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Religion Isn’t The Problem

ego_shadowA common mistake in diagnosing our current predicament is to blame religion, when it’s not religion itself but a particular corrupt type of religion that’s blocking the path to our better selves. Once the focus shifts to theism as the type in question, a second mistake fails to distinguish between corrupt and healthy forms of theism, recommending that we simply push them all into oblivion. Wouldn’t we be better off without religion? What’s wrong with rejecting god once and for all, along with spirituality and everything sacred?

My returning reader knows me as a proponent of post-theism, which is different from atheism on several counts. First, it holds that the major question with respect to god is not about existence but rather his function in the longer project of human fulfillment – even of human salvation, if we understand the term in light of its etymology as “coming into wholeness.”

Secondly, post-theism regards religion (from the Latin religare) as a system of stories, symbols, values and practices that “link” us to the grounding mystery within, to one another in community, and all of us together to the great turning mystery of our universe. In fact, reading those crucial linkages in reverse – first to the cosmos (nature), next to others (tribe), and finally to our own inner ground of being – charts out the sequence of stages in the historical development of religion itself: from body-centered animism, through ego-centered theism, and finally into a soul-centered post-theism.

Religion needs to transform throughout this process, but even if it gets stuck at times (as theism has been stuck for a while now) its connecting function is something we humans cannot do without. You may not be formally affiliated with an institutional religion, but you are nevertheless working out connections that support the centered meaning of your life – and that is your religion.

Lastly, in its deep appreciation of the functional roles of god and religion in the spiritual evolution of our species, post-theism differs from most forms of atheism by insisting on the necessary ongoing contribution of theism. Even after it has successfully awakened the individual to his or her own creative authority, and the virtues once attributed to the deity are now actualized in the individual’s own life-expression, it’s not as if theism can be simply abandoned and left in our past. There will always be more individuals coming behind us whose progressive liberation needs the support that only theism can provide.

So that I can move the discussion out of the realm of official world religions and refresh in our minds the critical importance of theism in human development more generically, my diagram above illustrates the correlation between tribal religion and the original theistic system of the family unit. Freud was correct in seeing tribal religion as a societal model based in and projected outwardly from our early experiences of Mother, Father, and the sibling circle.

Of course, nearly two thousand years earlier, Jesus (among other teachers) had conceived this correlation in his metaphor of god as “our heavenly father” and of our neighbors (including enemies!) as brothers and sisters of the same human family.

It’s not a heresy, then, to acknowledge the equivalencies between the divine higher power of a tribal deity and the parental taller powers that shaped our earliest experience. Historically, depending on whether the principal deity was regarded as a (celestial) father or a (terrestrial) mother, the social system of his or her devotees tended to reflect that hierarchy of values – higher-to-lower (ordained) in patriarchal societies, or inner-to-outer (organic) in partnership societies. Societies (such as our own) that have been significantly shaped by the Judeo-Christian or biblical-patriarchal worldview tend to favor an ordained top-down hierarchy, which predisposed us for the longest time to assume that earthly realities are copies or reflections of heavenly ones, when the line of influence actually runs in the opposite direction.

In other words, literal mothers and fathers have served since the beginning as archetypal origins of our various (literary or mythological) representations of god. This makes a human family the primordial theistic system, and every one of us a theist (at least starting out) in this more generic sense. With this correlation in mind, we can easily see how our developmental progress as individuals through the family system has its reflection in the cultural career of theism. We should expect to see some of the common dysfunctions in family dynamics showing up (i.e., projected upward) in the character of theism at the societal level.

Referring to my diagram, let’s first notice how a parent’s role needs to progress according to the emerging center of personal identity in the child. We begin on the left in a state of ‘infantile dependency’, with our newborn experience entirely immersed in the animal urgencies of our body. In this condition of helpless vulnerability, we need before anything else to be protected, cuddled, and nourished by our parent (typically our mother). Her role at this point is to provide for our needs, to give us what our body requires to be calm, satisfied, and secure. In theism proper, this maternal providence is projected upward as the grace of god – freely and presciently giving a devotee what is needed. Give us this day our daily bread.

