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The Beginning of Wisdom

In the ethical monotheism of late Judaism and early Christianity, Yahweh (originally a minor warrior deity of a small federation of habiru tribes in the region of Sinai who eventually became the creator of heaven and earth) was regarded as the supreme judge over the destiny of human beings. He demanded exclusive worship and absolute obedience from his devotees, in exchange for which he provided them with protection and a prosperous life.

The “fear of the Lord” – not living in abject terror of god but with reverent awareness of his watchful supervision – was thus an acknowledgment of the human being’s accountability as a moral agent before the One whose will is the Way of all things.

This fusion of human moral accountability and the omnipotent will of god would create numerous crises for believers over the centuries. From the Babylonian invasion and exile of 586 BCE, through the calamitous failure of Jesus’ revolution, to the twentieth-century holocaust (or Shoah) in which millions of Jews and other faithful were killed, the contradiction in believing that a benevolent deity is in control as innocent human beings suffer has driven many once-devoted theists to abandon their belief in god.

For as long as theism regarded deities as personified agencies of cosmic and natural forces, human suffering could be chalked up to fate – “That’s just the way it is.” But after the Bible’s ethical monotheism elevated the will of god above everything else, a crisis was just a matter of time.

Try as we might to uphold divine sovereignty by making human beings somehow deserving of their suffering (e.g., an individual’s unconfessed sin, inherited guilt from previous generations, or the total depravity of human nature); or on the other side, by appealing to god’s inscrutable plan, the soul-therapy of pain and loss, or adjusting the mixer board of orthodoxy so that god’s righteousness is bumped above his compassion – all of this compromise to our ethical and rational sensibilities has put belief in god’s existence out of the question for many.

Does this leave us with atheism then? It sounds like we need to drop all this nonsense and move on. Haven’t we disproved god’s existence by now, tolerated the logical and moral contradictions, or at least gone long enough without evidence to support the claim? If theism has ruined its credit in our modern minds, isn’t atheism all that’s left?

A good part of this blog is dedicated to clarifying a different conclusion. Just because many of us are no longer able – more importantly we aren’t willing – to sacrifice intellect for faith doesn’t necessarily mean that theism has to be trashed, or that it’s been fatally exposed as a farce.

It could also mean that theism has done its job.


For a time when we were young (so runs my argument) we depended on higher powers to help us feel secure, supervise our development, and exemplify the character virtues that promote cooperation and goodwill. Every family system is a kind of theism where taller powers provide for underlings in these and other ways, and they in turn try to be obedient and respectful of parental authority.

The fear of the Lord was continually in our awareness of being accountable for our words, choices, and behavior. Doing good came back in praise and reward; doing bad called down blame and punishment. If our taller powers were involved and diligent, we eventually came to understand that ‘the world’ (our household) was an interdependent system where our actions had consequences – not just for us alone but for the system as a whole.

In ancient and traditional societies this world model of a household was projected outward onto a larger – in the case of Judaism’s ethical monotheism, a cosmic – scale, where a patron deity (like Yahweh) was imagined as watching over his children, demanding their obedience, and providing for their needs. Such a model of reality gave assurance that the tribe and its individual members weren’t orphans adrift in an indifferent or hostile universe.

Their god personified a provident intention in the greater cosmos, but s/he also reminded them that human beings are part of something larger and owe their contribution to the whole. No action went unnoticed by god; later, Jesus would insist that not even our thoughts and desires are hidden from “the father who sees in secret.” Humans are one big sibling society under the will of the fatherly Yahweh, and each of us is accountable to him. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.


We realize now as never before that our representations of ultimate reality are metaphorical constructions that not only assist our contemplation of what is beyond name and form but also serve to link the business of daily life to a transcendent center of value and meaning. Yahweh is a mythic character, a literary figure, a theological construct who personified the provident mystery of reality as superintendent over nature and all nations.

While it is the case that Bible stories tell of Yahweh’s great accomplishment “in the beginning,” his intervention on behalf of Hebrew slaves, his guidance and support of refugees through the wilderness, his revelation of laws by which to govern the community, his ventriloquism through the prophets, his incarnation in Jesus, the fertilization of a new community by his spirit, his orchestration of the missionary church, and the preparation currently underway for the apocalyptic final curtain – we commonly overlook the fact that all of this takes place inside the imaginarium of myth.

