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The Mystical Turn

Schleiermacher: “Study yourselves with unswerving attention, put aside all that is not self, proceed with the sense ever more closely directed to the purely inward. The more you pass by all foreign elements, making your personality appear diminished almost to the vanishing point, the clearer the Universe stands before you, and the more gloriously the terror of annihilating the fleeting is rewarded by the feeling of the eternal.”

Taking the images of religious art and mythology at face value – and we should include the more abstract images of theology as well – promotes the misunderstanding that the ultimate object of religion is, well, an object. Something out there, over there, up there. It’s important to remember that all these artistic images, sacred stories, and more heady conceptions of what we call God have been produced out of our creative imagination, not “caught on tape” or encountered just so.

A favorite metaphor of mystics worldwide and across the ages for the “ultimate concern” of human spirituality is ground, or the ground of being. As with all metaphors, this one can be misunderstood if we take it literally, as referring only to something outside and beneath us. It is beneath us, but only metaphorically, as the deeper support and primal source of our existence itself.

You won’t find this ground separate from yourself, except as shining through and indirectly represented in the countless forms round about. From a mystical vantage-point, all things exist only as embodiments of the one ground. As thus lit up from within, as it were, the entire universe is a turning mystery of epiphany.

But many religious people don’t see things from a mystical vantage-point. Instead they are metaphysical realists and mythological literalists, convinced that their god is really just as the stories depict him/her. Scholarly studies take off from this point and seek to examine and explain the nature of god in big words and thick volumes of systematic theology. As most true believers don’t have the time or patience to wade through this complicated web of arguments, they simply accept the assumptions and profess the conclusions as their own articles of faith.

My personal experience while an ordained pastor in Christian ministry revealed time and again how suspicious orthodox religion is of a mystical spirituality. Mystics tend to hold on loosely to the doctrines of theology, insisting that the real mystery of presence is not something that can be boxed up and codified, or even labeled except with metaphors drawn from our everyday experience.

As we might expect, this reluctance to even speak of the mystery, let alone their persistent suspicion of any attempt to reduce it to doctrines, has resulted in mystics being unwelcome in most churches and frequently persecuted by the custodians of orthodoxy.

In an attempt to put mystics on the defensive, true believers will occasionally accuse them of being fixated on themselves – with all this “study yourselves with unswerving attention.” Proper piety, they insist, must be self-negating, even self-reproachful. Self – and they really mean ego in this sense – is the enemy of god, the ultimate damnable distraction that keeps us from devoted attention to the proper object of our worship. By turning inward, mystics are guilty of sin; and their guilt is multiplied to the degree that they successfully seduce others to their path.

Fundamentalism in religion betrays itself by the nervous insecurity, narrow-mindedness, and propensity for violence that eventually show up in its business. Out of allegiance to the tribe and for the promise of a heavenly reward, true believers across the religions have willingly – even earnestly – committed violence against other human beings, against nature, and against themselves. Ironically they end up behaving in ways that utterly contradict their founder’s teachings, and then justify themselves in his/her name!

The true mystical path does not involve self-infatuation. In fact, obsession with ego identity and personal destiny is typically an outstanding feature of religious orthodoxy, not mysticism. I need to fit in. I need to be right. I need my reward. I need to live forever.

In order to directly experience the ground of being, you must release your hold on concerns of identity. As nothing more than a construct of social conventions, ego is not what you are but only who you are as conditioned and defined by your tribe. What you are is much deeper. It’s your authentic self, the being that you are, rather than your constructed self, the roles that you play. Letting go is often described by mystics as stepping out of the costumes and slipping off the masks that hold your place in society.

The self that is left after all this disrobing is not some metaphysical and immortal soul, but simply you, right now, as you really are. Real presence.

Because ego looks out through filters, your grasp on reality is superficial and highly selective. As you “pass by all foreign elements” – all the add-ons and attachments that qualify who you are – your experience of reality is increasingly direct, singular, and unified. This is what Schleiermacher means by “universe”: the single turning mystery of being in which your existence is rooted.

Inward contemplation is not about gazing upon your true self or reveling in your indestructible nature, but rather sinking past yourself altogether, into a inner space where all is one. Not a jigsaw of oneness but pure and essential oneness. Without specific content yet containing all there is. Obviously descriptive words and word-heavy theories won’t stick to this mystery, so it’s best to remain quiet and just be there.

