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Refresh and Restart

Back in the late 1980s Bill Moyers conducted a long interview with the scholar of world mythology Joseph Campbell, published under the title The Power of Myth. In their conversation Campbell invoked the up-and-coming personal computer as a metaphor for understanding myth and religion.

Campbell suggested that we might think of the various religions as different software applications, all supported by an underlying operating system but programmed to accomplish distinct aims.

On your personal or workplace computer you probably have numerous applications, some of which you use on a daily basis and others less often. A few of them are designed for work productivity, while others are used for creative design or entertainment.

You probably have favorites among them. These are probably the ones you feel most confident and comfortable in using. The other less familiar applications are sitting there occupying space on your hard drive or in the cloud, and your relative lack of competency when it comes to them might motivate you to simply remove their icons from the desktop. Out of sight, out of mind – and no reminders of what you don’t know.

Just because you use one software application more than the rest and are most fluent with it, you probably like it more. If two programs do similar things but one fits your habits and preferences better than the other, you might try to get it to do things it wasn’t really designed for. Are you ready to say that this one application is ‘right’ and the others are ‘wrong’? That it’s ‘true’ while the others are ‘false’? Likely not, or else you would be willing to admit that your opinion is more about personal taste.

Among the religions, one ‘application’ is programmed to connect you with your community and its tradition, whereas another is designed to separate you from the conventions of society and prepare you for the next life. A third type of religious software is a set of commands to help you descend the roots of consciousness to the ground of being-itself, while a fourth offers a program for prosperity in this life.

Just among these four applications – and you should recognize in my descriptions a sampling from actual religions today – you probably regard one as better than the others, as more ‘right’ and ‘true’. But of course, that would be more a commentary on your comfort, fluency, and personal preference than an objective statement about the others, or about religion itself.

Following the etymology of the word “religion” (from the Latin religare, to link back or reconnect) Campbell believed that each religion can be true in two senses: (1) according to how effective it is in helping us accomplish our aims (e.g., tribal solidarity, heavenly hope, mystical union, or worldly success), and (2) the degree of fidelity it has with the ‘operating system’ of our deeper spiritual intelligence as human beings.

In fact, nearly all religions place value on the four aims just mentioned, differing with respect to which aim gets the strongest accent.

A more crucial question has to do with fidelity, with how strong and clear is the signal by which a particular religion reveals to us the present mystery of reality, our place in the universe, and the emergent thresholds of our own evolving nature. On this question it might score very low. Ironically it is often the accented factor in the individual application that eclipses and draws focus away from this universal dimension.

Devotees seek to make the local accent into an exclusive virtue, and then promote it to the world as ‘the only way’ of salvation.

If you were to keep your favorite application always running on your computer, eventually it would get slower and less efficient in what it was designed to do. The same is true of the religions: When devotees obsess over that singular aim and absolute truth, with time their religion gets hung up in redundancies and delays and may even ‘freeze up’ or ‘crash’.

This is typically when religion undergoes a fundamentalist regression: the frustration to ‘make it work’ (or believe it anyway) doubles down aggressively and starts enforcing a mandatory compliance among its members. The organizational distinction between the insider faithful and outsider nonbelievers gets further divided on the inside between nominal believers (by name only) and the ‘true believers’.

Fundamentalism, then, is not the advancement of a religion’s primary aim but a regressive collapse into emotionally driven dogmatism; a loss of faith, not its fulfillment.

Because it’s so easy and common for religions to get fixated on what makes them special (i.e., different from others), it is also common for them to lose their roots in the deeper operating system of spirituality. Meditation, mindfulness, quiet solitude, and contemplative presence are spiritual practices that tend to get downplayed and forgotten – but the consequences of this neglect are significant.

When it comes to the maintenance of technology, we understand the importance of periodically refreshing the screen, clearing the cache and clipboard, occasionally closing applications, and restarting our computer. As it powers on again, the support for our programs is more robust and the applications themselves work more efficiently. The synchrony of our software and the deeper operating system has been restored.

Things just tend to go better when we take time to refresh and restart.

