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The Inner Voice

Kierkegaard: “In eternity, conscience is the only voice that is heard. It must be heard by the individual, for the individual has become the eternal echo of this voice. It must be heard. There is no place to flee from it.”

The sixteenth-century Reformation in Christianity began in Luther’s discovery of the individual conscience and his belief that this inner voice is the very voice of god. Up to that point, institutional religion had successfully spun the delusion of the individual’s separation from god, and of our collective need for intervention that only the institution can provide. Any insight or guidance or judgment you might inwardly discern was not to be trusted.

So when Luther decided to regard his inner voice as the voice of god, this single decision severed the chain of external control.

Of course, there had been others before Luther’s time who valued individual authority over compliance with “the system” (call it institution, society, fashion, or empire). They were revolutionaries, if their visions and ways of life caught on with others; or saints, if it took some time for them to be respected and appreciated; or maybe just misfits and odd-balls, if no one else really “got it.”

But Luther made his declaration on the cusp of a dawning new age – modernity, with its growing obsession with individuality and the individual’s experience.

Inside this discovery and its more widespread acceptance throughout western European culture, we can also detect the seed of what is now called “postmodernism.” While perspectivism had been developing in painting for a couple centuries already, Luther applied it to faith and morality. If this is how I feel, then maybe this feeling is a divine prompting. This is how things seem from where I stand.

At trial for all the commotion and cultural upset that he had caused, Luther announced the new maxim of perspectivism: “Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise.” I am compelled by the force and authority of my own experience. Kaboom.

In effort to justify its dominance of the individual, tribal orthodoxy does two things: (1) It claims for itself a divinely ordained authority, sustained by a sacred tradition reaching back to supernatural events (revelations, miracles) where this transfer of truth and power was made; and (2) it weakens the creative spirit of the individual with a doctrine of depravity, guilt, and shame (in short, a doctrine of sin).

Your corrupt nature, inherent selfishness, and fundamental inability to save yourself makes you utterly dependent on (the external, metaphysical) god for salvation. Thankfully (and you’d better be thankful), a way has been provided. Long ago we (the tribe) were given the secret, which we have guarded over many centuries. Listen up, join us, believe this, sit here. The devil – counterpart to our god – is still loose and at large in the world, so be vigilant! His most seductive temptation is to encourage your self-consciousness.

Luther was still too much entranced with this orthodox instruction to take full responsibility for his life or look too deeply into his own human nature. The doctrine of sin persisted – one might even say it was amplified in the emerging traditions of Protestant Christianity. Now that the institutional middleman is out of the way, it’s just you standing naked before god. Egad.

So what does this have to do with Kierkegaard and the future rise of postmodernism? Whereas Luther had been an unabashed theist, believing that his inner voice was nothing less than the directive of a god who existed outside of himself, Kierkegaard followed the root system of this interior experience, into the very ground of his own existence. For this reason, he is rightfully honored as an early proponent of Existentialism.

Existentialism is a philosophy of life. Whereas other philosophical traditions had involved rather abstract speculations on metaphysical realities (god, soul, mind), Existentialism dedicated its focus to the time-bound, flesh-and-blood individual who is working out the meaning of life along the meandering course of daily experience.

At this early stage we don’t yet have recognition of the fact that the individual is constructing this meaning as a world-creator and not simply finding it “out there” ready-made. But it’s coming. A necessary step in this direction was Kierkegaard’s replacement of Luther’s conscience as a voice of revelation from elsewhere (the external god) with the notion of conscience as the voice of inner guidance, available to the perceptive and internally grounded individual.

Isn’t all of this just a set-up for rampant individualism? When we start listening in on the universal wisdom as it resounds up from the depths of our own human nature; as we tune into this inner voice of spiritual grounding and guidance; when we begin taking responsibility for our choices and the worlds we create and destroy with them; finally, as we come to appreciate ourselves and acknowledge each other as present (and passing) incarnations of the One Mystery – after all of this, won’t the world come apart and the devil win?

Seriously?

Of course, there is a risk. Not everyone will join the revolution. Tribal orthodoxy works hard to keep you compliant. There will be hell to pay by anyone who dares to question the sacred trust of its holy tradition, supernatural revelations, ordained authorities and inerrant Bible. Too many of us value emotional security over spiritual fulfillment to put so much on the line.

After all, it’s working, isn’t it? It hasn’t all come crashing down yet, thanks to the true believers who are keeping the faith. Get in here and hang on with us!

There, there. Shhhhh. Close your eyes and go back to sleep.

 

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The Mystical Turn

Schleiermacher: “Study yourselves with unswerving attention, put aside all that is not self, proceed with the sense ever more closely directed to the purely inward. The more you pass by all foreign elements, making your personality appear diminished almost to the vanishing point, the clearer the Universe stands before you, and the more gloriously the terror of annihilating the fleeting is rewarded by the feeling of the eternal.”