Because biblical (or more accurately, mythological) literalists are considering these stories from a standpoint outside this imaginarium – which names a mode of consciousness that is shaped and fully immersed in its own narrative constructions of meaning – the veracity of Yahweh’s character for them must be a function of his separate existence, apart from the stories themselves. In other words, these are not mere stories (certainly not myths!) but eye-witness reports of actual supernatural facts and miraculous events.

It was this loss of the mythic imagination which motivated the conviction that would eventually set the stage for theism’s disproof by science.

We could have gone the route of seeing through the myths as metaphorical representations of reality, and as mythopoetic (rather than scientific) constructions of meaning. In that case, theism might have taken the role of orienting human consciousness in reality, providing mystical grounding and moral guidance in the formation of identity, and then assisted the further transformation of consciousness by facilitating its liberation from ego in a transpersonal re-orientation to life within the turning unity of all things. The pernicious divisions of soul and body, self and other, human and nature would have been transcended and healed, lifting us into a conscious experience of community, wholeness, fulfillment, and wellbeing.

But things went in a different direction.


Now, on the other side of our sacred stories (seeing through them rather than seeing by them) and taking up our lives after god (post-theism), we still have an opportunity to embrace that ancient proverb: The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. For us, however, it’s not about living under the watchful, provident, and retributive supervision of a god. We can save the kernel of its wisdom and release the husk of theism that protected it for millenniums.

It’s not that we should live in such a way that pleases god the father and motivates his blessing in return. The personified character of god in the myths was only the ‘husk’ inside of which the precious insight was honored and kept – the insight that we are not getting away with anything.

We are accountable. Our beliefs, values, and actions affect much more than we know, for we belong to a larger living system. What we do locally amplifies in its effects to impact global conditions, which in turn nourish, limit, or undermine our local quality of life.

Not only are we not ‘getting away’ from this situation by some escape route to a perfect world (a utopian future or heavenly paradise), the integral intelligence of systemic feedback that is our planet and its cosmic environment will continue to bring back to us the consequences of our daily choices. And as we can see with the effects of industrial pollution and global warming, these consequences are now crossing a critical threshold.

What we sow in our inner life (soul) comes out as health or illness in our body. What we do to others (as Jesus pointed out, especially our enemies) comes back on our self. The degree or lack of reverence and care that we demonstrate for the household of nature reflects the dignity we affirm our deny in our own human species. All is one, and we’re all in this together.

That is wisdom.

 

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The Imaginarium of Belief

Humans are a storytelling species. Anything else that may set us apart from our fellow earthlings – our art, technology, industry, government, science, spirituality, and personal life – is made possible only as part of a larger endeavor in constructing meaning. As one of our ultimate concerns, making meaning through storytelling is how we orient ourselves in reality, open up new possibilities, find strength in adversity, come together for fresh solutions, or drive ourselves to extinction.

In a recent post entitled Above Us Only Sky I introduced the imaginarium of belief as the place where stories are born. It’s also where those interesting characters of a particular kind of story known as myth enter our world. I don’t claim that god literally exists out there and apart from our imaginations, but that god’s existence is literary, as a figure in narratives that tell of our origins and destiny, of our place in the cosmos, and what we have inside ourselves still to discover and awaken.

I understand that such a statement may sound heretical and blasphemous to those who have been instructed to take the stories of god literally and who believe in a literal (factual, metaphysical, supernatural) deity. Even though they have never encountered a separate deity – and we need to carefully distinguish this from undergoing certain experiences and attributing them to an idea of god they have in mind – the expectation is that they should persevere in believing such, as this adds merit to their faith.

As religion insists on the objective truth of its myths (or sacred stories), any hope of restoring an appreciation of their genuine significance recedes. We might be tempted to review every myth for its deeper meaning, and in some cases it will be worth the effort. But rather than committing ourselves to such an exhaustive review, which would take a long time and carry us across a wide diversity of cultures, I’m taking the option of remembering what you may have forgotten.

Once upon a time you played in storyland and every feature of your life-world had roots and branches in its magic.

It’s conventional these days to regard the myths of culture and the fantasies of childhood as amusements we’ve outgrown. As modern adults we need to put aside stories that don’t connect us to reality, and focus instead on straightforward descriptions of the way things are. Our preference is for theory over myth, since theories are explanations of objective facts we can count on. It doesn’t matter where you’re from or what mood you happen to be in today; a valid theory is true regardless. In fact, the theory is true precisely because it has methodologically excluded the idiosyncratic factors of personality and perspective.

This virtue of an absolute truth outside our human experience is what seduced religion into confusing its own stories with supernatural journalism – as an objective reporting on revealed facts, metaphysical beings, and historical miracles. Once this move was made, the validity of religion as a system for the activation and development of spirituality was almost entirely lost. Religion has consequently become depleted, defensive, regressive, and irrelevant.

