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The Underground to Community

Today more than ever our planet needs us in community. Our species is so careless and disorderly, so thoughtless and destructive, so self-involved and unconcerned over the catastrophic impact our behavior is having on the larger web of life – upon which our own viability and well-being depend, it seems necessary to point out – that I wonder how far from the edge we currently are.

Or have we already gone over?

Human and nature, self and other, soul and body have fallen into pernicious divisions, to the point where nature is reacting violently to our longstanding disregard for her balance and capacity, individuals are committing violence against others they don’t even know, and even our bodies are destroying themselves as a consequence of our inattention to matters of the soul. Even if we can see this evidence, the truly concerning thing is that we are feeling increasingly powerless to do anything about it.

We need to come together for solutions, but we seem to have forgotten how.

Our solutions will need to heal the pernicious divisions just mentioned. Humans must awaken to their place in and responsibility to the living system of nature. Neighbors and nations must remember their common humanity.

But both of these breakthroughs depend on our success as individuals in managing a more holistic alignment of our inner (soul) and outer (body) life.

Our task, as illustrated in my diagram, is one of breaking through the meaningless noise of the crowd and engaging in the meaningful dialogue of genuine community. As I will use the term, crowd refers to a kind of herd consciousness that lets us be passive and anonymous, mindlessly conforming to the fashions of the majority. As mood and movement roll like waves through the herd, we let it take us and take us over.

In the crowd we are not responsible. When something sudden and shocking happens, we look up at each other and blink.

Obviously no creative solutions to the challenges we face will come from the crowd. The constant noise – which in communications theory is the absence of signal or useful information – interferes with our ability to speak intelligibly or think intelligently, damaging the inner ear that could tune our attention to a hidden wholeness. In the crowd we don’t have the distance and detachment to even regard our challenges with any clarity, so penned in are we by the commotion around us.

Joseph Campbell analyzed the ‘hero’s journey’ into three distinct yet continuous phases, beginning with a departure from the realm of ordinary life; proceeding to a stage of trials, ordeals, and revelations; and returning home again, but now with gifts and wisdom to share. In this post I will rename Campbell’s phases to correlate with the critical steps leading from herd consciousness (the crowd) to genuine community: solitude, silence, and serenity.

As mentioned earlier, this inner quest of the individual for a more centered and unified life is the journey each of us needs to make.

The hero’s departure, whether for a wilderness, desert waste, dark forest, the open sea, or a distant land, invariably moves him or her into a period of solitude. The revelation or discovery of what changes everything cannot be found in the crowd where the trance of familiarity and group-think dull our spiritual intuitions. It’s necessary to get away from the noise and out of the conditions in which our current assumptions were shaped.

Before attention can shift on its axis to a more inward and contemplative orientation, it must be freed of the usual fixations.

Taking leave of the crowd isn’t always easy. As Erich Fromm pointed out, it offers an “escape from freedom” that might otherwise require us to take responsibility for ourselves.

The cover of anonymity and herd consciousness gives us a sense of belonging to something larger, a place where we can go along with the group and not be individually accountable for our lives.

Even after we’ve left behind the noise of the crowd, however, we still have inner noise to resolve. This isn’t just an echo of group-think in our heads but includes the incessant and frequently judgmental self-talk that ego churns out. We can be sitting by ourselves in silence as the ‘monkey mind’ chatters away.

Much effort might be invested in the work of managing this nervous resident in our head – perhaps giving it something to play with, like a phrase to repeat or an object to fix its focus upon – when the real goal is to preoccupy the ego so that consciousness can make its way quietly to the stairwell.

By an underground passage we enter a vast inner silence, what I call boundless presence – away from herd consciousness and far below ego consciousness. Here we realize how much of all that is just an illusion, a consensus trance where identity is merely a role we’ve been playing and the world only a projection of meaning upon the present mystery of reality.

In the deep, slow rhythm of our breathing body, consciousness can rest in its proper ground. Here there is nothing to worry about and nothing to think about, for there is no “I” to worry or think.

This is serenity: centered, calm, open, and free.

Upon reaching the treasure of this realization, our hero’s next challenge is deciding whether to remain here forever or else bring something back to the herd, in hopes that others – even just one other – might wake from the spell. To our surprise and relief, however, we find that some are already enjoying the liberated life.

