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The Big Picture

It’s true. I’m obsessed with trying to clarify the Big Picture, referring to the full view of our human situation not only inside our ethnic and national pocket cultures, but on the planet and across evolutionary time. Much of our difficulty at present, recurring through history as we tend to get snagged on the same things time and again, is a complication of losing the Big Picture and fixating instead on the troubles at hand.

It’s not that we should ignore these more local troubles and revel philosophically on only abstract and universal, but practically irrelevant things. What I mean by the Big Picture is a frame large enough to include what really needs our attention, fitted with a lens that helps us see the depths of detail and lengths of time required for making wiser, more creative and responsible choices.

In this post I introduce the idea of “culture blocks,” as distinct sets or paradigms of belief, value, and aim that drive the larger process of meaning-making and world-building unique to our species.

Culture can be usefully defined as the invented and almost completely imaginary construction of shared meaning that is downloaded into the consciousness of each new generation. Its construction is managed through a network of traditions, institutions, and ideologies that conspire to channel our animal instincts into outlets and expressions which not only help us get along, but also inspire the realization of our higher potential as a species.

The idea of culture blocks came to me recently as I’ve been reflecting on the strange culture wars breaking out among conservatives and liberals, fundamentalists and progressives, democrats and capitalists, between those who fantasize a utopian future and others awaiting the apocalypse. As one side looks with bafflement and outrage at the other, neither can understand how anyone in their right mind could subscribe to such ridiculous, delusional, and dangerous notions.

It’s not simply that they cannot agree on something they both see clearly, but that they are looking at entirely different things – or rather, that they are interpreting their situation through completely different paradigms. If your vantage point is located in a different culture block than the other guy, you will not only see things differently but your paradigm will be filtering for a very different reality.

Let’s get my model in front of us and try to make sense of it.

The first culture block is Morality and Religion. My arrows are indicators of time and influence, and the one coming to Morality from the left makes the point that it is probably the first element of culture to arise, with its principal line of influence coming from the past.

Morality is the set of behavioral codes that a people follow in order to get along and enjoy the benefits of social life. Each new generation doesn’t have to figure these codes out for itself, but instead receives them by instruction and example.

If morality carries the consensus on how we ought to behave, Religion anchors (or ‘links back’, religare) these social concerns to the deeper mystery of existence – not only of our provident support in the great web of life, but of that grounding mystery where awareness drops away from personal and temporal concerns into the timeless uplift of being-itself.

Religion carries our intuitions of the grounding mystery into metaphorical expression as myth. Its sacred stories serve as veils of meaning draping a mystery that cannot be explained but only revealed (literally unveiled) in each dramatic recital.

Deep within ourselves we hold a preconscious and ineffable intuition of essential oneness (communion), and religion’s first task is spinning the narrative thread that can guide us down and back again where this intuition can be applied to daily life.

Historically religion has served as the line of influence to a third element of culture, and the first in my second culture block of Politics and Economics. The arrangement of power and authority that preserves morality is given divine warrant and effectively removed from merely secular debate.

Chieftains, kings, priests, presidents, and “the people” themselves are honored as endowed by god with the right to rule. By tying political power and authority to god, who personifies the deep source and support of existence itself, government is provided the ordination it needs.

Especially as society grows larger and more complex, the distribution of wealth and access to natural resources becomes an increasingly pressing concern.

In every example we have from history, those with wealth and resources are either in positions of political power and authority, or else use these to manipulate political leadership in their favor. The one with the gold, rules.

The third culture block is Technology and Science. As necessity is the mother of invention, the need for resources has been a major driver of new technologies. Tools, instruments, machines, weapons, and sophisticated infotech are innovations that typically have their beginnings in the quest to do more with less, to turn a profit or achieve an aim with less investment of time, energy, capital, and labor.

When technology for the manufacturing of tools got repurposed into instruments for the acquisition of knowledge, the scientific enterprise was born. Technology and Science have been co-evolving for millenniums, and the resulting alterations to our cosmology (or model of reality) over that time have been truly revolutionary. By formulating and testing mathematical explanations of order on all scales of magnitude, our knowledge of the universe has grown exponentially.

Now we can place the three culture blocks side by side on a timeline to complete my picture. Each block serves to connect society to a dimension of time: Morality and Religion to the past for anchorage; Politics and Economics to the present challenge of government; Technology and Science to the future of progress.

Together religion and science compose the narratives (i.e., religious myths and scientific theories) that weave our social construction of meaning. By this map we chart our way of life.

An interesting dynamic has been unfolding over the past 2,300 years or so, as updates and revolutions in our scientific model of reality have completely reconstructed the cosmological frame on which religion draped its great myths. The transformation from a vertically oriented (up and down) three-story universe to a radially oriented (out and across) expanding cosmos has complicated our ability to take the myths seriously anymore.

Many are siding with science and against religion, while others are insisting that the myths aren’t myths at all – now a synonym for superstition and fallacy – but rather factual accounts of supernatural realms, metaphysical entities, and miraculous events.

As I have tried to show in other posts, both sides are misinterpreting what originally were (and still are, if we can recover our spiritual intuition) metaphorical depictions of the essential oneness in which we live and move and have our being.

Back to my starting observation about the back-and-forth misunderstanding between conservatives and liberals, fundamentalists and progressives, democrats and capitalists, dreamers and doomsayers. While many of them have important things to say, they may not realize that they are using very different filters (i.e., paradigms, or my term culture blocks) in their constructions of meaning. Consequently they can’t understand each other, which removes any possibility of reaching agreement and living in peace.

Perhaps if we can engage in dialogue fully conscious of where (i.e., in which block) our beliefs, values, and aims are located, we might make some headway together. And by acknowledging that our preferred vantage point is not the only place from which an intelligent perspective can be held, the larger discourse of culture has a better chance of including us all.

 
 

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The Pursuit of Immortal Glory

The universe is a great Web of Life. You might argue that because so much of it is uninhabitable (dead rocks and nuclear furnaces) we should keep our discussion on the topic of life focused solely on our home planet. But we must remember that Earth is itself a product of the Universal Process which began some 14 billion years ago, and even if our planet was the only place where life exists across the entire 96 billion-light-year diameter of the observable cosmos, we are logically bound to the conclusion that the universe is alive. And conscious. And holding this thought, right now.

The Web of Life, then, extends out into the cosmic surround, includes the whole earth, the vibrant system of living things called nature, and your body as an organismic member of this system. Your body can’t survive apart from the support of nature, nature can’t continue without the favorable conditions of Earth, the earth wouldn’t exist had not the universal process conspired in the way it did for our planet to get formed and flung around its home star.

You may feel separate and all alone at times, but that’s something else, not your body.

I have placed you in the above diagram, nestled in the Web of Life as an embodied and natural earthling, a child of the cosmos and latter-day descendant of stars. For now we’ll focus on the purple figure outlined in black, ignoring everything behind you and to the right. Black is my color code for your animal nature, which is extroverted in its orientation to the environment (nature, Earth, cosmos) as you reach out for the shelter, resources, and connections you need to live.

Purple represents your inner awareness, oriented inwardly to the grounding mystery of consciousness. Also called the Ground of Being, it is how our provident universe is experienced from within, so to speak, in the uplift of existence. This grounding mystery of being can only be found within as you detach attention from the sensory-physical realm and allow awareness to drop past “mine” (property and attributes), “me” (the felt object of self), and “I” (the center of personal identity), into the deep and timeless present.

Consciousness has no object at this point. Ground is merely a metaphor reflecting the experience of mystery as both source and support of existence in this moment.

