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A Case for Healthy Religion

My aim in this post is to offer an understanding of religion that can help us appreciate its importance while providing criteria for constructive criticism. Many today are applauding the decline of religion as a necessary precursor to our postmodern “enlightenment.” Religion is based in superstition, organized around power and privilege, corrupt at the deepest level, bigoted, narrow-minded, and prone to violence.

So they claim.

If I happen to agree with every one of those charges, why would I care to offer any kind of defense of religion? I want to be clear that I will not be defending any particular religion, but religion itself – the function it is meant to serve in society and in the evolution of humanity. The question of whether religion might continue to serve this function or if its time has passed will be left to the reader’s opinion. Here at least is how I see it.

Chakra_tree

The above diagram carries forward the main idea of a previous post (http://wp.me/p2tkek-ku), proposing a view of the human being as an ascending axis through three centers of consciousness. Corresponding to the gut-level is our concern for security. I call this the elementary dimension, as it has to do with our basic life support and survival as living organisms. Our nervous system sets the internal state of our body according to signals from the environment that indicate providence or negligence in reality. Consequently we will carry a visceral state of calm or distress, relaxed attention or high alert, faith or anxiety.

Religion begins – or at least it once began – in this deep visceral response of faith to the gracious support of a provident reality. This is not a conscious decision or even a voluntary act, but an intuitive and spontaneous release in the autonomic nervous system to the grounding mystery of being itself. The etymology of “religion” (re + ligare) refers to something that ties back, re-connects or holds together what is or might become separated. In this case, the developing self-consciousness of an individual finds a link back into the deep support of reality.

In religion, such practices as centering prayer and meditation cultivate this descent into the present mystery of reality (also called the real presence of mystery). This is the mystical path, and no genuine religion can get started or stay healthy without it. Mystical faith should not be confused with the distinct beliefs that identify the different “faiths” or faith traditions. It is not about definitions or statements of orthodoxy. Since the experience of God and not beliefs about God is the primary concern at this level, mystics are frequently persecuted in religions that over-value theology.

As religion develops and consciousness ascends from its grounding mystery, the concern shifts from security to intimacy. As things naturally tend to go, a provident reality during infancy (and earlier in the womb) translates into secure bonds of protection, nourishment, and reciprocity with our higher powers. This moves us from (but not out of) the elementary and into the ethnic dimension of our human experience.

The science of interpersonal neurobiology is revealing just how important these intimate bonds are to our emotional development, particularly as it involves the “entrainment” of the infant’s right hemisphere to that of its mother. In this way, her emotional composure and caring presence – in short, her faith – train a matching state in her child. As time goes on, the child adores (gazes longingly at) the mother and imitates her behaviors with its own. She is serving as the child’s supreme higher power and devotional ideal.

Every religion orients its devotees on a deity of some sort, which is a representation in story, symbol and art of the community’s focus of worship and aspiration. This relationship is understood and encouraged as interpersonal, even without direct evidence of the deity as a separate personality. References in scripture and sermons to “who” god is, how god “feels,” and what god “wants” reinforce this idea of religion as a mutual exchange – of our worship, obedience, and service for God’s protection, blessing, and prosperity.

My particular interest in this devotional path has to do with the way it elevates our focus to the salient qualities or virtues of the deity. Much as a young child gazes upon its mother and emulates her in attitude and behavior, so the perfected virtues of the deity are first glorified, then obeyed (i.e., imitated), and finally internalized by the devotee.

A study of religion in this regard will reveal how consistently an advancing virtue such as forgiveness is first attributed exclusively to god, then commanded of believers, and at last awakens in them as a more or less spontaneous expression of the human spirit. This transition might be represented metaphorically, as it was in Christianity, by the internalization of the deity – in this case, the risen Jesus who indwells a believer.

If this apotheosis (becoming more like god) begins in devotion, it must eventually work its way out in new behavior, in the way believers conduct themselves in the world and toward others. This is the ethical path, which moves us out of the sanctuary and into the street. Ethics is about responsibility, following through on commitments and holding values with integrity. It’s not only about intention and effort, but looks to the consequences of action to determine its virtue. Whether or not you feel like helping your neighbor or forgiving your enemy, it is the right thing to do because it builds and repairs human community.

The ethical path, then, ties us back to others and our shared context. It is where the “fruit” of our faith and love show up as patience, kindness, and peaceful resolutions. Jesus said that the inner character of a person will be evident in the “fruits” of his outward behavior. It’s not what a person says or even believes, but what she does that really matters, especially when no one is watching or keeping score. Healthy religion promotes greater responsibility for oneself – contrary to the popular notion of “giving everything over to god” – as well as a heightened conscience into the impact of one’s actions on others and the environment.

In the very next moment following our experience of the grounding mystery, our mind is busy trying to make sense of it. By stitching together metaphors, analogies, concepts and associations, it constructs meaning around an essentially ineffable (word-defying) reality. The vaster web of meanings that we spin across our lives and thereby make them “mine” is called a world. I have one, you have one, and in many places our two worlds touch and overlap. But they are different as well – and importantly different, as each world revolves around our individual identities (i.e., our separate egos).