My hope is that as we individually recover an appreciation for the mythopoetic imagination and its stories, our perspective on religion and its future will brighten as well. We’ll see.

In Whole Picture, Whole Brain I proposed that meaning is the product of two parallel processes working together: communion (based in the right hemisphere of our brain) and knowledge (based more in the left). A deep rootedness in reality (i.e., communion) or an objective understanding of reality (i.e., knowledge) is insufficient in itself to make our existence meaningful. We need the contributions of both sides – communion and knowledge, embodied contemplation and detached observation, stories that reveal (myths) as well as stories that explain (theories).

As these two storytelling processes (right-side myth and left-side theory) work together, they deepen and expand our experience of meaning, as well as empower our creative authority as meaning makers. As we mature into adulthood and our belief system needs to become more realistic, responsible, and relevant to the daily concerns of public life, the challenge is not to lose our sense of communion with reality and its integral wholeness.

Whether a particular belief identifies and explains something in objective reality or reveals and expresses something from our deeper experience, our method for determining its truth value will be different. A story about god, then, might be scrutinized for its factual accuracy or contemplated for its metaphorical depth. In the first case it will be rejected for lack of empirical evidence, while in the second it might open new insight into a mystery that can’t be isolated and defined.

Since the Western mind has been moving steadily toward the mastery of knowledge and away from the mystery of communion, I will devote the remainder of this post to clarifying what the mystery of communion is all about.

Let’s drop down from the imaginarium of belief in my diagram and begin where it all starts: in the stream of experience where each of is every moment. It would be easy to assume that the ego – your prized center of personal identity – is immersed in this stream, but not so. Ego lives inside the imaginarium of belief, caught in its own delusion of separateness. (This delusion of separateness is an important phase in your self-actualization as a human being, so long as you are enabled to transcend it in higher experiences of inclusion, wellbeing, and wholeness.) To enter the stream of experience, you must surrender the center of who you think you are.

This, by the way, is the path of mystical descent practiced across cultures and often against the orthodoxy of (particularly theistic) religion. The goal is to steadily unwrap the constructed self (ego) of every last label identifying “I, me, and mine,” until nothing is left but boundless presence – not “my presence” or the presence of something else (like a god), but the present mystery of reality.

To arrive at this place of deep inner calm you will have to first sink past the delusion of who you think you are, descend the electrochemical web of your sentient nervous system, deeper into the ancient biorhythms of your animal body, and finally pass through the trough of the wave to a silent stillness within.

You need to be reminded that you are always already here, and that this inner clearing of boundless presence awaits you even now.

We moderns are so much into the management of identity (who we are or strive to be), that we have forgotten the wellspring in the depths of what we are, as human manifestations of being. Our essential nature is in communion with reality, while our conditioned self (ego) is separated from it.

When you were very young, the stories that shaped and inspired you were less concerned with objective reality – simply because your separate self had not yet been established and there was no clearly objective reality. What made these stories so compelling for you had nothing to do with factual accuracy. They were compelling by virtue of their metaphorical profundity, where profound is in reference to containing deep insight rather than intellectual sophistication. The characters of story were metaphors – vehicles, mediators, and catalysts – of the immersive experience in which you took such delight.

Such an immersive experience is another name for what I mean by communion.

Again, when you were a young child, these imaginary and metaphorical beings were spontaneously appreciated for their power. But on the other side of childhood (specifically after age ten) your perspective on these stories and their characters began to shift more toward the left brain, which is the hemisphere with greater investment in the match between words and their objective referents in external reality. From that point on, theories (as explanations) became more important to getting on in the world than myths (those revelations of inner life).

The challenge became one of contemplating those same fictional characters in conscious acknowledgment of their metaphorical nature. They are still capable of facilitating the mystery of experience into constructs of language (meta-phorein means “to bear across”) – but now you have to look back down through them in order to catch the insight at their roots. 

And this is where we are today with respect to the myths of religion. The sacred stories that once carried our spontaneous experience of communion with reality began very naturally to lose their enchantment. Which put believers on the horns of a dilemma: either reluctantly give up on the myths and leave them behind for a more adult engagement with reality, or else insist on their literal (i.e., factual) truth and consequently reject many well-established theories in the contemporary system of knowledge. Unfortunately, not only have a large number of theistic believers gone with mythological (or biblical) literalism, but metaphor-blind leaders have encouraged and even insisted on it.

