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What About Prayer?

A new blog follower of mine commented on how much of what I write about resonates with his own spiritual journey. His faith development led him outside the cathedral of Christian orthodoxy, revealing how much of it is a human construction erected in response to a transcendent mystery – to a mystery larger, other, and deeper than ourselves. He appreciates and still cultivates the benefits of meditation as central to (what I would call a post-theistic) spirituality, especially now in his “elder” years.

My new friend writes:

I am curious about an aspect of spirituality that I don’t think you have mentioned [in the blog]. You write of meditation but never about prayer. Is that something I missed; purposeful or a topic yet to be covered? I do have some interests along those lines.

It would be easy to assume that any more or less disciplined cultivation of spirituality – which, by the way, is my best definition of religion – that is practiced “after theism” and its concept of god have been left behind, would no longer have any use for prayer. If we accept the conventional (theistic) definition of prayer as “talking with god,” then this assumption can stand, since post-theism doesn’t regard god as an objectively existing being.

Of course, I would argue that even a reflective and self-critical theism is conscious of how the genealogy of every representation of god traces back to the human imagination as its birthplace.

But still, “reflective and self-critical” are only descriptive of what can be called late theism, when god-oriented religion has acquired an ability to discriminate between the present mystery of God and our human concepts of god that give the mystery name, form, character, and location.

In the light of this distinction, it is common in late theism for believers to begin doubting the literal truth of these theological constructs, and consequently also to begin questioning the validity of “talking with” a god that might be more in our minds than anywhere else.

It takes some excavation work to discover the extent in which our theological concepts of god are really abstractions from mythological precursors, of deities who live in stories that are anchored to metaphors which link together (or carry across, metaphorein) our experience of mystery and our constructions of meaning. Metaphorically, a narrative depiction of god personifies this mystery, gives it meaning, and invites us into a relationship corresponding to the special powers attributed to the deity.

Once upon a time, there was a god of harvest, a god of healing, a god of love, and so on. In the high theism of biblical Judaism these originally separate attributions and plural deities were unified in the one and only god, Yahweh, and a devotee’s supplication might employ any number of distinct prayer formulae depending on the particular need or objective.

Even here, given that the biblical god Yahweh is also a theological construct of the mythopoetic imagination, the real benefit of prayer can be appreciated as more therapeutic than conversational. While a devotee might believe that he or she is “talking with god” (regardless of the persistent silence at the other end of the line), the effect psychologically might come in the form of a calming relief, an expansion of awareness, the release of guilt, an acceptance of life as it is, or the focused resolution to act for desired change.

True believers will always have recourse to the assertion that god really is there, at the other end of the prayer line.

It’s not necessary for them to have met a deity who fits the biblical profile of Yahweh in order to have faith that he objectively exists. (This is one way that faith gets distorted into “believing it anyway,” when its original and deepest meaning has to do with releasing oneself in trusting surrender to the present mystery of reality.) But with our historical knowledge of how religion’s concept of god originated and evolved over time, there is no reasonable basis for such belief.

God doesn’t have to exist to be meaningful. Which also means that prayer doesn’t have to be conversational for it to still have an important place in the cultivation of spirituality.

So then, what is prayer? If it’s not a way of getting god’s attention, persuading his mercy and forgiveness, stoking his wrath against our enemies, motivating his miraculous intervention on our behalf (etc.), then what use is it? Post-theism has an answer.

Our psycho-spiritual development as humans follows a trajectory in the formation of a self-conscious center of personal identity, or ego (from Latin for “I”). The deities of theism are cultural counterparts of this formation, and one of their primary roles is to serve as mythopoetic ideals (i.e., more perfect and self-actualized versions of ourselves) that awaken and evoke from us such higher virtues as patience, compassion, benevolence, and forgiveness – the distinctly humane virtues.

At this seemingly “conversational” stage, our supplication of god for these higher virtues, along with our worship of god in exemplifying them to us, activates our commitment to their demonstration in our own life, with whatever consistency we can manage.

Petitioning god’s forgiveness, for instance, and then returning gratitude for our release from guilt, motivates our own forgiveness of others who have wronged us.

At first, we look to god for the strength we need to set aside vengeance and act with kindness instead. Over time and with practice, however, living a forgiven and forgiving life becomes more second nature for us: The virtuous strength we had earlier looked to god for is now active in us. Our prayer for god’s forgiveness has awakened in us the power to forgive. That is to say, the virtue of forgiveness which god had personified has now “come alive” in us.