This duality of outer and inner orientations of consciousness, one through the body and out to the Web of Life, and the other through the soul and deeper into the Ground of Being, is what constitutes your essential self as a human being. You are a human animal (body) with a capacity for contemplating the inner mystery of being (soul). Because your highly evolved brain and nervous system make this dual orientation possible, you and your species may be the only ones with an ability to contemplate your place in the provident universe.


I should be clear that it’s not entirely by virtue of your advanced nervous system that you are able to break past the boundaries of personal identity for a larger (Web) or deeper (Ground) experience of reality. You need a center of personal identity (color coded orange in my diagram) in place to make such transpersonal experiences even possible. We call them transpersonal precisely because they are about going beyond the personal center of identity and its limited frame of reference. The center is who you think you are, and the frame is a construction of meaning where your identity belongs. It is your world.

Things get interesting at this point, and not just a little complicated, since ego formation is not an instinct-driven process, but instead depends on your tribe. The construction of identity and its frame of reference (world) is accomplished over the first three decades of your life. During that time your tribe is selecting or suppressing temperamental predispositions according to its standards of a ‘good boy’ or ‘nice girl’. As time goes on, the incentives for compliance evolve from candy or spankings, to grades, degrees, bonuses, and promotions. The goal is to shape you into “one of us,” someone who belongs, follows directions, and will do anything for the sake of honor.

Even though your personal identity is a social construction, your tribe still had to work with (and on) an animal nature that really doesn’t care very much about rules and expectations. A strong instinct for self-preservation needed to be reconditioned so that you could learn how to share and make sacrifices. Impulses connected to elimination, aggression, and sexual behavior had to be brought under control and put on a proper schedule. The means for accomplishing all of this is called social conditioning, and the primary psycho-mechanism for its success is the ego.

Somehow your constructed identity needed to be sufficiently separated from the animal urgencies of your body, but without losing the tether to your embodied essential self.

This is where, in the deeper cultural history of our species, religion progressed out of animism and into theism. The higher power of a patron deity not only served to give supernatural sanction to tribal morality, but it functioned also as a literary role-model. I say ‘literary’ because patron deities live only in the storytelling imagination (aka mythology). Every deity is a kind of personality construct, a literary invention and projected ideal reflecting back to the tribe those character traits and virtues which the community aspires to emulate. In exchange for their worship, sacrifice, and obedience, the patron deity bestows favors and rewards (e.g., success in childbirth, bountiful harvests, increases in wealth, and beatitude in the next life).

If we look closely at the patron deities of name-brand religions today, we can identify three qualities common to them all. Underneath and behind the tribe-specific virtues, its devotees honor their deity as immortal, supreme, and absolute. In the pictorial language of myth these translate into a depiction of the deity as separate, above, and outside the ordinary world of everyday concerns.

An even closer look will reveal these qualities as the driving aspirations of ego as well.

In the need to establish a separate center of personal identity, ego must first be differentiated from the body. Because the body is mortal, ego must be – or aspire to become – immortal. Notice that the ego’s status with respect to the body is ‘not’ (im-) mortal, a simple negation without any meaningful content. In addition to being separate from the body, ego takes its position above the body (the literal root meaning of the word ‘supreme’) and manages things from up there. Finally, as a final move of separation, ego begins to regard itself as essentially independent and outside the realm of bodily concerns – just like the deity.

According to my theory of post-theism, the intended outcome of theism is the internalization of the patron deity’s ‘godly virtues’, to the point where its projected ideal is no longer needed. The individual assumes creative authority in his or her life, taking responsibility for modeling the virtues of maturity, ego strength, and community interest. This is especially important to up-and-coming theists (the younger generation), who need taller powers to show them how to be and what to do.

Throughout this very fascinating game we can’t forget your essential self. The construct of identity can now serve in the transpersonal experiences of empathy, communion, and wholeness. If we can survive ego’s pursuit of immortal glory, these are the promise of our human future.

 

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Mythic Rhythms and The Meaning of Life

narrative-rhythmsThe revelation that meaning is something we construct rather than uncover in the objective nature of reality marks a crucial breakthrough in our self-consciousness as creators. Such an apocalyptic realization can be found in myths that are thousands of years old, but until very recently the end of our world was regarded as a future event. Contrary to this literal-historical reading of the Apocalypse, I’ve argued that its function in our myths is to serve as a ‘veiled insight’ into our creative authority as storytellers. Now that the secret is out, we have an opportunity to create a new heaven and a new earth.

The ability to see our myths as products of our own creative imagination, rather than naively looking through them and mistaking them for the way things really are, gives us a chance to appreciate them as art and ourselves as artists – or, even better, as artificers (inventors) of meaning and our human worlds. In this post I will identify the distinct registers of meaning that contribute to the tapestry we are weaving – individually, interpersonally with each other, in the company and traditions of our tribe, and those deep, slow rhythms of cultural mythology that carry our primal inklings as a species of belonging to a mystery we cannot fully grasp.

It’s important to remember that cultures don’t compose stories, individual storytellers do. And yet, some insights into existence and our own creative authority – as in the example of seeing through the veil of meaning by the narrative mechanism of apocalypse – were planted in myth but depended on cultural traditions to preserve them over many generations before they could be demythologized and consciously understood. Obviously then, while we as individuals tell stories and live out our own personal myths from day to day, we can expect that some universal themes of our shared human condition are coursing through those idiosyncrasies as well.

For instance, our deep inner life as a species is only accessible to us as individuals. While numerous metaphors and concepts of a culture’s language are employed for the purpose of interpreting our experience of this grounding mystery, it is only by intuitive recognition (and not, say, technical explanation) that another individual can agree and feel profoundly understood. As a metaphor, the ground of being is our attempt to put into words an experience that is too deep for words and was intuitively known by us before we acquired the language to name and describe it; it is therefore essentially ineffable.

This existential support and provident uplift of being felt within us is the source-experience behind all of our most treasured cultural representations of ultimate reality – of God as that upon which (or whom, when personified) our existence, life, and fulfillment depend. When these same representations are taken as literal descriptions of an external being, rather than as metaphorical depictions of the grounding mystery of being itself, the interpersonal recognition of truth, mentioned earlier, is bypassed for a tribal definition of god as the patron deity who demands our worship and obedience.

Of whatever tribal origin and cultural background, mystics have been relentlessly critical of religious orthodoxies that claim to have the authorized version – all others are fakes and heresies – of the “one true god.” Their second mistake was to confuse these theological constructs for some objective being, but the real problem – we might think of it as the original sin – lay in trading away the validity of inner experience for an idol of language that could be standardized and mandated from above.

Over many generations of tribal life, a people constructs a model of reality that serves to orient them within the turning mystery of all things. As cultural counterpart to the individual’s grounding mystery, a model of reality (or cosmology) functions as the universal frame in which space, time, life and destiny unfold. The great sacred narratives of mythology assume this model of reality as the framework underneath and behind their dramatic drapery, as the backgrounding map across, through, and against which the mythic action takes place. The up-and-down travels of the gods, divine messengers, religious heroes, and world saviors in the ancient Near East assumed a three-story model of reality. An account of Jesus ascending to heaven after coming up from the underworld with his victory over death, for instance, made perfect sense to its first-century audience.

