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On the Other Side of Meaning

I know someone whose religion is a collection of curiosities from across the landscape of world traditions. A little of this and a little of that, thrown together in no systematic or reasonable way, but still very personal and meaningful as far as it goes.

If you were to ask this individual what it all really means, he could give you a general description of the various sources – the cultural quarries and time periods represented – but what it all means, that is to say, what all of it together means, might not be obvious even to him.

More and more people are opting for this “private collection” kind of religion these days. They have given up membership in one of the “classical” world religions and probably don’t attend worship anywhere on a regular basis. Next to the Bible on the coffee table you might also find the Tao Te Ching, a book of Toltec teachings, and today’s horoscope.

They prefer this to the nervous and narrow-minded dogmatism that can be found in a growing number of “nondenominational” Bible churches across the country. In claiming to be nondenominational, these independent churches are separating themselves from the Christian brands that got their start as branch-offs of reform and reaction, many of them going back 400-500 years when late-medieval Christianity was petering out and becoming culturally irrelevant.

But now these Reformation traditions (Calvinist, Lutheran, Baptist, Methodist) are themselves showing signs of recession. What may have once been anchored in a supernaturally supported worldview is starting to require more “devotion” and intellectual sacrifice to keep it going. The Bible Church movement is an attempt to dissociate from something seen as sliding away and losing currency, kind of like cutting the line to a sinking ship that is threatening to pull you down.

One answer to what we can call the “recession of meaning,” then, is to cut ties with tradition and denominational forms of identity. But then you are faced with the challenge of credibility: who says you have it right? Where does your authority lie? In its effort to create the impression of substance and weight, Christian Fundamentalism – the ideological reaction of the early twentieth century that would provide the cultural soil for the later Bible Church movement – invented what it called the “New Testament Church.”

The inerrancy of doctrine, the validating gifts of the Spirit (especially healing, prophecy and speaking in tongues), the authority of men and proper submission of women, the only acceptable liturgy and performance of worship – these by no means universal features of early Christianity were isolated and elevated by fundamentalists as the incontestable “marks of the true Church.”

Our present-day Evangelical Right is the political arm of this same counter-cultural invention. It presents itself as conservative, as promoting a campaign to recover and preserve the original intellectual and moral foundations of Christianity, our true heritage as a nation. But it’s not really conservative at all; instead, it’s self-inventing.

This particular brand of contemporary Christianity is driving many people out of the church today. As it rapidly loses rational integrity and emotional resonance, individuals who still desire a worldview that makes sense and connects to everyday life are silently slipping out the back door. They seek a spirituality that is culturally engaged and intellectually satisfying, one with contemplative depth and aspirational focus. And since they’re not finding it in the competitive marketplace of existing religions, they are putting one together for themselves.Religious symbols

A little of this, a little of that: a collection of historically diverse ideas, rituals, odd parables and other curiosities. Perhaps the most attractive thing about these homemade religions is that they are personally assembled, intentionally practiced, and carefully evaluated for how well they “fit” the individual’s unique interests and situation in life. In a word, these religions are experimental.

Perhaps it’s because the pressure of “getting it right” has been removed, as the other-worldly orientation of classical (and fundamentalist) religion loses favor to one that is more grounded in the here and now. If it is happening, I see it as an indication not of moral decline but of spiritual progress.

More of us are seeking what Jesus in the Fourth Gospel called “abundant life” – not necessarily a life of abundance, but life in greater depth and fullness. Just in case our earthly lifespan is the only gig we get, we want above all to be real, authentic, sincere and caring in the way we choose to live out this precious nick of time.

But I wonder what might be lost in this new age of grab-and-go religion. Without an understanding of the taproots that may once have anchored and energized with spiritual significance our collection of exotic curiosities, are we perhaps left with something of impressive scope but little substance? Are we just digging lots of shallow wells, when the living water we’re after requires a more committed, focused and sustained effort?

A particular religious symbol, myth or teaching has a history that falls off and drops away like dirt from an uprooted plant when we simply lift it out of the soil of its native culture. To the degree it has a mystical resonance with its primordial experience – not back (then) into the past, but down (now) into the present mystery of reality – any genuine expression of spiritual awakening and transformation must be timeless, that is, transcending the local conditions of historical context. It is always possible for a transplanted symbol to stir the soul and come to life.

The recession of meaning today does not need us to invent something that never was, nor should we resort to scavenging for relics and borrowed wisdom from somewhere else. Irrelevancy is a signal – one commonly rationalized or medicated as a problem or pathology to be fixed – that announces the end of the world as we know it. It’s the apocalypse.

Disillusionment is painful. Having our illusions of meaning stripped away and watching them slough off like flakes of old paint is unnerving, if only because you can never be sure how much of your comforting illusion will be left. What’s left after all is unsaid and undone is by definition meaningless, and if we are particularly attached to the meaning that is slipping away it can be very distressing indeed.

That is another attraction of fundamentalism: As overcompensation for legitimate doubt it anesthetizes the pain of disillusionment with an excuse to stop thinking and asking questions. Maybe it’s also why the build-your-own religion solution is becoming so popular as well. As everything crumbles in around you, because yours is so personalized it just might survive the general apocalypse.

