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God Above and The Ground of Being

It’s interesting how the evolution of life, the development of a species, and the maturation of individuals within a species all tend to proceed from simpler to more complex forms and stages of existence. The human embryo carries vestigial gills and a tail from our prehuman ancestors. In a not entirely dissimilar fashion, children grow into mental abilities following the same sequence as our species over many thousands of years. What we see at one level (life, species, individual) is evident in the other levels as well.

Culture is the construction zone where the degree of advancement in our human species gets transmitted from individual-level breakthroughs, into the collective consciousness of society, and back again to the individual in the form of innovations in the traditional way of life.

In the interest of social cohesion and stability, a preferred path of change would be able to keep some of what has been (as tradition), as it moves forward into what will be. The role of institutions can be understood in this sense, as conservative and stabilizing structures in the flow of cultural change. The very definition of religion, from the Latin religare meaning “to connect or tie back,” identifies it as an institution in this sense – indeed as the conservative and stabilizing structure in culture.

When the European Enlightenment got the intelligentsia excited about the possibility of throwing off the superstitions of the past to embrace a future of science, religion was the obvious and easy target. Without a doubt, there was much about the institution of Christendom that wouldn’t listen and constructively respond to new discoveries and developments going on at the ground level of human experience.

As the official Church condemned new theories and excommunicated the brave souls who dared contradict its now-archaic orthodoxy, the best (and perhaps the only) recourse for many was to simply push the whole outfit into the ditch and move on with progress. The modern West turned its attention to factual evidence and the technical possibilities of this world, content to leave spirituality, religion, and God Above in an early chapter of its new autobiography: The Enlightened Man’s Emancipation from Ignorance and Myth.

The Christianity we all know (and fewer of us love) is a type of religion known as theism, for the way it is oriented on and organized around the belief in a supreme being who is large and in charge. Our fortunate birth and prosperity in this life, followed (hopefully, if we get it right) by beatitude in the hereafter, is our Pilgrim’s Progress supervised by God Above.

We happen to be living in the twilight of theism, during a late phase known as orthodoxy. At this point it is primarily about believing the right things, and doing whatever it takes to defend and propagate “the one true faith” around the world. By now, for a large majority of Christian true believers, the present mystery (we can even call it the real presence) of God has receded permanently behind something much more pressing and important – and manageable: the right opinion (ortho+doxa) about God.

At the end of the day it’s all a very heady enterprise and increasingly irrelevant to everyday life. People are leaving the Church in droves, with the Enlightenment campaign of atheism once again on the rise. As a counter-measure, the engines of orthodoxy are locking into gear and plowing full steam ahead, until Jesus comes again or all hell breaks loose (rumor has it these might be the same event).

Fundamentalists, ultra-conservatives, and right-wing evangelicals are certainly not helping their cause, as bright and reasonable people who continue their quest for a grounded, connected, and personally relevant spiritual life are leaving the crazies to their end-game.

I spend more time than I would like trying to explain how the impulse to cast theism out with the dirty bathwater of dogmatic and dysfunctional religion, while certainly understandable to some extent, is not the real solution to our problem. For one thing, the theistic paradigm and its role in society should not be simply identified with any of its historical incarnations.

In other words, a corrupt version of theism is not necessarily a reason to reject theism itself outright. It happens that every institution is prone to desperate measures when threatened by the natural course of change. In this way, an institution is the cultural equivalent of an individual ego – a conservative and stabilizing construct of identity that resists becoming what it isn’t used to being.

What follows is a perspective on theistic religion, exploring its development through distinct phases starting with its rise out of animism and following through its twilight into post-theistic forms of spirituality. My model for this developmental schema is not only based in the evidence of archaeology, but, just as important and even more useful, on the phases stretching from early childhood to maturity in the living individual today.

Evolution of ReligionEarliest theism, just like early childhood, was lived in a world constructed of stories. There was no obvious boundary separating “fact” from “fiction,” the given facts of reality from the make-believe of fantasy. Theism was born in mythology (from the Greek mythos referring to a narrative plot, which is the structural arch that serves as the unifying spine of a story).

Its gods began as literary figures personifying the causal agencies behind the order and change of the sensory-physical realm. Myths were not regarded as explanations of reality (as a kind of primitive science), but instead were performances of meaning that conjured the gods into being with each rendition.

It’s difficult to appreciate or understand this phenomenon as we try to grasp it with adult minds, but perhaps you can remember how it was for you back then. The fantasy world of myth doesn’t merely fade into the metaphysical background when the story concludes. Rather, that world exists only in the myth and is called into expression every time the myth is performed afresh.

We modern adults entertain a delusion which assumes the persistence of reality in the way we imagine it to be, even when our stories (at this later stage known as theories) aren’t actively spinning in our minds. The paradigm-stretching frontier of quantum physics is confirming how mistaken this assumption is, and how much we really understood (though perhaps not consciously) as children.

At some point in late childhood and early adolescence the individual recognizes that real life requires an adjustment from imaginary friends, magical time warps, and free-spirited performances of backyard fantasy, to the daily grind of household chores and lesson plans.

A more complex and complicated social experience means that opportunities for reigniting the creative imagination must be “staged,” that is, relegated to a consecrated time and location that will be relatively free of interruptions. Here, in this sacred space, the stories will be recited; but in view of limited time, only the major scenes and signature events are called to mind.

