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The Shining Way to the Kindom of Spirit

Of all my reflections on the topics of spirituality, psychology, and community, this post represents my best effort so far. If I write nothing more from this point, I think I’ve made a meaningful contribution.

But I’ll keep at it anyway.

A few of the “big ideas” that repeatedly make an appearance include the grounding mystery, ego strength, and genuine community. These amount to so much scaffolding providing structure for the more detailed work of clarifying what’s really going on for each of us – and for all of us.

My diagram depicts this scaffolding on the image of a grapevine plant, with its deep roots, outreaching stem and leaves, and the berry cluster announcing its ‘self-actualization’ or, as we might say, its raison d’être (reason for being).

The terms arranged along the vertical axis name specific accomplishments, intentions, and virtues which are central to our own journey of self-actualization as human beings.

My returning reader knows that by ‘self-actualization’ I am not referring to some kind of elite individual attainment of miraculous powers and supernatural abilities, but rather to the process whereby our deepest nature is gradually awakened and fully expressed.

The Great Process of our universe, with the emergence of life and its increasingly complex networks of mutuality and interdependence, has brought us at last to the brink of what I call genuine community. I will even boldly designate this as its ultimate aim: sentient, self-conscious agents living in creative and inclusive fellowship.

But how can we finally get there? With the advent of self-conscious agency, evolution has given the fulfillment or frustration of this aim over to us. It’s our choice now whether or not we will connect, for good or ill.

This awareness has long been the inspiration behind the spiritual wisdom traditions of our world cultures.

In this post we will explore what I have elsewhere named the Shining Way, referring to that bright path of deeper insights and higher truths, by the light of which humans can find their way to fulfillment and genuine community. There are many places along the way where we can get snagged and hung up, and in other posts I have analyzed the causes and consequences of these common neuroses. They all tend to culminate in the formation of convictions which lock our minds inside boxes (like thought cages) that help us feel secure and certain about things.

Here, however, I will leave pathology aside and clarify instead the key elements of the Shining Way itself. Each of us can use this description as a kind of mirror on our own life experience: How true is this of me? Where am I still growing? Where am I hung up?


Faith

This term is not to be confused with the set of beliefs, values, and practices that characterize a given religion – for example, the Christian faith, the Jewish faith, or your personal religion. Its deeper etymology reaches far below such surface expressions of religious life and into the place where consciousness simultaneously descends and expands beyond our personal identity as self-conscious agents.

Underneath and supporting ego are the mind and body, or in more technical terms a sentient nervous system and its host organism. The body metabolizes matter for the energy it needs, and this energy is used in part to electrify nerve circuits and brain networks that support our conscious experience of sensing, thinking, feeling, and willing. There is an obvious dependency of ego on mind, of mind on body, of body on matter – and as quantum science confirms, of matter on energy – all of which comprises what I name the grounding mystery.

Faith is our capacity for letting go of ego preoccupations in order to center our mind, calm our body, and simply relax into being. Those preoccupations tend to tangle us up in worry, frustration, disappointment, and fatigue. In letting go of them, at least for a few moments, we can rest back upon the deeper support of existence itself.

In ancient languages faith derived from the root meaning “to trust,” in the sense of releasing control in grateful acknowledgment of the present providence (personified in many religions as a provident presence) of reality.

Integrity

When ego can develop upon a stable foundation of faith, our personality is able to organize around its own autonomous center. Integrity is a word that means “one, whole” in the way a complex system holds together in functional harmony. Certainly this has a clear moral significance, referring to consistency in judgment and behavior across dissimilar ethical situations.

As we’re using the term here, however, integrity is even more a psychological achievement indicating a well-integrated personality. Our inner life is stable and centered (by virtue of faith) in a condition called ego strength. If ego is our centered identity in engagement with the social world around us, its strength is a virtue of how effectively our internal impulses, motives, feelings, and opinions are “held together” in a coherent and harmonious sense of self.