Although they still may not see things exactly as we do, we share a mutual appreciation of the fact that truth itself is beyond belief. And while our different beliefs are precious in the way they provide us with standpoints in reality, the crucial task before us is in constructing meaning that can include us all.

Such co-construction of meaning is known as dialogue, and it is the most important enterprise of genuine community. The resulting coherent system of shared meaning is the world that supports our identities, connects us to one another, orients us together in reality, and promotes our creative authority as agents of compassion, understanding, peace, and well-being.

 

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The Way of Dialogue

One sure mark of maturity is our ability as individuals to engage others in constructive dialogue. This term is not meant as a synonym for mere conversation, argumentative debate, or the pursuit of agreement in how we see things. To communicate with others of a different perspective means at least that we are able to listen, ask questions, understand, and reach an empathetic connection with them.

Needless to say, genuine dialogue is rarely taught and practiced these days, and is steadily disappearing as an art-form of healthy human cultures.

Just now at this period in history, our globe is deeply divided. A vast majority of the human population holds a different perspective from ours on the nature of reality, the hierarchy of values, the meaning of life, and how best to live. Whereas once upon a time we could entertain a meaningful conversation with someone of a different perspective because we shared with them certain backgrounding assumptions of a common culture, our global situation today breaks beyond the cultural commons and is forcing us to engage difference of a more radical sort.

In order to understand and start developing our skill for constructive dialogue, we need to resolve some confusion regarding its family resemblance to other forms of human interpersonal engagement (conversation, debate, negotiation) and then dig deeper into the dialogical process itself. For reference as we move along, I’ll refer to the diagram above.

The top part of my diagram illustrates the dilemma of confronting someone of a different perspective. A vertical (but broken) line separates the two, right down to the divergent meaning of the words they are speaking to each other. Assuming our interlocutors are speaking the same language (e.g., English), the words they use likely carry meaning that doesn’t match exactly. They may both speak of “freedom,” for instance, but their constructions of meaning around that idea might be literally worlds apart. This should remind us that words are not just sounds in the air or logical operators of propositional thought; additionally they are elements in our articulation of meaning, basic building blocks in our determination of what really matters.

Each opposing side might be speaking similar words, then, but be interpreting those words in a very different way. In the thought bubble behind each brain in my diagram are certain highly charged symbols that represent a few of the lines currently dividing our human experience on this planet. And of course, there are many others.

Depending on whether you are an American or a Russian, a Republican or a Democrat, a Christian or a Muslim, how you spin a word – that is to say, the meaning you assign to it – will be expressive of that particular identity.

Let me say right off that I am not suggesting that American, Republican, and Christian go together as a set (and similarly for the other side). While the differences directly across the way tend to be more mutually exclusive, it is possible, say, that you are an American Democrat who is Muslim, or a Russian Christian who favors strong republican government. It’s much less likely that you would be an American Russian (although you could be a Russian with American sympathies), identify as both Republican and Democrat (but you might be a Republican who supports domestic government programs), or a Christian Muslim (however, there are some who mix their own eclectic religious identity from different brands and traditions of world religion).

A key aim of constructive dialogue is what I earlier called empathetic connection. This requires understanding, which in turn is dependent on taking turns and listening carefully to what each other says. In the end, dialogue can be considered “successful” when partners come to appreciate each other’s humanity.

Argumentative debate – or its degenerate form so popular these days: bigoted accusation – doesn’t have this goal, as its purpose is to present the superior and persuasive position on a topic. Polite conversation will typically leave the matter of a partner’s humanity suspended in the background as less provocative opinions are exchanged. And whereas negotiation looks for potential points of agreement and compromise, dialogue strives for a place underneath our different worldviews, ideologies, opinions, and even of words themselves.

Before we go there, I need to acknowledge one thing that can derail the whole effort. Actually, this thing I’m speaking of is what prevents dialogue from making any progress at all. It has to do with the very interesting phenomenon where a belief once held by the mind ends up taking the mind hostage. If you are American or Russian, Republican or Democrat, Christian or Muslim (or whatever membership holds your identity), that self-identification obligates you with certain value-judgments and opinions about the way things are.

As beliefs, they provide orientation and guidance for living your life.

