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Post-Theism and the Great Work of Religion

The progress of religion towards post-theism has its critics on either side, with devoted theists decrying it as just another form of atheism, and atheists voicing their suspicion that it’s taking us backwards into superstition and tribalism when we need to be moving forward into the enlightenment of science and technology. Theists are sure that the “post” in post-theism is motivated out of a desire to get rid of god, to get past our need for what god represents and provides. On the other side, atheists hear “theism” in post-theism and are convinced that it’s nothing more than a postmodern reconstruction of the same old neurosis.

But the “post” and “theism” in post-theism are misunderstood in each case. In fact, post-theism represents the direction religion must go – indeed it’s the direction that religion is already going, despite the slide at its margins into the corruptions of complacency and terrorism. You might be surprised to learn that you are a post-theist, but I make no presumptions.

Animist_TheistReligion began in the body, where the visceral urgencies of our animal life resonate with and link into (religare means to connect) the rhythms of nature. Earliest religion was animistic, preoccupied with the provident support of reality and the life-force that ebbs and flows along the rhythmic cycles of natural time. The pressing concern was to live in accord with these cycles, to flourish in the fertile grooves of dependency and to celebrate the mystery, both tremendous and fascinating (Rudolph Otto’s mysterium tremendum et fascinans), in which we exist.

There were no “gods” as yet, no external causes or agencies behind the forces impinging on us. The thunderstorm, for instance, wasn’t regarded as controlled or sent by some supervising intelligence separate from the storm. Rather the thunderstorm was itself the violent and refreshing expression of life-force. Its power manifested a vital energy and aroused sympathetic vibrations in our nervous system.

As time went on and the smaller family clans of our early human ancestors grew larger and more socially complex, this new cultural environment of the tribe gradually eclipsed a direct relationship with nature. In order for the individual to become a compliant member of the group, animal urgencies of the body had to be “trained” into morally acceptable behavior as befit the tribal order. The social construction of identity thus domesticated our animal nature and installed a deputy manager in the ego, with the authority of executive management retained by the tribe.

It was probably the question of “who’s in charge” – as key to the smooth operation of social roles and duties – that first inspired a reconsideration of nature as managed by external agencies, giving rise to the notion of deities as supervising directors behind what is happening around us. Conceiving a sovereign intelligence “on the other side” of our limiting conditions transformed the human-nature relationship into an exchange of services. As human devotees offered their prayers, worship, and sacrifices to a patron deity, it was hoped that the deity would in turn grant success in childbirth, a bountiful harvest, victory over an enemy, comfort in suffering, beatitude in the next life, or whatever boon was under the deity’s control and discretion.

Theist_AtheistSomewhere along the line, someone called “B.S.” and the game changed. The denial of (a) god’s existence might have been a simple refusal to accept the reality of something unavailable to direct experience. It may have come as science was starting to penetrate the veil of what’s really behind the phenomena of nature. Or perhaps it was provoked by the confrontation of a divine will and humane values, as ethical defiance of a deity’s demand for child sacrifice, for instance. Then again, our First Atheist may have simply been unable, with intellectual integrity, to accept the popular personification or orthodox theory of god.

The moment someone publicly said “No” to (this or that idea of) god, theism became an option and people had to choose between believing or not believing – that is, between taking the traditional myths and doctrines literally, or dismissing them as bunk and balderdash. Due to the morally charged nature of the tribe, and of the individual’s identity as a member of the tribe, this polarity of options quickly collapsed into a conflict of opposing views. Inevitably, it seems, theists and atheists are compelled by force of their differing convictions into dogmatic positions, each refusing to listen to the other and both fantasizing a world where the other no longer exists.

The rise of post-theism begins right here, in the tension generated between the poles of theism and atheism. It’s important to understand that post-theism is not merely a marketing makeover of theism, nor is it a postmodern restatement of atheism. And even though the dogmatists on both sides cannot (will not) acknowledge post-theism as a viable “third option,” there is a growing number of both theists and atheists who are creatively promoting its advance. This is because more contemporary thinking individuals are coming around to the realization that, one way or the other, we really just don’t know.

AgnosticBetween the dogmatic positions on either side of the theist-atheist debate, a significant population of truth-seekers around the planet and across cultures are finding space to breathe, as they acknowledge that the grounding mystery of being, which the myths and metaphors of religion attempt to name, is beyond language and the grasp of our minds. To say that it does or doesn’t exist in the guise of one deity or another is to miss the real insight of this agnostic confession. The point is that all our attempts to talk about it, as part of an effort to prove or disprove its objective existence, move us out and away from the very truth we are contemplating.

Post-theism begins, then, as theists and atheists alike humbly admit that the Real Presence of mystery (or the present mystery of reality, including, of course, the reality of our own existence) is ineffable – incapable of being described in words or reduced to meaning. Any honest thinking person cannot dismiss the awareness that language and the meaning we construct only qualifies this mystery, but will never contain it. For that reason we must renounce the tendency in ourselves towards dogmatism, and leave open a “space” in our belief systems for a deep, silent wonder.