This, by the way, is a post-theistic interpretation of the early Christian myth of Pentecost, where the spirit of Jesus was transferred into the disciple community, which subsequently became the resurrected body of Christ. I am convinced that earliest Christianity, taking its inspiration from Jesus himself, was a post-theistic revolution that later (too soon) was co-opted again by a resurgent theism.

A full account of prayer thus begins in a theistic frame, with god and his virtues depicted as beyond us. Eventually we move into a post-theistic frame, where the virtues of god are awakened and active within us, flowing through us and into our daily life and relationships.

Prayer as conversation transforms into prayer as incarnation, and we step fully into the liberated life.

 

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Christ Consciousness, Buddha Nature

In Would Jesus Join a Church? I reminded my reader that Christ was not Jesus’ last name, nor is it a title that belonged exclusively to him. We should think of it rather as an archetypal designation for one who has been “anointed” – ordained and commissioned to carry out the will of god. An actual ritual of anointing would mark and confirm the individual’s dedication to this higher purpose, which in the context of ancient Israel followed a political, priestly, or prophetic path.

The early Christians believed that Jesus fulfilled all three lines of expectation.

As an archetypal fulfillment, Jesus the Christ occupied a similar role as did Gautama the Buddha for his people. In the way that Christ identifies one “anointed” by a higher purpose, Buddha designates one who has “awakened” to the true nature of things. The historical Gautama had tried in vain to find this truth both in the luxuriant pleasures of palace life and in the acetic practices of self-denial, before he discovered the middle way of inner peace.

The Buddha’s followers continue to regard him as the pathfinder to the deepest truth of existence.

Many others have explored the similarities of “Christ consciousness” and “Buddha nature,” but in this post I will focus on how they are distinct. The archetypes clearly reveal our human fascination with higher purpose and inner peace – ideals that help us see beyond the thick tangle of anxieties and distractions that is ordinary life in the world.

Instead of interpreting them as cross-cultural equivalents, however, I want to suggest that the Christ and Buddha archetypes are complementary, and that only together do they offer a complete picture of human fulfillment and the liberated life.Let’s get our frame in place. At the center of my diagram is the star of our show: the separate individual of every ego. From Latin for “I,” ego simply names the center of self-conscious identity which gradually comes into shape as a social construct over the first decade of life. The tribe uses this construct of identity as a brake on selfish and anti-social behavior, as a steering mechanism for behavior more suitable to polite society, as well as a repository of all kinds of cultural codes and tribal secrets.

In other words, ego will always have a social context where it is defined and belongs.

As a separate individual, ego had to undergo a series of separations from earlier conditions of immersion and attachment. Physical transitions from fetus to newborn to infant to toddler are accompanied by emotional shifts, role changes, mental distancing, and new attitudes that serve to orient identity in its social world. Each separation amounts to a No (“not me”) that enables ego to retract or advance into its own, what we might call, negative space.

Separation also entails exposure – slipping out, pushing off, stepping away, and standing alone – which brings on some insecurity since standing alone can feel a lot like abandonment. To compensate, ego grabs on (physically and emotionally) to something else, a pacifier of some sort in which it seeks comfort, safety, and relief. With this Yes it identifies with the pacifier, making it part of its identity. Literally anything can serve as a pacifier, becoming an attachment to our sense of self.

All of these facets and layers of construction – each one a kind of identity contract – make the ego an individual, a unique and indivisible person. Every facet and layer of identity is essential to the construct: “I [ego] am a white middle-class American male who leans politically as a Democrat and spiritually as a Christian post-theist.” Because my construct of identity is made up of all of these, subtracting even one would alter who I am. A challenge or threat to any of them will be regarded as an attack on my very self.

If the facet or layer of identity under threat happens to be where my security is hooked, I will snarl and snap – or run if I have to.

So, every ego is a separate individual made up of many Noes and Yeses. By “No” we separate from one thing, and by “Yes” we identify ourselves with another. After a while we are so attached and entangled, that our human spirit – the part of us that longs for inner peace and higher purpose – paces hopelessly in circles like a wild animal in a cage.

As illustrated in my diagram, I’ve come to appreciate the distinct ways that the Christ and Buddha archetypes provide us a way out of the cage and into the liberated life.