 

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Passing Through, Never Home

In The Shining Way I presented in outline the way of salvation that true religion sponsors and promotes. Not all religions, but true religion. That qualification allowed me to make a critical distinction between religion-in-essence or religion-itself, and the sometimes pathological forms it can take when it gets hijacked by that most dangerous force in all the universe – our neurotic ego.

Right now, each and every religion is either tracking with or departing from the Shining Way, which is our guiding path into deeper meaning, greater joy, and higher wholeness as human beings. Throughout its history a given religion will trace a meandering line: coming closer, trending with, crossing over, or veering away from genuine community and our higher nature.

These days, it happens that the major traditions of name-brand religion are rapidly losing relevance and credibility, sliding into complacency, bigotry or terrorism, and ramping the enthusiasm of members for a final escape – an end-time deliverance out of this world.

When we identify religion-itself with its pathological deformities, we make two very serious mistakes. First, as just mentioned, we forfeit our chance to better understand the role and function of healthy religion in our evolving spirituality as human beings. By throwing out the baby with the toxic bathwater, we lose the ability to ground our existence and orient our lives inside a system of values and aspirations that can lift us into our higher nature.

The second mistake is even more critical, since it lies at the roots of the first one: In our effort to break away from religion and leave it in the past, we miss an opportunity for honest self-examination, which is also our chance for the liberation our souls truly desire.

This is not liberation as in deliverance or escape, but liberation as in being set free to become whole again. With our adventure into a separate center of self-conscious personal identity, we fell out of the unconscious oneness of our first nature (i.e., our living body). As the myths and wisdom traditions across cultures attest, our ensuing psychospiritual journey is about dying to the self we’ve been duped into believing we are, waking up from the trance of our separateness (which also means our specialness and self-importance), and rising into the fullness of what we are as human beings.

For this to happen we must surrender our center of personal identity (aka ego or second nature) and go beyond ourselves – not negate, renounce, or cancel out the ego, but rather to leap from its stable base into a conscious wholeness where body and soul, self and other, human and nature are affirmed in their unity. The stability of this base is a key precondition of our self-transcendence, for without it the thrust of our leap will only push our feet deeper into the muck of ego neurosis.

In this post my task is to reach into the muck in order to uncover and examine what’s got us stuck, which I’m hoping will also crack the code of what makes a religion pathological.

Certainly, the early and widespread interest of primitive religion in the postmortem was a very natural extension of human curiosity and imagination. What had been a breathing, moving, and vibrant individual the day before is now lying motionless and cold before us. What happened? Where did that animating life-force go? Because it was also so intimately connected with the unique personality of that individual, it wasn’t a terrible strain on logic to assume that it may have relocated elsewhere. For millenniums ancient peoples envisioned a place where the departed spirits of their friends, relatives, and ancestors (why not their pets and other animals?) continued in some kind of existence.

With the rise of theism and ego consciousness, however, a moral obsession over the dualism of right and wrong inspired a division in this shadowland of the afterlife. Now, depending on one’s station in life (e.g., landowner or peasant), or whether they were sinner or saint, a departed spirit – which was becoming more like a ghostly version of the individual’s former identity (ego) – would be punished or rewarded accordingly.

This dualism in the very nature of reality served to orient and motivate the moral compliance of members, and thus to enforce the social order. It was also during this stage in the evolution of religion (theism) that patron deities were imagined in roles of lawgiver, supervisor, judge, advocate, or disciplinarian. In the reciprocity of obedience and worship for a deity’s blessing and protection, devotees had a ‘higher reason’ to remain dutifully in their assigned ranks.

One thing we need to remember as we consider this emergence of the self-conscious ego is how its separation from the enveloping realities of the womb, the nursing bond, and the primal family circle brings with it some degree of insecurity. The fall into greater exposure and self-conscious vulnerability prompts the individual to seek attachment, where he will early on find safety, warmth, and nourishment; and later the acceptance, recognition, and approval he needs to belong. Attachment, that is to say, compensates for and hopefully resolves the insecurity which inevitably comes along with ego formation.