And this – letting go and finding your ground, sinking past all your titles and achievements, all your honor and shame, past your first word and your last defense – this is faith.

 

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Lost and Found

Kierkegaard: “When the wanderer comes away from the much-traveled noisy highway into places of quiet, then it seems to him (for stillness is impressive) as if he must examine himself, as if he must speak out what lies hidden in the depths of his soul. It seems to him, according to the poets’ explanation, as if something inexpressible thrusts itself forward from his innermost being, the unspeakable, for which indeed language has no vessel of expression. Even the longing is not the unspeakable itself. It is only a hastening after it.”

It’s therapeutic to stay busy. As long as you can preoccupy your attention and thoughts with a list of tasks, you will successfully avoid falling into the silence at the center of your being. Distractions are like tie-lines that keep you hooked into the world around you, in a willing surrender of freedom for the sake of security. Eventually you become captive to your own devices, a prisoner of distraction.

But noise only masks the silence; it cannot fill it. Staying busy uses energy – uselessly. You end up exhausted, stretched, stressed – and stuck. For all the activity, you go nowhere. For all the effort, no real progress is gained. You are going out when you should be going down.

In what we might call the Western chakra system, heart, mind and will serve as the distinct “faculties” of intelligence with which we lean into life. While each of us has a preference among these – leaning first and more often with our feelings, thoughts, or actions – they are all present in us, cooperating in the construction of meaning.

This construction is ongoing throughout our lives, projecting outward and around ourselves that uniquely human habitation called my/your personal world and our collective culture. It is the system of preference, significance and motivation that keeps us chasing after, holding onto, and running from what matters.

All of it is “speakable” – that is to say, it can be identified, defined, arranged and personalized. This is where your tribal membership is maintained, where your affiliations to gender, class and party are worked out, and where your mythological god (if you have one) does his or her thing. Each piece is linked to other pieces, and the energy that loops throughout the system and keeps this whole castle in the air is your belief that it is real – the way things really are. You live for it, and perhaps you may die for it. If you’re fully entranced you might even kill for it.

Underneath all of it, however, and deep inside all that busyness is a quiet stillness where your existence is grounded. Just as our visual apprehension of reality must compensate for and fill in the tiny pinhole where the optic nerve ties into the retina, there is likewise a still-point behind and beneath your busy ego. It’s there for each of us, but only a very small percentage lives with any conscious awareness of, and disciplined attention to, this real presence of mystery.

This is where it all begins – or just before it all begins, where all is “formless and void, and darkness [is] over the face of the deep” (Genesis 1:1). Looking out on the world you’re creating generates the illusion that this is all there is. And as long as your energy and attention are anchored out there – and as long as you keep “forgetting” that you’re the wizard behind the curtain – it can go on for a lifetime – or several, if that’s your thing. Like the eleventy billion channels on your television that can pull you in and take you hostage, this world of yours is endlessly fascinating.

Faith lives in the here and now, in the now/here that is nowhere. Even though we are in the mystery each and every moment of our lives, we can’t speak about it. If we try to put it into words and produce a theory of what it is, we have already moved out of mystery and into meaning – out and away as far as our awareness of it is concerned.

Sadly, the frustration and exhaustion of keeping your creation together can still be preferable to the prospect of letting go and falling back into that soul-space of real presence. After all, we are very fond of our personal worlds. Compared with all that content, all that complexity, and all of those countless options, this open and formless space in the deep center of what you are can seem terrifying. Indeed, many of us work hard to stay away from it.

Conventional religion and psychotherapy are good examples of how we squander the opportunity for sinking deeper into the present mystery of reality. We may be given an insight, a key to the narrow gate, but just as quickly we are assigned a mission or treatment plan that prescribes what we should do next. Before we know it, we’re out on the path again, chasing after salvation, success and happiness – out there.

In this spiritual space, in the ground of your being, just before you pick up the masks and step into the roles that define who you are in the world, there is only this.

Relax. Breathe. Be.

 

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The Trance

Kierkegaard: “There is an ignorance about one’s own life that is equally tragic for the learned and for the simple, for both are bound by the same responsibility. This ignorance is called self-deceit.”