Empathy

You will have noticed in my diagram that the three “inner” virtues of the Shining Way are not connected in a simple linear manner. This is because our third element, empathy, is a capacity made available only to the degree that a unified sense of self allows us access to our own human experience. It helps to imagine faith and integrity as providing a calm transparency to the “atmosphere” of our inner life, which mediates a clear vision of how experiences of all kinds make us feel.

As a human being you have experienced love, frustration, failure, joy, longing, confusion, loneliness, pain and loss, among many other feelings. Notice that we are not speaking exactly of external circumstances or objective events, as much as how those circumstances and events made you feel inside. Each of us has a unique threshold of sensitivity and tolerance, along with our own set of beliefs and expectations that serve to spin meaning around our experiences. Some of us may be more sensitive or tolerant than others, but nevertheless we all know what love, longing, or loss feel like.

Empathy literally refers to the inner (em) experience (pathos) of being alive. Importantly, it is not (yet) our sensitivity to the suffering of another, which is called ‘sympathy’ (sym = with or alongside) in Greek and ‘compassion’ in Latin. And while modern Western psychology defines empathy as compassion with an added component of cognitive understanding as to what another person is going through, it is actually an intuition rooted in the depths of our own human experience.

Compassion

Only one deeply in touch with her own human experience, who has contemplated his personal experiences of life, can reach out with understanding to another who is undergoing a similar experience. With compassion, the Shining Way opens to the realm of relationships and to the inviting frontier of genuine community.

Our sensitivity to what others are going through is directly a function of our own intimacy with attachment and loss, love and loneliness, success and failure, joy and sorrow. Such empathetic self-understanding will frequently motivate us to help another in distress, confusion, or bereavement. To step into their experience with them (sym+pathos, com+passio) for the sake of providing companionship, encouragement, comfort, or consolation in their need strengthens the human bond on which genuine community depends.

Just a note on the choice of the term compassion over sympathy, even though their respective etymologies mean the same thing. In ethical discourse, sympathy has over time developed more into the idea of emotional resonance – “I feel sad because you feel sad” – while compassion has evolved the aspect of motivated behavior – “I am sad with you and want to help you feel better.”

Goodwill

Compassion, then, is more than just a desire or willingness to join another person in their suffering. Its intention is to help lessen the pain, provide support, improve conditions, to somehow assist with their healing or liberation. Goodwill is very simply a matter of willing the good, of acting benevolently in the interest of another’s health, happiness, and wellbeing. Whereas compassion is the resonance of feeling we have for someone going through an experience with which we are deeply and intimately familiar, goodwill names the variety of ways that move this feeling into action.

Without the inner clarity that comes by faith, integrity, and empathy, pity instead of true compassion might motivate our charity, but this shouldn’t be confused with what we’re calling goodwill. The “good” that is willed is much more than a tax-deductible donation, or a middle-class gesture at managing a guilty conscience. When we pity another person, we are secretly relieved that we are not in their situation: “I am sad for you.”

Charity in Western capitalist societies has become a way of aiding victims of systemic injustice, without confronting the system itself. In some instances, acting for the greater good can put us into opposition with the traditions, institutions, and authorities who profit from keeping things the way they are.

Fidelity

With goodwill we have at last entered that higher zone of human self-actualization called genuine community. When we who are inwardly grounded and securely centered make compassionate connections with others around us, our benevolent acts of kindness, generosity, advocacy, encouragement, and forgiveness conspire to create what I call the kindom of spirit.

As a kindom, genuine community arises with the awareness that we are all related as sentient and self-conscious agents. Despite the fact that each of us stands in our own separate center of identity – but we should also say precisely because of this – we can see that all of us are very much the same in our deeper nature as human beings. And as a kindom of spirit, we seek the harmony, wholeness, and wellbeing of each one, one with another, and all of us together as one.

Fidelity is faithfulness to the kindom of spirit. By its virtue we dedicate ourselves to strengthening our connections, repairing ruptures, resolving conflicts, fostering creativity, transcending fear, and nurturing our shared aspirations for the liberated life.