The required investment of time, attention, and energy in social responsibilities will not return the degree of enchantment and inspiration an individual needs to be happy. There needs to be a place for mythic performance and reconnecting with the grounding mystery. Besides, the mythological god can’t be left hanging in suspended narrative when it’s time to get back to the grindstone.

Theism had to adapt along with this emerging division between sacred and secular (temporal, daily) concerns. It did this by creating a special precinct where the majority could enter and observe an ordained minority dress up, recite the stories, and enact mythic events linking their broken time (divided and parsed out among countless duties) back to the deep time of an eternal (timeless) life.

Just as the holy precinct of ceremony served to connect a profane existence “outside the temple” (Latin profanus) to the sacred stories that weaved a tapestry of higher meaning, the god who originally lived in those stories was relocated to a supernatural realm overhead, standing by and watching over the business below. Even if the stories weren’t actively spinning, people could take comfort in knowing (technically believing) that he was in his place and doing his job.

On a designated day the community gathered in the temple, and at just the right moment an official would sound a bell, light a candle, unveil an icon, or recite a scripted prayer invoking (calling in) the presence of the god. At that very moment, all were in agreement (at least those paying attention) that the deity would descend from his abode in heaven and receive their worship.

A ritual enactment of sacred story would typically culminate at a point where the congregation was invited to step into deep time once again. Afterwards a signal was given bringing the ceremony to an end, and the people would depart to their workaday worlds.

With a growing population and the inevitable pluralism that comes with it, getting to the chapel on time becomes more of a challenge for a lot of people. How can theism survive when the ceremonies and sacred performances start losing attendance? What happens when god above no longer has an official invitation to condescend to the supplications of his gathered assembly of devotees?

This is what happens: former true believers give up their denominational affiliation and do their best to continue on their own. They will still look up when they speak of god, point to heaven and cross themselves when they score a goal, and perhaps bow their heads and say a prayer before breakfast.

Once in a while they might make their way back to the chapel (maybe on time) to observe a performance of one of the really big stories. As they watch, a dim memory of childhood enchantment will stir somewhere deep inside them and they will feel the magic once more.

How can theism hold on when its ceremonial system – the land and buildings, the gold-plated symbols and silken vestments, the professional staff of ordained ministers, and the hard-won market share of rapidly defecting souls – is sliding into obsolescence and bankruptcy? The answer brings us to the third and final phase in the lifespan of theism, the twilight of institutionalized religion known as orthodoxy.

The enchanted storytelling of early childhood gives way to staged ceremony in young adulthood, which in turn and with further reduction eventually gets packaged up into neat boxes of truth called doctrines. An obvious advantage of this reduction of theism to doctrines lies in its handy portability, in the way it can be carried conveniently inside the head and transferred into more heads by rote memorization and Sunday School curricula.

If the first phase of theism (storytelling) featured the bard, and the second phase (ceremony) depended on the mediation of priests, this third phase (orthodoxy) belongs to the theologians. They are the experts who tell us what to believe about god and other metaphysical things.

Since theism at this point has become a rather sophisticated set of beliefs, the best (and perhaps only) way to impress their importance on its members is to make the doctrines necessary to what more and more people are lacking and so desperately looking for: security and longevity – specifically that odd fusion of security and longevity defined in the doctrine of everlasting life.

As time goes on, this notion of a future escape from a life burdened by fatigue, boredom, and absurdity grows more attractive, until the true believer is willing to give up everything – or, if necessary, to destroy everything – for its sake.

In the Age of Orthodoxy people still speak of the god above, of the miracles of long ago, or of a coming apocalypse and future rapture of the saints, but you’ll notice that the critical point of reference is consistently outside the present world. Celebrity hucksters and pulpiteers try to fill the vacuum with staged demonstrations of “faith healing” and prophetic clairvoyance, but the inspiration is cheap and unsatisfying. Mega-churches and sports stadiums become personality cults centered on the success, charisma, theatrics, and alluring ideal of their alpha leaders.

In a sense, this transformation of old-style sermon auditions into entertaining religious theater represents a final attempt of theism to push back the coming night. There’s no getting around the fact that orthodoxy just isn’t that interesting, and as it rapidly loses currency in the marketplace of relevant concerns, more and more people are saying good-bye to church, to organized religion and its god-in-a-box.

As a cultural transition, the crossover from managed religion to something more experiential and inwardly grounded corresponds to that phase for the individual, when a deeper thirst for life in its fullness forces him or her to push back from the table of conventional orthodoxy and its bland concoction of spiritual sedatives.

In the twilight of theism, people are starting to give voice to their doubts, but also, increasingly, to their questions, their long-buried intuitions, and their rising new-world aspirations. They want more than anything to be real, to be fully present, and deeply engaged in life with creative authority.

This inward turn is the critical move of post-theism. It’s not about pulling down orthodoxy or refuting its god, but rather simply letting go and quietly sinking into being. Quietly is a reminder that words at this point are like hooks that can snag and slow one’s descent, running the risk of turning even this into another religion with its own esoteric orthodoxy.

The ego and its constructed word-world of meaning need to be left behind so that consciousness can softly settle into the still center of contemplative awareness. Here all is one. There is only this.