Each of us, regardless of our ethnicity, class, sex or education level, is living a lie. Well, maybe not an intentional lie, but at least a good game of “pretend.” We were great at it as kids, dressing up and role-playing adult situations. Then we passed through a phase called adolescence, when adults suddenly became boring, stuffy and oppressive. When the time came and we stepped into our own social responsibilities and long-term relationships, pretending was in again – but now, oddly enough, it’s “the way things really are.”

If we’re not careful, this adult pretense can occupy us for at least a lifetime – some Hindu religions believe it takes several turns of the life-wheel before we even stand a chance of waking up from the trance. In the Christian West, you have one crack at it. If you don’t come to enlightenment before the lights go out, too bad for you. There are no remedial classes.

We’re talking about ego, of course – your personal identity as shaped by experience and social conditioning. You may actually believe that you are a 21st-century, white, middle-class male (oh right, that’s me) who carries a membership card for this club, this party, this denomination. To the degree that you are totally sold-out to these tribal affiliations, you are deceived. And who is deceiving you? Ah, there’s the rub: it’s you. You are being deceived by one part of yourself to believe that you are all that.

Ego links us into a social niche which provides us a role to play and a mask to wear. This is who you are in this circle, we are told, and things will go better for you if you play by the rules. And why wouldn’t we? Acceptance, approval, recognition and respect – all the forces that go into constructing a “good boy/girl,” a “good husband/wife,” a “good Christian/whatever” – seem like worthy pursuits and high standards.

Life in society for the ego is a long line of such identity contracts, each one requiring its own mask and role to play. The longer we’re in the game, the added layers and facets of who we are effectively bury and pull attention away from what we are. Eventually you are the suit you’re wearing. In his interview with Bill Moyers (The Power of Myth), Joseph Campbell cited the Star Wars character Darth Vader as the archetype of a human being who has gotten so wrapped up in his social role, as to lose the capacity for life apart from it.

This is what Kierkegaard means by self-deceit. While the probability increases with the length of time spent in the masquerade of culture and tribal life, this loss of soul through the captivation of ego happens to young and old alike. In fact, much of conventional psychotherapy involves some type of regression work where the client is guided back into childhood when a primary role of victim (abuse), orphan (neglect) or slave (control) was forced on them by their family.

Now as adults they continue to suffer with anxiety and depression in that part of their personality called the “inner child” where issues of trust, intimacy and power are hooked. Their present relationships aren’t working and they can’t seem to break out of the looping scripts and scenarios that so defined their early life – and who they are today.

While conventional psychotherapy works on the horizontal time-line of the client’s life story, there is another axis that intersects this one: the vertical present. At any moment, the realization can dawn that “I am not the roles I have been given or that have been forced on me; right now I am free to be my authentic self.”

Variously called enlightenment, revelation, or disillusionment – depending on the degree of pain involved in dis-identifying with the suit/mask/role – such experiences are truly transforming. They are not about working with or around the developmental hang-ups of ego, but rather opening up to the deeper resource of the client’s spiritual life (soul).

In the meantime, barring any disturbances, your ego can carry on, fully entranced and sufficiently self-deceived. Kierkegaard was fairly notorious for his attempts to shock his fellow citizens out of their zombie state, as when he cut his pants at mid-calf and walked the town. Egads! Sometimes just a small change-up can be enough to make people look twice and start to wonder. He wasn’t trying to throw social fashion into an upheaval, but to creatively remind us that our social identities are chosen and put on every day.

Here’s a way of looking at it. Reality is a swirling, dynamic and ineffable mystery that supports your existence in each passing moment. Your world is a construction of meaning, spun and stretched across the abyss like a spider’s web. A good part of it – think of the radial strands that anchor this web-world and give it stability – is the work of your tribe, culture and race. These are the “big ideas” and “ultimate concerns” for which generations of your ancestors have lived and died. Now it’s your turn.

But occupying the web of meaning requires that you step in at specific “locations,” and these are your principal roles. Your roles link you to other players in the web, and communication between roles generates and sustains the shared world of society. In a particular role you have several energy-masks you are allowed to wear, each one serving as a filter for self-expression and social attachment.¬† The number of masks (think of these as moods or modes of interaction) defines the range of identity you are permitted in a given relationship or scenario. Playing by the rules is very important at this level, and your tribe enforces a moral code intended to keep everyone in line. So far, so good.