Back one more time to the imaginarium of belief, where our knowledge about reality and our communion with reality intertwine (without fusing into confusion) in our constructions of meaning. Theories alone or myths alone are not enough for the important work to be done. We need them both, which means that we need to brush up on our creative skills as storytellers.

 

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Looking At and Looking Through

When you stand before a Monet painting of water lilies, you might choose to analyze it according to its physical dimensions, the composition and pigment of the paint, the particular arrangement of highlight and shadow, and how close Monet came to a realistic depiction of actual water lilies.

At the conclusion of your analysis you would have a catalog of observable facts, to which you could also add more factual details such as the time period, historical circumstances, events from Monet’s personal life and his development as a painter. This mode of analysis employs the power of observation in order to explain what you are looking at.

But you might choose to contemplate the painting instead of analyzing it. In that case you wouldn’t be observing from an objective distance and reducing it to a catalog of facts, but rather encountering it as an artistic creation. His rendering of water lilies is not asking to be explained or compared with actual water lilies.

The intention of art is not to explain (literally to spread out on a flat surface for examination) but to reveal (to pull back a veil and allow something to be seen). Your contemplation of Monet’s painting represents a very different mode of perception from that of analysis, inviting a kind of dialogue between you and the artist.

A painting, like everything else made by the creative skill of human beings and not found in nature, is what we call an artifact. In evolutionary history, the threshold between animal nature and human culture is defined by the artifacts that our species created, as together they constructed a peculiarly human world – the network of tools, utilities, technologies, symbols, values, agreements, and beliefs that carry the meaning of life for us.

As one kind of artifact, a machine is the product of an engineering and technical intelligence. Monet’s painting of water lilies, on the other hand, is an expression of an intuitive and aesthetic intelligence. Such distinct types of intelligence co-evolving in human beings are what make us a wonderfully visionary, prolific, and complicated species.

The question of whether a given artifact is more art or fact is an interesting one, with far-reaching implications. When you analyze Monet’s water lilies into a catalog of physical and historical details, you are treating it as a fact – something to look at, to observe, and ultimately to explain. Once explained, the object is said to be ‘known’. Each color pigment has a chromatic number value. Each shape has proximal value with respect to real objects. The painting traces along a line of causality back to Monet himself, as the man who made it at a specific time in history.

Your thorough explanation effectively reduces the painting to an object before you.

In the second mode, of contemplation, you instead encounter the artifact as more art than fact. As art, Monet’s painting cannot be decomposed into its basic and essentially separate elements. Indeed, its artistic virtue as a medium of revelation (as a veil parting) requires that you behold the painting as a whole. Only then is it possible – and we can only hope for the possibility since it is nothing you can control or make happen – for the work of art to show you what cannot be observed.

To behold is an exquisitely receptive (as distinct from merely passive) act of contemplation. With patient and mindful attention, you may eventually come to see not what Monet saw but as he saw, ushered into his experience of water lilies.

We can easily summarize these two modes of perception as the difference between looking at (observation, analysis, explanation) and looking through (encounter, contemplation, revelation). It is the difference between treating an artifact as an opaque fact or as translucent art. In the first case, Monet’s painting is a rather inaccurate and unrealistic depiction of water lilies. In the second, it represents (i.e., makes present again) something that is not a thing: Monet’s experience of the present mystery of reality manifested in water lilies.

Now, you may lack even an inkling of art appreciation. To you it’s just a picture, and not a very impressive attempt by someone who fashioned himself a painter. He could better have painted houses or fences, for at least that would have contributed something useful to society. With today’s advances in photography, we shouldn’t have to settle for illustrations that are barely recognizable and basically worthless as depictions of actual facts.

There is a similar widespread inability, especially among those living in the light (or under the shadow) of modern science, for appreciating story as art – particularly the sacred stories of culture and religion known as myths. Stories, too, are artifacts, which means that we can choose how we engage them, as art or as fact.

Despite the difference in their media, a story is very similar to a painting in that both depict images for us to hold in mind. Originally and for many millenniums, human cultures composed myths that were intended for the modes of encounter, contemplation, and revelation. It would have made no sense whatsoever for a creation myth, for example, to be analyzed into its narrative elements or taken as an explanation of observable facts.

As art, the myth was not regarded as an eye-witness report of long-ago events in the history of the cosmos. Rather it was recited in sacred settings of ritual performance (not locked inside printed books) and the storyteller would usher his or her community into an experience of an awesome yet provident universe, the cradle and household of all living things.