Because insecurity is registered in the nervous system as restlessness and anxiety, one way of managing it – particularly if positive attachment objects are unavailable – is by dissociating from the body. It is common for victims of child abuse, for instance, to seek escape where physical flight isn’t an option, by ‘walling off’ the violated part of themselves, even engaging in a fantasy of existing apart from their bodies. This dissociated self then becomes ‘my true self’, ‘who I am’ as separate from the pain and suffering the individual is forced to endure.

A consequence of dissociation is that the personality lacks the stable support of a coherent nervous state, and stability is a foundational virtue of ego strength.

Now, before you conclude that I’m making a causal connection between pathological religion and priests who were abused as children, hold on. The fact is that each of us is insecure in our unique degree, and that, further, all of us without exception have sought refuge outside and apart from our bodies. A good number of us entertain fantasies of living on without the pain and drag of an embodied life, as bloodless souls in heaven after we die.

Perhaps a majority of us have grown so estranged from our animal nature, that we try to suppress the body’s messaging system (called ‘symptoms’) through a variety of distractions, intoxicants, and medications. And we all tend to lock ourselves up inside convictions that keep us from having to be fully present in the moment – present in our pain, present to one another, or present with whatever challenge is at hand.

As I mentioned in The Shining Way, a neurotic ego is insecure (check), defensive around that insecurity (check), insists on its special entitlement (conceited: check), and holes up dogmatically inside convictions that keep the pain and confusion of life at a distance (check). In this sense, the neurotic ego is always ‘passing through and never home’. And there is the causal connection I’m wanting to make:

The homeless ego, dissociated from our first nature, has hijacked religion and is steering it like a jetliner for the far horizon of this life, as far as possible from the mess we’re in, but tragically also away from the present mystery of reality.

 

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Narratives of Terror and the Courage to Be

fear-chainThere are a lot of highly concerned and rational people today who are being held back from stepping out, speaking up, and taking the lead into a better future for our planet. It’s not exactly that someone else is holding them back, even though that’s how many would try to rationalize their current situation. We’d like to think there is someone over there who is keeping us in our frozen state, and that if only they will leave us alone we will be happy.

This turns out to be little more than an excuse, however, because the real cause of our paralysis is internal to ourselves, not out there somewhere else.

I propose the existence of something I’ll call “the fear chain,” which gets forged especially during those critical years of our early conditioning. Parents, teachers, coaches, and other handlers conspired in teaching us that certain things (and people) are dangerous – or potentially so. When we were very young we were cautioned against talking with strangers – along with playing in the street, running with scissors, and touching hot stoves. Such things were “dangerous,” and engaging with them would likely put us at significant risk.

Whether or not they consciously realized it, these influential adults were servo-mechanisms in our socialization, whereby the animal nature of our body was trained to behave according to the rules and rhythms of cultural life. Already programmed by millions of years of evolution, our body came equipped with some basic instincts, the most persistent of which is our drive for self-preservation.

In some form or fashion, all the other instincts – for attachment, food, shelter, sex, and reproductive success – are variations of our primal commitment to staying alive.

This drive to stay alive might also be characterized as an innate fear of death, of avoiding or seeking escape from anything that threatens survival – particularly predators, venom, toxins and tainted food; along with genuinely high-risk situations of exposure, violence, or unstable and precarious environments. While not as primal, perhaps, anything that represented the possibility of injury was linked to our fear of death, since, if serious enough, an injury might very well result in our loss of life.

In this linking fashion, numerous secondary associations were forged and anchored to our compulsive need to live – and not die.

Such association-by-linking should make you think of links in a chain, and this is exactly how I am proposing that the fear chain comes into existence. A primal (and mostly unconscious) fear of death got linked out to situations, objects, and other people who presented a risk of injury to us. And just like that, the primitive energy dedicated to staying alive was channeled into attitudes and behaviors of avoidance, suspicion, and self-defense. From that point on, the possibility of injury started to drive what we did, where we went, and with whom.

This concept of a fear chain suggests that the paralysis many people feel today is a complication of how we have been socialized – not just when we were children but even now under the tutelage of the politicians, preachers, journalists, and jihadists who spin our collective perceptions of reality. In this case, those deeper fears of injury and death get linked to the more normal experiences of loss.