Now just play this whole thing in reverse – from relational masks to social roles to tribal rules and finally to the general picture we have of “the way things really are” (our shared world) – and you can get a sense for how entrancing it all is. You may believe that you have absolute freedom to be who you are (and this is part of the illusion), but each mask is ultimately tied into a cultural worldview which is generations or centuries deep.

Yes, the mythological god has a critical role to play in all of this as well. But notice, culture has given the grand architect and moral supervisor of the universe only a limited number of masks to wear. It’s all very well managed.

… until someone wakes up from the trance.

 

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The Narrow Gate

Kierkegaard: “Only the Eternal is … always present, is always true. Only the Eternal applies to each human being, whatever his [or her] age may be. […] If there is, then, something eternal in [an individual], it must be able to exist and to be grasped within every change.”

One of the critical mistranslations from New Testament Greek to modern English happened when aionios (Greek, eternal) became everlasting. From that fateful moment, upon a careless decision – or was it intentional? – of the translator, Christianity lost its original concern for the real presence of mystery and became – or rather degenerated into – a religion of the afterlife.

Jesus had been deeply focused on that moment of disillusionment when the really real (he called it God-power or the reign of God) breaks through our illusions of separateness and superiority and reveals our essential oneness with our neighbor. Christian orthodoxy not long thereafter began to move the primary objective of salvation out of this world and into the next.

Eternal simply means “timeless.” In time we are always living on the invisible threshold between a past and a future. Everything up till now has conspired to give shape to the ego and its personal world; everything after now can only be sketched out along a scale of probability, following the trajectory of momentum carried over from the past. What we call an individual’s character is only the part of the personality that has been so conditioned by his or her genetic and personal past as to be fairly predictable and enduring.

When we observe the past and future from where we stand, they seem to fit and flow seamlessly; what is called “the present” is elusive and impossible to pin down.

But it is precisely the present that is timeless, transcendent to the flow of past and future. The present is ineffable, since whatever word you may use to render its meaning is itself the product of a previous effort. You think you have it? Look again: you are holding only a relic of the past, however recent.

This is why my preferred reference to ultimate reality plays creatively with the terms “presence,” “mystery,” and “reality” – as in (1) the present mystery of reality, (2) the real presence of mystery, or (3) the mysterious reality of presence. It is about what is really real, what is elusive and ineffable, and what is here and now.

Kierkegaard says that the Eternal is “always present, always true” – and here true refers not to the accuracy of a statement but to the reality or authenticity of something. True, in this deeper sense, is not the opposite of false but of fake, counterfeit, illusory, unreal. (By the way, this is why Nietzsche refers to a doctrine or theory as an “untruth” – because it sets up a screen between us and the reality we are attempting to describe.)

A recovery of concern for the eternal over what merely lasts forever marks a transforming moment in awareness. Because so much of religion and religious orthodoxy is preoccupied with the project of getting the soul out of its body and into the next life, the possibility of a living faith in this present moment has been displaced by a frozen set of doctrines one must believe to be saved. In its deeper and original sense, however, faith refers to a mode of awareness and life that connects us to the present mystery of reality.

This is what Jesus was referring to when he spoke of our need to enter God-power through “the narrow gate” (Matthew 7:13). A living encounter with divine presence is only possible in this moment. Our tendency as individuals to miss the moment and dwell instead on the past or future is only amplified by tribal religion, where sacred tradition or apocalyptic expectation can conspire to distract an entire society from the present mystery. We scurry back and forth across this vibrant threshold countless times a day, and the blood we shed in defense of our tradition or to advance our mission is poured out – always – on holy ground.

Eternity, then, is not after or outside the flow of time, but “within every change,” as Kierkegaard observes. Although he hasn’t used the word yet, I suspect that he also regards faith as something like a primary attitude of existence whereby an individual opens his or her life to the real mystery of presence.

The distinction between ego and soul (explored in my previous conversation with Nietzsche, Watts and Heschel) is especially relevant here. My cultural identity as a member of this tribe, a person with masks to wear and roles to play, is conditioned by a past and oriented toward a future. Ego is always in time – but is just not able ever to be on time, fully in this moment and free of “me-and-mine.”

Meanwhile, my grounded presence in reality, here and now – which is to say, the soul of myself (rather than “my soul”) – simply abides. One part of what I am waits for the other part to slow down, drop in, and let go.

