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Dropping Illusions

De Mello: “You must drop it all. Not physical renunciation, you understand; that’s easy. When your illusions drop, you’re in touch with reality at last, and believe me, you will never again be lonely, never again. Loneliness is not cured by human company. Loneliness is cured by contact with reality. Contact with reality, dropping one’s illusions, making contact with the real. Whatever it is, it has no name. We can only know it by dropping what is unreal.”

Awakening is used across the wisdom traditions of the world as a metaphor for salvation – which, of course, is still another metaphor. Many metaphors in this class have to do with being set free from something that is pulling us down and holding us back, as our dreams at night hold us captive to scenarios conjured up from the subconscious imagination. While asleep, the experience we’re having isn’t real, as compared to the physical world of the bed in the room in the house that Jack built.

And then there are dream episodes where you are running from danger or falling in love, which at least one part of your brain can’t distinguish from the peripheral sensations of your bedroom. Your heart races as stress hormones are released into your bloodstream. You thrash about and may start weeping in the middle of your dream. Awakening to the real world involves getting out of the predicament in your dream (the particular scenario that has you so worked up), then getting out of the dream itself, and finally waking up from sleep to become aware again of the real world around you.

But let’s not stop there. After all, what is this so-called “real world” you have awakened to? A comfortable bed in a room designed for sleeping (and other stuff), as part of a house in a neighborhood of a city in a state of the country where you are a citizen. Your country has a language and a history that are rooted in a still-larger culture, going back many generations and centuries. You and your fellow citizens live together inside a system of law, politics, morality, commerce and other basic values that constitute a more or less coherent worldview.

Keep going. This worldview – we might say, by definition – is only a view on the world, and not the world itself. Everything, from the bed you dream in to the canopy of tribal  mythology that holds everything in place, is a cultural artifact. A worldview is constructed much as furniture is made, but out of words, values and meanings rather than wood, metal and fabric. Even the bed isn’t “just” a material thing, but an object built by design for a specific purpose. It, too, is “made up.”

And then there’s the world – the thing that your worldview is only a view of. What is the world? From the root-word wer-ald, literally “man age,” world refers to the envelop of significance that human beings pull around themselves for security, identity and purpose. Your wer-ald co-exists with you as long as you’re alive, for the length of your age.

So even the so-called real world is meaningful only in reference to human beings. It’s also an artifact, a kind of boundary term that allows your made-up world to gradually and imperceptibly merge with reality. You have a world, I have a world, and we share a good part of a cultural world – although our local tribes may espouse very different, even conflicting beliefs about what it all means.

As a metaphor, then, awakening is a process of liberation from illusion. On this definition, not only is the dream scenario an illusion – or a play of imaginary representations, constructs of the mind – but so is the dream. And so are the many layers of cultural artifacts, from the bed you wake up in, to the role-play of your life in society, to the character and history of your people, and even to the mythological god who validates and supervises the whole thing. Illusions all.

One level “up,” so to speak, might seem more real than the one(s) farther down, but it’s still only a representation – a re-presentation, a secondary presentation, a mental construct, a mere image standing in for the real thing (or so we believe). So what we have is a nested stack of representations: dream scenarios inside of dream states inside of role plays inside of tribal dreams inside of cultural dream states inside the real world that god built.

Just so we can draw a boundary around all this illusion, let’s say that everything on the far side of representation is “metaphysics” or “revelation,” and leave that to the prophets and crack-pots who claim to speak for god.

I suppose it’s up to each of us to decide how much illusion we are willing to accept as truth. You’ve got to get on with your life somehow, right? We might expect a fully awakened human being, one who is entirely free of illusions, to be a world-renouncing party-pooper. Pretty much good for nothing when it comes to what the rest of us are so worked up about.

But renouncing the conventional world for one that is supernatural, metaphysical, or monastic is merely swapping out one illusion for another. Just because you switch from a functional language about garage doors to a liturgical language about god almighty doesn’t necessarily mean you’re any closer to reality.

So what De Mello means by “dropping illusions” must be something else besides turning your back on this world for the sake of a heavenly reward elsewhere and later on. Maybe it’s not even possible for our minds to apprehend reality, since the moment they grab hold and slap a label on it, the construction of meaning is already well underway.

