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What’s Next For God?

My inquiry into the future of god will sound strange – and probably blasphemous – to believers who regard him as an immortal being, beyond the world and outside of time, without beginning or end. That’s how Christian orthodoxy defines god at any rate. There can be no ‘future’ for such a timeless and unchanging metaphysical absolute.

But then again, I’m not talking about the god of theologians – referring to those who talk about god and make a living putting definition around a mystery that cannot be named. Long before the theologians were mystics and storytellers, who rather than making the mystery into an object of thought, sought its direct experience (the mystics) or mediated through the veil of metaphor (the storytellers).

The contribution of theologians was to detach from the mystery and turn it into an object of thought – something separate from the mind and its immediate experience.

Direct experience gave way to metaphorical depiction, which eventually lost its transparency and finally condensed into a separate thing – god as a being possessed of certain powers and attributes. Whereas god had earlier been acknowledged as representing the creative ground and abyssal depths of being itself, his identity as a character of story was later relocated to the objective realm where he became the god of theologians.

This mystery is indeed timeless – or eternal, according to the original meaning of that word. Our experience of mystery is ineffable (i.e., indescribable, unspeakable, beyond words) since it transpires far below (and was felt long before) the active language centers of the brain. To translate the experience of mystery into language – into names, nouns, adjectives and verbs – is to move out of experience and away from the mystery.

As a product of human imagination and language, the objective god of theologians is the principal artifact of religion. It has a past, and we can legitimately ask whether it has a future.

To give my answer to that question, it’s necessary to see religion and its god in historical context. The construct of god hasn’t always been with us – in fact, in the longer run of our evolution as a species, the concept of deity is a late arrival. For many millenniums the human experience of, and response to, the present mystery of reality was carried in the thought-forms of animism.

This mode of reflection was – and still is, particularly when we are very young children – deeply in touch with the urgencies and rhythms of the body, and the profound ways this embodied life-force connects with, depends on, and participates in the rhythms and cycles of nature all around. Our bodies, other animals, the trees, the seasons, Sun, moon, and stars are animated (made alive and moved) by forces we cannot control or understand.

Over time human curiosity, imagination, and technical ingenuity began to thicken the layer of culture mediating our experience of nature and the mystery of life. Symbols preserved the connection but were themselves symptoms of our growing separation. Mythic narratives weaved patterns of meaning and tribal ceremonies provided for social engagement, keeping the community synchronized with the great rounds of natural time.

A crucial advancement also came with the concept of a higher purpose behind things – no doubt reflecting the way that the programs and techniques informing human culture are directed by our own strategic objectives and desired outcomes.

Everything happening was hereafter regarded as happening for a reason – not so much according to an antecedent causality (a line of reasoning that would eventually inspire the rise of science) but by fulfilling the aims of a transcendent will – the god(s) of theism.

The narrative invention and developmental career of deity is a primary feature of the type of religion known as theism. Historically this career moves through three distinct phases. An early phase charts a time when the layer of culture is still thin enough to be subordinate to the life forces of nature. A deity serves as provider of the resources a society requires, as well as of the protections that shelter it from natural catastrophes.

In theism’s high phase, the thickening of culture correlates also to the formation of ego, to that social construction of personal identity each of us knows as “I, myself.” As its counterpart and transcendent ideal, a deity authorizes a morality of obedience and personifies the higher virtues of ethical life. God is to be honored, worshiped, and obeyed. In doing so, individual egos are motivated to conform to social norms, as they strive to please the deity and gain his (or her) favor.

Late theism marks a transition where the deity is invoked less in sanctuaries than contemplated in the depths of the soul. A transactional morality of obedience – be good and god will be good to you – gives way to a more adult aspirational morality. Those divine virtues which had been elevated and glorified in worship become the internalized ideals of a more self-responsible, compassionate, and benevolent way of life.

An inherent (and building) tension in late theism has to do with the fact that its tradition, liturgy, and orthodoxy remain focused on an objective god, just as the orientation of many believers is starting to shift to a mystically inward and ethically engaged spirituality.