Taking the images of religious art and mythology at face value – and we should include the more abstract images of theology as well – promotes the misunderstanding that the ultimate object of religion is, well, an object. Something out there, over there, up there. It’s important to remember that all these artistic images, sacred stories, and more heady conceptions of what we call God have been produced out of our creative imagination, not “caught on tape” or encountered just so.

A favorite metaphor of mystics worldwide and across the ages for the “ultimate concern” of human spirituality is ground, or the ground of being. As with all metaphors, this one can be misunderstood if we take it literally, as referring only to something outside and beneath us. It is beneath us, but only metaphorically, as the deeper support and primal source of our existence itself.

You won’t find this ground separate from yourself, except as shining through and indirectly represented in the countless forms round about. From a mystical vantage-point, all things exist only as embodiments of the one ground. As thus lit up from within, as it were, the entire universe is a turning mystery of epiphany.

But many religious people don’t see things from a mystical vantage-point. Instead they are metaphysical realists and mythological literalists, convinced that their god is really just as the stories depict him/her. Scholarly studies take off from this point and seek to examine and explain the nature of god in big words and thick volumes of systematic theology. As most true believers don’t have the time or patience to wade through this complicated web of arguments, they simply accept the assumptions and profess the conclusions as their own articles of faith.

My personal experience while an ordained pastor in Christian ministry revealed time and again how suspicious orthodox religion is of a mystical spirituality. Mystics tend to hold on loosely to the doctrines of theology, insisting that the real mystery of presence is not something that can be boxed up and codified, or even labeled except with metaphors drawn from our everyday experience.

As we might expect, this reluctance to even speak of the mystery, let alone their persistent suspicion of any attempt to reduce it to doctrines, has resulted in mystics being unwelcome in most churches and frequently persecuted by the custodians of orthodoxy.

In an attempt to put mystics on the defensive, true believers will occasionally accuse them of being fixated on themselves – with all this “study yourselves with unswerving attention.” Proper piety, they insist, must be self-negating, even self-reproachful. Self – and they really mean ego in this sense – is the enemy of god, the ultimate damnable distraction that keeps us from devoted attention to the proper object of our worship. By turning inward, mystics are guilty of sin; and their guilt is multiplied to the degree that they successfully seduce others to their path.

Fundamentalism in religion betrays itself by the nervous insecurity, narrow-mindedness, and propensity for violence that eventually show up in its business. Out of allegiance to the tribe and for the promise of a heavenly reward, true believers across the religions have willingly – even earnestly – committed violence against other human beings, against nature, and against themselves. Ironically they end up behaving in ways that utterly contradict their founder’s teachings, and then justify themselves in his/her name!

The true mystical path does not involve self-infatuation. In fact, obsession with ego identity and personal destiny is typically an outstanding feature of religious orthodoxy, not mysticism. I need to fit in. I need to be right. I need my reward. I need to live forever.

In order to directly experience the ground of being, you must release your hold on concerns of identity. As nothing more than a construct of social conventions, ego is not what you are but only who you are as conditioned and defined by your tribe. What you are is much deeper. It’s your authentic self, the being that you are, rather than your constructed self, the roles that you play. Letting go is often described by mystics as stepping out of the costumes and slipping off the masks that hold your place in society.

The self that is left after all this disrobing is not some metaphysical and immortal soul, but simply you, right now, as you really are. Real presence.

Because ego looks out through filters, your grasp on reality is superficial and highly selective. As you “pass by all foreign elements” – all the add-ons and attachments that qualify who you are – your experience of reality is increasingly direct, singular, and unified. This is what Schleiermacher means by “universe”: the single turning mystery of being in which your existence is rooted.

Inward contemplation is not about gazing upon your true self or reveling in your indestructible nature, but rather sinking past yourself altogether, into a inner space where all is one. Not a jigsaw of oneness but pure and essential oneness. Without specific content yet containing all there is. Obviously descriptive words and word-heavy theories won’t stick to this mystery, so it’s best to remain quiet and just be there.

And this – letting go and finding your ground, sinking past all your titles and achievements, all your honor and shame, past your first word and your last defense – this is faith.

 

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Mystery and Meaning

Heschel: “The delicate balance of mystery and meaning, of reverence and action, has been perilously upset. Our knowledge has been flattened. We see the world in one dimension and treat all problems on the same level. From the fact that we learned how to replace the kerosene lamp, we have deduced that we can replace the mystery of existence. We may be able to experiment with mice and still be unable to experiment with prayer.”

Imagine being in seminary where all the doctrines of your tradition are fitted together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Biblical foundations, the historical creeds, your denominational standards – all of the edges meet together so tightly, so perfectly. You learn how to translate, interpret, expound and preach the truth as it is represented on the face of your jigsaw puzzle. You will be instructed, examined, ordained and installed some day as an “expert” in these things. But in your second year a seminary professor puts Heschel in your hands. Kaboom.