Here is born (or reborn) that singular insight which inspired us to tell stories in the first place. Now, perhaps, with a lifetime of experience and some wisdom in our bones, we can tell new stories.

It’s always been and will always be here and now.

 

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Check-point: The Future of Religion

Today, as the living stream of spiritual life grows increasingly frustrated behind the rigid walls of conventional religion, more and more people are looking for a way through. While a large number keep this struggle to themselves, willing to accept the problem of relevancy as a fault of their own, others are beginning to speak out.

Many are leaving church on their own accord; others are being asked to leave.

Of course, similar things have happened throughout Church history: revivals, protests, and reformations are how religion stays current and meaningful in changing times. For the most part, orthodoxy has managed to accommodate our spiritual development, translating age-old doctrines and philosophical assumptions into present-day convictions.

Until recently, that is.

As church leaders experiment with new technologies and orchestrate an experience that is consumer-oriented and entertaining, churches and denominations continue to decline in membership. Charismatic preachers and sentimental praise songs are still an attraction and have their effect, but our deeper spiritual quest is going unanswered. Instead of vibrant insight into the present mystery of reality, we are handed the reheated leftovers of tradition.

Readers of this blog are already familiar with my criticism regarding these attempts at Sunday morning entertainment and retooling orthodoxy for another go-around. The problem of declining membership is centered not in the method of delivery but in the message being delivered. We are in the midst of a shift where religion needs to empty its buckets for a fresh refill from the moving stream of spiritual life.bucket

A mystically grounded faith – that is, an existential trust in the real presence of mystery – has always been the place in religion where this refreshment of meaning happens.

However, because orthodoxy is innately suspicious of the mystical experience, the present-day solution to the problem of relevancy amounts to painting old buckets and calling them new. The water inside – if there is any left – is staler than ever.

Mystery. At the heart of reality is a present mystery. This mystery is immediately accessible yet transcendent to our minds, always within our reach but forever beyond our grasp. It is the very ground of being, not out there somewhere but deep “in here” – inherent to existence and profoundly internal to consciousness.

It is the source and suchness of all beings; not another being, but being-itself. The present mystery of reality is continuously passing yet eternally Now. This moment is the narrow gate to communion with God.

Meaning. In itself, the real presence of mystery is ineffable; it can only be encountered, entered, and experienced. Putting concepts around it – or scooping it up into mental buckets – gives it form and makes it meaningful. But every image, symbol, metaphor or concept constructed by the mind is only an artifact of our intelligence, not the mystery itself.

Meaning-making is what the mind does. Drawing inferences and associations into the realm of daily concerns is how our minds translate mystery into meaning, experience into something more useful.

Self. A human being is a form of consciousness with the capacity to look outward on the present mystery as it manifests itself to our senses in our surroundings, as well as inward to the mystery of our own depths. Referring to these two orientations of awareness as “body” and “soul” has frequently led to their differentiation into opposite (and opposing) parts of the self.

Forcing this split of body and soul is a third mental location of human consciousness, known as ego (or “I”). Ego is not a primary orientation of awareness, but is rather a social construct consisting of gender instructions, role assignments, moral agreements, and cultural expectations defining what it means to be a member of the tribe.

In ego formation, the animal instincts of the body are disciplined and domesticated. For societies where this training is particularly harsh, repressive and shaming, the ego can psychologically dissociate from the body and mistake itself for the soul – but now as a metaphysically separate thing, an immortal personality detached from the life of the body.

Deity. Whereas the familiar moniker “God” (with a capital ‘g’) is useful in talking about the various ways that human beings cross-culturally represent the real presence of mystery, “deity” (also “god” with a lowercase ‘g’) refers to the portrait in art, myth, theory and doctrine of that never seen but much talked about guarantor of tribal authority.

Mystics seek the ineffable experience of real presence, while priests are social functionaries who perform on behalf of their deities, collecting the offerings from the congregation and dispensing favors of membership and the assurance of salvation.

Despite my satirical exposé, I nevertheless see a vitally important role for the patron deity of theistic religion. As The Voice of temperance, equanimity, fidelity, mercy, compassion and forgiveness, god’s command and personal example (as rendered in myth and exposited from the pulpit) serve to raise the moral aspirations of believers to the divine ideal.

As the mythological god becomes, with the advancing spiritual development of his mythographers, less vengeful and more benevolent, so too does the worshiping community grow into a more enlightened moral presence in the world.

Salvation. As human culture has evolved, the representation of our principal dilemma and its solution has changed accordingly. Earliest cultures were centered in nature and the body, and death was the obvious problem. Salvation (the solution) was not everlasting life in another world, but ritual renewal, seasonal rebirth, participating in the rhythms and priming the life cycle with appropriate sacrifices.

Gradually cultures became more socially centered, that is to say, increasingly preoccupied with tribal order, membership, and authority. As you might guess, this was the Age of Ego, when the urgencies of the body needed more than ever to be managed and the resources of nature exploited in the interest of social stability.

It was at this point that the control system of morality, dictated by the patron deity and enforced by his ordained deputies, created the very ideas of transgression, sin, and guilt. Thus did salvation become redefined as repentance and the reconciliation of sinners to god.

Most recently – but still going back 2500 years or so – a second shift occurred, corresponding this time to the awakening of a more mystical sensibility. The problem in this case was precipitated by the foregoing “solution,” where ego and the tribal deity came to oppose the body and nature – controlling them from outside, as it were – resulting in a pathological dualism.