Almost as much as we fear losing our lives or losing our minds, we dread the loss of wealth and opportunity, of time and freedom, of the way we were, or what we thought we could accomplish and become.

Socialization is largely dedicated to the project of constructing our identity – not what we are as human beings, but who we are as members of cultures, nations, classes, and tribes. This project is carried out through a process of forming attachments to the people, places, things, and beliefs that define us and form our horizon of meaning. Identity and attachment, then, are simply two sides of the same coin, with one (identity) the product of the other (attachment).

If we return to our natural and socially conditioned fear of injury, we can see how threats to our attachments amount to a kind of assault on our person. This is how the fear chain is forged with still another link: the (threatened or real) loss of an attachment is experienced as an injury to our identity, which anchors still farther down into our instinctual fear of death.

The stronger the attachment – that is, the more central it is to who (we think) we are – the more we fear losing it.

I wonder if the fragile construct of our identity – so many attachments, so much dependency – is what makes us so afraid of failure these days; of not being ‘successful’ or ‘good enough’. If we should try but fail, we run the risk of losing some aspect of who (we think) we are, suffering injury to our personal identity and (we irrationally believe) putting ourselves in peril of death itself. When a desired outcome isn’t achieved or we can’t get something perfect the first (or fiftieth) time, who we are and our place in the world is called into question. It’s best not to try, which allows us to keep the fantasy of identity safely above and ahead of us without the risk of being proven wrong.

Those who seek to generate an anxious urgency in us will typically use a narrative of terror to motivate us in the direction they want us to go. Such rhetoric is common from fundamentalist pulpits and during political campaigns, not to mention from those extremist wack jobs who seek to panic, disrupt, and destroy the life routines of innocent citizens. They are all united in their determination to unsettle us, tapping our amygdalas with messages of panic, outrage, and paralysis – the flight, fight and freeze responses hardwired into our brain circuitry.

For the relatively disengaged citizenry of liberal democracies, freezing is the majority option: we stop, stare, hold our breath and shake our heads, waiting for the stupor to pass before crawling back into our rut of life-as-usual.

My theory is that these narratives of terror are the sociocultural counterpart of the fear chain, one shaping the environment of our collective life and the other priming our nervous system for survival in ‘dangerous’ times. Even though a drive to survive and the fear of death may be instinctual, our chronic anxiety over losing ourselves – of losing who (we think) we are, along with the illusion of security and control that holds us together – is entirely conditioned and not natural at all.

Indeed, the intentional release of this bundle of nerves and dogmatic convictions is the Path of Liberation as taught in the wisdom traditions of higher culture.

The question remains as to how we might effectively transform our Age of Anxiety into a Kindom (sic) of Peace, where we love and honor the whole community of life on Earth. Years ago Paul Tillich coined “the courage to be” as the high calling of our human adventure. In defiance of the narratives of terror and breaking free of the fear chain, we can step out and speak up, investing our creative authority in the New Reality we want to see.

It will take more than just a few brave souls. And it will require that we move out of complacency, through protest, into a very different narrative.

 

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Freedom to Love

the-perils-of-salvationAs an advocate of post-theism, I am continuously on the lookout for better ways to explain just why it’s so urgent that we let ourselves advance into the liberated life it offers. There are many reasons why we might not take the step, but upon examination none of these reasons are very reasonable. In fact, they turn out to be excuses with catastrophic consequences in store should we persist much longer in our current convictions.

To get our perspective on post-theism, let’s begin with a look at theism – or rather, the form of theism that today is doping true believers with an odd concoction of otherworldly hope, blind faith, dogmatic literalism, and neurotic self-concern. This theism is not like earlier varieties, where a tribal community steeped in tradition and sustained inside a womb of mythology was enabled thereby to orient itself in a cosmos managed by watchful, wise, and benevolent patron deities.