The “delicate balance” that Heschel speaks of here is indeed delicate, but it is far from being in balance – especially now, as the 21st-century planet is more cross-connected and interdependent than ever before. As we are confronted by alternative worldviews and competing perspectives, the temptation is to lock down our own and defend its truth.

Nietzsche comes to mind. All we have is perspective, a view from somewhere; a construct, an untruth, and never truth itself. Heschel’s distinction between “mystery and meaning” is getting at the same idea. Mystery is not what is still unknown, but our experience of the unknowable. Our effort to make sense of this experience and translate what it means – in symbols, metaphors, stories, theories and doctrines – is so much secondary conjecture. We make up a picture, analyze it into pieces, and then spend generations figuring out how the pieces fit together.

I suppose it’s not only the psychological value of the resulting world-picture – giving the illusion of reality as secure, stable and significant – but all the generations of human effort invested in meaning-making that motivates our extreme attachment to the meaning we make. The certainty and control we feel on the inside of our world is preferable to the open and fluid nature of what’s really going on “out there.” Like those children in a sociological research study who played only in the center of an open field but explored the entire property after a fence was installed, we need to feel that chaos and danger are kept out of our cultural playgrounds.

Now on the other side of seminary and after a decade and a half of church ministry, I can sometimes become deeply discouraged over the conviction and arrogance that characterize this world-building enterprise – especially when it gets tied to inerrant holy books and infallible authorities. And it’s not just religion. Every human tradition hands along the conclusions of previous generations, and with each transfer of knowledge our reality gets that much smaller.

In my denomination, Calvinism was smaller and more tightly controlled than Calvin’s own faith had been; Calvin’s orthodoxy was itself a reduction of what the apostle Paul thought and wrote about; and Paul’s doctrinal platform was much more dogmatic than Jesus had been. As scientific discoveries, commercial trade, and world travel were pulling open the boundaries of our known universe, local tribal traditions were systematically closing the Western mind.

We need the balance of mystery and meaning. Without a conscious commitment to return to experience, our explanations become rigid, heavy and increasingly irrelevant over time. The security we feel on the inside of our fabricated and well-defended worlds eventually gives way to a kind of fatalism – the existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre called it ennui (the “sick and tired” feeling of boredom). Perhaps we can condition and predict the behavior of caged mice because their situation is so similar to our own.

The moment I begin reflecting on my experience, the business of meaning-making is well on its way. I need to make sense of it – and isn’t it interesting that we have an implicit acknowledgement of our role as creators of meaning, in this common phrase about “making sense” of things? I need meaning in order to keep sanity and thrive as a human being. But can I have too much of it?

Experience is the free-flowing spontaneity of life in this present moment. Yes, I need to make sense of it. I will keep working to figure it out, and then configure these figures like so many jigsaw shapes, into a picture that’s meaningful to me. And you’ll keep doing the same.

But let’s make a pact. Every once in a while, we will put down our puzzle pieces and push ourselves away from the card table. We will take a deep breath, release the tension in our mind and muscles, and open our attention to the present mystery.

Here and now. Amen.

 

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Depth Theology

Heschel: “Depth theology seeks to meet the person in moments which are affected by all a person thinks, feels, and acts. It draws upon that which happens to [us] in moments of confrontation with ultimate reality. It is in such moments that decisive insights are born. Some of these insights lend themselves to conceptualization, while others seem to overflow the vessels of our conceptual powers.”

Post-theism asks the question of what comes after (post) theism (belief in god). This is not the modernist campaign of secular atheism, which proceeds on the assumption that we no longer need god to explain the universe and orient our lives. Secular atheism stands in opposition to religious fundamentalism, and the error of both camps is their fixation on god. Does god exist or not?

People are made to feel as if they must take a side on the issue. They are “true believers” if they say yes, “atheist unbelievers” if they say no. Post-theism regards both sides of the debate as caught on a technicality. The mythological god is our own invention, a long historical project (and projection) of our creative imagination, the reflex and representation of our confrontation with ultimate reality.

In other words, we didn’t just “think god up” one day because we were bored or confused or lonely. An experience of the real presence of mystery provoked – and still provokes, from those who haven’t entirely lost their sensitivity to the depths of life – an outpouring of rhythm, dance, song, poetry, imagery, metaphor, myth and the mythological god. All of this was – and is – very spontaneous, wonderfully playful and unselfconscious.

With each additional “layer” of creative output, we have gradually come to see more of ourselves in our art. Now, in this cultural moment of post-theism, a growing number of us are realizing that the mythological god is really the advancing ideal of our own evolving nature. For the longest time, this creative process was so much a part of us that we simply took these impressions of mystery and expressions of meaning as separate from ourselves, existing “out there” and on their own.