Fighting over the existence of god is thus a contest over meaning that gets us no closer to the grounding mystery and provident uplift of life in this moment. Whether theist or atheist, each of us needs to descend through that open space and ponder the umbilical opening where meaning crystallizes and dissolves again into the mystery. Obviously this requires us to be sufficiently centered and self-aware, as well as contemplatively engaged in the moment. If you and I can both speak out of that agnostic space of not-knowing, offering our perspectives and beliefs in a spirit of humility, the Great Work of religion can proceed.

DialogicalThe theist-atheist debate is a win-lose contest (and all too quickly becomes a war). Dialogue, on the other hand, is this activity of sharing our perspective without a need to persuade or convince a dialogue partner to our position. We speak and listen with openness, curiosity, respect, and in a mutual understanding of the necessary incompleteness (and possible distortions) in our relative points of view. Through the back-and-forth of dialogue, meaning (logos) forms between (dia) the partners. It is no longer merely a reciprocal sharing but becomes a mutual co-creation of higher meaning.

Full ChartWith my illustration now complete, what I’m calling the “Great Work” of religion approaches fulfillment. With its commitment to keeping an open space of agnostic confession and enjoining other perspectives in healthy dialogue, post-theism takes up the responsibility of constructing shared meaning. This constructivist phase is where the providential uplift of the grounding mystery, experienced in the mystical depths of contemplative awareness, finally bears fruit in a paradoxical vision: The truth of both/and honors our differences as it energizes the ongoing pursuit of inclusive community.

                                                                                

Note: The color-code of text in my diagram corresponds to that in previous posts.

  • Black = Body, vitality, animal nature, carnal, instinct, urgency
  • Orange = Ego, identity, inner child, personal, fantasy, obedience
  • Purple = Soul, authenticity, higher self, spiritual, wisdom, responsibility
 

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Resting and Longing

Tillich: “The concern of faith is identical with the desire of love: reunion with that to which one belongs and from which one is estranged. The separation of faith and love is always the consequence of the deterioration of religion.”

As I near the end of my conversation with Schleiermacher, Kierkegaard and Tillich on the subject of faith, I’m impressed once again by how vibrant, experiential and deeply mystical they all regarded it. This is quite different from popular Christianity, where faith is either identified with the boxes of belief we hold onto, or our willingness to stop thinking for ourselves and simply adopt the beliefs of someone else – even if that someone else is an author of a book in the Bible.

At the deepest level, faith does not have an object. Rather it is the total release of yourself to the ground of being, or to what I have named the present mystery of reality (or real presence of mystery). This ground is only found by an interior descending path of contemplative awareness, not by looking outside yourself into the environment of your life.

And yet, a more mystically grounded spirituality will not dismiss your outer reality as just dead matter or a seductive distraction.

Your physical senses connect you to a marvelously diverse expression of that same ground, as every other form is similarly rooted in the one mystery of being. In the creative swell, this ground generates the multiplicity of things; and in its own time, each thing recedes, dissolves and returns its small loan of energy to the source.

As one of these forms, you are a manifestation to me of real presence – a creative expression of the ground as an embodied person. It’s astonishing how the ineffable (nameless) mystery of reality reaches out to me through your physical form, your quirky personality, the various roles you play, through the conceited, insecure and occasionally pompous ego acting out your life. (No worries: I have one, too!)

The force that draws us together and holds us in communion, is love. This is the ground as spirit, surrounding and moving between us. Of course, if you’re too quirky and conceited, I may not feel especially interested or attracted to you. Our insecurities might make it challenging for us to be too close, and our separate convictions might rub the wrong way, causing us to feel uncomfortable, threatened and defensive when we’re together.

But whether we like it or not, despite our differences and however fond or freaked out we are by them, the spiritual truth is that we are fellow expressions and co-participants of this universe (“turning as one”), which is simply another word for communion (“together as one”) and the creative, unifying power of love.

Perhaps this is our best working definition of religion – from the Latin religare, to link back. Healthy religion is a relevant system of spiritual practices, artistic symbols, sacred stories and social rituals that link us each internally to the ground within, relationally in shared community, and universally to the planetary and cosmic environment.

Faith is about the contemplative clarity with which we individually connect and release ourselves to the ground, while love is the communal bond that contains our seemingly separate lives and moves us into intersections where we must meet and discover each other. According to this definition, love doesn’t have to feel good and make us tingle.

If we resist its rhythm and aim, in fact, we should expect to feel pain. As pain is the signal that something is wrong and needs careful attention, its intrusion on our relationships might inspire us to inquire where we are interfering with love’s greater design. What do we need to let go of and leave behind, or perhaps stretch out for and go beyond, in order to flow more gracefully and creatively in The Way?

Faith, then, is resting in the ground – in that profound and ineffable mystery supporting you in this present moment. Love is the longing that moves through you and connects you to everything else. Resting and longing: these are the dynamics of healthy spirituality and relevant religion. Remove one of them from the balance and you have either self-absorbed insecurity (today’s counterfeit spirituality) or glorified intolerance (today’s dogmatic religion).

As things continue to deteriorate, we succumb to anxiety and depression, get caught in more destructive conflicts with each other, and undermine our planet’s ability to sustain life.

The fact that we are here at this evolutionary moment in time means that we belong together. Like it or not, we live in the same house and come from the same place. And even now we are passing away, eventually to make room for our successors – if the wake of our own trash and toxins and holy convictions still leaves a sufficient clearing for the possibility of enlightenment.

It’s not yet too late. But we have got to wake up.

 

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