I was browsing the bookstore (an actual one, with books!), when my eyes fell on three of my favorite authors. Like a spark across the gap, my mind was inspired. Months ago I had chosen a blog domain name “Tracts of Revolution,” with a vague intention of what I would do with it. Revolution seemed right: there has been a growing interest over the past decades in what is called the New Consciousness – a higher awareness of our place as humans in the expanding web of existence.

This awareness has “come to light” at various times and places throughout our history through individual men and women, who break open the box of cultural conventions that serve to domesticate our animal energies and secure our membership in the group. As instinct concerns the body (the organism and its reproductive success), tribal membership is about ego – the little identity we construct in the social nexus of our relationships. Is this all that we are? Perhaps our fate as a species is to work interminably (until we do ourselves in) on keeping our boxes in order, repairing them from time to time, and trading them in for more up-to-date ones as we bump along.

Not so, according to our brighter lights. There is also soul; not the old ego again, grasping at immortality and chasing its far glory, but a place (which is really no place) in each of us where all the clutching-and-chasing of individual life is (or can be) released into the vast mystery of being and received afresh again. This mystical rhythm of releasing and receiving, letting go and taking in, has been conceived in the wisdom traditions as the exhalation and inhalation of spirit (with etymology tracing through all the ancient languages to the life-power of breath).

Thus, in addition to an animal body and a tribal ego, we have a spiritual soul – although it’s only a stubborn habit of ego to believe that we “have” any of these. We ARE body, ego and soul. Each of these modes of being connects us to a distinct aspect of our human reality, not as pieces that might be added or taken away, but as inseparable parts of a whole.

Our brighter lights, both living and gone, serve as portals of a greater vision where the whole is revealed in profoundly unique yet perennially consistent ways. What’s perennial (enduring) is the greater vision itself. It’s not the particulars of mythology in which it may be packaged, but the transcendental unity refracted through them to the contemplative mind. The uniqueness, on the other hand, is a function of the visionary’s personality, genetic temperament, life experiences, historical time and cultural place.

One might use a fairly traditional religious vocabulary in rendering the mystery, as another speaks against religion. One might cross-reference different belief systems in an effort to highlight their shared assumptions and aspirations, while another tunnels through the baseboards to reveal their common origins. Still another might scandalize the rest of us proper citizens by pulling at the support beams, forcing us to see just how much of it is held together by pretense, bad faith, and blind tradition.

The book titles jumped out at me. Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future by Friedrich Nietzsche was one of his great prophecies of our human fate. Sadly he died insane just before the dawn of the 20th century and his voice was lost under the growing rumble of the coming World Wars. Nietzsche was a key figure in the rise of a philosophical approach called constructivism, which holds that meaning is made (constructed) and not discovered. All of our belief systems are so much scaffolding erected against the Mystery; all we really have is “perspective,” never truth.

After the Wars, during the 1950s and 60s, two more lights shined into the cultural night. In 1951 a disaffected Anglican priest by the name of Alan Watts published The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety, in which he offered a fresh analysis of the generalized angst that hung over the First-World cultures. Watts was fond of analogies and frequently warned that defining reality in our doctrines is like trying to bite a wall, or like dipping our buckets in the living stream and walking off with the river. His own attraction was to Buddhism, especially Zen, with its teaching of living mindfully in the unresolvable paradoxes of existence.

In the following decade, Abraham Heschel collected some early essays and addresses under the title The Insecurity of Freedom: Essays on Human Existence (1972). Heschel was a philosopher, poet and activist in the tradition of Jewish mysticism and wrote numerous books on religion and the spiritual life. For him, spiritual life cannot be divorced from our social responsibilities on behalf of the oppressed, the exploited, and the outcast. Heschel walked alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. in the march for civil rights, demonstrating his belief that what unites us is ultimately stronger than what divides us.

The Project

Tracts of Revolution is intended to be a conversation with, as well as a contrived dialogue between, two or more of our “brighter lights” from the history of philosophy, spirituality, art, science and politics. A few of them enjoyed success during their lifetime — Alan Watts even became something of a cult celebrity during the 1960s; but many died in obscurity, misunderstood or entirely ignored by their contemporaries. Even if they managed to attract attention, gain followers, and instigate creative change (revolution) while alive, a majority of them have been forgotten – or if remembered, then only memorialized.

Our treasury of revealed wisdom is fast approaching a minimum balance; soon we will have to start paying steep service fees for our career as a species on this planet. All of the – news release! – deep cancers in Gaia’s lungs (atmosphere), body (soil) and blood (water) that can be traced to human waste and rampant consumerism, along with the violent conflicts of nations, races, ideologies and lifestyles – many wonder whether we’ve already fallen past the point of recovery. I don’t believe we have … yet.

I want to engage a conversation not only about revolution (creative change), but a conversation that will serve to ignite a revolution in our time. There are a lot of voices – many best-selling authors and inspirational speakers – proclaiming that the way through will be by the route of a new metaphysics (quantum, new science), ancient magic (Mayan, Egyptian), hidden codes (Bible prophecy, DaVinci paintings), or telepathic communication (departed loved ones, spirit guides).

It’s not my intention to sweep them all under the same judgment, for perhaps some good has or will yet come of them; but I suspect they are more distractions than genuine revelations. What we need now is not just more lights, but better light – enough to wake us up, and enough to guide us along  the way to what we are becoming … which is more human, I hope.

You are invited to join me in this conversation across time. For a while, I’ll be immersing myself in the above-mentioned writings of Nietzsche, Watts and Heschel, spinning out the implications of what I hear them saying, and staging a series of conversations between them. What will come of it? Hard to say, and impossible to predict; but I have a “hopeful suspicion” that something revolutionary will come to light – a message both timeless and timely.