The first movement of faith is letting go.

 

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A Second Look

Watts: “From this deeper point of view, religion is not a system of predictions. Its doctrines have to do, not with the future and the everlasting, but with the present and the eternal. They are not a set of beliefs and hopes but, on the contrary, a set of graphic symbols about present experience.”

I am sure that every one of us holds a deep intuition of what really matters in life. Not what is “most meaningful” but what is most real, and by implication where the true relevance of our life is grounded. The premise of Watts’ book – which concludes with this chapter – is that our ambition for security, motivated by the fear of extinction and the craving for permanence, is what keeps us looking outside this present moment for our salvation.

The fact of our insecurity – not simply the anxiety over it, but the naked reality of our passing life – cannot be escaped. However, much of what we do is for the purpose of diverting focus to things (attachments) that are fixed in space or defy the erosion of time. Whether as materialists or spiritualists, we hope that by holding on to what has weight or permanence our own existence will somehow be preserved.

But empirical science has discovered that matter is really just the momentary configuration of vibrant energy, coming together and falling apart at the joints through the dynamic interaction of elementary forces. And mystical spirituality has come to the realization – which also amounts to a disillusionment – that the gods of myth and theology are really representations and reflexes in our own minds of a profound, ineffable mystery. Standing on the edge of this mystery, ego is easily overwhelmed with vertigo.

In an effort to steady myself, I latch on to memories of the past or fantasies of the future, or else to something outside me, like another person, material possessions, or my patron deity (the mythological god). The result of all this grasping and clutching is really no less pleasant than the vertigo – anxiety, disappointment, frustration, regret, guilt, resentment, codependency, addiction and a soul-sick religion. But here’s the attraction: I (ego) am still at the center of all these states and circumstances. Life may suck, but it’s still my life.

In the practice of spiritual direction and transformational coaching, it always amounts to a breakthrough when the client finally understands what he’s doing in order to feel anxious or depressed, or how his habits and expectations are contributing to his relational conflicts and general disenchantment with life. Conventional psychotherapy will typically work to reconstruct the client’s past (in a case history), clarify a preferred future (the treatment objective), and modify his mood and behavior (using specific interventions) to help get him where he’d rather be.

Rarely will a client in therapy say, “I want to be more real.” That’s because most of our Western psychotherapies are not truly psycho (soul) therapies at all, but are instead based on our preoccupation with the personality and its pompous little captain, the ego. Personal identity is spun and suspended in the web of tribal culture, which makes the well-intentioned therapist an agent of the collective trance. Not that we don’t need addiction recovery, functional relationships, or more successful careers – we undoubtedly do. But if we just keep pulling along the past and pushing our way into the future, we will continue to squander our one chance at real life.

What does this mean for religion? I’ve been exploring a theory that regards religion as inherently paradoxical, a coordinated interplay between two evolutionary objectives – (1) providing support and aspirational focus to your developing ego by way of a projected ideal, the mythological god; and (2) awakening your soul to the ground of being, to the present mystery and mysterious presence of reality. The first objective encourages a literal reading of myth, with the action moving from left to right, through time and across the stage. In the Christian myth of salvation, for instance, Jesus Christ was an individual who came from god into the world, accomplished his work here and returned to god. One day he will come again. If you can believe this – and exactly what “this” is will depend on the denomination you ask – you may be considered a convert and become a member. When it all shakes out, you will be in heaven – ego intact.

The second objective requires a mystical reading, where the story is not about the past or future but is rather “a set of graphic symbols about present experience.” In this light, Jesus represents your separate ego, a personality defined by a past and directed toward a future. Christ (anointed one, the biblical equivalent to Buddha, awakened one) is your deeper self, or soul, ready to break forth in resurrection once this ego-momentum can be arrested, restrained and crucified. Now in the moment and fully present to life, your experience is one of authenticity and freedom. Salvation – the healing of your¬†divided self – is here not a one-time accomplishment by someone else on your behalf, but rather the on-going challenge and invitation to be whole.

Now obviously the vertical axis and mystical reading will eventually “cost” more for the ego, which is partly why it’s the road less taken. But there’s also the tribe to think of, with its own organizational instincts and need for control. Remember that ego is simply a function of the tribe, the tribe is a role-play of morality, morality is a rule system derived from the tribe’s mythology, and mythology is the revealed word and will of god. It all ties together into a very tight web of meaning. The path of enlightenment and resurrection sets you free from fear and relaxes the grip of desire – the two motivational impulses that the tribe exploits to keep you captive. Threat of penalty and the lure of reward no longer matter, because now you are grounded in reality.

