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Truth In Christian Mythology

One of the challenges in clarifying a post-theistic spirituality has to do with the fact that its principal concern – what I name the present mystery of reality – is impossible to define. While it is always and only right here, right now, any attempt to put a name and definition around it only manages to conceal the mystery under a veil of meaning.

Our need for certainty might be temporarily satisfied, but in the meantime the curtain of mental tapestry has separated us from what’s really real.

If we could acknowledge that this is what we’re doing, these veils would stand a better chance of parting before the mystery and facilitating a fresh encounter of our mind with reality. But while constructivism makes such an acknowledgment central to its method, orthodoxy, in every cultural domain and not only religion, cannot admit this either to its constituencies of believers or even to itself.

Our mind has a tendency to fall in love with its constructions, to get lost in its own designs. Meaning is something we can control, since it is, after all, our peculiar invention. Mystery – not even “on the other hand” since this puts it on the same axis as meaning – requires an open mind, not one boxed inside its own conclusions.

Our best constructs don’t amount to final answers but better – deeper, larger, and farther reaching – questions.

With the rise of science, the truth of our constructions of meaning (called theories) has become more strongly associated with how accurate they are as descriptions, explanations, and predictions of what’s going on around us – that is, in the factual realm external to our mind. (Even the scientific understanding of our body posits it as something physical, objective, and separate from the observing, analytical mind.)

In the meantime and as a consequence of this growing fascination with objectification, measurement, and control, we have gradually lost our taste and talent for a very different kind of narrative construction. One that doesn’t look out on a supposedly objective reality but rather contemplates the grounding mystery of existence itself.

Myths have been around far longer than theories, and one of the early mistakes of science was to assume that these ancient stories were just ignorant efforts at explaining a reality outside the mind.

Deities and demons, fantastical realms, heroic quests, and miraculous events – the familiar stuff of myths: such were not validated under scientific scrutiny and had to be rejected on our advance to enlightenment. Religion itself fell into amnesia, relinquishing its role as storyteller and settling into the defense of a supernatural realm above the natural realm, or (trying to seem more scientific) a metaphysical realm behind the physics of science.

Otherwise, religion agreed to keep its focus on morality and the life to come.

The theism-atheism debate is relevant here and only here, where the factual (i.e., supernatural, metaphysical) existence of god makes any sense. Theists insist that their stories are literally true and the mythological god is real, while atheists claim they are not, for obvious reasons. Theists profess the necessity of believing in god’s existence as a matter of faith, whereas atheists rightly point out that believing anything without the evidence or logic to support it is intellectually irresponsible.

They are both at a stalemate. We need to move on …

Post-theism provides a way out of this predicament by challenging us to put aside both metaphysics and physics as we reconsider these timeless myths. Their truth is not a matter of factual explanation but mystical revelation – or if you prefer, artistic revelation, precisely in the way a true work of art presents us with an artifact to contemplate and then draws back this veil on a present mystery. This mystery is the here-and-now experience that inspired the artist to begin with.

As revelation, however, it is not a look at someone else’s past experience of the here-and-now but offers a spontaneous insight for the beholder into the deep mystery of This Moment.

To show what I mean, let’s take the central myth of Christianity which has been summarized by orthodoxy in the doctrines of the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But whereas Christian orthodoxy has attached these exclusively to the historical figure of Jesus, that is to say, to a person in the past, we will regard him instead as an archetypal figure, as an instance of what Joseph Campbell named The Hero.As Campbell demonstrated, this Hero has ‘a thousand faces’ reflecting the divers cultures and epochs where his (and her) stories are told – stories that can be interpreted and understood archetypally as about ourselves.

The Hero, then, is our ego, or the self-conscious center of personal identity that each of us is compelled to become. My diagram illustrates this journey of identity with an arching arrow representing the linear path of our individual lifespan. Personal identity is not something we’re born with, and its character cannot simply be reduced to our genes and animal temperament.

Quite otherwise, identity must be constructed, and its construction is a profoundly social project involving our parents and other taller powers, along with siblings and peers who make up our cohort through time.

Just as the Hero’s destiny is to serve as an agent of cultural aspirations (a struggle against fate), progress (a counter to the stabilizing force of tradition), and creativity (as an instigator of new possibilities), so does his or her path chart the trend-line and opportunities associated with our higher evolution as a species.

Briefly in what follows I will translate the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ as representing three primary stages in the Hero’s Journey each of us is on.

What I call the grounding mystery of reality is all that has transpired to bring forth our existence as human beings. This refers not only to the causal sequence of events leading up to us, but each distinct manifestation of the universe making up our present nature as physical, organic, sentient, and self-conscious individuals.