The higher purpose of Christ consciousness is what’s revealed to us as we are able to move from separation to connection, and then transcend (or go beyond) the duality of the connection into a greater whole. In human interpersonal connection (one ego to another) there will be an emergent invitation for partners to become a genuine community, where the higher purpose of their relationship inspires and guides their interactions.

This principle of connect-and-transcend is Christ consciousness. In devoting himself to the higher purpose of radical inclusion and taking for his mission the liberation of all people, Jesus became the Christ (anointed one).

The inner peace of Buddha nature lies below the individual ego, recalling that the ego’s “indivisibility” is not about being a single thing, permanent and immortal. Rather it is a construct made up of numerous identity contracts, storylines, and characters – all those facets and layers mentioned earlier – which all together make us who we are. The path to our inner life, into what I call the grounding mystery of being, entails a contemplative release of each facet and layer as we descend deeper into that mystery.

As Buddhism teaches, this inner peace is not an experience for the ego, but is rather an “egoless” experience. From the vantage point of personal identity it is emptiness (shunyata), no-thingness, pure awareness unattached to (free of) any self reference. “I” am not having this experience of inner peace; it opens to consciousness only as I let go of everything that makes me an individual.

This complementary principle of release-and-descend is Buddha nature. In dropping through his web of personal identity and dwelling in the perfect stillness of being-itself, Gautama became the Buddha (awakened one).

These archetypal principles were revealed (or if you prefer, expressed) in the historical Jesus and Gautama, in very different cultures and times. What they revealed, however, was not to be tied exclusively to those individuals – each said so in his own way. By their examples and through their teachings, the liberated life was manifested as the way of inner peace and higher purpose.

Perhaps it’s significant that Gautama came first, since we need to be at peace within ourselves before we can clearly see the creative purpose moving through all things.

 

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Would Jesus Join a Church?

Christianity has become a protected membership, where insiders are separated from outsiders by a wall of orthodox beliefs and moral judgments. In this post I will argue that membership is always about purity, separation, and exclusion.

Purity may not be about ritual or dietary restrictions in most cases; at least this is generally true of Christian memberships. But insiders consistently regard themselves as more pure (what used to be called righteous) and in possession of the revealed (uncontaminated) truth upon which their salvation (and everyone else’s) depends.

In order to achieve and preserve purity, insiders see the need to separate themselves from the rest of the world, especially from “sinners and unbelievers.” These are necessarily excluded – perhaps welcomed as visitors, but soon enough urged to confess their sins, adopt the orthodoxy, join the church, and recite the creed.

For the most part, Christian insiders have the assurance of being saved from damnation (the fate of the rest of the world) by their belief in Jesus as one who took away their sins, bore their deserved punishment on his cross by dying in their place, and thereby satisfied the conditions against their forgiveness.

Christianity as a protected membership goes back to the early centuries when the mixture of world cultures under Roman rule was making imperial unification all but impossible. At first, Roman emperors tried to subjugate or exterminate their motley population of immigrants, which included a messianic movement that took its inspiration from a crucified rebel leader who had wandered the countryside with a message of human liberation by the spirit of God.

Jesus’ followers carried on with his refusal to obey traditions, institutions, and authorities that oppressed and exploited the human spirit. State persecution of this Jesus movement only managed to push it underground, however, where its antiestablishmentarian philosophy continued to spread.

With Constantine (272-337 CE) came a different tactic. Rather than trying to uproot and destroy the Christians, he enticed them into becoming a protected membership. His council at Nicaea in 325 was convened for the purpose of motivating church leaders to define their religion, agree on what Christians should believe, and enforce this orthodoxy across his empire.

By converting the Jesus movement into a religious institution, Constantine was able to bring it under control and on his side. Ever since then, Christianity has preferred to sidle up to thrones, parliaments, and political parties.

Back in the middle of the first century, before Constantine’s solution and just as Roman persecution of Christians was getting started, the apostle Paul had been busy planting Christian communities throughout Greece and Asia Minor. Even that early, the movement was trying to find a balance between the itinerant values of Jesus and the more settled life in towns and cities. Paul himself seems to have struggled somewhat with the tension of perfect freedom and proper order in the communities he helped to establish, presaging a dynamic that Constantine would later turn in his favor.

In the Christianity of Paul and Paul’s line (particularly the authors of Colossians and Ephesians) a provocative trinitarian confession was circulating. Paul himself testified to having undergone a religious conversion of sorts, when, on his way to arrest some Christians in Damascus, he was suddenly seized by a vision of blinding light and a voice claiming to be that of “Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (Acts 9:5).