If our parent is sufficiently attentive to our needs and provident in her care for us, we are enabled to feel attuned with her reassuring presence. This deep attunement is what Erik Erikson called “basic trust,” and it will serve as the foundation for all developmental achievements to come. In religion, such a grounding trust in god’s providence is known as ‘faith’ – not believing thus-and-so about the deity, but entrusting one’s existence to the present support of divine grace.

The progression from infancy into early childhood introduces a new challenge, in learning how to behave ourselves in polite company. Our parental taller powers serve this development in us by clarifying and reinforcing the rules for social behavior. In addition to continuing in their providential role – but gradually pulling back so we can start doing some things for ourselves – they focus on prescribing for us the difference between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, defining what it means to be a ‘good boy’ or ‘nice girl’. This prescriptive role of our parental taller powers is what gets projected upward as the theistic notion of god’s will. Teach us thy ways, O Lord, and show us the right path.

On our side, we need to obey these prescriptions, these rules of acceptable behavior. A rule system built on the binary codes of right and wrong (with no grey between) is properly called an obedience morality, and all of us need to find our way through it. Some family systems are permissive, which can lead to insufficient clarity and motivation for pro-social behavior, producing moral complacency. Other family systems are repressive, where a child is punished and threatened for acting on his impulses or when she comes close to crossing the line.

Repressive systems are responsible for the rejected and disowned aspects of personality that Carl Jung named the shadow: the part of myself that is unacceptable, censured, or condemned. To fit in and belong we find it necessary to keep all these things in the dark, behind us and down in the cellar of our personality. In my diagram, parental rules (and god’s will as their correlate in tribal religion) which are authoritarian (Because I said so!) and repressive (Don’t you even think about it!) drive down a shadow of insecurity, shame, bigotry, and hostility.

This is the pathology of a dysfunctional theism which is evident all around the planet today, where true believers unleash their own inner demons on their enemies and the world around them. Ironically their moral convictions drive them in destructive ways.

Let’s come back to the healthy family system – for they do exist! As we make our way through childhood, our moral development necessitates a shift from merely obeying (or breaking) rules, to orienting our focus on exemplars of positive virtue. Our parents need to portray for us such virtuous attitudes and behaviors so that we can know how to embody them and live them out. Their demonstrated virtue awakens in us an aspiration to be like them, opening our path to adult responsibility.

Our mythological depictions of god are not only a projection of what’s going on in the theistic family system. The literary figure of deity also serves as a guiding ideal for an entire tribe or culture. We know that not all families are healthy, and no parents are perfect. But just as the general trend in living things is toward their mature and fully actualized selves, so the trend in theism over its long history has been into literary depictions of god that more clearly exemplify the virtues of human fulfillment. Be merciful [or in another version, perfect] as your father in heaven is merciful [or perfect].

We can see this progression even in the relatively brief (1,200 years or so) history of biblical writings, where Yahweh becomes increasingly temperate, merciful, and benevolent in his manner of relating to human beings. (The occasional paroxysms of wrath and vengeance are momentary exceptions to this longer trend in the developing character of god in the Bible, and are more reflective of the distress and insecurity of individual authors and local communities than anything else.)

In The Progress of Wisdom I suggested a way in which we can view several deep spiritual traditions (present-day world religions) as exhibiting our transcultural progress toward a clarified understanding of human fulfillment. The diagram above identifies these stages of awakening to wisdom in the box at the upper-right. Each stage in this broad-scale transformation was preceded slightly by a change in the way god (or ultimate reality) was depicted in the myths, theology, and art of the time.

Covenant fidelity (Judaism) re-imagined deity as less elusive and unpredictable, but instead as committed to the human future by a clear set of promises and fiduciary agreements. A little later in India (Buddhism) an insight into the liberating power of universal compassion took hold. Later still, but continuing with this evolving ideal, Jesus proclaimed his gospel of unconditional forgiveness (love even for the enemy: a message that orthodox Christianity failed to institutionalize). And finally, absolute devotion (Islam) brought this progressive curriculum of spiritual wisdom to a culmination with its ideal of uncompromising commitment to a life of fidelity, compassion, and forgiveness.

