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Religion Isn’t The Problem

ego_shadowA common mistake in diagnosing our current predicament is to blame religion, when it’s not religion itself but a particular corrupt type of religion that’s blocking the path to our better selves. Once the focus shifts to theism as the type in question, a second mistake fails to distinguish between corrupt and healthy forms of theism, recommending that we simply push them all into oblivion. Wouldn’t we be better off without religion? What’s wrong with rejecting god once and for all, along with spirituality and everything sacred?

My returning reader knows me as a proponent of post-theism, which is different from atheism on several counts. First, it holds that the major question with respect to god is not about existence but rather his function in the longer project of human fulfillment – even of human salvation, if we understand the term in light of its etymology as “coming into wholeness.”

Secondly, post-theism regards religion (from the Latin religare) as a system of stories, symbols, values and practices that “link” us to the grounding mystery within, to one another in community, and all of us together to the great turning mystery of our universe. In fact, reading those crucial linkages in reverse – first to the cosmos (nature), next to others (tribe), and finally to our own inner ground of being – charts out the sequence of stages in the historical development of religion itself: from body-centered animism, through ego-centered theism, and finally into a soul-centered post-theism.

Religion needs to transform throughout this process, but even if it gets stuck at times (as theism has been stuck for a while now) its connecting function is something we humans cannot do without. You may not be formally affiliated with an institutional religion, but you are nevertheless working out connections that support the centered meaning of your life – and that is your religion.

Lastly, in its deep appreciation of the functional roles of god and religion in the spiritual evolution of our species, post-theism differs from most forms of atheism by insisting on the necessary ongoing contribution of theism. Even after it has successfully awakened the individual to his or her own creative authority, and the virtues once attributed to the deity are now actualized in the individual’s own life-expression, it’s not as if theism can be simply abandoned and left in our past. There will always be more individuals coming behind us whose progressive liberation needs the support that only theism can provide.

So that I can move the discussion out of the realm of official world religions and refresh in our minds the critical importance of theism in human development more generically, my diagram above illustrates the correlation between tribal religion and the original theistic system of the family unit. Freud was correct in seeing tribal religion as a societal model based in and projected outwardly from our early experiences of Mother, Father, and the sibling circle.

Of course, nearly two thousand years earlier, Jesus (among other teachers) had conceived this correlation in his metaphor of god as “our heavenly father” and of our neighbors (including enemies!) as brothers and sisters of the same human family.

It’s not a heresy, then, to acknowledge the equivalencies between the divine higher power of a tribal deity and the parental taller powers that shaped our earliest experience. Historically, depending on whether the principal deity was regarded as a (celestial) father or a (terrestrial) mother, the social system of his or her devotees tended to reflect that hierarchy of values – higher-to-lower (ordained) in patriarchal societies, or inner-to-outer (organic) in partnership societies. Societies (such as our own) that have been significantly shaped by the Judeo-Christian or biblical-patriarchal worldview tend to favor an ordained top-down hierarchy, which predisposed us for the longest time to assume that earthly realities are copies or reflections of heavenly ones, when the line of influence actually runs in the opposite direction.

In other words, literal mothers and fathers have served since the beginning as archetypal origins of our various (literary or mythological) representations of god. This makes a human family the primordial theistic system, and every one of us a theist (at least starting out) in this more generic sense. With this correlation in mind, we can easily see how our developmental progress as individuals through the family system has its reflection in the cultural career of theism. We should expect to see some of the common dysfunctions in family dynamics showing up (i.e., projected upward) in the character of theism at the societal level.

Referring to my diagram, let’s first notice how a parent’s role needs to progress according to the emerging center of personal identity in the child. We begin on the left in a state of ‘infantile dependency’, with our newborn experience entirely immersed in the animal urgencies of our body. In this condition of helpless vulnerability, we need before anything else to be protected, cuddled, and nourished by our parent (typically our mother). Her role at this point is to provide for our needs, to give us what our body requires to be calm, satisfied, and secure. In theism proper, this maternal providence is projected upward as the grace of god – freely and presciently giving a devotee what is needed. Give us this day our daily bread.