It’s been pointed out many times that because our present-day (scientific) model of reality is not so vertically arranged and neatly stacked, these early Christian myths strain the credulity of modern minds. Regardless of what defenders of orthodoxy maintain, it is decidedly not an act of faith to believe them anyway – or worse yet, to reject scientific cosmology in favor of the Bible’s literal truth. This is yet another complication brought on by the original sin of forgetting the origins of spirituality: a literal reading of myth locks the sacred stories to a model of reality that is no longer accurate, relevant, or believable. We either have to leave them behind as so much superstitious nonsense, or else abandon our own intellectual integrity for the sake of ‘keeping the faith’.

In the back-and-forth dialogue between an individual’s inner experience of the grounding mystery and the model of reality by which his or her culture is oriented in the turning mystery, the daily round of our life together in society (the interpersonal and tribal registers of meaning in my diagram) evokes the question of our ethical bearing. What, after all, constitutes a ‘good life’? Our actions and interactions either bring us together in community or push us farther apart. The choices we make as consumers, the votes we cast as citizens, and the company we keep around us are continually shaping who we are, individually and collectively. Our way of life is how we work out our dreams and pursue a meaningful existence.

But, once again, if we are not internally grounded, and if we lack a sense of our place in the universe, our way of life and our life together can become a nightmare. Not inner peace, but chronic anxiety. Not holy wonder, but clinical depression. Not love, but suspicion, aggression, and violence against neighbors and nations. Psychospiritually adrift without grounding and orientation, we also lose the golden thread of our own personal myth and become susceptible to the extremes of conviction or complacency, simply because we have no real sense of ourselves. Instead of thinking ethically and with a greater good in mind, we twist morality around the pursuits of security and self-gratification.

There is good news in all of this, which is that we can always wake up from the nightmare. We are living now at the end of the world, and it’s time to begin again. We don’t have to spin the scripts of yesterday or 2,000 years ago. A new day is dawning and we need better stories, so let’s get started.

 

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Between Heaven and Hell

3-realms

The essential function of mythology is to link together individual consciousness (psyche; psychology) and the larger order of existence (cosmos; cosmology). Its collection of sacred stories provides the orientation, guidance, connection, and support that we need for success in the project of constructing meaning and living well. Because this project is profoundly (i.e., deeply) social, the myths were never ‘mere stories’ on the shelf for leisure reading, but great epic narratives to be recited and performed in the context of community life.

That is, until fairly recently.

As the advance of science inevitably altered our model of reality, the sacred myths which had draped and adorned this framework fell steadily out of relevance, and then soon afterwards, out of fashion as well. Without an alignment between our narrative constructions of mythology and our changing understanding of the universe, the sacred stories either had to be updated accordingly; discarded and forgotten; turned into allegories of hidden (metaphysical) secrets; or taken literally as journalistic accounts of supernatural revelations and miraculous events.

Another option would be to more directly engage the challenge of linking consciousness and existence in order to create a relevant mythology for our time. It likely won’t be about a literal heaven and hell, but rather about outer space and inner ground, the global neighborhood and sustainable community, planetary stewardship and a more perfect union.

To help in this effort, I offer an image for our consideration. The diagram above incorporates a medieval painting of the three realms – heaven, earth, and hell – a mental model widely held throughout the ancient world as depicting the structure of reality. The specific divine, human, or demonic personalities inhabiting these three realms, along with the sacred storylines (myths) that crisscrossed and weaved them together, differed, of course, from one culture and historical period to the next. My intention is not to explore and interpret the individual myths, but only to use this structural design of three realms in a way that might contribute meaningfully to a mythology for our secular and global age.

Just as the ancients understood, our experience unfolds in the middle realm of daily life. Our attention, energy, and effort get directed into those activities and concerns that conspire toward a general sense of meaning. Although we possess an animal nature in our body and its primal instincts, the special concern of human consciousness is with the affairs and challenges of our life together in community. This is where our identities are shaped and instructed with the tribe’s worldview and cache of wisdom for how to make it in the world.

Ego consciousness – the separate center of personal identity whose dual ambition to belong and be recognized, to fit in and stand out at the same time, generates both external and internal conflicts – is thus the principal denizen of this middle realm.

In another blog of mine, less philosophical and more therapeutic, I provide a simple yet highly useful schematic of 5 Domains for looking at life as a whole but also moving into the details for making the changes we desire. A recent post, titled Creators and Reactors, offered the image of a tree as a way of understanding the 5 Domains and their holistic integration.

treeA deep inner peace (tree: roots; domain: SPIRITUALITY)

nourishes vital strength (tree: trunk; domain: HEALTH), which in turn

supports genuine love (tree: branches; domain: RELATIONSHIPS), which

opens out in positive virtue (tree: leaves; domain: CHARACTER), and ultimately

produces a life of creative purpose (tree: fruit; domain: LIFEPLAN)

Each of the 5 Domains holds a relatively small set of basic obligations that must be fulfilled on a regular basis in order to optimize the quality of life in that domain. For example, an optimized spirituality requires that we give time to quiet reflection and finding our way to that still place at the center of our existence (which I call The Clearing) through such meditation practices as mindful breathing, contemplation, and centering prayer. A calm body and centered mind are conducive to an inner release to the grounding mystery and its ineffable intuition of oneness.

Without such practices – or worse, through the uncontrolled spin-out in frantic or mindless activity – our spirituality doesn’t get the investment it needs to be the nourishing root system of our life.

The middle realm, then, is where we either take responsibility for the variety of obligations across our 5 Domains, or otherwise neglect them, ignore them, avoid them, and put them off till ‘later’. But here we are: faced with the things that need our attention, standing at a ‘Y’ in our path. Depending on the choice we make at this point, our consciousness and quality of life will either shift upward or downward, into an upper realm or a lower realm, heaven or hell.

Once again, I am not using these terms as references to different locations in the universe, and not even as metaphysical dimensions of reality. Instead, they are meant to indicate distinct registers of consciousness – moods, motivations, attitudes, and perspectives (in short, mindsets) – that link psyche and cosmos by very different stories and contrary mythologies.

So that we can end this post on a positive note, let’s begin with the descent into hell.

Hell

When we are irresponsible with the obligations of wellbeing, not taking care of the things that elevate our quality of life across the 5 Domains, our general picture begins to degenerate into something quite unpleasant. Remember those simple practices of spirituality that deepen our sense of inner peace? When we neglect or avoid them, the opposite of inner peace takes its place: insecurity. Instead of releasing our separate identity (ego) to the grounding mystery within, we desperately struggle to keep from falling into the abyss of extinction.

Let’s play this all the way out.

Our spiritual insecurity signals the body to release stress hormones, keeping us hypervigilant and defensive, but also suspending metabolic and immunity functions in the interest of emergency action. And when we’re all neurotic and knotted up in this way, how does it go in our relationships? Not well. We tend to be reactive, suspicious, distrustful, and self-absorbed. We also pull other equally neurotic partners into our life, forming dysfunctional and codependent attachments that serve to confirm and reinforce our general anxiety over the state of things. The problem here is that our character continues to be shaped and instructed in this negative social milieu, which means that we become takers and consumers, grasping for our share and ripping into anyone who threatens our stash. Finally, as it concerns our lifeplan and vision for the future – well, there’s just no energy or time for that. Holding off the next catastrophe has become our full-time obsession.

I think that’s a pretty good description of hell, don’t you? The urgency of a life out of balance and collapsing upon itself; a hostage of our own convictions, a captive of destructive forces, bound by fear and feeling stuck in a hole that just keeps getting deeper. Hell is the deepest of all depressions.

Or … we might choose the other way.