Later Paul would describe the experience as the moment he died to what he had been, to become a bearer of the living spirit of Jesus. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20).

Paul extended this transforming experience of “Christ in me” into a new concept of the Jesus community as the “body of Christ.” Christ wasn’t the last name of Jesus but a Hebrew term (mashiach) meaning “anointed one,” similar in many ways to the Eastern idea of buddha or “awakened one.” We can think of this as a spiritual principle that impels the transcendence of ego into unity consciousness and the liberated life. Jesus the Christ and Gautama the Buddha are honored as individuals in whom a new, higher humanity was revealed and released in the world.

In Paul’s understanding, Jesus became the Christ in being filled and lifted up (resurrected) by the spirit of God (see Romans 1:4). This same spirit is what came to life in Paul himself, as well as in everyone who undergoes the death-and-resurrection (ego transcending) experience. All together, they now live in the world as the corporate body of Christ, sharing its joy and bringing liberation to those still held captive by fear – just as Jesus the Christ had done.

Disciples of Paul completed the trinitarian confession by taking his “Christ in me” and “body of Christ” metaphors and adding a cosmic dimension:

[Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers – all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. (Colossians 1:15-17)

Rather than taking this as a confirmation of the (much later) orthodox doctrines of Jesus’ divinity and the divine Trinity, we need to appreciate the vision in its full scope. Christ (the transforming principle of higher wholeness) is not only at work in the individual Christian and present in the Christian community, but fills the entire frame of the cosmos itself.

That is to say, nothing is excluded.

If we look for the roots of this universalist vision, we will find them in the life and teachings of Jesus himself. Without the filter of subsequent tradition, theological commentary, and church dogma, Jesus’ life and message can be understood as centered in one thing, to which he gave the metaphorical name kingdom – reign, or even better, reality – of God. For him this reality has no inside or outside, but is a mystery that includes everyone.

For that reason we can summarize the life and teachings of Jesus as focused on radical inclusion.

This helps explain why Jesus was so critical of human traditions, human institutions, and orthodoxies that enshrine human convictions about mysteries we really don’t understand or haven’t experienced. His message of unconditional forgiveness – letting go of vengeance, surrendering the need to get even, and responding to the enemy with lovingkindness – removes the walls separating insiders from outsiders, the righteous from the rest.

What does the vision of radical inclusion have to say to protected memberships, like what Christianity has largely become today? A good question to ask ourselves is, “Would Jesus join a church?”

 

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Math and the Meaning of Life

Have you ever met someone who believes they are god’s gift to the world and deserve special attention? How about someone who believes they are worst of the worst and also deserve special attention? Both individuals have essentially the same thing going on: they can’t stop thinking about themselves or get the attention they feel they deserve.

They are both entitled neurotic egos.

At various times in our lives we have all been there. Almost by definition, ego (Latin “I”) is the center of attention around which turn our circumstances, daily life, the universe, and everything that matters – to us. Ever since we were born our tribe has been busy telling us who we are, where we belong, how we should behave and what we should believe.

Some of us had taller powers who told us we were perfect little angels and deserved the very best in life. Others were told that we could never be good enough on our own and would always need someone else’s help to measure up to anything.

The adventure of ego (or self-) consciousness on Earth has had mixed results. Certainly the rise of self-conscious actors who could serve as bearers of social identity and cultural meaning marked a significant evolutionary breakthrough.

But with it came this susceptibility to self-obsession, believing we are either better or worse than everyone else and consequently deserving of special attention.

When you stop and think about it, most of humanity’s greatest social disasters through history can be attributed to the root cause of our neurotic and entitled egos.

That orange spiral to the left – which in this blog never indicates anything good – stands for this condition of spinning in ever-tighter revolutions around an insecure identity.

Whether we’re stuck in a superiority complex or an inferiority complex, it’s “all about me.”

In my diagram I have placed math operators next to each of these conditions. The multiplication sign is a magnifier that makes the ego into something exceptional and larger than life, while the division sign is a minimizer in the way it breaks the ego down into something exceptionally unexceptional – helpless, hopeless and waiting for Godot. For the neurotic ego, the meaning of life is a function of either magnifying oneself (“more of me”: superiority complex) or dividing oneself (“less of me”: inferiority complex).