If our parent is sufficiently attentive to our needs and provident in her care for us, we are enabled to feel attuned with her reassuring presence. This deep attunement is what Erik Erikson called “basic trust,” and it will serve as the foundation for all developmental achievements to come. In religion, such a grounding trust in god’s providence is known as ‘faith’ – not believing thus-and-so about the deity, but entrusting one’s existence to the present support of divine grace.

The progression from infancy into early childhood introduces a new challenge, in learning how to behave ourselves in polite company. Our parental taller powers serve this development in us by clarifying and reinforcing the rules for social behavior. In addition to continuing in their providential role – but gradually pulling back so we can start doing some things for ourselves – they focus on prescribing for us the difference between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, defining what it means to be a ‘good boy’ or ‘nice girl’. This prescriptive role of our parental taller powers is what gets projected upward as the theistic notion of god’s will. Teach us thy ways, O Lord, and show us the right path.

On our side, we need to obey these prescriptions, these rules of acceptable behavior. A rule system built on the binary codes of right and wrong (with no grey between) is properly called an obedience morality, and all of us need to find our way through it. Some family systems are permissive, which can lead to insufficient clarity and motivation for pro-social behavior, producing moral complacency. Other family systems are repressive, where a child is punished and threatened for acting on his impulses or when she comes close to crossing the line.

Repressive systems are responsible for the rejected and disowned aspects of personality that Carl Jung named the shadow: the part of myself that is unacceptable, censured, or condemned. To fit in and belong we find it necessary to keep all these things in the dark, behind us and down in the cellar of our personality. In my diagram, parental rules (and god’s will as their correlate in tribal religion) which are authoritarian (Because I said so!) and repressive (Don’t you even think about it!) drive down a shadow of insecurity, shame, bigotry, and hostility.

This is the pathology of a dysfunctional theism which is evident all around the planet today, where true believers unleash their own inner demons on their enemies and the world around them. Ironically their moral convictions drive them in destructive ways.

Let’s come back to the healthy family system – for they do exist! As we make our way through childhood, our moral development necessitates a shift from merely obeying (or breaking) rules, to orienting our focus on exemplars of positive virtue. Our parents need to portray for us such virtuous attitudes and behaviors so that we can know how to embody them and live them out. Their demonstrated virtue awakens in us an aspiration to be like them, opening our path to adult responsibility.

Our mythological depictions of god are not only a projection of what’s going on in the theistic family system. The literary figure of deity also serves as a guiding ideal for an entire tribe or culture. We know that not all families are healthy, and no parents are perfect. But just as the general trend in living things is toward their mature and fully actualized selves, so the trend in theism over its long history has been into literary depictions of god that more clearly exemplify the virtues of human fulfillment. Be merciful [or in another version, perfect] as your father in heaven is merciful [or perfect].

We can see this progression even in the relatively brief (1,200 years or so) history of biblical writings, where Yahweh becomes increasingly temperate, merciful, and benevolent in his manner of relating to human beings. (The occasional paroxysms of wrath and vengeance are momentary exceptions to this longer trend in the developing character of god in the Bible, and are more reflective of the distress and insecurity of individual authors and local communities than anything else.)

In The Progress of Wisdom I suggested a way in which we can view several deep spiritual traditions (present-day world religions) as exhibiting our transcultural progress toward a clarified understanding of human fulfillment. The diagram above identifies these stages of awakening to wisdom in the box at the upper-right. Each stage in this broad-scale transformation was preceded slightly by a change in the way god (or ultimate reality) was depicted in the myths, theology, and art of the time.

Covenant fidelity (Judaism) re-imagined deity as less elusive and unpredictable, but instead as committed to the human future by a clear set of promises and fiduciary agreements. A little later in India (Buddhism) an insight into the liberating power of universal compassion took hold. Later still, but continuing with this evolving ideal, Jesus proclaimed his gospel of unconditional forgiveness (love even for the enemy: a message that orthodox Christianity failed to institutionalize). And finally, absolute devotion (Islam) brought this progressive curriculum of spiritual wisdom to a culmination with its ideal of uncompromising commitment to a life of fidelity, compassion, and forgiveness.

