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In the Presence of Mystery

The biblical god lives nowhere but in the sacred stories of the Bible itself, and in the mythopoetic imagination of its audience. And while this might sound like atheism, it is far from it, for the simple reason that the fictional character of god is acknowledged as a metaphor of the present mystery of reality.

It’s only when this metaphor is mistaken for an objectively existing being who matches the description, that the claim is rightly denied and atheism is born.

But this case of mistaken identity is really only a recent phenomenon, historically speaking. For the longest time, theism – the type of religion which conceives of the present mystery as a storied character with a personality much like our own – cautioned its devotees against taking god literally, particularly in Judaism where this was condemned as idolatry.

The present mystery of reality can be viewed through the lens of personality and will, but that is more about our need to feel at home in the universe.

The executive center of our personality is the “I” (or ego) from which we look out upon everything (else) that is “not me.” Arriving at this separate self is a slow process of individuation, whereby self-consciousness emerges out of the deeper substrate of sentient life (i.e., our living sensual body). This process isn’t without its complications, and each of us tends to get snagged along the way, pulling us slightly or severely off kilter and resulting in the condition described by religion as “out of joint” (Buddhist dukkha) and “off-center” (Greek hamartia: an archery term meaning to miss the mark).

The successful establishment of a separate center of self-conscious identity opens three distinct paths back to reality. First is the subjective or inward path to the grounding mystery of our own existence; I call this ‘interiority’. Second is the objective or outward path to the wholly other that both confronts and eludes us; I call this ‘alterity’ (or otherness). And third is the consilient or upward path to higher wholeness; I call this ‘unity.’

It’s important to understand that religion didn’t begin in special revelations of supernatural beings, who then settled into their cultural roles as patron deity of this or that tribe. The sacred stories were not eye-witness accounts, but rather expanded metaphors of the present mystery that grounds us from within, confronts us as other, and includes us in wholeness.

The fictional character of god was a narrative vehicle by which these distinct dimensions and their associated experiences could be represented, contemplated, and finally engaged.

Spirituality begins its career under the tutelage of mythology, where the mystery that cannot be named is given a name, disguised in personality, and depicted in the role of world creator, provident caretaker, moral authority, and revealer of truth. God is “heavenly father” or “mother earth,” the one who watches over us and provides for our needs.

But at a certain point, just as with the secular myth of Santa Claus, the fictional character needs to fall away in order that the deeper meaning can be both grasped and internalized.

What we call theology is a second-order reflection on the first-order production of mythology. It goes far beyond merely cataloging the personality profile of god and converting sacred stories into orthodox doctrines and morals. At its best, theology conducts a deeper contemplation of the metaphor of god, to the point where it breaks open to the three dimensions of reality: God as the Grounding Mystery, the Wholly Other, and as Communal Spirit.

In my diagram I have arranged the conventional theological terms “transcendence” (beyond) and “immanence” (within) in a way that can help differentiate what is unique about each of these dimensions. I am also adding the qualifiers “ontic” (as concerns the existence of things) and “noetic” (as concerns the mind and what we can know).

Let’s start with the grounding mystery. As we allow awareness to detach from the separate center of ego identity, it is able to descend along that interior path and deeper into our experience of being alive. Sinking past ego means also sinking below the reach of possessive pronouns (my, mine), reflexive thinking (about me), the subject-object distinction, and even language itself.

The grounding mystery (or ground of being) is ontically immanent in the way it completely suffuses our existence. And because it falls below the threshold of language, we also say it is noetically transcendent, or beyond the mind and what we can talk about.

If we move from our centered ego, not deeper within but out and across to the other – another person or object apart from us, we are confronted by a mystery that is ontically transcendent (as other) as well as noetically transcendent. Alterity, or otherness, goes beyond the simple fact of our separation from what is “not me.” The other confronts us with its presence, even as it recedes into its own interior depths. This is what religion means in referring to God, beyond our concepts and personifications (god with a lower-case ‘g’), as wholly (or absolutely) other.