Maybe the best we can do is try to live in full acknowledgement of our nature as meaning-makers, storytellers, spin-masters and illusionists. Perhaps dropping illusions is not about renouncing them, as it is stepping through them with a waking awareness to the real presence of mystery.

 

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The Inner Voice

Kierkegaard: “In eternity, conscience is the only voice that is heard. It must be heard by the individual, for the individual has become the eternal echo of this voice. It must be heard. There is no place to flee from it.”

The sixteenth-century Reformation in Christianity began in Luther’s discovery of the individual conscience and his belief that this inner voice is the very voice of god. Up to that point, institutional religion had successfully spun the delusion of the individual’s separation from god, and of our collective need for intervention that only the institution can provide. Any insight or guidance or judgment you might inwardly discern was not to be trusted.

So when Luther decided to regard his inner voice as the voice of god, this single decision severed the chain of external control.

Of course, there had been others before Luther’s time who valued individual authority over compliance with “the system” (call it institution, society, fashion, or empire). They were revolutionaries, if their visions and ways of life caught on with others; or saints, if it took some time for them to be respected and appreciated; or maybe just misfits and odd-balls, if no one else really “got it.”

But Luther made his declaration on the cusp of a dawning new age – modernity, with its growing obsession with individuality and the individual’s experience.

Inside this discovery and its more widespread acceptance throughout western European culture, we can also detect the seed of what is now called “postmodernism.” While perspectivism had been developing in painting for a couple centuries already, Luther applied it to faith and morality. If this is how I feel, then maybe this feeling is a divine prompting. This is how things seem from where I stand.

At trial for all the commotion and cultural upset that he had caused, Luther announced the new maxim of perspectivism: “Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise.” I am compelled by the force and authority of my own experience. Kaboom.

In effort to justify its dominance of the individual, tribal orthodoxy does two things: (1) It claims for itself a divinely ordained authority, sustained by a sacred tradition reaching back to supernatural events (revelations, miracles) where this transfer of truth and power was made; and (2) it weakens the creative spirit of the individual with a doctrine of depravity, guilt, and shame (in short, a doctrine of sin).

Your corrupt nature, inherent selfishness, and fundamental inability to save yourself makes you utterly dependent on (the external, metaphysical) god for salvation. Thankfully (and you’d better be thankful), a way has been provided. Long ago we (the tribe) were given the secret, which we have guarded over many centuries. Listen up, join us, believe this, sit here. The devil – counterpart to our god – is still loose and at large in the world, so be vigilant! His most seductive temptation is to encourage your self-consciousness.

Luther was still too much entranced with this orthodox instruction to take full responsibility for his life or look too deeply into his own human nature. The doctrine of sin persisted – one might even say it was amplified in the emerging traditions of Protestant Christianity. Now that the institutional middleman is out of the way, it’s just you standing naked before god. Egad.

So what does this have to do with Kierkegaard and the future rise of postmodernism? Whereas Luther had been an unabashed theist, believing that his inner voice was nothing less than the directive of a god who existed outside of himself, Kierkegaard followed the root system of this interior experience, into the very ground of his own existence. For this reason, he is rightfully honored as an early proponent of Existentialism.

Existentialism is a philosophy of life. Whereas other philosophical traditions had involved rather abstract speculations on metaphysical realities (god, soul, mind), Existentialism dedicated its focus to the time-bound, flesh-and-blood individual who is working out the meaning of life along the meandering course of daily experience.

At this early stage we don’t yet have recognition of the fact that the individual is constructing this meaning as a world-creator and not simply finding it “out there” ready-made. But it’s coming. A necessary step in this direction was Kierkegaard’s replacement of Luther’s conscience as a voice of revelation from elsewhere (the external god) with the notion of conscience as the voice of inner guidance, available to the perceptive and internally grounded individual.