 

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Jesus, Forgiveness, and a Brave New World

In my defense of a new humanism, I made the case that Western consciousness shifted into a post-theistic morality with the radical teachings of Jesus. Where the motivation to do what is right had been conditioned by a powerful external incentive – approval, inclusion, divine favor and final salvation (or the opposite if you break the rules) – Jesus opened a new way.open_prison_door

The incumbent deity (Yahweh) had come out of a mythological background of a small near-eastern tribal confederation of nomadic invaders who managed the conquest of agricultural settlements in the land of Canaan. As a warrior god, Yahweh possessed little tolerance for diplomacy and compromise. But to his credit, over time he did start to soften up a bit, balancing wrath with mercy, vengeance with compassion, retribution with forgiveness.

Yahweh’s war box (the ark of the covenant), which had been carried at the front lines of Israel’s army, giving them a supernatural advantage over the indigenous farmers they massacred, was already lost in the misty hinterland of folklore and legend by Jesus’ time. Nevertheless, Yahweh’s accent on purity and obedience was still strong, and it resounded in the religion that remembered and worshiped him.

Let’s be clear: Yahweh was capable of forgiveness. As long as certain steps were taken – that is to say, insofar as particular conditions were met and satisfied by the repentant sinner – Yahweh could be persuaded to let the poor soul back into his good graces. There was a limit to this generosity on Yahweh’s part, of course, and repentance needed to happen first. God is no sucker.

Already 600 years or so before Jesus, the prophet Jeremiah had fantasized a day when god would simply drop the charges against humanity and enter a new relationship with his people. The knowledge of his will would transcend instruction and be grasped intuitively, written on their hearts. Fortunately for Jeremiah, he didn’t put a date on this future New World.

What would inspire someone, even god, to just “let go” (forgive) and rip up the rap sheet on sinners? What purpose could this serve? Why violate the Rule that had set the rules in the first place? Isn’t that tantamount to throwing out everything – responsibility, accountability, decency and fairness – upon which the moral order depends? So it seemed. And so Jeremiah’s little nightmare about unconditional forgiveness and the beginning of a New Age was rolled up, tucked away, and forgotten.

But the seed was planted. Once an “impossible” virtue like compassion for outsiders, charity for strangers, or mercy for those who just might be getting what they deserve – once the virtue is projected into the collective consciousness, it is just like a seed. It may sit there, covered by dirt and “forgotten” under the urgencies and concerns of daily life for many, many years. Decades or even centuries. But there it is nonetheless, waiting for the conditions to be right.

In Jesus’ time, the conditions were right. But just as important as a generally favorable milieu is the individual who is sufficiently inspired, courageous, and “morally reckless” to announce the moment of awakening and risk everything for its actualization.

16 When Jesus came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
        to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
        to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

20 And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:16-20)

As Luke tells the story, Jesus made the announcement as part of a sabbath sermon. In that day, a member of the synagogue might walk up to the front of the room, be handed a scroll of scripture, read the passage and offer an interpretation. In this case, Jesus opened up the prophecy today known as Third Isaiah, likely written just after the return to Jerusalem from exile in Babylon (post 538 BCE).

The “year of the Lord’s favor” was another mythic reference, going “back” to the ancestral past when the people of Israel celebrated a Year of Jubilee. Every fifty years – after seven cycles of seven years – all debts were forgiven, slaves were set free, and lost property was returned to its original and rightful owners.

Jubilee was an archetype of the New Beginning, the clean slate, a fresh chance to start again. It’s what the human spirit longs for. But it never made the transition from mythic event to actual occasion. For practical considerations alone, no society could survive such a radical shake-up of its economy as Jubilee represented. It was what we call an ideal.