Brokenness, division, separation and estrangement: not the enmity between sinners and god of the earlier phase, but a rupture in consciousness caused by the ego in its very formation is what needs to be resolved. Salvation, then, is the process of dropping attachments of “me” and “mine,” and releasing oneself in full surrender to the present mystery.

SunTruth. In light of this, the spiritual life becomes a quest for truth. Not a truth or even the absolute truth in doctrinal terms, but The True, the really real, life deep and abundant, authentic existence, radiant being.

Obviously this is not something that anyone (or any religion) can scoop up in conceptual buckets and carry to market. Truth, here, is not an article of knowledge but the depths and transforming power of an experience.

This is our way through. Theists don’t need to become atheists and leave their religion behind. Indeed, arguing for or against the existence of god (note the lowercase) is really a pointless exercise anyway.

The urgency today is for religion to catch up to the progress of spiritual evolution on our planet.

 

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Humanism in a New Key

My recent reflections on the cultural shifts in the West over the past 2500 years or so has started to uncover the real essence of the post-theistic movement overall. Whether it was the breakthroughs in natural philosophy (science) and politics (democracy) back in fifth-century BCE Greece, or the breakthrough in morality represented in Jesus’ radical message of love for the enemy, the general effect of these transformations has been a growing understanding of our place in the cosmos and our responsibility in the evolutionary destiny of our species.

Each one of these transitions moved us into a different and new way of being in relationship with our home planet, to the social order, or to other humans – particularly those who don’t share our beliefs or care to have us around. I have argued that our advancement through these various progression thresholds – defined as evolutionary surge-points where development is suddenly accelerated and shifted to a new level – also moved us into a post-theistic worldview relative to the threshold in question.

So science has moved us increasingly into a view of reality that doesn’t require a reference to god as the hidden agency behind nature. Similarly, democracy has liberated us from political systems of authority and subjugation that were regarded for many thousands of years as established and ordained by a god above the throne.

And then, with the radical ethic of Jesus as expressed in the imperative of love for the enemy (summarized as unconditional forgiveness), the long-standing idea of god as the supreme prosecutor of moral evil and executioner of our enemies had to be released and transcended – if we were to move forward into Jesus’ vision of a worldwide community of full inclusion.

There is textual evidence to suggest that Jesus went so far as to reconceive the retributive god (Yahweh) into an all-loving and merciful father (Abba) who has forgiven everything and excludes no one. Already 600 years or so earlier, the prophet Jeremiah had imagined a future day when god would forgive and “remember sins no more,” so at least the ideal of unconditional forgiveness was in the collective consciousness to some extent by the time of Jesus.

But the conditions of history would favor a more “tribal” deity than a universal one, so this ideal virtue of love for the enemy got pushed to the margins of theological orthodoxy – until someone like Jesus had the insight and courage to declare that god was different – radically different – from what people believed. Instead of merely talking about god, Jesus demonstrated god (as benevolence, compassion and forgiveness) in the way he lived. Rather than wait for a future day, he announced that “now is the time.” The challenge now was to embody god in relationships – not just with insiders and outsiders, but with our enemies.

The Christian mythology that soon developed represented this self-emptying of god (Gk. kenosis) and fulfillment of humanity (Gk. apotheosis) in the picture-language of incarnation, epiphany, resurrection, ascension, and Pentecost. These were metaphors and symbols of a transformation internal (esoteric) to human nature, working out its implications in a narrative fashion rather than a doctrinal one. It wouldn’t be long, however, before the mythological structure of early Christian thought was fractured, divided, packaged, and rearranged into a belief system of metaphysical truths.

Jesus, the prophet of unconditional forgiveness, was very quickly turned into the “only savior” who satisfied the conditions against god’s forgiveness of sin. Paying the penalty required by law and turning god (propitiating, placating, appeasing, persuading) to look favorably upon sinful humanity – but only if the individual repents and believes – became the orthodox re-vision of salvation history.

Jesus’ message of love’s embodiment in human beings and their behavior towards one another; his vision of a community that transcends tribal morality; his urgent appeal to let go of vengeance and seek reconciliation instead – all of this got “exceptionalized” (Who else but very god could live this way?) and effectively removed from the official (re-)definition of what it means to be Christian. Belief, obedience, and church membership took over.

sun-hi

So, while the West has made much more progress into post-theism in the cultural fields of science and politics, the derailment of Christian orthodoxy by the second century CE prevented us from fully embracing a post-theistic morality. As a consequence it could be argued that the moral setback of Western culture has compromised the integrity and hampered advancement on these other fronts as well. Absent a sympathetic communion with nature and a compassionate connection to others, “progress” in these areas can quickly devolve into exploitation and abuse.

But advancement into what, exactly? Where is this trajectory of post-theism leading us?

By projecting personality and intention behind the events of nature, earlier cultures envisioned the universe not as random and absurd, but as rational, ordered, and purposeful. For the sake of security and sanity, it was necessary to believe that nature is provident, predictable, or at least open to our investigation (prayerful or theoretical, contemplative or experimental). Putting intelligence behind nature thus put us into a conversation with nature. Early theism made science possible.