Isn’t all of this just a set-up for rampant individualism? When we start listening in on the universal wisdom as it resounds up from the depths of our own human nature; as we tune into this inner voice of spiritual grounding and guidance; when we begin taking responsibility for our choices and the worlds we create and destroy with them; finally, as we come to appreciate ourselves and acknowledge each other as present (and passing) incarnations of the One Mystery – after all of this, won’t the world come apart and the devil win?

Seriously?

Of course, there is a risk. Not everyone will join the revolution. Tribal orthodoxy works hard to keep you compliant. There will be hell to pay by anyone who dares to question the sacred trust of its holy tradition, supernatural revelations, ordained authorities and inerrant Bible. Too many of us value emotional security over spiritual fulfillment to put so much on the line.

After all, it’s working, isn’t it? It hasn’t all come crashing down yet, thanks to the true believers who are keeping the faith. Get in here and hang on with us!

There, there. Shhhhh. Close your eyes and go back to sleep.

 

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The Truth of Symbols

Tillich: “Symbols cannot be produced intentionally. They grow and they die. Symbols do not grow because people are longing for them, and they do not die because of scientific or practical criticism. They die because they can no longer produce response in the group where they originally found expression.”

Christmas Day provides an opportunity to reflect on one of the important symbols from Christian mythology – the virgin birth of Jesus. Tillich observes that symbols, like this one, are not inventions of the conscious (intentional) mind, but rather emerge out of a part of the human psyche that the psychologist Carl Jung called the collective unconscious. The career of a particular symbol, then, cannot be scheduled, managed or predicted. It rises and falls, grows and dies according to its degree of relevance and effectiveness. What can be said of the virgin birth?

Let’s first acknowledge and set aside three opinions in our contemporary culture regarding the validity of this symbol. On one side are the “moderns” who have been sufficiently educated in the worldview of scientific materialism to reject the virgin birth as a biophysical impossibility. The study of genetics has shown that an individual’s sex and other fundamental traits require the cooperation of a mother’s egg and a father’s sperm. Unless the holy spirit contributed a male gamete, Jesus couldn’t have been a male human being.

Well, then, no big deal. Jesus wasn’t fully human – what’s the problem? According to popular Christianity today, his humanity was just a convenience anyway – a “put on” for the sake of accomplishing what needed to be done for the salvation of the world. His true nature was divine, as an incarnate god, or an avatar as in Hinduism where a deity manifests him- or herself on earth and sheds the costume once the work is done.

Orthodox Christianity, however – as distinct from popular Christianity – has insisted from the beginning that Jesus was fully human, even as he was fully god. How this adds up has never been clarified to the satisfaction of logic or reason, but that’s beside the point. In order to accomplish his work, Jesus had to be both human and divine, and fully both. That doesn’t answer the problem of his genetic inheritance as a human being, however, but that’s where “faith” comes in. You must simply believe and accept it as true.

On the other side of the contemporary divide, then, are those who take the virgin birth literally, not as symbol but as fact. It happened just as the Bible says it happened. The rise of Christian fundamentalism in the first half of the twentieth century was leveraged on this key doctrine, along with several other non-negotiables of true doctrine. Your salvation depends not just on what Jesus accomplished on your behalf but on your agreement with these particular dogmatic statements.

A third position in the debate represents an attempted compromise between the scientific skeptic and biblical literalist. Here’s where verses in scripture are reinterpreted and justified in light of what we know happened or what might have happened historically.

What Genesis calls a “day” of creation should really be translated to mean only a period of time, not a 24-hour period. The parting of the Red Sea was likely caused by seismic activity or powerful cross-currents of wind that have been noted in that part of the world. Jonah could have survived in the belly of the whale due to a generous pocket of air which is occasionally swallowed by sea mammals when they break the surface to breathe. And the Greek word for “virgin” is really a mistranslation of the Hebrew, almah, referring to a young woman of child-bearing age.

But justifying the Bible stories by science or stretching science to accommodate the Bible stories really only corrupts both. So here’s a fourth position on the virgin-birth symbol, one that I’m recommending.

Religious mythology and scientific theory are not two ways of coming at the same questions we humans have about the universe. But neither is mythology about things we can’t explain scientifically. Furthermore – it should be said – a myth and its internal reference system of symbols can be falsified according to scientific standards but still be true in a different sense.