This plays out in religion as the difference between those who see themselves as deserving of honor and glory, on one side, and on the other those who regard themselves as damned helpless rejects who need to be saved. In orthodox Christianity the message is that it really is all about you. High-achievers and lowlifes alike can be assured of living forever in heaven as long as they believe in (what the church teaches about) Jesus Christ as their personal lord and savior.

Inside popular Christian theism this profound allegiance to the ego and its insatiable craving for attention and immortality is passionately proclaimed as the end-game of belief. You believe so that you will go to heaven, whether because you’ve done good and deserve a hand, or because you’re no good and deserve a hand up.

Jesus himself seems to have had a very different message, for the good and bad like: Get over yourself and start caring for others. You are not entitled to anything and you don’t deserve anything, because you lack nothing. Not a pat on the back or a boot on your neck. It’s not all about you. There’s work to be done, so come along!

Indeed there is hardly a more tragic gap to be found in all of religion than what separates orthodox Christianity and the spirituality of Jesus. If there’s hope for the Christian religion – and time is running out – it will come by way of a renaissance of his original message and way of life.

What makes this unlikely is that the Christian religion has a strong historical momentum of self-centered belief and behavior, and is currently under the management of leaders who can’t get over themselves either.

But if they could, what would be different? What else can be done with this evolutionary breakthrough in self-conscious personal identity (ego) besides showering it with glory or casting it down in shame?

The answer to that question is where our renaissance will begin.

To the right of ego in my diagram are two more math operators, a plus sign and a minus sign. Now, whereas the other operators were “done to” the ego (making it bigger by magnification or smaller by division), these next two are “done with” the ego. The plus sign indicates a move of leaping beyond the ego in connection with, or as Jesus might have said, for the sake of others.

This is one way of getting over yourself: psychospiritually getting outside and above ego concerns in order to join the higher wholeness of genuine community.

Obviously – or at least it should be obvious – an insecure ego that is spiraling into its own neurotic sense of entitlement will not be capable of self-transcendence or genuine community. There’s too much of “me and mine” getting in the way. When the neurotic ego connects with others it’s typically with the aim of getting the upper hand (×), or else kissing the feet of one we hope will save us (÷).

The neurotic ego will also refuse to follow the inward path of subtraction – not reducing ego until little is left (which is division), but dropping past ego consciousness altogether. Such an inward descent entails rappelling the interior precipice of oneself, below personal identity and its whirling tetherball of obsessions, through the nervous system, and deep into the living body’s cradle of biorhythms.

All of that descending terrain is what I call the grounding mystery. In this deep inner place there is no separation where thoughts and words might get a toehold. The experience is timeless and ineffable; there we can simply relax into being and be at peace.

It shouldn’t surprise us that the ascending path of transpersonal spirit (plus sign) and the descending path of existential soul (minus sign) have been consistently condemned in religions where the entitled neurotic ego is calling the shots. These same religions know nothing of the grounding mystery within or what genuine community has to offer.

In fact, they are presently the diabolical adversary to the spiritual renaissance our planet needs. When all that matters is what you deserve … well, then nothing else really matters, does it?

 

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Ignoring Jesus by Making Him God

In orthodox Christianity Jesus is regarded as the Divine Son and Second Person of the Trinity; nothing less than God. Theologians – referring to those who presume to speak authoritatively about God (logos, the study of or talk about theos, god) – have ensconced him fully inside their doctrinal systems.

Over the centuries believers have witnessed to direct encounters with Jesus himself, but theologians are typically cautious when it comes to validating their authenticity. How can you recognize someone you’ve never met?

This point should not be dismissed too quickly. None of us today has a personal memory of meeting the historical Jesus, so the recognition must be based on popular depictions (like the gorgeous wavy-haired European Jesus in a Warner Sallman painting) or a conception more symptomatic of our individual and cultural biases. Maybe you saw the scars in his hands and feet. But then again, thousands in history besides Jesus have been crucified, so how can you know for sure?

The Jesus of orthodox theology is not the same Jesus who came from Nazareth, who lived and died in the first century. Archaeologists and historians are more helpful when it comes to clarifying our picture of what that Jesus may have been like.

But what about the New Testament Gospels? An internal comparison of the narratives themselves shows them to be more myth than history. I don’t mean this as an excuse to ignore what they have to say or relegate them to nothing more than Palestinian fairy tales.