Sacred myths were more than mere stories about the gods, and our modern division of story (as fiction or theory) from a realm of plain objective facts would have made no sense to an ancient whatsoever. This was still the age of the mythopoetic imagination, and our only hope for understanding what our evolving human consciousness was up to back then is by remembering our own early childhood.

Our tales of sprites, evil magicians and fairy godmothers, damsels, princes and adventuring companions were the vibrant strands wherein these imagined beings lived. There was no separate realm of plain objective facts – not yet.

My diagram depicts this playground of myth as that early frontier of ego development where we had to construct a world in which to live. By ‘world’ I don’t mean Reality (or the really real), but rather a narrative construction of identity, security, meaning, and destiny which we in large part borrowed from our tribe, had its complicity in other parts, and designed the rest ourselves. Each loop around ego represents a story-cycle, a narrative strand that tells us who we are.

Some narrative strands carry remembrances of the past (and yes, constructed memories as well). Some strands connect us to other members of our tribe (family, friends, and allies) or to ‘outsiders’ (aliens, strangers, and enemies). Some strands form circuits that arc into the natural environment of our planet and larger cosmos, telling us where we are in the vast whirligig of things.

If ego looks rather like a prisoner inside a spherical cage, then you are seeing a truth unavailable to the captive him- or herself. From inside the cage, these storylines and loops seem to fill and contain reality itself – which is why, for ego, ‘world’ and ‘reality’ are synonyms. Come to think of it, who would dare suggest that meaning has an outer limit? Wouldn’t that make meaning relative, more or less arbitrary, a cognitive pretense, a philosophical improvisation?

Nonsense. Who I am, the meaning of life, my security in this world and my assured destiny in the life to come: these are the only things that matter!

If we rewind the developmental timeline just a bit we will see that this world construction is necessary and not merely an amusing pastime. Ego (from the Latin for “I”) is that separate center of personal identity that every individual must come to possess, a privileged position of self-control, autonomous agency, and psychological stability unique to ourselves (as everyone believes). It is necessary that a fetus separates from the womb at birth, an infant from its mother’s breast at the time of weaning, a toddler from external supports so it can learn to stand, walk, and play on its own.

Eventually, too, an adolescent needs to step away from parental authority and a morality of obedience, so that he can take responsibility for his actions, and she can find the center of her own creative authority. These are the critical passages of life, and they are universal across our species. Earlier theism, still fully immersed in the mythopoetic realm of imagination, story, ritual, and the community of faith, provided the storylines that kept this progress of separation (or more accurately, individuation: coming into one’s own sense of self) from losing anchor in the shared life of the tribe.

Such linking-back of the developing ego to its cultural womb is in our very word ‘religion’, and the personal deities of theism played a key role in both maintaining this tether and inspiring ego’s ongoing development. Increasingly though, the emphasis shifted from obedience to aspiration, from doing what god commands to becoming more like god – independent, self-responsible, generous and forgiving.

A critic of post-theism might object that the human ambition to become (i.e., usurp) god is at the very heart of our damned condition, and that I’m attempting to take us in exactly the wrong direction. Notice, however, that I did not say that we should become god(s), but that the aim of our maturity and fulfillment as individuals is to internalize and live out what we had earlier glorified in our tribe’s representation of god.

But this moment of awakening is also our disillusionment. As storytelling created a world to contain and support our quest for identity (and meaning, etc.), our insight into the truth of all this make-believe amounts to nothing short of an apocalypse. One more theme from Christian mythology, the symbol of resurrection, reveals that this breakdown of meaning is also a breakthrough to something else – not more meaning or even personal immortality, but freedom from fear, a profound inner peace, inexhaustible joy, and a genuine love for life.

But as long as we remain in our spherical prison, all of that is forfeited. And this brings me back to where we started, with the form of theism which today is suffocating the spirituality of honest seekers, closing boundaries and throwing up walls, fostering the fusion of ignorance and conviction, terrorism and complacence, private devotion and social indifference that is pushing our planet off its axis.