With the rise of science, artistic insight into the present mystery of reality was gradually eclipsed by factual observations, empirical analysis, and rational explanations. This new mode of engaging with reality certainly marked a great advance in the human journey, but our fascination with knowledge and control came at a cost.

In his landmark meditation I and Thou, the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber distinguished between two modes of consciousness, one ancient and the other more modern. He named these I-Thou and I-It, where the second term in each pair identifies the nature of what the I (ego) perceives and relates to. I-Thou lines up with the artifact as art, even regarding the whole of reality as opening in dialogue with our contemplative mind.

Buber wasn’t suggesting that a personal god is on the other end of the line, but rather that the human being stands in a reciprocal relationship with reality. Our own personalities are not an alien feature of the universe but expressions of it. As we gaze upon the stars, we are contemplating our own nature.

I-It is where reality outside the ego is not only depersonalized and pushed into the distance, but personality itself is reduced – to social conditioning, biological temperament, genes and chromosomes. This is the artifact as fact, and all of reality as nothing more than a great constellation of observable and theoretical facts. It is Monet’s painting of water lilies as so much paint and poor realism, the myths of religion as either supernatural journalism (e.g., the literal Bible) or primitive superstition.

Unfortunately the I-It mentality has affected both science and religion today. Wholeness, dialogue, contemplation, insight, mystery, and revelation are dropping away or getting disqualified as legitimate interests. For many, science studies this world as religion prepares us for the next. For a growing number of others, science has the answers we seek for the progress we need, while religion peddles deception, sanctifies ignorance, and ordains terrorism.

And in the meantime both enterprises are in danger of losing their souls.

 

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Deliver Us From Conviction

In The Great Triathlon of Religion I attempted to put more definition around the type of religion called post-theism. If we are to really appreciate its distinctive contribution to our development as individuals and our evolution as a species, the meaning of post-theism needs to advance beyond being seen as nothing more than a resolution for getting on without god.

A post-theist is not merely a formerly outspoken atheist who just doesn’t care enough anymore to argue the obvious point of god’s nonexistence. In other words, getting on “after god” (post + theos) is a very different mode of life than getting on “without god” (a + theos).

I characterized each of the three types (or phases) of religion as motivated partly out of a need to address a pressing problem of our human condition. Animism has to deal with the inevitability of death, and finds salvation in the promise of rebirth – not individual reincarnation (which is a theory that comes later) but in the cycling rhythms of life that turn within and all around us. The religion of our early life (as a species as well as individuals) is all about participating in this provident web of life with reverence and gratitude.

Theism carries these same themes forward, but in a more self-conscious and socially oriented way, as the emerging center of identity (ego) takes the stage. By now, that impersonal life force moving through all things has taken an anthropomorphic turn, as any number of patron deities who authorize and oversee the world-order. The problem that theism must resolve is the tendency in the individual to deviate from group norms, to “selfishly” pursue his or her own gratification and transgress on the rules for “proper” behavior. If individuals won’t comply with this moral code, the very existence of a civil order is at risk. Guilt is induced with disobedience, and atonement provides the repentant ego a way back into good standing with the community.

The great themes of sin and redemption, fault and forgiveness, transgression and reconciliation are key ideas of theism, as it has to do primarily with interpersonal relationships, the threat of social breakdown, and the process of restoring harmony in the body politic. Toward this end, even the individual might be sacrificed for the common good – perhaps as a vicarious offering, to appease an offended deity, or to satisfy the penalty for sin.

Obviously the great theistic systems of Judaism and Christianity, as represented in the Bible, are very much in this groove. Less obvious – or rather buried underneath multiple layers of theistic commentary and myth-spinning known as the New Testament – is the First Voice of Jesus whose message (gospel) of unconditional forgiveness marked a potential (but ultimately failed) transition to post-theism. His teachings were soon obscured behind a transactional theory of salvation, where his death on a cross for our sins became the turning-point of a conditional redemption (only for the elect or true believers).world religionsThe example of Christianity is illustrative, if mostly in the negative, of the threshold dynamics of post-theism. Our primary problem according to post-theism is not death (as in animism) or sin (as in theism), but conviction, which refers to a critical reversal where beliefs once held by the mind come to hold the mind captive, in a mind-set of absolute certainty.

In this post-theistic age, conviction becomes our greatest threat to genuine community and world peace. Individuals compelled by conviction to sacrifice themselves and persecute (or kill) others are ready to bring down the apocalypse in defense of their truth. At this point, ideology takes over in a kind of “demonic possession,” locking an otherwise creative intelligence inside a closed circuit of cross-referencing dogmatic claims and motivating violence as a demonstration of devotion.