Heaven

Taking responsibility in the obligations of wellbeing means that we don’t wait around for someone else to live our life or save us from our problems. We do what is necessary and required in order to optimize our quality of life in all 5 Domains. We cultivate inner peace, make healthy choices, love others (even those who oppose us), serve the greater good, and relentlessly pursue a more perfect union.

Heaven really isn’t that far away. Indeed it’s been right here all the time, just waiting for us to enter. As Jesus says in the Gospel of Luke, “The kingdom of God is within/among you” (Luke 17:21). All the great wisdom teachers of history are in fundamental agreement on one thing: When we know the truth, the truth will make us free.

 

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Personal Myth and the Anatomy of Character

characterThe diagram above illustrates my newly refined definition of religion, as a cultural system that links together (from the Latin religare) individual consciousness (or psychology, represented in the purple triangle) and the larger order of existence (or cosmology, represented in the dome overhead) by means of sacred stories (or mythology, represented in the moving wave between them) that serve to orient us in space, guide us through time, connect us to one another, and support us across the adventure of life.

Once again, I am speaking here of religion itself, not necessarily of this or that religion, numerous examples of which have indeed lost this unifying function and fallen out of relevance in our day. I’ve explored in other posts what happens when religions misread their myths by taking them literally, defend outdated models of reality, and neglect (or even condemn) the inner depths of mystical awareness. They die, but continue on in fundamentalist orthodoxies, megachurch celebrity cults, metaphysical roadshows, or militant end-time sects.

Effective and relevant religion will provide the orientation, guidance, connection, and support that individuals and communities require throughout the full course of human development. Ultimately this will also include breakthrough realizations of a ‘truth beyond’ our conventional beliefs, and of a ‘power within’, deeper even than that cherished center of personal identity (i.e., ego) which religion itself (as theism) had earlier made the focus of salvation. This post-theist excursion into a more experiential, communitarian, and globally-minded spirituality is where the evolutionary design of our human nature is headed.

In a recent post I suggested that the narrative device of Apocalypse, which can be found in all developed mythologies, is not referring to a future cataclysm of world-collapse, but instead represents a self-conscious awareness inside the mythopoetic (storytelling) process itself, of their status as sacred fictions. Outside these narrative constructions of meaning is the present mystery of reality, the terminal end of our stories and thus of the storied world itself.

If mythology has done its work – referring to the orienting, guiding, connecting, and supporting functions mentioned earlier – then we are ready for a psychological breakthrough to a more rational, responsible, and reality-oriented way of life.

My term for this liberated mode of experience is ‘creative authority’: when the individual not only sees through the constructions that had earlier draped both reality and consciousness with veils of meaning, but goes on to take responsibility as the principal author of his or her own personal myth and its associated world. If it sounds like we’re returning to life under the shroud, I must emphasize the key insight of this breakthrough realization, which is that the individual is now a self-conscious storyteller.

In other words, we have entered the ‘ironic mode’ (Northrup Frye) where the storyteller is aware of the fact that he or she is spinning narratives across a mystery that cannot be named.

This brings us to the interesting challenge of composing our own personal myth. The art of storytelling (or myth-making) is millenniums old, which means that we have a vast library and useful tools at our disposal for the project before us. In this post I want to reflect on the features of well-developed character, using this term in its literary and not so much its moral (or moralistic) sense. A character is thus a narrative personification, an identity in story who strives (Greek agon) for (as protagonist) and against (as antagonist) the plot in its unfolding. A ‘good’ character (again, not in the moral sense) is one that evinces certain traits and makes the story particularly interesting.

Our work as self-conscious storytellers of our own personal myths will involve constructing an identity for ourselves that possesses four traits in particular: memory, integrity, grounding, and volition.

Memory

In any good story, character is an identity that becomes stronger (i.e., more definite and self-consistent) over time. A character’s memory has to do with how recognizable it is with respect to what we’ve already come to know about him or her in the story up to this point. The story’s audience starts to anticipate how a character will respond by virtue of how he or she behaved in similar scenes or challenges earlier in the narrative. With growing confidence in a character’s memory, they are better able to trust his or her performance.

As we take responsibility for the construction and management of our personal identity, each of us should consider the fidelity of our character to the person we have been. This is not to suggest that we simply repeat the mistakes of our past, or that spontaneity and fresh departures are out of the question. Even if we should undergo a conversion of some sort, the memory of character will deepen our understanding and empathy for others, adding dimension and complexity to the person we are. This is an aspect of what is known as wisdom. Alternatively, neglecting the character trait of memory can make us insensitive to others, even projecting on them the dark energies of our own repressed and forgotten shadow.

Integrity

If the character trait of memory is what establishes consistency through time, then integrity is about consistency across space, or across the landscape of life situations and social engagements. A narrative character who changes dramatically from one engagement to another leaves the audience unsure as to ‘who’ will show up next. In psychology this lack of consistency across situations is evidence of ‘dissociative identity’ (formerly ‘multiple personality’), where a personality lacks sufficient ego strength to coordinate and unify otherwise diverging streams of subconscious motivation and demeanor.

In the early years of ego formation when we were being shaped, instructed, and managed by our tribe into a compliant member of the group, identity contracts dictated our role in each social situation. Now, stepping through the Apocalypse and into our own creative authority, we can take ‘authorial control’ over the person we want to be. We can join the role-play, fully aware that it is just a social convention in make-believe. Or we might take a stand for a more authentic, self-honest, re-imagined and creative way of being together. This is what Jesus called the kingdom of God.

Grounding

A ‘grounded’ character in story doesn’t simply drift above the moving scenes, essentially detached from the situational dynamics of time and setting. He or she has the feel of belonging, of being rooted in that narrative world and not just an alien passing through. In this sense the story isn’t merely ‘about’ the character, but unfolds around and through the character’s individual evolution.

My returning reader will recognize this idea of grounding from my frequent references to ‘the grounding mystery’, that inner depth of spiritual life where our personal identity sinks and dissolves into an ineffable sense of being. Of course, if ego is caught in a neurotic tangle of insecurity and self-defense, any suggestion of sinking and dissolving into something else will be vigorously resisted, and inevitably misunderstood. Creative authority requires that we ‘loosen up’ and release ourselves to the deeper process, so that we can carry that ‘power within’ into the affairs of our daily life in the world.

Volition

Our fourth and final character trait picks up with that last sentence – as we take action and work out the evolving plot of our personal myth. In story, the action of a ‘weak’ character will be determined by external events and circumstances, whereas a ‘strong’ character chooses and determines it for him- or herself. Volition (from the Latin vol for will) is about a character taking action rather than reacting, moved by an internal drive or desire. The better stories in mythology, literature, film, and stage are those that are driven by strong characters whose action seems to proceed from their center.

As we break through from a mode of role performance (acting out the instructions and expectations of our tribe) to one of role transcendence (using our role in a more purposeful and creative way), we are able to construct a personal myth that supports the life and genuine community we really want. We don’t pick up a mask of identity (a persona) because someone else tells us to, because a tradition (or consensus trance) calls for it. We can live out of our own center, for values and aims that others might not find agreeable. Our action is not about defiance or transgression, but instead arches toward a deeper, higher, or longer goal.


More and more of us are ready for the responsibility of writing our own story, of composing our own personal myth. Our tribe and culture have done their part, for better or worse, and now it’s our turn. We have finally come to realize that our identities and the worlds we inhabit are really nothing more than narrative constructions, meaningful fictions of our personal and interpersonal life.

It is time to step into our own creative authority, take leave of the gods, and become fully human. This is life after the Apocalypse.