It can happen, however, and for various reasons, that a given belief stops operating as a meaningful preference in your interpretation of reality, and becomes instead the only way of looking at it. Now, what formerly had been held by your mind comes to hold your mind prisoner, like a convict behind bars. This often happens during a conversion experience where an individual is rather suddenly overtaken with the certainty of a competing truth. Or it might come on gradually as the habit of belief slowly pushes all variances out of view, leaving just this one – “the way it is.” However it happens, the result is what we call a conviction.

I made the case in Deliver Us From Conviction that this phenomenon, where a belief takes the mind captive, is the principal threat to our human and planetary future. All the other problems we face – nuclear armament, global warming, market bankruptcy, international and intertribal warfare, human rights violations around the planet or interracial conflict at home – are driven by convictions, beliefs that have made us into their convicts.

A conviction forecloses on all questions and rules out every doubt. There is no “other” way.

The way through this impasse is dialogue. But obviously, if we are to have any hope of making progress, each of us needs to examine the degree in which conviction is a driving force in our lives. The following steps of constructive dialogue can assist in this self-examination, and hopefully inspire us as well to choose its path in our dealings with difference in others.


Even the foregoing reflections on the nature of ideology, membership, and identity as the backgrounding influences behind our beliefs and the words we use to articulate them, might have already helped us loosen our grip on what we believe to be true. Notice that I didn’t say that we should let go of our truth-claims, but merely refresh our relationship to them as constructions of meaning. They are human creations after all, and we advance our cause considerably when we can remember ourselves and each other as creators.

Let’s start digging, then.

Beneath the words we use to articulate our constructions of meaning (i.e., our beliefs) are the feelings we have around them (symbolized by a heart in my diagram). Even though belief fuses a proposition of language with an emotional commitment to its truth-value, dialogue challenges us to loosen this bond sufficiently so we can notice the deeper feelings in play. You may have a strong commitment to a number of beliefs, and while they may be very dissimilar at the propositional level (e.g., the objective existence of god and the fundamental disparity in a proposed healthcare reform bill) your feelings are what make the belief in each case important to you – quite apart from the question of whether, really, it has any anchor in actual fact.

That’s not to say that belief statements should be scrapped, or that our constructions of meaning are secondary to how we feel about them. In fact, the strength of feeling associated with a particular proposition or article of belief is less about how firmly it ties into objective reality (whatever that is), than how deep its roots reach into our needs as persons and human beings.

In other words, we feel strongly about ideas that impinge critically on our existence, security, livelihood, close relationships, personal well-being, and opportunities for the future.

In my diagram such concerns are represented by an atom, symbolizing matters of life, desire, love, and joy.

The dialogical process is a timely reminder that underneath our different perspectives and beliefs each of us experience life in very similar ways, and, still deeper down, that our needs and those of the other are fundamentally the same. How have we forgotten that before we are American or Russian, Republican or Democrat, Christian or Muslim (or whatever horizon of identity we might choose), we are human beings?

Every major awakening of spiritual intelligence in history has turned on this foundational insight – both obvious and strangely obscured – of our common humanity: with our neighbor, a stranger, an outsider, and even with our enemy.

Yes, it takes time, effort – and patience. But once we can look through our different constructions of meaning to the feelings we attach to them; and then down through these feelings to the human needs we all share, the project of building genuine community and world peace will surprise us in its transforming effect. Once we are delivered from our convictions, the creative human spirit is set free.

It only takes one individual to open the way. Why not you?

 

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Pushing on Belief

A human being creates a world like a spider spins a web. As an innate impulse of the mind, this need to construct meaning is irresistible, and the prospect of living without meaning – of living a meaningless existence – is widely regarded as a fate worse than death. We are ready to give up on life, and willing to take the lives of others, when our meaning is lost or threatened.

Like other propensities and reflexes of our deeper nature, this impulse to make meaning carries the authority of reality. That is to say, we can easily assume that the meaning we construct and the habitations of meaning (or worlds) we live in are a property of the way things really are, independent of us and inherent to reality itself.

This assumption has been part of the “mental lens” of our mind as a species for many thousands of years, and it is responsible both for our cultural progress around the planet and the natural disasters following in its wake. It’s only been very recently that we have begun to realize that how we see reality is much less about the way things really are, and more about our need for security, identity, purpose and significance.