So that I can end on a positive note, let’s take a look at where post-theism can take us. Once we have found our center and finally realize that we have been telling ourselves stories all along, we can take creative authority in telling new stories – better stories, perhaps, or at least stories that are more relevant to daily life and our global situation. The key difference lies in our self-awareness as storytellers and New World creators. We can surrender belief, let go of god, get over ourselves, and be fully awake in this present moment.

More than ever before, our moment in history needs us to be fully awake.

We can release our identity to the grounding mystery within, and open our minds in wonder to the turning mystery all around. Then, in the knowledge that nothing is separate from anything else and each belongs to the whole, we will begin to love the universe as our self.

 

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Our Moment of Decision

Today we seem to be at a moment of decision. Looking at the world’s main faith-traditions, ask yourself: Would I rather, along with Pope John-Paul II, turn away from Buddhism and turn first of all to the Muslim, because he like me believes above all else in the unity of God and in God’s revealed will? Or, alternatively, would I rather (possibly along with Pope Francis, but who knows for sure?), would I rather turn first to the Buddhist, and discuss with him the similarities and differences between our mystical and our ethical traditions?  – Don Cupitt, Creative Faith: Religion as a Way of Worldmaking

This quote from Don Cupitt struck me when I read it, in the way it corresponds to my own theory of religion’s development out of primitive animism, through the egocentric period of theism, and ultimately into a fully secular (this-worldly) post-theistic spirituality. Cupitt is a proponent of post-theistic Christianity who urges us to abandon the metaphysics of classical theology (deity, devil, angels, soul and the afterlife) in favor of a fully embodied here-and-now religion of outpouring love.

One way of reading Cupitt’s words is in the mode of comparative religion, where Christianity is positioned between non-theistic Buddhism on one side and hyper-theistic Islam on the other – hyper not intended as a synonym for extreme, militant, or fundamentalist, necessarily, but in the sense that Allah is ontologically separate from his creation and very much out there. Historical Buddhism can be regarded as a post-theistic development within Hinduism which abandoned a concern with gods and metaphysics for a commitment to end human suffering.

But we might also read Cupitt relative to a tension within Christianity itself, between its own hyper-theistic and post-theistic tendencies. I’ve argued elsewhere that Jesus himself should be seen as a post-theistic Jew who sought to move his contemporaries beyond the god of vengeance, retribution, and favoritism, to outdo even god in the practice of unconditional forgiveness and love of enemies. This tradition certainly represents a minority report in Christianity, whereas its orthodoxy has been more “Muslim” than “Buddhist” – much more about the Lord god, his exalted Christ, the Second Coming and Final Judgment than Jesus’ new community of love and liberty.

In my view, post-theism is the inevitable destiny of all religion. I’ve worked hard to distinguish post-theism from the more or less dogmatic atheism that is in fashion nowadays, where god’s literal and objective existence is disputed on logical, scientific, moral, and political grounds. Post-theism does not see the point in arguing the empirical status of a literary figure. Indeed, as a figure of story rather than a fact of history, god’s place in religion is rationally defensible.

The problem arises when religion forgets that its god is a metaphorical representation of the providence all around us and of the grounding mystery within us. A literary character then becomes a literal being, the dynamic action of myth evaporates into the static atmosphere of metaphysics, and the supernatural object draws attention away from the real challenges before us. Tragically the opportunity of growing into our own creative authority is forfeited in the interest of remaining passively dependent on an executive-in-charge who is (coming back around again) a metaphor of our own making.

My own experience, along with what I observe in my friends and remember from my sixteen years in church ministry, has exposed a real “moment of decision” in spiritual development, where the healthy progression of faith would move us into a post-theistic (Cupitt’s “Buddhist”) orientation, but which is prevented by an overbearing theistic (Cupitt’s “Muslim”) orthodoxy that keeps it (in my words) “stuck on god.” The result is a combination of increasing irrelevance, deepening guilt, intellectual disorientation, and spiritual frustration – the last of which tends to come out, Freudian-style, in a spectrum of neurotic disorders and social conflicts.