So far, then, we can observe an advancing focus in religion, invested early in the sentient experience of our body and the rhythms of natural life (animism); then graduating upwards, so to speak, with concerns related to ego formation, becoming somebody, finding one’s place in society and striving to be a good person.

Theism might be thought of as a ‘second womb’, providing the social support, cultural instruction, and moral incentives for the development of personal identity.

In my diagram I have placed the graphic of a burst to represent the moment when we ‘see through’ the veil of our myths and symbols. This insight may be experienced as an epiphany (an “appearing through”) or more like an apocalypse leaving us utterly disillusioned – that is to say, where the illusion of those sacred fictions and orthodox beliefs that had for so long nurtured the formation of our identity is ripped from its rings like a great curtain coming down.

In some religious traditions this is represented as the labor pains of a second birth, of being lifted out of the warm trance of social conformity and into our creative authority as agents of a higher wholeness.

Four possible paths lead from this point. Two of them, named absolutism and ātheism (with the macron long ‘a’), stay fixated on the question of literal truth. Is the featured deity of those sacred stories a literal being, a supernatural or metaphysical personality out there and separate from us – a supreme being among beings?

Absolutism (aka fundamentalism) has to say ‘yes’ unless everything is lost. Ātheism says emphatically ‘no’, since a literal god in that sense is contradicted by science, besides being logically incredible and an offense to our ethical freedom as humans.

These paths, then, don’t really lead anywhere because they both remain stuck on god.

A third path, opening into a fourth, seeks to better understand what god means rather than argue for or against his literal existence. As a literary figure (i.e., a principal character of myth) the deity serves a purpose – the ones identified above: representing a provident purpose behind things (early theism), authorizing a moral system (high theism), and exemplifying the higher virtues of a liberated life (late theism).

The commitment to understanding (i.e., seeing through) what god means rather than debating his existence is what distinguishes ătheism (with the breve ‘a’, as in “apple”) from simple ātheism. The present mystery upon which the whole enterprise of religion has been a contemplation – from the embodied experience of sentient life (animism) to the heroic adventure of self-conscious identity (theism) – now prepares to transcend merely personal concerns for a universal truth, that All is One.

The advent of our awakening to the full capacity and higher potential of our human nature is what I mean by apotheosis. This is the future of god.

How ought we to live, in view of this higher wholeness and our place in it? According to post-theism, we devote ourselves to the provident care of our resident animists (infants and young children). We exemplify the virtues of community life and inspire our resident theists (children and adolescents) to follow our example. And when their minds and hearts are ready, we encourage them to step through the veil and join us in this work, on the other side of god.

 

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Growing Into God

Atonement_ApotheosisThe developmental aim of a human being is to become a well-grounded, fully centered, and creative authority; a caring, autonomous, and responsible adult. According to this definition, an adult is more than just a “grown up,” someone who has reached a certain age and stage of physical maturity. As I’m using the term, adult refers to an individual that has attained a level of self-actualization and fulfillment of the species. What the species holds in potential is thus actualized, or actively expressed, to some degree in the adult individual.

This process of self-actualization is illustrated in the above diagram, and in a moment I will take you on a quick tour. Anticipating the primary focus of this blog post, however, I want to direct your attention to a crucial point where the very natural adventure of becoming an adult (as I’m using the term) frequently gets hung up and held back. Here we find two words with a deep history: atonement and apotheosis. Atonement describes a procedure by which the individual sinner – using traditional Christian language – is reconciled back to the deity and, importantly, to the covenant community. (The patron deity and his tribe always go together in theism as co-evolving counterparts.)

Apotheosis is less familiar, although it too is deeply rooted in myth, politics, and religion. In the Latin (Roman Catholic) West and its Protestant step-children, apotheosis never officially made it into Christian orthodoxy – and it’s not hard to guess why.