From our position of ego consciousness we look ‘down’ into the ground of what we essentially are.

As mentioned earlier, it is our socially constructed center of separate identity (ego) that arcs in its journey out, away, and eventually back to the grounding mystery. Because personal identity is socially constructed and independent of genetic inheritance, the start of its journey is represented in the myths as something of a vertical drop from another realm. The Hero may simply show up, but frequently in myths its advent comes about by way of a virgin birth.

Staying with this natal imagery, our best description would be to say that ego is spontaneously conceived (or ‘wakes up’) in the womb of the body.

The longer process of ego formation involves the attachments, agreements, and assignments that conspire to identify us as somebody special and separate from the rest. Our tribe provides us (or so we can hope) with models of maturity, responsibility, and virtue, in the taller powers of adults who watch over us; but also in the construct of a personal deity who exemplifies the perfection of virtue.

In my diagram I have colored the construct of god with a gradient ranging from purple (representing the grounding mystery) to orange (representing ego consciousness), in order to make the point that god is not merely another being, but the personified ground of being as well as the exalted ideal of our own waking nature.

But at the very apex of ego’s formation, just as we come to ourselves as special and separate from the rest, another realization dawns: that we are separate and alone. In the heroic achievement of our unique individuality we also must somehow accept (or otherwise resign to) the full burden of our existence as solitary and mortal beings.

In the Christian myth this is represented by Jesus on the cross when he cries out, “My god, my god, why have you forsaken me?!” (Mark 15:34)

As a narrative mechanism, the cross thrusts our Hero away from the earth but not quite into heaven either, where he hangs in a grey void of isolation, exposure, and abandonment. This is the crucial (‘cross-shaped’ or ‘cross-over’) point that can lead either to utter despair, a desperate craving for security and assurance, or to the breakthrough of genuine awakening.

Which way it goes will depend on our ability to sustain this shock of loneliness and look not away but through it to a transpersonal view of life.

It’s not a coincidence that Jesus’ followers recognized his cross as central to his vision of the liberated life. It was a visual depiction of his core message (gospel) concerning the necessity of dying to one’s separate and special self, whether that specialness is based in a felt sense of pride and superiority, or in shame and inferiority. Both, in fact, can equally fixate ego on itself and keep us from authentic life.

Only by getting over ourselves can we enter into conscious communion with others and with the greater reality beyond us.

Entering into the authentic life of a transpersonal existence brings us to the third stage of our Hero’s journey: resurrection. This isn’t a recovery of our former life but an elevation of consciousness to the liberated life, to what I also call our creative authority as individuals in community. In the Christian myth this higher state of the liberated life is represented in the symbol of an empty tomb, which plays opposite to the virgin womb as the locus of our Hero’s ‘second birth’, set free from the constraints of insecurity, ambition … and belief.

From a post-theistic perspective, one gift of the liberated life is a grace to live in full acceptance of our own mortality, of the passing nature of things, and of the deep abyss in the face of which our most cherished veils of meaning dissolve away.

 

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Life in Perfect Freedom

Recently in my blog bibletracts (bibletracts.wordpress.com) I’ve been exploring the meaning of resurrection. The timing is right for two reasons. First, the liturgical year of the Church is now approaching the season of Easter, the Christian holy day set aside to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. Secondly, because resurrection is fundamentally misunderstood when its meaning is fixed to something that supposedly happened to someone nearly 2,000 years ago. Treating it as a fact of history only apparently takes it seriously, when in reality a literal reading cuts the energizing nerve of resurrection altogether.

Biblical literalism is a one-dimensional reading that takes the Bible at face value. The attraction is that it effectively eliminates the potentially corrupting intervention of interpretation. There is nothing to interpret – it’s all right there on the surface, in what it says. A decided advantage to other approaches is literalism’s permission (and forgiveness) not to think critically.

But a literal reading of the Bible is then faced with the need to choose between contradictory texts: Who killed the giant Goliath, for instance, David (1 Samuel 17:51) or Elhanan (2 Samuel 21:19)? As well as inconsistent “reports”: Did all of Jesus’ disciples abandon him at his arrest (Gospel of Mark), or did a few stay with him to the very end (Gospel of John)?

The energy it takes to cleverly maneuver such obstacles in order to justify a literal reading gets tied up at the surface, so to speak, when the reader might break through to deeper meaning. “Deeper meaning” doesn’t get us closer to facts (which is a modern delusion) but closer to the experience – the encounter, insight, crisis, or realization – that inspired the production of meaning in the first place.