Constructivism is a philosophical approach to understanding meaning as a product of human nature rather than a fixed property of reality itself. Meaning is made, not discovered in the traditional sense of finding it “out there,” buried beneath the facts or dropped out of heaven and waiting to be found.

Of course, this means that constructivism is itself a construct of meaning. It does not presume to offer any kind of “final theory” or last word on the subject. Indeed, if this approach is valid (and I believe it is), then a final theory or last word is a self-contradiction – unless we are referring to the theory that finally takes out our species, signaling the end to a nuclear age and the likely extinction of life on Earth.

What needs to happen in order for that scenario not to happen is that we individually learn how to be more responsible creators of the worlds we inhabit. How can we step out of the naiveté that is accelerating us to the edge of extinction – ironically for the sake of our precious meaning – and into a more adult mode of creative authority?

Part of the answer is that we need to understand the relationship of meaning to belief, which is the insight of constructivism. Another part of the answer moves deeper into an understanding of how beliefs form and then fuse together into the webs of meaning we live in and are all too willing to die or kill for. Let’s start with the question of what it means to believe something.Pushing BeliefBy definition a belief (from the root meaning “to love or hold dear”) is an emotional commitment to a judgment you make about something. Some judgments are tentative and provisional until you make an emotional investment in them, which effectively personalizes these judgments and makes them meaningful to you.

When someone makes a statement and you don’t believe it, you are withholding emotional investment from that statement and choosing not to take it personally. Very likely you are simultaneously forming a judgment about the person who just made that statement, investing yourself emotionally in a conclusion about him or her. You have constructed a belief.

A belief, then, is a conclusion or a closing-down on something with your mind in order to render a judgment about it, together with some degree of emotional commitment to its truth. Some beliefs might be true, while others must be true. These different emotional values determine where a particular judgment resides in your belief system.

As my diagram above illustrates, a belief that holds less emotional commitment (and which only might be true) is called an opinion. Because you take them less personally and their truth-value is not essential to your web of meaning (or “world”), you likely enjoy sharing your opinions with others and hearing theirs in turn. With a lower charge of emotional commitment, opinions are characteristically flexible, experimental, and easily modified or abandoned.

Whenever someone presses on your belief system by engaging you in conversation about a topic you find interesting but not essential to your life’s meaning, you can be open-minded and tolerant where your perspectives don’t quite match up. Your conversation partner might know more about the topic than you, and you can accept what he or she has to say without getting offended, even modifying or updating your opinion as the conversation progresses.

But then this person, with whom until now you’ve been receptive and open-minded, says something that you find incredible, offensive, or blasphemous. You have a history with this particular belief and you take it much more personally. The umbrage or horror you feel, along with the felt need to debate the statement and defend your truth, indicates that this belief is more deeply situated in your web of meaning and has a lot more riding on it. In pressing on this belief, the other person has poked deep enough to activate a conviction.

Convictions don’t allow open-minded dialogue. As the word suggests, a conviction is a belief that incarcerates thought and holds the mind hostage. Whereas once upon a time you may have held this belief as an opinion, over years of anchoring other opinions to this one and thereby making it more essential to your life’s meaning, it now holds you captive.

The certainty it provides is really a rationalization of how secure the conviction makes you feel, and security is not something you want to risk. Pulling on that thread might cause the entire web to tear and unravel, which could result in a global crisis of meaning and world-collapse. Your strategy, whenever a conviction gets poked, will either be to lash out in retaliation, debate your challenger into submission, move quickly to safer ground, or dismiss your opponent as ignorant, impious, and simple-minded.

In fact, you are deluded, and the same can probably be said of your opponent as well. The nature of your delusion lies in the degree in which you have stopped actively thinking and instead given your mind over to the closed loop of a mental script. You can tell when this intellectual bypass is occurring by how irrational you become in defending your conviction. Again, by this time the argument is not about how reasonable, coherent, or evidence-based your belief might be, but about how much is at stake in its truth for you.

By closing down active thought and conscious engagement with the way things really are, convictions separate your mind from reality. An unavoidable consequence is that your life’s meaning is always several steps (or several decades) behind the way things presently are. When we move our consideration to the societal level, this means that entire traditions and cultural worldviews can be hundreds or thousands of years out of date, promoting mandatory belief systems (or orthodoxies) that are wildly out of touch with the concerns and opportunities of contemporary life.