Similarly, by projecting authority above the throne of government, earlier cultures were able to orient the political order on a more transcendent reference-point. Authority was not simply a function of circumstance, ambition, or superior violence, but depended on the higher will and working plan of god.

Not long ago, monarchs were regarded as god’s representatives on earth (the Bible refers to them as “sons of god”). As the function of god behind nature entered its period of disenchantment, the divine right of kings over the political sphere came under scrutiny. The door was opened for a reconsideration of government as anchored in the dignity of human beings rather than dangled from a supernatural hook in the sky.

Finally, then, it becomes apparent that what’s after theism (post-theism) is humanism, but not the self-inflated, indulgent and morally reckless version that often gets boosted by libertarians and bashed by conservatives. This is a New Humanism: scientifically innovative, politically democratic, and morally invested in communities of full inclusion and unconditional love. We haven’t thrown off the gods, but rather we meditated on them, identified with them, absorbed them (back) into ourselves, and moved beyond them – by their help.

Now we live in the presence of mystery. Human being offers us a fresh opportunity for being human, fully and finally human.

 
 

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Excavating Christmas

Let’s get out our shovels. We are searching for the true meaning of Christmas – this season that rushes upon us and is as quickly gone again.  Our quest will proceed on the analogy of an archeological dig.

Christmas ExcavationBefore even breaking the surface, one layer in the meaning of Christmas is commercial. Earlier each year, it seems, retailers are pumping the music, putting out their holiday sets, and giving us fair warning that our chance at 60% off is “this weekend only.”

Christmas is a celebration of materialism. It is time to buy – before it’s too late. All the glitzy and gaudy trinkets, the Jing Tinglers and Flu Floopers, are brought out of storage to get us in the mood. Our credit card balance after the holidays is the lingering reminder that we got bamboozled once again.

Just barely under the surface of this layer of Christmas commercialism is the figure of Santa Claus. He’s the one we’re waiting for, hoping he’ll bring us what we really want this year. Or maybe he’s the one we’re pretending to be as we swipe to satisfy the material cravings of our children.

“Santa Claus” is an informal rendering of Saint Nicolas, which suggests that this genius of package delivery logistics is somehow (or once was) a religious notable. His backstory in folk tale and legend tells of his charitable endeavors in bringing cheer to orphans and children whose families couldn’t afford the luxury of toys.

The giving of gifts brings us down yet another layer in our excavation of Christmas. We need to be reminded every year that it’s not the gift but the thought and love behind the gift that really matters. Back in the day, according to the Bible story, wise men from the east brought Baby Jesus their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Narrative detail would probably be more important to us had Christianity remained anchored in its foundational myths. As it happened, story gave way to theology, and abstract doctrines took over from the concrete narratives that shaped the earliest Christian experience.

Stories are arranged in a system called a mythology; doctrines are arranged in a system known as orthodoxy. Stories appeal to the imagination, doctrines to the intellect.

At the doctrinal level, Christmas is about the Second Person of the Trinity (the Son), the sinful condition of humanity, the “kenosis” or self-emptying of God in becoming human. The vehicle of this incarnational miracle was a virgin, whose status as “Christotokos” (Christ-bearer) made this a central doctrine not only for Roman Catholics but Protestants as well.

Inside of story and deep along its root-line is metaphor, which is a way of representing something that eludes our conceptual grasp. Once the metaphor is offered up by creative imagination, our minds get busy weaving a meaningful pattern of storylines around it.

Stories of immaculate conceptions and virgin births can be found across the cultures. Early Christian storytellers were not the first to ponder this metaphor as a kind of doorway or passage from eternity into time. It’s important to know at this point that eternity does not mean “everlasting” or “unending,” as it is popularly (mis)understood today. Instead of “without end,” eternity refers to what is “without beginning.”

Rather than thinking of eternity as an endless extension of time, or as another realm of existence separate from this one, imagine time as we (think we) know it moving like a horizontal stream in a “forward” direction. Eternity would be represented as a perpendicular line drawn straight down along the vertical axis. The place of this intersection is not itself part of the time-stream, but always NOW. It’s not that this present moment comes to us from the future, and neither does it recede into the past. It is timeless.

Contemplating Mary and the universal metaphor of the Virgin Mother, we can begin to appreciate her value to mystics everywhere, by whatever name she is called. She is a literary symbol, a mythical archetype, and – in a celebrated paradox – the spiritual embodiment of those qualities that must be nurtured if you are to be fully present to the mystery. What qualities?

Emptiness. The opposite of emptiness is not fullness, but preoccupation. Instead of relaxing the boundary of attention and expanding your capacity for awareness, your mind becomes increasingly cluttered. Real presence is available as you are able to drop assumptions (from the past), release expectations (for the future) and surrender all distractions.

Humbleness. From the root-word humus, “humble” and its cognate “humility” carry the idea of being fully grounded. Not exalted or “full of yourself,” not inflated or disengaged from what’s going on, but fully here and now. Humility is a position of greatest strength, balance, and resilience. In the present moment you are grounded in the really real.

Faithfulness. Having little or nothing to do with orthodox beliefs, faith refers to the act of entrusting yourself to the providential support of reality in this moment. Its opposite is not doubt, but conviction, which is not about opening up to mystery (as faith is) but closing down on meaning.