While the term names a politically self-serving proclamation by a Roman emperor of his deceased predecessor’s deification, apotheosis in religion also refers to a human being’s progress into God; not merely getting closer to the deity in prayer and devotion, but growing into God to the degree that the human being is sanctified, glorified, and awakens to divinity. That’s why it couldn’t be allowed into orthodoxy – at least in the great Western branch (and countless splintering twigs) of Christian orthodoxy.

The Western traditions (Roman Catholic and Protestant) picked up on the Jewish-biblical theme of atonement and made it the fulcrum of orthodoxy. Humanity’s sinful condition separates us from god, and the process of returning to right relationship (called reconciliation) is conceived as a juridical transaction involving exoneration from guilt by the satisfaction of a penalty and the judgment of god (or his ordained church officials) that the sinner is forgiven (called justification). The benefit is a clear conscience, but more importantly it means restoration to good standing with god and the covenant community.

It’s this idea of being brought back to a position temporarily forfeited by the rupture of sin – or perhaps permanently forfeited if proper atonement is not made – that is particularly interesting, especially when contrasted with the progressive, forward-moving, and transformational notion of apotheosis whereby the individual advances to a heretofore unrealized state of being.

There are reasons why atonement rather than apotheosis became the fulcrum of Western Christian orthodoxy, which I won’t dig into right now. Most likely this preference was driven by such factors as religious persecution (which tends to unify the victimized community), the strong juridical theme in Jewish mythology (Yahweh as king and judge; salvation as being set free of debt and guilt), and the fact that early Christianity grew up in the Roman era with its overriding governmental, judicial, legal and military obsessions.

But let’s go back for that tour I promised, showing how this tension between the pull-back of atonement and the forward aim of apotheosis is relevant to understanding the threshold between theism and post-theism.

The hero of our story – the one we’re all so concerned about, whom I name Captain Ego – gets started on the adventure by restraining and redirecting natural impulses of the body into behavior that is socially compliant and proper. With considerable help from the tribe in the form of guidance, feedback, and discipline, individual identity (ego) gradually establishes a center of self-control, social recognition, and personal agency.

But before that center gets established, the individual needs to secure strong bonds of dependency and trust with the provident powers responsible for his or her care. The ensuing condition of attachment sustains the individual – this gestating sense of self – in a web of support where he or she feels safe, accepted, and comfortably enveloped. (There is probably a deep visceral memory of what it was like in the paradisal garden of mother’s womb that compels the infant’s quest for oneness.)

Of course, there’s no going back. Besides, the ego is compelled by a second drive, which is to separate itself from this comfortable anonymity and stand out in freedom, to be recognized as special and unique. This imperative is what’s behind that signature feature of Western civilization: its individualism, its infatuation with stand-out celebrity, unprecedented achievement, and heroic glory. As you can tell, this pursuit of freedom and self-importance stands in direct opposition to the ego’s need to fit in and belong.

Welcome to the inherently conflicted adventureland of personal identity.

Further progress into adulthood – that is, into the human fulfillment represented in the self-actualized adult – will need to continue with this formational process as the individual awakens to his or her higher self (soul). Earlier identifications will need to be transcended – such as belonging to this tribe and holding these titles or awards – which inevitably is confronted with resistance from society. This is who you are. You are only a person of value and respect because of your standing as one of us. You need to stay here and obey the rules!

A certain guilt is induced with disobedience. And here we’re not talking about ethical violations such as deceit, theft, and murder, which are genuine threats to human community; but rather the kind of disobedience where an individual sets down the masks and steps out of the roles that define identity, in order to assume creative authority in his or her life.

Before the developmentally opportune moment (what in Greek is called kairos, the critical opportunity for action), such forays into a more authentic life will convict the individual with a guilty conscience. But when the time is right and the individual is possessed of sufficient courage to bear the consequences of his or her choices, a guilty conscience will give way to conscientious guilt, willingly accepted in civil disobedience. Conscientious guilt is the price of identifying with goals, principles, and ideals that represent realities and possibilities beyond the sacred conclusions and status quo of the tribe.