 

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Thoughts on the Apocalypse

apocalypseIn popular religion and culture ‘apocalypse’ refers to an end-of-the-world scenario where the order and stability of life as we know it breaks down, stars fall from the sky, evil powers are unleashed, and zombie herds ravage the few unlucky survivors. Even in ancient religions we can find this dystopian picture of catastrophic destruction and world-collapse, signalling the finale of temporal existence. The curtain comes down and the lights go out.

Or do they?

There is good evidence that the Persian prophet Zoroaster may have been the first to treat the Apocalypse as a future event rather than a mythological device announcing a phase transition from one mode of consciousness to another – which I will explain shortly. Zoroastrianism inspired similar prophecies in late Judaism and early Christianity, leading up to our own evangelical end-timers as its present-day descendants.

Zoroaster divided reality into two absolute and opposite principles: Ahura Mazda, the personified principle of light and righteousness, versus Angra Mainyu, the principle of darkness and evil. The human situation was thus characterized as caught in a cosmic-moral conflict, with each principle vying for our devotion and allegiance.

Zoroaster’s division in the very nature of reality was the cosmological projection of a psychological shift in human consciousness, in the formation of that separate center of personal identity which we know as ego. Instead of the seat of immortality that Zoroaster presumed it was, contemporary schools of ego psychology are approaching agreement in their regard of it as a social construction – not immortal or even all that self-consistent over an individual’s lifespan.

Ego formation is the process whereby a human animal is shaped by his or her tribe into a person, a term tracing back to the Latin persona and Greek prosopa, referring to a mask actors wore on stage to ‘personify’ the characters of a play. By constructing an identity and assigning roles for the individual to play, the general role-play of society could be carried off with functional success. Intrinsic to this process of identity-formation was the individual’s gathering sense of him- or herself as a separate center of affection, perspective, and agency.

Standing in its own unique (but socially invented) space, an ego must identify itself with certain things and against others, in commitments that are mandated and closely managed by the tribe. Around this center of personal identity everything seems to fall very naturally into pairs of opposites – outside/inside, above/below, behind/ahead, right/left, self/other, mine/yours, us/them, good/evil. And since the individual’s obedience to the moral code of the tribe is so essential to the tribe’s cohesion, it was Zoroaster’s genius to invent a cosmology that turned around – and in turn motivated – each person’s moral behavior.

How does dividing reality into opposing principles of good and evil motivate moral obedience? By making the ego immortal, Zoroaster made it all very personal, since the question of the individual’s postmortem destiny was now suddenly relevant and unavoidable. He preached that only obedient and righteous believers (those who believed his myth and its message) would enjoy an everlasting bliss in the paradise of Ahura Mazda, while doubters and sinners would be tormented in hell forever.

Apparently his motivational system worked, for many submitted themselves to the moral code and its unforgiving orthodoxy. The priests and prophets who spoke for Zoroaster and his god used the promise of paradise and the threat of perdition to keep their congregations in line and under control.

And so it was as well in late Judaism (cf the Book of Daniel) and early Christianity (cf the Apocalypse of John), down to our own day (Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and that strange celebrity cult of TV evangelists). But whereas the Apocalypse of John (aka the Book of Revelation) was written for first-century Christians under Roman persecution, with figurative references to current events and personages in the effort to encourage their faith and lift their hopes, today it is interpreted against our current world situation, but more for the effect of demonizing enemies and justifying bigotry than bolstering a commitment to the nonviolent way of Jesus.

End-time religion is a multi-billion dollar industry, which is odd considering how its message is about the world ending tomorrow. The more insecure people feel, the more likely they are to buy into schemes that promise relief, escape, or a decisive end to their trouble.

I’m not really arguing that the Apocalypse is a bunch of hog-monkey, only that taking it literally is. It bears repeating that Zoroaster (along with his Jewish and Christian descendants) was not the originator of this idea of world-collapse and history’s end; it was in the collective planetary consciousness of world cultures both before his time and outside his sphere of influence. He’s the one who took it literally, made it imminent, immortalized the ego and pitched the whole thing into a moral contest for the individual’s postmortem destiny. Prior to and outside of him, the ‘end of the world’ carried very different implications – very different.

My diagram illustrates the relationships among a people’s mythology (the collection of sacred stories by which they orient their lives), its background cosmology (current theories regarding the structure of reality), and the psychology (including stages of consciousness) that gives rise to the whole affair. In other posts, I’ve written about the consequences of dogmatically perpetuating a mythology that has fallen out of date with respect to our current understanding of reality. A prime example is the way that early Christian myths, which were composed upon a reality conceived as a three-story, vertically oriented structure, eventually lost credibility as science revealed an outward-expanding cosmos. (Jesus ‘coming down’ and ‘going up’ just doesn’t make as much sense anymore; and where exactly is heaven, if not above the clouds?)

This connection between psychology, mythology, and cosmology might actually help refine our definition of religion – not this or that religion, but religion itself. As the system that ‘links back’ or ties together (from the Latin religare) human consciousness (psychology) and the greater universe (cosmology) by means of sacred narratives (mythology), religion gives us (or once gave us) a way of holding everything together as one coordinated and meaningful whole. The Western advance of science disturbed this marvelous unity-of-experience when it challenged the traditional cosmology. And the stubborn reaction of Christian orthodoxy in denying these scientific discoveries and insisting on the literal truth of its outdated myths only precipitated our slide away from a relevant spirituality.

As I said, from inside mythology the Apocalypse will be seen as near or far in the future. Those whose consciousness is still centered in a mythopoetic (storytelling) mode of experience will look out on reality through the lens of sacred fictions. They are oriented on the archetypes, characters, exemplars, and ideals designed to urge their imitation, obedience, and aspiration through the course of their coming of age.

From the body-centered psychology of animism and well into the ego-centered psychology of theism, the great myths frame their sense of self and reality.

In ancient cultures the Apocalypse was in part a statement regarding the transient nature of existence, along with an imperative on the tribe to ritually renew itself at key points and thresholds along the way. The observable winding-down nature of time required periodic rites of renewal to keep things going. Many of our religious holidays have their roots in seasonal festivals and sacred ceremonies when the cosmos would be wound back up and order restored.

But at a certain stage of psychological development, as a rational and reality-oriented intelligence is waking from its incubation beneath the warm emotional covers of mythopoetic consciousness, the stories are recognized as cultural creations and not necessarily as representing the way things really are. For the individual this means that one’s adult higher self is stepping out of an earlier mode of make-believe (the now inner child), in order to acknowledge a reality on the other side of the mythological enclosure, of what we’ve known as ‘my world’ and ‘our world’, that is, the shared world-view of our tribe.

And this is the world that comes to an end with the Apocalypse. In other words, what had been interpreted from inside the myth as a future event for the world as we know it, is, psychologically, the moment of realization when an individual begins to understand the world for what it is – a narrative construction of meaning. Such a realization is one-part liberating discovery and one-part shattering disillusionment. The mythological enclosure is gone, and now the present mystery of reality breaks in. It’s not that we’re done with story at this point, only that we are now aware, as we once were not, that our constructions of meaning are exactly, and only, that.

Our challenge and opportunity becomes one of working out a relevant spirituality and way of life, together, as the curtain comes down and the lights go on; after our world ends, and on the other side of god.

 
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Posted by on September 22, 2016 in Post-theism/New Humanism

 

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Journey Back to Reality

BreakthroughJust as soon as I make a case for the necessity of religion, it’s time to insist on our need to transcend it. If my atheist friends squirm at my insistence that we all have a religion – a system of beliefs, attitudes, values and practices that links the separate ego back to reality – my friends who are believers will shake their heads at my suggestion that we need to leave it behind. Why take the time to defend religion (not one or another religion, but religion itself) when the point is to go beyond it?

