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The Rapture of Being Alive

In his interview published under the title The Power of Myth, Bill Moyers voiced the popular idea that myths are an ancient (and largely discredited) means whereby human beings have searched for the meaning of life.

After a pause, the scholar of mythology Joseph Campbell replied,

People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.

Campbell’s remark ran counter to a strong twentieth-century assumption widespread in Western culture, which had found a strong advocate in the Nazi death camp survivor and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl.

Frankl’s best-seller Man’s Search for Meaning (1946) argued that our most pressing pursuit is a meaning that will make life worth living. He was joined in this belief by the likes of the theologian Paul Tillich who analyzed our modern condition as suffering from a profound sense of meaninglessness and existential despair.

So when Campbell challenged Moyers’ assumption regarding the priority of meaning, and proposed instead that our true and deepest yearning is for an experience of being alive, he was making a rather revolutionary claim. But we misunderstand him if we take him to say that meaning doesn’t matter. His entire scholarly career was devoted to interpreting the great myths, symbols, and rituals by which humans have made life meaningful, an interest that had grasped him already when he first visited a museum as a young boy.

Since watching The Power of Myth interview years ago and subsequently diving into Campbell’s works, I’ve come to appreciate his views on meaning and life through the lens of constructivism. My diagram will serve to illustrate what I think he meant and how it applies not just to a phenomenology of myth but to every construction of meaning.

A looping dashed orange line divides my diagram into two distinct ‘realms’: one above the line and inside its loop; another below the line and outside its loop. The loop itself contains a stained-glass design – articulated, rational, and translucent shapes are joined contiguously to form a more general pattern representing the meaning of life. Living individuals are more or less engaged in the work of constructing meaning, and their collective effort is projected outward as a shared world.

This world of meaning does not exist apart from the minds that construct it. They project it out and around themselves, and then proceed to take up residence inside it.

The larger process of culture is dedicated to preserving this projected construct of shared meaning (or world) through the practices of tradition (literally handing on), the structures of institution, and the truth claims of ideology, all under the auspices of some absolute authority which is beyond question or reproach. (For many ancient and present-day societies, this is where god dwells and presides over human affairs.)

Tradition thus opens a channel to the remote and even primordial past where, unsurprisingly, the mythological warrants of authority are anchored. A common impression, therefore, is that the meaning of life is predetermined and revealed to us from beyond. Since transcendent authority speaks from an inaccessible (sacred) past and from an inaccessible (heavenly) realm, we must rely on those preserved revelations – or at least that’s how the game is spun to insiders.

Meaning is constructed, then projected, and finally locked in place. Viola.

So Frankl and others were correct: humans do indeed search for meaning. But that’s only because we have accepted the self-protective doctrine of ideology which says that meaning is out there, independent of our minds, already decided, just awaiting our discovery and consent.

For its part, constructivism doesn’t claim that meaning is merely optional. Quite the contrary, humans need meaning to the extent that we cannot be happy, sane, or self-actualized without it.

But should we get stuck inside our own constructs of meaning, forgetting how we got there and losing any sense of reality outside our meanings, that box quickly becomes too small for our spirit and the meaning of life drains away.

In that great project of meaning-making known as mythology (and its associated world constructs) we can find an acknowledgment of this limit in the narrative mechanism of apocalypse. Whether depicted as a final catastrophe that will bring down the current world-order, or more subtly in the deity whose true nature is said to surpass our comprehension, the storyteller (or myth-maker) encodes a recognition of meaning as only the representation of what cannot be grasped by our mind.

At crucial moments, the constructed veil of meaning must be pulled aside to reveal the present mystery of reality. This realization in myth is illustrated in my diagram where the looping line crosses over itself and breaks through to a realm below and outside the loop. Here the meaning of life dissolves into a grounded experience of being alive.

I call the experience grounded to make the point that such a breakthrough is from (i.e., out of) our constructs and into the naked Now, out of our world and into the present mystery, out of meaning and into a Real Presence which is indescribably perfect – and perfectly meaningless.

Just as our projected construct of shared meaning entails a separation of mind from reality, mediated by its constructed representations, the return to a grounded experience of being alive is not a rational maneuver but instead transpires as a genuine rapture in Campbell’s sense above. We are overtaken and transported, as it were, to a place outside the ego and its constructed identity. Of course this is not ‘somewhere else’, but rather nowhere at all. It is the Now/Here.

As I have tried to make clear in other posts on this topic, such a breakthrough to the rapture of being alive is not a one-time achievement. Nor does it release us of the need to be actively engaged in the ongoing construction of meaning.

What it does make possible is a higher consciousness of our own creative authority, along with a humble admission that the best product of our efforts – the purest and most inspired expression of meaning – will be only and always an understatement.

 

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Contents Under Pressure

Religion

The phenomenon of religion has evolved with the rise of human culture, perhaps going back millions of years to our hominid ancestors. Its function has always been to “link together” (religare) the separate concerns and activities of daily life in a coherent way by orienting it all around a single transcendent focus. “Transcendent” here doesn’t necessarily mean supernatural or metaphysical, but simply above and beyond the field of temporal attachments.

Theism is the standard and conventional form of religion, as it coordinates tribal life around a metaphor representing the provident power(s) behind the world as we know it. As a constructivist, I hasten to add that the so-called “world as we know it” is really a construction of our own minds – not the given sensory-physical realm outside us, but the layers of value, meaning, and significance that we weave around it. Like spiders we spin our web of language across the universe and call it home.