To the degree that theism proclaims the literal (i.e., metaphysical) reality of what was originally a literary (i.e., mythological) figure, an absence of empirical evidence requires it to be increasingly self-validating. In other words, its “truth” becomes more about passion than reason, more about persuasion and intimidation than existential insight and real-life relevance. For a fundamentalist the mere suggestion that the personal god of Scripture is a narrative construct and not an objective being is tantamount to atheism and worthy of damnation in the deepest hell.

For a post-theist, however, this same observation is profoundly liberating, but not because it sets us free from superstitious belief and for a future without god (a-theos). Rather it is liberating because it helps us appreciate the need for the technical mediation of symbols, stories, and sanctuaries in the longer event of our spiritual awakening, on our way to becoming fully human. Just as the developmental process of maturity doesn’t require the self-responsible adult to engage a campaign of debunking childhood myths and disproving the objective existence of Neverland, a post-theist feels no need to debate the metaphysical reality of gods and demons, heaven and hell, immortality and the afterlife.

Post-theism affirms the vital importance and relative place of theism in the scheme of human spiritual development. The god that was earlier worshiped and obeyed must gradually be absorbed by our rising aspirations, as we step into our roles as taller powers to embody a more generous and farther reaching empathy. The real “success” of theism is when the virtue of god glorified in our sanctuaries is actively manifested by us in the streets. With the personified ideal of patience, mercy, compassion, kindness, and forgiveness (as in the early Christian equation of god and love) now internalized and made flesh in us, we can take full responsibility as caretakers of earth and one another.

With growing challenges these days at all levels of concern – personal, political, and planetary – the need for us to break the chains of conviction which separate us and bravely honor the bonds of empathy that make us one is as urgent as ever.

 

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The Experience of Myth

heaven_hellA growing consensus regarding the sacred narratives of religion, called myths, is that we must take them literally or else toss them out as bad science and obsolete fictions. Those who would rather not fuss with interpreting the myths are content to simply believe them, and those who can’t with intellectual integrity believe the myths are content to leave them be. In either case the deeper insight contained in them is ignored and rendered mute.

It’s difficult for some to open their minds to the possibility that myths might not be records of miraculous events and metaphysical realities, but not ignorant superstition either. But what other choice do we have? Things either happened just as the myths say they happened (or will happen) or they didn’t (and won’t). Either reality is arranged according to the metaphysical architecture testified to in the myths (with a literal heaven and hell, for instance) or it’s not – right?

Actually, the answer is no: this simplistic either-or logic is exactly wrong. In fact, as I will try to show, the mental orientation responsible for casting our alternatives in such a dualistic fashion is part of what the myths intend to expose and help us overcome. I say “intend” and not “intended,” because myths are living narratives and not mere curiosities of the past. The challenge in being human is essentially the same today as it was thousands of years ago, and myths are transcultural maps that reveal the paths ahead – one that leads to heaven and another that leads to hell.

If it sounds as if I have just slipped into a metaphysical reading of myth with my reference to heaven and hell, I want to assure my reader that this is not the case. To explain, let’s begin where myth itself was born, in the state of persistent ambiguity called the human condition. The prefix ambi translates as “both,” and ambiguity refers to how our situation – the human condition as it impinges on me here and you there, wherever we happen to be – sets us at a place where the path can go in one of two directions.

On the one hand, this ambiguity might collapse into opposition and eventual conflict: the “both” are seen as fundamentally opposed, unconnected, divided, and separate. If the process of our individual ego formation was particularly difficult and we came into personal identity under conditions of neglect, abuse, deprivation, or other trauma, our path might naturally fall to a lower course where everything is cast into antagonism. We are now in the realm of lower consciousness, a realm of distrust and suspicion, of hostility and retribution. This is hell.

When we fall into lower consciousness, as the mythic Adam fell out of his garden paradise, our ego becomes possessed by the passions of insecurity and aggression, intent above all else on getting our share and guarding what is ours. In hell, everyone lives in a state of desperate isolation, tormented by insatiable craving and captive to our own self-destructive compulsions. Our relationships are in chronic conflict, as we are incapable of opening ourselves to one another in empathy and love.

On the other hand, the ambiguity of our human condition might resolve into paradox and communion. In this case, the “both” are seen as fundamentally related, connected, united, and whole. Just as the path into hell might feel more natural to us if our ego identity was forged in adversity, the rise to a higher course is likely easier when our sense of self had been nurtured into formation by more provident higher (i.e., taller) powers. We are now in the realm of higher consciousness, a realm of trust and compassion, of generosity and freedom. This is heaven.