A popular notion of religion conceives it as a means to an end, as a way through this world to another one. We trust that our religion will answer those really big questions and ultimately save our soul when the body gives out and our life on earth is over. Even a slight acquaintance with the history of religion should disabuse us of that fantasy, as the ‘soul rescue’ model came on the scene only very recently and is based on a dualism of body and soul which is probably less than 3,000 years old.

For the greater part of its history religion has focused human concern on the challenges and opportunities of life on earth. Essentially it is about assisting human beings in the evolutionary work of “cultivating faith, nurturing love, and constructing meaning,” of reconnecting to reality and becoming real. Why we might need to become real is more obvious when we understand the extent in which ego formation (the development of a separate center of self-conscious identity) removes us from the spontaneous stream of life experience and from the present mystery of reality.

The rise of personhood and individuality is a slow arc across human cultural history, and religion functions to keep it from detaching pathologically from the mystical (contemplative), ethical (communal), and universal (cosmological) dimensions of our existence. Few critics of religion today recognize just how important it was during the formative stages of human evolution, not to mention how important it continues to be as our destiny unfolds. Just because certain aspects of religion, and even entire religions, may change or disappear as we progress doesn’t mean that religion itself is expendable.

The question is not whether but how ego consciousness today is linked back to the grounding mystery within, to the living community of persons, and to the larger context of life on earth. Does our religion ‘work’ to this extent, or not?

My diagram summarizes the ‘journey back to reality’ that healthy religion is intended to facilitate. The place to begin is at the bottom-right, where looped purple and black chain-links remind us of the essential nature of human beings as spiritual animals. We are not souls in bodies or bodies with souls, but sentient animals with a rich inner life. Our body is oriented by the senses in an extroverted fashion to the physical environment, while our soul opens consciousness to its own inner depths. In the dialogue of inner and outer, mediated by metaphor and story (myth), we perceive the oneness of all things and our place in the order of existence.

Shifting over to the bottom-left and slowly swinging upward in the diagram introduces another piece of the puzzle, in that developing center of self-conscious identity (ego) mentioned earlier. If ‘spiritual animal’ is what we are as human beings, ego identity is a quest for who we are – where we belong, to whom, as a member of which tribe, in what occupation, and so on. Early on, the tribe is most active in shaping our animal nature into a well-behaved dependent – a ‘good’ boy or girl who observes the rules of the game. Certain base impulses have to be restrained, or else channeled in ways that conform to the morality of tribal life.

Our fundamental relationship to the body is established at this stage, as either something we can honor and enjoy, or instead feel unsure and ashamed about.

The first separation in ego formation, then, is a separation of self-consciousness from the sensations, drives, and urgencies of the body. Ideally there is a general sense of security, where the emerging ego feels supported and valued as a member. But even in the well-adjusted individual some anxiety persists around the question (inarticulate at this point) of whether it’s really safe to trust, making security a chronic concern for the ego. We see this, for instance, in the infant that clings to its mother for safety and nourishment, unwilling to let go for fear of not having what it needs to survive. Attachment, then, is how ego compensates for insecurity, by latching onto whatever promises the unconditional support it has lost in the process of separation.

Every ego thus carries an inherent self-contradiction: the separation necessary for establishing its own center of identity amplifies a deep insecurity, which ego then seeks to overcome by attaching to an external anchor – be it mother, family, nation, wealth, status, deity, heavenly reward, or whatever. The deeper the insecurity, the stronger and more desperate the attachment: a condition that interferes with and can completely undermine the process of healthy ego formation. This self-contradiction is usually resolved (perhaps only justified or explained away) by the construction of meaning that our tribe erects around us. As an obedient and honor-seeking member of the group, we should be willing – better yet, eager – to sacrifice everything in service to its idols and ideals.

Insofar as religion can become a closed orthodoxy and a hierarchy of top-down control, it was inevitable that this natural course of human evolution (i.e., the rise of ego consciousness) would generate a crisis – and a worldwide one. Wherever the rising force of personal identity and individual freedom confronts a regime of moral repression and thought control, something needs to give.

It’s important to understand, however, that because ego is inherently insecure to some extent, the framework of meaning it comes to inhabit and defend as its personal world is not wide open to reality, but just as small and simplified as it needs to be. In my diagram, a ladder of ego development leads up into a more or less coherent worldview (symbolized by a sphere) held inside a set of beliefs concerning ‘the way it is’ (symbolized by a box around the sphere). Even a healthy personality, exhibiting the telltale signs of ego strength (stable, balanced, and unified), is separated from reality by its world construct.

We don’t need to demonize the ego and make it the cause of all our trouble, as some world religions have done. The goal of ‘salvation’ (referring to the process of being set free and made whole) is not to cancel or reverse what ego formation has accomplished, but rather to transcend personal identity and reconcile consciousness to reality once again. I say ‘once again’, but in fact the connection this time is conscious and intentional, whereas its pre-egoic state was unconscious and spontaneous.

By definition, nothing is separate from reality, which means that ego’s separate identity is actually (in the words of Albert Einstein) “an optical delusion of consciousness.” This is what needs to be transcended.

Having made our way to the top of my diagram, we can now follow the path of our journey back to reality. To really see things as they are, the veil of meaning that separates us from reality (or to use a related analogy, the mental labels we affix to things and other people) must be pulled aside. What is revealed, then, is perfectly meaningless: reality in all its glory, the pure radiance of being. Truth is always beyond meaning, and our meanings are true only insofar as they accurately represent the way things really are. And yet, even the most accurate representation is still just a representation; the present mystery of reality transcends all media of thought, language, art, and theory. It is ineffable.

When we are liberated from the constraints of belief, prejudice, and unrealistic expectations, other persons can be respected as free individuals rather than as emotional attachments that protect or ‘complete’ us. Such open and sacred regard for others, expressed as empathic care for their health and well-being, is what we call love. Genuine love and community is a dynamic of freedom, trust, kindness, and honesty between individuals. It isn’t ‘blind’ at all, but profoundly clear-sighted. Attachment is what makes us blind to others, regarding them only as we need them to be – how reassured, desirable, important, or threatened they make us feel.

If truth is the way things really are behind the meanings we impose on them, and if love refers to a genuine human connection that is free from neurotic attachment, then power, as the opposite of insecurity, has to do with our conscious connection to the grounding mystery within. Paul Tillich expanded the notion of being (taken as a verb rather than a noun) as ‘the power to be’, interpreting existence (from existere) as the place where reality manifests (or ‘stands out’) in this or that thing.

Much of mystical spirituality might be characterized as an inward descent of consciousness, dropping past the identifications of ego, into the deeper registers of inner life until the wellspring of being-itself is reached.

Our quest for identity sets the stage, as it were, for our journey back to reality. As the quest is our preoccupation during the first half of life, the journey will (or perhaps I can dare say, should) serve as the orienting metaphor for a spirituality of the second half. Yes indeed, we will occasionally get hooked into the drama of ‘me and mine’ – much more frequently than we would care to admit – losing our way time and again. But soul seeks truth, not meaning. It celebrates love, not possession. And it rests quietly in being, in the secret source of power.

 

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Does Your Religion Work?

The question is not whether religion will one day be only a memory of our brutal and superstitious past as a species, or else singularly responsible for our future catastrophic self-destruction. A lot of people feel that we would be better off without it. In their perspective religion is unnecessary baggage crowding the mental space we could be using for more relevant and practical concerns. We can’t deal rationally with these things until we abandon superstition, come to our senses, and work together for real solutions.