But the good news is that there’s life after meaning, just as there’s life under meaning and life before meaning. The key is to ask better questions and stop settling for answers.

There was a time – and you can’t really remember it because memory itself is narrative in structure and meaning-dependent – when you lived simply and nakedly in the present moment. That was before your tribe began pulling the veil (and not a little wool) over your eyes.

You can go there now, without going anywhere at all. The present mystery of reality – and your only worthwhile invitation to authentic being and abundant life – is right here, on the other side of meaning.

 

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Faith and Existence

Tillich: “If doubt appears, it should not be considered as the negation of faith, but as an element which was always and will always be present in the act of faith. Existential doubt and faith are poles of the same reality, the state of ultimate concern.”

In our head-heavy, wordy and overly rationalistic traditions of the West, faith has been misrepresented as one’s assent to doctrines. Your faith is more genuine and praiseworthy if the doctrine lacks evidence to support it or contradicts logic. Both knowledge and faith have to do with the content of what you believe, but faith comes in to play where the pieces don’t seem to add up, the argument is thin on proof, or where you need to rely on the credibility of other witnesses.

We’ve already established that faith is really not about what you believe, but rather about the act of believing – or better, of releasing your need to be in control and certain of the outcome. Faith is present awareness. Whatever you may believe about what happened a long time ago, or what might happen in the future, or what’s going on right now but in another realm – of gods, angels, demons, ancestors and other spirit-beings – is not a function of faith but of your willingness to believe.

When faith is construed as primarily cognitive and propositional, doubt is a big problem. Because “the faith” has been assembled over many generations of thinking, writing, reading, interpreting and expounding on words, just one head-scratching “I’m not sure about this one” can cause the whole thing to fall apart. That’s why dogmatic fundamentalism is so rampant among religions of the word. If you feel even a hint of doubt, better start praying for an increase in faith so you don’t jeopardize your everlasting security and miss out on your reward for being right.

But we need to doubt things that don’t make sense. We need to be skeptical over claims that lack supporting evidence or logical coherence. Historically skepticism is not about withholding commitment until absolute certainty is attained, but rather conducting your own research and testing the statements of others against your own experience. Again, just because you don’t have the personal time, rational tools or motivational drive to scrutinize every religious doctrine doesn’t mean that you have a strong faith. It may turn out that your so-called faith in the validity of those doctrines results in your demise and not your salvation.

What Tillich is calling existential doubt, therefore, is not the same as scientific or methodological doubt. The latter is a servant of better (more accurate) knowledge, as when a researcher tests a theory experimentally, or a philosopher examines an argument for the reliability of its premises and how logically sound it is. Pre-Copernican astronomy simply assumed that Earth was stationary and orbited by the Sun, but when scientists began following the indications of their investigative instruments and mathematical formulations a very different universe was revealed to them. By only accepting what can be measured, demonstrated or derived from already-established claims, science has revolutionized our lives.

Schleiermacher insisted that faith is more about “feeling and intuition” than the claims of knowledge, and his shift from the mind to the heart marked a turning-point for Protestant theology. It’s important to remember that the heart does not merely refer to our sentimental intelligence, but is the place where we are first moved by experience, producing our mood and establishing the attitude from which we take our perspective on reality. Whatever we think (mind) or do (will) is a function of how we feel in the moment. Preceding our thoughts about it and our behavior in response to it, reality – or what’s really going on – is first registered in an intuitive feeling.

This is where we can make sense of Tillich’s use of the term “existential” when speaking of faith and doubt. Existential is what concerns your most basic stance in reality, how existence feels to you. When reality feels providential and supportive, you find yourself opening up to it and relaxing into it. Conversely, a reality that feels dangerous or indifferent provokes feelings of anxiety – of existential doubt.

In fact, reality is both providential and hazardous. Your life is “given” to you in each moment, even as it passes away. Like the sea-swell beneath a cresting wave, your personal existence is lifted up into self-expression only to be pulled down and dissolved into the larger mystery of being. This dual nature of reality and our experience of it is represented theologically in the two faces of god (creator/destroyer; grace and wrath). Because the mythological god is a psychological counterpart to the personal ego, however, such theological distinctions are already too far removed from the deep center of experience. By that time, we find ourselves wanting to play up to the nice god and avoid his dark side, or else split it off into a Satan we can fight against. Almost without realizing it, our ego has taken over.

Reality rises and falls, just like a great ocean, and your life comes into being and passes away. Not just on the scale of your biological birth and death, but in each and every moment of your existence. All of your achievements and possessions, the identity you struggle for and the worlds you inhabit, the meaning it all has and the little bit of security it may provide you – even now it is dissolving away. As it slips your grip and starts to slide away, you begin to doubt whether anything really matters.

So you let go, perhaps out of sheer exhaustion. What has happened, what might happen, what is going on somewhere else – you just can’t say. It really is meaningless, if only because words can’t hook into it and hold it down. And yet it’s the only thing that’s real.

Welcome to the ground of your being.

 

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