To appreciate this as a transcultural curriculum of spiritual wisdom, it’s essential that we see each advancing step in context of the larger developing picture. To split one virtue off from the rest only distorts and perverts it, as when Islamic extremists split absolute devotion from the fuller curriculum and proceed to engage terrorism against outsiders and infidels. Or else, as in the case of Christianity where Jesus’ radical virtue of unconditional forgiveness lies buried beneath an orthodox doctrine of salvation through redemptive violence, it gets sentimentalized and effectively forgotten.

The general point is that as these higher virtues began to awaken in a few individuals, they were added to our mythological depictions of god (or ultimate reality), which then functioned for the entire community as an exemplary model of an authentic and fulfilled humanity. In its worship of the deity, a community intentionally elevates and glorifies the praiseworthy attributes of god, as they recommit themselves to being more like him in their daily lives. In becoming more godlike they are actually becoming more fully human.

Obviously we haven’t been great at getting the message and realizing our true potential as a species. The complications and setbacks that affect every theistic system – the neglect and abuse, the moral repression and shadow pathology mentioned earlier – have arrested our progress again and again. But whereas some go on to advocate for the discrediting of religion and god in the interest of our human maturity, a brighter future, and peace on earth, as a proponent of post-theism I have tried to show that the way to these goals runs through theism (tribal and/or family systems) – and furthermore, that we can’t get there without it.

Our present task, then, is to use our creative authority in the understanding that we are myth-makers who create (and can re-create) worlds. We can elevate an ideal of our evolving nature that calls out our better selves, connects us charitably to one another, and (re-)orients us in the One Life we all share. We need to take responsibility for a theism that will promote homo sapiens sapiens – the truly wise and generous beings we want to be.

A vibrant spirituality after god (post-theos) requires that we go through god. Religion really isn’t the problem.

 

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Curriculum Spiritus

Curriculum SpiritusIn a recent post I offered a perspective on religion which views it as a single transcultural evolutionary phenomenon, not merely this or that religious tradition but religion itself as the creative incubator of a higher spiritual wisdom. Already this sounds suspicious, given the fact that religions today (and for a while now) have been more conservative and reactionary as forces in society than genuinely progressive and spiritually avant-garde. That fact – especially today – cannot be denied.

But this goes to my more general argument concerning the validity of theism. If we can let go of our very modern reading of theism which reduces it to superstitious belief in the literal existence of god, and allow also that it provides a personified (metaphorical and literary) ideal of those virtues of character and community that humanity is evolving toward, then theism can be affirmed in its value – even as we contemplate our destiny on the other side of god (post-theism). When I defend the developmental necessity of religion, and more specifically of theism, I am not thereby automatically giving support to any historical version of it.

I chose four religions in particular: two strongly monotheistic (Judaism and Islam), one fully post-theistic (Buddhism), and one whose subsequent history abandoned the post-theistic vision of its “founder” (Christianity). Despite distortions and setbacks in each tradition, something of critical importance to the evolving wisdom of our species was clarified and offered up for us all. Part mystical realization and part ethical insight, the distinctive revelation – or, if my reader can’t hear that word without a supernatural backdrop coming to mind, then the distinct discovery – of each religion marked an advance in our human understanding of and progress into genuine community.

What’s more, the chronological sequence of the four traditions (Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam) represents a progressive development, with each revelation building on and extending earlier ones. Whether these realizations and insights spread through time by cultural diffusion (migration, commerce, conquest) or by means of something more akin to Carl Jung’s “collective unconscious,” together they comprise what I propose to name the curriculum spiritus of our species.

Curriculum is defined as a course, literally a path or track; and spiritus is Latin for the vital breath that animates and enlivens. Together they refer to the path of human evolution, advancing by a progressive awakening to that distinct contribution of our species, genuine community – a conscious, creative, inclusive, and responsible way of life in the universe characterized by deep empathy. This choice of genuine community as our aim, over the popular notion of religion’s purpose as the successful rescue of the individual soul to everlasting beatitude in the next life, actually marks a recovery of its raison d’être (reason for being).