To appreciate this as a transcultural curriculum of spiritual wisdom, it’s essential that we see each advancing step in context of the larger developing picture. To split one virtue off from the rest only distorts and perverts it, as when Islamic extremists split absolute devotion from the fuller curriculum and proceed to engage terrorism against outsiders and infidels. Or else, as in the case of Christianity where Jesus’ radical virtue of unconditional forgiveness lies buried beneath an orthodox doctrine of salvation through redemptive violence, it gets sentimentalized and effectively forgotten.

The general point is that as these higher virtues began to awaken in a few individuals, they were added to our mythological depictions of god (or ultimate reality), which then functioned for the entire community as an exemplary model of an authentic and fulfilled humanity. In its worship of the deity, a community intentionally elevates and glorifies the praiseworthy attributes of god, as they recommit themselves to being more like him in their daily lives. In becoming more godlike they are actually becoming more fully human.

Obviously we haven’t been great at getting the message and realizing our true potential as a species. The complications and setbacks that affect every theistic system – the neglect and abuse, the moral repression and shadow pathology mentioned earlier – have arrested our progress again and again. But whereas some go on to advocate for the discrediting of religion and god in the interest of our human maturity, a brighter future, and peace on earth, as a proponent of post-theism I have tried to show that the way to these goals runs through theism (tribal and/or family systems) – and furthermore, that we can’t get there without it.

Our present task, then, is to use our creative authority in the understanding that we are myth-makers who create (and can re-create) worlds. We can elevate an ideal of our evolving nature that calls out our better selves, connects us charitably to one another, and (re-)orients us in the One Life we all share. We need to take responsibility for a theism that will promote homo sapiens sapiens – the truly wise and generous beings we want to be.

A vibrant spirituality after god (post-theos) requires that we go through god. Religion really isn’t the problem.

 

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Unconditional Forgiveness and the Bankruptcy of Retribution

Recently I’ve been exploring the topic of forgiveness and how Jesus’ teaching on the topic moved the West beyond theism with respect to human morality. The gist of my argument is that Jesus clarified forgiveness of the enemy as the only way through the impasse of retribution, vengeance, and redemptive violence – the latter term referring to a “solution” which requires someone to suffer for sin before things can be made right.

In the early days, Yahweh (tribal deity of the Hebrews) was rather violence-prone and bloodthirsty, taking life as satisfaction for disobedience and iniquity. There are even hints in the Bible that Yahweh took some time to get past his need for the blood dedication (sacrifice) of human firstborns – an advance, certainly, toward a more enlightened morality.

During the intervening centuries Yahweh developed the ability to look upon outsiders with compassion and even forgive sinners … up to a point. While his human devotees – especially some of the prophets – were envisioning what the world would be like if Yahweh simply “let go” of his need for vengeance and appeasement, dreaming of the day, with Jeremiah, when god would forgive without the prerequisite of repentance, Yahweh just couldn’t let go of his reluctant obligation to condemn sinners.

By the time of Jesus, then, there were at least two strands of theological development vying for the hearts and minds of true believers. The dominant strand insisted that god is holy and just and simply cannot tolerate disobedience. If the sinner refuses to repent, then god has no choice but to reject and condemn. If this sounds like a limitation on god’s power and love, the orthodox tradition resolved the question by saying that god had set up reality in the very beginning according to the balancing principle of retribution.

Similar to the oriental notion of karma, this principle simply says that “you get what you deserve” – maybe not right away, but eventually things are going to be made right. Yahweh’s so-called obligation is indeed reluctant – he doesn’t necessarily want to destroy sinners, but still he must abide by his own rules. The idea that there is something higher than god putting limits on divine (and human) freedom was an essential linchpin of orthodox morality, and remains so to this day.

The other tradition, definitely a minority report by comparison, was less mechanistic and more romantic – concerned less about keeping “the system” intact than promoting the dream of a nonviolent reconciliation of sinners to god. What if the god who led our nation out of captivity is also at work in other nations, providing for human liberation and prosperity in ways peculiar to their historical conditions? So dreamed the prophet Amos (see Amos 9:7).