A returning reader is familiar with my less categorical appraisal of religion. I can be critical of every tradition and denomination with respect to how easily it gets tangled in our neurotic obsessions with glory, guilt, sex, violence and death. But at the same time I am constantly in search of what we might call ‘religion in essence’, as distinct from its countless historical manifestations. From the etymology of the term we can define religion as the system of attitudes, beliefs, values and practices that works to link us back (Latin religare) to reality, resolving the separation inherent to the rise of ego consciousness.

Personal identity is a process of social construction that gradually establishes an executive center in the ego – actually a deputy center, subordinate to the authorities of family and tribe. Ego stands above the body and apart from others, and if development has been particularly difficult or traumatic, it becomes estranged from its own inner life (soul) as well. When this condition of separation is severe enough, a profound insecurity can overtake the personality. The essential function of religion is to provide the means for ego to reconnect with reality – internally with its own grounding mystery, relationally with others, and transcendentally through a meaningful world-picture (or cosmology).Faith_Love_Meaning

Distinguishing essential religion in this sense from its various manifestations – inspired or deluded, genuine or dysfunctional as the case may be – gives us a useful model for assessing the relative health of our own. Whether or not you believe in god, say your prayers, go to church, or hold out hope of an afterlife, the real litmus test of any religion has to do with how effectively it connects you to the grounding mystery within, to others who share the world with you, and to the universe that surrounds you.

My shorthand for these dimensions and associated practices of life is illustrated to the right. I’ll unpack each term more thoroughly in a bit, but for now I’ll restate my general thesis in the following way.

Religion is the system by which human beings cultivate faith, nurture love, and construct meaning. However you do that, is your religion.

Faith

We begin with faith because its presence or absence sets the tone for everything else. From the time we were still in our mother’s womb, our nervous system was picking up clues as to whether reality was provident and supportive, or instead hostile and dangerous. This was long before we had an ego and prior to our acquisition of language. Consequently the deep impression registered in our nervous system was both unconscious and ineffable.

In the context of essential religion, faith has nothing to do with beliefs – orthodox or otherwise. The roots of the word reach far below the articulate mind and its propositional truths, into the matter of trust, surrender, and release. I prefer release because it keeps the dynamics of faith centered internally, where to trust (in) anything we must first let go and open up to what is beyond us.

Its opposite is not heresy or intellectual doubt, but anxiety – more accurately existential anxiety, a profound dis-ease concerning the nature of reality. Our nervous system is gripped with tension, skittish and hyper-reactive, which sets us up for nervous exhaustion. This anxiety is the cause of so much that goes wrong in religion.

Because faith is our trusting release to the grounding mystery of being itself, it’s not something that can be measured or manipulated. It is our spontaneous ability to surrender control, relax into being, and rest in the moment. The good news is that it’s an ability we can develop by intentional practice.

Love

We might expect that a deeply grounded faith will translate in positive ways to our relationships with others, and this is indeed the case. The ego is established in its own separate center, which suggests that reaching out for affection, intimacy, cooperation, and reconciliation is where our religion is really tested – and where many fail. A deficiency in faith (i.e., excessive anxiety) makes us suspicious of others and unable to trust them, so when they let us down as they inevitably must, our core impression of reality is confirmed. Around it goes, in a self-reinforcing loop.

Because ego-formation moves our center of personal identity into its own separate position, the real work of religion lies in caring for others, respecting their interests, understanding their needs, forgiving their faults, and helping them thrive. In short, the real work of religion is about love. We should be able to say with confidence that any religion which fails to cultivate the power of love in human relationships, even more when it arouses and justifies hostility towards others, is neither healthy nor true. This insight is what motivated Siddhartha to eschew metaphysics and Jesus to renounce orthodoxy, revealing the way of liberation as consisting in loving-kindness.

Meaning

The age of postmodernity coincides with the dawning realization that meaning is not something we find in reality, but construct for ourselves. Words are human creations, and the sentences, stories, and worldviews they make up really are made up. If there’s a crisis of meaning these days, it’s not that life has let us down but that we are doing a bad job making life meaningful.

At the highest level, our religion inspires a view of the full horizon of existence, a unified theory of how the Whole Thing moves as one. In prehistoric and ancient times such theories were dramatic narratives, which we know as myths. As we approach modern times, these stories become more mathematical than narrative in structure, and personal elements are strictly excluded. A downside of this shift from sacred stories to scientific theories is our difficulty in seeing ourselves in the bigger picture. If we reduce mind to brain, brain to body, and body to nothing but dead matter, where is the self? Where is the human spirit? How is it possible to say that we belong to the universe?

One more quick drop down to the level of faith will help us appreciate how the meaning of life is really a creative project of our shared life together, and how the quality of our relationships is directly a function of how deep and strong is our individual faith. Faith, that is to say, encourages love, and love engages us in the collaborative pursuit of meaning.

That’s when you know your religion works.

 

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Matter, Life, Spirit

Matter_Life_Spirit

One of the challenges we face as we advance deeper into a secular and global reality is how to redefine the terms ‘spirit’, ‘spiritual’, and ‘spirituality’ so they can have relevance to life today. While they carried metaphorical meaning in a mythopoetic reality, and were converted into a supernatural and metaphysical realm above or apart from the historical reality of empirical facts, in our increasingly this-worldly (secular) and interconnected (global) realities of today, their meaning is in question.

Many people with an interest in spirituality but not so much in organized religion continue with those old out-dated supernatural and metaphysical references. Spirit (along with soul) is still regarded as ‘not of this world’, separate from our embodied existence, temporarily inhabiting our bodies (or trapped inside), haunting the outer boundaries of science and ordinary life.

One common way of including spirit (etc.) in our contemporary worldview is to see it as a further stage of evolution. Similar to the way life emerged from inorganic matter, so spirit awakened and eventually came forth from life. Such an evolutionary perspective has some obvious advantages over the ancient (historical) view of spirit as something added from outside, or as a higher and more perfect state of being from which we fell once upon a time.

But the evolutionary model has its shortcomings as well, chief of which is the assumption that spirit is something with objective existence, separate from and outside its organic and material substrates. So separate and outside, in fact, that popular conceptions of spirit envision it as occupying its own metaphysical realm, above (super-) nature or behind the sensory-physical screen.

One of the earliest metaphors of spirit (breath, as the invisible life-force that keeps our bodies alive) perhaps encourages the idea of its objective (out there) status and is likely behind the widespread belief that when a body expires, its spirit leaves to go somewhere else to live.

Such commonsense metaphysics notwithstanding, our metaphor of spirit as breath actually supports an opposite idea, which is that it represents not some entity moving in and out of bodies but rather the invigorating life-force within. Whereas life is expressive and out-spreading, spirit is how the universe opens inward to the deeper registers of being. Life is the astonishing product of evolution, the ‘roll-out’ of organic and sentient species, while spirit is the equally astonishing capacity of life for involution, particularly in the species of homo sapiens, where the light of consciousness is turned upon its own inner depths.

I realize that in refusing the lure of metaphysics and choosing not to regard spirit as something outside or behind the realm of physical life, I am taking a significant departure from the common path of religion. I do this not to be contentious, and certainly not because I am sympathetic with reductionist theories that leave us with nothing but ‘atoms in the void’. It might sound at first as if my denial of spirit – and of the god-symbol used to represent it – as a separately existing reality apart from that of our physical life is a vote for atheism, but this is not the case at all.