Two popular ways of “managing” this inner crisis are to either suck it up and buckle down inside a meaningless religion, or else flip it off and get the hell out, bravely embracing one’s new identity as a secular atheist. From a post-theistic perspective, however, neither solution is ultimately soul-satisfying. Trying to carry on in the cramped space of a box too small for our spirit only makes us bitter and depressed, whereas trying to get along without faith in the provident mystery and in our own higher nature – what religion is most essentially about – can leave us feeling adrift in a pointless existence.

If Pope Francis as the figurehead of Catholicism can open his arms to other religions, embrace the scientific enterprise, advocate for the voiceless poor, and celebrate spiritual community wherever he finds it, then we might be encouraged to think that our “mystical and ethical” sensibilities can unite us and lead us forward. Perhaps the world’s interest in him has to do with the way his down-to-earth and inclusive manner resonates with something inside us that hasn’t felt permission to live out of our own center.

Chakra_treeWhen the mystical (our grounding in the present mystery of reality) and the ethical (our connections to one another and to life in general) fall out of focus as functions of healthy religion, the doctrinal (what we believe and accept as true) and the devotional (our worship and sacrifice on behalf of what we regard as supreme in value and power) start to take over. What is intended to be a balanced, evolving, and reality-oriented system of meaning collapses into conviction and becomes oppressive.

As our planet changes and the globe shrinks, as our economies become more intertwined and volatile, as technology is reshaping society and putting potentially catastrophic influence into the hands of more individuals, we need to come together for solutions. The old orthodoxies and their gods cannot save us. Neither terrorism nor complacency will see us through. We need wisdom now more than ever.

Yes, we are at a moment of decision.

 

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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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The Lullaby of Belief

Look out into the galaxies, into a seemingly infinite darkness splashed and speckled with nebulae and stars beyond number. Cosmologists estimate that our universe is somewhere between 12 and 15 billion years old, born from an energy burst in which the primary structures of matter were forged and then flung, stretching the horizon of space-time as it expanded. I read recently that if you were to take two straight pins, hold them out at arms length and cross them together, the point of their intersection would conceal as many as 1,500 galaxies, each galaxy home to many billions of stars, and many of these stars suns to their own planets.

SpaceWhere are you in this cosmic context? Such speculation can make you feel insignificant, until you realize that all of this has somehow worked together, over all those eons and across all that distance, to be aware of itself in you. Scientists investigate the conditions that must have obtained for life first to emerge on our planet. What were the chances that the oxygen excreted as waste by primordial single-celled organisms would eventually inflate an atmospheric dome where aerobic symbians and the teeming populations of animal life would flourish? Not very great. In fact, given the narrow margins and multiple variables that make Earth hospitable to life, your existence is something of a fluke.

If you were to take a mystical slant on this mystery rather than a scientific one, you might be able to look down into yourself, deep into your biology, through helical strands of organic chemistry and beneath the table of elements, poke your head through the space-time fabric of energy strings and quantum fields, and eventually come to an astonished realization that this present mystery of reality is provident. Whatever it is (and there really is no saying), this mystery is the very ground of your being, the life-spring and gracious support of all that you are.

It is a popular mistake to think of the soul as a metaphysical resident riding patiently inside the mortal vehicle of the body – popular not only in being widespread across the religions, but also because it provides reassurance to the neurotic ego (impostor of the soul) that it will not die but live forever. For lack of empirical evidence, science has generally dismissed this notion of the soul as a carryover of superstition or a projection of wishful thinking. And so it should, not in order to pursue its “atheistic agenda” but rather because this popular belief is neither scientifically substantiated nor spiritually respectable.

What we call “body” and “soul” are nothing more (or less!) than the outward and inward orientations of  awareness. Your body isn’t just a piece of meat, and your soul isn’t who you really are. Who you are is your ego – this socially constructed center of identity that puts on and takes off the variety of roles your tribe has programmed you to play (though you quickly forgot you were pretending to “be someone”). This skill in wardrobe change is likely what encouraged the view of the body as merely another disguise, the final costume to be dropped at the end of this earthly life.

brainYour body – just listen to how this comes off sounding like a possession of some sort! – is your place in the sensory-physical marvel of our universe. Looking up into the night sky, it is the complex aperture of your living eye that takes in the faint twinkling lights from across the black vault of outer space. An optic nerve carries these impulses to the visual centers in your brain where they are transmitted along networks of nerve cells, propagated through ion-charged channels, and float as chemical messages across 100 billion twinkling lights of inner space.