Later on, Jeremiah looked forward to a time when god would set aside the rules, accomplish a radical preemptive forgiveness, and put the knowledge of his will in the hearts of people (see Jeremiah 31:31-34). In that day there will no longer be a need for sacrificial priests, ranting preachers, or Sunday school teachers. The mechanism and official procedure for our human repentance to god – practically the entire religious establishment – would be transcended and left behind.

But of course it had to remain just a dream, for the simple reason that its progress into reality would have entailed too much revamping of orthodox religion and its incumbent deity. In fact, if god really is – not just in our dreams but in reality – for all people, and ready to forgive without repentance in order to get everything moving forward into freedom and true community, then much would need to change. Most importantly, the old god – the author, supervisor and executioner of retributive morality – would have to go.

Now, that’s something terrifying to consider, especially when just about every feature of your identity is drawn from your identification with this god. If you go forward with it, some explanation will be in order as to why for so long you used god in the justification of your superiority over others, of your bigotry and violence against unbelievers and people differently oriented in the world.

broken chain

Will you admit that you had it wrong back then? That you were advancing your own agenda and not god’s? Or will you finally realize and honestly confess that god is not an objective, absolute, and unchanging reality as you once believed?

Such are the questions that begin exploring the cultural terrain of post-theism. As we go along, it becomes easier to stay open to the idea that god is a representation in mythology, the central metaphor of the mystery that supports our existence and inspires our faith. It’s not necessary to defend the validity of earlier encounters with god as literal events, actual interventions of a deity who exists separate and apart from us. To say that such scriptural accounts are just more mythology does not diminish their meaning. Indeed it becomes possible once again to appreciate this meaning in proper context, as part of the Great Story of our spiritual awakening as a species.

What Jesus did was “simply” but bravely step into reality without the satisfaction and security in knowing that people get what they deserve. He realized forgiveness as the power to let go and move on – not away from one’s enemy but back into relationship. Taking hold of the retributive reflex before it compels an act of retaliation and vengeance provides just a moment for reconsideration, but a moment is all that is needed.

Jesus believed that waiting for our enemy to see the light and plead our forgiveness is not something that will help us forward into reconciliation, community and genuine peace on this planet. Instead, forgiveness needs to come first, it must be preemptive and unconditional, not waiting around for the conditions to be right or the risk to go away.

Bringing love back into the face of hatred – that is to say, not energizing it with matching countermeasures but responding with kindness and benevolent strength – will result in the aggression eventually spending itself into bankruptcy. It may take some time, and many will get exploited or consumed along the way, but the Day is coming when the true enemy (ignorance, conviction, hatred and violence) and its many human incarnations will simply collapse out of exhaustion.

Finally the seed will break open and New Life will spring forth.

If we are to follow Jesus in this way of radical forgiveness, something needs to be done about the tribal deity of Christian orthodoxy. Tragically, this same orthodoxy took Jesus hostage in the opening centuries of establishment, re-making him into the savior who rescued the world from god by dying on a cross and satisfying the conditions against our forgiveness.

To its credit, the orthodoxy got it half right. Jesus did rescue us from god.

 
 

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No Use for God

What NextReligion is to spirituality as meaning is to mystery, as god is to ground, as belief is to faith, and as body is to soul – if we can resist the old habit of making the second term of each pair into some separate and metaphysical “thing.” These pairs are paradoxical, not antagonistic or merely “coexistent.” Spirituality finds “body” and expression in religion, not inside it but as it. Faith as release to the grounding mystery of existence is translated and becomes “useful” as timely (relevant) and meaningful belief.

Misunderstanding and complications arise at the very start (or shortly thereafter), in our impulse to label and define what is essentially unnameable. When that happens, mystery becomes (is turned into) just another name for what we don’t understand – yet. Faith becomes Christian, Muslim, or Buddhist faith, then “the” (one true) faith, which really means the set of beliefs that is supernaturally revealed or fully enlightened.