For example, Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is fiction, even very good fiction, but it is not something that happened to an actual man named Ebenezer Scrooge in nineteenth-century England. From the historical perspective, it is not a true story. But Dickens himself did observe the plight of poor families in his native land and was personally moved to sympathy for their hopeless condition. Thus we might scavenge some historical value out of this admittedly fictional tale, interpreting it in light of Dickens’ social context and his own moral conscience.

But here’s the real point: it doesn’t matter whether or not Scrooge was an actual accountant, or that Dickens had a sociopolitical motive for writing his story. The ghost of his business partner, Jacob Marley, and those visitations by the three spirits of Christmas who reveal to Ebenezer how his choices and attitude in life ripple outward to affect others and determine the future – all of that happened. Or rather it happens, in the story, every time we read it or listen to it read.

Truth, in this deeper sense, has nothing to do with historical facts or scientific evidence or even common sense. Truth refers to the power of a story in pulling back the veils of assumption, ignorance, prejudice or indifference that obscure our perception of reality. It is not solely for the purpose of entertaining an audience or making kids sleepy in bed. Myths are true to the extent that they wake us up – break the trance – and force us to reconsider our current beliefs and where we are going in life.

So was Mary a virgin when she gave birth to Jesus? Yes – in the myth. Did shepherds hear a heavenly host announcing the birth of the savior? Yes – in the myth (as told in Luke). Did a star guide the quest of oriental kings to Jesus? Yes – in the myth (as told in Matthew). Such literary devices were ways that these ancient authors connected heaven and earth, god and humanity, east and west, one social class and another.

The other Gospels (Mark and John) don’t have a virgin birth, shepherds or wise men in their storylines. They employed different devices, different symbols. If they succeed in opening our eyes and help us see reality differently, then they are also true.

It’s difficult to say whether the symbol of the virgin birth is alive or dead in our time. If we can regain the appreciation for stories we had as children and allow the myth to pull us in and work us over, it may stand a chance. Maybe it can still provoke in us the same response it produced in its original community.

Otherwise it’s up to the skeptics and fundamentalists to pull apart its last fiber and let it die.

 

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The Narrow Gate

Kierkegaard: “Only the Eternal is … always present, is always true. Only the Eternal applies to each human being, whatever his [or her] age may be. […] If there is, then, something eternal in [an individual], it must be able to exist and to be grasped within every change.”

One of the critical mistranslations from New Testament Greek to modern English happened when aionios (Greek, eternal) became everlasting. From that fateful moment, upon a careless decision – or was it intentional? – of the translator, Christianity lost its original concern for the real presence of mystery and became – or rather degenerated into – a religion of the afterlife.

Jesus had been deeply focused on that moment of disillusionment when the really real (he called it God-power or the reign of God) breaks through our illusions of separateness and superiority and reveals our essential oneness with our neighbor. Christian orthodoxy not long thereafter began to move the primary objective of salvation out of this world and into the next.

Eternal simply means “timeless.” In time we are always living on the invisible threshold between a past and a future. Everything up till now has conspired to give shape to the ego and its personal world; everything after now can only be sketched out along a scale of probability, following the trajectory of momentum carried over from the past. What we call an individual’s character is only the part of the personality that has been so conditioned by his or her genetic and personal past as to be fairly predictable and enduring.

When we observe the past and future from where we stand, they seem to fit and flow seamlessly; what is called “the present” is elusive and impossible to pin down.

But it is precisely the present that is timeless, transcendent to the flow of past and future. The present is ineffable, since whatever word you may use to render its meaning is itself the product of a previous effort. You think you have it? Look again: you are holding only a relic of the past, however recent.

This is why my preferred reference to ultimate reality plays creatively with the terms “presence,” “mystery,” and “reality” – as in (1) the present mystery of reality, (2) the real presence of mystery, or (3) the mysterious reality of presence. It is about what is really real, what is elusive and ineffable, and what is here and now.

Kierkegaard says that the Eternal is “always present, always true” – and here true refers not to the accuracy of a statement but to the reality or authenticity of something. True, in this deeper sense, is not the opposite of false but of fake, counterfeit, illusory, unreal. (By the way, this is why Nietzsche refers to a doctrine or theory as an “untruth” – because it sets up a screen between us and the reality we are attempting to describe.)