When we rise into higher consciousness, as the mythic Christ (whom the apostle Paul named the Second Adam) rose from the garden tomb, our ego completely transcends the deadly entanglements of insecurity and conviction. We are truly free to give of ourselves, to share what we have with others without concern for returned favors. In heaven, everyone lives in a state of inclusive community, offering our contribution to the greater good and truly caring for one another. There is enough for everybody, and goodwill abounds.

The timeless myths can help open our awareness to the critical turning-point of this present moment, to the choice we have in every new situation. We are familiar with the popular misreading of myth, where believers look forward to heaven in the next life, when their enemies and unbelievers are condemned to suffer forever in hell. Supposedly this is scheduled to happen after we die. But who is it, really, that dies?

In all the major wisdom traditions it is ego that must be transcended – released, surrendered, and overcome; specifically the “I” who believes everything turns around “me” and owes me what is “mine.” As Jesus says in the Fourth Gospel:

Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. – John 12:24

We make choices every day that either cast us down into the hell of lower consciousness, into opposition and endless conflict; or raise us up into the heaven of higher consciousness, into paradox and sacred communion with all things. To live in heaven, we must “die” to selfish ambition, drop our holy convictions, and even give up our desperate longing to be saved.

Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it.    – Luke 17:33

The sacred narratives of religion are neither literal records of miraculous events and metaphysical realities, nor bad science and obsolete fictions of a superstitious past. They speak a timeless message, but only when we are ready to hear it.

I guess this is as good a time as any to listen.

 

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The Gravity and Glory of Existence

What is the meaning of Easter?

Is it just about someone who died nearly two thousand years ago and came back to life? For almost half its history, Christianity celebrated Easter as its principal message to the world. As the Middle Ages dawned, however, the focus shifted to the Atonement where Jesus was supposed to have accomplished his world-saving work. Since then, Easter has been the ups y-daisy to Good Friday’s (only apparent) tragedy.

Just look at the difference in iconography between the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic (Latin) traditions. In the former, Jesus is risen, radiant, and very alive, while in the latter he hangs on his cross, gaunt, emaciated, and dead. And even though the Protestant churches replaced the Catholic crucifix with an empty cross, the centrality of Jesus’ sacrificial death continued into the Reformation. Consequently, the narrative of Easter has been interpreted as God’s “Yes” (on Sunday) to the world’s “No” (on Good Friday) – a great reversal where the humiliation of the cross was trumped by the glory of resurrection, ascension, and celestial coronation (as depicted in so much late-medieval and Renaissance art).

My frustration has to do with how this focus on Good Friday and Easter as events in the career of Jesus, while presumably benefiting the world by extension, keeps them back there in history and locked inside a literal Bible. Perhaps our invention of the literal Bible – of a Bible that must be taken literally – is more a political tactic designed to protect our possession of truth against competitors, heretics, and potential converts, than it is out of reverence for the Holy Question at the heart of existence which it seeks to answer across its pages.

Religion is not principally about the supernatural, immortality, or getting to heaven. It begins (or once began) in the realization that human existence is not entirely enclosed by nature and instinct, but stands rather as an open question that subsequently gets worked out (but never finally satisfied) in our quest for belonging, identity, and purpose. This open question calls to us from a beyond within ourselves and asks “Why am I here?” – the primitive and mystical origin of the later philosophical conundrum “Why is there something rather than nothing?”

Religion, then, is the more or less systematic way that this question of existence – this Holy Question – is answered. We call it holy because it has the character and feel of otherness, of addressing us from elsewhere. Perhaps because it is so relentless and restless, refusing to leave us alone, human beings universally have acknowledged it as “Thou.” Significantly, in our Bible the recurring word “repent” refers to a turn in response to being called.

Everything in religion, from its symbolism and mythology (sacred stories), to its rituals and devotional practices, is in effect an elaborate answer to this Holy Question of why I am here, why you are here, why are we here together. Where do we belong? How are we related? What are we here to do?

Even our theological construct of God as the supreme being who created the universe, watches over us, puts expectations on us and holds us accountable, is a projected personification of what human beings have believed to stand on the sending side of the Holy Question.

So when I contemplate the story of Easter, I want to listen for how it answers the question “Why am I here?” I won’t be distracted by the popular, and as I said, very modern assumption that the truth of the story is reducible to historical events – supernatural interventions and miracles purported to have happened long ago. There’s no need to trade our twenty-first century cosmology (theory of the universe) for the first-century cosmology assumed by the Gospel writers, where the up-and-down traffic between earth, heaven, and the underworld presented a perfectly acceptable plot for sacred story.