In an earlier day we could debate the existence of (our) god or refute the existence of (their) god. Today it’s less important, even a distraction. But there’s more at stake than ever before. Heschel’s “depth theology” helps us look back at the path that has led to where we are, but it also gives us better vision for what still lies ahead. We don’t need to abandon theology (god talk) or throw aside the mythological god. Instead we might learn how to read the depth-soundings of our own spiritual life, treating all this theological labor as so much experiential code rather than supernatural revelation.

Our experience of the present mystery of reality is profound and ineffable. We are in it all the time, but only rarely does our consciousness open sufficiently so as to be overwhelmed by its preciousness, power and depth. In “normal” mode – or what is effectively our trance-state of everyday life – our attention and energy are devoted to the priorities of our tribe. Dutifully we fall in line and roll along the grooves of morality in our pursuit of happiness. But when it does happen, when the box breaks open and reality rushes in, we catch our breath in terror, amazement, ecstasy, or holy recognition.

Human beings are body-and-soul, with an ego squeezing out in the middle and making it seem as if we are bodies with souls, or souls with bodies. In our confrontation with ultimate reality – or I should say, shortly thereafter – we begin to process our experience by feeling its lift and impact, thinking through its meaning and implications, and letting it move us into creative action. Or not, depending on how spiritually grounded and open-minded we are to the mystery; or how flexible, encouraging, and spiritually attuned our tribe is.

Post-theism insists that we still need god; that myth, theology and organized religion retain an important place along the arching line of our evolution as a species. We just see them differently now. We see them as having come out of us, not as dropping out of heaven. We see them as creative expressions of a profound and inexpressible experience – which is a paradox we can celebrate and don’t need to fear.

We see them as suggestions and guideposts of a way still unfolding, intimations of the possible human. Join the movement.

 

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From Having Answers to Having to Answer

Heschel: “How to save the inner [life] from oblivion – this is the challenge we face. To achieve our goal, we must learn how to activate the soul, how to answer the ultimate, how to relate ourselves to the spirit.”

The cultural atmosphere of the 1960s, as it relates to religion and spirituality, was galvanized by the rediscovery of Nietzsche’s announcement of God’s death – of the mythological god, that is. Major global conflicts, anxieties over communism, and the escalation of racial tensions at home left many utterly disillusioned over whether God was looking out for his favorite nation – or if he even really existed. Speaking through the madman of his parable more than a half-century earlier, Nietzsche realized that his message had been delivered to a generation not ready for it; the 60s were ripe.

Abraham Heschel was a path-breaking proponent of what he called “depth theology” – reconsidering the nature and meaning of God not from the high perch of religious myth and orthodoxy, but out of the deeper ground of the human spiritual experience. As other so-called “neo-orthodox” Christian theologians were working hard to repair the metaphysical realism that Nietzsche had torn down, Heschel was participating in a new wave of religious reflection. These thinkers were really, as I see it, moving Nietzsche’s program into the next step. If he had said “no” to (the mythological) god, they were exploring whether there was any validity to saying “yes” to God-beyond-god.

Heschel observed an emptiness in the inner life of his generation, a stagnancy and disorientation. Once we have let go of the mythological god – the one who created heaven and earth, freed the Hebrews from Egypt, spoke through the prophets and raised Jesus from the grave – are we all alone in a cold and indifferent universe? Some, like the existentialist writer Albert Camus, accepted this absurd condition as our true reality. But Heschel kept faith in God, not as one “up there” or “out there” – an ideal object to the possessive ego – but as a call to freedom and responsibility, coming directly to us from the heart of reality itself.

The mythological god is a character of story, a stage performer who plays to the detached and spectating ego. We read of supernatural acts accomplished in a time not our own, to people not our contemporaries. In our everyday lives we don’t encounter this god of word and deed; we don’t interact with a personality in the way we do with other humans. Put aside for the moment the question of whether miracles actually happened. The issue here is that they are described on the Bible page to a reader-observer: the ego. And in the choice whether or not to believe their veracity, ego is also judge. God is object – “my” object.

Heschel’s radical step was to turn the tables on religion. God is not my object, not one whose existence is to be decided on the basis of evidence, holy scripture, or wishful thinking. God does not exist as other things exist; God is not a thing.

Instead, God is an ultimate question addressed to the soul. In being addressed, the human senses an obligation to answer. This is not about what I believe or to what religion I belong. It is a challenge issued from beyond me; an invitation to authentic life, to sanctify this brief time I have by living fully in the moment. What are you doing with this moment? Where are you going with your life?

If I turn my attention to the emptiness within and listen – not look as an observer but listen in quiet receptivity – the question becomes easier to hear. What I do next is my true religion.

 

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