What else is there?

 

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Metaphors of God

Heschel: “God is every [human being’s] pedigree. He is either the Father of all people or of no one. The image of God is either in every individual or in no one. God’s covenant is with all people, and we must never be oblivious of the equality of the divine dignity of all people. The image of God is in the criminal as well as in the saint. How can my regard for others be contingent upon their merit, if I know that in the eyes of God I myself may be without merit!”

Like spiders spinning webs, humans construct meaning. We live always in the present mystery of reality – or in the real presence of mystery – but we live (and will die) for meaning. From the time we’re still in the womb our brain is not only regulating the homeostasis of the body, but is also gathering information from the environment in the form of basic, very visceral impressions. Perhaps the most “primordial” of all such impressions is our sense of the degree in which the supporting reality of our existence is providential.

Awareness arises in the brain beginning at the level of individual nerve cells, which have evolved the ability to carry electrical charges and spritz chemical messages to their neighbors. These chemicals (called neurotransmitters) serve to amplify or suppress the wave of energy, and as it makes its way across the tiny gaps separating the cells it becomes information and “jumps” to the level of circuits – lines and loops of brain cells “talking” to each other.

Distinct circuits of local communication proceed to link together in networks, pulling information from the various outposts of brain specialization (the various lobes and centers dedicated to processing specific kinds of information like visual, auditory, motion, and so forth). Finally – and this is all happening in fractions of a second – all this cross-talk up and down, back and forth, enables the brain to construct a representation of experience, a meaning of mystery.

I said “finally,” but there’s more. Next the brain makes associations of this momentary representation with many others it has kept on record (in memory). Complicated and historically deep mental maps of our experienced reality are then correlated into a single and fairly seamless worldview, which is the spider’s web we inhabit and maintain throughout our lives.

You should be visualizing a neural latticework arranged hierarchically from individual cells to circuits to networks to a broad-scale symphony of cross-talk among the major brain regions, all working to produce the web of meaning called a worldview. From the far edges of our constructed world picture, we could trace a winding path back down through this complicated webwork and into our moment-by-moment experience of life. This is where we hold our deepest impressions of reality, whether and to what degree we are supported in the larger mystery of being.

Of course, the brain itself doesn’t know that all of this is its own invention, a mere representation or facsimile of the ineffable energy field of reality. It probably doesn’t care. As long as it can manage to produce a worldview adaptive to our various life-environments and give us a chance for reproductive success, it’s done its job. Only with the emergence of a self-aware ego – a center of personal identity – does the philosophical question of truth present itself.

For instance, Heschel invokes the metaphor of God as father, which is itself part of a relational model (since “father” only makes sense in relation to “child”). Where is truth in this metaphor? Are we to take it literally, where God is regarded as a being who is like a father to us? The philosophical position of metaphysical realism supports such a literal reading. (This is the basic assumption that the mythological god, the narrative character who is found in the sacred stories of most cultures, exists outside our myths in just the way he is represented in our myths.)

But the evolution of human consciousness has moved us to the place now where metaphysical realism is no longer tenable. In fact, the force of religion, denominational membership and church attendance in our day have fallen off dramatically. Some well-intentioned but increasingly desperate pundits are recommending better marketing gimmicks or innovative outreach strategies, when the real problem (in my opinion) is that the postmodern mind is finding it harder to believe in a god who’s not around anymore.

The solution is neither to abandon our myths and the mythological god, nor to insist dogmatically on their literal truth; the way through is not atheism or religious fundamentalism. Post-theism provides the investigative space where we can take our metaphors seriously, but not literally. How would that look?

Heschel’s metaphor of God as father is not a reference to the mythological god of the Bible, but rather to the present mystery of reality beneath, within and all around us. It’s not that god (a separate and supernatural being) is like a father to us, or that he is literally the father of Jesus the son, as the German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg argued in a lecture I attended back in my seminary days. Strictly speaking, the mythological god is only related to other fictional characters who share narrative space with him (or her). To the brains of storytellers who make up the myths, the mythological god is a metaphor of something else, which I’m calling the present mystery of reality.