Creativity. The creative life is not about “making” something of yourself or accomplishing great things in the eyes of others. You give a lot of attention and time to making money, making progress, making up, and making do. Creativity doesn’t flow along the conventional channels of effort, work and accomplishment. Instead it breaks into time through the portal of this present moment.

I’m suggesting that while in the deeper layers Christmas might seem like it’s about something that happened a long time ago, the early Christian myth-makers were not writing history, doing theology, or just making stuff up. The Story is a creative composition, to be sure, but it’s more an exercise in mystical contemplation than anything else.

Christmas is an invitation to get to a place where you are empty, grounded, and open to the real presence of mystery. Only then – when you are centered, quiet and receptive within – can the creative life truly begin.

The revolutionary life of Jesus came through the contemplative preparation of Mary. It still does.

 
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Posted by on December 5, 2013 in Timely and Random

 

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A View on Religion

I have a friend who’s in midlife and struggling with the creeping irrelevancy (my term) of his religious beliefs. His personal history with religion (Christianity) doesn’t go all the way back into childhood, but it’s deep enough to have been a significant force in shaping his adult worldview. He and his wife raised their children in a denomination committed to staying as close as possible to the New Testament church model.

It’s probably fair to say that he’s never been in full agreement with the positions his religion has taken with respect to sexual ethics, gender equality, cultural engagement, or truth in religion. But it allowed for some flexibility, at least in the private holding of his individual faith. Over the years, his involvement in church connected him to other believers who became good friends. They raised their kids together and shared a lot of life.

As his doubts rise over the real truth-value of his particular brand of religion, my friend is wondering if there’s truth in any religion. Over the past half-decade, he and his wife have stepped out of church-going. Their children are adults and out of the house, making choices of their own regarding religious affiliation and faith practice. So the obligation of raising a family in a supportive community with clear moral values can be released.

But they still get together with the same friends, only now their conversations are becoming increasingly strained and uncomfortable – particularly as they orbit around issues of doctrine, the Bible, and exclusive salvation in Christ alone. My observation is that he’s also struggling somewhat with the metaphysical assumptions that have invisibly supported his fading convictions.

If you no longer believe in heaven and hell as destinations of the soul, is it necessary to give up believing in the soul? If you are having second thoughts around the claim of exclusive salvation, does the notion of salvation itself need to be abandoned? And if the very idea of a god “up there,” “out there” and external to the world feels contrived and irrelevant to daily life, is atheism the only alternative?

My friend is searching for a new vocabulary that can adequately articulate his evolving spirituality and connect it meaningfully to his life-world. He is understandably concerned that his unwillingness to simply accept as truth what he once believed, and what his church friends still believe, will alienate him from people he doesn’t want to lose from his life.

Of course, many of us arrive at points along the way where the strength of a relationship is tested by our differences over important matters. Religion, politics and morality are frequently powder-keg topics that have a reputation of blowing apart long-standing friendships. Each of us needs to come to terms with how much trust, acceptance, accommodation and forgiveness we are willing to invest in any relationship.

If I reject you just because your beliefs have changed and no longer match my own, can I really be said to have known and accepted you for who you are?

This “new vocabulary” my friend is seeking is also something that I’ve been trying to work out over the years since stepping out of professional church ministry. Here’s something that’s become an essential starting point for me, in order to set up a fruitful conversation about religion, truth, and experience.

Religions are mystically convergent, but doctrinally divergent.

ReligionLook into the center of the picture above. Soon enough you’ll begin to see the pupil of an eye dilating and contracting as it stares back at you. That center represents what I call mystical experience. Like a black-hole pulling you through and beyond the world you think you know, the mystical experience transpires in a place that is “no place.” And yet, this now and here (now/here, nowhere) is the starting point of your existence.

The term exist literally means “to stand out,” and what you stand out from is the present source and support of your being. Mystics name this source “the ground (of being),” and experiencing it is to experience the present mystery of reality itself, the deep creative support of all things – including, of course, your life in this moment.

Authentic religion (Latin religare, “to tie back”) is motivated out of a desire to tie the business of daily life back to this Source. As a constructivist I see it as a way of keeping the mental construct of my world connected to reality, the really real. This tie-back operates in opposition to another impulse in religion, which is to fly out into the symbols, stories, theories and farther abstractions (like metaphysics) that express and explain what it all means.

I understand that not all religions have their roots in mystical experience, but my contention is that every true religion does – or at least once did, at its birth. A founder, or founding community, was inspired or disturbed by an experience of the real presence of mystery, which called for a new way of being and behaving in the world. This means that all (true) religions are mystically convergent – that is to say, they share a common ground and have their roots in essentially the same experience of mystery.

But then, the other impulse – to express and explain – takes us into the more provincial way that each religion interprets this experience of mystery into the web of meaning that connects it to the concerns of its present generation. Every community and its larger culture has a history, with all the factors of ancestry, language, geography, politics, and worldview that make it unique. If the experience of mystery is to make sense and have meaning, then it must be translated into this cultural vocabulary.

The founder of Buddhism translated his experience of mystery into a vocabulary of appearance and essence, attachment and release, illusion and enlightenment, suffering and the way of compassion. Centuries later, the founder of Christianity translated the experience (his own, not someone else’s) into a vocabulary of law and love, separation and communion, identity and inclusion, justice and unconditional forgiveness.