Finally, as we engage The Other in this one, that one, and everyone, we become aware of our mutual togetherness in sacred partnership, genuine community, and the whole provident uni-verse (“turning as one”). This higher wholeness is ontically transcendent to us, at the same time as it finds embodiment and affirmative expression under those myriad names and forms (noetic immanence).

As communal spirit, the present mystery of reality fills the manifold of existence like breath (Latin spiritus) saturates the lungs, connecting this to that and holding all of us as One.

If mythology is intended for our gradual emergence into self-conscious identity, oriented toward a personal god who watches over us and requires something of us, theology breaks this metaphor open for the purpose of engaging us directly with a reality beyond our ego. Disguised in this god of mythology is the God of theology, a trinitarian mystery that is simultaneously Ground, Other, and All.

This is the experience of reality on the other side of (after: post-) god. Then at last, theology itself must surrender to silence in the presence of mystery.

 

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Touching Reality (and Talking About God)

Religion is the more or less systematic way that humans express, develop, and apply spirituality to their daily life in the world. You may believe that you have no religion and that you are not “religious,” but I know better. Your particular way of connecting spirituality to daily life might not be very relevant or effective, but it’s your religion nonetheless.

It doesn’t matter whether or not you believe in and worship a god, or whether you believe in heaven and hope to be there some day.

Perhaps the trouble you’re having with my statement reflects a suspicion over the notion of ‘spirituality’. It sounds too much like religion or the metaphysical garbledy goop you decidedly don’t believe in. But I’m not using it that way. Instead, spirituality is what concerns your spiritual intelligence (SQ) and its distinctive longing to touch what is really real.

This still might sound a little goopy, if not confusing, so I will refer my reader to the recent post Touching Reality for some background to that idea.

What I want to do in this post is show how religion has historically incorporated the four dimensions of self in its support of the spiritual life, as well as where religion has time and again gotten distracted from this primary aim.

Let’s begin with a description of healthy religion, specifically the theistic type which is oriented on the representation of a god who cares about us, provides for us, and desires our salvation. Salvation shouldn’t be equated with a rescue from hell, as it’s been reduced in some forms of traditional and evangelical Christianity. The root of the word carries the meaning of healing, regeneration, and wholeness. According to theism, god wants this for us.

In healthy theism, god is acknowledged as a metaphorical personification (in symbol, story, and theology) of the grounding mystery, the wholly other, and of the communal spirit that moves among and unites all things.

Early in the development of spirituality, and in the process of individuation whereby we each come to a sense of our separate identity (ego), we rely on taller powers for the security we need, and later for the recognition that will establish our place in the tribe.

We need to feel safe, loved, capable, and worthy; and importantly the satisfaction of these subjective needs depends on the providence of someone who is “not me” – other than me, even wholly other. The protection, nourishment, warmth and loving touch they provide eases our nervous system into a calm, centered, and receptive state. We are able to relax into being and rest peacefully in the grounding mystery of our existence.

As we grow and learn more about life, our taller powers continue in their providential role, but gradually shift more of the responsibility over to us. Additionally they begin to challenge and inspire us to be more kind, honest, compassionate, and generous to others.

The modeling behavior of our taller powers serves as the exemplar for our own moral progress.

The goal from the standpoint of our taller powers is to help us to the point where we can stand on our own, live for what’s right, harness our creative potential, and contribute meaningfully to the greater good. They know that when everyone is conducting their lives in this intentional and considerate way, something transformative happens: genuine community spontaneously arises.

So far, I have been explaining what unfolds inside the ‘theistic’ system of every family unit. Taller powers care and provide for their children, who grow up to become caring and self-responsible adults – perhaps taller powers in their own families someday.

Your life has gone something like this as well.

As human society evolved, this basic theistic family model very naturally opened out to become the paradigm for our shared life together. The provident care of taller powers found its analogy – and by the world-building medium of sacred stories (or myths), its origin and divine warrant – in the providence of a parental higher power who watched over his or her “children” and inspired their moral progress.