You might think that a belief system is composed only of lightweight, variable opinions and these deeper-set, mind-locking convictions. But there is a third level of beliefs, which are difficult to talk about for the simple reason that they are invisible to your normal conscious operations. This invisibility of your assumptions has nothing to do with secrecy or sophistication, but is rather a function of their role as primary support structures in your web of meaning.

While opinions can be shared and exchanged in your circle of friends, and convictions are either recited in unison among fellow believers or strenuously defended against ideological opponents, assumptions typically never make it to the surface of conversation. Like the lens of your eye which filters and skews the visual information coming in, assumptions are the unquestioned beliefs that determine your most rudimentary mental grasp on reality.

Should someone challenge one of your basic assumptions of meaning, if it even registers at all – and quite often the mind is mentally deaf and blind to such profound challenges – it will likely strike you as literally incredible and not open for discussion. You will probably blink incredulously and shake your head as if to dislodge the strange idea, then abruptly change the subject or quietly walk away.

The key insight of constructivism is an example of just such a challenge to our core assumptions, with its suggestion that meaning is what human beings “make up” and is really a kind of necessary delusion that our nature (and sanity) requires. To press on belief to the point where such assumptions are poked will predictably agitate an all-or-nothing response. Most often it is nothing, so you just dismiss the challenge and move on.

Of the three types of belief comprising your web of meaning, assumptions change least and most slowly – and it should be obvious why this is so. Because many assumptions (probably the vast majority) were adopted and set in place very early in life – indeed, your deepest assumptions were installed into the default state of your autonomic nervous system and preceded the acquisition of language, putting them beyond words (ineffable) and direct conscious access – the very groundwork of what you are is at stake in their preservation through time.

But assumptions can change. Even more importantly you can change assumptions, however longstanding, that have been separating you from the present mystery of reality in unhappy, maladaptive, or pathological ways.

Instead of only playing it safe at the surface where opinions come and go, or occasionally digging deeper into the convictions that electrify the cage around your mind, you might tap open a few of those sacrosanct assumptions that are restricting your soul and keeping you from being fully present to life in this moment.

As you learn to let go and just relax into the grounding mystery, you will find that meaning isn’t all it is made up to be.

 

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Post-Theism and the Great Work of Religion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

                                                                                

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

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

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The Time We Have Left

The moment-to-moment phenomenon of experience is difficult to pin down and is probably impossible for us to fully understand, for the paradoxically simple reason that we are always in it. We can’t get the detachment and observational distance to see it objectively. There is no perspective on experience itself since experience is the place where all perspective is grounded.

But my conversation with Anthony De Mello, Walter Truett Anderson, and John A.T. Robinson has at least clarified terms that can help us slow down the process of experience and make some important distinctions.

Throughout our conversation, De Mello has spoken to the dual nature of awareness, in the way that experience looks within the self to its ground (the S-G axis), and beyond the self to the other (the S-O axis). Lying beneath the self-conscious ego (or simply “self”) and prior to it developmentally, ground is preconscious and “below” the reach of words, making it ineffable. Looking out, on the other hand, reveals a vast field of otherness, putting self in relation with an-other (countless others, in fact).

This is where language is useful: in the work of naming, classifying, defining and explaining this relational field in terms that are meaningful to the out-looking self. Of my three conversation partners, Anderson is the one who examines this construction of meaning from multiple angles – art, advertising, politics, psychology, science and religion.

Although he makes the unfortunate mistake of confusing our construction projects with reality – as others before him in the study of “the social construction of reality” had done – Anderson helps to pull aside the curtain on the wizard at work. For the purpose of constructing a meaningful world, the self (with assistance and guidance from the larger culture) weaves a complicated web around the primary concerns of security, identity and significance.

We spin our world, forget that we did it (and are doing it now), and proceed to assume and defend it as “the way things really are.” But it’s even more complicated than that: because identity is co-constructed with the world it inhabits, even our self concept is something we make up. What we might have thought was a stable place to stand as we put together and repair our world is not stable at all, but is continually adjusted and repositioned like scaffolding according to the work at hand.