As you follow just these two examples of present-day world religions, your investigation will take you farther out along their divergent paths. “Nirvana” (the liberated state after selfish craving has been extinguished) is not in the Christian vocabulary, and neither is “kingdom of God” (the inclusive community of neighborly love) in the Buddhist. The farther out you go, the more divergent the paths become.

So where is truth, then? This is where my friend’s personal struggle is focused. Too many people are trying to work out this question of truth in religion at the far-out periphery of my illustration above. Their assumption is that truth is a matter of how accurate the terms (doctrines) are to the reality they describe. There comes a point, however – represented in the ring of clouds or smoke at the outer edge – where the pursuit of doctrinal clarity and precision eventually produces the opposite in a hopeless confusion of terms. (This is typically where sects, schools, and denominations take off on their separate tracks.)

To stay with my examples, either Christianity or Buddhism is the “true religion,” but not both. (Of course, a Muslim who’s caught in this same way of framing the issue, will claim that neither one is true. His own religion of Islam is the true and only way, while these others are mistaken and dangerous lies.) Truth, according to this approach, is doctrinal and all about accuracy. Who’s telling the truth? Who’s got the story right? Who’s getting saved in the end?

One problem with this line of questioning is that (as I explored in a recent post) each of these religions in its present form might be quite far off the path of its original teaching. When Buddhists, Christians or Muslims do violence against each other or their own, then it’s rather apparent that they have betrayed the revelation of their founders. It might well be the case that we are comparing somewhat (or entirely) corrupt versions of these distinct religions, which makes the project of sifting for truth especially problematic.

But here’s my point. Truth is not about how well our words and definitions match up to the present mystery of reality. The very nature of meaning is that it’s constructed (made up, put together) and conventional (supported in the agreements that a people hold in common), which also implies that meaning is relative to the context and needs to be relevant to actual life. When it ceases to be relevant – when the vocabulary and its worldview, along with the metaphysical assumptions that lie behind it, lose their connection to everyday life – should we just throw it aside and start looking for another? This is what some people are doing these days.

Or maybe we should make ourselves believe it anyway, attributing the feeling of creeping irrelevancy to our ignorance or lack of faith. If our rescue from this world and everlasting security in the life hereafter depends on getting it right, then you’d better believe it – even (or perhaps especially) if it doesn’t make sense. It’s all a mystery we can’t understand. Don’t jeopardize your salvation in your selfish insistence that religion should make a difference in this life.

I would respond to my friend this way: The beginning of true religion, as well as its proper end, is in the mystical experience where you find your ground and release yourself to the greater reality to which you belong. This experience of real presence, of the present mystery, of the really real in this moment invites you deeper into life. As you awaken to the present moment, to this moment of presence, to the Eternal Now, your neurotic compulsions will gradually relax and fall away. In that moment you will come to realize that here and now is all there is. In the real presence of mystery, all is one.

Now your task is to make sense of it, constructing a meaning to the mystery that will help you stay grounded and connected. That will be your religion. It might look a lot like the one you’ve been in for a while, but now with a refreshed relevance for having been reconciled to the same mystery that inspired Jesus so long ago. Or it might look very different.

The responsibility is yours to translate the mystery into meaning. But stay close to the mystery. Meaning will always change, as it must if relevancy is your concern.

I support you in that quest, for it is my quest as well.

 
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Posted by on November 23, 2013 in Post-theism/New Humanism

 

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Faith and Being

Schleiermacher: “The contemplation of the pious is the immediate consciousness of the universal existence of all finite things, in and through the Infinite, and of all temporal things in and through the Eternal. Religion is to seek this and find it in all that lives and moves, in all growth and change, in all doing and suffering. It is to have life and to know life in immediate feeling.”

By the late-eighteenth century, Christianity had already become a house divided. On one side were those who believed that Christian distinctiveness was a doctrinal matter, while others insisted it was a matter of morals. Christians hold particular doctrines that identify them as Catholic or Protestant, Baptist or Methodist, liberal or conservative. But Christians should also behave in a way that is obedient to the great ethical precepts found in the Bible, such as loving the neighbor and following Jesus.

While both sides acknowledged the importance of doctrines and morals, each promoted one as more important than the other. Salvation is a matter of thinking right (doctrines) and doing good (morals), but either the mind or the will has priority. The “cultured despisers” to whom Schleiermacher directed his Speeches were members of both camps, and each tended to regard the other as missing the mark.

These house divisions in Christianity were reflected in the larger culture as well. Science and philosophy – disciplines of the mind – were having great success in classifying reality into separate domains of human knowledge. But so too, government and business – disciplines of the will – were beginning to regulate human behavior into the various zones of public life. Western culture at large, then, gave religion two choices on where to stand: mind or will, doctrines or morals, thought or behavior, thinking right or doing good.

Schleiermacher saw a problem in this – a big and potentially fatal problem for Christianity and the culture as a whole. Whether we are thinking about something or striving for something, the “something” is always separate and apart from us. While the mind frames and arranges its objects, and the will fixes and pursues its outcomes, the immediacy of experience itself is left behind.

Is experience essentially what we think or what we do? Neither one, says Schleiermacher. Rather it is the “feeling and intuition” of being alive in this moment. The farther we step into mind or will, the more we remove ourselves from the heart where the true pulse of the present is found.