Theism eventuates in a dawning realization that our patron deity – referring specifically to the parental god who cares and provides for us – is not actually there, in the objective sense of a personal being who occupies the same world as we do.

Now, this realization can break into consciousness with the force of an apocalypse, where what we had regarded as the certain arrangement of things suddenly falls apart around us. Such disillusionment (literally the removal of illusion) is a necessary part of growing into adulthood. Things we had believed or taken for granted when we were young are now “seen through” as make-believe, constructs of imagination, or simple naiveté.

For some theists, this apocalypse of belief moves them finally into an atheistic position on the question of god’s existence.

Some strive hard, however, to keep the curtain of illusion securely on its rings. Don’t misunderstand: disillusionment regarding the patron deity’s separate existence has already set in, but their fear of what this may mean – that there is no one in charge, nothing to anchor their moral life, and perhaps no promise of an everlasting reward when they die – motivates them to double-down with conviction. “It must be so, therefore I believe!”

But believing doesn’t make it so.

There’s no getting around the fact that a literal reading of sacred stories doesn’t magically turn them into eye-witness journal reports of supernatural realities and miraculous deeds. No one has ever entered a clearing in the woods to find a god bathing in a pond, or peaked through a blanket of clouds to see him sitting there on his throne. And for those who have ears to hear, no one has ever turned water into wine or ascended into heaven.

All of this doubling-down of belief can only manage to produce a weak form of theism known as deism: god is out there somewhere but doesn’t have much to do anymore – except when we really need him. We hope.

For others, the dawning realization opens out with the grace of an epiphany, referring to an “appearing through” of something deeper within or hidden behind a veil. The patron deity is acknowledged as not actually existing (what I name the ătheistic turn), but now takes on new metaphorical significance.

Metaphors that are not taken literally but contemplated as metaphors, as vehicles of language that carry our deepest insights across the threshold from mystery into meaning, serve as signposts and touchstones of our experience of the really real.

The present mystery of reality abides within you, confronts and eludes you, and invites you into communion with your neighbor, the earth, and all the stars.

Amen.

 

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Two Steps Back

Just now world leaders are telling us it’s time to close our borders and load our guns. With all the loonies and radicalized nut-jobs out there, we need to make security our highest priority. Inside our own nation, subgroups are putting tribal loyalty above the common good, as political parties, religious sects, and social classes antagonize each other. The media keep streaming to our screens images and stories of police brutality, hate crimes, and seemingly random massacres, promoting the view that everything is falling apart.

Other voices such as Steven Pinker (Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress), Yuval Noah Harari (Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow), and Hans Rosling (Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think) are trying to help us out of this fixation on the negative by presenting actual data as evidence of the fact that not only is everything not falling apart, but some very important things are coming together for a brighter picture.

Far fewer people today die from famines, epidemics, or human violence than at any time in history. Breakthroughs in science and technology, while they probably won’t save the world, are making it possible for more people to live longer, healthier, and happier lives. Climate change notwithstanding, most of the major concerns on our global horizon are solvable as long as we can work together for the good of all.

And yet, getting along and working together is where we often run into trouble. If we could work together for the greater good, perhaps nothing would be impossible. But certain people are intent on throwing wrenches in the gears – poking our insecurities and curating our worst fears by distorting facts, spinning stories, and making up shit to make us believe that things are really, really bad.

A few of these crazymakers are just plain crazy, while most of them do it because they stand to benefit from our emotional reactions and irrational behavior. What will they get out of it? Power, control, financial profit, real estate holdings, fifteen minutes on TV or forever in heaven. Who knows? Their challenge in any case is getting us to believe things that aren’t really true.

When the stress of daily life has us reeling off center and out of our depths, we are vulnerable to negative thinking. We are just where they want us.

Rather than closing our eyes to the very real troubles around us or falling for the doomsday scenarios of emotional terrorists (including many politicians, preachers, and self-styled prophets), I propose that we momentarily detach our focus from this or that symptom and open our frame to a much (very much!) wider horizon. Oftentimes the upheavals we experience in life cannot be understood by analyzing only the local conditions and direct causal connections among things.