These Gospel narratives were composed after the death of Jesus but before the dogma-machine of Christian orthodoxy got underway. They are not exercises in theology as much as productions in mythology, stories told as meditations on Jesus as a symbol of God. Not Jesus as God as later theologians would insist, but on Jesus as a threshold figure linking the realm of everyday life to the present mystery of reality, beyond names and forms.

Not one of the New Testament authors had known Jesus personally.

The traditional appellations of “Matthew” (a disciple of Jesus) “Mark” (an assistant of the apostle Paul) “Luke” (a disciple and biographer of Paul) and “John” (another disciple of Jesus) were added later. Their contribution was to collect and invent stories that featured Jesus as one who mediated for others an experience of spirit, but who could now only be remembered, not encountered. Even Paul, writing perhaps 15 to 20 years prior to the earliest Gospel (Mark c. 70 CE), had never met the historical Jesus.

Since they lived in closer proximity in time and place to where Jesus had been alive, the New Testament storytellers could depict him with greater realism than can a twenty-first century North American believer. Consequently those stories have seemed more like historical accounts to us than sacred fiction. Add to that our modern prejudice against fiction generally, which regards it as more fantasy than truth, and it’s no wonder that so many Christians (and others) read the Gospels as history.

This gives me an opportunity to reach back to a couple recent posts in this blog of mine, published under the general title “Idols of Orthodoxy.” There I offered a way of interpreting symbols – not mathematical or roadside symbols, but specifically symbolic objects like national flags, wedding rings, religious icons, and the human figure of Jesus.

A symbol in this sense will always have a tangible (i.e., sensory-physical) aspect – colored patterns on cloth; a band of precious metal; a portrait in stone, wood, or paint; or the body and behavior of a living person.

Who the historical Jesus was, what he said and did, and the effect he had on his contemporaries – some of whom felt arrested and transformed in his presence, others who conspired in his arrest and execution for rousing the rabble – are what the Gospel writers attempted to render in their mythological depictions of him. Again, they hadn’t actually been there, but they tried to capture his influence by placing their fictional subject within a constellation of mythological themes, heroic characters, and revealing episodes.

Thus Jesus the symbol of God became the Second Adam, a New Moses, the son of David, Suffering Servant, Lamb of God, and Word-made-flesh. By wrapping Jesus into this web of myth, they attempted to re-present him to their contemporary audiences, labeling and linking him to ideas then current in the way people characterized the transcendent mystery or Spirit of God. Under none of those titles was Jesus understood to be equal with God in any straightforward sense (which is our working definition of idolatry).

What we have in the early centuries of Christianity, then, is a progression – forward movement but not necessarily improvement – from the historical figure of Jesus, into the contemplation of Jesus as a symbol of God, and arriving finally in a theological orthodoxy that effectively ignores Jesus by making him God.

The paradoxical tension of the second phase (New Testament mythology) has snapped, leaving us with a deity out of this world – but coming soon! – and a Jesus long gone and all but forgotten.

As my diagram shows, the second-phase storytellers inserted what we might call transitional mechanisms into their narratives in order to get Jesus out of the historical past and into their contemplative present (in the episode of his resurrection), and then later (with the ascension) into his identification with God.

By rotating the diagram 90° to the left we thus have the phenomenology of symbol perfectly illustrated: the (once-) tangible Jesus of history, the symbol in whom both human and divine are paradoxically united, and the transcendent mystery beyond name and form – although theologians are famously reluctant to admit it.

As a few early Christian theologians (particularly the so-called Cappadocian Fathers: Basil the Great, his brother Gregory of Nyssa, and their close friend Gregory of Nazianzus) were bending logic in their contemplation on Jesus as a symbol of God – “fully divine, fully human, neither separate nor confused” – the emperor Constantine was urging his new kingdom of bishops to make a decision for one side or the other.

The council decided in favor of making Jesus into God. And now he is nowhere to be found.

 
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Posted by on February 20, 2019 in Post-theism/New Humanism

 

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Idols of Orthodoxy, Part 2

You probably saw this coming. In Idols of Orthodoxy I took my reader into the phenomenology of symbols; not an interpretation of this or that symbol – although we used as our example the American flag – but of how symbols themselves are experienced. With that groundwork in place, now we can address a symbol which is central to the Christian religion: Jesus as a symbol of God.

Right away some will protest that Jesus is not merely a ‘symbol’ of God, but God himself. As I want to show, however, this particular point of orthodox doctrine is really a form of idolatry, which is one of the ‘ditches’ we fall into when the tension inherent to a symbol snaps, the other ditch being dualism.