All of this could leave us feeling rather nihilistic – that what we call reality is really nothing at all. Behind all the words, values and stories we string across the Void, there is no reality to speak of. Just emptiness, nothingness, no-thingness.

The key difference between the postmodern position of metaphysical nonrealism that I support and out-and-out nihilism is that nonrealism remains open to the mystery of a reality we can’t speak of, while nihilism is ready to throw out the baby (the real presence of mystery) with the bathwater (language and the meanings we project on reality). There is nothing logically or conceptually inconsistent with acknowledging a presence that can’t be named.

And yet, perhaps only mystics (or the mystic within each of us) can suspend the impulse to name the mystery. Meaning-making is in our nature and probably can’t be permanently suppressed without serious repercussions like depression, despair, and insanity. So the question becomes, What do we name the mystery? and How can we talk about it?

This is where Robinson’s “two eyes on truth” becomes relevant – especially when we consider the opportunities and potential consequences of inter-religious dialogue. Religion is frequently where our metaphors, stories and beliefs about the way things really are find supernatural authorization and proceed to become absolute, infallible, and inerrant. With only one eye on reality, our line of vision is flat and narrow, lacking an ability to appreciate background, context, paradox and transcendence.

One eye looks inward to the ground of being (S-G), as the other opens out to the otherness round about (S-O). One is introverted, contemplative and mystical, while the other is extroverted, active, and relational. The first one hesitates to speak in the face of mystery for the sake of prolonging the experience of real presence. The second one can’t stop talking, for the simple reason that talking about reality pushes it away far enough (so to speak) where we can begin making sense of it.

Talking about anything entails making it into an object of thought, and what we gain in meaningfulness comes at a cost of removing us from the stream of direct experience. But the mind needs meaning like the body needs blood, and so we talk. Robinson makes the point that healthy religion must honor the balance between silence and speech, experience and meaning, being quiet in the presence of mystery and engaging in god-talk.

Awareness, meaning, and dialogue: My three partners in conversation, then, complete a compelling picture of our human experience of reality and how we go about making sense of it. Together they offer an interesting model for guiding us into our shared future on this planet – if there is a chance of it being long, creative and prosperous for all involved.

We need to be more psychospiritually attuned with our own experience in the moment (De Mello), more intentional and honest in our construction of meaning (Anderson), and more committed to opening both eyes to the present mystery of reality (Robinson). If we can strengthen these disciplines within ourselves, our interactions with others – especially with those who stand in a very difference “world-space” than we – will bear fruit in understanding, compassion, community and well-being.

So I suppose we’re about as far away from realizing this vision of our future as we are willing to pick up these disciplines for ourselves, in our own walk through time on this planet. I can’t stand back and wait for you to get on with it, so don’t you stand back and wait for me either. Let’s become more serious practitioners of being and take responsibility in the time we have left.

There are generations coming up behind us. They deserve a chance.

 

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The Two Eyes

Robinson: “By drawing the insights of another center into as it were the gravitational field of one’s own, so that they come to form part of that ‘universe’ revolving round its single center, one is deliberately seeking escape from the tension of living with both poles at once. But truth may come from refusing this either-or and accepting that the best working model of reality may be elliptical or bi-polar, or indeed multi-polar.”

Let’s start with something straightforward and uncontroversial: An individual is an identity organized around a center and contained by a boundary.

The boundary of an individual not only separates and protects it from external reality, but also provides a threshold for engaging with that reality. If the individual is a “self,” then everything in external reality is “other.” This self-other (S-O) axis is the key to understanding the so-called Western view of reality. It is about “going out” and making relationships with others, which makes it extroverted, active, and social in orientation.

The center of an individual is inside, even deep inside. Centers are not about separation but integration, integrity and internal balance. If the identity of a self is organized around its center, then deeper into the center gets closer to what can be called its “ground.” This self-ground (S-G) axis is the key to understanding the so-called Eastern view of reality. It is about “going in” and experiencing union with the ground, which makes it introverted, contemplative, and mystical in orientation.

I qualified these different views of reality by designating them “so-called” Western and Eastern, but this supposed geographical distance can cause us to overlook the fact that they are both represented in each individual person. You are a self that relates outwardly to others and inwardly to your own ground. Instead of analyzing you into opposing parts – as in the familiar body-and-soul dualism – it is more helpful to regard you as a duality of orientations, outward (S-O) and inward (S-G).