Again, I’m not suggesting that religions today really understand their greater cultural role as stewards of our collective spiritual wisdom, distracted as they frequently are by domestic squabbles, shrinking memberships, and the challenge of recapturing relevancy in the wake of secularism. Whether the four religions I feature here are healthy and true – in the sense of getting us closer and deeper into genuine community – is of secondary importance. The most important point is that the mystical realizations and ethical insights, in short, the spiritual wisdom gained over the millenniums concerning the virtues that conspire in the formation and longevity of genuine community, have already been uploaded. This wisdom is available to us now, regardless of our formal religious affiliation or lack of it.

So, let’s revisit this curriculum spiritus, which I am saying represents the collective wisdom of our species concerning the virtues that inform and sustain genuine community. My diagram takes the distinctive revelations in their linear-sequential order and rearranges them on a cross-axis to suggest some creative tensions inherent among them.

Covenant fidelity names the breakthrough realization where individuals in relationship consciously subordinate self-interest to the priority of their partnership together. Partners accept certain obligations and responsibilities to each other for the sake of strengthening community – the whole which is greater than the mere sum of its parts. Their need for belonging (fitting in) and recognition (standing out) is fulfilled, even as the call is honored to transcend ego in the interest of their shared life together. The general message is: Here’s what it takes to live together in peace and cooperation. Do your part and all will go well.

By placing universal compassion in opposition to covenant fidelity I am trying to bring out the creative tension between loyalty to the in-group and a wider sympathy that reaches to “outsiders” as well. Extending the horizon of fellowship to such an infinite degree as to include “all sentient beings” effectively removes the boundary separating insiders and outsiders, and forces us to reconsider the very notion of membership itself. If I am a middle-class, North American, white male human being, all of those distinctions except for the very last (being) can play into the trance that I am separate from the rest. Genuine community arises in the resonance of the “inter-being” (Thich Nhat Hahn) of all things, and when I live out of that deep realization of oneness, compassion flows.

We are all familiar with how such expansive compassion can suddenly collapse to exclude our enemy, referring not primarily to an outsider but to an insider who acts against us. When one partner betrays the other, or when one abuses the good faith of the other through theft, injury, or deception, a resentment and “righteous indignation” can build over time, such that no judicial process for setting things right can finally resolve. The one who has been hurt stores away this wrath until a moment, preferably aided by the element of surprise, when vengeance can be satisfied. But then, such retaliation only convinces the new victim that something must be done to get even – and back and forth it goes.

Unconditional forgiveness begins with the resolution not to repay evil for evil, but rather to “love your enemy.” The due process of justice can even be encouraged, given that, as Harold Kushner points out in his important book How Good Do We Have to Be? (1997), holding the wrong-doer accountable is how we acknowledge his or her humanity as an ethical being. Even with the wheels of Justice in operation, however, our willingness to release the desire for vengeance and regard our enemy with loving-kindness instead is at the heart of this virtue. And if your enemy doesn’t know – or worse, doesn’t even care that you are hurt and offended, then what? Let go, and love anyway. Genuine community must not only be bound by covenant fidelity and extraverted in universal compassion, but it also must inspire partners to honor and love each other without conditions attached.

The inevitable complications of living in community, and for community, make it tempting at times to surrender its ideal and settle for something easier to manage. Those in political authority, the economic class with the most market share, the greatest debt burden, usually those with the most to lose – such voices start to shift the moral discourse and social policy in favor of their own special interests. Something more realistic, but what inevitably turns out to be just another version of realpolitik privileging those in power, gets played out, inventing ways of justifying prejudice, neglect, oppression, and violence against the new outsiders.

What’s needed in this situation is absolute devotion to the ethical ideal of genuine community – to the covenant fidelity, universal compassion, and unconditional forgiveness that will keep us actively engaged in its pursuit. This virtue in the curriculum spiritus stands opposite the willingness to drop our moral right to retribution (i.e., forgiveness). And their tension – letting go of what is rightfully ours and simultaneously holding fast to an ideal we will not compromise on – is surely the place in this system of virtues where the entire project of genuine community most often comes to frustration.

What if we determined never, in any circumstance, to relax our devotion to the work of genuine community? What if our devotion, in this sense, was absolute – pure, unmixed, independent of ego ambitions, urgency, or expedience? What if, above all, we were committed to a life together, reaching out in love and letting go of anger, giving ourselves continually to this work and refusing to settle for anything less?

The world would be a very different place, would it not?

 

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