Since it’s not concerned with describing objective events, I don’t need to leave my intellect at the door before entering the imaginarium of myth.

With the Easter story, as in any sacred myth, we need to stay observant for those epiphanies at the surface where something more is being said or shown. Such locations are marked by images, metaphors, and archetypes that, as it were, pivot the axis of meaning from the horizontal plane of the narrative plot in order to engage deeper (or higher) dimensions. This is where we find an answer to the Holy Question, and if we stay engaged at this level, without allowing the metaphor to flatten out and lose its power, we stand a chance of being confronted and grasped by a profound truth.

For me, there is one image in the Easter story that speaks in this way. It’s not the empty tomb or the angels or even the appearance of the risen Jesus to early morning visitors. Actually, it is an appearance of Jesus, but one that happens on Easter evening among the company of disciples who had closed themselves inside a locked room out of fear that the authorities might come looking for them next.

Only the Third and Fourth Gospels (Luke and John) include this epiphany – this archetypal answer to the Holy Question “Why am I here?” – so it either originated with Luke (who wrote earlier) and was adapted by John, or it was circulating in some early Christian source outside them both.

So there stands Jesus, probably in his skivvies or buck naked. (He had been stripped of his clothes while hanging on the cross, and, according to John, the linen cloths that some women had used in his funerary preparation on Friday evening were found neatly folded inside his burial cave Sunday morning.) “Relax, it’s okay” – or “Peace be with you,” he says to his friends. And then …

Gravity_GloryAnd then the risen Jesus holds out his hands and feet, bearing the wounds of crucifixion where spikes had been driven through into wood. (In John’s version he also shows them the gash in his side where a Roman spear had confirmed his death.) The wounds of a dead man borne in the body of a living man.

That’s the image, the answer to the Holy Question. It’s presented in the myth as an ironic metaphor, one that contains a contradiction (a living dead man) and holds open an irreconcilable paradox.

If Jesus is The Archetypal Man in early Christian mythology – and this is clearly the case as the apostle Paul pointed out many times in his writings (which predate the Gospels) – then in this particular story he is representing all of us; or more poignantly, each of us.

A human being is both subject to the gravity of existence and the bearer of its glory.

During his brief public ministry, Jesus had demonstrated deep compassion for those afflicted under the grind of abject poverty, chronic pain, spiritual emptiness, and political oppression. Instead of preaching to them of pie in the sky or training them in techniques of meditative detachment, he got down into their suffering with them and did what he could to help them out. (The stories of miracle healings, which all the Gospels employ in their portraits of Jesus, carry this memory of how Jesus stepped into the suffering of others with caring support and saved them from despair.)

In addition to taking on the human condition evident in the afflictions of others, Jesus was remembered by the way he accepted – but not merely in a passive mode; rather, how he embraced – his own mortality, especially with the growing prospect of a violent death on his horizon. His challenge to the disciples to “take up your cross,” even if the overt reference to crucifixion was a gloss added later by storytellers, expresses an understanding that commitment to human solidarity and liberation will likely land one in trouble with authorities.

And Rome loved its crosses.

In the face of death, Jesus didn’t back down. As the political and religious heat grew around his notoriety and it was clear there would be no way out, he remained steadfast and resolute in his vision of a world free of bigotry, dogmatism, violence, and fear. True enough, he died for his belief – but more importantly, for the way he demonstrated his belief in action.

Perhaps at first, in the period of time represented in the story as a sabbath of sorrow when all hope seemed lost, Jesus’ vision was regarded a failure.

At some point, however – and again, a three-day event cycle in the narrative probably conveys the meaning of complete transformation, as it still does in contemporary fiction and film – someone in the company of mourners remembered the character of their leader as one who had lived a compassionate, brave, and authentically human life. Upon reflection, he had shown them how to combine grace and courage, passion and humility, how to live like you’re dying.

This is where I think the Holy Question surfaced in the consciousness of Jesus’ bereaved disciples. “Why am I here?” The gravity and glory of human existence had been paradoxically revealed in Jesus, and the ironic metaphor of him standing there in their midst – a living dead man, a man who answered the Holy Question by living fully into his death – ignited their hearts and started a revolution.

Just before he leaves them, Jesus breathes on his disciples and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Now it’s your turn.”

That’s what Easter means to me.

 

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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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