All the while that our nervous system is calibrating to the provident nature of reality, during the early years as we aspire to the personality models of our parents, and farther out into the life roles and responsibilities of adulthood, we are mentally engaged in constructing our (hopefully) meaningful world. What we think and believe is not entirely self-determined, however, as we carry the collective worldview of our tribe and culture as well.

In religion, the doctrinal path is what connects and re-connects our construct of meaning into a lively dialogue with others. Our definition of God, for instance, is nothing like a literal depiction since God is a mystery that cannot be defined. Its purpose is to serve as a common sign in our shared dialogue concerning ultimate reality, a kind of placeholder in language for something we cannot directly point to. As long as our definitions are compatible, we proceed on the belief that we are talking about the same thing (which is really no thing).

But there comes a time – for me it came during my early twenties and then again in my mid-forties – when the meaning of life and our definitions of God feel inadequate and contrived. I suspect that these are phases when the “habit” (as in the costume of a monk or nun) of our world doesn’t fit like it once did. It loses relevance or currency; the seams split and the hem starts to fray. Life can begin to feel boring or flat (as in two-dimensional) and the agreements that earlier made for overnight conversations now put us to sleep. What’s the problem? Paradoxically, too much meaning.

Religion starts to fail when its language about God (theology) in no longer translucent, that is to say, when the words, doctrines, and theories are taken literally instead of as names and allusions to a present mystery beyond meaning. Twenty-somethings and mid-lifers are especially sensitive to the light going out in religion. While everyone else is squinting their eyes or squeezing down on the fading glow, these individuals are wanting to update the glossary and get back to experience.

If there’s hope for religion, if there’s a chance for religion to be healthy again, then it will need to respect these iconoclasts (image-breakers) and return to the place where it all started. At least this much can be said: healthy religion is mystically grounded, devotionally focused, ethically engaged, and doctrinally relevant.

So what’s your preferred path? What voice do you bring to the conversation? More importantly, what are you waiting for?

 
 

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Faith and Discovery

Schleiermacher: “If there is religion at all, it must be social, for that is the nature of human beings. There is also a spiritual nature which we have in common with others of our species, which demands that we express and communicate all that is in us. The more violently we are moved and the more deeply we are impressed, the stronger that social impulse works.”

Contemplating the likely origins of religion helps us appreciate its roots in individual experience rather than in what might be called “orthodox instruction.” For those who believe that religion – their religion, the true religion – was lowered from heaven already fully assembled and given by revelation to a founder, prophet or saint, faith must be taught. You must read your Bible, listen to your teachers, and take in the points of doctrine upon which your salvation depends.

The credibility of this long tradition of orthodox instruction requires that your Bible is inerrant, your teachers enlightened, and those points of doctrine absolutely infallible. If there’s a break anywhere in the chain – maybe scripture is metaphorical or made-up, just one teacher was mistaken or confused, or just one dogma is derived from a mistranslation – then the whole institution loses authority and disintegrates.

To protect itself, institutional religion implants in us a virus of doubt and suspicion against the validity of individual experience. Because you are fallen, ignorant, sinful and depraved, your own perceptions, insights and judgments are corrupt and unreliable. In fact, if you allow their seduction you will be lured away from truth. Don’t think for yourself. Don’t pay attention to your misgivings over how far-fetched, fantastic and irrelevant to daily life the orthodoxy seems. Certainly don’t trust yourself, your human nature, or the greater nature of reality within, beneath, and all around you.

Mystics throughout history and across cultures – and I would also say, the mystic in you – have regarded the orthodox instruction of institutional religion with mild tolerance, outspoken criticism, or active opposition depending on how authoritarian and abusive it can become. They typically won’t spend too much time and energy in the effort, partly because the errors are deep and long-standing, but also because they understand that the entire system of religion is more a human production than a divine revelation.

To say that religion is a human production, however, is not to discredit it, as orthodoxy claims (unless, of course, you’re talking about other religions). The source of religion is in discovery, not revelation. Whereas revelation is something the mythological god did to get the truth to us (from up/over there), discovery is a process whereby the present mystery of reality (the really real) is gradually or suddenly perceived, as our assumptions and expectations are removed.

Questioning our long-standing beliefs, conducting careful experiments, and generally paying closer attention to what’s going on is how discovery unfolds. To the degree that institutional religion discourages or straightaway condemns such practices, it is the enemy of discovery – the enemy of experience.

Out of this age-old process of discovery, individuals just like you have drawn deep insights concerning human nature, the real presence of mystery, and the present mystery of reality. Their first efforts at translating these powerful intuitions into symbols, metaphors, story and song/dance – for the purpose of expressing them and communicating them to others – mark the beginnings of religion.

Symbols don’t capture the mystery, but only provide a way of consciously participating in it. Metaphors aren’t literal descriptions but merely poetic representations of experience. For their part, story (sacred myth) and song/dance (earliest ritual) are the outpouring of spiritual discovery into the social arena of cultural life.