Why should we want to treat the resurrection as anything other or beyond the historical miracle of Jesus coming back to life? The absolute and exclusive nature of this historical claim is typically used to set Christianity apart from other religions and to sanction its own errant denominations. If we loosen our grip on the resurrection as an historical fact, won’t we also lose our standing as the one true religion?

That’s assuming validity to the claim that Christianity is the one true religion, or that it’s even meaningful to speak of a “true religion” in the first place. As I’ve worked that one over in a previous post (http://wp.me/p2tkek-f3), I want to move more specifically into an exploration of the originary experience of resurrection and its expanded architecture of meaning.

Architecture of Meaning

Let’s start with the resurrection taken as a miracle, which refers to a supernatural intervention suspending or breaking into the nexus of historical cause and effect. As miracle, the resurrection was a unique event that happened many centuries ago, whereby God intervened on the natural course of events and raised the dead Jesus back to life.

As long as we don’t look any more closely at it, the resurrection-as-miracle is free to sit there in a mental vacuum without much context or background. Again, this is precisely where it is most useful to our efforts in staking an exclusive claim on truth.

But where do we learn about the resurrection? We didn’t witness the historical event ourselves, nor did we get the news from a living first-hand witness. Instead, we find it in a story.

Orthodoxy tries to protect its claim at this point by insisting that the so-called stories are really eye-witness accounts of historical facts. Or if they are not exactly eye-witness accounts (no one claims to have seen Jesus coming out of the tomb), then the authority of the Bible as “God’s word” makes them just as good or better. That leaves us with the resurrection as an absolute (stand-alone) fact, and the story of the resurrection a literal account. Done and done.

As far as the story is concerned, we are faced with the challenge of determining which “account” is the most literal. The Gospels don’t match up in full agreement on such details as who discovers the empty tomb, how the news gets out, and whether anyone sees Jesus (presumably risen) afterwards. Maybe these details don’t really matter. But then again, if it’s supposed to be God’s word to your ears and the proof is in the miracle, then errors in detail make the whole thing a little less reliable, don’t they?

A closer look at the story of the resurrection reveals an emptiness or openness at the key location where the decisive proof is supposed to be found. The abandoned and now-vacant tomb is not exactly proof of a resurrection. “He is not here” is all that can be said at this critical moment in the plot. In the narrative section just before this point we see Jesus hanging dead on his cross, and in the subsequent section we see Jesus alive again – though interestingly not in the earliest Gospel (Mark).

The orientation and balance of the Gospel narratives around this turning-point of the tomb suggests that the resurrection story is more than just a factual report. At this point (in this discussion but also in the Gospel story) we begin to get the sense of the narrative as not merely describing the mechanics of a miraculous event long ago, but as speaking to us from somewhere deeper within. We are being invited into the myth.

Although its career began in the simple idea of a narrative “plot,” myth is a term used in literary theory to identify a certain kind of story. A myth is not necessarily a story about the gods, but one that serves to orient our human concerns and aspirations inside an ultimately meaningful universe. It was only after we reached the presumption that our myths were factual reports that myth in general got downgraded to misleading fiction, deliberate deception, and erroneous beliefs (as in “The 10 myths of weight loss”).

The true meaning of a myth has really nothing to do with the objective accuracy of what it says, but rather with its power to touch, awaken, and direct human consciousness to the deeper mysteries of life and death.

In the Gospel myths the storyline has been elaborated in slightly different ways around this threshold symbol of a tomb. The action plot of the story moves through (or over) this threshold to the “other side” where the jubilant announcement is heard: “He is risen!” As threshold, the symbol occupies not only this horizontal axis of the temporal plot, but a vertical one as well, inviting our descent from overt meaning into a deeper register of awareness. Now the tomb begins to resonate in relative isolation from the narrative background and action sequence, serving to carry or “bear across” (metaphorein) our contemplative focus from surface meanings into the depths of mystery.

Meaning is our mind’s effort to qualify the mystery of being alive and living toward death. If all that elaboration at the surface is to  orient our existence inside an ultimately meaningful universe – and be meaningfully relevant – then some acknowledgment must be made of this one inescapable fact. And yet, perhaps by putting our focus on the end of our life’s sentence we are missing the real insight here.

Each moment comes and goes. The present arises, passes away, and rises again. From quarks to quasars and throughout the fragile web of life stretched in between, existence moves according to a rhythm of emergence and dissolution, rolling into waves and unwinding again, holding on and letting go. We see this all around us, but when it comes to contemplating our own final release we tense up and grip down in fear.