Interestingly enough, just as entire cultures can be dominant in one orientation or the other, the same is true of individuals – wherever and whenever they live. Some are more extroverted, active and social, while others are more introverted, contemplative and mystical in the way they are oriented in reality.

We need to say “more” one way or the other, because every individual has both orientations, although one is likely to be preferred over the other. Your individual preference is almost certainly encouraged and reinforced by the cultural preference of your tribe. In this way, the West shapes an Occidental orientation and the East shapes an Oriental one. Of course, there are introverts in the West and extroverts in the East, but they probably feel a little bit like left-handers in a right-handed society. They can get along, but it does require continual adjustment.

Robinson is exploring the potential for dialogue between these two different orientations. It’s not just about getting, say, a Buddhist from Bangkok together with a Christian from Cleveland. That level of dialogue might be educational and constructive – but only eventually. If either the Buddhist or the Christian hasn’t been engaged in a dialogue between his or her own “Western” and “Eastern” eyes, dialogue at the table will be more like a debate, where somebody’s got to be right.

If you and I don’t appreciate as well as strengthen our two eyes, we can become monocular – rigidly attached to our preferred orientation and intolerant of its counterpart in ourselves or each other.

We need to have “one eye” on reality outside ourselves, on the Other. This is the reality we connect to with our bodies. It’s “out there” and separate from us, confronting us with difference, with otherness. Obviously, the religious system of theism is based on this idea of encountering the Other. But whereas popular theism is carried on the belief in an objective and separate being dressed up in the garb of mythology, its more respectable roots are likely in this primary experience of reality as Other.

We also need to have “one eye” on reality inside ourselves, on the Ground. This is the reality we connect to with our souls. It’s “in here” and essential to us, inviting us into the depths of our inner being. The varieties of mystical religion are based on this idea of union with the Ground. But whereas some popular forms of gnosticism can spin off into bizarre metaphysics, a genuine mystical approach disregards all this monkey-chatter and simply revels in the ineffable experience of oneness.

I’ve mentioned the conventional terms of “body” and “soul,” but if the spiritual adventure of our species is to move forward to the next phase of its evolution, we will need to let go of them as names for parts of ourselves. You don’t “have” a body and soul; rather you are these. And for sure, it’s time to drop the notion that you are a soul inside a body. That a time will come when your soul is released from the mortal coil of your body and live forever somewhere else.

This “dualism of parts” has been hampering our spiritual development for a long time, endorsing a neglect of the body, an abuse of the earth, a suspicion of others, and a persistent ignorance of our own wholeness – even our holiness – as complete yet paradoxical beings.

Perhaps a postmodern spirituality can retool the definitions of body and soul, away from the language of parts-in-opposition, toward a language of complementary orientations. In that case, body is your orientation in reality that connects you to others, to the otherness of things, to reality-as-Other. It is not a part of you, not something you have. It is YOU as situated in a community of others, confronted with difference, and finding your way through it all.

Soul is your orientation in reality that connects you to your inner ground, to the oneness of your being, to the ground of being-itself. It is not a part of you, or the “real you” temporarily housed inside a body. It is YOU as rooted in mystery, below the quirks and contradictions of personality, inwardly aware and wordlessly present.

Our challenge as individuals is to acknowledge this dual orientation in ourselves. Certainly acknowledge our preference for one orientation over the other, but then engage a disciplined dialogue between our “two eyes” – outward and inward, active and contemplative, social and mystical.

Reality gets that much larger and deeper when we open both eyes.

 

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Inner Dialogue

Robinson: “Each of us, if we are in any way integrated, has a center from which our lives are lived, and our ‘world’ is what is enclosed within the circumference of that circle. Yet often we are more conscious of the edges than the centers, corresponding to the bounds of an animal’s territory which it stakes all to defend. The edges may be hard, the boundaries barricaded, while the centers are relatively unformed. The effect of dialogue is to bring to consciousness, and therefore to strengthen, our centers – so that where we stand will often in the process become clearer and firmer. But we do that by being prepared to soften our edges, to open up the frontiers, and let down our defenses.”