Indeed, the most important factors are systemic ones – broader dynamics, delayed effects, and feedback loops that cycle over many months, years, and even (as I’ll suggest) evolutionary eras.

Our ability to take in the bigger picture and longer view on things is compromised by the sense of urgency whipped up by those emotional terrorists mentioned earlier. With the right rhetoric and charismatic flair they can incite us to act without any concern over the larger and later consequences of our action.

This is when it’s critical that we each find our center, close our eyes, take a few deep breaths, and then open our eyes again to what might really be going on.

My diagram presents a scheme of the biggest of big pictures and longest of long views. The structure of our universe has been evolving for nearly 14 billion years: starting in a quantum flaring-forth (the so-called “big bang”), condensing into matter, stirring to life, waking as mind, and bending reflexively upon itself in the self-conscious ego.

And here we are, the universe contemplating itself. In our ego conceit we might believe that self-consciousness is the endgame, the ultimate aim of the whole shebang.

But not so.

A self-conscious personality is instead a penultimate phenomenon in the evolution of our universe, and like most things which are transitions or progression thresholds to something else (or something more), it is inherently unstable. The human personality needs to connect with other personalities in order to maintain a balance between its subjective needs and the social environment. An individual ego emerges out of this reciprocal exchange with other egos, and it continues to lean on others in the construction of identity.

Because every ego wrestles to some extent with insecurity over our subjective need to feel safe, loved, capable, and worthy (for more on the feeling-needs see A New Hierarchy of Needs), we can lean into relationships with unrealistic expectations, which inevitably leads to disappointment, resentment, and distrust. It’s this emotional insecurity that gets exploited by those with ulterior motives.

In truth, emotional terrorists are themselves deeply insecure and are compensating for their unmet needs to feel safe, loved, capable, or worthy by manipulating us and others around them.

The big picture suggests, then, that our current global situation is on the brink of evolutionary change – literally a transformation in our very nature as human beings. For the past several millenniums we have been oriented in reality by the separate center of personal identity known as ego (my “I” and your “I”).

As new technologies in transportation, communication, and production have been steadily shrinking the distances between us, the elevated stress of this congested environment on our developing identities has made us more anxious, reactive, and increasingly aggressive with each other. We might say that while the infrastructure for supporting the next leap in our human transformation has been coming together over the centuries of progress, our neurotic insecurities and convictions keep holding us back and pulling us down.

Beyond the self-conscious ego lies a further frontier of our communal spirit – that is to say, of the inner aim in our nature to connect in creative partnerships and empathic communities. Throughout the Egoic Era this higher ideal of human nature has been represented in the virtues of deities who are exalted in worship and imitated in the moral aspirations of devotees.

In my diagram I have placed this “evolutionary ideal” inside a thought bubble, referencing the various ways it has been imagined and represented in art, myth, and theology. By definition, the ideal doesn’t have objective existence. The gods are not literal beings, but literary figures exemplifying the waking virtues of our higher self.

Our ability to make the leap where we begin to internalize and live out what we had earlier only imagined and worshiped in the ideal is dependent on our willingness to let go of beliefs, of the attachments that anchor them, and of the insecurities inside our personality that keep us so self-involved.

Dropping away from ego (illustrated in my downward arrow) we enter the grounding mystery of our existence – also named our “existential ground” or ground of being. With each descending level awareness opens to a larger horizon: from “just me” and other egos, to that of all sentient minds, to the still larger web of life and its physical foundations, and out to the ultimate horizon of the universe itself where all is one.

Coming back up from these mystical depths to our personal identity, we arrive with the realization that we are what the universe is presently doing, and that our next step is one of moving outward in self-transcendence for the sake of joining with others in celebration of our One Life together.

Life in community isn’t always easy, and conflicts will arise from time to time. But with the shared vision of its New Reality before us, we can take at least three steps forward.

 

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