Siddhartha (the Buddha) breaking a hole in the wall of the caste system to allow for the liberation even of outcasts, Jesus (the Christ) reaching out to include sinners and the ritually impure, Martin Luther King, Jr. instigating boycotts and leading peace marches against race and class inequality – these are historical examples of individuals who accepted conscientious guilt in pursuit of aims they regarded as more noble and necessary to true human progress.

As a final measure, the tribe might appeal to its patron deity and the precepts laid down by orthodoxy. How can you arrogantly believe that there is more to life than what we have for you here. We are the chosen ones. This is the covenant community, obedient to god and blessed in turn with eternal security. You’ve grown up under the grace and clear directives of our patron deity. You have enjoyed the benefits of membership all these years. And now you are ready to throw it all aside, turn your back on god and us for the sake of your own selfish fulfillment? Excommunication and everlasting torment in hell are what you are really choosing – just be clear about that!

And this is just where atonement works its magic – if it can persuade the waking soul to instead submit to the prescribed procedures of confession and repentance in order to be pardoned and reconciled back to where a true believer rightfully belongs. Things inside run more smoothly when we all stay in our proper place and do what we’re told. Heaven is up, hell is down, and the devil is locked outside. You barely made it back, but good for you!

Or else, this is just where apotheosis makes its fateful move. With the courage not of convictions but of an evolutionary purpose taking root and springing forth from within, the individual draws strength from the grounding mystery and enters more fully into the realization that all is one. It is no longer “me and mine” or “us versus them,” but all of us together, sharing this moment in faith, holding the future open with hope, releasing fear for love.

We are growing into God.

 

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Humanism in a New Key

My recent reflections on the cultural shifts in the West over the past 2500 years or so has started to uncover the real essence of the post-theistic movement overall. Whether it was the breakthroughs in natural philosophy (science) and politics (democracy) back in fifth-century BCE Greece, or the breakthrough in morality represented in Jesus’ radical message of love for the enemy, the general effect of these transformations has been a growing understanding of our place in the cosmos and our responsibility in the evolutionary destiny of our species.

Each one of these transitions moved us into a different and new way of being in relationship with our home planet, to the social order, or to other humans – particularly those who don’t share our beliefs or care to have us around. I have argued that our advancement through these various progression thresholds – defined as evolutionary surge-points where development is suddenly accelerated and shifted to a new level – also moved us into a post-theistic worldview relative to the threshold in question.

So science has moved us increasingly into a view of reality that doesn’t require a reference to god as the hidden agency behind nature. Similarly, democracy has liberated us from political systems of authority and subjugation that were regarded for many thousands of years as established and ordained by a god above the throne.

And then, with the radical ethic of Jesus as expressed in the imperative of love for the enemy (summarized as unconditional forgiveness), the long-standing idea of god as the supreme prosecutor of moral evil and executioner of our enemies had to be released and transcended – if we were to move forward into Jesus’ vision of a worldwide community of full inclusion.

There is textual evidence to suggest that Jesus went so far as to reconceive the retributive god (Yahweh) into an all-loving and merciful father (Abba) who has forgiven everything and excludes no one. Already 600 years or so earlier, the prophet Jeremiah had imagined a future day when god would forgive and “remember sins no more,” so at least the ideal of unconditional forgiveness was in the collective consciousness to some extent by the time of Jesus.

But the conditions of history would favor a more “tribal” deity than a universal one, so this ideal virtue of love for the enemy got pushed to the margins of theological orthodoxy – until someone like Jesus had the insight and courage to declare that god was different – radically different – from what people believed. Instead of merely talking about god, Jesus demonstrated god (as benevolence, compassion and forgiveness) in the way he lived. Rather than wait for a future day, he announced that “now is the time.” The challenge now was to embody god in relationships – not just with insiders and outsiders, but with our enemies.