A recovery of concern for the eternal over what merely lasts forever marks a transforming moment in awareness. Because so much of religion and religious orthodoxy is preoccupied with the project of getting the soul out of its body and into the next life, the possibility of a living faith in this present moment has been displaced by a frozen set of doctrines one must believe to be saved. In its deeper and original sense, however, faith refers to a mode of awareness and life that connects us to the present mystery of reality.

This is what Jesus was referring to when he spoke of our need to enter God-power through “the narrow gate” (Matthew 7:13). A living encounter with divine presence is only possible in this moment. Our tendency as individuals to miss the moment and dwell instead on the past or future is only amplified by tribal religion, where sacred tradition or apocalyptic expectation can conspire to distract an entire society from the present mystery. We scurry back and forth across this vibrant threshold countless times a day, and the blood we shed in defense of our tradition or to advance our mission is poured out – always – on holy ground.

Eternity, then, is not after or outside the flow of time, but “within every change,” as Kierkegaard observes. Although he hasn’t used the word yet, I suspect that he also regards faith as something like a primary attitude of existence whereby an individual opens his or her life to the real mystery of presence.

The distinction between ego and soul (explored in my previous conversation with Nietzsche, Watts and Heschel) is especially relevant here. My cultural identity as a member of this tribe, a person with masks to wear and roles to play, is conditioned by a past and oriented toward a future. Ego is always in time – but is just not able ever to be on time, fully in this moment and free of “me-and-mine.”

Meanwhile, my grounded presence in reality, here and now – which is to say, the soul of myself (rather than “my soul”) – simply abides. One part of what I am waits for the other part to slow down, drop in, and let go.

The first movement of faith is letting go.

 

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A Second Look

Watts: “From this deeper point of view, religion is not a system of predictions. Its doctrines have to do, not with the future and the everlasting, but with the present and the eternal. They are not a set of beliefs and hopes but, on the contrary, a set of graphic symbols about present experience.”

I am sure that every one of us holds a deep intuition of what really matters in life. Not what is “most meaningful” but what is most real, and by implication where the true relevance of our life is grounded. The premise of Watts’ book – which concludes with this chapter – is that our ambition for security, motivated by the fear of extinction and the craving for permanence, is what keeps us looking outside this present moment for our salvation.

The fact of our insecurity – not simply the anxiety over it, but the naked reality of our passing life – cannot be escaped. However, much of what we do is for the purpose of diverting focus to things (attachments) that are fixed in space or defy the erosion of time. Whether as materialists or spiritualists, we hope that by holding on to what has weight or permanence our own existence will somehow be preserved.

But empirical science has discovered that matter is really just the momentary configuration of vibrant energy, coming together and falling apart at the joints through the dynamic interaction of elementary forces. And mystical spirituality has come to the realization – which also amounts to a disillusionment – that the gods of myth and theology are really representations and reflexes in our own minds of a profound, ineffable mystery. Standing on the edge of this mystery, ego is easily overwhelmed with vertigo.

In an effort to steady myself, I latch on to memories of the past or fantasies of the future, or else to something outside me, like another person, material possessions, or my patron deity (the mythological god). The result of all this grasping and clutching is really no less pleasant than the vertigo – anxiety, disappointment, frustration, regret, guilt, resentment, codependency, addiction and a soul-sick religion. But here’s the attraction: I (ego) am still at the center of all these states and circumstances. Life may suck, but it’s still my life.

In the practice of spiritual direction and transformational coaching, it always amounts to a breakthrough when the client finally understands what he’s doing in order to feel anxious or depressed, or how his habits and expectations are contributing to his relational conflicts and general disenchantment with life. Conventional psychotherapy will typically work to reconstruct the client’s past (in a case history), clarify a preferred future (the treatment objective), and modify his mood and behavior (using specific interventions) to help get him where he’d rather be.