In Isaiah’s original, the last phrase read by Jesus is actually part of a couplet that finishes with “and the day of vengeance of our god.” Isaiah’s fantasy, then, was of a time when Yahweh’s favor on his people would be realized and his judgment meted out on their enemies at last. There was still hell to pay.

We need to imagine the force of shock that must have seized the congregation when Jesus, after leading his audience along the lyrical rhythm of this well-known and much-loved passage, suddenly stopped short of full circle, rolled up the scroll, and sat down. In their minds that last line was screaming for validation, but Jesus denied it permission.

What he did next was even more scandalous. He looked up at the congregation and declared, “This vision is being fulfilled today, right here and right now.” Today is Jubilee. All debts are forgiven, the prison doors have been thrown open and everyone is free. A new age has begun and a new order is in effect starting today.

In his evangelistic campaign across Galilee, Jesus called this new age and new order the “kingdom of god.” It’s coming up out of the dirt, he said. It shows up around the corner, in the messiness of life, from the least likely of places.

Not long afterwards, when Christian orthodoxy did a make-over on Jesus and turned him into god, this radical challenge to conventional morality would be neutralized. Of course! Who else but Jesus – very god in the flesh – could manage such a feat? For the sake of our salvation he interceded for us, securing god’s favor and saving us from his wrath. By dying in our place, paying the penalty for our transgressions, and taking upon himself god’s judgment against sin, Jesus is our salvation.

The old game is still in effect, however. If you refuse to “believe in Jesus as your personal lord and savior,” your destination in the afterlife won’t be pleasant. At all. Jesus managed to turn god towards you; now you must turn to god by accepting Jesus as your savior. For those who don’t, “the day of vengeance of our god” awaits. Whew! Nothing’s really changed.

As Matthew tells the story, the disciple Peter approached Jesus one day with a question. “According to the rules, god expects me to forgive my enemy three times” (a number that represents perfection). “What do you think? Should I forgive my enemy as many as seven times?”

Perhaps in his desire to impress Jesus with his above-and-beyond righteousness (doubling the old rule and adding one more for effect), Peter was looking for that surprised admiration that any student craves from the teacher. See him standing there, puffed up and plucking proudly at his suspenders.

Jesus replied: “Why are you counting? Forgiveness is not a response to an acceptable repentance. It must come first and never keep a tab. Let go of your anger and your hurt will heal. Extinguish the insatiable flame of vengeance and you will be free. It’s time for you to be strong and take the initiative: Stop tracking offenses and don’t wait for your enemies to repent. Let go, open up with love, and just see what happens.”

If your god keeps a record of sins, hates his enemies, and can’t wait to make them suffer – or perhaps is bound by a reluctant obligation to condemn sinners and unbelievers – then it’s time to leave that god behind and step into a brave new world.

There, the seed is planted … again.

 
 

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Easter Reality

Religious high holy days are anchored deep in myth and symbol. These are times when true believers – as well as the larger number of unaffiliated and “occasional pilgrims” – step into the sacred stories and reflect once again on the miracles of old. Too many of them probably do this out of family obligation or annual custom, gazing on the holiday symbols with the wondering eyes of their youth.

The following day, however, they will be back at it – back at life in the real world. No miracles here. No angelic visitations, virgin births, voices from the clouds or revived corpses in the news. It used to be that these and other miraculous events were regarded as signs, still very much set in story and not encountered in contemporary life, pointing to a higher realm of being that supports this one.

Signs are significant because they signify things. Meaning is all about reference – this pointing to that, one thing leading to another, and all of it making sense in the Big Picture. Once upon a time (here I go telling a story) people lived inside a Big Picture, and mythology served the valuable function of pulling them back from the daily distractions of secular life and reorienting them in a single coherent system of meaning.

I say “once upon a time” because people today generally don’t live their lives with a Big Picture in mind. If there is one, it’s the rather cold and indifferent cosmos of science, now somewhere on an unfathomable timeline between BANG and FIZZLE (or maybe CRUNCH). For quite a while, as modern religion was losing its market share in the intellectual landscape of the Western mind, church leaders blamed science for the vacancies in their pews. Empirical skepticism (“I’ll believe it when I can measure it”) was accused of producing secular atheism (“God can’t be measured, and therefore doesn’t exist”).