Human beings are world-builders. By now it should be clear that we are using this term in reference to the habitats of meaning that give humans the illusions of security, identity, significance and purpose. These are regarded as illusions simply because they are language-dependent and not found as “facts” in reality. As spiders spin webs out of their own bodies and then depend on their webs for survival, each of us spins a world around ourselves and calls it home.

At the center of my world is “me,” this self-identified maker of meaning. Underneath me are the various supports that hold me up and define who I am. Gender, family, class and tribe are the primary roles that locate me in society and give me recognition as a member. Together we inhabit a shared world called culture, which is a web that stretches across generations and geographical regions and is reinforced by sacred stories called myths. These stories anchor our common identity in a prehistory of ancestors, founders and heroes, as well as in a supernatural realm of gods, saviors and saints.

The movement of postmodernism was energized by the discovery that beneath our web-worlds is a reality much less “solid” than we thought. The foundation of divine providence, for instance, or even something as seemingly rock-bottom as matter itself, are shown to be just deeper constructs of language. The security we feel in being held up by something loving and reliable (matter and mother have a common origin) is perhaps an irresistible need of ours, stemming back not just to our individual infancies but into our existential condition as a species.

And what about the boundary of my world? What’s beyond that? If I don’t think about it too much I can persist in the illusion of a significance and a purpose that continue to infinity. God’s in control, everything happens for a reason, and all things work together for good. It’s a mark of faith not to ask questions, or so we’re told.

But eventually we bump up against … not reality, but other worlds. I am confronted with your very different way of representing reality, and if mine was merely a representation and not the way things really are, I might be worried. We can have differences, but they will have to be superficial, minor disagreements. When push comes to shove, I can’t compromise on my convictions. Not that I won’t. I can’t – there’s too much at stake.

John A.T. Robinson is perhaps best known for his 1963 book Honest to God, in which he challenged the mythological literalism of the Bible and urged his readers to consider the possibility that the divine reality is not merely something bigger than we can imagine, but might even be something other than what we can imagine. Robinson took his inspiration from the likes of Paul Tillich and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, both of whom advocated for a divine mystery beyond our religious conceptions and doctrinal convictions.

The present mystery of reality is not meaningful but beyond the meanings we construct and attach to it. Our dogmatic and aggressive defense of meaning belies an insecurity often unacknowledged – except where we readily point it out in our opponent. If we could relax a little at our edges and meet each other with more honesty, humility and faith, we might realize that our meanings are a lot less absolute and unchanging than we pretend they are.

But as Robinson explains, the condition of our boundaries – how flexible or rigid they are, how open or closed, how responsive to mystery or reactive to difference – is a function of how integrated we are inside. Internal balance, contemplative clarity, intellectual coherence and spiritual grounding are all terms that relate to our center, where each of us is rooted in the present mystery of reality. If we neglect this dimension of our life and become disconnected at our roots, the natural concerns of survival and evolutionary fitness will become combative obsessions at the edges.

Now in this book (Truth is Two-Eyed), Robinson is exploring what he calls an “inner dialogue,” where the spider in the middle of the web – our self-identified ego and the meaning we spin into our separate worlds – opens up (or down) through its own center and into the real presence of mystery.

With “one eye” we see this relationship of self to mystery in terms of communion, between an “I” and a “Thou.” Importantly, this Thou is not the personified god of mythology and doctrinal orthodoxy, but an irreducible “Other” or otherness at the heart of our human experience of reality. This is the Western Way.

And with our second “eye” we see the present mystery of reality less as an interplay of I and Thou, than as a single undifferentiated Oneness playing both parts of the relationship. We are not so much confronted by reality as immersed in it, saturated with it, and essentially the same as it. This is not the same as saying, “I am god,” for the I and Thou are both manifestations of one mystery. This is the Eastern Way.

Robinson is inviting us to consider spirituality as a dialogue of “meeting” (Western Way) and “merging” (Eastern Way), communion and absorption, as our response to the mystery and our identification with it. We can engage this dialogue outwardly, at the table with Christians and Buddhists, for instance, where different constructs of meaning (worlds) seek to understand each other.

But this outer dialogue is not likely to produce the kind of mutual respect and profound appreciation we so desperately need on this planet unless we are each engaged in the inner dialogue of a deep, contemplative  spirituality.

Just relax. It’s going to be all right.

 

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