In actuality we are progressing through an indeterminate sequence of losses – that is to say, if our ambition is to hang on and make it through.

But what if we could let go? What would happen if we could find the courage to surrender ourselves to the provident grace of this moment, into the spacious emptiness of this present mystery? Beliefs, which are really conclusions from the past, would give way to faith, the ever-present act of resting fully in the Now. No longer would we (barely) live as hostages to our convictions, taking life in the name of truth. Instead, our peace would be timeless, our love boundless, and our joy would have no end.

This is how Jesus was said to live. When he died, those who understood him best knew that it wasn’t over. To the degree he had offered his life out of the spontaneous generosity of each moment, no tomb could hold him for good.

 

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One Thing

Kierkegaard: “The [one] who desires the Good for the sake of the reward does not will one thing, but is double-minded.”

Down through the history of philosophy in the West, metaphysical realists have believed in “the Good,” in a deep foundation or high ideal on which all our values are oriented. The great Plato even made it the sun-center of his thought system, explaining our appreciation of goodness in the realm of time as the intuition of an eternal or timeless Form reflected to varying degrees in the world around us. Later on, the Church father Augustine interpreted this and other forms of perfection as archetypes in the mind of God, the essential patterns on which Creation was originally fashioned and from which it eventually fell, under the spell of sin.

In the high Middle Ages, philosophers began to challenge this idea of transcendental Forms (archetypes, models, divine ideas) having a separate existence in a realm apart from their incarnations in time. Nominalism insisted that these so-called Forms are only categories in our minds, names we use to organize and make sense of reality – whatever that is. This was the bridge in Western philosophy that gave support to even more radical views later on, in the set of assumptions called postmodernism: (1) all we have is perspective, (2) meaning is constructed, and (3) there are no absolutes.

Kierkegaard was in this new current of thought, so why does he still refer to “the Good” as if it is something out there that we might desire, whether for the sake of a reward or not? Does the Good exist in some other realm, apart from this web of relativity we call our world? If there were no human beings, would there still be the Good? A little farther into the nineteenth century Nietzsche would insist on our evolutionary need to go “beyond good and evil” – beyond tribal morality, the dis/obedient ego, and the mythological god who holds it all in place – for the sake of a higher humanity (his Ubermensch or higher self). Is Kierkegaard trying to prevent what Nietzsche later celebrated?

It may sound as if he is saying, “Okay, we’re making it all up – except this one thing, the Good.” Like the vestige of the mythological god who still lurks behind the screen for many post-theists today, perhaps the Good is Kierkegaard’s attempt to fix in place just one thing that can serve as the immovable center of this (only) apparent chaos. At least there’s this, we can say. This is absolute and for certain, whatever else may be called into doubt.

But what if “the Good” is more internal than external, more about the intention in what we do than something we look for and find out there in the world? What if it’s about focus, passion and devotion – what you regard in all seriousness as the “one thing” that matters most. This is what Tillich means by “ultimate concern.” Its separate existence, either outside you in the world or in a metaphysical realm apart from this one, is merely secondary. Maybe “the Good” is not what we will but the way we will, a quality of intention rather than a quantifiable something out there.

Human beings make meaning, we don’t find it – unless we come across what someone else has created already. Once upon a time we composed a myth that conceived of existence itself as the creation of a god who made everything before we got here. So we’re coming across what someone else has created already, all the time, and its meaning is inherent because god put it there. But once we realize that the mythological god is a literary and psychological device in our own effort at meaning-making, a new kind of responsibility befalls us.

In the film City Slickers, the character Mitch is a man who has reached the point at midlife where meaning and purpose have drained from his world. In the spirit of adventure – and as a kind of desperate measure to get out of his boring life routine – he and his friends sign up for a cattle-drive across the western United States. In a critical scene Mitch is sitting with an old cowhand named Curly, whose way in the world is tough and crass, and he asks him the question that’s been burning in his soul: “What’s the meaning of life?” Curly pauses, looks deep in his eyes and says to Mitch, “One thing.”

For a while thereafter, Mitch is perplexed over what that “one thing” might be. Is it a woman? A successful career? Religion? When Norman, a calf that Mitch delivers under Curly’s supervision, is in danger of drowning in a fast-moving stream, Mitch jumps in at the risk of his own life and saves the animal. In that moment he discovers the “one thing” as the object of his unconditional love and personal sacrifice. After the adventure he goes back to his life with renewed intention, embracing in gratitude and devotion what had earlier felt only heavy and pointless.