God is a name, an idea, a representation of something that isn’t a thing. The ground does not “stand out” (ex-ist) in the field of identities and relationships, but is merely another name (a metaphor in this case) for that out of which everything else stands, and back into which it will all eventually return. That grounding mystery is experienced in those moments when you can let go of meaning, let go of thought, and let go of “me.”

Faith is yet another name, a noun that is really a verb, a way of be-ing and living in communion with the present mystery of reality.

As I have tried to explain post-theism, some have heard me advocating for a new kind of postmodern atheism. It sounds to them as if I’m rejecting god and wanting to discredit religion as so much mythological literalism and metaphysical malarkey. There is that. But at its best, religion can be a helpful servant to spirituality, and god can be a relevant representation of the grounding mystery. The problem is that religion is not very often at its best.

You can’t resolve the errors in religion by digging deeper into its scriptures and refining its doctrines. It’s not about clarifying your concept of god, or making it “big” enough to contain all the attributes that a perfect and supreme being should properly have. No matter what you might try on that side of the threshold of the paradoxes mentioned above, you are still only straightening up and rearranging boxes.

Spirituality comes before religion, though not in the temporal sense of “before.” It inspires (breathes life into) religion, but it can’t connect to your life without the “system of utilities” that religion provides. In religion god is useful for making the world, providing for our needs, giving us purpose, supervising our progress in morality and settling the score at the end. God can become so useful, in fact, that we lose sight of his/her “first use,” which was to re-present the mystery and give us a way of relating ourselves meaningfully to it.

Religious formation can be thought of as the development of a “vehicle” for the evolution of human spirituality. As life evolves through the adaptation of an organism to the conditions and challenges of its environment, so does spirituality evolve through the ability of religion to stay grounded and adapt to the changing circumstances. “True” religion – if I dare use the term – is one that is spiritually rooted in the timeless mystery and usefully current to the concerns of our time.

While religion has a thousand uses for god, spirituality has none. It should make sense by now that I am not arguing for atheism. Indeed atheism and its “opponent,” theism, are both on the religion side of things. Together they constitute a warring dualism rather than a creative paradox, as they both (at least in the context of their debate) effectively ignore the grounding mystery that cannot be named (or unnamed). I see religion and religion’s god as very useful, but they are not ultimately the concern of faith.

As the developmental vehicle of human spirituality, religion began with the question, “What will we name this mystery, and what does it mean to us?” Through the course of its long history, religion has been very busy – naming, mythologizing, coordinating, instructing, sanctioning, authorizing, proselytizing, defending, condemning, justifying abuse, violence and exploitation in the name of its god. Many, many people have left religion because of its violations of ethical sensibility, its sometimes ruthless control tactics, the way it tries to motivate conformity through fear, and its frequent dismissal of reason and rational inquiry.

Although I strongly support anyone wanting to get out of a corrupt and abusive religion, it’s not this corruption that presses me to explore the promise of post-theism. As long as identity is our preoccupation and ego is controlling the game, we will continue to see dogmatism, bigotry, and violence in our religions and across the cultures. I suppose that some of the more articulate and outspoken atheists really just want to remove the baby so we can throw out the bathwater.

Post-theism doesn’t really care about denying or defending god, however. Instead it is interested in spirituality after religion – but not temporally after, since spirituality will always need embodiment in and as religion. The “after” here is more about the intention and developmental aim of religion, in the way it directs the deeper experience of spirituality into the utilities of daily life. And then what? For what purpose?

I would say, for the purpose of providing a springboard for a leap back into mystery. Beliefs must be dropped, religion must be transcended (gone beyond), and god must be left behind. We cling to our god with the same energy that we defend our ego. Religion assists in the formation of ego by projecting its god as counterpart and ideal. At some point – and I am arguing, we are at that point right now – we need to be strong enough to leap beyond even ourselves, into the grounding mystery.

We are standing now on a vantage-point at the far end of an arc through time. Religion, tribe, ego and god have been useful in getting to the point where we can now look back – and down – through this complicated formation and discern a light shining up from below.

As paradoxical as it sounds, we must arrive at the point again where we have no use for god.

 

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