Reality is “father” in the way it sources our existence and provides for our needs. God as “mother” is another, even older metaphor for the way mystery contains and nurtures us. Because this real presence is the grounding support and generative life fuse in everyone, all human beings possess a “divine dignity” – even if we regularly fall short of fully expressing it in the way we live. Whereas our egos may get puffed up and strut around in self-importance, thinking “I” am better than the rest, at the level of soul our dignity as human beings is intrinsic to each and equal among all. Saints don’t have more of it, and criminals don’t have less.

My theory is that most of the small-mindedness, internal tensions and sectarian conflicts of religion are really a symptom of an underlying spiritual anxiety. For one reason or another, many have lost faith in a provident reality. Or perhaps we have climbed so high into our worldviews and gotten tangled up in our webs of meaning, that now we dangle over an apparent abyss, afraid to let go.

But we can let go. There’s more to life than just what it means.

 

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Out of the Depths

Watts: “One can only attempt a rational, descriptive philosophy of the universe on the assumption that one is totally separate from it. But if you and your thoughts are part of this universe, you cannot stand outside them to describe them. This is why all philosophical and theological systems must ultimately fall apart. To ‘know’ reality you cannot stand outside it and define it; you must enter into it, be it, and feel it.”

Think of a wave on the ocean. Its existence (existere means “to stand out”) is defined by the rolling swell of a much larger and deeper current of energy, but from its limited perspective “this” is all there is. From its peak can be seen countless others just like itself, some in the rise and others in the fall of their own lifecycles. From this vantage-point they are all separate formations, separate beings, existing apart from each other and essentially alone in the vast ocean.

Throughout its career, this wave is occasionally involved in competition with other waves nearby. Who is more lively and charismatic, who is more interesting or successful in “waving,” whose peak is highest? And now, having passed the meridian of its own crest and on its way down, a peculiar anxiety is beginning to take over. Still far out from a shoreline that no one has even seen, will its existence be for naught? Wasn’t the purpose to reach the other side? What has been the point to all this thrashing about?

At the surface all waves seem separate. The space between them and differences among them give the impression of an astonishing diversity – exciting at first, but more overwhelming as time goes by. What the wave doesn’t realize – especially during the phase of its swelling self-involvement – is that a greater reality lies beneath. If only its axis of vision could shift from the horizontal to the vertical it would see what’s really going on: all these waves are what the ocean is doing right now.

This shift from the horizontal (out) to the vertical (down) is the critical change in orientation between a rational and a mystical view of reality. One is based on the principle of separation and the meaningful arrangement of things (objects, ideas, values), while the other is grounded in an awareness that all things are the manifestation of a single, ineffable mystery. It is tempting to judge the first as “lesser” and fundamentally mistaken, but this would itself be a mistake.

As ego, an ancient and impulsive animal nature has been shaped into a domesticated and socially well-behaved member of my tribe. Here in the societal arena, separation/attachment is the name of the game: standing out to be recognized and fitting in to belong. As I look out from the perch of my individual wave, I can see you there, working things out for yourself. Others exist apart from me, the world is all around me, and god is above me – separation.

From this vantage-point, the effort of meaning-making involves composing classifications and explanations that describe reality, make sense of it, and thereby reduce the mystery to terms and values that make sense to us. Anything and everything becomes the subject of an “ology” – a study of, a science of, a theory of a something else. We have amassed a huge library of information and a technology of mastery that has enabled us to control forces which previous cultures worshiped or knew nothing about.

But we’re missing something. All of this horizontal separation-and-control has alienated us from the soul-center of awareness and the corresponding spiritual dimension of reality. Watts says that we’re missing reality entirely. To really know it we must understand that we are part of it, manifestations of it, individual waves on its surface. In addition to looking “out,” we must also look “down.” The rational is not replaced by the mystical, but deepened, expanded, and finally transcended.

Watts’ point, that “this is why all philosophical and theological systems must ultimately fall apart,” encourages us to hold on loosely to our theories, our “ologies.” It’s also fair warning of what will inevitably happen if we keep insisting on being right. To temper these dogmatic and fundamentalist tendencies, it is becoming increasingly urgent that we learn to release ourselves to the unfathomable mystery of being.

To know life from the inside, to live out of the depths, to see it all as One. This is wisdom, is it not?

 

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