For much of its history, Christian orthodoxy has jumped back and forth between dualism – Jesus and God are two separate objects, one human and the other divine – and idolatry, where Jesus is God, pure and simple.

The attraction of both dualism and idolatry is in their simplicity: thinking in terms of two objects or only one doesn’t require much intellectual effort. Indeed it might be our avoidance of cognitive exercise and the resultant atrophy of thinking that predisposes many of us to take symbols merely at their face value.

What other way can we see them?

Recalling my earlier example of the American flag, Old Glory, we distinguished among a symbol’s three aspects. Its tangible aspect is sensory-physical: the material cloth with its pattern of colors. This is the aspect we perceive with our physical senses. As it relates to Jesus as a symbol of God, we are speaking of the flesh-and-blood individual who lived 2,000 years ago.

His contemporaries saw and heard him as one like themselves in many ways, although some of what he said and did was not only uncommon but downright scandalous and provocative.

Jesus’ career as a symbol of God probably didn’t begin until later in life, most likely breaking into the awareness of his disciples only during his final days and following his death.* Before then, everyone was just trying to make sense of this self-styled wisdom teacher, social activist, and rabble-rouser who seemed intent on disrupting the status quo. His message was appealing, in the way he talked of a foundational dignity in every human being regardless of race, religion, sex, or moral character.

He often focused his audience’s anticipation on a transcendent mystery and power which he spoke of as hidden in the ordinary, disguised in the common, and present even in what we are quick to condemn and discard as worthless. His favorite medium for teaching was a particular type of story known as parable, which as the word implies (para, side by side + bole, to throw) proffered metaphors, similes, and analogies for seeing into the depths of everyday life.

Apparently he lived his own life in such congruity with the present mystery he spoke of, that others began to regard Jesus himself as this mystery personified.

So just as the American flag has a tangible aspect, so did Jesus. And just as it represents a mystery that we can’t pin down or rationally explain (i.e., the American spirit), over time Jesus began to represent for his disciples a mystery named the spirit of God.

As a reminder, the metaphor of spirit (literally breath, air, or wind) in both cases refers to a mystery that cannot be seen except for its effects. Wind isn’t exactly some thing, but is rather an energy or force that moves things and moves through things. It’s important not to lose this primal acknowledgment of mystery as the power infusing everything in the foreground with being, vitality, and significance. In the phenomenology of symbol this is its transcendent aspect.

Just as Jesus’ metaphors and parables were misunderstood by many of his day as pointing to a separate and supernatural object, so did later Christian orthodoxy lose the sense of Jesus as a symbol of God opening to a present mystery that cannot be objectified but only unveiled (or revealed). It’s not that we have a tangible object in Jesus himself and another transcendent object in God – two things, in other words, which are somehow related – but a transcendent mystery revealed in, through, and as his symbolic form.

The only way we can preserve this tension (of in, through, and as) inherent in the symbol is by grasping its paradoxical aspect: not this-or-that (dualism) or this-is-that (idolatry) but both this-and-that. A symbol is both tangible (seen, heard, touched) and transcendent in the way it manifests a mystery which is invisible, ineffable, and beyond our grasp. It’s as if one aspect is turned toward us and the other away from us, as it holds the tension of both.

Yes, we could construct an abstraction named “the American spirit” or “the spirit of God,” but almost immediately thereafter this tension will snap and its symbol fall to one side or the other of a dividing line.

Either Jesus was just another one of us (this side of the line) or he must have been God (the other side). When the paradoxical aspect of a symbol is lost (i.e., the tension snaps) we are left with only two choices. Neither one is all that sophisticated, and both are symptoms of a moribund imagination. Only as we are able to recover our competency for symbol will the metaphors and myths that have long revealed the deeper truths and higher potentials of our human experience begin to make sense again.


*This breakthrough in awareness of Jesus as a symbol of God was the insight metaphorically represented in the Resurrection. The truth of what he said, how he lived, and what he was did not end on his cross but continues in those with the same courage to be authentically and compassionately human.

 

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Thinking About Religion

Recently in the Wisdom Circle I attend we engaged a discussion on the difference between “inflexible” and “flexible” knowledge. Inflexible knowledge is when our understanding of something is fused to the particular example by which it was first introduced. We are not yet able to think of it abstractly – or in other words, apart from its concrete instantiation.

Flexible knowledge is achieved when we’ve reached an understanding of the principles informing this and conceivably all examples of the same type.