But here’s what really happened.

The sacred stories began losing currency, not because they were scientifically discredited, but rather because they became increasingly irrelevant to daily life. And as the symbols lost their power to signify, the metaphors closed up on themselves and degenerated into “miracles.” Consequently the Big Picture that had oriented human beings for so long fell apart. Now – occasionally, on high holy days – we pause to fetch from the wreckage those dim reminders, those alien curiosities from another age.

So what becomes of these articles of religious nostalgia? If symbols need stories, and stories need other stories; and if all these stories (the collective mythology of a culture) comprise the Big Picture that once made life meaningful, what purpose is there in dusting the icons, pressing the vestments, and singing the hymns if we don’t really know it as our truth?

I didn’t say “believe it,” for we can make ourselves believe just about anything. There are a lot of true believers who talk a lot about god, read their Bible religiously and do their best to take it literally. If the biblical god doesn’t bust through the starry canopy and talk to us as he once did, it’s only because we live in the Last Days and he is busy preparing for the Final Judgment.

As for Jesus, Christmas got him into our world and Easter got him back out. It all happened a long time ago, but he’s coming again. Just you wait. In the meantime – and it is a mean time – we have to keep the faith, resist the devil, legislate for (our) religion, and guard our stuff.

I saw a bumper sticker the other day: “God – Guns – USA.” Now that’s a very small picture, which can be found all around the planet today. Just insert another god and a different tribe, and that truck might be driving down the road in Syria or Kenya or North Korea.

What can Easter mean in a time when evidence of god is lacking but the testimony for god is all too out-spoken and dogmatic? Just because it’s “in the Bible” doesn’t automatically make it relevant. After all, the Bible is testimony, not evidence. Furthermore, it’s a very special kind of testimony – not exactly the eye-witness accounts as many true believers defend it these days, but creative testimony, poetic testimony.

As mythology, the Bible wasn’t written as retrospective journalism on objective miracles and actual encounters with a supernatural personality. Rather, it issued from the creative imaginations of people just like you and me, inspired by the realization that their lives (just like ours) opened up to a greater mystery.

In those moments, in those places, and in the company of those rare and illumined ones who seemed to live in unbroken awareness of this mystery, the everyday world was touched, elevated and glorified with a higher significance.

Jesus came with a message about compassion, charity, and unconditional forgiveness. He not only talked it but he walked it as well, living it out in his dealings with others – in the company of his friends, in his encounters with strangers, and in the presence of his enemies.

It wasn’t long before the authorities caught wind of his growing reputation and grew uneasy over his dangerous influence on the people. Dangerous because he was waking people up from the trance of personal self-interest, religious orthodoxy, and militant nationalism.

The authorities were nervous that this trouble-maker might shift the axis of control that protected their privileged position as deputies of god and brokers of salvation. They quoted scripture in self-defense, accused Jesus of going against tradition, and at last succeeded in charging him with heresy, atheism and disturbing the peace (also known as the trance-state of spiritual sleep). He was executed and his followers disbanded.

But then, maybe among a small band of his discouraged survivors, memories were recalled and weaved together in stories. In recalling his words they remembered his message, and as his message reignited their hearts they realized that his vision was still short of fulfillment. The spirit of Jesus was not gone but now lived in them. The torch of his cause was theirs to carry forward.

An empty tomb and abandoned grave clothes are not evidence, but only the absence of evidence. They are signs, metaphors, and symbols opening out to a greater mystery. They say, “Not here.” But where then? Exactly where is Jesus alive?

Up in heaven, if you believe in heaven. In the sacraments of the Church, if that’s your thing.

I would say that if what we are calling the spirit of Jesus is not evident in the way we live and treat each other, then we’re still waiting for Easter.

 

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