This is what I think Kierkegaard means by “the Good.” It’s not out there for us to find. Instead it’s the degree of focus, passion and investment with which we live our lives. Living “on purpose” means that we are living awake, that we are not simply reacting to our upbringing or circumstances but rather intentionally creating the lives we really want.

There is a caveat. Our lives will be truly meaning-full when we live not for the sake of gaining a reward (something afterwards or on the side) but for the fulfillment that is intrinsic to the act of creation itself. As creators of value, human beings find their deepest spiritual satisfaction in translating the present mystery of reality into worlds of significance, purpose, beauty and love. Not for what we get out of it, but for the exhilaration and authentic life we experience as we get deeper into it.

It’s not about me, and it’s not about you. But it can’t happen without us, so let’s step into it with both eyes open.

 

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Getting Back to Here and Now

Schleiermacher: “The goal and character of the religious life is not the immortality desired and believed in by many. It is not the immortality that is outside of time, behind it, or rather after it, and which still is in time. It is the immortality which we can now have in this temporal life; it is the problem in the solution of which we are forever to be engaged. In the midst of finitude to be one with the Infinite and in every moment to be eternal is the immortality of religion.”

I’ve already mentioned how Schleiermacher criticized two of the foundational doctrines of Christian orthodoxy – the providence of god and the immortality of the soul. Later on, Nietzsche would pick up this criticism with new vigor. Together they stand in a philosophical time-stream that has come to be called by several names – perspectivism, constructivism, nonrealism – and generally postmodernism.

Whereas the modern West had rested on the confidence of a fixed objective world (out there), postmodernism has realized how much of what we assume as out there is really our own projection. The modern mind had also looked “up” to a god who actually existed in a supernatural space (heaven) above and outside the world, while the postmodern mind rejects metaphysical realism. And if modern religion had regarded the individual soul as indestructible and immortal, postmodernism (if it has a place for soul at all) defines it merely as our “inner life” where individual existence emerges from and dissolves into the present mystery of reality.

So Schleiermacher was an early postmodernist, living at a time when the modern paradigm was losing energy and falling apart. His challenge wasn’t merely to reinterpret traditional religion for a new (nontraditional) audience, but rather to reconnect Christianity to its spiritual grounding. For him, this grounding is subjective and experiential – in the human experience of reality – and not objective or external to us. In his magnum opus The Christian Faith, he defined faith as “the feeling of absolute dependence” on the living presence of God.

In Christian orthodoxy the doctrine of providence refers to god’s control over world events and his predetermined purpose for the future. I shifted to a lower-case “g” to indicate that we’re talking about the god of Christian mythology, the main protagonist of the Bible who created the universe, chose a favorite nation, handed down a law code, intervened on historical events, raised Jesus from the grave, and now governs all things from a high point outside human affairs.

For Schleiermacher – and others like me – providence has to do with present existence and not future destination. In each moment, I am grounded in a reality that is creative, supportive and interdependent. To the degree that I can release my ego need for security and personal control, my life begins to relax into being. This heart-beat, this breath, this life, this passing moment are simply “provided” to me. I don’t need to grip down and worry them into effect. Indeed, my nervous effort to control them actually interferes and puts them in jeopardy.

Just as we can distinguish between the mythological god and the living presence of God, the soul can be defined as the part of me that lives forever (immortality in the temporal sense) or as that deep place in my life where I am grounded in the divine presence. This is where the distinction between “everlasting” and “eternal” becomes especially important. Immortality is about now, not later. It is about going deeper into reality (and becoming more real), not farther ahead in time; it’s authentic life, not life without end.

Of course, this process of redefining religious terms – or rather recovering their original meaning as metaphors of religious experience – is still enmeshed in words and thoughts about the mystery. The modern commitment to building systems and constructing meaning can get caught in the web of its own making. A postmodern spirituality simply regards all of this as secondary reflection on the primary process of experience itself.

We need to get back to experience, which might involve back-tracking through this construction site to the original inspiration that got it all going in the first place. This is Schleiermacher’s agenda as a late-modern clergyman and Christian theologian. But we might also just skip the project of rehabilitating doctrines and go directly to experience itself. Once there – a place we always are and only leave in our minds – we can begin to feel our absolute dependence on the greater reality beneath us (ground) and all around us (universe).

It’s not about being right, but being real. Aware of my relative position in the grandeur of it all, and cultivating my own internal access point to the present mystery of reality, I no longer feel the need to cling regretfully to the past or wait anxiously for the future. This is where I Am.

Where are you?

 

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