As my returning reader knows by now, I am an evangelist for post-theism, which moves the conversation past the stalemate of theism and atheism in order to explore the nature of spirituality after (on the other side of: post-) our conventional representations of god. A study of religious history reveals the indisputable development of god from intuition into metaphor, from metaphor into symbol, from symbol into concept, and (fatefully) from literary figure (in the myths) into a literal being (up there, out there). Along the way god becomes progressively more humane, that is, less brutal and more gracious, less temperamental and more reasonable, less demanding and more forgiving.

This progression in god’s development makes perfect sense from a constructivist point of view, where the whole business is interpreted as one long project in cultural meaning-making. Our representation of god serves a purpose, and when this purpose is fulfilled our task becomes one of stepping fully into our own creative authority. In this sense we ‘grow into god’, not in becoming gods but by actualizing the (projected) virtues represented in god and gradually moving past our need to orient on a transcendent ideal. Obedience gives way to aspiration, and aspiration matures in self-actualization.

Spirit, then, does not ‘live inside us’, as in the classical conception of the indwelling soul, but is rather the deep creative center and inner ground of being where human opens inward to being and the universe becomes aware of itself in us. Even though my model presents it as a later-stage development, spirit is not something added to or housed inside the physical chassis of our living body, but (again) refers to the capacity of consciousness to contemplate its own grounding mystery.

In three moves, we (1) shift attention from the sensory-physical realm, (2) turn inward to the ground of being where we come to an ineffable intuition of oneness, and then (3) open again to the surrounding field with the profound appreciation that ‘All is One’.

This deeper (spiritual) vantage point, or what I also call the ‘mental location’ of soul, is the abiding place of genuine spirituality. It allows us to cultivate a mysticism of wonder (or one-der) and work it out into a relevant cosmology and way of life. Our challenge today is to set aside the old metaphysics which are no longer congruent with our current science and psychology, or compatible with the ethical challenges we face as a globally connected species.

We take our place at the source and allow its inspiration to guide us in constructing a habitat of meaning (i.e., a world) that incorporates what we presently know about the universe and our own creative responsibility within it. If we are on the threshold of a spiritual breakthrough of some kind, it will have to lead us deeper into life and closer to one another.

 

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The Trance of Who You Are

Whether you are a theist or an atheist, the amazing fact that the universe is so providently arranged as to support the ignition and evolution of life, to the point where you and I are here sharing this thought, ought to inspire wonder, gratitude, and praise. This is where religion began – at the confluence of astonishment and thanksgiving. Its role in human culture for millenniums has been to choreograph society by a system of sacred stories, symbols, and rites, with the purpose of fanning the embers of inspiration and uniting the community in worship.

Really, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a theist or an atheist, because the rapture of wonder and gratitude of which I’m speaking is not invested in any claim regarding the existence of Someone behind and in charge of it all. The sacred stories, called myths after the Greek word for a narrative plot, did early on begin to tell of agencies with elemental and personified form who conspire to put on the Big Show. This wasn’t an effort to explain the universe, as later interpreters would mistakenly assume, but to confirm what we still today – theists and atheists alike – can acknowledge as the gratuitous intention at the heart of a cosmos that is our home.

Our body is the evolutionary extension of matter into life and consciousness, not self-sufficient but outwardly oriented to the web of resources it requires to survive and prosper. This extroverted attention of the body engages with the sensory-physical reality around us, converting light waves into visual pictures, pressure waves into audible sounds, molecules into sensations of smell and taste, texture and weight (etc.) into how something feels in our hands. With an emergent intelligence capable of assembling all of this into an aesthetic unity of experience, our body serves as the perceptual vantage point in our contemplation of the universe.

When we open our frame of attention to everything around us, the view we entertain, along with our understanding of its fit-and-flow design, is known as our cosmology. And whether we interpret it mythologically or mathematically, we are not merely questing after and entering into dialogue with a universe “out there.” As we are inextricably involved in what we observe, our contemplation is itself an act of the universe.SpiralThat is to say, we are not only participants in the provident order of reality; we are manifestations of it as well. While the animal urgencies of the body naturally orient it outward to the resources it needs, a spiritual intuition conducts consciousness in an opposite direction, inward to its own grounding mystery. This aspect of ourselves is equally as primordial as our body, but its introverted orientation puts us in touch with reality prior to and beneath the threshold where it spreads out as the sensory-physical universe.

The mystical-intuitive depth of our own existence is what is meant by “soul” (Greek psyche) – not some thing living inside our body, the “real me” trapped inside this mortal coil, but the deep interior of consciousness, the ground of being itself. Whereas the myriad qualities of the universe beyond us inspire a cosmology of appropriate complexity and sophistication, the ineffable nature of this grounding mystery within us actually quiets our attempts to describe it, calling us to mystical silence instead.

In this way, the best religion will sponsor the research of its members in two directions simultaneously: outward into the most relevant and up-to-date cosmology, and inward to a mystically grounded psychology. The congruency of these two realms – outward and inward, body and soul, universe and ground – is portrayed in myth, revealed in symbols, and celebrated in sacred performance. Science and spirituality have always been the twin fascinations of religion, with its purpose taken up and fulfilled to the extent that it keeps us meaningfully engaged with the present mystery of reality.

The frustration of religion’s essential purpose – this dialogue of body and soul, self and community, society and nature – was introduced long ago with the emergence of a competing ambition, too preoccupied with its own agenda and pressing needs to care as much for the big picture.

Over time, ego’s self-involvement would come to command the focus of just about everything from religion to politics, commerce to lifestyle, philosophy to art. The archaic and long-standing function of religion in reconciling consciousness to the provident universe and its own grounding mystery underwent a profound change as its purpose got reassigned to individual salvation.

What we’re talking about here is the arrival and subsequent influence on culture of the personal ego – that opinionated, flamboyant, self-conscious, willful, ambitious, and deeply insecure center of identity called “I-myself.” Ego’s advent required a greater amount of social energy and attention, as its impulses were more likely to be misaligned with either the body’s instinct or the soul’s wisdom. A moral system of prohibitions, permissions, expectations, and responsibilities had to be created in order to keep its competing inclinations compatible with the general aims of tribal life.

It’s a mistake to assume that ego just appeared out of nowhere. If we observe ego development in children today, or do our best to remember our own adventure into personal identity, we will understand that it really is a lengthy construction project where the tribe (through the agency of parents, guardians, instructors, and other “taller powers”) shapes the personality according to specific social roles. In this way, cultural definitions of the well-behaved child, the good student, the proper husband or wife, the commendable employee, the model citizen, and the true believer are “downloaded” into the operating program of personal identity.

At first, the roles and associated rules need to be imposed on the young child and reinforced through consistent discipline. With maturity, however, the individual will self-consciously enter into numerous identity contracts with the tribe where rewards are not so immediate as gold stars or pats on the head, but may be sublimated, delayed, or even deferred to the next life. Eventually religion took on a role of its own as moral supervisor, mediator of atonement whereby sinners could be rehabilitated to good standing in the community, and keeper of the keys to whichever final destiny the ego deserved.

All of this effectively pulled consciousness out of dialogue with the provident universe and its own grounding mystery, into a spiraling trance where the individual is bound to tribal orthodoxy, trading freedom now for security later, but also forfeiting the living communion of body and soul for ego’s final escape to divinity.

Spiritual teachers like Siddhartha (the Buddha) and Jesus (the Christ) understood that deliverance from this trace of who you are is the true salvation.

 

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