Rarely will a client in therapy say, “I want to be more real.” That’s because most of our Western psychotherapies are not truly psycho (soul) therapies at all, but are instead based on our preoccupation with the personality and its pompous little captain, the ego. Personal identity is spun and suspended in the web of tribal culture, which makes the well-intentioned therapist an agent of the collective trance. Not that we don’t need addiction recovery, functional relationships, or more successful careers – we undoubtedly do. But if we just keep pulling along the past and pushing our way into the future, we will continue to squander our one chance at real life.

What does this mean for religion? I’ve been exploring a theory that regards religion as inherently paradoxical, a coordinated interplay between two evolutionary objectives – (1) providing support and aspirational focus to your developing ego by way of a projected ideal, the mythological god; and (2) awakening your soul to the ground of being, to the present mystery and mysterious presence of reality. The first objective encourages a literal reading of myth, with the action moving from left to right, through time and across the stage. In the Christian myth of salvation, for instance, Jesus Christ was an individual who came from god into the world, accomplished his work here and returned to god. One day he will come again. If you can believe this – and exactly what “this” is will depend on the denomination you ask – you may be considered a convert and become a member. When it all shakes out, you will be in heaven – ego intact.

The second objective requires a mystical reading, where the story is not about the past or future but is rather “a set of graphic symbols about present experience.” In this light, Jesus represents your separate ego, a personality defined by a past and directed toward a future. Christ (anointed one, the biblical equivalent to Buddha, awakened one) is your deeper self, or soul, ready to break forth in resurrection once this ego-momentum can be arrested, restrained and crucified. Now in the moment and fully present to life, your experience is one of authenticity and freedom. Salvation – the healing of your divided self – is here not a one-time accomplishment by someone else on your behalf, but rather the on-going challenge and invitation to be whole.

Now obviously the vertical axis and mystical reading will eventually “cost” more for the ego, which is partly why it’s the road less taken. But there’s also the tribe to think of, with its own organizational instincts and need for control. Remember that ego is simply a function of the tribe, the tribe is a role-play of morality, morality is a rule system derived from the tribe’s mythology, and mythology is the revealed word and will of god. It all ties together into a very tight web of meaning. The path of enlightenment and resurrection sets you free from fear and relaxes the grip of desire – the two motivational impulses that the tribe exploits to keep you captive. Threat of penalty and the lure of reward no longer matter, because now you are grounded in reality.

What else is there?

 

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Faith For Today

Heschel: “Faith in the sense of being involved in the mystery of God and [humanity] is not the same as acceptance of definitive formulations of articles of belief. Even [one] who merely strives for faith in the living God is on the threshold of faith. The test is honesty and stillness.

“Our error is in the failure to understand that creed without faith is like a body without a heart. Just as faith may become blind, cruel, and fierce, creed may become shoddy, sterile, and deaf. Let us insist that alienation from dogma does not necessarily mean the loss of faith.”

I know that there are many more like me, for whom the traditional doctrines are not only uninteresting but irrelevant; not only unrelated to our daily lives but frequently offensive to our intelligence and ethical sensibilities. I know because I’ve met them, many thousands of them along the way. There are millions more all around the planet.

Doctrines – including the Big Ones, called dogmas – are derived from myths, sacred stories of gods and heroes, saviors and saints, revelations and miracles. The myths, in turn, are dramatic narratives that take place against a backdrop of cultural assumptions called a worldview. Such stories may explain how this world came into being or where it’s all going. As long as they are compatible with our mental model of the universe they can be said to make sense.

For millenniums religion was the official storyteller of culture. Ancient myths oriented human life in a universe conducted by hidden agencies whose intentions weren’t altogether apparent, and often required ritual supplication or appeasement in order to move in our favor. To the degree that human action was maintained in accordance with these hidden powers, the cultural order was preserved.

At some point, the objective of religious observance shifted from world maintenance to individual salvation – gaining escape from time and the body and living forever with God, who had by this time withdrawn from the world (escaped his own body) into a separate realm of pure spirit.

This “recession of God” from the world coincided with a growing human fascination over the composition and mechanics of the universe – giving birth to science. Without a fall-back explanation that invoked supernatural agencies making and moving the universe, science began telling very different stories. It also had its priests (researchers) and storytellers (theorists), its rituals (the experimental method) and temples (laboratories).