Schleiermacher identified an “impulse” in you that cannot allow these spiritual breakthroughs to be kept to yourself and quietly cultivated in some kind of private religion. Where it begins is undeniably private, by which we mean individual, profound, and deeply internal. But once expressed – and the power, magnitude and anticipated repercussions of spiritual discovery push it irresistibly up and out into your shared life with others – it enters the public sphere.

You talk about yours. I talk about mine. Through dialogue we find connections and resonances in the ways we separately represent our deeper experience. We translate something profound and ineffable into words, art, melody and movement. Inwardly we know that all this expressive meaning is ultimately a futile exercise, however irresistible, of enclosing the formless infinite in our mental boxes. The stories we tell are imaginative portrayals of what cannot be represented. The symbols we elevate for our mutual contemplation are acknowledged as mere allusions to a wordless mystery, always within our reach yet forever beyond our grasp.

We know this, you and I. But that guy over there – he’s new to the conversation. So we invite him in and show him our work. We tell him our stories and teach him a few steps of the dance.

Where did all this come from? he asks with fascination.

I look over at you, and you wink back at me. From god, we answer in unison.

A long time ago and in a land far away, earlier than our history books can reach and in a place inaccessible to science, the truth was given to our ancestors by supernatural revelation. Since that time, the countless generations of true believers have preserved what you see here, for the sake of your salvation. Have a seat, forget what you think you know, and pay attention to our every word.

Thus was religion born. And then we forgot how it happened …

 

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Faith and Creative Change

Excursus: Religious faith is frequently a force of resistance to change. True believers may invoke sacred tradition, holy scripture, or the unchanging nature of god to justify our need to keep things as they are, or get back to the way they once were. Holding fast to ancient ways or locking down on absolute truths in a fundamentalist fashion are often prescribed as our only way through the present situation, which is characterized as godless, worldly and humanistic. Where does faith stand in relation to creative change?

None of my conversation partners (Schleiermacher, Kierkegaard, and Tillich) would number among the saints of orthodox Christianity. The terms dogmatic, evangelical and fundamentalist would not describe any of them in the way they thought of ultimate reality and wrestled with what it means to be Christian in their contemporary world. For this very reason they have been dismissed as eccentrics or renounced as heretics by the true religion. This is also why I find them compelling.

Way “back in the day” when Greek philosophy was leaving the nest of  religious mythology and investigating the nature of reality through scientific mythology – better known as “theory” – Heraclitus asserted that change is not what happens to the way things really are, but is itself most basic to reality. Using the metaphor of a stream, he observed that you never step into the same river twice. By the time you put your foot in again, the river has moved and this experience is different from your earlier encounter.

This message has been difficult to accept. In his own day, Heraclitus was scorned as a heretic by the philosophical majority who held fast to a theory of an immutable essence behind and beneath the only-apparent change. Religious orthodoxy simply identified this metaphysical reality with the transcendent god – exalted, absolute, unaffected and aloof. Out of the whirlwind of experience of life in time, a true believer can attach him- or herself to this god and find not only security in this world, but everlasting life in the next.

I personally don’t regard the mythological god as metaphysically real. That’s a mouthful, but it’s only saying that the god of sacred story lives only in the myths and not outside them in the actual reality of our experience. When Christian theology took off from these stories of the Bible and developed its own sophisticated web of theories concerning the nature and will of god, it moved the god-talk of religion out of a public context of myth and ritual and into the private head-space of orthodox doctrines. This is the point when faith became a noun.

Even the “ground” of mystical spirituality can sound as if it’s referring to a stable and unchanging reality beneath us, something outside and under all the flux of change. True enough, there are some so-called mystical schools that claim to have access to a realm of deities, angels, spirit-guides and your deceased relatives. If your lifestyle prevents you from joining one,  you might consider paying a free-lance psychic medium to channel a disembodied personality for you.

But the genuinely mystical ground of being is not a personality, or even “a being.” It is the deeper support and generative source in which your existence is rooted. The usefulness of the “ground” metaphor should be obvious – if we even feel the need to talk about our experience of reality at this level. You don’t look outside of yourself to find this ground. Instead you need to look into yourself and through yourself, to that place where your individual life is connected to the present mystery of reality.

Of course, you can look outside yourself if you prefer, and there you will see countless manifestations of the one ground, expressing here as grass, there as trees, here as a bird and there as clouds – and so on, around our amazing planet and beyond. All together, these comprise what we call the Universe. All is one – and turns as one (uni-verse) – by virtue of our common ground in being-itself.

This ground is not detached and aloof from your daily experience, but is the dynamic and creative – Heraclitus would say “flowing” – power moving into you, as you, and through you. Right here, right now. It supports your existence as a river carries you in its current.

As reality changes all around you, and as your life changes from year to year, from day to day, and from moment to moment, don’t resist or look for an escape. Simply relax into being, release your grip on the world around you and reach for the deeper support of your existence. Settle into your center, soften your focus, and just breathe into this space.

You’ve been jabbing your heels into the riverbed long enough, and swimming against the current is not only exhausting, but ultimately futile. Stop fighting change with such anxiety and suspicion. Trust the process. This is where you are, so be here.

 

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