Needless to say, education needs to be committed to helping people move from inflexible to flexible knowledge in any subject. Thankfully the normal progression in brain development unfolds through a “concrete operational” stage and opens a capacity for “formal operations” and abstract reasoning by the second decade.

And yet, there are plenty of us adults whose knowledge of a subject is oddly inflexible, given the direction our brains would otherwise have us go. I could pick any number of subjects, but as it is one of my favorites in this blog, let’s consider religion.

Probably most people I know hold an inflexible knowledge of religion.

  • This may be due to the fact that their only exposure to it was back in childhood, and then only on holidays and special occasions. Now as adults they still consider religion (in this case, Christianity) through the filter of what church was like for them back then.
  • Or perhaps in their younger years they were victims of religious abuse – made to feel guilty, depraved, and hell-bound unless they submitted to church authority and “accepted Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior.” It wasn’t possible to get out fast enough, but they left with the impression of religion – again, this religion, this particular church – as repressive, judgmental, and narrow-minded.
  • And then it’s possible that their inflexible knowledge of religion is more than anything else a symptom of our modern admiration of science and secular interests. Science set us free from superstition, magical thinking, and metaphysical nonsense. All of that is religion, and we’re better off without it. Not some early or traumatic exposure, in other words, but really a lack of exposure whatsoever: just religion in general, thrown under a categorical gloss as pre-modern and culturally irrelevant.

I don’t dispute the claim that much of religion today is irrelevant. The various examples of religion we see around us do indeed appear stuck in tradition and wedded to worldviews millennia out of date. But does this mean that religion itself is obsolete?

Let’s go back to the critical distinction made above. Could it be that the widespread negative opinion on religion held by most people I know is itself a product and feature of inflexible knowledge? Let’s pretend for the sake of argument that you hold such an opinion. For you, religion is a hopeless tangle of pre-scientific notions, irrational fears, abusive authority, worn-out convictions, and otherworldly distractions – made up, let us say, of just these five threads.

Here are some questions for you to consider.

Numerous Exposures

On how many separate occasions were you confronted by all five threads of religion, as you are defining it? Maybe you think that one exposure to abusive authority was enough! I’m not suggesting that you should have stayed. But is it rational (or fair) to conclude from your one negative exposure that nothing of genuine value is to be found there?

Maybe you had numerous exposures to the same abuse in that church. Still, is it reasonable for you to transfer your indictment from that particular church to its parent religion, and from there to all religions, even to religion itself?

Different Angles

Through how many facets of religion were you confronted by all five of these threads? Examples of what I mean by an angle (or facet) would include sacred ceremony, theological instruction, moral codes, social structure, orthodox beliefs, devotional practices, and mystical experience.

Each angle of exposure renders a unique impression of what a religion is about. Has your experience of religion been multifaceted or more narrow in focus? If more narrow, is it rational of you to inflate one facet into a representation of this religion as a whole – and again, of all religions and even religion itself?

Wider Variety

How many different kinds of religion have you experienced, or even carefully studied? If you had a negative experience once, or even many times in a single religion (say the Christian church of your youth), is it logical for you to conclude that churches of other Christian denominations, or faith communities of other non-Christian religions are the same?

Exposure to a wider variety of religions forces open the conceptual frame by which you define one religion or another – unless, of course, you are ready to take just your example as “religion,” dismissing all the others as something else. But how reasonable is that?

Deeper Elements

How far under the surface features of religion have you gone, in any kind of intellectually disciplined analysis? By deeper elements I mean not only the more esoteric notions (i.e., reserved for those on the inside) and historically formative material that makes each religion unique, but (deeper still) the intuitions of presence, ground, unity, and mystery – the source-experience of religion itself.

Such intuitions may be mediated and expressed through a religion’s symbol system, but their direct experience is spontaneous and ineffable (beyond words). A disciplined analysis can break into a myth, for instance, in order to contemplate its root metaphors. But these, rather than taken literally (which by definition amounts to a denial of depth), are followed to the edge of mystery and finally released for the direct experience itself.


You can be said to possess a flexible knowledge of religion when (1) you’ve had numerous exposures to a single religion (2) from several distinct angles; when (3) you have participated across a wide variety of different religions, and successfully (4) penetrated its surface to the present mystery of reality, to the ground of your own being where all is one.

With those qualifications in place, we can now pick up our dialogue on religion.

 

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