To understand what Schleiermacher means by “feeling” we might place it visually at the bottom of a “V” shape. From feeling we can move up into emotion, which generates motion in behavior; or we can move up into attitude, which establishes the position from whence we take our perspective on reality. Both emotion and attitude are derived from feeling but stretch it out, so to speak, either into action or thought. Still farther out are the outcomes of behavior and objects of thought – the morals and doctrines of religion’s cultured despisers.

Deep within ourselves – if we will only open our attention to it – is the feeling of experience, at the point where our life is grounded in present reality. Because the immediacy of experience lies beneath and is prior to the operations of mind and will, its ground is properly regarded as ineffable (beyond words) and spontaneous (without purpose). Yet it is precisely there that we are one with all, and all is one.

To arrive at this still-point (though in fact we never left, nor can we leave) it becomes necessary at times to drop our thoughts and surrender the urgency to act. In quiet contemplation we can enter that internal space where doctrines and morals can be appreciated as but secondary extensions of a primary and eternal life. Otherwise, if we are too tied up in the beliefs and goals that make our lives meaningful, we can end up dying on the inside, strangled in our own web. When being right or doing good are taken as the keys to salvation, the forces of orthodoxy and righteousness can actually become demonic.

We forget that our true healing as human beings comes when mind and will are reconciled in the heart, when we can stop grasping and chasing after meaning and simply dwell in the real presence of mystery.

So what can we say about faith, in light of Schleiermacher’s model of the heart, mind, and will? First of all, faith must not be confused with doctrines and thinking right, nor is it about morals and doing good. It’s not what you believe or even how you live.  It isn’t about the meaning of life or how to get to heaven.

Instead, faith is about being well – grounded, present, centered and whole. Right now.

 

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The Focus of Faith

Schleiermacher: “We should have fewer complaints of the increase of the sectarian spirit and of factious religious associations, if so many of the clergy were not without understanding of religious wants and emotions. Their stand-point generally is too low.”

A bit earlier Schleiermacher makes the point that one would not go to an art enthusiast or critic to understand the true spirit of art, but rather to a genuine artist, one who actually creates the work that these others only observe – from the outside, as it were. When observed from an objective standpoint, religion is a “production” of sort, a more or less complex arrangement of doctrinal beliefs, ritual practices, and moral precepts that support and justify a way of life.

If you were to interview a professing member of such a religious society – what I refer to as a “tribe” – and inquire into the essence of his or her faith, most would respond with observations concerning this arrangement. These particular doctrines trace back in time to a founding figure (a mystic seer, inspired prophet, or divine savior) or forward in time to the Final Days; these specific rituals unify the members and confirm their shared identity; and these rules for life maintain good order and improve one’s prospects in the life hereafter.

Schleiermacher was an ordained minister in the Reformed tradition, a heritage that stresses order and compliance with orthodoxy. His own insider experience made him realize how many of his fellow clergy were serving as little more than house managers of “the faith.” All of this outward expression – the external arrangement of religion – has accumulated over time into what might be called the “denominational set,” and it is the pastor’s job to be sure that the joints are tight and the gears properly oiled.

As in the analogy with art, faith can be viewed from the outside by enthusiasts and critics, where it is some “thing” observed – an objective arrangement, a denominational set, a noun. But if you should inquire with a living artist, or in this case with an individual for whom religion is a dynamic process and profound experience, you would hear more references to the mystery in it and the movement of it. Faith, from this internal vantage-point of experience – the phenomenon and phenomenology of it – is a verb: fluid, moving and alive.

Is it fair to lay responsibility for the sectarian spirit and factious religious associations on the shoulders of clergy? Of course not. But Schleiermacher is only saying that we would have less of these things if only our clergy (religious leaders) were more in touch with the internal lives of people than they are concerned about butts in the pews and budget bottom lines.

What do people really want? What are we looking for? Toward the beginning of this First Speech, Schleiermacher summarizes the twin preoccupations of external religion (the faith as noun) as “providence and immortality.” Outer religion – the one that is managed by the clergy-as-custodian – comforts people with the teaching that God is in control, that God loves us and will take care of us. What’s more, hanging on and waiting it out will eventually win for us the heavenly Door Prize of everlasting life. Just believe, and you’re good.

Personally, I believe that providence and immortality are more like “positive illusions” that help people cope with the changing nature of our lives, with our limited control over how things go, and with the general burden of existence – specifically with the inescapable fate of death. At one level, the two preoccupations of religion provide an important service to culture by helping us keep our sanity and stay in the game. There are countless clergy who are in that same space and feel called to manage the denominational status quo.

But what about the rest of us – and there is a rising number – who have come to appreciate freedom and flow, mystery and depth, spontaneity and change in their lives? What about those of us who don’t need to stretch our life-lines into an endless future in order to hold and celebrate the value of this moment in time? What about those who, like Henry David Thoreau, want to “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life” – not as mere pleasure-seekers but in order to take on the full mystery of what it is to be human, in our particular time and place?

What are the “religious wants and emotions” that move our lives, before we get to church or even join a religion? For now, at least this much can be said: Faith is deeper than religion, it preexists doctrines, and it may or may not benefit from what organized religion has to offer. It’s about experience and what you do with the mystery at the center and all around your precious passing life.

It’s time to pay attention.

 

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