The Christian mythology that soon developed represented this self-emptying of god (Gk. kenosis) and fulfillment of humanity (Gk. apotheosis) in the picture-language of incarnation, epiphany, resurrection, ascension, and Pentecost. These were metaphors and symbols of a transformation internal (esoteric) to human nature, working out its implications in a narrative fashion rather than a doctrinal one. It wouldn’t be long, however, before the mythological structure of early Christian thought was fractured, divided, packaged, and rearranged into a belief system of metaphysical truths.

Jesus, the prophet of unconditional forgiveness, was very quickly turned into the “only savior” who satisfied the conditions against god’s forgiveness of sin. Paying the penalty required by law and turning god (propitiating, placating, appeasing, persuading) to look favorably upon sinful humanity – but only if the individual repents and believes – became the orthodox re-vision of salvation history.

Jesus’ message of love’s embodiment in human beings and their behavior towards one another; his vision of a community that transcends tribal morality; his urgent appeal to let go of vengeance and seek reconciliation instead – all of this got “exceptionalized” (Who else but very god could live this way?) and effectively removed from the official (re-)definition of what it means to be Christian. Belief, obedience, and church membership took over.

sun-hi

So, while the West has made much more progress into post-theism in the cultural fields of science and politics, the derailment of Christian orthodoxy by the second century CE prevented us from fully embracing a post-theistic morality. As a consequence it could be argued that the moral setback of Western culture has compromised the integrity and hampered advancement on these other fronts as well. Absent a sympathetic communion with nature and a compassionate connection to others, “progress” in these areas can quickly devolve into exploitation and abuse.

But advancement into what, exactly? Where is this trajectory of post-theism leading us?

By projecting personality and intention behind the events of nature, earlier cultures envisioned the universe not as random and absurd, but as rational, ordered, and purposeful. For the sake of security and sanity, it was necessary to believe that nature is provident, predictable, or at least open to our investigation (prayerful or theoretical, contemplative or experimental). Putting intelligence behind nature thus put us into a conversation with nature. Early theism made science possible.

Similarly, by projecting authority above the throne of government, earlier cultures were able to orient the political order on a more transcendent reference-point. Authority was not simply a function of circumstance, ambition, or superior violence, but depended on the higher will and working plan of god.

Not long ago, monarchs were regarded as god’s representatives on earth (the Bible refers to them as “sons of god”). As the function of god behind nature entered its period of disenchantment, the divine right of kings over the political sphere came under scrutiny. The door was opened for a reconsideration of government as anchored in the dignity of human beings rather than dangled from a supernatural hook in the sky.

Finally, then, it becomes apparent that what’s after theism (post-theism) is humanism, but not the self-inflated, indulgent and morally reckless version that often gets boosted by libertarians and bashed by conservatives. This is a New Humanism: scientifically innovative, politically democratic, and morally invested in communities of full inclusion and unconditional love. We haven’t thrown off the gods, but rather we meditated on them, identified with them, absorbed them (back) into ourselves, and moved beyond them – by their help.

Now we live in the presence of mystery. Human being offers us a fresh opportunity for being human, fully and finally human.

 
 

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A New Christianity

In a recent blog post (“What is Post-Theism?”) I explored how Western culture since the ancient Greeks evolved through three creative phases, where an earlier function of god (behind nature, above politics, and ahead of morality) was internalized and transcended by the human being.

The revolutions of science (natural philosophy) and democracy in Greece essentially took over for god (or the gods) and elevated humans to a new level of control, freedom and responsibility in the world. As each of these “progression thresholds” was crossed, Western culture entered upon a new post-theistic age.

That isn’t too difficult to accept, as far as it goes. But then I suggested that we crossed over into post-theistic morality with the life and teachings of Jesus. Jesus redefined the moral function of god away from exclusion, retribution, and final vengeance on enemies, toward a model of inclusion, generosity, and unconditional forgiveness. He called upon his disciples to accomplish in loving their enemies what god had been unwilling and unable to do.