The material substance of your body derives as stardust from that primeval energy burst some 14 billion years ago. Your genetic line traces deep into the evolution of life, down through its very recent human expression and back into the trees, to the amphibian marsh, and out into the sparkling sea where an auspicious arrangement of organic chemistry first began to capture sunlight and store it away. Primordial sea salt still runs in your blood and conducts electricity through your cells.

Your soul isn’t just along for the ride. It is where consciousness breaks past the attachments and defenses of ego, descends through longer and more relaxed frequencies of awareness, until it dissolves entirely into the provident support of its own ground. We could call it your essential self (from esse, being), but only if we were careful not to separate it from the living organism of your body. The body and its realm (the sensory-physical universe) is properly regarded as trans-personal, beyond (and around) the ego-centered personality, while the soul and its realm (the intuitive-mystical ground) is entero-personal, within (and beneath).

Cycle of BeliefScience and spirituality are thus two ways we touch the present mystery of reality, outwardly and inwardly. Neither mode of experience is terribly interested in what it means. Meaning comes later; or more precisely, it is subsequently constructed as we try to make sense of our experience. In the spontaneous moment of engagement with reality, we are typically transfixed in wonder, not thinking about it but somehow aware of it all at once. As we stand under the starry canopy or surrender deeply to being, our wonder turns into a quest for our place in it.

Our quest for meaning is articulated in questions, about who we are, how it began, where it’s going, and (perhaps most urgent of all) why we are here. These questions are invitations to answers – meditations, stories, and theories that bend the outgoing line of inquiry back like a boomerang to the contemplative mind. Answers give us the orientation we seek, serving to validate our questions and provide conclusions we can use to build out the larger meaning of our life.

Once a conclusion has been reached, the original urgency of our questions as well as the inspiration of our quest effectively come to an end. As the word suggests, a conclusion is a closure, a period to silence the question mark. Once a conclusion is settled on, our mind uses it as foundation and scaffolding to higher-order questions – and so on we go.

If we were paying attention we’d take into account the various ways that the present mystery of reality – the way things really are – spills over the rim of our neat conclusions. Since meaning is a mental construct and not a property of reality itself, a wider and deeper exposure to life requires stronger commitment to our conclusions, a degree of emotional investment in their truth that can hold them in place despite serious erosion of their credibility. A conclusion that persists only (or mostly) because we need it to be true is called a belief.

Both science and spirituality are committed to investigative methods that subject belief to the scrutiny of actual experience, whether by means of controlled experiments or meditative disciplines. In that zone between, however, where the tribe, its deity, and the socially conditioned ego conspire to promote and defend our beliefs, meaning becomes fairly quickly outdated. The lack of experiential support and this rapid recession of relevance then call for more commitment to keep everything in place, until we reach the point where our emotional dependency on things being just this way makes us forget that we have been pretending all along.

Over time – years and decades for the individual, generations and centuries for the tribe – beliefs slip out of sight and gradually become the unconscious assumptions of our worldview. Instead of the fresh answers to questions they once were or the emotional investments they later became, these assumptions are now carried along (from sumere, to take up) as the mental filter that screens out not only contradictions and discrepancies to what we believe, but the present mystery of reality itself.

When religion lost its roots in mystical experience and the spiritual reflex of wonder, its ostensible purpose was altered, from waking human nature to the grandeur of existence and our evolutionary ideal as a species, to perpetuating former revelations and keeping believers comfortably asleep. What probably started as a celebration of existence and communal participation in the cycle of life and death eventually became a bastion of security and a program for getting out alive. Today its deepest assumptions are grossly incompatible with the present discoveries of science and spirituality, and its convictions – where emotional commitment to belief is so extreme as to make the mind a prisoner (convict) to its own absurdites – are pushing us to the brink of self-destruction.

The way forward begins right where we are. It is time to wake up.

 

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