The deity of theism – an agency of intelligence, personality, and will that might be represented in any number of human or nonhuman forms – is how religion depicts the provident power(s) on which our lives depend. Instead of being revealed to us through the clouds, as someone coming to religion from outside might assume, this deity is actually a kind of creative reflex of the mythic imagination. The many stories (myths) that together form the narrative fabric of human meaning (our worldview) are not eye-witness reports of supernatural encounters, but rather poetic-literary portrayals of the present mystery that gives us life, supplies our need, and receives our last breath.

As societies grew larger and more complex, the tribal practice of reciting traditional stories and ritually participating in the life of god required institutional support. Certain individuals were elevated to positions of honor and authority by virtue of their familiarity with the deity. Or perhaps it was the other way around: individuals with social clout and community influence took on the mantle of high priest and presented themselves as ordained mediators between god and the people. As the sacrament of storytelling and ritual enactment became difficult to manage for a growing population, it was found that community agreement could be more efficiently achieved by converting this sacramental experience of god into a system of orthodox beliefs about god.

My illustration above intends to show how, with the addition of an authority structure and an “official” orthodoxy, religion gradually pushed the providential metaphor of the deity out of its literary habitat (as the principal figure of sacred story), into a supernatural space outside the world, and farther away from the relevant concerns of daily life.

And this is where we are today – arguing over whose deity is the one-and-only, trashing the earth, suppressing freedom and creativity, and thrusting our species to the embattled edge of oblivion. But don’t worry, if you’re on the right side your soul will be safely delivered to a better place far away.

So whereas once upon a time religion could do its job by connecting individuals to one another in community and anchoring the community to a reality celebrated as provident, it slowly but surely removed its members from communion with the Real Presence of mystery and became instead a tinderbox of spiritual frustration, small thinking, moral regression, and redemptive violence.

In the meantime this dysfunctional religion invented its own myth – now no longer in the traditional sense of a sacred story grounding us in a provident reality, but rather a narrative deception about our human fall from grace and into the hopeless condition of sin. The consequent “gap” between earth and heaven, nature and supernature, human and divine is characterized by rampant depravity and ignorance, veritably crying out for the authority and orthodoxy that religion itself provides.

The earth, our bodies (particular woman’s) and our life in time were reconstructed in this myth as fallen, corrupt, and condemned – unless saved (purified, separated, and redeemed) according to the prescription laid out in holy doctrine. If the times happen to be especially stressed and insecure (as they appear to be now), the program of salvation becomes an emergency exit from a world believed to be in the process of irreversible collapse. Over a matter of just 3,000 years or so, religion invented a myth of estrangement where humans are fated to perdition without the saving intervention of “the one true faith.”

As a counter-voice of sanity, a growing number have been calling for the dismantling of theism, insisting that belief in god at this advanced stage in our history is not only unnecessary, but irresponsible. And not just irresponsible, but intellectually and morally backwards. While “atheist” used to be a label for one who refutes the existence of (a) god, it evolved over time into an outspoken defiance of god out of allegiance to human values. Today atheists join hands in solidarity against the abuses of religion, leaving its god to exist or not exist as a matter of indifference.

In my defense of post-theism, I have frequently heard from conventional theists and atheists alike that my position is just a convoluted form of atheism. I’m really a closet atheist but just afraid to admit it to myself. To suggest that the mythological gods of religion are literary figures (in story) and not literal beings (in reality) is effectively denying the existence of god, is it not?

Actually, the “after god” of post-theism is very different from the “no god” of atheism. While atheism commits itself to arguing against the literal existence of god (or living as if it doesn’t matter), post-theism regards the literary existence and mythological career of the deity as highly relevant to an understanding of our evolution as a species.The literary deity inspires us, calls to us, and places demands on us in order to actualize what is presently dormant, unacknowledged, or repressed in us.

Yahweh, the biblical god of Jews and Christians, does not have to be real to be important. To say that Yahweh never spoke the universe into being, parted water, or raised Jesus from the dead in any kind of (as we might say) scientific-objective sense might sound as if I’m refuting his existence and seeking to undermine the religions founded on these doctrines – but I’m not. The literal existence of Yahweh is literally beside the point and outside the plot (mythos) where his truth as metaphor is found.

As a constructivist I regard every picture of reality, even the scientific one, as a construct of our minds. Religious myths and scientific theories are merely two kinds of storytelling, the one (science) weaving narratives that explain the physical universe confronting our senses, as the other (religion) does its composing out of a more internal intuition of the present mystery that sustains us. Science joined the conversation around the campfire quite late, when religion had already been about the business of myth-making for many thousands of years. Its more detached and mathematical approach to things did in fact compete with religion’s sacred fictions of fabulous characters and miraculous deeds, convincing a growing number to abandon these tales as so much primitive superstition.

In the illustration above, the entire institution of religion rests on a foundation of spiritual experience – what I call the experience of mystery or the present mystery of reality. We are in this stream (a better metaphor than foundation, which suggests something fixed and unchanging) all the time, but we can only be aware of it now, in this very moment, for in the next moment this mystery will present itself to us afresh. Out of this experience of Real Presence, along with an exquisite awareness that it sustains us providentially in this moment, arise the metaphors of the mythic imagination.

The deity is born, and just as suddenly we find ourselves engaged in a dialogue with the primordial support and deeper intention of our existence. Post-theism is the contemplation of what’s next (“post”), as we continue to grow Godward.

 
 

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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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