For a while, the older mental model would have to be periodically modified to accommodate the new discoveries. But eventually the three-story floor plan had to be abandoned. Then the division in history between an age of revelation and “these last days” had to be scrapped. And now the dualism of God and world, soul and body, “us” (the saved) and “them” (the lost) is becoming meaningless – except when a raving prophet or raging politician succeeds in agitating the insecurity of our freedom. Strangely, but perhaps not surprisingly, we can be suddenly willing to throw our support behind “whatever it takes” to feel secure again.

How is a person of today supposed to “hold faith” in a religion whose worldview is obsolete? If a god “up there” has relinquished the earth to human industry and its toxic by-products; if a soul “in here” has pulled attention and care away from our bodies and the physical environment; and if a preoccupation with a life after this one has justified our indifference to the pressing concerns of today – what are we to do?

When a cultural worldview, its mythology, and the dogmatic beliefs that have anchored it in our minds and hearts no longer “work” to orient us meaningfully in the universe, are we forced to believe it anyway (fundamentalism) or else scrap the whole business?

Heschel reminds us that faith – an existential stance of basic trust in life – is not reducible to the orthodoxy of any generation. Our task is to find creative and relevant ways of cultivating faith for today. We live in the same mystery as did those before us. There has always been, and will forever be, a holy presence at the heart of reality.

 

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Is the Game Over?

Watts: “Once there is the suspicion that a religion is a myth, its power is gone.”

In reflecting on the first part of Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, I have already considered the idea that religion is based in or at least largely conditioned by myth – the language, stories, beliefs and judgments we use to “make meaning.” Well, more than just consider the possibility, I have embraced it entirely – you might even say enthusiastically.

Alan Watts was schooled in the tradition of Anglican orthodoxy, which is decidedly different from other Christian denominations in the way it organizes and carries out its purpose, but nevertheless shares the foundational stories of the Christian worldview. These foundational stories are its mythology, and because the Christian doctrine of God is derived from this mythology, the Christian God is mythological.

Yes, Nietzsche would go on to say that my mythological God is an untruth; but I’m okay with that, too. I should hope that the reality indicated by my doctrine of God and the stories that inform it is beyond my perspective-dependent definitions. However, according to Watts, the moment I suspect that my stories are human projections and not supernatural revelations, the game is over (their power is gone).

Hold on a second. Nietzsche was the son of a Lutheran pastor, and Watts was ordained an Episcopal priest. Is it possible that the views of both men were shaped as reactions to the dogmatic heavy-handedness of their parental religion? And maybe I am sympathetic because I, too, was raised a pastor’s son and worked as an ordained minister for a decade and a half. I will confess that much of the doctrinal inheritance of my Dutch Reformed tradition seemed heavy and depressing. The dogmatic orthodoxy derived from the vibrant narratives of mythology was comparatively inflexible and boring. Did I leave church ministry because my religion lost its power?

Not exactly. Long before I made my break – before even I entered seminary – the untruth of doctrines and the pretense of the stories behind them was evident to me. I really think it is evident to most of us. We just don’t want to admit it, for once we do, the game might be over. If the God I believe in is thoroughly mythological, and if mythology is really the narrative projection from a historically limited perspective (of others who lived long ago and far away), then God doesn’t really exist, right? And if God doesn’t exist, then what’s the point in going on? It’s all meaningless.

Agreed: it’s meaningless – if we’re talking about the mystery of life beyond our foreground meanings. On this side are all the opinions, myths and theories we use to make sense of the mystery. They are NOT the mystery, but only a perspective on it. But if we mistake our perspective for the reality, our meaning for the mystery, we might be inspired to do all sorts of things in the name of our “truth.” Why not go out and persuade others to take our perspective (which isn’t a perspective, remember, but truth-itself)? Why not threaten them if they refuse? Why not blow them up and wipe them out if they won’t agree with us? There is power in religion, in the way it can entrance us, cement our convictions, compel us to violence, or justify our complacence.

If THAT game is over, then we all stand a chance.

 

 

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