Let’s refresh this theory in our minds before we proceed, since so much hinges on it.

The moral function of god historically has been not only to enforce proper behavior, but to serve as the advancing ideal of human evolution. As the principal attractors of human moral development, gods possess certain ethical attributes and propensities. These “powers” are raised into the focus of aspiration whenever we praise god, meditate on the perfection of god’s virtues, and worship him for being such-and-such and acting thus-and-so towards us.

Because worship and aspiration – praising god and striving to be like him – are so close as to be nearly identical, the interesting progress in all this devotional activity involves awakening these same virtues in ourselves, activating them into the forefront of our moral concerns, and eventually expressing them in the way we live in the world.

The prophets Amos, Hosea, Micah and Isaiah prepared the way by daring to speak not just on god’s behalf, but as god to their generations. Once god was thus internalized, as it were, compassion for the outcast and justice for the poor (the twin obsessions of prophetic literature) became active humanitarian concerns. With a new human ability to embody and express these virtues, an idealized and external representation of them (in god) was no longer necessary.

With Jesus we might say the final step was taken. Not only preferential love for insiders or compassionate love for outsiders, but unconditional love for one’s enemies was first professed by Jesus to be the way god really is. He went on to demonstrate this same love in the way he lived, and then called his friends to do the same.

It’s absolutely crucial that we try to grasp how revolutionary Jesus was in calling his followers to outdo even god (the tribal, retributive deity) in their practice of love. Even god couldn’t forgive unless and until all the conditions of repentance had been fulfilled, yet Jesus exhorted his disciples to begin with forgiveness, without expectation of repentance, and to never stop.

Tragically, later Christian orthodoxy would go back to retrieve the vengeful deity and proceed to make the cross of Jesus a satisfaction of conditions against god’s willingness (ability?) to forgive sinners. For another two thousand years (and counting), Christianity would revert to the very model of god that Jesus had helped us transcend and leave behind.

The earliest Christians could appreciate the repercussions of what Jesus had said and done. His community of followers (at least some of them) stepped bravely into a post-theistic age. They came to believe they were living in the fulfillment of time, as god had completely emptied himself (kenosis) into humanity, and humanity had at last risen to its divine potential (apotheosis) in Jesus.

Such a realization is rather esoteric (meaning deeply interior), to say the least. So in their effort to communicate its meaning to the larger culture, second-generation Christian storytellers began the work of painting him into a mythological frame. In a series of strategic moves, the Jesus of memory opened out into an elaborate story about Jesus the Christ: the messenger became the message.

According to the Christian myth, after his death on a cross Jesus was raised back to life and taken up into heaven, where he became (as the apostle Paul says) a life-giving spirit. Not long thereafter he descended as the holy spirit (an identification made explicit by Paul) upon the small community of his huddled and discouraged disciples, bringing them to life (in a second-order resurrection) as his new body on earth.

So in their religious (mythic) imagination, the Jesus they remembered and heard about – the one with this radical message and example of unconditional forgiveness – went up into god and came down into humanity. This was precisely the dynamic that had transpired while he was alive as one of them: he took them up into a new conceptual definition of god (with his teaching), and brought them down for an embodied demonstration (in his action).

As an example of post-theistic mythology, the early Christian myth effectively introduced newcomers to Jesus, as it facilitated the plunge into a more grounded and mystical spirituality for those farther along. Problems emerged, however, as the avant-garde post-theistic Christian movement became an established state-sanctioned dogmatic orthodoxy. The more radical and esoteric edge of the movement was sanded down into a popular religion, fully stocked with administrative officials, membership requirements, and a fantastic post-mortem benefits package.

Jesus would soon be rewritten in doctrine into the world savior who swept in from somewhere else, accomplished the critical transaction for our salvation, and went away again. He is expected to come again someday, at which time he will gather his favorites and throw the rest in hell for not believing when they had the chance. All the while, we hunker down in our denominational boxes and recite the company line with heads bowed.

If Jesus could see us now.

 
 

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